There is possibly no country in which the process of cross-fertilization between music and literature has
been - and still is - more vigorous and productive than Germany. The
complicated balance between word and sound held a very particular fascination
for the German Romantics. Novalis, Tieck, Wackenroder and E. T. A. Hoffmann,
among many, debated the interaction of music and language. Single text-music
authorship, as in the Weir operas to be discussed, demonstrates the complex
nature of this interaction with especial clarity. The changes Weir decided to
make in the process of adapting from one medium to another illuminate the
considerable autonomy granted the author composer. Hoffmann, who wrote both
libretti and operas, addressed the subject in a ground-breaking dialogue dating
from 1813: Der Dichter und der Komponist (The Poet and the Composer). In
this dialogue, Ludwig (the composer) criticizes the lack of balance and mutual
promotion between words and music in many contemporary operas: 'Most so-called
operas are merely inane plays with singing added, and the total lack of
dramatic force, imputed now to the libretto, now to the music, is entirely
attributable to the dead weight of successive scenes with no inner poetic
relationship or poetic truth that might kindle the music into life.'
expressed these criticisms as he himself was setting words to music, i.e.
between writing Acts I and II of his opera Undine (1816). His fellow
Romantic Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué had written the libretto for him, based
on his own novella Undine (1811).
This collaboration between poet and composer proved highly successful and in
his review of Hoffmann's opera, Carl Maria von Weber admired it as the kind of
composition which the German desires - an art work complete in itself, in which
partial contributions of the related and collaborating arts blend together,
disappear, and, in disappearing, somehow form a new world'.
In spite of his genius as a writer, Hoffmann did not himself attempt to
adapt Fouqué's novella and the exceptional sympathy between the two writers may
have obviated any need for this. Yet in his prologue to The Poet and the
Composer Hoffmann was to conclude that 'perfect unity of text and music
[is] possible only when poet and composer are one and the same person'.
A number of
Hoffmann's own fictional writings drew the interest of other composers - most
notably his cycle of musical writings Kreisleriana (1814) which inspired
Schumann's Kreisleriana: Phantasien für das Pianoforte, Op. 16 (1838).
Busoni's opera Die Brautwahl (1912) is based on Hoffmann's novella of
the same title, and the libretto for Hindemith's opera Cardillac (1926)
on Das Fräulein von Scuderi (1818). More recently, the Scottish composer
based her libretto for her dance/opera Heaven Ablaze in His Breast (1989)
on Hoffmann's Der Sandmann (The Sandman, 1818), realizing Hoffmann's
ideal that librettist and composer should be one person. The Sandman is
rich in dramatic moments and Weir fully exploits its operatic potency while
doing justice to the novella's multiple perspectives and levels of meaning. She
composed the piece as a sequence of fourteen linked scenes, for six singers,
eight dancers and two pianos, performed without break. It was premiered on 5
October 1994 at the Towngate Theatre, Basildon. For an outline of Weir's
libretto see Appendix A.
The Sandman presented Weir
with some formidable challenges. The opening pages, for instance, consist of
three letters which convey essential information to the reader, including
Nathanael's life story up to the present. Weir's solution of distributing this
material over seven discrete scenes works very well. In the first scene, an
abbreviated version of Nathanael's letter to his friend is sung by Lothar in
the manner of Schubert - not so much a parody as an affectionate pastiche - and
in German! Talking about her use of voices in the Singer, Weir points to
the particular influence of Schubert on her perception of operatic texts:
When young, I loved lieder above all other kinds of
classical music, and I'm sure that my response to texts, particularly operatic
ones, was born in the hours I spent fumbling through Schubert song
dramatizing Hoffmann's rather 'writerly' opening, Weir's second scene has the
grim tale of the sandman told by a trio of nursery maids, to partly comic but
chiefly unnerving effect. Weir's instruction to the singers is 'simple but
back-references define the subversive quality of Hoffmann's novella perfectly,
and where her musical predecessors had seen a charming fantasy, she perceives a
most unsettling reality:
But Hoffmann's terrors are situated in the comfortable,
civilised worlds of bourgeois 19th century Germany, redolent of chamber music
evenings around the drawing room piano. When, at the beginning of the piece,
Lothar receives a letter from Nathanael, he reads it out in the musical
language of a Schubert song; but the pianos close in on his accompaniment and
distort it, as Coppelius's lenses will later distort Nathanael's vision.
Only in one
respect is Weir following Delibes's and Offenbach's adaptations of The
Sandman (see note 6): when she makes Olimpia's song at the party (scene 12,
'The Concert Party', Appendix A) one of the high points of her dance/opera and
we are treated to a full-blown aria. From time to time, as she put it herself,
'an outbreak of Opera is unavoidable'.
Both in its
various musical transformations and in literary criticism, the automaton
Olimpia has received a disproportionate degree of attention, disproportionate,
that is, to the brief space she occupies in The Sandman. In fact, her
single extended appearance is at the concert party, where she plays the piano
and sings: 'Olimpia played the piano with great accomplishment, and performed
equally well a bravura aria in an almost piercingly clear, bell-like voice'.
Intended by Hoffmann as a critique of middle-class philistinism, Olimpia's
'artificial roulades' delight Nathanael, and when 'after the cadenza, the long
trill thrilled through the room' he is enraptured.
In The Sandman we are not told what she sang, and Weir had to come up
with the words of a song for Olimpia. As the most significant addition to
Hoffmann's text, Weir chose the poem 'Modo di filosofare' by Tommaso Campanella
one of the most controversial figures of the Italian Renaissance, whose
publications include works on grammar, rhetoric, philosophy and theology,
medicine, magic and astrology. Weir's use of this poem by a compatriot of the
sinister Coppelius is highly apposite, the tension between the real and the
imagined being a central concern of both The Sandman and Heaven
Ablaze. And thus, in Heaven Ablaze, Lothar writes to the troubled
Nathanael about his terror of the sandman, 'it is we ourselves who endow these
figures with the life with which, in wild delusion, we credit them'.
Olimpia's song represents perhaps the most significant of the several levels at
which Weir's dance/opera plays with multiple roles and the imitation of life:
The world is a
book where eternal wisdom wrote
its own ideas,
and the living temple where,
depicting its own
acts and likenesses, it
height and the depth with living
statues; so that
every spirit, to guard against
read and contemplate here art
and each should say: 'I fill
seeing God in all things.'
But we, souls
bound to books and dead temples,
copied, with many
mistakes from the living, place
before such instructions.
O ills, quarrels,
ignorance, labours, pains make us aware
of our falling
away: O, let us in God's
name, return to the original!
Weir's musical rendering sets up an extraordinary
tension between the reflective poem and its performance:
Olimpia sings her party piece at the Ball with a robotic voice mainly
in the screech range, occasionally descending to a note four octaves lower.
Referring to the original
scene in Hoffmann, Siegbert Prawer reads Olimpia's quite literally mindless
a symbol of all that is soulless in art and society:
a kind of bel canto singing, in which the human voice is reduced to the
level of a mechanical instrument: a purely passive and receptive attitude to
art [...] the state of mind of those who attended the 'aesthetic tea-parties'
which were so prominent a feature of German social life in the early nineteenth
interpretation is consonent with Weir's work and under Spink's direction
Olimpia's audience is blind-folded and uncritically applauds her ghastly
use of irony and pastiche in Heaven Ablaze is thoroughly Hoffmannesque,
but we see her mastering a very different style in her second 'Romantic' opera.
When she received a commission by the English National Opera (ENO) in 1991, she
once again turned to a major German Romantic writer. Her two-act opera Blond
Eckbert was premiered in London at the ENO on 21 April 1994.
Ludwig Tieck had written Der
blonde Eckbert (Blond Eckbert) in 1796 at the age of twenty-three, at the
very dawn of the German Romantic movement. When Tieck died at the age of
eighty, he had written a great many novels and plays, and a great many more
stories, but he never bettered Blond Eckbert. This highly ambiguous
short text charts the relentless destruction of the assumptions on which the
protagonists had based their lives. As we shall see, there are some intriguing
similarities between The Sandman and Blond Eckbert which probably
had a good deal to do with Weir's choice of Tieck. The Sandman had been
written some twenty years after Blond Eckbert and its
multiperspectivism, its hero's unstable sense of identity, its criticisms of
contemporary society and its town setting give it the aspect of modernity which
Weir's Heaven Ablaze so imaginatively works with. Ian Spink, Heaven
Ablaze's inspired choreographer, worked in close collaboration with Weir
and designer Antony McDonald on the work's theatre and television versions.
Spink sheds light on their shared aim to translate Hoffmann's original into the
have slightly deconstructed Hoffmann's narrative for this theatrical
realization. Hoffmann's world is ambiguous and often defies rational
explanation. He lived in a century that saw the unification of a Germany that
was to grow to monstrous proportions within a mere sixty years. Modernism
replaced Romanticism and the 'demons' of Hoffmann's tales became reality. In
designing the piece therefore we have decided to borrow from the periods
1815-1938. We have been influenced by various 'obsessions' relating to dolls
and small children: Oskar Kokoschka's life-sized doll created to replace Alma
Mahler who had left him, the disturbing paintings by Balthus and the 'created'
images of women as depicted by photographers such as Horst in the 1930s. The
shadowy night-time experiments of Nathanael's Father and Coppelius have been
transposed to experiments with film using the eye of the projector.
Tieck's Blond Eckbert is set in a remote mountain location, in a rather
vague medieval past, and Weir is content to leave it at that, except for Act
II, scene 2, which is set (rather incongruously) in today's world. 'Eckbert is
alone and unnoticed amidst the brutal business of an urban scene'
is the stage direction which in the ENO production saw Eckbert beneath a
massive flyover with endless lines of car headlights passing overhead.
But there are
also a number of fundamental features shared by Hoffmann's and Tieck's
novellas, and these are retained in both libretti: above all the presence of a supernatural force which
appears in a number of guises, a series of unrelenting Doppelgänger, which
finally vanquish all the main characters. Nathanael, Bertha and Eckbert all
die, in fact, of the insupportable anguish caused them by the intrusion of the
uncanny into their lives. The conclusion of both novellas is an absolute
breakdown of order into madness, in spite of some intermittent periods of calm.
Tieck's peaceful opening is as deceptive as Hoffmann's serene ending, when some
years after Nathanael's suicide his fiancée Clara's married bliss appears to
reaffirm the family values of early nineteenth-century society:
years later, you could have seen Clara, in a distant part of the country,
sitting with an affectionate man hand in hand before the door of a lovely
country house and with two lovely children playing at her feet, from which it
is to be concluded that Clara found in the end that quiet domestic happiness which
was so agreeable to her cheerful disposition and which the inwardly driven
Nathaniel could never have given her.
It is in line
with the spirit of Weir's stress on the role of Olimpia that her libretto omits
this final scene of Clara's happiness. Heaven Ablaze ends with
Nathanael's death in scene 14 'The Tower' to the words 'ruhe sanft' (rest in
peace). But Olimpia has the last word: Heaven Ablaze ends on her name,
sung by a group of male and female voices.
adaptation for television (directed by Peter Mumford, broadcast on 18 May 1991,
BBC2) restores Hoffmann's original ending to splendid effect: Clara and her
husband, together with their two children are seen posing for a formal family
photograph against a painted backdrop of mountain scenery and a lake. The rigid
posing against an idealized landscape restores The Sandman's ironic
conclusion. Where both Der Sandmann and Heaven Ablaze are
oblique, allusive, intricate, Tieck's Blond Eckbert is direct and
straightforward, almost naive.
The novella has a
simple structure, with the beginning and the end set in the present, thus
framing Bertha's life story, which is set in the past. Beginning like a
fairy-tale and ending like a nightmare, it is written at the very beginning of
a German tradition of fantastic Angst literature - a veritable literature of
anguish, with a clear indebtedness to the Gothic horrors of incest and madness.
uses Thomas Carlyle's translation of 1827.
Introducing Blond Eckbert in his edition of Carlyle's translations,
Eitel Timm delighted in the musical quality of Tieck's language:
By a magical combination of vowels and consonants the emotional mood is
expressed almost with the immediacy of music and without the intervention of
logical thought [...] Instead there is a changeful interweaving of theme and
counter-theme, which is reminiscent of the forest of musical forms, e.g. the
arabesque and fantasia.
Weir responded equally
enthusiastically as a composer:
I found a kind of musical form lying there already;
it has such a wonderful climactic passage. The action in Blond Eckbert is
beautifully constructed from a musical point of view.
Sandman, Blond Eckbert makes heavy demands on a composer's expressive and
evocative skills, while also offering irresistible opportunities (e.g. the
magic song bird):
The whole story is a gift to a composer. So much in
it is described by sounds, rather than visually. Apart from that central
birdsong, there is the dog barking, the rustling of the birch trees. At the end
of the story, Tieck says that all Eckbert hears as he lies 'distracted and
dying' is the old woman speaking, the dog barking, and the bird singing, 'in
dull, hollow confusion'. It all adds to the impression - in fact it's a very
impressionist story. I'm sure that was a factor in my attraction to it.
Looked at from
the librettist's point of view, Blond Eckbert appears less of a
challenge than the structurally and stylistically sophisticated Sandman.
Blond Eckbert was originally published as one of a series of stories under
the collective title Volksmärchen herausgegeben von Peter Leberecht (Peter
Leberecht's Fairy Tales, 1797) and was for the most part written in the
simple style of a traditional German fairy tale. In fact, Blond Eckbert is
the paradigm of the German Romantic Märchennovelle (fairy-tale novella),
setting the pattern for many to follow. But this aspect of the text Weir could
have done without:
When I hear the expression 'fairy story', my heart
sinks a bit, because that genre has been so traduced in our literature. Often
they've been bowdlerized, particularly the Grimms' fairy tales. It was only
when I was an adult and started to read them that I realised how horrible most
of them were. And 'fairy tale' has the echo of something sweet and nice.
And she makes her
point more emphatically in the slightly later interview in Opera magazine:
Well, there is a point in the story where Bertha
says: 'Do not take my story for a fairy-tale.' It's a very significant line. So
the short answer is, no, I was deliberately not interested in that.
Clearly we are
dealing with different readings of the word Märchen here. In the sense that
Bertha uses it, she certainly means something along the lines of: don't think I
have made this up, this is real. Tieck's text is of course no Volksmärchen or
popular fairy tale as collected by the Grimms either, but a Kunstmärchen or
literary fairy tale, working with many of the fairy tale's conventions. Indeed,
its catastrophic ending confirms Blond Eckbert as an anti-fairy tale and
it prepared the way for the subversive experiments which characterize the
literary fairy tale in our own century. In an even more radical and innovative
break with fairy-tale conventions, there are two distinct levels of reality
existing side by side in Blond Eckbert. Everyday reality and fairy-tale
world are clearly separate until the interference of the supernatural blurs and
finally dissolves this distinction. What is perhaps most striking about Tieck's
novella is its exploration of the non-rational, indeed irrational aspects of
existence, in a manner which transcends the horizons of the fairy-tale genre.
This is the story's fascination for Weir, and she describes it as essentially
'a story of psychological discovery'.
Focusing on this aspect leads her to marginalize Tieck's extensive borrowing
and adaptation of motifs from the traditional Volksmärchen.
takes up a great part of Tieck's short novella and Weir's libretto faithfully
a huge amount of it is taken up by Bertha's own
story as it should be, because in the original that's what happens. It becomes
a kind of aria for Bertha lasting over fifteen minutes, with somewhat reduced
orchestration. It's more chamber-like and has a directly illustrative
character. When she speaks about spinning wheels, we almost have spinning
wheels. That's a deliberate, almost childlike way of writing, because it is her
narrative is structurally even less a traditional 'kind of aria' than it is a
ballad, which is how it is captioned in the libretto, but Weir's interest here
is to retain the 'childlike' simple flow of Tieck's work, and in this she
succeeds. As in this 'ballad', Weir chiefly follows the original story line,
but in a number of important ways she has adapted it. One of her fundamental
changes occurs at the very beginning and points to her preference for myth over
original, the magic bird which lays jewelled eggs is taken away by Bertha and
survives for a short while when she reaches the real world again. It serves
therefore as a living link between the realm of the supernatural (embodied in
the old woman and her remote forest world) and everyday reality. Weir has
spoken about her transformation of the bird into a key protagonist in her
Yes, the bird is the story-teller really. It appears
at the beginning and rounds the opera off at the end. It seemed obvious to me,
because we were going to have this bird character, she should do more than just
sing the occasional folk song. How does the story begin? In Tieck's words it
starts almost like a police report, so operatically it had to have something
different. I just saw in my mind a bird flying above the stage, and it grew
from there. There's a justification for that in Tieck, because it does pop up
from time to time - even towards the end when it's meant to be dead.
Indeed, Weir puts
the bird in charge of the story, it is ever-present, relating, explaining, even
judging events, and thus it performs a vital integrative role.
And yes, the bird
'pops up', as Weir has it, in Tieck from time to time. Three times exactly, in
good fairy-tale fashion, and each time marking the presence of a supernatural
power by its song. It celebrates the joys of Waldeinsamkeit (forest solitude),
a word invented by Tieck, which to this day encapsulates the very spirit of
Die mich erfreut,
So morgen wie heut
In ewger Zeit,
wie mich freut
I feel alright;
Alone in the wood,
Things go as they should.
All day and all night:
Weir retains the
word Waldeinsamkeit here, indeed, on the fourth and last occasion of the
bird's song she quotes the original German verse. Weir breaks the fairy-tale
mould by first having the bird sing its song four times in all, but also by
extending its role even beyond that of the narrator. When it issues warnings
and makes judgements it guides the audience's interpretation of the
protagonists' behaviour. The third song is not in Tieck's original. Bertha is
on her way out of the forest carrying the bird in its cage when it begins to
Alone in a wood
I don't feel so good
You took me away,
You did wrong and you'll pay
All day and all night
avoid wrong and do right. (pp. 51f)
Whereupon Bertha lets the
bird go and it flies away. Here is one of the key changes Weir has made to
Tieck's novella. Tieck has Bertha return to the world of ordinary reality with
the bird, whose frequent song reminds her of her betrayal of the old woman, and
this distresses her greatly:
The more I looked at him, the more he pained and frightened me; at last
I opened the cage, put in my hand, and grasped his neck; I squeezed my fingers
hard together, he looked at me, I slackened them; but he was dead. I buried him
in the garden. (p. 35)
Weir has done two
things: she has changed the bird from an unconscious reminder of Bertha's
misdeeds to a deliberate one, echoing words the old woman utters ('none ever
prospers when he leaves the straight path; punishment will overtake him', p.
39) and thereby it is at least suggested that the bird is yet another one of
her manifestations. But even more importantly, Weir lets the bird live. The
opera is the better for it, no doubt. In place of the little songbird, which
dies at Bertha's hands soon after she re-enters everyday reality, we have the
authoritative presence of the human-size bird throughout the opera, knowing
everything and presiding over Eckbert's terrible end.
A second vital
alteration in Weir's libretto is linked to the bird's ominous early presence.
In the novella, the reader is introduced to a calm if isolated setting,
dominated by repetition and routine. It is autumn, the arrival of the old
friend Walther is followed by an enjoyable meal, and the talk grew 'livelier
and more confidential' (p. 20). The German sounds even more positive: 'heitrer
References to the storm raging out of doors suggest this comfortable indoor
scene may be threatened. But for a time all appears well: 'Walther complained
of the long road he had to travel; and Eckbert proposed to him to stay where he
was, to while away half of the night in friendly talk' (p. 20). Walther's
friendship is not queried until after Bertha has completed her story, and that
is some two-thirds through the text. The reader has had few hints of what is to
come: he is as deceived by Walther as are Eckbert and Bertha. Weir's opera begins
with a 'Flying Prelude' in which the bird communicates the information given in
the first paragraph of Tieck's novella about Eckbert's and Bertha's solitary
life in the Harz mountains. After this prelude, the opera opens with an
extraordinarily angst-ridden atmosphere, underlined by the English National
Opera's setting, which presented a tilting, distorted version of Tieck's
comfortable parlour scene, at once suggesting a high level of tension: there is
no difference between outer and inner condition. Moments before Walther
arrives, Eckbert is heard to sing:
... and yet it can happen
Eckbert sees Walther's face through the
window. (pp. 20f)
that one can recoil with
fear from the face of the other.
recognized as the intimate friend, but also as the suddenly strange 'other',
from whom one recoils with fear. The audience is alerted to Walther's dual
nature at this very early point in the opera. The music accompanying his
arrival is misterioso and the stage direction reads: 'Walther arrives.
In the first moments, he appears in a sinister light, but when he starts to
sing, he is amiable and disarmingly enthusiastic' (p. 20). Both the opening
pages of Tieck and the opening scenes of Weir's opera powerfully move towards
the telling of Bertha's story. The story line in Tieck has a slow beginning and
does not gather speed until the very end of Bertha's story and the Strohmian'
revelation. After that, one blow after another falls - the deaths of Bertha and
Walther, Hugo's appearance, Eckbert's flight and death all happen within the
last quarter of this short text. Reader and listener are very differently
prepared for these last events. Weir sets a scene pregnant with foreboding and
her interpretation of Bertha's story continues this approach, culminating in the
dreadful last moments of Eckbert's life.
In Tieck, Bertha
and Walther retire after Walther's bombshell - Eckbert is left behind, full of
misgivings about having made Bertha tell her story. Tieck's Bertha is appalled,
Weir has her merely intrigued. Weir's directions read: 'Walther retires for
bed; Eckbert and Bertha are left in (separate) amazement. Eckbert is worried,
Bertha fascinated' (p. 58). Bertha does indeed ask; 'what does this man have to
do with my fate?' (p. 62), but the scene is dominated by Eckbert's fear that
Walther may be after their jewels. Act I ends at this point. Act II is even more doomladen
than the first Act:
Where Weir shows her dramatic mastery is in the
striking musical contrast in styles between Acts I and II. In the first, which is
principally a monologue for Bertha, the music is in a fairy-tale idiom that I
can only liken to Des Knaben Wunderhorn. For Act II, the music grows
richer, darker and more terror-filled as Eckbert's mind unhinges and the story
intensifies its grip.
Eckbert into two neat halves results in a degree of simplification, or one
might say rationalization. In her own statements, Weir has certainly expressed
a preference for a simple reading of Blond Eckbert:
When I was thinking of doing this opera, a very
early inkling I had, and something I researched a bit, was to do a detective
story [...] Latterly in opera, people have not been very interested in plot
construction. In a story like Blond Eckbert, you search through it for
clues the second time. It has this fantastic pay-off at the end which explains
everything. It has layers of psychological interest and true mystery rather
than the confected Hollywood kind [...] It's a story of psychological
discovery, and a detective story.
that 'the end explains everything' would be obligatory for a detective story,
but it is difficult to agree with her here. We are, surely, at both the end of
Tieck's text and the end of the opera, no closer to a rational explanation of
events than we were, say, at the end of Bertha's story. At the abrupt and
tragic conclusion, Eckbert is absolutely alone, his alienation is final. The
reason for the supernatural's devastating incursion into Eckbert's and Bertha's
lives remains an unsolved mystery. That Eckbert and Bertha are half-brother and
sister (the near-identity of their names might be intended as a hint) and that
their marriage is therefore incestuous, does not sufficiently explain what
happens to them.
nor Tieck implies any answers to the many unsettling questions raised by their
novellas, and perhaps they are indeed unanswerable. Weir's cautious
restructuring of these texts represents an intelligent, sensitive response to
the originals. Heaven Ablaze's fourteen discrete scenes reflect the
sense of discontinuity and separateness which informs Nathanael's short and
tragic life. Weir retains the structural simplicity of Tieck's tale in spite of
her division of the libretto into two acts. She also retains Tieck's diction
and achieves the same tension he created by telling an anything but simple
story in a simple voice - a story in which the apparently ordinary and everyday
exists alongside the utterly extraordinary in its beguiling disguises.
Weir has written
the music and the words for two formally very contrasting operas. Her libretti
successfully maintain the originals' hard-edged scrutiny of our notions of
human identity and the nature of our perception of reality. Weber would no
doubt have the same praise for Heaven Ablaze and Blond Eckbert that
he accorded to Roffmann's Undine: 'an art work complete in itself
in which partial contributions of the related and collaborating arts blend
together, disappear, and in disappearing somehow form a new world.'
Appendix A: Summary of the libretto
for Judith Weir's Heaven Ablaze in His Breast
1. The Letters
demonstrates a Schwartzwalder [sic] Kirschtorte while Olimpia and Spalanzani
dance together. The student Nathanael has his eyes tested. Lothar reads a
2. The Nursemaid's Story
Three Nursemaids tell young
Nathanael a story, Coppelius poses his sister.
3. Little Brutes
Nathanael's family enjoy a
little food. The young Nathanael finds no pleasure in Coppelius's company.
4. The Spying
Nathanael is given a new
bedroom, he spies on his father and Coppelius as they experiment.
5. Nathanael's delirium
6. The Funeral
Nathanael witnesses the mysterious death of his father. His adopted sister Klara and her brother Lothar
7. The Correspondence
Communications between the
student Nathanael, Lothar and Klara. Klara tells Nathanael what she really
thinks of his delusions. Nathanael talks of Olimpia.
8. The Breakfast
Nathanael is haunted by demons. His mother gives him her wedding ring. He reads his poem to Klara and they
argue. Lothar comes to the rescue.
9. Nathanael, his house partially destroyed by fire, is able to gain a clearer view of Olimpia.
10. The second visit of the Barometer Seller. Coppola sells
Nathanael a small telescope.
11. The Vision
Nathanael's ecstatic vision.
12. The Concert Party
At a concert party thrown by
Spalanzani Olimpia sings an aria. Nathanael falls madly in love.
13. The Desk
Nathanael reads his poems to Olimpia and a friend questions him. He finds Coppola and Spalanzani arguing over
14. The Tower
Nathanael awakes to find
everyone in the town square, shopping. He climbs a tower with Klara. They spy
Coppelius approaching. Madness and death take Nathanael.
Appendix B: Summary of the Libretto for Judith Weir's Blond
A bird is telling a story of
Eckbert and his wife Bertha
live in seclusion in the Harz mountains. One stormy night, Eckbert's only
friend Walther visits them. To pass the time, Bertha tells Walther her life
story: In her childhood, her parents were cruel, so she escaped to a remote
region where a mysterious old woman brought her up. The old woman and only a
dog - whose name Bertha has forgotten - and a magic bird for company. The bird
laid jewels instead of eggs every day.
Bertha was content, but
eventually curiosity about the outside world got the better of her. She
escaped, tying up the dog, stealing the jewels and letting the bird escape.
Arriving at her home village, she found her parents were dead. She settled down
and married Eckbert. They have lived on the proceeds of the jewels, since
Eckbert has no money.
On retiring for bed, Walther
says 'you told your story so vividly, that I can just imagine the bird and your
little dog, Strohmian.' Strohmian! Bertha immediately recognizes the name she
had forgotten and is full of wonder at how Walther knew it - whilst Eckbert's
Eckbert, aimlessly hunting
in the forest, hears a distant rustling. Just as he shoots, he sees his target
is Walther. The arrow hits Walther, and he is killed.
All Bertha's childhood
memories have been awakened by Walther, and she becomes ill, and near death.
Eckbert, burdened with worry, visits the nearby city seeking distraction. He
meets a compassionate stranger, Hugo, who befriends him. But as their intimacy
deepens, Eckbert becomes suspicious of Hugo. He thinks that Hugo even begins to
Eckbert rushes away, and
finds himself in the landscape Bertha described in her childhood tale. His
thoughts still on Walther, he thinks that even a passing peasant looks just
like Walther. He hears the bird singing, and finally comes to the secluded hut
where the old woman of Bertha's story lives.
The old woman reveals that
she, Walther and Hugo are the same person. And she tells Eckbert that Bertha
was his sister, who had been given away, in early childhood by their father. 'Why
have I always suspected this dreadful thought?' cries Eckbert. 'You once heard
your father mention it when you were a child.' Eckbert falls to the ground,
insane and dying.
Appendix C: Reviews of Heaven
Ablaze and Blond Eckbert
Both Heaven Ablaze in His Breast and Blond Eckbert were extensively reviewed after their first
performances. Below are listed some of the more detailed and useful reviews.
1.Heaven Ablaze in His Breast
First performance: Towngate
Theatre, Basildon, 5 October 1989, performed by the Second Stride dance theatre
and Vocem Electric Voice Theatre with Ian Spink as choreographer and artistic
This production was adapted
for television by Peter Mumford and broadcast on BBC2, 18 May 1991.
Patrick Gale, 'Physical
music theatre', Harpers & Queen, October 1989
Hugo Cole, 'Arts under one
umbrella', Country Life, 19 October 1989
Kathrine Sorley Walker, 'A
total experience', Daily Telegraph, 17 November 1989
Nicholas Kenyon, 'Sandman
gets into his stride', Observer, 19 November 1989
Noel Goodwin, Heaven
Ablaze in His Breast. Opera, January 1990
First performance: English
National Opera, 20 April '994, produced by Tim Hopkins. Subsequent
performances; Santa Fé Opera, 30 July 1994; Bielefeld Stadttheater, I June
1996; and most recently at the Hochschule der Künste Berlin, 27 June 1998.
Andrew Clements, 'Going
round the houses', Guardian, 15 April 1994
Andrew Porter, 'Knights
bold, green, and lost in a dream', Observer, 24 April 1994
Rupert Christiansen, 'Barn
howls', Spectator, 30 April 1994 CD release of this performance
'Recording Report: Judith Weir's latest opera.', BBC Music Magazine, June
Santa Fe production:
Paul Griffiths, 'Knights at
the opera', New Yorker, 8 August 1994
Con Ellison, 'She learned
her noble song from oboe and - bagpipes?', New York Times, 10 July 1994
*This paper was first published in Comparative Criticism, 21
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 253-272. It is reproduced with
kind permission of CUP.
 E.T.A. Hoffmann's Musical Writings, edited
by David Charlton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 200. E.T.A.
Hoffmann, Die Serapionsbrüder, Sämtliche Werke, 6 vols (Munich: Winkler
Verlag, 1976), I, 88. 'Die mehrsten sogennannten Opern sind nur leere
Schauspiele mit Gesang, und der gänzIiche Mangel an dramatischer Wirkung, den
man bald dem Gedicht, bald der Musik zur Last legt, ist nur der toten Masse
aneinandergereihter Szenen, ohne inneren poetischen Zusammenhang und ohne
poetische Wahrheit zuzuschreiben, die die Musik nicht zum Leben entzünden konnte.'
 Lortzing wrote his own libretto for his
opera Undine (1845), based on Fouqué's story. Tchaikovsky wrote another
version Undina in 1869, with a libretto by V. Sologub. Hans Werner
Henze's ballet Undine of 1958 is the most distinguished musical version
of Fouqué's tale to date.
 Translated by Oliver Strunk in Source
Readings in Music History. The Romantic Era (New York, 1965), p.63.
 Charlton, Hoffmann's Musical Writings, p. 189. Hoffmann,
Die Serapionsbrüder, p. 75: 'Ist denn nicht vollkommene Einheit
des Textes aus der Musik nur denkbar wenn Dichter und Komponist eine und
dieselbe Persan ist?'
 Judith Weir (1954-). Further operas: The
Black Spider (libretto by Weir after Jeremias Gotthelf's novella The
Black Spider, 1984); A Night at the Chinese Opera (libretto by Weir
after an old Chinese play, 1987); The Vanishing Bridegroom (libretto by
Weir after Scottish folk-tales, 1990).
 In the nineteenth century, Der Sandmann had been the inspiration
for Act I of Jacques Offenbach's light opera Les Contes d'Hoffmann (1880,
librettists J. Barbier and M. Carré), and in 1870 Leo Delibes had written a
ballet, Coppélia ou la fille aux yeux d'émail. Both works rather
trivialized Hoffmann's novella and Weir's dance/opera is its first serious
musical treatment. Less well-known are Adolphe Adam's La Poupée de Nuremberg
(1852) and Edmond Audran's La Poupée (1896).
 'Composer in View: Judith Weir', The Singer, February/March
1994, p. 31.
 Judith Weir, Heaven Ablaze in His Breast (London: Chester
Music, 1989), p. 13.
 Heaven Ablaze, programme, p. 7.
 Ibid., p. 7.
 Tales of Hoffmann, selected and translated with an
introduction by R.J. Hollingdale (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982), p. 113.
 Ibid., p. 113.
 Weir's source for the text was The Penguin Book of Italian
Verse, edited by George R. Kay (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1958), pp. 203f.
Campanella's most famous work is the utopia Civitas Solis (The City of the
 Weir, Heaven Ablaze, p. 43.
 Weir's source for this poem was The Penguin Book of Italian
Verse, pp. 203f.
 Heaven Ablaze, programme, p. 7.
 Siegbert S. Prawer, 'Hoffmann's Uncanny Guest. A Reading of "Der
Sandmann"', German Life & Letters, 18 (1964/65), 303.
 Ian Spink, programme for the first production of Heaven Ablaze, Towngate
Theatre, Basildon, 5 October 1989, p. 7. Spink's extensive use of the eye motif
is striking. Freud's famous reading of The Sandman in his essay on Das
Unheimliche (The Uncanny) of 1919 links the eye motif in Hoffmann's novella
to his theory of the castration complex.
 Judith Weir, Blond Eckbert (London: Chester Music, n.d.), p.
Hollingdale, Tales of Hoffmann, p. 125.
 Novellas of Ludwig Tieck and E.T.A. Hoffmann, translated
by Thomas Carlyle with an introduction by Eitel Timm, Studies in German
Literature, Linguistics and Culture, 58 (Columbia: Camden House, 1991). All
quotations from Blond Eckbert are from this edition.
 Tieck, Der blonde Eckbert; Brentano,
Geschichte vom braven Kasperl und dem schönen Annerl, edited by Margaret
Atkinson, Blackwell's German Texts (Oxford: Blackwell, 1958), p. xviif.
 Judith Weir in Conversation', English National Opera, programme for
Blond Eckbert (London, 1994), n.p.
 "Where have all the arias gone?" Judith Weir talks to
'Stephen Johnson', Opera, April 1994, pp. 420f.
 'Judith Weir in Conversation', n.p. Weir spells the character's
 Opera, p. 420.
 'Judith Weir in Conversation', n.p.
 Ibid., n.p.
 'Judith Weir in Conversation', n.p.
Ludwig Tieck,Die Märchen aus dem Phantasus. Dramen, in Werke,
4 vols, part II (Munich, 1978), p. 14, Weir, Blond Eckbert, p.
 Tieck, Phantasus, p. 10.
 Michael Kennedy, 'Jewels of melody and madness', Sunday
Telegraph, 24 April 1994.
 'Judith Weir in Conversation', n.p.
 See note 3.
 Judith Weir, *Heaven Ablaze in His Breast.
Programme of the
first performance at the Towngate Theatre, Basildon, on 5 October 1989, no
publisher given, p. 15.
 Judith Weir, *Blond Eckbert ,programme for the English
National Opera premiere, London, 1994, n.p.
Back to Contents