Goldsmiths College, University of London AURIFEX
Text only   

ECL Home
Goldsmiths home

The Composer as Librettist: Judith Weir's 'Romantic' Operas Heaven Ablaze in His Breast and Blond Eckbert*

Hanne Castein

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.'[1]

Hoffmann 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).[2] 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'.[3] 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'.[4]

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 Judith Weir[5] based her libretto for her dance/opera Heaven Ablaze in His Breast (1989)[6] 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 accompaniments.[7]

Further 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 sinister'.[8]

Weir's cultural 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.[9]

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'.[10]

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'.[11] 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.[12] 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 (1568-1639).[13]

Campanella was 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'.[14] 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
decorated the height and the depth with living
statues; so that every spirit, to guard against
profanity, should read and contemplate here art
and government, and each should say: 'I fill
the universe, seeing God in all things.'
But we, souls bound to books and dead temples,
copied, with many mistakes from the living, place
these things 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![15]

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.[16]

Referring to the original scene in Hoffmann, Siegbert Prawer reads Olimpia's quite literally mindless performance as

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 century.[17]

Prawer's interpretation is consonent with Weir's work and under Spink's direction Olimpia's audience is blind-folded and uncritically applauds her ghastly performance.

Weir's pervasive 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 twentieth century:

We 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.[18]

In contrast, 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'[19] 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:

Several 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.[20]

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.

Ian Spink's 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.

Weir's libretto uses Thomas Carlyle's translation of 1827.[21] 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.[22]

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.[23]

Like The 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.[24]

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.[25]

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.[26]

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'.[27] Focusing on this aspect leads her to marginalize Tieck's extensive borrowing and adaptation of motifs from the traditional Volksmärchen.

Bertha's story takes up a great part of Tieck's short novella and Weir's libretto faithfully reflects this:

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 childhood story.[28]

Bertha's extended 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 fairy tale.

In Tieck's 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 opera:

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.[29]

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 German Romanticism:

Tieck's original Weir's version:
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 sing:

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 and vertraulicher'.[31] 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
that one can recoil with
fear from the face of the other.

Eckbert sees Walther's face through the window. (pp. 20f)

Walther is 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.[32]

Splitting Blond 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.[33]

Weir's contention 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.

Neither Hoffmann 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.'[34]

Appendix A: Summary of the libretto for Judith Weir's Heaven Ablaze in His Breast

1. The Letters
Nathanael's Mother demonstrates a Schwartzwalder [sic] Kirschtorte while Olimpia and Spalanzani dance together. The student Nathanael has his eyes tested. Lothar reads a letter.

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
Nathanael's nightmare.

6. The Funeral
Nathanael witnesses the mysterious death of his father. His adopted sister Klara and her brother Lothar comfort him.

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 Olimpia.

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.[35]

Appendix B: Summary of the Libretto for Judith Weir's Blond Eckbert


A bird is telling a story of a dog:

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 suspicions grow.


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 resemble Walther.

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.[36]

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 director.
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

2.Blond Eckbert

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.


ENO production:
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
Nicholas Williams, 'Recording Report: Judith Weir's latest opera.', BBC Music Magazine, June 1995

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.

[1] 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.'

[2] 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.

[3] Translated by Oliver Strunk in Source Readings in Music History. The Romantic Era (New York, 1965), p.63.

[4] 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?'

[5] 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).

[6] 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).

[7] 'Composer in View: Judith Weir', The Singer, February/March 1994, p. 31.

[8] Judith Weir, Heaven Ablaze in His Breast (London: Chester Music, 1989), p. 13.

[9] Heaven Ablaze, programme, p. 7.

[10] Ibid., p. 7.

[11] Tales of Hoffmann, selected and translated with an introduction by R.J. Hollingdale (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982), p. 113.

[12] Ibid., p. 113.

[13] 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 Sun, 1623).

[14] Weir, Heaven Ablaze, p. 43.

[15] Weir's source for this poem was The Penguin Book of Italian Verse, pp. 203f.

[16] Heaven Ablaze, programme, p. 7.

[17] Siegbert S. Prawer, 'Hoffmann's Uncanny Guest. A Reading of "Der Sandmann"', German Life & Letters, 18 (1964/65), 303.

[18] 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.

[19] Judith Weir, Blond Eckbert (London: Chester Music, n.d.), p. 87.

[20]Hollingdale, Tales of Hoffmann, p. 125.

[21] 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.

[22] 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.

[23] Judith Weir in Conversation', English National Opera, programme for Blond Eckbert (London, 1994), n.p.

[24] "Where have all the arias gone?" Judith Weir talks to 'Stephen Johnson', Opera, April 1994, pp. 420f.

[25] 'Judith Weir in Conversation', n.p. Weir spells the character's name Bertha.

[26] Opera, p. 420.

[27] 'Judith Weir in Conversation', n.p.

[28] Ibid., n.p.

[29] 'Judith Weir in Conversation', n.p.

[30]Ludwig Tieck,Die Märchen aus dem Phantasus. Dramen, in Werke, 4 vols, part II (Munich, 1978), p. 14, Weir, Blond Eckbert, p. 40.

[31] Tieck, Phantasus, p. 10.

[32] Michael Kennedy, 'Jewels of melody and madness', Sunday Telegraph, 24 April 1994.

[33] 'Judith Weir in Conversation', n.p.

[34] See note 3.

[35] 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.

[36] Judith Weir, *Blond Eckbert ,programme for the English National Opera premiere, London, 1994, n.p.

Back to Contents


Aurifex, Department of English & Comparative Literature, Goldsmiths, University of London, London, SE14 6NW, UK

Copyright © Goldsmiths College, 2003