I have Stephen Hinton to thank for bringing my attention to Kurt Weill’s one-act “ballet-pantomime” “Zaubernacht” (magic night). In his book Weill’s Musical Theater: Stages of Reform (which I reviewed on this site almost a year ago), Hinton claimed that “the work remains something of a curiosity in his oeuvre,” which was certainly enough to pique my own curiosity. He then garnished this summary judgment by describing the scenario by Wladimir Boritsch, for which Weill provided about an hour of music, as “looking back to works such as Tchaikovsky’s ballet Nutcracker and forward to the movie Toy Story.” Hinton reproduced the following synopsis from David Drew’s Kurt Weill: A Handbook:
As ‘the Girl” and “the Boy’ fall asleep, the Fairy enters and sings her magic spell. One by one the children’s toys, and the characters from their story books, are brought to life. Presently, the children themselves become involved in a phantasmagoria where, for instance, Andersen’s Tin Soldier helps rescue Hansel and Gretel. At the end, the Witch is hunted by the assembled company, and at last disposed of. The Fairy then vanishes, the children sink back into a dreamless sleep, and their mother tiptoes into the room to close the curtains.
(Hinton’s book predates the launch of Once Upon a Time on television, which is probably a better “forward pass” for this scenario than Toy Story.)
This ballet was first performed in Berlin in 1922, and it is actually the very first piece Weill composed for the stage. This is about five years prior to the beginning of Weill’s collaborations with Bertolt Brecht, the source of his best-known achievements prior to his move to the United States. Given the darkly cynical connotations of the music that Weill composed for Brecht, “Zaubernacht” stands out as a delightfully cheerful collection of episodes in the service of the ballet’s eccentric scenario.
At the end of last month cpo released a recording of this score performed by the Arte Ensemble with soprano Ania Vegry singing the song of the Fairy’s spell. The recording was produced by Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR, North German radio) and licensed by Studio Hamburg. Weill orchestrated the score for “pit resources” with a single performer for each part. The instrumentation consists of a string quartet, bass, flute, bassoon, piano, and enough percussion to keep two performers occupied. If I am to believe the back cover for the CD, Arte Ensemble performs without a conductor.
In the matter of influence, Weill tended to talk about his background in terms of his studies with Ferruccio Busoni. However, those familiar with the music of Richard Strauss may wonder whether or not Weill had seen a performance of Ariadne auf Naxos in its full-opera form, which was first performed on November 1, 1916 in Berlin. The commedia dell’arte characters from Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto for Strauss surface, at least in spirit, on several occasions in Weill’s score; but their antics are very much consistent with those conceived by Boritsch.
Thus, while “Zaubernacht” may be a “curiosity,” the score has enough substance to sustain the attention of the serious listener who likes to have a bit of fun now and then.