Kurt Weill: Zaubernacht (Magic Night)

Meirion Bowen's reconstruction of this early ballet by Kurt Weill was commissioned by West Deutscher Rundfunk for the Cologne Triennale, and was premiered on June 1, 2000 at the Klaus-von-Bismarck Saal, WDR Funkhaus.

The orchestration for 10 players, with solo soprano for the opening Lied der Fee, has been approved for general use by the Kurt Weill Foundation and is now published by European-American Music. It is based partially on annotations by the composer in the surviving piano rehearsal score, on Weill's original version of some of the music in his String Quartet Op. 9 and his subsequent full orchestral suite, Quodlibet, constructed from musical material in the ballet.

Taking part in the premiere were the soprano, Ingrid Schmidthussen and the Ensemble Contrasts conducted by Celso Antunes. The choreography was undertaken by TanzForum directed by Jochen Ulrich.

A new production of Zaubernacht was given its premiere at the Kurt Weill Fest in Dessau, Germany on March 14. It was directed by Milan Sládek. A second performance took place two days later at a "family concert" in the Tonhalle, Dusseldorf.

Further performances are already scheduled for 2004:
April 30: Schlosserei Theater, Cologne, Germany
May 2: Schlosserei Theatre, Cologne (morning performance for children, evening performance for adults)
June 26 & 27, Philharmonie, Essen, Germany

For full details and reviews, please click here!

Meanwhile, Capriccio Records, in association with WDR, have released the world premiere recording of Zaubernacht, with the same performers as at the Cologne premiere in 2000: Ingrid Schmithüsen (soprano), Ensemble Contrasts Köln, conducted by Celso Antunes.

The record number is Capriccio 67011.

Scores and parts are available on rental from:

European-American Music
PO Box 4340
15800 N.W. 48th Avenue
Florida 33014
tel: (1)-305 521-1604
fax: (1)-305 521 1638
email: eamdc@eamdc.com


Die Zaubernacht (Magic Night) was Kurt Weill's first composition for the theatre actually to reach the stage. It was also his first commissioned work. Originally conceived as a children's pantomime for the Russian ballet troupe at the Theater am Kurfürstendamm in Berlin, it received its premiere there on 18 November 1922: the conductor was George Weller, the stage-director Franz-Ludwig-Hörth, the choreographer Mary Zimmermann (from whose school the dancers were drawn). Elfriede Marherr-Wagner, from the Staatsoper, Unter den Linden, sang the Fairy´s Song, that follows the instrumental introduction to the ballet. In the audience at the premiere were Weill´s teacher, Busoni, and the expressionist playwright, Georg Kaiser, soon to become one of Weill´s important collaborators. The three performances of the ballet all took place in the afternoon and attracted little attention from the press, though three short reviews appeared, the most favourable of them in the Berliner Börsen-Courier. Three years later, Zaubernacht became the first of Weill's works to be performed in the USA: at the end of 1925, it was presented in New York as Magic Night.

The scenario - written by the choreographer Wladimir Boritsch - is now lost. David Drew has drawn the following outline from press reports and notes in the piano score:

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 plantasmagoria 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. [from David Drew, Kurt Weill: A Handbook (London 1987, p137)].

Zaubernacht was never published and the original orchestral score and materials (in Boritsch's possession) are lost. All that survives is an incomplete piano rehearsal score in manuscript.

The original ballet is an intimate work. In an essay, Bekenntnis zur Oper, published in the Blätter der Staatsoper, Dresden, at the time of the premiere of his opera, Der Protagonist, in 1926, Weill commented thus on his experience he gained from writing Zaubernacht: "...I learned two things from the concentrated intensity of Russian theatre art: that the stage has its own musical form, which develops organically out of the flow of the plot, and that important events can truly be expressed only through the simplest, least conspicuous means.

An orchestra of nine [string quartet, flute, bassoon, harp, piano and percussion], a singer [soprano], two dancers and a few children - that was the entire apparatus of this dream dance". ["...An der gebalten Konzentrierheit russischer Theaterkunst lernte ich zweierlei: dass die Bühne ihre eigene musikalische Form hat, deren Gesetzsmässigkeit organisch aus dem Ablauf der Handlung erwächst, und dass Bedeutsames szenisch nur mit den einfachsten, unauffälligsten Mitteln gesagt werden kann. Ein Orchester von neun Mann, eine Sängerin, zwei Tänzerinnen und eine Anzahl von Kindern - das war der Apparat dieses getanzten Traumes. "]

Six months after the premiere, Weill assembled a four-movement suite from the ballet for full orchestra: , this was first performed in Dessau in June 1923 and published by Universal Edition two years later as Quodlibet: Vier Stücke aus einem Kindertheater für grosses Orchester (Quodlibet: Light Music. Four pieces from a Children´s Play for Symphony Orchestra). The suite received numerous performances under leading conductors, such as Felix Weingartner, Alexander von Zemlinsky and Jascha Horenstein. The suite entailed a quite different juxtaposition of the musical ideas from that of the original ballet, where theatrical considerations clearly helped determine the musical progress.

The surviving piano rehearsal score of runs to to 68 pages of closely-written manuscript, with very occasional details of instrumentation and staging. Although the music is continuous, it falls into 39 episodes of varying length, totalling about 55 minutes' duration. Since a number of these episodes are linked, they are listed on the recording as 24 main tracks:

[1] Prelude: Sostenuto...
[2] Lied der Fee...
[3] Verwandlung/Transformation: Allegro molto...
[4] Breit und gewichtig...
[5] Ziemlich rasch..
[6] Etwas zögernd.
[7] Molto allegro.
[8] Sehr zögernd.
[9] Allegro ma non troppo.
[10] Moderato: tempo di valse.
[11] Molto allegro.
[12] L'istesso tempo.
[13] Tranquillo - Doppio movimento: Foxtrot.
[14] Etwas ruhiger - Quasi Recitativo.
[15] Langsamer Marsch.
[16] Quasi doppio movimento/Cancan.
[17] Im strengen Marschtempo.
[18] Molto allegro.
[19] Vivace - Tempo di valse.
[20] Andantino: Etwas schwermütig.
[21] Gavotte.
[22] Molto furioso.
[23] Presto.
[24] Ruhig, schwebend.

(Please click on highlighted tracks for sound-excerpts)

The opening introduction (1)establishes a dreamy mood which (along with its E major tonality) is restored at the conclusion of the ballet. The Fairy´s Song (2) then brings the toys to life, thus initiating the dramatic action.

From the fragments of information available, it is impossible to re-construct the story-line in full detail. But the music itself has a variety of pace, style, characterisation and emphasis that choreographers should have no difficulty in creating appropriate stage-realisations.

Integrated into the score are a number of set-pieces. Following the Fairy´s Song, there is an episode of Transformation (3) which leads to a slow Waltz.

The most intimate moments occur when Weill incorporates quotations from his own String Quartet in B minor (1918): firstly, here, as section (8), then returning later (13) to frame a foxtrot.

There is an extended central waltz, bringing the harp into the foreground in this re-construction (10). A metrically free section (14) features important solos for flute, bassoon and clarinet. It is initiated by a short passage wherein certain bars in the score are marked "knocking at door". (An actual door, at the Klaus-von-Bismarck Saal in Cologne, was used in the recording!)

Two marches, one slow (15), the other ´Strong´ (17) frame a wild, aggressive can-can (16). An extended Allegro molto (18), whose spiky neo-classicism recalls early Hindemith, leads into an extended Waltz (19). This gives way, after a short linking section, to a Gavotte (21) , whose serenity is shattered by the eruption of a fast episode (22) that accelerates towards the main dramatic climax of the ballet. The mood of the opening is then gradually restored.

The work as a whole seems both to crystallise all that Weill had achieved musically at this early stage in his career and includes significant pointers towards the kind of musical langauge he was later to make his own.

His structural control and sense of proportion here are already astonishingly well developed. In making this re-construction, thus, I felt that my prime objective was to ensure that the work was not merely revived as a musicological curiosity, but found a place in the regular repertoire. To achieve this end involved making a variety of key decisions.


In transcribing and orchestrating the piano rehearsal score, I have restored several sections which are crossed out, but then marked "Keep".

There are also a number of other cuts which originally may or may not have been observed. I thought it worthwhile including most of these, as options available to the choreographers and directors of staged performances. Regarding very small cuts or crossings-out, I have simply exercised editorial judgement.

Pages 65 and 66 of the 68-page piano rehearsal score are missing. The replacement music supplied here comes (a) from earlier in the ballet and (b) from the relevant lead-in to page 67 to be found in Quodlibet.

My guess is that they are sufficiently contrasted to provide the choreographer/director with adequate dramatic opportunities in the concluding stages of the work.

I am greatly indebted to Hannah Vlcek and Gwendolyn Tietze for their joint effort at transcribing the text of the Lied der Fee and providing a free translation. Theirs, too, was no easy task as the handwriting in the score, even when photo-enlarged, still refused to yield all its secrets.

Notes on the Instrumentation

1) My instrumentation follows the line-up of soprano and nonet given in David Drew's Weill Handbook, but adds a clarinet. For it quickly became evident that the flute and bassoon in this context could only make a limited contribution. Moreover, at some stages in the piano rehearsal score, there seemed to me clear indications that a clarinet was intended: a notable instance would be the brief cadenza at bars 981-2. From the very start, indeed, there are many solos for which the clarinet is ideally suited, and any other instrument much less so. With the addition of a clarinet, the woodwind can make a more telling contribution, offering harmonically complete contrasts to the strings, as well as a greater variety of appropriate solos and duos. In a theatrical context - which is where the work belongs - this version would allow the music to offer more possibilities to the dancers and choreographer.

2) Although not indicated as such in the piano rehearsal score, I have allowed the flautist to double on piccolo, as this facilitates execution of high passages and sometimes produces a better balance.

3) The percussion is limited to one player, but often takes its cue from Weill's own scoring for percussion in Quodlibet. The instrumentation I have used is as follows: timpani, bells, glockenspiel, triangle, bass-drum, jazz-kit (snare-drum, suspended cymbal, bass-drum with foot-pedal, wood-block), large gong.

4) In those episodes which Weill later included in his orchestral suite, Quodlibet, I have followed his example. Likewise, I have returned to the original source of certain sections in his String Quartet in B minor (1918).

Obviously, at times, given the differences between the forces used, I had to find alternative ways of scoring certain passages: but wherever possible I have mirrored Weill's procedures in these two works.

5) Re-constructing the missing pages near the end of the work, I have extended backwards the music on the penultimate page exactly as it appears in the first movement of Quodlibet; and prior to this, I have recapitulated an earlier short episode in the ballet which Weill had also used in his orchestral suite. The integrity of the score in this version should thus be evident.

copyright Meirion Bowen, 2002

Lied der Fee
(Song of the Fairy)

transcribed and freely translated by Hannah Vlcek and Gwendolyn Tietze

By day my fellow toys must be stiff and silent,
As if they knew neither suffering, nor the buzz of a city,
Until at midnight I break the spell,
Conjure them quietly and gently, breathe life into all.

The lifeless then begin to stir, and the weary move,
what was silent during the noise of the day, roams freely through
the house,
Wanders and lives, hovers like dancing fairies,
Now the toys' hearts look forward to happy play and jest.

You are not silent like stone, you must come to life.
Then come with me at once into the wide magic kingdom
I am the toy fairy, who ever saw me during the day?
But under the night sky the beautiful world is mine

The toy people hear when my hour strikes
how my word conjures them up and carried them into life.
The blood shall circulate slowly. Do not reflect too long.
And one, two, three - wake up, life now begins.