Blond Eckbert: Talking Birds and German Romanticism with Judith Weir
It’s been a very exciting few weeks since I found out that I will be joining ENO as the new Mackerras Conducting Fellow. I am already very busy preparing for Blond Eckbert, which I will be conducting with ENO Studio Live in May. The time before rehearsals is usually quite intense, solitary study time, so it was amazing to go and talk to Judith Weir at her home in London about her opera and to bounce ideas around with the composer herself.
The story of der blonde Eckbert excites me for numerous reasons. The opera is based on Ludwig Tieck’s fairytale or Kunstmärchen which he wrote in the late 18th Century, originally published in 1797. The story is imbedded with allusions to the spooky and occult, largely represented and introduced by the Bird who, as well as narrating and enticing the audience with eerie birdsong, sings about Waldeinsamkeit; the lonely feeling one gets when walking alone in a forest. The word Waldeinsamkeit is typical of the German language’s ability to succinctly pinpoint layered emotions with one noun, so it is no wonder to me that Weir has left this and a handful of other sentences untranslated in her English libretto. Weir uses the term Waldeinsamkeit and the Bird’s presence in general as a reminder of the underlying threats that lie in a dark forest, reminiscent of Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Andersen, a trope fortified by the Bird’s use of ominous octatonic scales and patterns. This German Romantic uncanniness is freshly juxtaposed with straight-forward language in the libretto, a welcome modernisation of Tieck, often leading to jaunty and comic lines:
‘Waldeinsamkeit, I feel alright; Alone in a wood, things go as they should.
All day and all night; Waldeinsamkeit’
The story is centred around Eckbert, a hermit-type who lives in the forest, and his wife, Berthe. Eckbert’s companions are Walther and Hugo, and we also meet a bony-handed Old Woman in the forest, who adds yet layer of Grimm-like mystery to the story, although there are no mentions of Gingerbread houses. Through the opera we follow Eckbert’s encounters with these characters, including the Bird and a Dog. The tangibility of all of these characters is constantly in question and we spend the story gripped and bewildered by the drama of it all.
The score is full of foreboding dissonances and chromaticism, whilst staying rooted to a familiar harmonic language. Weir’s use of harmony is best described by another great line sung by Eckbert himself:
‘the marvellous, mingled with the commonplace!’
Judith mentioned the influence of German Romantic opera writing on her own. We talked about Weber’s Der Freischutz as a favourite and a strong influence. I can definitely hear this in the vocal lines of Walther’s aria, which is peppered with frequent ‘hunt-like’ horn interjections, and Bertha’s epic ballad, which carries a Wagnerian-like weight in its colour and rumbling.
The German romantic forest-y feel is reinforced by the instrumentation of this pocket version with the prevalent use of horns, as well as oboe, harp, and clarinet - all instruments with woodland-y timbres and/or associations. Weir mentions her instrumentation in the libretto:
‘You would have thought the horn and the oboe were playing’
Modernised from Tieck’s:
‘Als wenn Waldhorn und Schalmein ganz in der Ferne durcheinander spielen’
‘As though forest-horns and shalms played together in the distance’
What’s more is on a first listen you can really hear the tall, slender trees that bombard German woodland and the threatening chromatic and mysterious melodies that put you in the middle of a Grimm-like funk. It doesn’t take us long to adjust to Weir’s vibrant sound world that is identifiably hers: fresh, full of twists, challenging us just the right amount.
What particularly struck me when talking to Judith was her openness and the relationship she now has to her score. She mentioned a fond distance and objectivity she now has with Blond Eckbert, because it has been performed several times and it is a solved case to her. It was so interesting to see how she talked about Blond Eckbert like it was an old friend. Judith offered superb practical advice about the work, as well as giving me inspiring insights to how this wonderful work came about.
Blond Eckbert will be performed by English National Opera Studio Live at the Lilian Baylis House on 20th, 21st, 23rd May, directed by Chloe Christian, conducted by Olivia Clarke. Tickets available here.