Thoughts on Maschinist Hopkins

It was perhaps ten years ago, in that Welsh center of used bookshops, Hay on Wye, that I stumbled upon a copy of The International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians (ed. Oscar Thompson), in the 1942 British edition of what must have been a standard American reference work of the time.  Discarded from the shelves of the Newport(UK?) Public Library, I added that gem to my collection for just 12 pounds - that worked out to about 1 pound per pound.

Just a few weeks ago, in my little local opera house - just ten minutes from my home- there was the premiere of the opera Maschinist Hopkins by Max Brand.  Before I went to see the 3rd performance on January 8th, I looked it up in my Cyclopedia and found : "Brand, Max (born April 26, 1896) Austrian composer whose opera Maschinist Hopkins, first produced at Duisburg on April 13, 1929, attracted wide attention."

There were, in fact, 27 opera houses which performed Hopkins in the years following the very successful Duisburg premiere.  Brand's opera had very much the feel of the twenties about it, which must have accounted for some of its great popularity.  Then, suddenly, the "smash hit" Hopkins disappeared from the repertoire.  The Nazis had gained power and Hopkins was one of the all-too-many works to be labeled "entartet" (loosely to be translated as "degenerate") and subsequently banned by those barbarians.

I have to confess that I had neither heard of the opera nor of the composer before the premiere shortly before Christmas.  According to the program information, Brand was a student of both Arnold Schönberg and Franz Schreker.  Together with Ernst Krenek, who was also student of Schreker's, the 24-year-old Brand followed Schreker to Berlin.

Upon hearing that music for the first time, I found myself making connections to various other composers' works, especially to those of Schreker, Mahler and Weill. I remember being briefly submerged in the "Gefühlswelt" (the "emotional world") of "Der Abschied", the last movement of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde.  Other parts of the music reminded me of Korngold's Die Tote Stadt.  There are moments of roaring twenties jazz contrasted with threatening dirges of the workers and of the machines anticipating Shostakovich.

The opera dealt with the still very contemporary topics of industrial espionage, exploitative capitalists and an exploited working class.  The complex boy-meets-girl-loses-girl-kills-girl plot in a nutshell:  Nell betrays husband Jim (a foreman), giving new love Bill (a common worker) Jim's key to the underground vaults where the factory secrets are hidden.  Bill gets the secrets, kills Jim and keeps Nell.  Bill rises to the top, on the way firing flunky Hopkins (head machinist and informant).  Nell gets bored, becomes a film star.  Hopkins discovers their secret.  Bill flees.  Hopkins sends Nell to work in a peep show.  Bill finds her there and kills her.  Bill breaks into the factory hall where it all began and asks the machines to kill him.  Machines - with Nell's voice - refuses.  Enter Hopkins, who kills Bill.  Grand finale:  the now unemployed workers demand work.

The performance itself was, unfortunately, one of monumental mediocrity.  A contributory factor was most certainly the post-premiere doldrums.  Most of the performers are better left unnamed, with the notable exception of Larysa Molnarová's Nell.  Neither the conducting nor the staging - at least as we experienced it several weeks after the premiere - brought out the emotional content this work must have had for the audiences of 70 years ago.

What deserves to be praised is the courage of those at the Giessen Opera House who dared to revive this "period piece."  It very much deserves further - and hopefully better - stagings.

Incidentally, Brand left Austria for Prague after the "Anschluß", and later went to Switzerland, before heading "overseas."  He went at first to Brazil, where he worked with Heito Villa-Lobos, from there he went to the United States.   Toward the end of the Second World War, he composed The Gate, a staged oratorio for soloists, choir, orchestra, actors, and narrator.  This work has 19 scenes described as "an abstract portrayal of the struggle for humanistic ideals throughout the history of mankind."  I would be very interested to hear from anybody who witnessed a performance of that work fifty-some years ago- or anybody who heard or read contemporary commentary on it.

Max Brand took a very early interest in the possibilities of electronically produced music.  According to the short biography in the program, Philip Moog built his famous synthesizer following Max Brand's suggestions, an instrument the composer continued to use to the end.  His compositions were uncompromisingly "art for art's sake."  True to his humanistic ideals coupled with a fascination for modern technology, he rejected the demands of the entertainment industry.

He returned to Vienna in 1975, where he ran a production company called "Max Brand Electronic Sound Studio".  He died, nearly forgotten, in 1980.

-- Wolf(j)
Literary content:
Copyright:  © 2000 Wolf Janson

  TOP of PAGE  
Opera Jamboree:
Welcome Page | Site Map
Website Design by:
Want your own website? Talk to me!