Kurt Weill’s Music for a Magical Dance, Lost and Now Found



A rehearsal of “Zaubernacht,” with choreography by Jody Oberfelder to Kurt Weill’s 1922 score. From left, Emily Giovine, Lindsey Mandolini, Mei Yamanaka, Ned Malouf, Hannah Wendel, Maya Orchin, Pierre Guilbault, and Mary Madsen.

Karsten Moran for The New York Times

When he was a 22-year-old student, Kurt Weill — who would go on to write “The Threepenny Opera” and other music that defined the sounds of Weimar-era Berlin and Broadway’s golden age — took his first crack at writing a theatrical work: “Zaubernacht.”

The piece, a children’s ballet-pantomime, had its premiere in 1922 and traveled to America three years later. But then the full score disappeared; for 80 years there was only a piano version until the remaining orchestra parts were discovered, by chance, at Yale University.



The composer Kurt Weill; “Zaubernacht,” Ms. Oberfelder said, shows Weill “trying his chops out with different forms.”

George Hoyningen-Huene/Condé Nast, via Getty Images

Now, the “Zaubernacht” (“Magic Night”) music as Weill wrote it will be heard in New York for the first time since 1925, in a new production with choreography by Jody Oberfelder and with Gary Fagin conducting the Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan.

“This music is all over the map, stylistically,” said Ms. Oberfelder, who first heard a recording when Mr. Fagin suggested the piece as a follow-up to their collaboration on Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du Soldat” in 2011. “It’s got a young Kurt Weill trying his chops out with different forms, and it’s in these loops like a dream. I love it.”



Clockwise from top, Lyla Butler, Hannah Wendel and Lindsey Mandolini in rehearsal. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to do a kiddie show,” Ms. Oberfelder said, “and I didn’t.”

Karsten Moran for The New York Times

“Zaubernacht” was written while Weill was still a student, though it has seeds of what his theatrical music would be known for — a taut, if deceptively streamlined, score. The actress Lotte Lenya, later his wife and a singular interpreter of his works, was among those who auditioned for the premiere. (Weill couldn’t see her from the orchestra pit, and they didn’t formally meet until 1924.)

Weill’s copy of the score was lost when he fled Nazi Germany in 1933. Wladimir Boritsch, the work’s librettist and impresario, had all the orchestra parts but gave only the piano score to Lenya when she met with him after Weill’s death in 1950. The rest of the parts were donated to Yale, where they were meant to become part of the American Musical Theater Collection.



Lindsey Mandolini, left, and Hannah Wendel.

Karsten Moran for The New York Times

But the collection’s first curator died before “Zaubernacht” was properly processed, and the materials were placed in a safe that eventually made its way to the basement of a campus library, where it was forgotten until it was found and opened with the help of a locksmith in 2005.

In the 1990s the scholar Meirion Bowen tried a reconstruction based on instrument cues in the piano-vocal score. The difference between that version and Weill’s original orchestration is apparent from the opening bars:

Mr. Bowen erroneously added a harp and clarinet but lost the double bass, while misinterpreting Weill’s abbreviations for “piano,” splitting the part between piano and clarinet. Now listen to the score as it was restored based on the 2005 discovery:

Ms. Oberfelder is using Weill’s original orchestration, but not the scenario by Boritsch, which featured characters like a clumsy bear and a Chinese doctor. In an interview, she discussed how her new version of the story blends timeless allegory with modern references — including pussy hats and a Trump-like character. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.



Ms. Oberfelder with her dancers.

Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Why did you decide to write your own scenario?

I saw video of a performance that was done in London. I was like: Oh god, I don’t want to do this piece. They followed it note for note and had a dancing stove. It was really cutesy.

I tried to invent some new characters. It’s very much a mash-up of different fairy tales. These are archetypal stories and allegories of how we interact with life, told through the eyes of a child.

What kinds of new characters?

There’s a troll, which I was developing right when the Harvey Weinstein episode came out. So the choreography came out of standing up to this creature. There’s a giant, and a witch, who is also the queen of darkness. They’re in cahoots, and they own the world. They aren’t toys because they are more the spirits of evil. What is evil today? Not toys; toys are just cute.

To what degree is all this guided by the music?

My choreography is actually a direct response to the music. There’s no way you can dance against this. It’s really evocative. I am not a note-for-note choreographer. However, my interpretation comes from the feel of the music. It doesn’t take you on one journey; it takes you on many. It’s luscious and sparse and dynamic and scary and bombastic. It’s like when you have a dream full of non sequiturs.

Does this match what you learned about the history of “Zaubernacht”?

I was picturing Weill writing this piece for young people traumatized by World War I, and how they had to deal with life in the rubble and being in a situation where there were enemies about. And in Germany it was this time that was so fertile for art. I got the feeling that he wanted to entertain and delight and engage young minds. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do a kiddie show, and I didn’t. I wanted to make a strong female protagonist who learns about life and continues to learn. It’s sort of like Dorothy going down the Yellow Brick Road. Except you go off the path sometimes. The landscape changes, political situations change. I hope I’m doing that.