• Judith Weir
  • HEAVEN ABLAZE in His Breast (1989)

  • Chester Music Ltd (World)

Commissioned by Second Stride

  • 2pf8 dancers
  • SSATBB Chorus
  • 1 hr 15 min
  • Judith Weir
  • the composer, based on work by E.T.A. Hoffmann
  • English

Programme Note


Nathaniel is a nervous youth, greatly disturbed by his childhood memories of the evil Dr Coppelius, who murdered his father while carrying out a secret scientific experiment. Now a student of physics, Nathaniel finds himself in lodgings close to Coppelius’s home and falls in love with his daughter Olimpia. Nathaniel is far too besotted to notice that Olimpia is in fact a robot, but one day he observes Coppelius carrying out some mechanical repairs to her body. Realising the truth, Nathaniel goes mad and eventually throws himself off a tower.


HEAVEN ABLAZE In His Breast is a stage version of E.T.A.Hoffmann's story "The Sandman". It was written for the dance theatre company Second Stride in 1989, in close collaboration with Ian Spink, director/choreographer and Antony Macdonald, designer. The music is scored for six singers (SSATBB) and two pianos, with sound modulation. The original musical performers were VOCEM Electric Voice Theatre, directed by Frances Lynch (who starred as the robot Olimpia in the first performances) with sound designer Alan Burgess. After an extensive live tour in England and Scotland in 1991, the production was filmed by Peter Mumford for the BBC, and this film won first prize at Operascreen in Helsinki in 1991.

The title is a translation of Hoffmann's description of the hero Nathaniel, enraptured by an encounter with his mechanical sweetheart, Olimpia. The text of the piece follows Hoffmann's text very closely, often telling the story as a direct narrative, rather than apportioning the singers to play particular characters throughout the piece. Hoffmann's story was also the inspiration for the ballet Coppelia and one of the scenes in Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann, and there are oblique references to these pieces (as well as to many other cultural and historical ideas) hidden away in the score, libretto and staging plan.

The action is presented in a film-like way, with a series of short contrasting scenes.
The scenes are titled as follows:

1.Nathaniel's Letter to Lothar
2.The Nursemaid's Story
3.Little Brutes
4.The Spying
5.Nathaniel's Delirium
6.The Funeral
7.The Correspondence
8.The Breakfast; The Poem; The Duel.
9.Nathaniel, his House partially destroyed by fire, is able to gain a clearer view of Olimpia.
10.The Second Visit of the Barometer Seller
11.The Vision
12.The Concert Party
13.The Desk
14.The Tower.

© Judith Weir

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