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With his opera Maschinist Hopkins (composed from 1927–1928 and first performed in 1929) Brand really caught the spirit of the time: the opera is a mixture of thriller and jealous tragedy, with industrial romanticism and the glow of stage revues combined with corporate arrogance and unemployment. With all this tension, there is even a portion of romantic sentimentality.
The music of this ‘first German factory opera’ is powerful, full of contrast, colourfully orchestrated and garnished with fashionable dance. In the scenes of personal emotions, Brand’s musical language is of a rich operatic character. In the machine hall scenes he uses mechanical sounds, and as a third stylistic element – also used to portray a certain emotional context – he makes use of jazz styles. Brand’s music symbolises a lascivious, sensuous world.
The deeper meaning of the libretto (written by the composer himself) is concerned with celebrating work as the highest possible virtue. The protagonists are in a sense unimportant. The motivation and source of all events is the spirit of the machines, personified by the machinist Hopkins.
It is not that the machine that should serve man, giving him a respectable and honourable existence, but rather that man is simply part of the machine. He serves it, and by doing so helps advance the idea of work towards its goal. This is why Bill, who wants to use the machines for his own ends, must die. Hopkins himself has no human qualities; he’s just the executive organ of the idea of the machine, he has become a machine himself.
This ideology corresponds to the futurism movement of the time, an aesthetic current that regarded technology and civilisation as the greatest advances of all and scorned all other values.
By 1933 Maschinist Hopkins had been performed over 200 times in 37 different productions, and its composer seemed to be on his way to becoming a famous composer. This, however, was not to be. The worldwide economic crisis and the rise of the Nazis drove Max Brand to emigrate in 1937, first to Prague, and then to Geneva, Rio de Janeiro and finally New York.
The Maschinist Hopkins has earned its place as a significant work of the 20th century. It has lost none of its ideological power and now in the 21st century offers a sober but also moving perspective on technological advancement.
In a bar in a working class area the factory workers are meeting to discuss their concerns with their foreman Jim. One of them leaves the group: the machinist Bill. He goes to Jim’s wife Nell, who will do anything for him. She gives him the key to the factory safe, which is in Jim’s safekeeping, and goes to the factory with Bill, who intends to steal the factory secrets from the safe. Jim appears, observing the commotion of the machines, with their almost human appearance, and notices Bill and Nell. In the ensuing fight Jim is killed by the flywheel of a machine started by Nell.
Years after the action of this prologue, the first act takes place. Bill and Nell are married and have become enormously rich by using the the stolen factory secrets. But Bill can’t get enough: he wants to own the factory in which his crime took place and close it down. Machinist Hopkins recognises the consequences of the plan, which would leave countless workers without income, but he is sacked by Bill soon after his rise to power. Nell falls in love with Hopkins during a brief encounter. Bill, who always gives in to wishes of his temperamental wife, even allows her to go into theatre and to develop a career.
2nd act: In the machine room Bill, the new director of the factory, is recognised by some of the workers as Jim’s murderer. Hopkins, who is there at the time, vows to kill Bill, in order to save the factory and the workers. He appears in Nell’s dressing room at the theatre, forces her to make a confession and is able to make such an impression on her that she is willing to help expose Bill.
The 3rd act takes place some time later. Bill is hiding behind the anonymity of a worker, while Nell is completely taken with Hopkins. He, however, rejects her, as she has already done what he needed her to do. Nell becomes a prostitute. By chance, Bill hears of her new profession in a bar, and charges to Nell’s apartment, where he finds her with a customer. Completely enraged, he kills Nell. The final scene takes place back in the machine room. Bill, in a frenzied state by now, tries to set off an explosion but is hindered by Hopkins, who suddenly appears, shoving him under the flywheel, so that he dies the same death as the murdered Jim. The work, meanwhile, carries on.