Project Gutenberg EBook of The Opera, by R.A. Streatfeild

Although, for the sake of convenience, it is customary to speak of Weber as the founder of the romantic school in music, it must not be imagined that the new school sprang into being at the production of 'Der Freischütz.' For many years the subtle influence of the romantic school in literature—the circle which gathered round Tieck, Fichte, and the Schlegels—had been felt in music. We have seen how the voluptuous delights of Armida's garden affected even the stately muse of Gluck; and in the generation which succeeded him, though opera still followed classic lines of form, in subject and treatment it was tinged with the prismatic colours of romance. Méhul's curious experiments in orchestration, and the solemn splendour of Mozart's Egyptian mysteries, alike show the influence of the romantic spirit as surely as the weirdest piece of diablerie ever devised by Weber or his followers. Yet though intimations of the approaching change had for long been perceptible to the discerning eye, it was not until the days of Weber that the classical forms and methods which had ruled the world of opera since the days of Gluck gave way before the newer and more vivid passion of romance. Even then it must not be forgotten that the romantic school differed from the classic more in view of life and treatment of subject than in actual subject itself. The word romance conjures up weird visions of the supernatural or glowing pictures of chivalry; but although it is true that Weber and his followers loved best to treat of such themes as these, they had by no means been excluded from the repertory of their classical predecessors. The supernatural terrors of 'Der Freischütz' must not make us forget the terrific finale to 'Don Giovanni,' nor can the most glowing picture from 'Euryanthe' erase memories of Rinaldo and the Crusaders in 'Armide.' The romantic movement, however, as interpreted by Weber, aimed definitely at certain things, which had not previously come within the scope of music, though for many years they had been the common property of art and literature. The romantic movement was primarily a revolt against the tyranny of man and his emotions. It claimed a wider stage and an ampler air. Nature was not henceforth to be merely the background against which man played his part. The beauty of landscape, the glory of the setting sun, the splendour of the sea, the mystery of the forest—all these the romantic movement taught men to regard not merely as the accessories of a scene in which man was the predominant figure, but as subjects in themselves worthy of artistic treatment. The genius of Weber (1786-1826) was a curious compound of two differing types. In essence it was thoroughly German—sane in inspiration, and drawing its strength from the homely old Volkslieder, so dear to every true German heart. Yet over this solid foundation there soared an imagination surely more delicate and ethereal than has ever been allotted to mortal musician before or since, by the aid of which Weber was enabled to treat all subjects beneath heaven with equal success. He is equally at home in the eerie horrors of the Wolf's Glen, in the moonlit revels of Oberon, and in the knightly pomp and circumstance of the Provençal court.

Weber's early years were a continual struggle against defeat and disappointment. His musical education was somewhat superficial, and his first works, 'Sylvana' and 'Peter Schmoll,' gave little promise of his later glory. 'Abu Hassan,' a one-act comic opera, which was produced in 1811, at Munich, was his first real success. Slight as the story is, it is by no means unamusing, and the music, which is a piece of the daintiest filagree-work imaginable, has helped to keep the little work alive to the present day. Such plot as there is describes the shifts of Hassan and Fatima, his wife, to avoid paying their creditors, who are unduly pressing in their demands. Finally they both pretend to be dead, and by this means excite the regret of their master and mistress, the Sultan and Sultana, a regret which takes the practical form of releasing them from their embarrassments.

In 'Der Freischütz' Weber was at last in his true element. The plot of the opera is founded upon an old forest legend of a demon who persuades huntsmen to sell their souls in exchange for magic bullets which never miss their mark. Caspar, who is a ranger in the service of Prince Ottokar of Bohemia, had sold himself to the demon Samiel. The day is approaching when his soul will become forfeit to the powers of evil, unless he can bring a fresh victim in his place. He looks around him for a possible substitute, and his choice falls upon Max, another ranger, who had been unlucky in the preliminary contest for the post of chief huntsman, and is only too ready to listen to Caspar's promise of unerring bullets. Max loves Agathe, the daughter of Kuno, the retiring huntsman, and unless he can secure the vacant post, he has little hope of being able to marry her. He agrees eagerly to Caspar's proposal, and promises to meet him at midnight in the haunted Wolf's Glen, there to go through the ceremony of casting the magic bullets. Meanwhile Agathe is oppressed by forebodings of coming evil. The fall of an old picture seems to her a presage of woe, and her lively cousin Aennchen can do little to console her. The appearance of Max on his way to the Wolf's Glen, cheers her but little. He too has been troubled by strange visions, and as the moment of the rendezvous approaches his courage begins to fail. Nevertheless he betakes himself to the Glen, and there, amidst scenes of the wildest supernatural horror, the bullets are cast in the presence of the terrible Samiel himself. Six of them are for Max, to be used by him in the approaching contest, while the seventh will be at the disposal of the demon. In the third act Agathe is discovered preparing for her wedding. She has dreamed that, in the shape of a dove, she was shot by Max, and she cannot shake off a sense of approaching trouble. Her melancholy is not dissipated by the discovery that, instead of a bridal crown, a funeral wreath has been prepared for her; however, to console herself, she determines to wear a wreath of sacred roses, which had been given her by the hermit of the forest. The last scene shows the shooting contest on which the future of Max and Agathe depends. Max makes six shots in succession, all of which hit the mark. At last, at the Prince's command, he fires at a dove which is flying past. Agathe falls with a shriek, but is protected by her wreath, while Samiel directs the bullet to Caspar's heart. At the sight of his associate's fate Max is stricken with remorse, and tells the story of his unholy compact. The Prince is about to banish him from his service, when the hermit appears and intercedes for the unfortunate youth. The Prince is mollified, and it is decided that Max shall have a year's probation, after which he shall be permitted to take the post of chief huntsman and marry Agathe.

'Der Freischütz' is, upon the whole, the most thoroughly characteristic of Weber's works. The famous passage for the horns, with which the overture opens, strikes the note of mystery and romance which echoes through the work. The overture itself is a notable example of that new beauty which Weber infused into the time-honoured form. If he was not actually the first—for Beethoven had already written his 'Leonore' overtures—to make the overture a picture in brief of the incidents of the opera, he developed the idea with so much picturesque power and imagination that the preludes to his operas remain the envy and despair of modern theatrical composers. The inspiration of 'Der Freischütz' is drawn so directly from the German Volkslied, that at its production Weber was roundly accused of plagiarism by many critics. Time has shown the folly of such charges. 'Der Freischütz' is German to the core, and every page of it bears the impress of German inspiration, but the glamour of Weber's genius transmuted the rough material he employed into a fabric of the richest art. Of the imaginative power of such scenes as the famous incantation it is unnecessary to speak. It introduced a new element into music, and one which was destined to have an almost immeasurable influence upon modern music. Weber's power of characterisation was remarkable, as shown particularly in the music assigned to Agathe and Aennchen, but in this respect he was certainly inferior to some of his predecessors, notably to Mozart. But in imaginative power and in the minute knowledge of orchestral detail, which enabled him to translate his conceptions into music, he has never been surpassed among writers for the stage. Modern opera, if we may speak in general terms, may be said to date from the production of 'Der Freischütz.'

Operatic composers are too often dogged by a fate which seems to compel them to wed their noblest inspirations to libretti of incorrigible dulness, and Weber was even more unfortunate in this respect than his brethren of the craft. After 'Der Freischütz,' the libretti which he took in hand were of the most unworthy description, and even his genius has not been able to give them immortality. 'Euryanthe' was the work of Helmine von Chezy, the authoress of 'Rosamunde,' for which Schubert wrote his entrancing incidental music. Weber was probably attracted by the romantic elements of the story, the chivalry of mediæval France, the marches and processions, the pomp and glitter of the court, and overlooked the weak points of the plot. To tell the truth, much of the libretto of 'Euryanthe' borders upon the incomprehensible. The main outline of the story is as follows. At a festival given by the King of France, Count Adolar praises the beauty and virtue of his betrothed Euryanthe, and Lysiart, who also loves her, offers to wager all he possesses that he will contrive to gain her love. Adolar accepts the challenge, and Lysiart departs for Nevers, where Euryanthe is living. The second act discovers Euryanthe and Eglantine, an outcast damsel whom she has befriended. Eglantine secretly loves Adolar, but extracts a promise from Lysiart, who has arrived at Nevers, that he will marry her. In return for this she gives him a ring belonging to Euryanthe, which she has stolen, and tells him a secret relating to a mysterious Emma, a sister of Adolar, which Euryanthe has incautiously revealed to her. Armed with these Lysiart returns to the court, and quickly persuades Adolar and the King that he has won Euryanthe's affection. No one listens to her denials; she is condemned to death, and Adolar's lands and titles are given to Lysiart. Euryanthe is led into the desert to be killed by Adolar. On the way he is attacked by a serpent, which he kills, though not before Euryanthe has proved her devotion by offering to die in her lover's place. Adolar then leaves Euryanthe to perish, declaring that he has not the heart to kill her. She is found in a dying condition by the King, whom she speedily convinces of her innocence. Meanwhile Adolar has returned to Nevers, to encounter the bridal procession of Eglantine and Lysiart. Eglantine confesses that she helped to ruin Euryanthe in the hope of winning Adolar, and is promptly stabbed by Lysiart. Everything being satisfactorily cleared up, Euryanthe conveniently awakes from a trance into which she had fallen, and the lovers are finally united. Puerile as the libretto is, it inspired Weber with some of the finest music he ever wrote. The spectacular portions of the opera are animated by the true spirit of chivalry, while all that is connected with the incomprehensible Emma and her secret is unspeakably eerie. The characters of the drama are such veritable puppets, that no expenditure of talent could make them interesting; but the resemblance between the general scheme of the plot of 'Euryanthe' and that of 'Lohengrin' should not be passed over, nor the remarkable way in which Weber had anticipated some of Wagner's most brilliant triumphs, notably in the characters of Eglantine and Lysiart, who often seem curiously to foreshadow Ortrud and Telramund, and in the finale to the second act, in which the single voice of Euryanthe, like that of Elisabeth in 'Tannhäuser,' is contrasted with the male chorus.

Weber's last opera, 'Oberon,' is one of the few works written in recent times by a foreign composer of the first rank for the English stage. The libretto, which was the work of Planché, is founded upon an old French romance, 'Huon of Bordeaux,' and though by no means a model of lucidity, it contains many scenes both powerful and picturesque, which must have captivated the imagination of a musician so impressionable as Weber. The opera opens in fairyland, where a bevy of fairies is watching the slumbers of Oberon. The fairy king has quarrelled with Titania, and has vowed never to be reconciled to her until he shall find two lovers constant to each other through trial and temptation. Puck, who has been despatched to search for such a pair, enters with the news that Sir Huon of Bordeaux, who had accidentally slain the son of Charlemagne, has been commanded, in expiation of his crime, to journey to Bagdad, to claim the Caliph's daughter as his bride, and slay the man who sits at his right hand. Oberon forthwith throws Huon into a deep sleep, and in a vision shows him Rezia, the daughter of the Caliph, of whom the ardent knight instantly becomes enamoured. He then conveys him to the banks of the Tigris, and giving him a magic horn, starts him upon his dangerous enterprise. In the Caliph's palace Huon fights with Babekan, Rezia's suitor, rescues the maiden, and with the aid of the magic horn carries her off from the palace, while his esquire Sherasmin performs the same kind office for Fatima, Rezia's attendant. On their way home they encounter a terrific storm, raised by the power of Oberon to try their constancy. They are ship-wrecked, and Rezia is carried off by pirates to Tunis, whilst Huon is left for dead upon the beach. At Tunis more troubles are in store for the hapless pair. Huon, who has been transported by the fairies across the sea, finds his way into the house of the Emir, where Rezia is in slavery. There he is unlucky enough to win the favour of Roshana, the Emir's wife, and before he can escape from her embraces he is discovered by the Emir himself, and condemned to be burned alive. Rezia proclaims herself his wife, and she also is condemned to the stake; but at this crisis Oberon intervenes. The lovers have been tried enough, and their constancy is rewarded. They are transported to the court of Charlemagne, where a royal welcome awaits them.

Although written for England, 'Oberon' has never achieved much popularity in this, or indeed in any country. The fairy music is exquisite throughout, but the human interest of the story is after all slight, and Weber, on whom the hand of death was heavy as he wrote the score, failed to infuse much individuality into his characters. 'Oberon' was his last work, and he died in London soon after it was produced. During the last few years of his life he had been engaged in a desultory way upon the composition of a comic opera, 'Die drei Pintos,' founded upon a Spanish subject. He left this in an unfinished state, but some time after his death it was found that the manuscript sketches and notes for the work were on a scale sufficiently elaborate to give a proper idea of what the composer's intentions with regard to the work really were. The work of arrangement was entrusted to Herr G. Mahler, and under his auspices 'Die drei Pintos' was actually produced, though with little success.

At the present time the only opera of Weber which can truthfully be said to belong to the current repertory is 'Der Freischütz,' and even this is rarely performed out of Germany. The small amount of favour which 'Euryanthe' and 'Oberon' enjoy is due, as has been already pointed out, chiefly to the weakness of their libretti, yet it seems strange that the man to whom the whole tendency of modern opera is due should hold so small a place in our affections. The changes which Weber and his followers effected, though less drastic, were in their results fully as important as those of Gluck. In the orchestra as well as on the stage he introduced a new spirit, a new point of view. What modern music owes to him may be summed up in a word. Without Weber, Wagner would have been impossible.

Louis Spohr (1784-1859) is now almost forgotten as an operatic composer, but at one time his popularity was only second to that of Weber. Many competent critics have constantly affirmed that a day will come when Spohr's operas, now neglected, will return to favour once more; but years pass, and there seems no sign of a revival of interest in his work. Yet he has a certain importance in the history of opera; for, so far as chronology is concerned, he ought perhaps to be termed the founder of the romantic school rather than Weber, since his 'Faust' was produced in 1818, and 'Der Freischütz' did not appear until 1821. But the question seems to turn not so much upon whether Spohr or Weber were first in the field, as whether Spohr is actually a romantic composer at all. If the subjects which he treated were all that need be taken into account, the matter could easily be decided. No composer ever dealt more freely in the supernatural than Spohr. His operas are peopled with elves, ghosts, and goblins. Ruined castles, midnight assassins, and distressed damsels greet us on every page. But if we go somewhat deeper, we find that the real qualities of romanticism are strangely absent from his music. His form differs little from that of his classical predecessors, and his orchestration is curiously arid and unsuggestive; in a word, the breath of imagination rarely animates his pages. Yet the workmanship of his operas is so admirable, and his vein of melody is so delicate and refined, that it is difficult to help thinking that Spohr has been unjustly neglected. His 'Faust,' which has nothing to do with Goethe's drama, was popular in England fifty years ago; and 'Jessonda,' which contains the best of his music, is still occasionally performed in Germany. The rest of his works, with the exception of a few scattered airs, such as 'Rose softly blooming,' from 'Zemire und Azor,' seem to be completely forgotten.

Heinrich Marschner (1796-1861), though not a pupil of Weber, was strongly influenced by his music, and carried on the traditions of the romantic school worthily and well. He was a man of vivid imagination, and revelled in uncanny legends of the supernatural. His works are performed with tolerable frequency in Germany, and still please by reason of their inexhaustible flow of melody and their brilliant and elaborate orchestration. 'Hans Heiling,' his masterpiece, is founded upon a sombre old legend of the Erzgebirge. The king of the gnomes has seen and loved a Saxon maiden, Anna by name, and to win her heart he leaves his palace in the bowels of the earth and masquerades as a village schoolmaster under the name of Hans Heiling. Anna is flattered by his attentions, and promises to be his wife; but she soon tires of her gloomy lover, and ends by openly admitting her preference for the hunter Conrad. Her resolution to break with Hans is confirmed by an apparition of the queen of the gnomes, Hans Heiling's mother, surrounded by her attendant sprites, who warns her under fearful penalties to forswear the love of an immortal. Hans Heiling is furious at the perfidy of Anna, and vows terrible vengeance upon her and Conrad, which he is about to put into execution with the aid of his gnomes. At the last moment, however, his mother appears, and persuades him to relinquish all hopes of earthly love and to return with her to their subterranean home. There is much in this strange story which suggests the legend of the Flying Dutchman, and, bearing in mind the admiration which in his early days Wagner felt for the works of Marschner, it is interesting to trace in 'Hans Heiling' the source of much that is familiar to us in the score of 'Der Fliegende Holländer.' Of Marschner's other operas, the most familiar are 'Templer und Jüdin,' founded upon Sir Walter Scott's 'Ivanhoe,' a fine work, suffering from a confused and disconnected libretto; and 'Der Vampyr,' a tale of unmitigated gloom and horror.

Weber and Marschner show the German romantic school at its best; for the lesser men, such as Hoffmann and Lindpaintner, did little but reproduce the salient features of their predecessors more or less faithfully. The romantic school is principally associated with the sombre dramas, in which the taste of that time delighted; but there was another side to the movement which must not be neglected. The Singspiel, established by Hiller and perfected by Mozart, had languished during the early years of the century, or rather had fallen into the hands of composers who were entirely unable to do justice to its possibilities. The romantic movement touched it into new life, and a school arose which contrived by dint of graceful melody and ingenious orchestral device to invest with real musical interest the simple stories in which the German middle-class delights. The most successful of these composers were Kreutzer and Lortzing.

Conradin Kreutzer (1782-1849) was a prolific composer, but the only one of his operas which can honestly be said to have survived to our times is 'Das Nachtlager von Granada.' This tells the tale of an adventure which befell the Prince Regent of Spain. While hunting in the mountains he falls in with Gabriela, a pretty peasant maiden who is in deep distress. She confides to him that her affairs of the heart have gone awry. Her lover, Gomez the shepherd, is too poor to marry, and her father wishes her to accept the Croesus of the village, a man whom she detests. The handsome huntsman—for such she supposes him to be—promises to intercede for her with his patron the Prince, and when her friends and relations, a band of arrant smugglers and thieves, appear, he tries to buy their consent to her union with Gomez by means of a gold chain which he happens to be wearing. The sight of so much wealth arouses the cupidity of the knaves, and they at once brew a plot to murder the huntsman in his sleep. Luckily Gabriela overhears their scheming, and puts the Prince upon his guard. The assassins find him prepared for their assault, and ready to defend himself to the last drop of blood. Fortunately matters do not come to a climax. A body of the Prince's attendants arrive in time to prevent any bloodshed, and the opera ends with the discomfiture of the villains and the happy settlement of Gabriela's love affairs. Kreutzer's music is for the most part slight, and occasionally borders upon the trivial, but several scenes are treated in the true romantic spirit, and some of the concerted pieces are admirably written. Lortzing (1803-1852) was a more gifted musician than Kreutzer, and several of his operas are still exceedingly popular in Germany. The scene of 'Czar und Zimmermann,' which is fairly well known in England as 'Peter the Shipwright,' is laid at Saardam, where Peter the Great is working in a shipyard under the name of Michaelhoff. There is another Russian employed in the same yard, a deserter named Peter Ivanhoff, and the very slight incidents upon which the action of the opera hinges arise from the mistakes of a blundering burgomaster who confuses the identity of the two men. The music is exceedingly bright and tuneful, and much of it is capitally written. Scarcely less popular in Germany than 'Czar und Zimmermann' is 'Der Wildschütz' (The Poacher), a bustling comedy of intrigue and disguise, which owes its name to the mistake of a foolish old village schoolmaster, who fancies that he has shot a stag in the baronial preserves. The chief incidents in the piece arise from the humours of a vivacious baroness, who disguises herself as a servant in order to make the acquaintance of her fiancé, unknown to him. The music of 'Der Wildschütz' is no less bright and unpretentious than that of 'Czar und Zimmermann'; in fact, these two works may be taken as good specimens of Lortzing's engaging talent. His strongest points are a clever knack of treating the voices contrapuntally in concerted pieces, and a humorous trick of orchestration, two features with which English audiences have become pleasantly familiar in Sir Arthur Sullivan's operettas, which works indeed owe not a little to the influence of Lortzing and Kreutzer.

Inferior even to the slightest of the minor composers of the romantic school was Flotow, whose 'Martha' nevertheless has survived to our time, while hundreds of works far superior in every way have perished irretrievably. Flotow (1812-1883) was a German by birth, but his music is merely a feeble imitation of the popular Italianisms of the day. 'Martha' tells the story of a freakish English lady who, with her maid, disguises herself as a servant and goes to the hiring fair at Richmond. There they fall in with an honest farmer of the neighbourhood named Plunket, and his friend Lionel, who promptly engage them. The two couples soon fall in love with each other, but various hindrances arise which serve to prolong the story into four weary acts. Flotow had a certain gift of melody, and the music of 'Martha' has the merit of a rather trivial tunefulness, but the score is absolutely devoid of any real musical interest, and the fact that performances of such a work as 'Martha' are still possible in London gives an unfortunate impression of the standard of musical taste prevailing in England. Otto Nicolai (1810-1849) began by imitating Italian music, but in 'Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor,' a capital adaptation of Shakespeare's 'Merry Wives of Windsor,' which was only produced a few months before his death, he returned to the type of comic opera which was popular at that time in Germany. He was an excellent musician, and the captivating melody of this genial little work is supplemented by excellent concerted writing and thoroughly sound orchestration.

To this period belong the operas written by three composers who in other branches of music have won immortality, although their dramatic works have failed to win lasting favour.

Mendelssohn's (1809-1847) boyish opera 'Die Hochzeit des Camacho' is too inexperienced a work to need more than a passing word, and his Liederspiel 'Heimkehr aus der Fremde' is little more than a collection of songs; but the finale to his unfinished 'Lorelei' shows that he possessed genuine dramatic power, and it must be a matter for regret that his difficulties in fixing on a libretto prevented his giving anything to the permanent repertory of the stage.

Schubert (1797-1828) wrote many works for the stage—romantic operas like 'Fierrabras' and 'Alfonso und Estrella,' operettas like 'Der häusliche Krieg,' and farces like 'Die Zwillings brüder.' Most of them were saddled by inane libretti, and though occasionally revived by enthusiastic admirers of the composer, only prove that Schubert's talent was essentially not dramatic, however interesting his music may be to musicians.

Schumann's (1810-1856) one contribution to the history of opera, 'Genoveva,' is decidedly more important, and indeed it seems possible that after many years of neglect it may at last take a place in the modern repertory. It is founded upon a tragedy by Hebbel, and tells of the passion of Golo for Genoveva, the wife of his patron Siegfried, his plot to compromise her, and the final triumph of the constant wife. The music cannot be said to be undramatic; on the contrary, Schumann often realises the situations with considerable success: but he had little power of characterisation, and all the characters sing very much the same kind of music. This gives a feeling of monotony to the score, which is hardly dispelled even by the many beauties with which it is adorned. Nevertheless 'Genoveva' has been revived in several German towns of late years, and its music has always met with much applause from connoisseurs, though it is never likely to be generally popular.


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