ONCE upon a time a witch cast a spell upon a king’s daughter and held her in servitude as a goose-herd. A prince found her in the forest and loved her. She loved him in return, and would gladly have gone away from her sordid surroundings with him, though she had spurned the crown which he had offered her in exchange for her wreath of flowers; but when she escaped from her jailer she found that she could not break the charm which held her imprisoned in the forest. Then the prince left the crown lying at her feet and continued his wanderings. Scarcely had he gone when there came to the hut of the witch a broommaker and a woodchopper, guided by a wandering minstrel. They were ambassadors from the city of Hellabrunn, which had been so long without a king that its boorish burghers themselves felt the need of a ruler in spite of their boorishness. To the wise woman the ambassadors put the questions : Who shall be this ruler and by what sign shall they recognize him ? The witch tells them that their sovereign shall be the first person who enters their gates after the bells have rung the noon hour on the morrow, which is the day of the Hella festival. Then the minstrel catches sight of the lovely goose-girl, and through the prophetic gift possessed by poets he recognizes in her a rightly born princess for his people. By the power of his art he is enabled to put aside the threatening spells of the witch and compel the hag to deliver the maiden into his care. He persuades her to break the enchantment which had held her bound hitherto and defy the wicked power.
Meanwhile, however, grievous misfortunes have befallen the prince, her lover. He has gone to Hellabrunn, and desiring to learn to serve in order that he might better know how to rule, he had taken service as a swineherd. The daughter of the innkeeper becomes enamoured of the shapely body of the prince, whose proud spirit she cannot understand, and who has repulsed her advances. His thoughts go back to the goosegirl whose wreath, with its fresh fragrance, reminds him of his duty. He attempts to teach the burghers their own worth, but the wench whose love he had repulsed accuses him of theft, and he is about to be led off to prison when the bells peal forth the festal hour.
Joyfully the watchmen throw open the strong town gates and the multitude and gathered councillors fall back to receive their king. But through the doors enters the gooseherd, proudly wearing her crown and followed by her flock and the minstrel. The lovers fall into each other’s arms, but only the poet and a little child recognize them as of royal blood. The boorish citizens, who had fancied that their king would appear in regal splendor, drive the youth and maiden out with contumely, burn the witch and cripple the minstrel by breaking one of his legs on the wheel. Seeking his home, the prince and his love lose their way in the forest during a snowstorm and die of a poisoned loaf made by the witch, for which the prince had bartered his broken crown, under the same tree which had sheltered them on their first meeting but the children of Hellabrunn, who had come out in search of them, guided by a bird, find their bodies buried under the snow and give them royal acclaim and burial.
And the prescient minstrel hymns their virtues. This is the story of Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera “Konigskinder,” which had its first performance on any stage at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, on December 28, 1910, with the following cast :
Der Konigssohn Herman Jadlowker Die Gansemagd Geraldine Farrar Der Spielmann Otto Goritz Die Hexe Louise Homer Der Holzhacker Adamo Didur Der Besenbinder Albert Reiss Zwei Kinder Edna Walter and Lotte Engel Der Ratsalteste Marcel Reiner Der Wirt Antonio Pini-Corsi Die Witstochter Florence Wickham Der Schneider Julius Bayer Die Stallmagd Marie Mattfeld Zwei Torwachter Ernst Maran and William Hinshaw Conductor : Alfred Hertz
To some in the audience the drama was new only in the new operatic dress with which Humperdinck had clothed it largely at the instance of the Metropolitan management. It had been known as a spoken play for twelve years and three of its musical numbers the overture and two pieces of between-acts music had been in local concert-lists for the same length of time. The play had been presented with incidental music for many of the scenes as well as the overture and entr’actes in 1898 in an extremely interesting production at the Irving Place Theatre, then under the direction of Heinrich Conried, in which Agnes Sorma and Rudolf Christians had carried the principal parts. It came back four years later in an English version at the Herald Square Theatre, but neither in the German nor the English performance was it vouchsafed us to realize what had been the purpose of the author of the play and the composer of the music.
The author, who calls herself Ernst Rosmer, is a woman, daughter of Heinrich Porges, for many years a factotum at the Bayreuth festivals. It was her father’s devotion to Wagner which gave her the name of Elsa. She married a lawyer and littérateur in Munich named Bernstein, and has written a number of plays besides “Königskinder,” which she published in 1895, and afterward asked Herr Humperdinck (not yet a royal Prussian professor, but a simple musician, who had made essays in criticisms and tried to make a composer out of Siegfried Wagner) to provide with incidental music. Mr. Humperdinck took his task seriously. The play, with some incidental music, was two years old before Mr. Humperdinck had his overture ready. He had tried a new experiment, which proved a failure. The second and third acts had their preludes, and the songs of the minstrel had their melodies and accompaniments, and all the principal scenes had been provided with illustrative music in the Wagnerian manner, with this difference, that the dialogue had been “pointed,” as a church musician would say that is, the rhythm was indicated with exactness, and even the variations of pitch, though it was under-stood that the purpose was not to achieve song, but an intensified utterance, halfway between speech and song. This was melodrama, as Herr Humperdinck conceived it and as it had no doubt existed for ages ever since the primitive Greek drama, in fact. It is easy to understand how Herr Humperdinck came to believe in the possibility of an art-form which, though accepted, for temporary effect, by Beethoven and Cherubini, and used for ballads with greater or less success by Schumann, had been harshly rejected by his great model and master, Wagner. Humperdinck lives in Germany, where in nearly every theatre there is more or less of an amalgamation of the spoken drama and the opera where choristers play small parts and actors, though not professional singers, sing when not too much is required of them. And yet Herr Humperdinck found out that he had asked too much of his actors with his “pointed” and at times intoned declamation, and “Konigskinder” did not have to come to America to learn that the compromise was a failure. No doubt Herr Humperdinck thought of turning so beautiful a play into an opera then, but it seems to have required the stimulus which finally came from New York to persuade him to carry out the operatic idea, which is more than suggested in the score as it lies before me in its original shape, into a thorough lyric drama. The set pieces which had lived in the interim in the concert-room were transferred into the opera-score with trifling alterations and condensations and so were the set songs. As for the rest it needed only that note-heads be supplied to some of the portions of the dialogue which Humperdinck had designed for melodic declamation to have those portions ready for the opera. Here an example.
A German opera can generally stand severer criticism than one in another language, because there is a more strict application of principles in Germany when it comes to writing a lyric drama than in any other country. So in the present instance there is no need to conceal the fact that there are outbreaks of eroticism and offences against the German language which are none the less flagrant and censurable be-cause they are, to some extent, concealed under the thin veneer of the allegory and symbolism which every reader must have recognized as running through the play. This is, in a manner, Wagnerian, as so much of the music is Wagnerian especially that of the second act, which because it calls up scenes from the “Meistersinger” must also necessarily call up music from the same comedy. But there is little cause here for quarrel with Professor Humperdinck. He has applied the poetical principle of Wagner to the fairy tale which is so closely related to the myth, and he has with equal consistency applied Wagner’s constructive methods musically and dramatically. It is to his great honor that, of all of Wagner’s successors, he has been the only one to do so successfully.
The story of Konigskinder,” though it belongs to the class of fairy tales of which “Hansel und Gretel” is so striking and beautiful an example, is not to be found as the author presents it in the literature of German Märchen. Mme. Bernstein has drawn its elements from many sources and blended them with the utmost freedom. To avoid a misunderstanding Germans will insist that the title be used without the article, for “Die Konigskinder” or “Zwei Konigskinder” both suggest the simple German form of the old tale of Hero and Leander, with which story, of course, it has nothing whatever to do. But if literary criticism forbids association between Humperdinck’s two operas, musical criticism compels it. Many of the characters in the operas are close relations, dramatically as well as musically the royal children themselves, the witches, of course, and the broom-makers. The rest of the characters have been taken from Wagner’s “Meistersinger” picture book ; the citizens of Hellabrunn are Nuremberg’s burghers, the city’s councillors, the old master singers. The musical idiom is Humperdinck’s, though its method of employment is Wagner’s. But here lies its charm : Though the composer hews to a theoretical line, he does it freely, naturally, easily, and always with the principle of musical beauty as well as that of dramatic truthfulness and propriety in view. His people’s voices float on a symphonic stream, but the voices of the instruments, while they sing on in endless melody, use the idiom which nature gave them. There is admirable characterization in the orchestral music, but it is music for all that ; it never descends to mere noise, designed to keep up an irritation of the nerves.