“Feuersnot” or “The Fire Famine” a song poem in one act with text by Ernst von Wolzogen, suggested by a tale in “The Collected Legends of the Netherlands,” and with music by Richard Strauss, was produced in Weimar Oct. 28, 1902.
Schweiker von Gundelfingen, custodian of the castle. Ortoff Sentlinger, the burgomaster. Diemut, his daughter. Elsbeth, Wigelius, her companions. Margaret, Konrad der Ebner. Jörg Pöschel, the innkeeper. Hemerlein. Kofel, the smith. Kunz Hilgenstock, a baker and brewer. Ortlieb Tulbek, a cooper. Ursula, his wife. Ruger Aspeck, a potter. Walpurga, his wife. Citizens, women, children, servants of the duke.
Until recently, there existed an ancient house in Audenarde, upon whose gable was inscribed the legend of the extinguished fires and the depiction of its last scene. The old witch story is the basis of the text of the opera.
The curtain rises to disclose a quaint spot in Munich in the Twelfth Century. To the right is the house of the Burgomaster and midway in the pretentious structure is a basket on pulleys, fastened to the top of the gable. There are numerous other houses, among them an inn. Two little side streets lead off in different directions. It is just before sundown, at the time of the winter solstice. A busy scene is shown ; young couples pass by arm in arm and older citizens stand in the doors or look out of the windows. All are dressed in queer medieval costumes.
Down one of the side streets comes a procession of children and of pipers and drummers, pushing hand-carts on which are sticks of fire-wood that they have gathered for the big bonfire to be built outside the town in celebration of the day when the sun turns in the heavens. They stop before the Burgomaster’s house and cry, ” Give us wood for the solstice fires.” As a final argument they suggest that the Burgomaster’s daughter will not get a husband unless her father gives generously. Soon the big basket comes down filled with wood, which the children snatch eagerly. The stately Burgomaster himself appears and makes a speech and his handsome daughter, Diemut, comes out with three companions, all carrying pitchers of wine and baskets filled with sweetmeats. A feminine voice declares that Diemut looks like an angel and predicts that she will be a bride within the year. Then the children go on to the corner house near the inn and Jörg Pöschel, the innkeeper, tells of a strange guest who comes there for his meals, a quiet fellow who holds himself aloof in the old house ” like an owl in a dark nest.” Old Ortlieb tells of the former inhabitants of this house. They were descend-ants of a Moorish giant, whom Duke Henry the Lion brought with him when years before he entered the town. God gave the giant a certain time in which to become a Christian. Nobody knows how he died but, at any rate, all his descendants were wicked sorcerers, the last of whom were driven from the town many years ago.
Kofel, the smith, declares that what is told about the giant’s descendants are only old women’s tales and that they were really good men. This leads to a heated discussion. The children batter upon the doors of the former house of the sorcerer and Kunrad, disturbed at the noise, comes out. He is young and handsome and distinguished in bearing. He asks them what they want and they explain, adding that if he is a bachelor and does not give them wood no woman will look at him. He tells them to take the wooden shutters off the windows, and tear everything from the house that is combustible and take it away. He even throws in his old scripts, for he fears he has been losing all the tangible joys of life through poring over them.
While this has been going on, Kunrad has had eyes only for Diemut and the maiden has not failed to return his glances. Then, growing emboldened, he kisses her, much to the entertainment of the crowd. The Burgomaster chides him, and Diemut is indignant to the point of tears. She runs into the house, promising that he shall be sorry. Someone in the crowd says that tears mean love.
The children and the older folk go to make the bonfire outside the town. Only Konrad lingerie. Diemut comes to the window to comb her hair and Kunrad inquires what he has done to deserve such treatment. She relents, apparently, and invites him to come up in the basket. Overjoyed, he gets in and Diemut now has her revenge, for she draws it only half way up and leaves him hanging there. Then she mocks him and suggests his jumping out or climbing up on her hair. She calls her companions and they summon the others, and soon all the town is there to hoot and jeer at him. Then Kunrad invokes his master, the sorcerer, and asks for aid; and all the lights and fires upon the hearths are extinguished. The old people and the children are disconsolate but the lovers do not so much dislike the situation.
The castle custodian threatens to imprison Kunrad in the tower as soon as he can get him. Even severer threats are made. Kunrad reminds them that they brought it upon themselves and that it is for them to find the solution. Then he manages to climb upon the roof from which he delivers them an oration. He chides them for their narrow prejudices. The man whom they had driven away had not been evil but they could not see it. He had wished only to bring fame and blessing to the town. He had tried to introduce wagons with four wheels, instead of carts, and many other like improvements but they would have none of his doctrine of progressiveness. People who wished to advance with the world moved away. As for himself, he had come to finish his master’s work. They distrusted him, and the woman he loved spurned him. But a woman’s heart is the source of all warmth and light, he declares, and only through Diemut and her yielding herself to him can they regain their fires.
The people cry to Diemut in her house that it is her duty to get back the fires for them. Suddenly Kunrad disappears into her room. Soon a light shines from the windows and many others in the town answer it. Then Kunrad and Diemut, in each other’s arms, look out from the casement and the opera ends with a paean of joy and love.
In his operas Richard Strauss has reduced the vocal part to even greater subservience to the dramatic action itself than did Wagner. His works are written with the voice of the singer going a way seemingly wholly independent of anything in the instrumental score. Talking is approached as nearly as is possible, and of formal melodies there is little, while set numbers are wholly wanting. The orchestra has the important part and ” Feuersnot ” could be given satisfactorily and with virtually as great effectiveness with the dialogue spoken as it can with it sung. Interesting moments in the score are the opening chorus for the children, in which they beg for wood for the solstice fire; the music for Diemut, when first she appears among the children; the legend sung by Tulbeck, “Als Herzog Heinrich mit dem Löwen kam ” (” When great Duke Henry with the lions came “) ; the declamatory scene for Kunrad, in which he responds to the children’s demands for wood for the solstice illumination; his lengthy song-speech, ” Dass ich den Zauber lerne” (” That I should magic learn “) ; the Burgomaster’s solo ; Konrad’s ” Feuersnot ! Minnegobot! ” (” Need of fire! Need of love! “) ; Diemut’s song, ” Mittsommernacht ! Wannige Wacht ! ” (” Midsummer Night! Time of Delight! “) which is one of the most melodious numbers in the score; Konrad’s ” Hilf mir, Meister!” (” Help me, Master ! “) and the long descriptive scene which follows, which is musically directed at Munich and its treatment of both Wagner and Strauss himself. In it appear motifs from the works of Wagner and from Strauss’ own opera ” Guntram” which are heard in both voice and orchestra when Kunrad speaks of the spirits that once dwelt in the house but which were driven forth through lack of appreciation. Another striking number is the elaborate symphonic orchestral poem, which pictures the yielding of Diemut to Kunrad and the return of light to the town, a number which has found its way into the concert repertory and has been generally admired.