Opera In Germany And The German Opera

GERMANY was the first country outside of Italy in which an Italian opera was performed, and it was given in the German language and not in the original Italian; like like the French the Germans have, from the outset, stood for the principle that if they were to have any opera, they wanted it in their own language. This is not strange, when we remember how, even from the very beginning of the Christian church, they protested against participation in the Latin musical services, and would sing only in German, standing up sturdily for their own tongue. That we, as Americans, have not been equally persistent in demanding opera in our own tongue, is the result of many causes which may not be stated here.

We have already considered the “Moralities” or “Mystery-plays,” as precursors of the Oratorio, having principally theological and moral aims. Besides these, there were in vogue among German university students certain kinds of dramatic and comic plays which were recited in Latin or German, and which later, because of Renaissance influence, assumed importance as factors in the regeneration of the drama according to Greek ideals. Different kinds of entertainment called inter-scene or entr’actes, consisting of vocal and instrumental numbers which had no connection with the comedies themselves, filled the pauses between the acts Of the plays.

One of these school comedies, entitled ” Jerusalem delivered by the noble Prince, Godfrey, Duke of Bouillon,” will serve as an illustration. Its first inter-scena consisted of (T) a panto-mime by Pallas-Athene, Diana, Daphne and Mercury, with instrumentai accompaniment; (2) a chorus sung by “all the nymphs; ” (3) lyrics sung by Mercury and the goddesses; and (4) a ballet “neatly danced” by Mercury and the nymphs. Its second inter-scena represented a combat between “Amazons and men”; others consisted of dances, quartets and songs.

Besides these student-plays, there were in vogue at the annual fairs and among the guilds of which we have repeatedly spoken, certain dramatic performances called “Carnival plays,” which were at first arranged and concocted chiefly by workingmen, but later by folk-poets such as Hans Sachs.

The Elector John George of Saxony, however, deemed this sort of entertainment insufficient for the entourage of the Landgrave of Darmstadt, who was to marry his daughter, in 1620. Having heard of the great revival of what was then thought to be the music of antiquity, he sent his court music director, Heinrich Schütz, to Florence, to study its form and to secure a copy of Peri’s maiden effort. Upon his return, th€ Elector commissioned the court poet, Opitz, to translate the Italian text into German. When the translation was finished, it was found that text and music did not agree, the dramatic accent of the German declamation not being in accord with that of the Italian. Schütz, whom we have mentioned as a pupil of Gabrieli, was therefore commissioned to write new music in the Italian style to the translated text. In this form it was performed in Germany, but, since there was now nothing left of the Italian work except the story, we may well say that it was the first German opera, even though its creation as such was almost accidental.

Neither the audiences nor the musicians of that day seem to have recognized the importance of what had thus been done, or the possibilities suggested by the performance of this work. Schütz, moreover, was (as we shall see later) essentially a Church composer, although he wrote one other opera in the Italian style, copied after Monteverde’s Orpheus, which was performed in Dresden, in 1638. This lack of initiative on the part of musicians to write similar works was partly due to the political disturbances and consequent material distress created by the Thirty-Years’ war, which was so destructive of every form of art in the German cities.

The city of Hamburg, however, formed an exception. Being a free city, and consequently immune from the ravages of war and the drafting of its citizens into the army, also because of its geographical position, its commercial energy, and the consequent wealth and unusually high ideals of life among its citizens, it had become a sort of nursery of musical art and a Mecca for musicians, and as such had obtained a considerable reputation throughout Germany. The fact that Christoph Bernhard, when called in 1664 from Dresden to Hamburg to be Director of Protestant church music in that city, was met by the city officials, two miles out of town, with a retinue of six coaches and a parade, and escorted by them to a home that had been prepared for him, is one of the best evidences of the city’s respect for men of learning. Even fifty or one hundred years later, such an action would have been uncommon, and proves that Hamburg was a city which highly esteemed knowledge, art and skill. Naturally, some of the best musicians in Germany, hungry for that kind of recognition, and appreciating its contrast with the servant-like treatment they received almost everywhere else, flocked to this hospitable city and made it their home.

Since the most progressive of them were employed in the churches, it was but natural that the influence of the newly recognized dramatic element in music should there first be felt. This aroused opposition, and the question was freely discussed as to whether music, proper for the church, should be in the then accepted choral style, or in a subdued theatrical style, with strong emotional and dramatic expression. The best qualified musicians were inclined to this latter form, holding that the very best forms of music should be used by the church, and should not be confined to the theater.

As a natural consequence of this attitude, the dramatic Protestant church cantata, which later developed into the Passion music as perfected by Bach, was originated. Some of the clergy themselves wrote librettos for these cantatas in operatic form, based on the sacred text, but it was not long before the poets began to crowd out the Biblical text with inspirations (?) of their own. These were often anything but sublime, the sad story of the Passion being sometimes almost lost. The orthodox clergy of course objected to these inspirations, and a literary-musical feud began, which was not limited to the city, but extended far beyond its confines.

Because of Hamburg’s progressive spirit, it was natural that she should also lead in the domain of opera. The development of the dramatic element in church music gave an impulse toward higher and better things for the theater. Artists, musicians, littérateurs, and even the clergy gradually began to favor the opera. Some preachers even wrote opera-texts, to show their approval in deed as well as in word, and their wishes were finally realized; for in 1678 the first German opera-house was opened with the opera Adam and Eve, or, The Created, Fallen and Redeemed Man, text by the celebrated preacher Richter, music by Theile. This first intentional German attempt at opera excited great interest, and many confidently hoped for a rapid development of this form of entertainment.

Hamburg, having a republican form of government, did not have to consult the wishes of the Court and aristocrats, and it was expected that opera would please the people. Its projectors, however, were disappointed, for the poets wrote above the heads of the multitude, and the sacred, austere and profound subjects upon which their librettos were based, gave no delight to the pleasure-loving audiences. The managers, therefore, began to infuse a ludicrous element into the sacred plays, sometimes even in the most serious situations, hoping thus to catch public favor. The operas were elaborately staged, almost regardless of expense, the only great difficulty confronting managers and composers being a lack of efficient singers, especially for women’s parts. The Germans did not like the unnatural male singers employed throughout Italy, and women of respectable families were ashamed to devote themselves to the stage because of prejudices then already existing. Accordingly, the singers secured were largely from the lower classes, though they were to represent goddesses, queens and Biblical characters.

During the directorship of the musician Cousser (1693–95) great improvements were made in German opera, which he modeled after the more modern Italian plan, introducing a better style of writing and singing. Like Lully, he exerted a tremendous influence over his singers; he knew how to exercise discipline in a pleasant manner, resulting in a much better ensemble than had ever existed before. He is held up by Mattheson, one of the writers of the day, as the perfect music-director and teacher of artists. Reinhard Keiser (1674–1739), who came to Hamburg in the same year as Cousser, was a still more versatile man, and became the popular idol. While in Hamburg he wrote one hundred and sixteen operas; however, he worked only to please the people of his day, and in this he succeeded.

Hamburg so attracted German musicians from all quarters by its efforts for the formation of a national opera, that Handel, upon his return from Italy, spent three years (1703–1706) in work for the opera-house in that city. In spite of even his efforts, which had been so successful in Italy, German opera gradually declined, and stimulants wholly foreign to serious works became increasingly necessary to hold the attention of the fickle public, until in 1738 it was entirely discontinued, and this last stronghold of the opposition surrendered to the victorious Italians.

About the middle of the eighteenth century, however, German poetry took a strong upward flight through the writings of the great poets of Frederick the Great’s time, Klopstock and Lessing. Before long, German opera, or at least opera by Germans, began to bestir itself again through the efforts of Gluck, who followed Lully and Rameau as the most suitable models for the expression of his German opposition to the dramatic vagueness of the then prevalent Italian opera.

The scene of operatic attempts now shifted to Leipzig, which extended a welcome to the bold spirits who ventured to contend with the Italians, resulting, in 1765, in a song-play entitled The Devil is Loose, or, The Transformed Women, the music by Hiller, the Cantor of St. Thomas’ church. Poor Hiller had his hands full, having to meet an even more grievous difficulty in his artistic efforts than that of securing capable singers to give acceptable performances of his music, for the theater-director required him to write opera music so simple that the audience could occasionally join in the performance. An intimate friend of Hiller’s, who was familiar with the composer’s ideals, especially mentions the lack of available singers, and says: “As often as there came an air by Hiller that was full of noble feeling and very expressive, I imagined to myself how he used to sing it to me at home, and then I had to listen to the bawling of some big-mouthed female singer or the fog-horn-like night-watchman’s voice of the lover.” Still, Hiller’s form of the song-play was very popular, partly because of its merit as a species of musical amusement and partly because of the really intense patriotic feeling of the German people that prompted their antagonism to foreign ideas.

In Vienna, German song-plays and operettas had already been performed for many years by itinerant theatrical troupes, and, as early as 1751, Haydn had tried his powers on one of these, but neither that operetta nor an early work of Mozart’s given in 1768 (in private) exercised any particular influence on the development of German opera.

In 1765 Joseph II ascended the Austrian throne, and from the beginning of his reign he patronized the German stage, recognizing its aid in the development of national culture. He even determined to suppress entirely the Italian opera and ballet, in order to foster the national “song-plays,” as he called the German operatic productions. As a result, quite a series of such works came into existence, some being translations from the French and Italian and others being written by Viennese poets and musicians. Among these last was Mozart, who, having composed many Italian ones, cherished the idea of writing a real German opera. He found a suitable libretto, and Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Il Seraglio) in 1782 was the result. This opera received the enthusiastic applause of the Viennese public; but, in spite of this and the fact that it was much nearer Emperor Joseph’s ideas, Mozart did not get a commission for another opera. The emperor seems to have thought the work insignificant, although he recognized its beauty, for in conversation with Mozart he said, “Too beautiful, dear Mozart, for our ears, and very many notes,” to which Mozart, the artist, replied, ” Just so many notes, your Majesty, as are necessary — no more.” How true that is of everything Mozart wrote: “Just so many notes as are necessary, and no more.”

The venerable Gluck, returned from his triumphs in France to end his days in Vienna, was deeply interested in the Entfuhrung, and at his request it was performed for him outside of the regular opera season. Goethe, who was interested in the success of a song-play for which he had written the libretto, wrote to one of his friends; “Our piece suffered from vocal leanness; it mounted no higher than a terzetto, and one would have given a great deal for a chorus (Italian style). Hence, all our efforts to keep within the simple and limited were thrown away when Mozart appeared. The Entfuhrung struck down everything, and nothing more was said of our carefully prepared piece.”

The Entführung is as much a German opera, as Don Giovanni and Figaro are Italian, Mozart’s genius enabling him to give the character of each of these nations in his works. The light opera, which had always been opposed by the best littérateurs of Germany as destructive to culture and taste, gained, through his efforts, a place among serious musical art-works.

But still greater applause and encomiums were showered upon one of Mozart’s brilliant contemporaries, Ditters von Dittersdorf, an amateur who wrote numerous string-quartets very much in Haydn’s style. He adapted his operas to the musical culture of his environment, instead of rising above it as Mozart did, and by means of melodic richness and artistic forms, secured instant popularity and thus helped immensely in refining the national taste. A number of minor composers added to this refinement, and prepared the public for an understanding of Mozart’s Magic Flute, which may well be considered as opening the. temple of German operatic art. It was the first real German opera, employing almost entirely German characters, some of them strictly indigenous to German soil, although some of the scenes are laid in Egypt. In the Entführung Mozart had attempted to improve the song-play, but in The Magic Flute he gave full vent to his inward artistic demand for dramatic characterization in whatever form might best suit his purpose. That he succeeded is seen in every measure of the score, with the exception of two display arias for the “Queen of Night,” which he wrote for his sister-in-law’s agile throat. His German nature, unaffected by prevalent Italian art-practices, is especially evident in the characterization of Papageno, the bird-catcher, and in the religious ceremonials of the Egyptian priests, which are said to imitate those of the Free Masons, of which fraternity he was a member. The popularity of The Magic Flute, although more than one hundred and twenty years have passed since its first performance, is greater now than a hundred years ago, and it is performed everywhere in Europe, despite its contrast to most modern operas. Beethoven declared that The Magic Flute was Mozart’s greatest work, “for here he has shown himself a German master.”

As the art of dramatic and artistic singing was the in-dispensable basis of musical education until the close of the eighteenth century, Beethoven, of course, studied it also, and under one of its greatest masters, Salieri; still, it is evident in Fidelio (his only opera) that he did not feel bound by the vocal instructions of this teacher, and the complaints of “unsingableness” uttered during the rehearsals of his opera by the artists were, in a measure, well-founded. Nor did Beethoven fully appreciate the scenic demands of a well-staged opera, and, as he was very headstrong, and at first refused to listen to any suggestions of improvements, the reception of Fidelio was a very cool one, and it was criticised as being “below expectations.” The failure of the opera, however, was not due to a real lack of artistic value; the political situation must be taken into account. Napoleon and his army had, but a few days before, driven the Austrian court and nobility out of Vienna, and the first audience that listened to Beethoven’s opera was one composed entirely of French soldiers. The next year it was given again, slightly altered, with a little more success. Then it remained unperformed until 1814, when Beethoven again revised it, and it was then better understood and appreciated.

His genius demanded broader musical forms than those of the opera of his day; but he so improved the orchestra and so masterfully developed its capabilities that the Romantic school of composers, which arose during his lifetime, was enabled so to direct German opera that it acquired characteristics as genuinely national as those of French or Italian lyric drama.

German opera in the first half of the nineteenth century reached an extraordinary development, far beyond its pred ecessors among other nations, its special characteristics being full and dramatic treatment of the orchestra and a mode of vocal delivery partaking of melody and recitative in nearly equal proportions, the entire object of the opera being to present a dramatic unity which should reach and impress the inner consciousness of the listener.

Italian opera at that time consisted of a series of beautiful arias and ensemble numbers, mostly held together by a thread of recitative, accompanied by detached chords marking the emphatic moments. The Germans of the early nineteenth century greatly improved this (as the Italians did later) by-a recitativo stromentato, a recitative accompanied by a descriptive and sometimes flowing instrumental accompaniment, which, however, differs essentially from the descriptive recitative of Handel, Haydn, Gluck and Mozart.

The first of the German Romantic opera composers was Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826), although Spohr might be mentioned as a comparatively weak example. Weber’s father was an actor and director of a traveling troupe of Thespians, and a singer of some note. The boy’s education was rather fragmentary, since it depended upon the professional engagements of his father in different cities. His parents intended him to be a pianist, and he gave concerts when he was but fourteen, at which age he also brought out an operetta which was much appreciated in Vienna five years later, and was also given at Prague, St. Petersburg and other cities. At the age of eighteen, he became theater music-director in Breslau, showing great talent in that capacity. Here he composed his first romantic opera, Rubezahl (1807), whose overture is often played at popular concerts. In 1813 he was called to fill a similar position at Prague. There he brought order out of the chaotic condition of things musical at the opera house, disciplining his orchestra and engaging new singers from Vienna. He was so successful that, in 1816, he was called to Dresden, where he remained until his death in 1826, giving those masterworks to the world which established German opera on a distinctly national basis. His new position was peculiar, because he found in Dresden two companies of singers; one, Italian, which presented grand operas, and the other, German, which performed light and comic operas. His operas, which were conceded to be of a much higher character than the best Italian works of that day, gradually reversed this custom. In 1821 he brought out Preciosa, and in 1822 Der Freischütz, which latter established his reputation forever, and was produced in Berlin and other important cities quite frequently, even in that same year. The performance of Der Freischütz created the wildest enthusiasm, for it united two ideas dear to all Germans — peasant-life with its folk-song, and the fairy-lore that is indigenous to the soil — while its charming music was quite original and also distinctively German.

In Der Freischütz Weber makes use of what we have since learned to call the Leitmotiv (compare Monteverde), that is, a certain characteristic phrase which accompanies a certain dramatic character or alludes to some dramatic incident, a practice apt to be associated almost wholly with Wagner. Weber’s works marked the beginning of a distinct epoch in German opera, as distinct as that ushered in by the Ring des Nibelungen of Wagner, who speaks of the tremendous influence they had on him.

Weber’s Euryanthe followed in 1823. This opera, which in a way is the model of Wagner’s Lohengrin, was received with enthusiasm both in Germany and Austria. In the same year followed his wonderful fairy opera Oberon, the first such work ever written, and produced at London in 1826. But the strain of the work upon him was too great, and he died in that same year.

Of Gluck we have spoken in connection with French opera, because his greatest works, like those of Meyerbeer, were written for France and given in Paris. One of Weber’s greatest immediate successors was Marschner, who ex-celled in the presentation of the unearthly and supernatural, as may be seen in his Hans Heiling, which deals with the kobolds of the mountains. He also had a gift for the delineation of plebeian or comic characters, in which he was not surpassed even by Weber.

It must not be thought, however, that the new German style of opera was accepted without criticism or antagonism by the adherents and lovers of Italian opera, for Weber’s Freischütz was called the “most unmusical clatter ever put on the stage,” and resort was had to all kinds of cabals and intrigues to drive the Germans out of the operatic field, as Handel had been driven out of London opera houses.

But all in vain. German opera had now achieved an excellence all its own, one that could not be gainsaid even by the Italians, whose most prominent composer of the time, Rossini, finally recognized its superiority in his William Tell. German opera received its final crown through the efforts of Richard Wagner, of whom we shall speak at an-other time.