Romantic Opera – Weber, Spohr, Marschner

—The revolutionary spirit which arose in Europe toward the end of the 18th century had its counterpart in a similar intellectual and artistic reaction, commonly known as the Romantic Movement. In Literature, this movement was led by France; in Music, by Germany. Briefly described, it consisted in casting aside the classical traditions which the Renaissance had imposed upon art in general and in a substitution of themes and a treatment more in consonance with the atmosphere of free-dom which had inspired such momentous social and political changes.

Its Effect on Music.—The musician also felt the influence of the general unrest. In seeking new modes of expression, he rose to a consciousness of independence both as man and artist; he refused longer to occupy the position of an upper servant which had been decreed him by court and nobility. Mozart marked the passing of the old order of things by his indignant rejection of the humiliating conditions of service under the haughty Archbishop of Salzburg, only remembered by later generations through his connection with the musician he treated so contemptuously. Heretofore music had been the privileged entertainment of the great and wealthy. Like other privileges, it was to pass into the possession of the people, hitherto shut out from its enjoyment save in the Church. It was to draw inspiration from a rich store of Folk-lore and poetry heretofore disregarded by the scholar and the musician, but soon to be recognized as a national heritage of high import; it was to create new forms instead of being dependent on time-worn formula which were repressing growth and development.

The Romantic Opera.—The Romantic Movement had the effect of finally banishing from the stage the characters of classical mythology, the heroes and personages of antiquity who had been thought alone worthy of representation by the poets and savants who had thus far prepared the texts for operas. In the romantic opera their places were taken by figures of legend or chivalry, elves and spirits of earth or air; the action paid no regard to the unities of time and place; it was brisk and animated and the supernatural played an important part in it. The music, instead of being governed by the restraints of definite forms, adapted itself to the varying exigencies of the drama; the sharp division between the recitative and the aria was softened by the introduction of the Scena, a peculiarly effective mingling of the features of both ; the overture became an integral part of the whole by the use of themes associated with leading dramatic situations. The orchestra not only supplied an harmonic and a rhythmically interesting accompaniment but its power of independent expression was enormously enlarged ; it became, so to speak, one of the Dramatis Personce and vied with the singers in indicating psychological and dramatic crises. This was largely due to the development of a new phase of instrumentation, perhaps the most striking detail of the Romantic school—that of novel and original combinations of instruments to pro-duce varying and expressive shades of tone color. Heretofore the orchestra had been considered in the main in its more obvious divisions; sonority and beauty of tone had been the chief aim of the classical composers. Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) was the first to utilize the individual timbres of orchestral instruments to secure effects of a weird, unearthly character.

Weber and the Romantic Opera.—In his Der Freischütz (The Freeshooter) we first find the union of all these characteristics. Hence Weber is rightfully considered the founder of the romantic opera; but it would be a mistake to assume that he was the originator of all its features. These had been long in the air. In Haydn, the works of Mozart and Beethoven, in the ballads of Loewe, the songs of Schubert, unmistakable romantic traits can often be found, but they are embodied in established forms. Weber, however, brought together the qualities now associated with the term romantic in music, and in applying them to the drama freed them from the restrictions of a fixed musical structure.

Influence of “Der Freischuetz.”—The effect of Der Freischütz on its production in Berlin in 1821 was instantaneous. The story of the hunter’s recourse to unholy arts in order to win success in the chase, of his rescue from Satanic power and the final triumph of good over evil ; the music, fresh, vivid, essentially national in color, appealed to the people to whom the legend was well known. It meant the birth of German opera, German alike in drama and music ; it gave the final blow to the supremacy of foreign influences in Germany. This success at first, however, was confined almost entirely to the people. Critics and musicians generally could not reconcile themselves to its mingling of styles ; the supernatural element seemed to them exaggerated, the introduction of the Folk-song wanting in dignity. Only the greatest of them all, Beethoven, deaf and cynical as he was, realized the signification of Der Freischütz as the beginning of a new era for German art. He said to Rochlitz : “Weber should now write operas—one after the other without hesitation.”

Euryanthe. — Weber’s next opera was Euryanthe, produced in 1823 in Vienna. In this he was hampered by a text of more than doubtful merit and lacking the national element which had been so strong a factor in Der Freischütz. The story is laid in the medieval chivalric epoch and strongly resembles Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. He also ventured upon an innovation which was not in favor with the German public : he set it to music throughout, the place of the dialogue customary in German opera being taken by accompanied recitative. Euryanthe and Spohr’s Jessonda, which appeared several months before the former, were the first German operas in this style since Schütz’s Dafne. This and its confused plot kept Euryanthe from the popular success achieved by Der Freischütz, yet it contains some of Weber’s most thrilling inspirations, and is the direct prototype of the modern music drama.

Oberon.—In Oberon (1826), composed for London to an English text, Weber returned to his former manner, though somewhat against his will. He found the English opera much the same as in Purcell’s time, practically a play with music as an incidental feature rather than as an integral part of the drama. He intended casting Oberon into a larger mould, reducing the dialogue and adding to the music, but this was prevented by his premature death in London two months after its production.

Recitative and Dialogue. — The chilling effect of alternating speech and song has already been spoken of in connection with the English opera. At that time, both English and German taste was against the use of recitative in the narrative parts of an opera. The recitativo secco, which it will be remembered is a recitative supported only by chords on the harpsichord or piano, sometimes accompanied with a single stringed instrument, has never met with favor outside of Italy, where its intonations nearly approach the half-singing inflections of Italian speech. The exclusive use of accompanied recitative—that is, the recitative accompanied by the full orchestra, however, delays the action and moreover appears weighty and overwrought unless applied to subjects of an elevated or heroic character. In Germany and England the desire to understand clearly the dramatic movement led to the retention of dialogue in all operas. In France a distinction was made between operas with dialogue and operas with ‘recitative only. The first is called Opéra Comique, originally an off-shoot from the Italian Opera Buffa, in which the recitativo secco was replaced by dialogue. Later the term assumed a technical meaning by which it was applied to all operas containing spoken dialogue whether their subjects were comic or tragic, in contradistinction to what is known as Grand Opéra, in which the accompanied recitative is used exclusively.

The Melodrama.—The so-called melodrama is a compromise between the dialogue and the recitative. In this the performer recites in the speaking voice while the orchestra supplies an accompaniment which seeks to intensify the dramatic situation. This device originated in Germany and has found the most favor from German composers. It was first employed by Georg Benda (1721-1795) in a recitation, Ariadne in Naxos (1744), which created much interest. Two of the most striking instances of the melodrama are to be found in the grave-digging scene in Fidelio and in the incantation scene in Der Freischütz. But how-ever effective its occasional use may be, the ear suffers from the inevitable dissonance between the fixed pitches of the musical scale and the natural inflections of the speaking voice. This is now so generally recognized that it has been practically ignored by modern composers in their works for the stage.

Spohr and the Romantic Opera. — Ludwig Spohr (1784-1859), Germany’s greatest violinist and a composer of eminence in many fields, wrote a number of operas. Of these, Faust and Jessonda stand first in showing a vein of genuine romanticism, albeit they lack the Folk-element which brought Weber’s music so close to the hearts of the people. Full of beauty as they undoubtedly are, like all of Spohr’s music they are weakened by the constant recurrence of certain mannerisms, such as chromatic progressions of a persistent type, enharmonic modulations, the over-frequent use of diminished intervals. Spohr exercised a strong influence in favor of the new direction on account of his high position as the most esteemed composer and performer of the day. His significance in the romantic movement consists in his being, as it were, an intermediary between the late classical period represented by Beethoven and the modern music drama. He knew Beethoven in Vienna, and in his latter days, when director of the opera in Cassel, did his utmost to introduce Wagner’s early operas to the German public.

Marschner, Weber’s Successor. — Weber’s legitimate successor in the romantic opera was Heinrich Marschner (1795-1861). He had been associated with Weber as assistant conductor at the opera in Dresden, and a strong friendship existed between them. Weber’s influence, however, was wide and far-reaching; it extended beyond the opera. Marschner’s sphere was practically confined to the stage, which he enriched with a series of strongly characterized works mainly of a gloomy, uncanny nature. He shows but little of the genial art with which Weber avails himself of the supernatural merely as a background for the doing and striving of bis characters, and thus never compromises the human interest they have for us. Marschner makes it the salient characteristic of his strongest works. In these his principal Dramatis Personce are demons and evil spirits who tempt and torment the innocent and loving. His first ro-mantic opera was Der Vampyr (1825) composed to a text prepared from Byron’s poem, “Lord Ruthven,” which is founded upon a Scotch legend. Notwithstanding the repulsive nature of the subject, its powerful treatment brought it immediate success in Germany and a little later in England. It was followed by Der Templar and die Jüdin (The Templar and the Jewess), a version of Scott’s “Ivanhoe.” This, however, met with less success than Der Vampyr or its successor, Hans Heiling, Marschner’s masterpiece.

The Spieloper.—The Romantic school had a strong influence in the development of a form known as the Spieloper (literally play-opera), which occupies a place between the works we have been considering and the Singspiel. As thoroughly German as the latter, it shows more finish and greater elaboration of musical effect. Though essentially romantic in the freedom of its scope and choice of means, its real sphere is neither the heroic nor the mystic ; it concerns itself rather with the lighter aspects of life, those which require no exalted powers of imagination or wide culture to appreciate—humor, good cheer, the merriment and mirth of the people in holiday mood. Albert Lortzing (1803-1851) is accepted as the creator of this type, of which his most popular opera, Zar and Zimmermann (Czar and the Carpenter), is the best known example.

Influence of the Romantic Opera.—The value of the application of all the resources of music to the unfettered delineation of feeling and emotion in all their phases inaugurated by the romantic opera can hardly be over-estimated. From the opera it has won its way into absolute music, creating new and original forms. The change it has wrought in the progress and development of the art in general is only second to the revolution occasioned by the birth of the opera itself, three centuries ago. The impulse of the romantic movement in music is far from being exhausted at the present day. On the contrary, it seems to have gathered strength and if it has reached its culmination, as some would have us believe, the signs are not yet apparent to an unprejudiced observer.