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When I was last in Vienna I bought a small book (about half the size of a present-day paperback), bound in its original stiff, red cloth, now cracked and worn. Its title is Wiener Hof-Theater Taschenbuch auf das Jahr 1813—a year-book, a survey of the theatrical and operatic season of 1811/12 in Vienna. The compact little volume contains lists of all the works presented (and which artists had performed them) in the town’s two most important, and state controlled theatres—the Kärthnerthor (opera and ballet) and the Burg (plays). The frontispiece (reproduced opposite) is an engraving of the opera singer Pauline Anna Milder-Hauptmann. It is of course only one of many almanacs which were available at the time (German-speaking countries have always had a penchant for pocket-sized books) and it obviously catered for the numerous opera enthusiasts in a town where the in-fighting and scandals of the opera house have always been front-page news. The editor of the book was I F Castelli, whose words appear on the song from Schubert’s opera Die Verschworenen on this disc. It was possible that Schubert had visited the opera as early as December 1810 (Sir George Grove seemed certain that the thirteen-year-old had seen an opera by Weigl on 10 December of that year) but it was during the 1811/12 season that the young composer, a music-hungry and star-struck student, attended large public musical events for the first time with any regularity. It is quite possible that Schubert perused a copy of this little almanac in 1813, and in so doing re-lived some of his first crucial opera-going experiences. I like to think of him (perhaps not yet as short-sighted as he was later to become) poring over the tiny printed names of the famous singers and artists who were his idols in Vienna. Did he wonder whether one of his own works would feature in a later edition and whether he was to meet and know some of the luminaries therein? If so, his hopes were to be rewarded on both counts.
Paging through this miniature guide tells one a great deal about artistic life in Vienna at the time. Two engravings are given over to scenes from successful plays in the preceding season, but the opera thus honoured in a third engraving is Ferdinand Cortez by Gaspare Spontini, a favourite of Napoleon and composer of the celebrated La Vestale. More than twenty years later Fernand Cortez (for that is its true title in the onginal French before Castelli translated it into German for Viennese consumption) was to inspire the young Richard Wagner. Spontini’s opera Milton was also part of the 1811/12 season.
The directory of the artistic personnel and actors of the Burgtheater is followed by lists of all the people working at the Kärthnerthor. At the very top of the list of administration big-wigs is the name Sonnleithner, not the Leopold Sonnleithner who was to be such a supporter of Schubert’s in later years, nor his father Ignaz, but his uncle Josef who at the very time the book was printed was master-minding the formation of the Philharmonic Society that has remained one of Vienna’s greatest institutions, the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde. Six people worked full-time in the opera administration, and seventeen ushers were employed. There were two in-house opera poets (Castelli for the German repertory and the celebrated Gaetano Rossi for the Italian), three painters, one costume director, and two theatre doctors. The list of singers still had a majority of German names over Italian (something that was to change dramatically in less than a decade), but the great Italian tenor Siboni was on the list (he was later to move to Copenhagen where he founded the conservatoire). The name that leaps to the notice of the Schubertian is that of the baritone Vogl (here mis-spelt as Vogel) who was already a venerable fixture at the opera and who was to become the first great singer of Schubert’s songs. Among the ladies, it is the name of ‘Madame Milder’ which is best known to us. She had been Beethoven’s famous Leonore in 1805 and was to be again in 1814. She lived in Berlin but visited Vienna on many occasions. It was in this 1812 season that she had a monumental triumph in the role of Iphigénie, and she was later to be the inspiration of the second of Schubert’s Suleika songs, and almost certainly of Der Hirt auf dem Felsen at the end of the composer’s life.
The list of musical staff who had official appointments at the opera is headed by Schubert’s teacher, ‘Hofkapellmeister Herr Salieri’. but the names of the composers Weigl, Gyrowetz and Drechsler also figure prominently. The pianist and composer Ignaz Moscheles, then in his late teens, is at the bottom of the list as a music assistant. Joseph Weigl, whose name stood only second to that of Salieri in court circles (the acknowledged stature of Beethoven was too lofty to concern itself with establishment appointments), had been a favourite of the Empress Maria Theresa. He had been a pupil of Mozart and a protégé of Haydn, and as a young repetiteur he had worked on Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni with Mozart himself. Weigl’s two Singspiels, Das Waisenhaus (1808) and Die Schweizerfamilie (1809), were staple works in the Viennese repertory. These two works received nearly thirty performances at the Kärthnerthor in the 1811/12 season. In all probability Schubert attended at least two of these. Their popularity was much aided by the fact that Madame Milder was the star of both operas. Gyrowetz and Drechsler came from Bohemia. The former had composed Der Augenarzt (1811) which received thirty-two perfonmances in the season in question, and the much younger Drechsler saw the premiere of his Die Feldmühle in September 1812. How much the Viennese favoured their local, living composers at this time (sadly patterns were to change with the Italian craze of a decade later) can be discerned by comparing the large numbers of these perfommances with those of Cherubini’s Médée (12), Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (10), and Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride (9).
The fact is we do not know exactly how many times Schubert went to the opera house. The memoirs of Anselm Hüttenbrenner tell us that Schubert was ‘enormously captivated’ by Don Giovanni, Figaro and Idomeneo. The researches of Peter Branscombe show that Schubert would have been able to see Mozart’s Figaro in the repertory at the Kärthnerthor from 1814, Don Giovanni from 1817, and Idomeneo from 1819. Die Entführung was performed only six times between 1803 and 1824 at the Theater an der Wien, and Così fan Tutte (in translation as Die Zauberflöbe) only seven times in 1814; these operas surely lured Schubert and his friends to at least one performance. We know from scrutiny of the Schubert documents that the composer saw Beethoven’s Fidelio, operas by Wenzl Müller and Kreutzer, and Weber’s two operas Der Freischütz (a visit to a performance in 1821? and 1826) and Euryanthe (1823). On 14 June 1820 Schubert was present at a performance of his own Singspiel written for Vogl, Die Zwillingsbrüder, the only one of his ten completed operas that he was ever to see on stage. We also know that Schubert heard Rossini’s Tancredi and Otello, and he may well have taken the opportunity to hear Il barbiere di Siviglia some time in 1819 or 1820, Zelmira in 1822 and Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra in 1818 at the Theater an der Wien or in 1820 at the Kärthnerthor. This open-mindedness to the Italian repertoire, and to operas by Italians in the French style, had early beginnings. We read in Josef von Spaun’s memoirs of Schubert that the composer had a high regard for Axur, and Les Danaides, operas by his teacher Salieri. He must have read them in the score as he could not have seen them. The Italian language, and the words of old Italian librettists like Metastasio conjure up in Schubert a bel canto response, an important ingredient in countless later Lieder where the marriage of German taste and Italian fluidity produces exceptional offspring. Even when Schubert makes fun of Italian operatic style (as in Herrn Josef von Spaun—see Volume 4 of this series) it is done with affection, and too much relish to be truly mocking. The last opera we actually know Schubert to have seen was in Graz in 1827—Meyerbeer’s Il Crociato in Egitto which he apparently did not enjoy, although it starred the famous singing actor (and later playwright) Nestroy.
It would be possible to conjecture that Schubert only began writing vocal music because of his first visits to the opera house. The first song of all, Hagars Klage, dates from May 1811; before that there had been almost a year of purely instrumental composition. It seems that the pattern of a lifetime of opera attendance began in the 1811/12 season: Schubert saw operas by Weigl, Boieldieu, Cherubini, Isouard, Spontini (La Vestale, not, as far as we know, Ferdinand Cortez), and Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. By all accounts, however, these were overshadowed by the composer’s first acquaintance with Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride. It is fairly certain that Schubert derived his knowledge of the other Gluck operas (including Orfeo) from the scores (the same is true of Handel’s operas and oratorios), but this was a real flesh-and-blood theatrical event. Iphigénie en Tauride (in German translation, of course) had Milder and Vogl in the starring roles, and Schubert was taken to see it by his older friend, Josef von Spaun. This is the best documented of all Schubert’s operatic visits, and it took place in January 1813, probably at the time that the pocket-book in my possession was hot off the press. On that memorable occasion Schubert met the young and successful poet Theodor Körner who advised him to stick to music despite all. This poet’s words are heard on this disc in the extract from Schubert’s opera Der vierjährige Posten. Incidentally, our guide pocket-book informs us that the twenty-one-year-old Körner had two new plays performed at the Burgtheater in February and April 1812. There is a story in the Schubert documents that the young composer was so enthused by the singing and acting of Vogl and Milder that when he heard their artistic reputations impugned at a neighbouring table in a restaurant afterwards he leapt to their defence.
According to Anselm Hüttenbrenner, ‘Schubert had too high an opinion of Beethoven for any other contemporary composer to impress him’. Perhaps this is so, but it is certain that contemporary composers nevertheless influenced him. Whatever music this unconsciously thieving magpie ever heard or read seems to have been stored: in the earlier years it emerges transformed and (unless the music is of a Beethovenian or Mozartian cast) raised to a higher power. In Lieder circles much play has been made of Schubert’s debt to Zumsteeg and Reichardt, and it is true that in a comparison of two settings of Die Erwartung—Zumsteeg’s and Schubert’s (Volume 1)—it is astonishing to see how Schubert first ‘steals’ Zumsteeg’s ideas and then tums them to a nobler metal, an alchemy beyond the reach of the Berlin composer. But the influence of the North German ballad-composers is only one strand in the making of Schubert. Thorough study of the composer’s little-known and seldom performed operas reveals the influence of such composers as Joseph Weigl and Adalbert Gyrowetz. Elizabeth McKay has pointed out how much Schubert’s Singspiel Die Freunde von Salamanka, D326 (1815), owes to Weigl’s Das Waisenhaus and Die Schweizerfamilie and how Schubert’s Singspiel Fernando, D220 (1815), adapts musical and libretto ideas (induding even the naming of characters) from Gyrowetz’s Der Augenarzt.
All of this merely confirms the fact that an awareness of the life of the lyric stage was a part of Schubert’s equipment from the earliest years. His greatest ambition was to be recognized as a successful opera-composer, and it was natural to him to acquire the skills and lore of the opera enthusiast. He saw (and heard) singers divided into their different Fäche (soprano, mezzo, tenor, bass—and all the subdivisions within the various species) from quite early on and, much more than any other great Lieder composer before Richard Strauss, had an intimate understanding and love of the capabilities of these different categories of voice. His chosen singer for his Lieder was Johann Michael Vogl, the Orestes (in Iphigénie en Tauride) whose reputation he had, as a student, defended with a Prommer’s plucky partiality, and whose talents were every bit as much histrionic as vocal. Right to the end of his life, he counted contact with Madame Milder an honour, and in producing Der Hirt auf dem Felsen it was almost certainly her wish that was his command. Too much is made in some quarters today about the separation of opera house and Lieder platform. The inventor of the Lied as we know it certainly did not regard his song creations as intellectually superior or more refined than his operatic work. That they are undoubtedly more effective is probably more to do with his innate temperament, the work of a man who can enchant and excite a small group of friends but who shrinks from playing the bully or the entrepreneur. The imposition of the will on singers, players and theatrical circumstances which makes the successful man of the theatre was of little interest to Schubert; if it had been he would have had many fewer friends. One must be able ruthlessly to interrupt conversations, cut (and cut into) dialogues, hurry things along, and mercilessly identify and eliminate dead wood. There is no evidence to suggest that Schubert enjoyed, or was suited to, these particular trappings of power. In every great opera-composer (and this excludes such masters as Bruckner and Brahms as well as Schubert) there is a large measure of worldly cunning (begging, coaxing and bargaining with a librettist takes a certain mixture of diplomacy and tyranny) and an instinct for survival that would now be termed ‘street-wise’. This temperamental flair, so much a part of Mozart’s genius, cannot be learned or imitated. Schubert’s own flair and genius inhabited a different part of town in this case quite a long way from the Kärthnerthor. Opera may have been his breeding-ground, but his was a different type of musical breeding. The concept of drama (as those who admire both Japanese Kabuki and English Restoration Comedy will admit) can take many forms and shapes. It was Schubert’s destiny to absorb countless dramatic lessons and ideas from many a night in the opera house and to use them in the new framework of song. I regard this less as his failure as a writer of operas than as an affirmation that every truly great and honest composer adapts everything he learns to his own voice and can only write himself into his music.
The music on this disc consists largely of songs with something of an operatic or theatrical inspiration. Seven items are in Italian, four of them taken from Metastasio libretti and one from a libretto by Goldoni. Four songs are extracts from Schubert operas which for one reason or another have found their way into the piano-accompanied repertoire: the exquisite ‘Romanze’ from the incidental music to Rosamunde has been a piano-accompanied item since Schubert’s own lifetime. Of the five songs with women’s names, two are characters from plays, and the others all delineate female characters, a dramatic skill in which Schubert is second to none among song-composers. All this leads inevitably to Der Hirt auf dem Felsen which unites the themes of the disc—opera and virtuosity, and the apotheosis of the pastoral tradition (with instrumental obbligato) in song.
Graham Johnson © 1990