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History Of Music:
George Frederic Handel
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Ludwig Van Beethoven
The Romantic Composers
Development Of The Piano
Famous Operas And Their Composers
Wagner And His Music Dramas
Tristan And Isolde
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
It was not until the early part of the nineteenth century that Germany created a form of opera that was worthy of comparison with the musical drama of Italy and France. Up to that time Germany had been dominated by foreign influence and the struggle to free itself from the mastery of its rivals was of far-reaching results. There began to be a demand for a national school not only of music but art, literature and philosophy as well; it is more than mere coincidence that the achievement of this desire was contemporaneous with the overthrow of Napoleon's tyranny and the beginnings of a German government.
The opera of this nation, like that of Italy, originated in a kind of entertainment composed of songs and dialogue. This stingspiel (song-play) was usually based upon episodes from the Bible but was often given outside the church to celebrate any festival. "Dr. Franz Gehrung, of Vienna, states that it was from those given outside-as being of a freer and (ultimately) of a humorous character-that the singspiel more directly developed, these being the miracle plays, to which the passions (performed within the church) gave rise; and that it was in the plays given outside that the German language gradually superseded the Latin-at first in the dialogue and afterwards in the songs. He also gives the name of a German miracle play in which all the words are sung in German, this being `Spiel voss den zehn jung framen,' which was performed at Eispenach in 1322."
The development of the opera from the singspiel was of course very gradual. The conception of modern opera dates only from the time of Gluck (1714-1787) and it will be re membered that his work was carried on in Paris. Mozart may be said to be the first distinctly German opera composer, and only one of his three great operas was written in the native language. In "Die Zauberflote" we find the first influences of the Lied to be found in operatic music.
The story of the growth of German opera from this time on to the appearance of Wagner's music-dramas may be traced in Beethoven's one opera, "Fidelio" and the works of Carl Weber, all of which are fully discussed in the lives of these composers previously given.
Too much credit cannot be given these early writers for the high ideals they upheld in the face of many difficulties. To Weber and Spohr is due the establishment of German romantic opera, the results of which can hardly yet be estimated. Romantic opera writers closely following Weber are: Heinrich Marschner (1795-1961), Kreutzer (1780-1849) and Albert Lortzing (1803-1852). These composers were far excelled by Weber in real genius but none the less they possessed the same romantic spirit, which was later completed and transcended by Wagner.
Germany has not been lacking in opera composers since the time of Richard Wagner. Herman Goetz (1840-1876) evinced great talent in his brilliant comic opera "Desspenstigen Zahmung," freely adapted from Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew." Karl Goldmark made himself famous by a single opera-"Die Konigin von Saba," based upon an imaginary love adventure of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Like all devotees of the romantic school, Goldmark has the gift of creating tuneful melody, but his work lacks true depth of feeling.
The story of his opera is briefly this: King Solomon, learning that the Queen of Sheba is about to visit him, sends a favorite courtier, Assad, to escort her on her journey. Now Assad is betrothed to Sulamith, daughter of the high-priest but on his way to meet the Queen, he sees in a forest a beauti ful nymph, whose beauty so impresses him that he forgets his love for Sulamith. Upon his return to announce their arrival to Solomon, Assad confesses his secret and the wise king counsels him to forget the episode and marry his betrothed the next day. Assad gives his promise to do this and the Queen is announced.
Followed by her majestic retinue, the Queen of Sheba enters while a jubilant chorus sings "To the Sun of the South Our Welcome We Bring." Only when she stands before the King himself does the Queen lift her veil and then, with a start, Assad recognizes her as his nymph of the forest. The proud Queen affects not to know him, but when she learns that he is to wed another, love for him secretly rises in her heart.
Although she is too proud to resign her position and marry him, yet the Queen is full of jealousy toward the young bride and swears vengeance on her rival. That night one of her slave-women allures Assad to the garden, where he finds the Queen awaiting him. So completely does she fascinate him with her arts that he ignores his promise to the King and makes love to her, as she wishes him to do.
The next day the wedding is celebrated as arranged and Assad leads Sulamith to the altar. Just as he is about to accept the ring offered by the bride's father, the Queen of Sheba appears, bringing a dazzling wedding gift in the form of a golden cup filled with pearls. Again falling under the Queen's influence, Assad throws the ring from him and falls at her feet. All wait for the Queen to explain and Solomon, who guesses the truth, bids her speak, but for the second time she refuses to publicly admit of her infatuation, and scorns her lover. Assad, however, encouraged by her secret impassioned glance, declares that she is his divinity and falls at her feet as if to worship her as such. Incensed with wrath, that such blasphemy shall take place in the temple, the priests instantly demand his death. The Queen repents having allowed the affair to take so serious a turn and both she and Sulamith plead in his behalf.
In all the excitement Solomon alone remains calm; he dismisses the priests, for he himself will judge the courtier. He adjourns to the banquet-hall, where a delightful ballet is given in the royal guest's honor. At the end of the feast, the Queen demands Assad's pardon, but this Solomon refuses. She then tries to ensnare him by her charms but the King treats her with cold contempt; fairly beside herself with rage and mortification, the fair ruler vows to free Assad and to seek vengeance on his captor. Solomon, fully understanding that she will go to any lengths to attain her end, changes the sentence of the prisoner to banishment from the country.
Next we find Assad alone in the desert, whither he has been exiled; he is utterly wearied and heartily repents of his folly. Suddenly the Queen appears on the scene, crossing the desert with her retinue. She once more tries to lure him with soft words, but in vain-he recognizes her fickleness and prefers to die alone in the desert rather than succumb to her will. He is about to expire in the awful desert heat, when Sulamith appears, having followed him without resting night or day. Just then a simoon blows across the desert and they perish in each other's arms, while in a mirage the Queen's procession is seen journeying on its way.
Another star in the firmament of German opera composers is Ingelbert Humperdinck. Born September 1, 1854, at Siegburg on the Rhine, he evinced marked ability at a very early age. He studied at Munich and later in Italy, where he attracted the attention of Wagner, and two years later was invited by that master to go to Venice as his guest. He is considered by many critics to be the only, living composer who gives promise of developing the music-drama as it was conceived by Wagner.
His opera "Hansel and Gretel" is one of the most charming in all dramatic repertoire and is frequently heard in all countries today. The story closely follows that of the Grimm's fairy tale of the same name, the text being arranged by the composer's sister; this she did for the amusement of her own children and was aided by her brother by his writing simple melodies to accompany the performance. Later, however, he saw its possibilities and gave it the form in which it is known to opera attendants today. Siegfried, son of Richard Wagner, has declared it to be the most important German opera since "Parsifal," despite its simplicity.
The curtain rises upon the home of Peter, a broom-maker. He and his wife are both away to seek food for the hungry children, who have been left behind to knit and make brooms. Hansel and Gretel sing a charming duet, starting with a lament against poverty and ending in a perfect romp of childish glee. This is interrupted by the return of the mother, who comes empty-handed; she chides them for wasting their time and in her anger upsets the milk jug, which contained their only hope for supper. Tired out with the disappointments of the day, she soon falls asleep; soon, however, she is awakened by the return of Peter, who has been more fortunate in securing provisions. They both miss the children, and know at once that they must still be in the woods, whither they have been sent to gather strawberries. Peter recounts the grewsome tale of the witch who haunts the woods and lives in a candy house, enticing little children there that she may devour them.
In the next act the children are seen in the forest, making garlands and mocking the cuckoos with beautiful echo accompaniment. Finally their play ceases and they realize that they cannot find their way out of the maze of trees. The sleep fairy approaches them and soothes their fear, putting them to sleep with a woodland lullaby.
Then is pictured the witch's house. Hansel and Gretel are still sleeping, but the Dawn-Fairy shakes dewdrops upon them, singing the delightful song: "I'm up with early dawn ing." Gretel wakens first and hastily rouses Hansel by telling him all she has seen in her dream. Now they discover the wonderful house, with an oven on one side and a cage on the other, both joined to the house by a gingerbread fence; the house itself is constructed of candies and sweets, which appeal strongly to the hungry children. Breaking off a piece, they proceed to devour it, when suddenly the old witch appears and surprises them. After many antics upon her broom-stick, which are cleverly reflected in the music, she makes ready to cook Gretel in the fire; the child affects not to know how to enter the oven and requests the witch to show her first. Bending low before the door, the old woman is suddenly shoved into it by the quick children, who then shut the door. They rush into the house and hastily break off sweetmeats and nuts, which they gather in Gretel's apron.
Suddenly the oven falls to pieces and a crowd of little girls and boys tumble out, released from the gingerbread disguises. They are happy to be set free and the children fall into a joyous dance. Just then Peter and his wife appear on the scene, and rapturously embrace their children. The old witch falls out of the broken oven in the form of a large honey-cake and all join in a song of thanksgiving.
The central figure in musical Germany today is Richard Strauss, who has set the whole world simply aghast with wonder. So far has he carried the realistic idea in music that he pictures with startling vividness the squeaking of a wind-mill, the bleating of a flock of sheep or the tumult of a battlefield. Whether or not this is really music, in its highest sense, remains an open question, but certain it is that this composer has made orchestral instruments pliant to his will as has no other, and that his powers of orchestration are seemingly without limit. It is impossible to forecast the place he will hold in musical history; some critics think he is as marvelous a genius as Wagner, while others scoff at the idea of his works standing the test of time. Years alone will decide the question and the student of music would do well to follow his career carefully, for undoubtedly he is opening a new field of art.