VIEW THE MOBILE VERSION of Informational Site Network Informational
     Home - All Operas - Opera Stories - Opera History - Opera Physiology

Donizetti And Bellini
French Opera From Lulli To The Death Of Rameau
General View Of The Opera In Europe In The Eighteenth Century Until The Appearance Of Gluck
Gluck And Piccinni In Paris
Introduction And Progress Of The Ballet
Introduction Of Italian Opera Into England
Introduction Of The Opera Into France And England
Manners And Customs At The London Opera Half A Century Since
On The Nature Of The Opera And Its Merits As Compared With Other Forms Of The Drama
Opera In France After The Departure Of Gluck
Opera In France Under The Consulate Empire And Restoration
Opera In Italy Germany And Russia During And In Connection With The Republican And Napoleonic Wars
Rossini And His Period
Rossini Spohr Beethoven Weber And Hoffmann
Rousseau As A Critic And As A Composer Of Music
The French Opera Before And After The Revolution
The Italian Opera Under Handel
The Opera In England At The End Of The Eighteenth And Beginning Of The Nineteenth Century
The Origin Of The Opera In Italy And Its Introduction Into Germany

History Of The Opera From Its Origin In Italy To The Present Tim

Rossini Spohr Beethoven Weber And Hoffmann

[Sidenote: ROSSINI.]

Bellini and Donizetti were contemporaries of Rossini; so were Paisiello
and Cimarosa; so are M. Verdi and M. Meyerbeer; but Rossini has outlived
most of them, and will certainly outlive them all. It is now forty-eight
years since Tancredi, forty-five since Otello, and forty-five since
Il Barbiere di Siviglia were written. With the exception of Cimarosa's
Matrimonio Segretto, which at long intervals may still occasionally be
heard, the works of Rossini's Italian predecessors have been thrown into
utter obscurity by the light of his superior genius. Let us make all due
allowances for such change of taste as must result in music, as in all
things, from the natural changeableness of the human disposition; still
no variation has taken place in the estimation in which Rossini's works
are held. It was to be expected that a musician of equal genius, coming
after Paisiello and his compeers, young and vigorous, when they were old
and exhausted, would in time completely eclipse them, even in respect to
those works which they had written in their best days; but the
remarkable thing is, that Rossini so re-modelled Italian opera, and gave
to the world so many admirable examples of his own new style, that to
opera-goers of the last thirty years he may be said to be the most
ancient of those Italian composers who are not absolutely forgotten. At
the same time, after hearing William Tell, it is impossible to deny
that Rossini is also the most modern of operatic composers. That is to
say, that since William Tell was produced, upwards of thirty years
ago, the art of writing dramatic music has not advanced a step. Other
composers have written admirable operas during Rossini's time; but if no
Italian opera seria, produced prior to Otello, can be compared to
Otello; if no opera, subsequent to William Tell, can be ranked on a
level with William Tell; if rivals have arisen, and Rossini's operas
of five-and-forty years ago still continue to be admired and applauded;
above all, if a singer,[103] the favourite heroine of a composer[104]
who is so boastfully modern that he fancies he belongs to the next age,
and who is nothing if not an innovator; if even this ultra modern
heroine appears, when she wishes really to distinguish herself in a
Rossinian opera of 1813;[105] then it follows that of our actual
operatic period, and dating from the early part of the present century,
Rossini is simply the Alpha and the Omega. Undoubtedly his works are
full of beauty, gaiety, life, and of much poetry of a positive,
passionate kind, but they are wanting in spiritualism, or rather they
do not possess spirituality, and exhibit none of the poetry of romance.
It would be difficult to say precisely in what the "romantic"
consists;--and I am here reminded that several French writers have
spoken of Rossini as a composer of the "romantic school," simply (as I
imagine) because his works attained great popularity in France at the
same time as those of Victor Hugo and his followers, and because he gave
the same extension to the opera which the cultivators and naturalisers
in France of the Shakspearian drama gave, after Rossini, to their
plays.[106] I may safely say, however, that with the "romantic," as an
element of poetry, we always associate somewhat of melancholy and
vagueness, and of dreaminess, if not of actual mystery. A bright
passionate love-song of Rossini's is no more "romantic" than is a
magnificent summer's day under an Italian sky; but Schubert's well known
Serenade is essentially "romantic;" and Schubert, as well as Hoffmann,
(a composer of whom I shall afterwards have a few words to say), is
decidedly of the same school as Weber, who is again of the same school,
or rather of the same class, as Schubert and Beethoven, in so far that
not one of the three ever visited Italy, or was influenced, further than
was absolutely inevitable, by Italian composers.

[Sidenote: SPOHR.]

As a romantic composer Weber may almost be said to stand alone. As a
thoroughly German composer he belongs to the same class as Beethoven and
Spohr. Spohr, greatly as his symphonies and chamber compositions are
admired, has yet never established himself in public favour as an
operatic composer--at least not in England, nor indeed anywhere out of
Germany. I may add, that in Germany itself, the land above all others of
scientific music, the works which keep possession of the stage are, for
the most part, those which the public also love to applaud in other
countries. The truth is, that the success of an opera is seldom in
proportion to its abstract musical merit, just as the success of a drama
does not depend, or depends but very little, on the manner in which it
is written. We have seen plays by Browning, Taylor (I mean the author of
Philip Von Artevelde), Leigh Hunt, and other most distinguished writers,
prove failures; while dramas and comedies put together by actors and
playwrights have met with great success. This success is not to be
undervalued; all I mean to say is, that it is not necessarily gained by
the best writers in the drama, or by the best composers in the opera;
though the best composers and the best writers ought to take care to
achieve it in every department in which they present themselves. In the
meanwhile, Spohr's dramatic works, with all their beauties, have never
taken root in this country; while even Beethoven's Fidelio, one of the
greatest of operas, does not occupy any clearly marked space in the
history of opera; nor is it as an operatic composer that Beethoven has
gained his immense celebrity.

[Sidenote: BEETHOVEN.]

All London opera-goers remember Mademoiselle Sophie Cruvelli's admirable
performance in Fidelio; and like Mademoiselle Cruvelli (or Cruwel),
all the great German singers who have visited England--with the single
exception of Mademoiselle Titiens--have some time or other played the
part of the heroine in Beethoven's famous dramatic work: but Fidelio
has never been translated into English or French,--has never been played
by any thoroughly Italian company, and admired, as it must always be by
musicians--nor has ever excited any great enthusiasm among the English
public, except when it has been executed by an entire company of
Germans,--the only people who can do justice to its magnificent
choruses. It is a work apart in more than one sense, and it has not had
that perceptible influence on the works which have succeeded it, either
in Germany or in other countries, that has been exercised by Weber's
operas in Germany, and by Rossini's everywhere. For full particulars
respecting Beethoven and his three styles, and Fidelio and its three
overtures, the reader may be referred to the works published at St.
Petersburgh by M. Lenz in 1852 (Beethoven et ses trois styles), at
Coblentz, by Dr. Wegeler and Ferdinand Ries in 1838, and at Munster, by
Schindler (that friend of Beethoven's, who, according to the malicious
Heine, wrote "Ami de Beethoven" on his card), in 1845. Schindler's
book is the sourse of nearly all the biographical particulars since
published respecting Beethoven; that of M. Lenz is chiefly remarkable
for the inflated nonsense it contains in the shape of criticism. Thus
Beethoven's third style is said to be "un jugement porté sur le cosmos
humain, et non plus une participation à ses impressions,"--words which,
I confess, I do not know how to render into intelligible English. His
symphonies in general are "events of universal history rather than
musical productions of more or less merit." Those who have read M.
Lenz's extravagant production, will remember that he attacks here and
there M. Oulibicheff, author of the "Life of Mozart," published at
Moscow in 1844. M. Oulibicheff replied in a work devoted specially to
Beethoven (and to M. Lenz), published at St. Petersburgh in 1854;[107]
in which he is said by our best critics not to have done full justice to
Beethoven, though he well maintains his assertion; an assertion which
appears to me quite unassailable, that the composer of Don Juan
combined all the merits of all the schools which had preceded him. I
have already endeavoured, in more than one place, to impress this truth
upon such of my readers as might not be sufficiently sensible of it, and
moreover, that all the important operatic reforms attributed to the
successors of Mozart, and especially to Rossini, belong to Mozart
himself, who from his eminence dominates equally over the present and
the past.


Karl Maria von Weber has had a very different influence on the opera
from that exercised by Beethoven and Spohr; and so much of his method of
operatic composition as could easily be imitated has found abundance of
imitators. Thus Weber's plan of taking the principal melodies for his
overtures from the operas which they are to precede, has been very
generally followed; so also has his system of introducing national airs,
more or less modified, when his great object is to give to his work a
national colour.[108] This process, which produces admirable results in
the hands of a composer of intelligence and taste, becomes, when adopted
by inferior musicians, simply a convenient mode of plagiarism. Without
for one moment ranking Rossini, Bellini, or Donizetti in the latter
class, I may nevertheless observe, that the cavatina of La Gazza Ladra
is founded on an air sung by the peasants of Sicily; that the melody of
the trio in the Barber of Seville (Zitti, Zitti), is Simon's air in
the Seasons, note for note; that Di tanti palpiti was originally a
Roman Catholic hymn; that the music of La Sonnambula is full of
reminiscences of the popular music of Sicily; and that Donizetti has
also had recourse to national airs for the tunes of his choruses in La
Favorite. In the above instances, which might easily be multiplied the
composers seem to me rather to have suited their own personal
convenience, than to have aimed at giving any particular "colour" to
their works. However that may be, I feel obliged to them for my part for
having brought to light beautiful melodies, which but for them might
have remained in obscurity, as I also do to Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven,
and Mendelssohn, for the admirable use they also have occasionally made
of popular themes. It appears to me, however, (to speak now of operatic
composers alone) that there is a great difference between borrowing an
air from an oratorio, a collection of national music, or any other
source, simply because it happens to be beautiful, and doing so because
it is appropriate to a particular personage or scene. We may not blame,
but we cannot praise Rossini for taking a melody of Haydn's for his
Zitti, Zitti, instead of inventing one for himself; nor was there any
particular merit, except that of civility, in giving "Berta," in the
same opera, a Russian air to sing, which Rossini had heard at the house
of a Russian lady residing at Rome, for whom he had a certain
admiration. But the Ranz des Vaches, introduced with such admirable
effect into Guillaume Tell, where it is marvellously embellished, and
yet loses nothing of its original character; this Ranz des Vaches at
once transports us amongst the Swiss mountains. So Luther's hymn is in
its proper place in the Huguenots;[109] so is the Persian air, made
the subject of a chorus of Persian beauties by the Russian composer
Glinka, in his Rouslan e Loudmila; so also is the Arabian march (first
published by Niebuhr in his "Travels in Arabia"), played behind the
scenes by the guards of the seraglio in Oberon, and the old Spanish
romance employed as the foundation to the overture of Preciosa.

[Sidenote: WEBER.]

Weber had a fondness not only for certain instrumental combinations and
harmonic effects, but also for particular instruments, such as the
clarionet and the horn, and particular chords (which caused Beethoven to
say that Weber's Euryanthe was a collection of diminished sevenths).
There are certain rhythms too, which, if Weber did not absolutely
invent, he has employed so happily, and has shown such a marked liking
for them (not only in his operas, but also in his pianoforte
compositions, and other instrumental works), that they may almost be
said to belong to him. With regard to the orchestral portion of his
operas generally, I may remark that Weber, though too high-souled a poet
to fall into the error of direct imitation of external noises, has yet
been able to suggest most charmingly and poetically, such vague natural
sounds as the rustling of the leaves of the forest, and the murmuring of
the waves of the sea. Finally, to speak of what defies analysis, but to
assert what every one who has listened to Weber's music will I think
admit, his music is full of that ideality and spirituality which in
literature is regarded in the present day, if not as the absolute
essence of poetry, at least, as one of its most essential elements. Read
Weber's life, study his letters, listen again and again to his music,
and you will find that he was a conscientious, dutiful, religious man,
with a thoroughly musical organization, great imaginative powers,
inexhaustible tenderness, and a deep, intuitive appreciation of all that
is most beautiful in popular legends. He was an artist of the highest
order, and with him art was truly a religion. He believed in its
ennobling effect, and that it was to be used only for ennobling
purposes. Thus, to have departed from the poetic exigencies of a subject
to gratify the caprice of a singer, or to attain the momentary applause
of the public would, to Weber, with the faith he held, have been a
heresy and a crime.

Weber has not precisely founded a school, but his influence is
perceptible in some of the works of Mendelssohn, (as, for instance, in
the overture to a Midsummer Night's Dream) and in many portions of
Meyerbeer's operas, especially in the fantastic music of Robert le
Diable, and in certain passages of Dinorah--a legend which Weber
himself would have loved to treat. Meyerbeer is said to have borrowed
many of his instrumental combinations from Weber; but in speaking of the
points of resemblance between the two composers, I was thinking not of
details of style, but of the general influence of Weber's thought and
manner. If Auber is indebted to Weber it is simply for the idea of
making the overture out of the airs of an opera, and of colouring the
melodic portion by the introduction of national airs. Only while Weber
gives to his operas a becoming national or poetic colour throughout, the
musical tints in M. Auber's dramatic works are often by no means in
harmony. The Italian airs in La Muette are appropriate enough, and the
whole of that work is in good keeping; but in the Domino Noir,
charming opera as it is, no one can help noticing that Spanish songs,
and songs essentially French, follow one another in the most abrupt
manner. As nothing can be more Spanish than the second movement of
"Angèle's" scene (in the third act) so nothing can be more French, more
Parisian, more vaudevillistic than the first.


But to return to Weber and his operas. Der Freischütz, decidedly the
most important of all Weber's works, and which expresses in a more
remarkable manner than any other of his dramatic productions the natural
bent of his genius, was performed for the first time at Berlin in 1821.
Euryanthe was produced at Vienna in 1823, and Oberon at London in
1826. Der Freischütz is certainly the most perfect German opera that
exists; not that it is a superior work to Don Giovanni, but that Don
Giovanni is less a German than a universal opera; whereas Der
Freischütz is essentially of Germany, by its subject, by the
physiognomy of the personages introduced, and by the general character
of the music. There is this resemblance, however, between Don Giovanni
and Der Freischütz: that in each the composer had met with a libretto
peculiarly suited to his genius--the librettist having first conceived
the plan of the opera, and having long carried its germ in his mind.
Lorenzo da Ponte, in his memoirs (of which an interesting account was
published some years ago by M. Scudo, the accomplished critic of the
Revue des Deux Mondes) states, that he had long thought of Don Juan as
an admirable subject for an opera, of which he felt the poetic
truthfulness only too well, from reflecting on his own career; and that
he suggested it to Mozart, not only because he appreciated that
composer's high dramatic genius, but also because he had studied his
mental and moral nature; and saw, from his simplicity, his loftiness of
character, and his reverential, religious disposition, that he would do
full justice to the marvellous legend. Frederic Kind has also published
a little volume ("Der Freischütz-Buch"), in which he explains how the
circumstances of his life led him to meditate from an early age on such
legends as that which Weber has treated in his master-piece. When Weber
was introduced to Kind, he was known as the director of the Opera at
Prague, and also, and above all, as the composer of numerous popular and
patriotic choruses, which were sung by all Germany during the national
war of 1813. He had not at this time produced any opera; nor had Kind,
a poet of some reputation, ever written the libretto of one. Kind was
unwilling at first to attempt a style in which he did not feel at all
sure of success. One day, however, taking up a book, he said to Weber:
"There ought to be some thing here that would suit us, and especially
you, who have already treated popular subjects." He at the same time
handed to the musician a collection of legends, directing his attention
in particular to Apel's Freischütz. Weber, who already knew the story,
was delighted with the suggestion. "Divine! divine!" he exclaimed with
enthusiasm; and the poet at once commenced his libretto.


No great work ever obtained a more complete and immediate triumph than
Der Freischütz; and within a few years of its production at Berlin it
was translated and re-produced in all the principal capitals of Europe.
It was played at London in English, at Paris in French, and at both
cities in German. In London it became so popular, that at the height of
its first success a gentleman, in advertising for a servant, is said to
have found it necessary to stipulate that he should not be able to
whistle the airs from Der Freischütz. In Paris, its fate was curious,
and in some respects almost inexplicable. It was brought out in 1824 at
the Odéon, in its original form, and was hissed. Whether the intelligent
French audience objected to the undeniable improbability of the chief
incidents in the drama, or whether the originality of the music offended
their unprepared ears, or whatever may have been the cause, Weber's
master-piece was damned. Its translator, M. Castil Blaze, withdrew it,
but determined to offer it to the critical public of the Odéon in
another form. He did not hesitate to remodel Der Freischütz, changing
the order of the pieces, cutting out such beauties as the French thought
laughable, interpolating here and there such compositions of his own as
he thought would please them, and finally presenting them this
remarkable medley (which, however, still consisted mainly of airs and
choruses by Weber) nine days after the failure of Der Freischütz,
under the title of Robin des Bois. The opera, as decomposed and
recomposed by M. Castil Blaze, was so successful, that it was
represented three hundred and fifty-seven times at the Odéon. Moreover,
it had already been played sixty times at the Opéra Comique, when the
French Dramatic Authors' Society interfered to prevent its further
representation at that theatre, on the ground that it had not been
specially written for it. M. Castil Blaze, in the version he has himself
published of this curious affair, tells us, that his first version of
Der Freischütz, in which his "respect for the work and the author had
prevented him from making the least change" was "sifflé, meurtri,
bafoué, navré, moqué, conspué, turlupiné, hué, vilipendié,
terrassé, déchiré, lacéré, cruellement enfoncé, jusqu'au
troisiéme dessous." This, and the after success of his modified
version, justified him, he thinks, in depriving Weber's work of all its
poetry, and reducing it to the level of the comprehension of a French
musical audience in the year 1824.

Strangely enough, when Berlioz's version of Der Freischütz was
produced at the Académie in 1841, it met with scarcely more success than
had been obtained by Der Freischütz in its original musical form at
the Odéon. The recitatives added by M. Berlioz, if not objectionable in
themselves, are at least to be condemned in so far that they are not
Weber's, that they prolong the music beyond Weber's intentions, and,
above all, that they change the entire character of the work. I cannot
think, after Meyerbeer's Dinorah, that recitative is an inappropriate
language in the mouths of peasants. Recitative of an heroic character,
would be so, no doubt; but not such as a composer of genius, or even of
taste or talent, would write for them. Nevertheless, Weber conceived his
master-piece as a species of melodrama, in which the personages were now
to sing, now to speak, "through the music," (to adopt an expressive
theatrical phrase), now to speak without any musical accompaniment at
all. If, at a theatre devoted exclusively to the performance of grand
opera, it is absolutely necessary to replace the spoken dialogue by
recitative, then this dialogue should, at least, be so compressed as to
reduce the amount of added recitative to a minimum quantity. Der
Freischütz, however, will always be heard to the greatest advantage in
the form in which it was originally produced. The pauses between the
pieces of music have, it must be remembered, been all premeditated, and
their effect taken into account by the composer.


But the transformations of Der Freischütz are not yet at an end. Six
years ago M. Castil Blaze re-arranged his Robin des Bois once more,
restored what he had previously cut out, cut out what he had himself
added to Weber's music, and produced his version, No. 3 (which must have
differed very little, if at all, from his unfortunate version, No. 1),
at the Théâtre Lyrique.

Every season, too, it is rumoured that Der Freischütz is to be
produced at one of the Italian theatres of London, with Mademoiselle
Titiens or Madame Csillag in the principal part. When managers are tired
of tiring the public with perpetual variations between Verdi and
Meyerbeer, (to whose monstrously long operas my sole but sufficient
objection is, that there is too much of them, and--with the exception of
the charming Dinorah--that they are stuffed full of ballets,
processions, and other pretexts for unnecessary scenic display), then we
shall assuredly have an opportunity of hearing once more in England the
masterpiece of the chief of all the composers of the romantic and
legendary school. In such a case, who will supply the necessary
recitatives? Those of M. Berlioz have been tried, and found wanting. Mr.
Costa's were not a whit more satisfactory. M. Alary, the mutilator of
Don Giovanni, would surely not be encouraged to try his hand on
Weber's masterpiece? Meyerbeer, between whose genius and that of Weber,
considerable affinity exists, is, perhaps, the only composer of the
present day whom it would be worth while to ask to write recitatives for
Der Freischütz. The additions would have to be made with great
discretion, so as not to encumber the opera; but who would venture to
give a word of advice, if the work were undertaken by M. Meyerbeer?

Weber's Preciosa was produced at Berlin in 1820, a year before Der
Freischütz, which latter opera appears to have occupied its composer
four years--undoubtedly the four years best spent of all his artistic
life. The libretto of Preciosa is founded on Cervantes' Gipsy of
Madrid, (of which M. Louis Viardot has published an excellent French
translation); and here Weber, faithful to his system has given abundant
"colour" to his work, in which the Spanish romance introduced into the
overture, and the Gipsies' march are, with the waltz (which may be said
to be in Weber's personal style), the most striking and characteristic

[Sidenote: EURYANTHE.]

Euryanthe was written for Vienna, where it was represented for the
first time in 1823, the part of "Euryanthe" being filled by Mademoiselle
Sontag, that of "Adolar," by Heitzinger. The libretto of this opera,
composed by a lady, Madame Wilhelmine de Chézy is by no means
interesting, and the dulness of the poem, though certainly not
communicated to the music, has caused the latter to suffer from the mere
fact of being attached to it. Euryanthe was received coldly by the
public of Vienna, and was called by its wits--professors of the
"calembourg d'à-peu-près"--Ennuyante. If such facetiousness as this
was thought enlivening, it is easy to understand how Weber's music was
considered the reverse. I have already mentioned Beethoven's remark
about Euryanthe being "a collection of diminished sevenths." Weber was
naturally not enchanted with this observation; indeed it is said to
have pained him exceedingly, and some days after the first production of
Euryanthe he paid a visit to Beethoven, in order to submit the score
to his judgment. Beethoven received him kindly, but said to him, with a
certain roughness which was habitual to him: "You should have come to me
before the representation, not afterwards...." Nevertheless," he added,
"I advise you to treat Euryanthe as I did Fidelio; that is to say,
cut out a third."

Euryanthe, however, soon met with the success it deserved, not only at
Berlin, Dresden, and Leipzig, but at Vienna itself, where the part
created by Mademoiselle Sontag was performed in 1825 by Madame
Schroeder-Devrient, in a manner which excited general enthusiasm. The
passionate duet between "Adolar" and "Euryanthe," in the second act, as
sung by Heitzinger and Madame Schroeder, would alone have sufficed to
attract the public of Vienna to Weber's opera, now that it was revived.

Oberon, Weber's last opera, was composed for Covent Garden Theatre, in
1826. Some ingenious depreciators of English taste have discovered that
Weber died from grief, caused by the coldness with which this work was
received by the London public. With regard to this subject, I cannot do
better than quote the excellent remarks of M. Scudo. After mentioning
that Oberon was received with enthusiasm on its first production at
Covent Garden--that it was "appreciated by those who were worthy of
comprehending it"--and that an English musical journal, the
Harmonicon, "published a remarkable article, in which all the beauties
of the score were brought out with great taste," he observes that "it is
impossible to quote an instance of a great man in literature, or in the
arts, whose merit was entirely overlooked by his contemporaries;" while,
"as for the death of Weber, it may be explained by fatigue, by grief,
without doubt, but, above all, by an organic disease, from which he had
suffered for years." At the same time "the enthusiasm exhibited by the
public, at the first representation of Oberon, did not keep at the
same height at the following representations. The master-piece of the
German composer experienced much the same fate as William Tell in

[Sidenote: OBERON.]

Weber himself, in a letter written to his wife, on the very night of the
first performance, says:--"My dear Lina; thanks to God and to his all
powerful will, I obtained this evening the greatest success in my life.
The emotion produced in my breast by such a triumph, is more than I can
describe. To God alone belongs the glory. When I entered the orchestra,
the house, crammed to the roof, burst into a frenzy of applause. Hats
and handkerchiefs were waved in the air. The overture had to be executed
twice, as had also several of the pieces in the opera itself. The air
which Braham sings in the first act was encored; so was Fatima's
romance, and a quartett in the second act. The public even wished to
hear the finale over again. In the third act, Fatima's ballad was
re-demanded. At the end of the representation I was called on to the
stage by the enthusiastic acclamations of the public, an honour which
no composer had ever before obtained in England. All went excellently,
and every one around me was happy."

In spite of the enthusiasm inspired by Weber's works in England, when
they were first produced, and for some years afterwards, we have now but
rarely an opportunity of hearing one of them. Oberon, it is true, was
brought out at Her Majesty's Theatre at the end of last season, when,
not being able to achieve miracles, it did not save the manager from
bankruptcy; but the existence of Weber's other works seems to be
forgotten by our directors, English as well as Italian, though from time
to time a rumour goes about, which proves to be a rumour and nothing
more, that Der Freischütz is to be performed by one of our Italian
companies. In the meanwhile Weber has found an abundance of appreciation
in France, where, at the ably and artistically-conducted Théâtre
Lyrique, Der Freischütz, Oberon, Euryanthe and Preciosa have all
been brought out, and performed with remarkable success during the last
few years.

A composer, whose works present many points of analogy with those of
Weber, and which therefore belong essentially to the German romantic
school, is Hoffmann--far better known by his tales than by his
Miserere, his Requiem, his airs and choruses for Werner's Crusade
of the Baltic, or his operas of Love and Jealousy, the Canon of
Milan, or Undine. This last production has always been regarded as
his master-piece. Indeed, with Undine, Hoffmann obtained his one great
musical success; and it is easy to account for the marked favour with
which that work was received in Germany. In the first place the
fantastic nature of the subject was eminently suited to the peculiar
genius of the composer. Then he possessed the advantage of having an
excellent libretto, written by Lamotte-Fouqué, the author of the
original tale; and, finally, the opera was admirably executed at the
Royal Theatre of Berlin. Probably not one of my readers has heard
Hoffmann's Undine, which was brought out in 1817, and I believe was
never revived, though much of the music, for a time, enjoyed
considerable popularity, and the composition, as a whole, was warmly and
publicly praised by no less a personage than Karl Maria von Weber
himself. On the other hand, Undine, and Hoffmann's music generally,
have been condemned by Sir Walter Scott, who is reported not to have
been able to distinguish one melody from another, though he had, of
course, a profound admiration for Scotch ballads of all kinds. M. Fétis,
too, after informing us that Hoffmann "gave music lessons, painted
enormous pictures, and wrote licentious novels (where are Hoffmann's
licentious novels?) without succeeding in making himself remarked in any
style," goes on to assure us, without ever having heard Undine, that
although there were "certain parts" in which genius was evinced, yet
"want of connexion, of conformity, of conception, and of plan, might be
observed throughout;" and that "the judgment of the best critics was,
that such a work could not be classed among those compositions which
mark an epoch in art."


Weber had studied criticism less perhaps than M. Fétis; but he knew
more about creativeness, and in an article on the opera of Undine, so
far from complaining of any "want of connexion, of conformity, of
conception, and of plan," the author of Der Freischütz says: "This
work seems really to have been composed at one inspiration, and I do not
remember, after hearing it several times, that any passage ever recalled
me for a single minute from the circle of magic images that the artist
evoked in my soul. Yes, from the beginning to the end, the author
sustains the interest so powerfully, by the musical development of his
theme, that after but a single hearing one really seizes the ensemble
of the work; and detail disappears in the naïveté and modesty of his
art. With rare renunciation, such as can be appreciated only by him who
knows what it costs to sacrifice the triumph of a momentary success, M.
Hoffmann has disdained to enrich some pieces at the expense of others,
which it is so easy to do by giving them an importance, which does not
belong to them as members of the entire work. The composer always
advances, visibly guided by this one aspiration--to be always truthful,
and keep up the dramatic action without ceasing, instead of checking or
fettering it in its rapid progress. Diverse and strongly marked as are
the characters of the different personages, there is, nevertheless,
something which surrounds them all; it is that fabulous life, full of
phantoms, and those soft whisperings of terror, which belong so
peculiarly to the fantastic. Kühleborn is the character most strikingly
put in relief, both by the choice of the melodies, and by the
instrumentation which, never leaving him, always announces his sinister
approach.[110] This is quite right, Kühleborn appearing, if not as
destiny itself, at least as its appointed instrument. After him comes
Undine, the charming daughter of the waves, which, made sonorous, now
murmur and break in harmonious roulades, now powerful and commanding,
announce her power. The 'arietta' of the second act, treated with rare
and subtle grace, seems to me a thorough success, and to render the
character perfectly. 'Hildebrand,' so passionate, yet full of
hesitation, and allowing himself to be carried away by each amorous
desire, and the pious and simple priest, with his grave choral melody,
are the next in importance. In the back-ground are Bertalda, the
fisherman, and his wife, and the duke and duchess. The strains sung by
the suite of the latter breathe a joyous, animated life, and are
developed with admirable gaiety; thus forming a contrast with the sombre
choruses of the spirits of the earth and water, which are full of harsh,
strange progressions. The end of the opera, in which the composer
displays, as if to crown his work, all his abundance of harmony in the
double chorus in eight parts, appears to me grandly conceived and
perfectly rendered. He has expressed the words--'good night to all the
cares and to all the magnificence of the earth'--with true loftiness,
and with a soft melancholy, which, in spite of the tragic conclusion of
the piece, leaves behind a delicious impression of calm and
consolation. The overture and the final chorus which enclose the work
here give one another the hand. The former, which evokes and opens the
world of wonders, commences softly, goes on increasing, then bursts
forth with passion; the latter is introduced without brusqueness, but
mixes up with the action, and calms and satisfies it completely. The
entire work is one of the most spiritual that these latter times have
given us. It is the result of the most perfect and intimate
comprehension of the subject, completed by a series of ideas profoundly
reflected upon, and by the intelligent use of all the material resources
of art; the whole rendered into a magnificent work by beautiful and
admirably developed melodies."

M. Berlioz has said of Hoffmann's music, adding, however, that he had
not heard a note of it, that it was "de la musique de littérateur." M.
Fétis, having heard about as much of it, has said a great deal more;
but, after what has been written concerning Hoffmann's principal opera
by such a master and judge as Karl Maria von Weber, neither the opinion
of M. Fétis, nor of M. Berlioz, can be of any value on the subject. The
merit of Hoffmann's music has probably been denied, because the world is
not inclined to believe that the same man can be a great writer and also
a great musician. Perhaps it is this perversity of human nature that
makes us disposed to hold M. Berlioz in so little esteem as an author;
and I have no doubt that there are many who would be equally unwilling
to allow M. Fétis any tolerable rank as a composer.

Previous: Donizetti And Bellini

Add to Informational Site Network

Viewed 1426