Die Lustigen Musikanten (with German libretto in two volumes)
Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann
(b. Königsberg, 24 January 1776 – d. Berlin, 25 June 1822)
Die lustigen Musikanten (1804)
Singspiel in two acts and nineteen scenes on a libretto by Clemens Brentano (1778-1842)
To Friedrich Nietzsche, there was no question about it: “Of all German poets, Clemens Brentano has the most music in every fiber of his being.” Admirers of Brentano’s contributions to the immortal folk-song collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn will hardly dispute this. And yet, partly because most of poetry was published only after his death, his role in the development of the German lied was marginal compared, say, to that of Eichendorff or Heine, Mörike or Rückert, not to mention the ubiquitous Goethe. Still more marginal was his role in the development of German opera. Therein lies the story of the present volume.
On the origins of Brentano’s only opera libretto, Die lustigen Musikanten, we can hardly do better than turn to the author’s own “preamble” (Vorerinnerung) to the printed edition of 1803, which we herewith quote in full:
As an aid to understanding this little Singspiel, being entirely a pièce d’occasion, I feel impelled to say the following words. It originated from my dealings with the talented music director of a valiant theatrical troupe, and was written by me within the space of a few days, in order to ensure the company some decent takings, and me the pleasure of seeing all of its more talented members gathered together in roles which I had calculated even to the point of accommodating their weaknesses. One song from my pen, which had by then already appeared in print, had captured the musician’s fancy, and I thereupon made it the basis of the play; the reader will therefore forgive me if he rediscovers it here. I looked forward to the performance with keen anticipation, but as great as was the musician’s talent at writing things down swiftly, no less great was his faith in this same fluency, with the result that he postponed its completion from one day to the next, until I grew tired and left. He had indeed finished several duets in such a way that it pained me not to be able to hear the piece in toto. Parenthetically remarked, should any musician wish to combine his art with this little play, I feel I must tell him, in connection with the aforementioned song, ‘Da sind wir Musikanten wieder’, that I have only allowed it to be printed here in its entirety, so that he may choose or omit whatever he wishes among the works. This song, too, was set to music by the first composer; he used the refrain as an introduction, intercalated the verses sung by all with the touching ones sung by individuals, and took the whole in varied form through all the keys, quickly or gently as the need arose. In this way he succeeded in touching the feelings by alternating between extreme despondency and joy. I treated all the duets, trios and so forth merely as sketches, completing them only to the point at which I felt that the musician could understand well enough what I had in mind, in order to add or omit as he deemed necessary. Incidentally, I do not attach any great importance to this piece; but it would please me greatly if one or another composer would adjudge me, on the basis of this little essay, to have some talent for musical verse, and would wish to join forces with me in a larger opera, the character of which I would be happy to have dictated to me.
In short, Die lustigen Musikanten was an ephemeral work written as a jeu d’esprit for the author’s friends and published somewhat an exercise in self-promotion and a plea to composers to avail themselves of his musicianly verses in future opera projects, of which, as it happened, there were none. The text was set to music two times: first in 1804, when it was mounted as Das neue Jahr in Famagusta (The New Year in Famagusta) in Mannheim’s National Theater on New Year’s Eve by the redoubtable Mannheim bassoonist Georg Wenzel Ritter (1748-1808); and again by E. T. A. Hoffmann, who had it performed in the German Theater, Warsaw, on 6 April 1805, this time under its proper title Die lustigen Musikanten (The Merry Minstrels). Of the first setting practically nothing is known; the second, however, was a failure, and is of interest mainly because its twenty-nine-year-old composer went on to such greater things, both in music history (Aurora, Undine) and above all in the history of world literature, about which nothing more need be said here. Hoffmann himself, however, was by no means disappointed with his score, or with the libretto. Writing to his close friend and confidant Theodor von Hippel on 26 September 1805, he found the reasons for its failure in its superiority to other creations of its kind:
In December of last year I composed music for an extraordinarily brilliant opera by Clemens Brentano, Die lustigen Musikanten, which was presented last April at the local German Theater; the libretto failed to please – “t’was caviar for the general,” as Hamlet puts it, though in this case the “general” were more favorable in their verdict on the music, calling it fiery and well thought out, if too critical and too wild – and the fashionable newspaper referred to me, on the basis of this composition, as a connoisseur of the arts!! The principal source of annoyance was that the Italian maskers Truffaldin, Tartaglia and Pantaleon cavort within its pages. But – Holy Gozzi, what freaks of nature were extracted here from the attractive figures of that jovial wantonness!
After the short-lived Warsaw production, Die lustigen Musikanten vanished from theatrical history for more than a century and a half. Doubtless the reasons are partly to be found in Brentano’s libretto; the strangely blinded, blindfolded or lame characters, its recasting of commedia dell’arte figures into Shakespearean bumpkins, and its curiously far-flung geographical links between Samarkand (in present-day Uzbekistan), Famagusta (the capital of the present-day Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus), and Norway: all place severe demands on the spectators’ willingness to suspend their disbelief, as the Warsaw audiences found to their evident discomfort. In fact, apart from the romanticized diction of the characters, the play seems more like a middle-period Symbolist fairy tale from the pen of Gerhard Hauptmann or Maurice Maeterlinck than the creation of an opera librettist steeped in the tradition of German Singspiel. Yet interspersed in the oddly contorted plot are some of the most ravishing lyric poems of early German romanticism; readers sensitive to the qualities of German verse, upon encountering Fabiola and Piast’s duet in Scene 4 (“Hör, es klagt die Flöte wieder”), are unlikely to disagree with Nietzsche’s above-mentioned pronouncement on the supreme musicality of Brentano’s poetry.
After 171 years in limbo, Die lustigen Musikanten was finally unearthed in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, and edited by Gerhard Allroggen for the Hoffmann Edition, where it appeared in 1976 as volumes 4 (Act I) and 5 (Act II), both published by Schott in Mainz. This led to a flurry of interest in the work, especially from the German conductor Lothar Zagrosek, who recorded the overtures to Acts I and II and a musical interlude with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (1982) and later issued a recording of the work in excerpt, again with the Berlin RSO (1984). Our volume is the first to present Hoffmann’s opera in a study format, allowing readers agree or disagree with Allroggen’s view, expressed in The New Grove (1980, vol. 8, col. 623), that “even the lighter operas, such as Die lustigen Musikanten
160 x 240 mm