Musical drama in one act on a libretto by Heinrich Bulthaupt (1898-99)
(b. Glasgow, 10 April 1864 – d. Riga, 3 March 1932)
On 27 May 1882 a young British pianist appeared for the first time in Liszt’s masterclass in Weimar. Expectations were high: though only eighteen at the time, he had already performed in public with the great conductor Hans Richter and had celebrated his début as a composer at St. James’s Hall, London, two or three years earlier. The effect of his appearance was electrifying: Liszt pronounced him “a second Tausig,” thereby ranking him alongside the greatest of all his many pupils. He was thrilled at the virtuoso cadenzas that the largely self‑taught young firebrand added to his Second Hungarian Rhapsody and dubbed him, jokingly but lovingly, “Albertus Magnus.” A début recital was quickly scheduled for 29 September, which the young master carried off with such aplomb that he was appointed Weimar court pianist on the spot. The world of music had witnessed the advent of one of history’s greatest pianists.
The young man, Eugen d’Albert, was an unusually cosmopolitan figure: his parents lived in England but spoke German; his father, a ballet master in London, was of matrilineal French descent but his actual forebears came from Italy (one was the inventor of the imperishable “Alberti bass”); and Eugen himself later took on Swiss citizenship and eventually became head of the Berlin Hochschule while maintaining an international concert career that would last, all told, fifty years. D’Albert’s performances at the piano were regarded as definitive in their time. A tireless worker, he produced piano arrangements of Bach’s organ music, editions of Liszt’s piano works and the complete Well‑Tempered Clavier (1906‑7), and a large body of compositions of all genres (save chamber music), from simple piano pieces and lieder to symphonies, concertos, and choral cantatas. But his main interest, overshadowing even his role in the concert hall, was the musical stage and the twenty‑one operas he produced between 1893 and 1932.
D’Albert was an eclectic but thoroughly fluent composer who had little difficulty mastering the latest compositional styles when he found them suitable to his needs. If his early operas find him deeply ensconced in the language of Wagner and Humperdinck, he soon embraced the verismo of Mascagni and Leoncavallo, the searing dissonances of his age‑mate Richard Strauss, the orchestral refinements of Debussy, the light‑hearted Italianesque comedy of Ermanno Wolf‑Ferrari, and ultimately, in Die schwarze Orchidee (“The Black Orchid”, 1929), the jazz‑drenched idioms of Germany’s Neue Sachlichkeit. The result was a highly diverse and ever up‑to‑date body of music that kept him at the forefront of Germany’s theater composers for most of his career. Towering above the rest of his output is Tiefland (“Lowlands,” 1903), a superior if grisly response to Cavalleria rusticana that held the boards for decades and became one of the most frequently performed operas of twentieth‑century Germany. No less noteworthy were the veristic Die toten Augen (“The Sightless Eyes,” 1912-13) and his two delightful one-act comedies Die Abreise (“The Departure,” 1898) and Flauto solo (1905), all of which held the boards until the mid-twentieth century and are occasionally revived today.
The overwhelming success of the lighthearted and supremely entertaining Die Abreise, still viewed as one of the best German comic operas of its era, seems to have caught its composer by surprise, and he apparently dreaded accusations of lacking seriousness of purpose. This lack was fully rectified by his choice of subject for his fifth opera, Kain, based on the well-known Biblical story of Cain and Abel. A libretto was supplied by Heinrich Bulthaupt (1849-1905), a playwright and theatrical theoretician highly regarded in his day. Bulthaupt, rather than drawing directly on the sketchy account in Genesis 4, found a useful model in the closet drama Cain: a Mystery (1821), one of the fieriest and most blasphemous works of Lord Byron. Byron’s play centers not so much on the murder of Abel, who barely makes an appearance, but on a long philosophical dialogue between Cain and Lucifer, in which both stress their alienation from God the Creator and present cogent arguments for introducing Death into the world (until then Death had only been talked about but never actually witnessed). This scene culminates in a Faustian journey of the imagination in which Lucifer shows Cain the full expanse of Creation, from the heights of Heaven to the depths of Hades (still unpopulated). Great emphasis was also laid on the rightness of incest: Cain, there being no other human families in the world, was forced to wed and impregnate his sister Adah – a thinly veiled allusion to Byron’s own relations to his half-sister Augusta Leigh.
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