Hermann Goetz – Der Widerspänstigen Zähmung (1868-73)
Comic Opera in Four Acts
after Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew,
freely adapted by Joseph Viktor Widmann (1842-1911)
(b. Königsberg, 7 December 1840 — d. Hottingen, Zürich, 3 December 1876)
Of the forgotten German composers contemporary with Liszt, Wagner, and Brahms, Hermann Goetz had perhaps the most remarkable gifts. What stood in the way of his posthumous fame was, in the main, his withdrawal to Switzerland, his aloofness from the musical politics of his day, and his untimely death, as a result of which the number of significant works he left behind was relatively small. He owes his timeless popularity almost entirely to a single piece: his opera Der Widerspänstigen Zähmung (The Taming of the Shrew), which earned him resounding success during his lifetime. Thereafter he wrote another opera that was left incomplete: Francesca da Rimini, a work in three acts based on his own libretto. It was completed posthumously by Ernst Frank (1847-1889) and published in full score by Kistner in Leipzig in 1878.
In the search for suitable operatic material, it was evidently Joseph Viktor Widmann — a theologian, poet, homme de lettres, and the work’s designated librettist — who suggested Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. A collaboration thereupon ensued which, though not without thorny disagreements, is perhaps second to none in opera history for its intensity, thoughtfulness, and mutual trust. The work’s genesis and early reception, its literary and musical qualities, and its major departures from Shakespeare’s original are admirably and for the most part exhaustively dealt with by Marek Bobéth in his standard biography, Hermann Goetz: Leben und Werk (Winterthur: Amadeus, 1995; ISBN 3-905049-68-6). The information below has been taken from Bobéth’s work.
Goetz imposed far-reaching alterations on Widmann’s initial draft: “Much of the dramatic design of the libretto to the Shrew and about a third of its verses are mine.” Goetz was perhaps overly generous in his calculation of these percentages, for he included many passages from Widmann that he merely touched up to make suitable for the operatic stage. He received the first complete libretto from Widmann in early August 1868 and subjected it to further revisions, often in the interest of brevity. The final division into four acts — i.e. the partitioning of the overly long first act — came about in early 1869.
In July 1868 Goetz, writing from Seewis, explained to his parents the “redefinition of the main characters, Petruchio and Kate”:
“You must […] try to forget the relevant characters in the comedy, much less project any of their qualities onto our characters. Shakespeare’s Kate, for example, is an ugly old maid with a limp; ours — not on your life! […] But why did we reinvent her this way? Well, I can only create and present things that I am thoroughly familiar with or can conjure up before my mind’s eye clearly and precisely in all particulars. People such as Shakespeare’s Petruchio and Kate are beyond my ken and probably no longer exist at all in our century; they would probably not affect the people of our time even if placed on stage with consummate artistry. At least their effect cannot be noble and elevating; for that, Shakespeare’s powers degenerate too far into rank boorishness. […] In other words, what you see before you is by no means merely a reworking of Shakespeare’s comedy, cobbled together to meet the purposes of the composer, but a wholly new work. It draws on Shakespeare for the course of its plot and the main situations on stage, but it fundamentally reinvents the principal characters. Further, a fairly cumbrous Shakespearean subplot has been removed and replaced by an essentially different secondary line of action.”
Contemporary viewers voiced appreciation for Widmann’s and Goetz’s intentions. Max Kalbeck (1850-1921) pronounced the libretto to be “an incomparable text which places the poet on a par with the composer as an independent creator.” Goetz attached central importance to the role of Kate. Writing on 13 January 1875, he explained the part to Bertha Ehnn (1845-1932), the Kate of the Vienna première: “Kate has grown up in extraordinarily effete and vapid surroundings, which her basic nature soon teaches her to look down upon with derision and unspeakable pride. […] Her aria ‘Ich will mich keinem geben’ bespeaks the manner in which this scorn is transferred from her surroundings to the entire world, a world in which she has yet to discover anything worthy of her.” In the same letter, Goetz refers to the first dialogue between Petruchio and Kate as the “most important scene in the opera: from this moment on she is inwardly broken. The first staunch resistance she encounters in her life makes a tremendous impression on her. True, she is still a long way from relenting, but Petruchio moves steadily toward his goal like an invincible general; for all her protestations, she must submit to being embraced and kissed — and it is precisely this rigidly inflexible masculine will that compels her sympathy against her will. Petruchio reads to us from her soul when he says, ‘Do you love me now already?’” Regarding Petruchio, Goetz wrote to Ernst Frank at the end of December 1874: “The few gentle touches in Petruchio are thus extraordinarily important. […] Only when they come across full of delight will everything that follows be bearable. Only then will Petruchio, for all his austerity, retain our sympathy to a certain extent, or even our respect.”
Goetz composed large sections of the new opera in the final months of 1868. On 30 December he could write to Widmann: “Recently I’ve again been particularly hard at work on the Shrew. Roughly half of Act 3 has been finished since the holidays. […] I already did the great scene in Act 2 between Petruchio and Kate some time ago. […] The end is gradually coming into sight. But the year will at least be over before the score is finished.” Writing again to Widmann on 13 January 1869: “Last Friday — hurrah! hurrah! — I finished the finale of Act 3, and have thus dashed off the entire third act in one go during my brief vacation since the holidays. I can’t remember a more productive and invigorating period in my entire life. About an hour of music in roughly ten days’ time: that’s quite a bit. The finale is causing me the most effort, of course, with its many characters in counterpoint. But as everything began to blossom — what bliss to be a creative artist! I’m writing now, and I write out the sketches every spare moment I can find, but there’s still a lot missing.”
On 30 January 1869 Goetz wrote the author Paul Heyse (1830-1914) for his advice on the libretto, and we know from three letters written by Goetz years later that Heyse responded. Goetz summed up his work in a letter of 14 June to Widmann: “Act 4 is thus complete, apart from this still precarious scene [Kate’s] and the final scene. Acts 1 and 3 are finished altogether, as are two scenes of Act 2, so that in any event three-fourths of the entire work exist in sketch. I’m now starting to write out the full score.” The sketching of the opera was ultimately to last until April 1870. In the meantime, Goetz also worked on the orchestration, finishing the full score of Act 1 on 29 December 1869 and that of Act 2 on 6 August 1870. In autumn he moved with his family to Zurich; the following year was spent battling virulent infections. On 13 April 1871 he completed the full score of Act 3, and on 19 May 1872 he at last put the finishing touches on that of Act 4, having roughed out the final scene only one month earlier. The last item to be composed was the overture, which Goetz completed on 9 May 1872. A quotation from Schiller — “Ernst ist das Leben, heiter ist die Kunst” (Life is earnest, art is cheerful) — was prefixed to the autograph score as the work’s motto.
On 17 March 1872 the composer received a visit from his former teacher Hans von Bülow (1830-1894), then on a concert tour of Switzerland, and played him several sections from his new opera. Bülow was enthusiastic and dispatched a letter of recommendation on the same day to his friend and colleague Hans Bronsart von Schellendorf (1830-1913), the director of the court theater in Hanover since 1867. That same evening he wrote to Goetz, asking him to forward the score, once completed, to Hanover and to “mention my name as your authority.” He also advised him to have the libretto printed. The libretto was duly issued in print, by Schabelitz in Zurich, before the year was out. Although a highly successful meeting with Bronsart came about in Munich, negotiations with Hanover dragged on. Nor, initially, did a performance materialize in Munich, where Hermann Levi (1839-1900) took an interest in the opera.
The first part of The Taming of the Shrew to be premièred was the overture, which was given in its initial version (without trombones) by the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich at the fifth subscription concert of the Musical Society (11 February 1873), conducted by Friedrich Hegar (1841-1927).
On 3 July 1873 Goetz had a decisive meeting in Mannheim with the young Ernst Frank, who had been appointed principal conductor at the Grand Ducal Court and National Theater the previous year. Before the meeting he spoke with Emil Heckel (1831-1908), who later recalled their conversation: “I was startled to see how ill and afflicted the man looked, but I immediately recalled Bülow’s recommendation [of June 1872]. Goetz informed me that his opera had just been returned to him by the court theater in Hanover, and he now wanted to go to the gentlemen on the court theater committee [in Mannheim] and offer his work for performance. I told him that this was not the right way to go about reaching his goal. One of the gentlemen was extraordinarily well-versed in music, I continued, and was certain to recognize the work’s beauties immediately [Bobéth assumes that Heckel was here referring to August Scipio (1821-1896)]; but if he were to advocate performing the opera I was quite sure that the conductor Frank, who wants to be the sole ruler in musical affairs, would oppose it. ‘First,’ I said, ‘you must try get the conductor interested in your work and win his approval.’ Goetz took me at my word, and left to visit the conductor rather than the theater committee. After running through the work for Frank, he came back very pleased and announced that Frank had promised to recommend his opera for performance.” On the next day Frank wrote to August Scipio, a member of the theater committee: “This is a delightful comic opera […] The book is very skillfully arranged […], the music very fine and effective, so that I can well imagine the entire thing will come off to good effect. […] The roles are not too difficult (except for Kate and Petruchio); in short, I cannot but give this work my liveliest recommendation.” Frank became a true friend of the composer and his most stalwart champion. Goetz later wrote to him, on 23 August 1874: “I shall never forget that you were the first to recognize the value of my opera after a quick hearing, and the first to enter actively and resolutely into the lists on its behalf.”
Frank suggested to Goetz a large number of changes, some of which he carried out. On 16 September 1873 the composer posted the revised score to Frank, adding that “the alterations were legion, and I truly doubt that it would have cost me more time to have added a fifth act.” On 27 December 1873 the Committee of the Grand Ducal Court Theater officially announced that the work had been accepted for performance.
Goetz’s Taming of the Shrew was given its première at the Grand Ducal Court and National Theater on 11 October 1874, with Ernst Frank conducting; Ottilie Ottiker (1850-1921) sang Kate (a role that would make her famous) and Eduard Schlosser (1839-1908) was Petruchio. The première was an overwhelming success, as were all the subsequent performances given in Mannheim that year (18 October, 1 November, and 20 December) and the next (17 February, 2 May, and 15 August). The second house to mount the Shrew was the Vienna Court Opera, where it was heard to great applause on 2 February 1875 under the baton of Johann Ritter von Herbeck (1831-1877), with follow-up performances on 5 and 12 February and 4 and 23 April. There was now no stopping the triumphal progress of Goetz’s opera. Performances followed at the Weimar Court Theater on 8 April 1875 under Eduard Lassen (1830-1904), the Leipzig City Theater on 1 December 1875 under Karl Mühldorfer (1836-1919), and the Saxon Ducal Court Theater in Coburg on 6 December 1875 under Ernst Lampert (1818-1879), who wrote to Goetz that his opera “will become and will ever remain a repertoire piece!” Finally, before the year was out, the work was at last given at the Hanover Court Theater. By then Goetz was mortally ill. He was unable to attend the subsequent performances in Dessau on 14 January 1876, in Munich on 13 February 1876 under Hermann Levi, in Karlsruhe on 20 February 1876 under Otto Dessoff (1835-1892), in Schwerin on 7 March 1876 under Alois Schmitt (1827-1902), in Gotha on 9 March 1876, in Strasbourg in the spring of 1876, in Frankfurt am Main on 10 October 1876 under Georg Goltermann (1824-1898), and — eight days after Goetz’s death — in Berlin on 11 December 1876 under Robert Radecke (1830-1911).
Royalties from performances of The Taming of the Shrew were sufficient to secure the future of the composer’s widow Laura Goetz, née Wirth (1845-1917), and their children. The work was published in full score and vocal score by Kistner, Leipzig, in June 1875. By 1876 Augener & Co., London, had acquired the performing rights for England.
Why has Hermann Goetz’s Shrew, despite its initial success, proved unable to hold the stage? One plausible explanation was supplied by Heinrich Schenker (1868-1935) in a diary entry of 15 February 1928:
“[…] a thoroughly charming, forthrightly serious comedy fashioned with considerable skill and towering far above all the products of Italian opera composers, and probably those of Germans as well, and thus above Lortzing and Nicolai. However, I must regard it as a mistake when, in Act 4, a superfluity of earnestness prompts the composer to make a grand proclamation of love that robs the comedy of its humorous luster at the last moment. In Shakespeare, the taming proceeds in many scenes and in many ways, and when Petrucchio’s efforts seem crowned with success at the end, we never forget the strange manner in which Kate’s love is brought about. Her love, rather than arising on its own, is the result of outside exertion, and if she ultimately converts to love, we never forget its origins. Goetz’s librettist has, however, heavily abridged the scene of the taming, thereby courting the danger that the final paeans to love will seem disproportionate to the scenes of her chastening. This, I feel, is the only reason why this excellent work has not found a lasting place in the repertoire. The fourth act throws the listener out of the comedy.”
Translation: Bradford Robinson, 2003.
For performance materials please contact the original publisher Kistner & Siegel, Leipzig.