Carl Goldmark – Prelude to the Opera Merlin (1886)
(born 18. May 1830 in Keszthely – died 2. January 1915 in Vienna)
Today, Goldmark has been almost forgotten. Only his Violin Concerto and the Symphony “Rustic- Wedding” occasionally appear in concert programs. But he was one of the most important musical personalities in Vienna between 1860 and 1900, and thus a composer of world renown. Goldmark was showered with awards during the last period of his life: in 1896 he received the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Leopold, in 1910 the University of Budapest awarded him an honoury doctorate, and in 1914, together with Richard Strauss, he became an honoury member of the Academia Santa Cecilia in Rome. As early as 1866 the Vienna Society of the Friends of Music also awarded him honoury membership. These successes do not indicate how difficult the outset of Goldmark’s career was.
He was born on the 18th of May 1830 in Keszthely. Goldmark’s name is pure irony, he grew up in impoverished conditions. His Hungarian Jewish parents (his father was precentor) had more than 20 children, there are varying accounts of the precise number. With so many children there was not enough money for a thorough education. Lessons on a musical instrument were quite out of the question. At the age of four, Carl and his parents moved to Ödenburg (today Sopron in west Hungary). Here he received his first musical instrument, a violin, at the age of eleven. He made such remarkable progress on the violin that for a while, from 1844 he received lessons in Vienna. But after one and a half years, the Goldmarks ran out of money and he had to return. He prepared himself alone for his school exams and continued to teach himself the violin. Having overcome these problems, he began to study at the Vienna Conservatory. But shortly afterwards, it was the year 1848, the Conservatory was closed because of the revolution. He was even falsely considered to be a rebel, and this very nearly cost him his life. But he made such progress on the violin that he was engaged for the orchestra of the Ödenburg Theatre. Later he went to Vienna as a orchestra musician. Here he began to teach himself to play the piano. In addition to his work as orchestra musician he supported himself by giving piano lessons. However, he still found time to compose.
With his String Quartet op.8 he was already successful. In 1862, he received a State Scholarship and could increasingly concentrate on composition. His first success with an orchestral work was in 1865 with the overture op.13 “Sakuntala”, which was also very well received by the critics. His greatest triumph however was the opera “The Queen of Sheba”, which was first performed at the Vienna Court Opera in 1875. It brought him international acclaim. He was a well established member of the Vienna music scene. In 1877, his violin concerto and the symphony “Rustic- Wedding” reinforced his fame.
Goldmark composed six operas. As he used classical material, the famous Vienna critic Eduard Hanslick called him a “poet of the tragic downfall”. In addition to the the “Queen of Sheba” he composed the opera “Merlin” (1886), “The Cricket behind the Stove” (1896), “The Prisoner of War” (1899), “Götz of Berlichingen” (1903), and “A Winter Tale” (1907). Goldmark died at the age of 84 in Vienna.
Goldmark was a passionate devotee of the music of Richard Wagner and since the 1860’s was very committed for him. Wagner’s influence is most evident in Goldmark’s eight concert overtures. He responded, however, to a wide range of influences: his most important opera “The Queen of Sheba” (1875) is an exotic piece in the then so popular French style.
After the great success of his opera „The Queen of Saba“, it was eleven years before Goldmark started to compose another opera. This time it was based on the Arthurian legend „Merlin“. The first performance in November 1886 at the Court Opera in Vienna was a great success. The following year „Merlin“ was also produced at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In the period after Richard Wagner such material was extremely popular. The content is quickly narrated: Merlin protects King Arthur with his magical powers. A demon misleads Vivian to seduce Merlin. Thereby Merlin looses his magical powers and can only retrieve them by bequeathing his soul to the demon. Vivian saves Merlin by committing suicide and thus removing the curse.
However, the opera was not to be a lasting success, even after two revisions. The prelude to the first act introduces the themes of the opera and presents a short version of the content.
Duration about 12 minutes
Translation: John Conrad
For performance material please contact Musikverlag J. Schuberth, Frankfurt / Main. Reprint of a copy from the collection Markus Prieser, Wittmund