Die Loreley Op. 98
Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy
Lorelei Op. 98
(b. Hamburg, 3 February 1809 — d. Leipzig, 4 November 1847)
Mendelssohn played no significant role in the development of opera. Yet in the period after his death, the issue of his contribution to the genre was hotly debated. Some critics—most notoriously Richard Wagner—deemed the composer ill-suited to writing such works. For others, the oratorio Elijah marked a new departure, paving the way—as one contemporary critic saw it—for a new phase of dramatic music which Die Lorelei was to set in motion. From this perspective, Mendelssohn’s untimely death was a double blow: on the brink of making a substantial contribution to opera that could rival foreign models, his promise remained unfulfilled.
That Mendelssohn arrived at his late thirties without having conquered the world of opera reflects his complex attitude towards the genre. Dramatic music had occupied him from the very beginning of his creative endeavours: between the ages of 11 and 15, he wrote four comic operas for domestic performance; Die Soldatenliebschaft (1820), Die beiden Pädogogen (1821), Die wandernden Komödianten (1821) and Die beiden Neffen, oder Der Onkel aus Boston 1822-23). Rather than stemming from his composition lessons with the Berlin composer, conductor and pedagogue Carl Friedrich Zelter these works sprung from Mendelssohn’s own creative desires. The latter work—Der Onkel aus Boston—marked a key stage in Mendelssohn’s development: following the first full rehearsal of the work on the composer’s fifteenth birthday, Zelter perceived enough progress and originality in it to proclaim Mendelssohn ‘a journeyman . . . in the name of Mozart, in the name of Haydn and in the name of old Bach’. Recent examinations of these works have concluded that Mendelssohn—even at this tender age—showed a talent for instrumental colour that is the hallmark of the born opera composer.
It would appear from this auspicious start that Mendelssohn was well on his way to a successful operatic career. Yet before commencing work on Die Lorelei, he had brought only one complete opera before the public. Premièred at the Schauspielhaus in Berlin on 29 April 1827, the poor performance and unfavourable reception of Die Hochzeit des Camacho had a profound impact on the composer. Leaving the theatre even before the première had ended, he withdrew the work before any subsequent showing was possible. It was never again staged during Mendelssohn’s lifetime, and it was nearly twenty years before the composer again planned a full-scale opera intended for public consumption. In the interim Mendelssohn wrote—again solely for domestic use—a one-act Liederspiel Die Heimkehr aus der Fremde (1829), performed on the occasion of his parents’ silver wedding anniversary. While librettos and commissions came and went from notables in the opera world such as Weber’s librettists J. R. Planché and Helmina von Chézy, Mendelssohn could never sustain the enthusiasm to bring an opera to fruition. Often he found fault with the libretti, but as many of these came from well-established writers whose texts had been set successfully by other composers, we can assume that the failure of Die Hochzeit des Camacho had a paralysing impact on Mendelssohn’s ability to write an opera.
By 1845, however, plans were afoot for Mendelssohn to set Clemens Brentano’s popular Lorelei legend with Emanuel Geibel as librettist. So what changed? That Mendelssohn yearned to write an opera is clear from a letter from 1845 to his friend the German singer, librettist and playwright Eduard Devrient: ‘above all I would like to compose an opera; and I often long to do so very much . . . I often reproach myself on this account, especially when (as here this winter) I hear new German and foreign operas, then I feel as if I were obligated, also, to get involved and cast my vote in score’. It is likely that meeting the opera singer Jenny Lind in 1844 provided the impetus for the composer to embrace the challenge. Certainly Die Lorelei, a legend featuring a female protagonist, offered wealth of potential to showcase the talents of the Swedish Nightingale.
First performed in Leipzig in 1850, the completed numbers from Die Lorelei were published posthumously in 1852 as Op. 98. The most substantial of these is the Act 1 Finale. The other two movements are an Ave Maria from Scene Three for soprano solo and female chorus, and a Winzer-Chor (Vintners’ chorus) from Scene Four. Further manuscript sources for the first act—a sketch for Scene Two of a duet for the leading characters Leonore and Otto and a substantial amount of music for Scene Seven including a choral march and a quartet—may be found in the composer’s 1847 manuscript book (vol. 44 of his Nachlass) located in the Biblioteka Jagiellońska, Kraków. Of these, the festive march and the quartet are fully scored in the composer’s hand. It is therefore—as Larry Todd points out—difficult to understand why these were excluded from publication.
The moment in the drama around which the Finale centres involves Leonore recognising the newly-married Count Otto as her lover. Distraught at being betrayed, she wanders in the night around the banks of the Rhine: observed by water and air spirits, they agree to avenge her for a price. Mendelssohn’s Finale begins with an orchestral introduction. Here, the trembling string figuration and rapid chromatic scales in flutes and piccolos create an enchanted world ripe for the entry of sprites and nixies. Splitting the chorus by register enables Mendelssohn to depict musically Geibel’s alternating voices from above and below, a standard operatic device which the composer thoroughly explored in works such as the cantata Die erste Walpurgisnacht. The contrast between these parts is reinforced in their musical material, as the plaintive and frail minor-key female voices are pitted against a robust, major-key, four-part chorus for tenors and basses, typical of male-voice part-songs of the age. Intensifying the eerie atmosphere are the chromatically descending first-inversion chords accompanying the spirits’ initial attempts to rouse the people of the Rhine (Rhein geschlecht Herauf). Following successive attempts to stir the Rhine-dwellers, tempo and key change and tenors and basses launch new musical material.
The chorus of the water spirits “Auf feuchten Flügeln ziehn wir daher” is characterised by a sturdy trill figure in strings. Male and female voices converse in imitation interspersed with short orchestral interludes where rushing semi-quavers convey the wind and storm. Sudden chordal interjections evoke the crack of the keel as ships are lured towards the rocks. Following the last of these, male and female voices merge into a single chorus. Here, the diatonic writing reminiscent of a part-song appears at odds with the characters involved in the drama.
Sinéad Dempsey-Garratt, 201
Read full preface / Komplettes Vorwort > HERE