[Bratislava], 22. Dezember 1874 – gest. Perchtoldsdorf, 11. Februar 1939)
Romantische Oper in zwei Aufzügen / Romantic opera in two acts
Libretto vom Komponisten und Leopold Wilk nach dem Roman von Victor Hugo
On 22 April 1914 Hugo von Hofmannsthal sent one of his notoriously manipulative letters to his composer of choice, Richard Strauss:
Not long ago I heard here an opera by someone hitherto unknown […]. It seemed to me far superior to all the stuff from d’Albert, Schreker and so forth, yes, even Schreker, notwithstanding his talent. The remarkable thing about the opera, and that is why I mention it here, was that on first hearing I was able to understand almost the whole of the (incidentally absurd) text, and yet the music was by no means thin melodramatic stuff, only whenever the voice was to preponderate, everything else was kept in the background. I must confess it struck me as very beautiful […]. I am not telling you this for the sake of my own libretto – you know me well enough by now not to think that – but I want to suggest, wholly unqualified though I am, that there must be ways and means to let the word take command on occasion, and that, to my mind it would be a great gain if you could accomplish this in our present work.
The “present work” was Die Frau ohne Schatten, and despite Hofmannsthal’s sophistical efforts the words, as might be expected, vanished beneath one of Strauss’s most opulent scores. But who was the “hitherto unknown” composer, and what was his “very beautiful” opera? The answers to these questions take us to the world of Vienna’s conservative musical establishment between the world wars, a world swept aside by the Second World War and the advent of the international avant-garde.
The composer in question was Franz Schmidt (1874-1939), a remarkable musician who had the unusual distinction of serving as professor of both cello and piano at the Vienna Academy of Music, and who, by the end of his life, had become one of the most famous of living Austrian composers. The opera was his first: Notre Dame, written when Schmidt was not yet thirty years old and still awaiting discovery as a composer. By the time he began work on it (the earliest sketches date from 1902), Schmidt was Gustav Mahler’s preferred solo cellist in the Vienna Opera Orchestra and was beginning tentatively to emerge with compositions of his own. Among them were two orchestral works, Intermezzo from an Incomplete Romantic Opera and Carnival Music, which attracted attention when they were first performed on 6 December 1903 (indeed, the Intermezzo is still frequently heard in concert today). But Schmidt had set his sights on larger targets: by then he had already compressed Victor Hugo’s massive novel of 1831, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, into an opera libretto, which he then proceeded to revise with the help of a professional chemist and amateur poet named Leopold Wilk (1876-1944). Finally the two men produced a third version, which served as the basis of Schmidt’s two-act romantic opera, Notre Dame. The two above-mentioned orchestral compositions were now worked into the new score, as was an unfinished fantasy for piano and orchestra. Interestingly for his time (and well in advance of Alban Berg’s similar approach in Wozzeck), Schmidt based some of the opera’s scenes on established forms from instrumental music, including sonata-allegro form for Act I, Scene 2, and a passacaglia for the Introduction to Act II. By 1904 the musical setting was complete, and Schmidt now faced the task of convincing the operatic world that his fledgling opera deserved a hearing.
At first, in autumn 1904, he approached Gustav Mahler, then the director of the Vienna Court Opera, who listened patiently while the young composer played it at the piano, only to dismiss it with the words, “Very nice, but I miss the grand ideas.” (Mahler was, however, sufficiently impressed with Schmidt’s pianism to offer him a job on the spot as répétiteur at the Court Opera. Schmidt sensibly declined.) Mahler’s successor at the Court Opera, Felix Weingartner, also turned the work down. Finally he too left Vienna in 1911 for other assignments, and on 22 May 1912, at 11 o’clock in the morning, Schmidt played through his score yet again for the opera’s newest director, the well-known impresario Hans Gregor, and the conductor Franz Schalk, famous for his early championship of Bruckner. Both men were thoroughly impressed, and the new opera was immediately accepted for performance at the Vienna Court Opera in 1914, with Schalk as conductor, the role of Esmeralda to be taken by Vienna’s leading dramatic soprano Marie Gutheil-Schoder, and Quasimodo sung by the outstanding bass-baritone Richard Mayr.
The première of Notre Dame on 1 April 1914, ten years after the work’s completion, was a resounding success and immediately marked Schmidt’s breakthrough as a leading composer of the day. The reviews were uniformly flattering, and despite the privations of the Great War, the work was quickly taken up by other major opera houses, including Dresden and Budapest (1916) and Berlin (1918). The Vienna production remained in the repertoire until 1923, and was revived during the Nazi years in 1938 and (posthumously) in 1943, when Schmidt’s musical conservativism was found agreeable to Austria’s new rulers.
[fusion_highlight color=”#a80b17″ rounded=”no” class=”” id=””]Read full preface / Komplettes Vorwort lesen[/fusion_highlight] > HERE