Der vierjährige Posten
(b. Vienna, 31 January 1797 – d. Vienna 19 November 1828)
Der vierjährige Posten
Singspiel in one act by Theodor Körner
Music by Franz Schubert
Der vierjährige Posten (1815) is Schubert’s first completed attempt in the field of German Singspiel. His one-act opera, composed in only twelve days’ time (May 8-19) is based on a text in rhyme by the Austrian poet Theodor Körner. This text was set by more than twenty composers between 1813 (Karl Steinacker, Vienna) and 1913 (Louis Zehnter, Basel). Körner was a very popular poet during Schubert’s lifetime, for his heroic status as well as his literary competence: in 1813, after having been appointed Wiener Hoftheaterdichter, he volunteered for military service in the Lutzow Freicorps, and fell in battle only a few months later. In the general atmosphere of anti-Napoleonic struggle for liberation, Körner was immediately awarded the status of a patriotic symbol and became part of the German cultural legacy of the early 19th century. Many of his poems were set to music by composers such as Carl Maria von Weber and Franz Schubert himself (e.g. Lützows wilde Jagd (D205) from Körner’s collection Leyer und Schwerdt).
According to the author’s autograph, the text of the opera is based on a true story («nach einer wahren Anekdote»). Nevertheless, it is a rather naïve libretto that combines idyllic concepts of love with general humanistic ideas within a specific and contemporaneous (1809) military context. Heinrich Duval, a French soldier, lives in a German border community. Four years earlier, while he was keeping sentry for the French army, he was left there when his unit unexpectedly withdrew from Germany. In the meantime, Duval has become engaged to Käthe (Käthchen), the daughter of the local judge. At the beginning of the opera, Duval and Käthe are rejoicing in their marital bliss. Very soon, however, their happiness is threatened by the return of the French troops. So as not to be sentenced for desertion, Duval takes up his guard post again, pretending not to have abandoned it for the last four years. His fellow soldiers and their captain nevertheless demand that he be sentenced to death, while the local inhabitants ask forgiveness for him. The matter is finally settled by the sudden intervention of a general, who discharges Duval from desertion and even relieves him from further military service.
Both the content and form of Schubert’s opera clearly rely on the French tradition of liberation opera, introduced in Germany mainly by Beethoven’s Leonore (Fidelio). The similarity of the ‘deus ex machina’-like appearance of the general to that of the governor in Leonore is only the most striking analogy. However, the triumph of love over war, the gain of personal freedom and the power of marital love are just some of the many themes that determine the ideological context of liberation opera and that also characterize – albeit in a very underdeveloped way – Schubert’s youthful work. The formal structure of the opera is also based on this tradition, as well as on the German Singspiel. Der vierjährige Posten consists of a (disproportionally extensive and quite symphonic) two-part overture (367 bars) and eight autonomous ‘numbers’ linked to each other with spoken dialogues (Nos. 3, 4 and 5, and Nos. 6 and 7 are connected to each other without the insertion of dialogues). Remarkably, each number represents a different, but in each case very characteristic, operatic type, going from Aria (No. 5), Duet (No. 2), Trio (No. 3), Quartet (No. 4), and Choir (No. 6), up to broader compositional structures such as Introduction (No. 1), Ensemble (No. 7) and Finale (No. 8). Some other typical operatic techniques, such as Recitativo (in No. 4) and Melodrama (in No. 6), are also used in the opera. This equal and almost systematic distribution of different types has given some interpreters cause to suggest that Schubert’s work may have been an operatic exercise in the first place, rather than an early attempt to conquer the Viennese opera scene. The remarkable variety in the working out of the different numbers may sustain this hypothesis, although there is no evidence for it.
Although the opera as a whole surely does not excel in dramatic power, some of the numbers reveal Schubert’s unmistakable gifts as an opera composer. Most interesting is the central part of the Singspiel, in which three numbers are connected in a general progression of increasing dramatic tension. This central complex starts with a trio (No. 3), in which the protagonists express their dismay at the return of the French troops in a very short but exquisite a cappella fragment in G Major. In No. 4, the uncertainty about Duval’s fate is further elaborated in a beautiful canon in g minor («Wie soll er den Gefahr entspringen?»). This moment of intense contemplation is followed by the opera’s most vivid recitatives, in which the plan to save Duval is forged. To express the unity of the ‘conspirators’, Schubert then inserts an unpretentious but graceful homophonic quartet in B-flat Major. The quartet finally leads to Käthe’s extensive two-part aria «Gott! Höre meine Stimme». In the arioso introduction to the aria (Adagio con moto) the orchestral parts are restricted to two clarinets, two bassoons and two horns, thus creating a very distinct sonority that articulates Käthe’s maturation from a simple village girl («Käthchen») to an adult Leonore-like woman («Käthe»). The two parts of the aria (Allegretto and Allegro affectuoso) gradually increase in vivacity and exuberance, leading to a cadential coda. Here too, references to Beethoven’s Leonore aria are evident, though not at all literal.
Like almost all of Schubert’s operas, Der vierjährige Posten was only premiered after the composer’s death. The work was staged for the first time in 1896, at the Court Opera in Dresden, and enjoyed considerable success. One year later (a Schubert memorial year!) the opera was performed at the Vienna Court Opera and in various other European opera houses in an adapted version by Robert Hirschfeld. Hirschfeld took some material from the overture to replace the dialogues with recitatives. Furthermore, he reworked some sections, including the quintet from Der Spiegelritter and an aria of Olivia’s from Die Freunde von Salamanca to integrate them in Der vierjährige Posten. Another successful arrangement of Schubert’s opera was made by Rolf Lauckner (text) and Donald Tovey and Fritz Busch (music) in 1922, and was premiered in Stuttgart as Der treue Soldat (The faithful soldier). Today, Schubert’s original work has almost completely been forgotten. Nevertheless, in 1998 a recording was published by CPO Records (Münchner Radio Orchestra; conductor: Heinz Wallberg; soloists: Willi Brokmeier, Helen Donath, Sunhild Rauschkolb, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Peter Schreier and Fritz Strassner).
Pieter Bergé, 2006
For performance material please contact the publisher Peters, Frankfurt. Reprint of a copy from the Musikbibliothek der Münchner Stadtbibliothek, München.