Schubert: Small Scale Dramatist
June 22, 2014 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.
If I say, Le nozze di Figaro or Don Giovanni, you will probably identify them instantly as two operas by Mozart. If I ask about Beethoven’s only foray into opera, you will surely remember Fidelio. Nearly all of Wagner’s output consists of operas, and many music-lovers can name at least half a dozen of them. But if I say Fierrabras or Alfonso und Estrella, how many people would correctly identify these works as operas by Schubert?
There are some ideas in music history that seem logical. Franz Schubert (1797-1828) should have been a great, world renowned opera composer given how talented he was at writing songs that sit beautifully in the voice and display angst, longing, and drama. The two song cycles that he composed when he was alive, Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise (a third, Schwanengesang, was published after Schubert’s death), are small-scale, one-person dramas. It is a well-known fact that Schubert wrote more than 600 songs in his short life, an amazing number for any composer, but especially for one who died before his thirty-second birthday. Schubert is, of course, also known as a symphonist and composer of chamber music. But we do not know him as an opera composer, even though he did write opera and stage works, and he was heavily influenced by opera throughout his life. His attempts at writing in the genre, however, did not lead to success and even caused him embarrassment in some cases. Many of his operas, including Schubert’s favorite, Alfonso und Estrella, were not staged during his lifetime. Some have blamed his failures on sub-standard libretti, while some have said that Schubert could not properly discern what would work well on stage. Unfortunately, no matter what the reasons, there were a few obstacles standing in the way of Schubert’s success as an opera composer, and he did not live long enough to surmount them.
Italian opera had an intoxicating spell for many composers in the nineteenth century. Some of these, like Rossini, made opera the core of their oeuvre, while others wrote music inspired by it, subtly nodding to the genre. Schubert was able to use the influence of the large scale dramatic form to enhance both smaller vocal works and more expansive instrumental works. At eighteen, Schubert had a prolific annus mirablilis. He wrote four operas, two symphonies, and about 145 lieder. The Third Symphony, written in this year, was composed in less than a month. The influence of opera, specifically comic opera, can be seen clearly in the fourth movement of this piece. The quick and ephemeral themes go by so quickly, the listener must be reminded of the comedic speedy drive of the themes in opera overtures. It is here, and in his Lieder, that hints of opera found their way into Schubert’s music. At eighteen, the world was open to Schubert, and he might have assumed that success in opera would eventually be a big art of his career. As the years went by, however, he must have realized it was not to be.
In 1822, when Schubert was twenty-five, he composed an opera called Alfonso und Estrella. The libretto was written by Franz von Schober, a friend and something of a benefactor to Schubert. Schober offered the composer lodging in his mother’s house so that he could stop teaching and concentrate on composing. At the time, German opera often contained spoken dialogue as well as singing, but Alfonso und Estrella is sung throughout. The unfortunate thing was that Schubert never had the opportunity to see the opera staged. It was rejected by the major opera houses in Vienna and Germany, and in fact, wasn’t premiered until 1854, under the baton of Franz Liszt. Liszt had made some edits to the score to tighten things up, and every subsequent performance has altered Schubert’s original in some way.
Why was this opera not staged? The music appears to be of a decent quality, perhaps not the pinnacle of Schubert’s writing, but certainly lovely in places. It seems that the drama served by the music lacked the pacing or narrative thrust. A review of a DVD production of the opera on Opera Today names it as a contender for “the worst opera with the best music.” The reviewer, Chris Mullins, says of the drama: “the story is simply too thin and predictable.” Even Schober had to admit (after Schubert’s death) that his libretto was “a miserable, still-born, bungling piece of work that even so great a genius as Schubert could not bring it to life.” The composer wholeheartedly disagreed, and always claimed Alfonso und Estrella as one of his favorite works.
A year after Alfonso und Estrella Schubert composed Fierrabras, a three-act opera in German. In this case there was spoken dialogue—written by Schubert—interspersed in the work, and the libretto for the opera was written by Josef Kupelweiser. This time, the story was a bit more complex, but the result wasn’t much more successful than Alfonso und Estrella. It has been suggested that Schubert simply wasn’t able to see how unsuited the libretto was to stage performance. Schubert composed the piece on a commission from the Kärntnertor theater. The idea was to encourage more composers to contribute more German Romantic opera to the repertoire. Kupelweiser was actually the general manager of the Kärntnertor. Unfortunately, these new German operas were overshadowed by Rossini, whose works had come to the theater in 1821. Once again, Schubert’s opera was not staged in his lifetime. And in fact, the first staged version took place in 1897 as part of the composer’s centennial, and the second, nearly ninety years later in 1988 at the Theater an der Wien (conducted by Claudio Abbado).
Given his wonderful talents for setting words to music, one might imagine that Schubert’s success as an opera composer was foretold in the stars. That did not happen. Perhaps if he had lived to be seventy years old, he would have had opportunities to set high quality libretti for an enthusiastic audience. There is much to lament about Schubert’s early death; his possible success in the popular sphere with opera is one of the most regrettable things. We shouldn’t complain, though. We are lucky to see Schubert’s gift for small-scale drama and narrative in his songs cycles and lieder. Take his most famous offering in the genre, “Die Erlkönig.” Schubert tells a complete story with a narrator and three characters. A father rides on horseback with a sick child, the accompaniment mirroring the relentless pounding of the horse’s hooves. A supernatural creature appears to the child and entreats the child to follow him. The sinister-sounding triplets in the piano turn sweet and dance-like as the Erl-king promises the child will dance and play if only he will join him. The son cries out in fear, and the father tries in vain to comfort his son. The story has a beginning, a middle, and a chilling end. The accompaniment provides everything we need in terms of setting and mood. It is one of the most creative, evocative, and stirring pieces of music from its time. And Schubert does it all in about three minutes with one piano and one voice. I teach this piece every semester, and it never fails to give me chills. Schubert’s uncommon talent may not have been apparent, in the realm of opera, but to me, he’ll always be a stunning dramatist.