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John Warrack: German Opera — From the Beginnings to Wagner
01 Dec 2004

WARRACK: German Opera — From the Beginnings to Wagner

Writing a history of an important and complex operatic repertory spanning three dynamic centuries is a daunting task, one that is perhaps better suited to several specialists than a single author. While an individual rarely possesses the scholarly breadth to write with expertise and authority on so much music, he or she can impart a unifying perspective and a consistent set of goals. But this advantage can also prove to be a limitation.

John Warrack: German Opera — From the Beginnings to Wagner

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp. xvi + 447

ISBN 0 521 23532 4


John Warrack, a skilled critic and able scholar of German romantic opera, has written the first comprehensive history of German opera. His ambitious book is divided into eighteen chapters, the last ten treating the nineteenth century to Wagner. This division reflects the author’s own scholarly interests, and it is understandable that the strongest chapters would be devoted to later repertory while the material in the first eight chapters, treating the development of German opera through the eighteenth century, is mostly derived from secondary sources. Thus the strength of this book resides in its discussion of nineteenth-century German opera and its influences. The author has accomplished this in an impressive manner. Most of the chapters also include useful discussions of the ideas that informed the aesthetic issues of the repertory in question.

One might have expected a discussion of method, approach or goals, but all that appears in this regard is a statement opposite the flyleaf giving an idea of the scope of the work: the trajectory of German opera from its ‘primitive origins up to Wagner’. This most grandiose of composers would be pleased with the locution; indeed, he himself advanced a similar view, as if music history logically led to him. But the drawbacks of this approach extend beyond the unfortunate characterization of earlier repertory as ‘primitive’. An overriding teleological theme permeates the narrative, interpreting phenomena by final causes and making aesthetic judgments accordingly. Early works are said to ‘anticipate’ later works (180); Mozart is praised for his ‘developing Romantic awareness’ and ‘chromatically advanced harmony’ (160). This is perhaps understandable given the book’s emphasis on the romantic era, but the pitfalls of this approach require that it should have been discussed and defended.

In treating the eighteenth century the author provides a competent rendition of the ‘received wisdom’ on this repertory, that is to say, traditional scholarly opinion. This is also understandable, given Warrack’s expertise in nineteenth-century music. But the secondary literature cannot offer an accurate picture of the repertory. With a few exceptions, such as Thomas Bauman’s North German Opera in the Age of Goethe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), the state of research on German eighteenth-century opera remains preliminary at best. For example, scholars have left the important Viennese repertory largely unexplored and new insights will come only after basic research on primary sources. (This is also true for opera in Germany in the late eighteenth century.) Because the secondary literature cannot yet provide a comprehensive account of eighteenth-century German opera, the conventional approach has been to select a few exemplary ‘masterpieces’ (and perhaps a ‘non-masterpiece’ to affirm that we do not need to study the work of hacks) that illustrate the trajectory of music history. So it is not surprising that the examples in this book are the usual suspects, reflecting modern taste in repertory (particularly Mozart) more than that of the eras in question.

The short statement at the beginning of the book also notes that the author ‘traces the growth of the humble Singspiel into a vehicle for the genius of Mozart and Beethoven’. The unexamined notion of ‘genius’ enters the discussion of music in several chapters. Eighteenth-century composers other than Mozart are mentioned briefly and their music is often left unexplored. I would have hoped for more on skilled composers such as Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, Johann Baptist Henneberg, Franz Anton Hoffmeister, Johann Baptist Lasser, Johann Georg Lickl, Wenzel Müller, Franz Xaver Süssmayr, Franz Teyber, Ignaz Walter, Peter von Winter, Joseph Wölfl and Paul Wranitzky, all of whom enjoyed considerable success throughout Europe. Some of the music in their operas is splendid and deserves to be included (and appreciated) in a basic history of German opera. Many influential operas that dominated the repertory in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are not even mentioned in the book, for example Wenzel Müller’s Das Sonnenfest der Brahminen (1790) and Schikaneder’s collaborative opera Die zween Anton (1789). Often only the plots are discussed, for example that of Ignaz Umlauf’s Das Irrlicht (1782). In those instances when music is the topic, Warrack’s measure of virtue is ‘originality’, a preference for the progressive and the novel. This aesthetic dominated the nineteenth and twentieth centuries but it did not have primacy in the earlier periods. Originality is also difficult to prove: when the author observes that an aria by Süssmayr has roots in ‘Mozartean practice’ and includes ‘an effective Mozartean modulation’ (179), one wonders how he knows that these elements in fact originated with Mozart and were not the common currency of the time.

The author reserves the most detailed discussions of eighteenth-century music for the original and progressive elements of three German operas by Mozart — Zaide (1779-1780), Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1782) and Die Zauberflöte (1791). (The small masterwork Der Schauspieldirektor from 1786 receives a one-sentence description.) The disadvantages of this approach are best illustrated when the author attempts to explain why Die Zauberflöte is so noteworthy. Warrack asserts that it is because of Mozart’s original ‘genius’, basing his judgment on outdated opinion: Mozart’s ‘elevating of Viennese magic opera to greatness rests no less upon the expansion of musical means. There is nothing of the day that is comparable.’ Warrack was apparently unaware of research on Schikaneder’s collaborative operas, Der Stein der Weisen (1790) and Der wohltätige Derwisch (1791), which are indeed comparable in some of the very aspects singled out by him. Mozart is said to have given ‘recitative and the role of the orchestra new importance’ (160), but both elements are present in Der Stein der Weisen. Sarastro’s ‘grave pronouncements’ were not an original contribution by Mozart but a convention already in evidence in the music for the title character of Der wohltätige Derwisch. (Mozart even quotes one important musical passage of the Dervish when Sarastro sings ‘Ein Mann muss eure Herzen leiten’.) Thus one will naturally question the other assertions of Mozart’s originality, such as the expressive ‘fluency’ of Die Zauberflöte’s Act 1 finale. How do we know that other composers were not also exploring expressive fluency at this time? Perhaps Mozart’s ‘genius’ is found more in the skill of his craftsmanship and consistent high standard than in his progressive originality and anticipation of Romantic style. The statement about Schikaneder’s ‘heroic-comic operas of varying quality’ (162) raises yet another question: how can the author make value judgments about the quality of operas that either do not survive or have never been studied?

The structures of eighteenth-century German operas were more varied than Warrack suggests, and his book offers little recognition of the generic distinctions of the time. Schikaneder produced a number of very successful operas that did not follow the model of Die Zauberflöte, for example Die Waldmänner (1793) and Konrad Langbart (1799), both with scores by his music director, the unjustly neglected J. B. Henneberg. A preliminary discussion of terminology also would have been helpful. A singspiel in the eighteenth century could signify virtually any theatrical presentation that included music, from full-length German operas with continuous music (such as Dittersdorf’s Ugolino of 1796) to spoken dramas with incidental vocal music.

I would have preferred that Warrack cite the sources of the eighteenth-century music he discusses, especially the unpublished operas such as Emanuel Schikaneder and Peter von Winter’s Das Labyrinth (the sequel to Die Zauberflöte). Until about two years ago scholars could not distinguish the original 1798 version from later revisions, which involved significant alterations, new numbers and substitute arias. (The score of Winter’s original was only recently restored.) Warrack seems unaware of this situation. Another example is Schikaneder and Jacob Haibel’s Der Tyroler Wastel (1796). I suspect that Warrack’s discussion is referring to Joseph Strobl’s heavily rearranged piano-vocal score of 1969 (the primary sources for this opera are particularly problematic).

Warrack offers a sympathetic view of Süssmayr’s excellent but neglected Der Spiegel von Arkadien (1794), though, once again, its virtue is found only in elements that are deemed novel. When he claims that Gigania’s aria ‘lacks the originality to add any real brilliance to the sparkle’ (179), his judgment obscures the fact that the aria enjoyed tremendous success for good reason. In my view it is wonderfully inventive and entertaining. In any case, Warrack is to be commended for pointing out effective and inspired moments in the opera. Many more instances of remarkable and influential music may be found in forgotten operas composed by the ‘non-geniuses’ of the period. Gifted composers like Süssmayr have been unjustly regarded as hacks for too long.

For all these reservations, the book contains many insights. But readers seeking a reliable history of German opera in the eighteenth century will have to wait for scholars to conduct the basic research. For this we should not reproach Warrack but rather empathize with the difficulty of his task.

David Buch

This review first appeared in Eighteenth-Century Music (Vol. 1, No. 1, 2004), a journal of Cambridge University Press. Copyright 2004 Cambridge University Press. Reprinted with the permission of Cambridge University Press.

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