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8.220310 - LORTZING: Overtures

Albert Lortzing (1801–1851)
Hans Sachs • Regina • Der Pole und sein Kind • Undine • Der Waffenschmied • Der Wildschütz • Zar und Zimmermann


The nineteenth century German composer Albert Lortzing enjoys continued popularity in German theatres, particular for his opera Zar und Zimmermann, a light-hearted treatment of an episode in the early career of Peter the Great. Abroad he has met with less favour, in spite of his technical mastery and his command of the idiom of bourgeois comedy, modest declared intention being to give honest souls some agreeable hours.

Lortzing was born in Berlin in 1801, the grandson of a leather-merchant. The family business failed, and his parents accepted theatrical engagement in Breslau, where Weber had briefly directed the opera. Lortzing’s father was able to undertake character parts, while his mother, the daughter of French émigrés, at first specialized in soubrette roles. The composer and his parents had, in any case, been involved in amateur dramatics, while his uncle Friedrich, who married Beata Elsermann, was for a long a leading member of Goethe’s theatre at Weimar, his daughter, Karoline Lortzing, taking the role of Gretchen in the first part of Goethe’s Faust, in the 1829 eightieth birthday celebrations in the Grand Duchy.

With a childhood spent in the theatre, Lortzing’s future career was clear. During the brief engagement in Breslau he was able to learn much, sometimes appearing on the stage, and sometimes playing the cello in the theatre orchestra. Thereafter the Lortzings embarked on a peripatetic career, performing in the various theatres of Germany, while their son continued, under the supervision to acquire what musical knowledge he could.

In 1823 Lortzing married the actress Rosina Regina Ahles, the eleven children of the marriage including the actor Hans Lortzing. His first opera, Ali Pascha von Janina, on a Turkish theme that recalls Mozart’s Singspiel Die Entführung aus dem Serail, was written in the following year, and there followed a number of other occasional pieces, including the music for Grabbe’s Don Juan und Faust, in which, in 1829, Lortzing to accept instead a similar position at the Theatre-an-der-Wien in Vienna, where he directed his latest comic opera Der Waffenschmied in 1846.

Vienna brought no significant success, and the year of revolution, 1848, induced Lortzing to write a revolutionary piece, Regina, that failed to reach the stage. At the same time the Theatre-an-der-Wien found economies necessary, and Lortzing’s engagement was terminated, leaving him to seek a suitable position elsewhere. After various disappointments he was to find a final post as Kapellmeister in the Friedrich-Wilhelmstadt Theater in Berlin, a relatively insignificant place that devoted its attention to farce.

Lortzing died on 21 January 1851, the day after the success of his comic opera Die Opernprobe in Frankfurt, and ten days before the expiry of his contract with the Friedrich-Wilhelmstadt Theater would have left him once again without proper means of subsistence. During his career he had achieved considerable popular success, at first as singer and then as a composer, but he had never won the kind of security that he needed, lacking, perhaps, the ruthlessness of Wagner or the tenacity of his contemporary Marschner.

The comic opera Hans Sachs was first produced in Leipzig on 23 June, 1840, following the success of Zar und Zimmermann the previous year. The plot concerns the sixteenth century cobbler-poet Hans Sachs, a Meistersinger of his native Nürnberg, and the subject of a play by Johann Ludwig Deinhardstein, a Viennese exponent of Künstlerdramen. Deinharstein’s play served as a basis for Lortzing’s work, and both play and opera had a clear influence on Wagner, when, twenty years later, he turned to the same subject in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, a work that has its own musical echoes of Lortzing.

Lortzing’s Regina, for which he wrote his own libretto, is a revolutionary opera, a product of the year 1848, when liberal political tendencies seemed intellectually fashionable. There is no reason to suppose that the composer shared the feelings of the tactless Wagner in Dresden or of other revolutionaries. Nevertheless Regina seemed in its subject too liberal for the Theater-an-der-Wien, which was suffering financial problems, leading that year to the sale of the theatre and the termination of Lortzing’s employment. Regina was not staged until 1899, when it was given in Berlin in an arrangement by Adolf L’Arronge.

Der Pole und Kind or Der Feldwebel vom IV Regiment (“The Pole and his child or the The Sergeant of the Fourth Regiment”) a Liederspiel or play with songs, was first staged in Osnabrück in 1832 with the Detmold Hoftheater, with which Lortzing and his wife had been associated since 1826. The newly established court theatre company of Detmold, where Brahms was later to be briefly employed, also appeared in Müster and Osnabrück, with a summer season in Pyrmont. It was for Detmold that Lortzing provided music for the embittered Christian Dietrich Grabbe’s counterblast to Goethe, Don Juan un Faust, and put together music for Der Weihnachtabend, Andreas Hofer and Szenen aus Mozarts Leben. The one-act Der Pole und sein Kind was to enjoy some success.

Undine, produced in Magdeburg in 1845, is an ambitious four-act magic opera based on the fairy-tale by Friedrich de la Motte Fouque, who had died two years earlier. The story, published in 1811, concerns a water-sprite, Undine, brought up by a poor fisherman and his wife, and married to the faithless knight Huldbrand, who deserts her, leading to her obligatory return to the water, and her final revenge. The subject had been used by E.T.A. Hoffmann for an opera, and now, forty years later, provided a successful vehicle for Lortzing, and an early example of the use of Leitmotive, a device to be developed by Wager.

Der Waffenschmied (“The Armourer”) was the opera with which Lortzing introduced himself to audiences at the Theater-an-der-Wien in May, 1846, after his appointment as Kapellmeister. It is based on Friedrich Wilhelm von Ziegler’s comedy Liebhaber und Nebenbuhler in einer Person (“Lover and Rival in One”). It was on the subject of opera that the young Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick introduced himself to his readers, writing in the same year in acknowledgement of Lortzing’s abilities in comic opera, declaring the composer’s unsuitability for anything of a serious kind, and asking modestly for another Zar und Zimmermann. In some respects the twenty-two-year-old Hanslick’s judgments has been justified by posterity. Der Waffenscmied von Worms made no immediate impression on Vienna, but it has served its turn well enough in subsequent German repertoire.

Der Wildschütz or Die Stimme der Natur (“The Poacher or the Voice of Nature”) was produced on 31 December 1842 in Leipzig, where Lortzing and his wife were working in the company directed by Friedrich Ringelhardt. The libretto is derived from a play by August von Kotzebue, the author whose Ruins of Athens and King Stephen led to incidental music from Beethoven, and whose Das Kind der Liebe, translated into English as “Lover’s Vows”, played such a critical part in Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park. The comedy of Der Wildschütz includes a shot at Mendelssohn and the Berlin fashion for a revival of Greek theatre that makes a verbal, if not a musical mark.

Lortzing’s comic opera Zar und Zimmermann or Die zwei Peter (“Tsar and Carpenter or The Two Peters”) is by far the most successful, retaining its place in popular German repertoire. It was first produced in Leipzig in 1837, but had much greater success in Berlin two years later. The opera makes use of a French source, the play Le Bourgmestre de Sardam ou Les deux Pierres (“The Burgomaster of Sardam or The Two Peters”), a comedy based on the period spent by Peter the Great of Russia as a shipwright in Amsterdam, the subject having served Grétry in 1790, Weigl 25 years later in Vienna, and Donizetti in the following decade.

Keith Anderson

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