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8.223318 - ERKEL: Opera Transcriptions

Ferenc Erkel (1810

Ferenc Erkel (1810-1893)

Opera Transcriptions


The Hungarian composer, conductor and pianist Ferenc Erkel was born at Gyula in South-Eastern Hungary. The Erkel family had a long association with Bratislava (the Hungarian Pozsony), where the name appears in records dating back to the 15th century. Ferenc Erkel's grandfather and father were both musicians, and the former was invited in 1806 to move with his family to Gyula in the service of Count Ferenc Wenckheim, an admirer of Beethoven, who was anxious to form his own musical establishment there. Ferenc Erkel's grandfather was employed by the Count as a steward and his father assumed the duties of schoolmaster and conductor of the church choir. The latter married the daughter of a farm bailiff in the service of the Count, and Ferenc Erkel was the second of the couple's ten children. As a child Erkel had frequent opportunities to hear chamber music played by his father, the leader of astring quartet in which Albert Rosty, head of the county administration, played second violin, with the viola-player Brunszvik and cellist Josef Wagner. Both Rosty and Wagner were to be of material assistance to Ferenc Erkel in his later career.


At the age of twelve Erkel moved to Bratislava to study at the Benedictine school, where his teachers included the cathedral organist Heinrich Klein and the pianist Károly Turányi. Bratislava, known in German as Pressburg, was near enough to Vienna to share something of the cultural life of the time, and here Erkel had the opportunity to attend concerts, see operas and even hear the popular Hungarian music of Janós Bihari, who played there at the coronation of Queen Carolina Augusta in 1825.


In 1827, now aged seventeen, Erkel took employment as music master in the household of Count Kálmán Csáky at Koloszvár (the modern Romanian town of Cluj-Napoca), the centre of a district of great importance in the development of Hungarian theatre and opera. Here, during the course of the next seven years, he won a reputation for hirnself as a pianist and had his first known experience as a conductor of opera with a company that moved first to Nagyvárad and then to Buda, where it formed the basis of the later Hungarian National Theatre.


Erkel was quick to establish himself as a leading pianist in the twin cities of the capital. He spent two years as conductor of the Municipal German Theatre in Pest and then, with the help of Albert Rosty,was appointed chief conductor of the Hungarian National Theatre. From 1853 he conducted the concerts of the Hungarian Philharmonic Society and from 1875 until 1887 was the principal piano teacher and director of the newly established Academy of Music, of which Liszt, a regular visitor, was president. Erkel retained his abilities as a performer, and one year after Liszt's death in 1886 was able to play, at a Liszt birthday concert, that composer's Fantasy on I Puritani. To celebrate his own eightieth birthday he played Mozart's D minor Piano Concerto, with his own cadenza. His last appearance as a conductor was in 1892, when his Second Royal Anthem was performed. He died in 1893.


Erkel had a close connection with opera in the years he spent at the Transylvanian capital of Kolozsvar from 1827 to 1834. The first Hungarian National Theatre was built there in 1821 and in this theatre Erkel could see operas by composers such as Rossini, Auber, Boieldieu, Donizetti and Mercadante. It is not known exactly when he first conducted there, but he was clearly influenced by contemporary forms of opera from France and Italy. At the same time, in his search for anational Hungarian musical identity, he had the example of the military recruiting music of the 18th century, the verbunkos, or, more properly, ¡§toborzö¡¨,. familiar to him through the compositions of Janós Lavotta, Janós Bihari and Antal Csermák. The verbunkos has a highly characteristic form, a dance with dotted rhythms and generally in three sections of increasing rapidity, often with heroic connotations or expressive of different feelings. The dance has its echoes in the work of Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert and in the Hungarian Rhapsodies of Liszt. This was the material from which the composer József Ruzitska forged his Hungarian opera Béla futasa (Béla's Escape), first performed in Kolozsvár on 26th December, 1822, with enormous success. It was this example that Erkel was to follow.


In 1835 Erkel moved to Buda with many of the best singers from Kolozsvár and from Kassa (the modern Slovak Košice), where he was conductor of the Hungarian Theatre Company at the Castle Theatre. In Pest, facing the town of Buda on the Danube and with twice the number of inhabitants, a Hungarian National Theatre was established, the new building opened on 22nd August, 1837. Erkel was appointed conductor of the opera section on 15th January, 1838, retaining his position until 1874, when he retired with a pension. At first he continued the existing repertoire of operas by Rossini, Hérold and Bellini, as well as the work of Ruzitska, Spontini, Weber, Auber and Donizetti. Before atternpting an opera of his own, he gained experience in orchestration with his version of Mercadante's II Giuramento. His own first opera, Bátori Mária, was first performed on 8th August, 1840.


The opera Bátori Mária includes a March which Erkel in 1846 transcribed for piano. Like all marches it is in three sections, with a trio. His second opera, Hunyadi Laszló, which retains a place in the repertoire, was first staged on 27th January, 1844, from which the composer later made further piano transcriptions. The opera deals with the fate of László, the son of János Hunyadi (1387 ? -1456), who defeated the Turks at Belgrade in 1456, a triumph commernorated by the papal command by Calixtus III to ring the church bells at noon, a practice still continued. Hunyadi himself died of the plague three weeks after his victory and jealous rivals saw to it that his eider son László was put to death. The Death-Song (Hattyúdal) is the song of Hunyadi László in the condemned cell, as he recalls former happiness, while resigned to his fate, the music derived from the verbunkos. Erkel published a piano version before the first performance of the opera, but the present version was the result of revision in 1846. The Hunyadi March of 1847 did not form part of the opera but is derived from three sections of that work. It became particularly popular in a version for military band during the Hungarian War of Independence of 1848 and 1849. The Marche hongroise for piano was published in 1852 and later used in the opera Erzsébet (Elizabeth) of 1857, in which Erkel collaborated with the Doppler brothers.


Within four months of the first performance of his opera Bánk bán on 9th March, 1861, Erkel had published aseries of transcriptions of excerpts. The Introduction, from Act I, uses music of a love-scene between the principal characters, in the style of a slow verbunkos. There is a similar transcription from the comic opera Sarolta (Charlotte), first staged on 26th June, 1862, with an introduction in verbunkos style, leading to a czardas: aversion of the Finale of Act I echoes the style of the Introduction.


In his next two operas, Dózsa György and Brankovics György, first performed on 6th April, 1867, and 20th May, 1874, respectively, Erkel expressed his opposition to the policies of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. With the help of Russia the Emperor had put down the Hungarian rising of 1848-49, but some compromise proved necessary after the Austrian defeat in 1859 by French and Italian armies and the defeat at the hands of Prussia in 1866. This led to the establishment of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, with the Emperor crowned King of Hungary on 8th June, 1867, two months after the first performance of Erkel's seventh opera, which deals with the story of a popular uprising. Dózsa György was in 1514 appointed general to command the Hungarian armies against the Turks. He is joined in his camp by his beloved Rose and his friend Barna, from whom he learns of the treacherous behaviour of the nobles, who compel those left behind to work in the fields, in place of those fighting. The result is a widespread peasant revolt. Rose, however, is rejected by Dózsa, who falls in love with a beautiful noblewoman, whom Barna, fearing his friend's distraction from the cause of the peasants, plans to kill. Rose heroically takes the place of the noblewoman and is killed in her stead. In her Song Rose, disguised in the clothes of her rival, awaits her own death, recalling her love and foreseeing Dózsa's reaction to her sacrifice .


In Brankovics György Erkel again took issue with official policy. The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy was traditionally pro-Russian , but the Hungarians tended rather to favour Turkey, a country that had refused to hand over Hungarian revolutionaries who had taken refuge on her territory after 1849. Set in the years between 1439 and 1457, the plot deals with the death of the Serbian prince of the title. Erkel's son Sándor published in 1875 a piano transcription of six excerpts from the opera, in which there are Hungarian, Serbian and Turkish elements. The Marcia and the Serbian dance, Kolo, are from the first act, followed by a short recitative and a Romanza, in which Mara, the hero's daughter, dreams of her Turkish hero. A short Allegro, a Moderato and an Andante lead to a large Ensemble from the end of Ac t II. A sad Arioso from Act III leads to a cheerful final Coro, a chorus of female voices in the original opera.


István Kassai


István Kassai was born in Budapest in 1959 and was admitted to the Bartók Conservatory at the age of ten. In 1972 he was first prize-winner in the Czechoslovakian International Youth Piano Competition. He then went on to study under Pál Kadosa at the Ferenc Liszt Academy and won first prize in the Hungarian Broadcasting Company's Piano Competition. In 1982 Kassai was granted his diploma by the Academy later going on to win first prize in the Debussy International Piano Competition. Having won a scholarship to study at the European Conservatory of Music in Paris he gained a master diploma with the highest distinction in 1984. Since 1987 he has been one of the pianists of the Cziffra Foundation.


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