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8.573110 - ALBERT, E. d': Aschenputtel (Cinderella) / Seejungfräulein / Overtures (Leipzig MDR Symphony, Märkl)
Eugen d’Albert (1864–1932)
Eugen d’Albert’s father Charles, a pupil of the great pianist Kalkbrenner, grew up in London, where he later conducted at Covent Garden and wrote a series of popular salon and dance pieces. The family was of Italian and French origin, but Charles Louis Napoléon d’Albert married a wife in Britain, Annie Rowell. His own father had worked in London as ballet-master at the King’s Theatre and Covent Garden. Charles and Annie d’Albert’s son Eugène was born in Glasgow in 1864 and first taught by his father. In 1876 he was awarded a scholarship at the National Training School for Music in London, studying there with the Vienna virtuoso pianist Ernst Pauer and also taught by Ebenezer Prout, John Stainer and Arthur Sullivan, perhaps to less effect. He claimed to owe much of his musical formation to Pauer. In 1879 he played for Anton Rubinstein and in 1881 for Clara Schumann. In the latter year Hans Richter, with whom d’Albert had appeared in concert, was instrumental in allowing him to study on a Mendelssohn Scholarship in Vienna, where he met Brahms and played for Liszt, who took him to Weimar as a pupil. There he became court pianist and in the same year made his successful début in Berlin. By this stage in his career d’Albert had adopted the German form of his given name, Eugen rather than Eugène, and in the following years felt himself to be German, with German and French more familiar to him as languages than English had become, as he put his years in England behind him.
For the next fifty years d’Albert enjoyed an international career as a pianist, with concert engagements throughout Europe and in America. Something of his distinction may be seen in his appearance as soloist in the two Piano Concertos of Brahms in Leipzig in 1895 and the following year in Berlin in concerts conducted by Brahms himself. Although a pupil of Liszt and a member of the latter’s favourite entourage, nicknamed by Liszt ‘Albertus Magnus’, d’Albert also won the approval of Hanslick, the champion of Brahms against Liszt and the Music of the Future. In spite of his success as a pianist, d’Albert always had a desire to settle somewhere and to devote himself more completely to composition. The success of the first of his nineteen operas, Der Rubin (The Ruby) at Karlsruhe in 1893 suggested the possibility of a career as an opera composer, although very few of his stage works remain in current repertoire. He played a considerable part in the editing of works by earlier composers, and was responsible for editing Liszt’s symphonic poems as part of that composer’s Collected Edition. In his private life he was the object of some criticism. He married six times, including, as his second wife, the pianist Teresa Carreño, followed by the singer Hermine Finck, finally enjoying a liaison with his mistress Virginia Zanetti. In 1914 he had become a Swiss citizen, but he died in Riga, where he had hoped to secure a divorce from his sixth wife.
D’Albert’s Overture to Franz Grillparzer’s Esther dates from 1888. The play, a dramatic fragment based on the biblical Book of Esther, was first published in 1862. The concert overture by d’Albert, skilful in its handling of the orchestra, brings a contrast between the theme of the opening, marked Ziemlich bewegt (Maestoso), and a more lyrical and slower secondary theme, scored for wind instruments, the two elements alternating until the emergence of a rapider passage in 9/8.
Die toten Augen (The Dead Eyes) was first staged at the Court Opera in Dresden in 1916. The libretto by Hanns Heinz Ewers and Marc Henry (Achille Georges d’Ailly-Vaucheret) was based on the latter’s play, Les yeux aveugles. Described as a Bühnendichtung (Stage Poem), the work, in one act with a prelude and a postlude, is set in Jerusalem as Palm Sunday approaches. Myrtocle, wife of the Roman senate envoy Arcesius, is blind, and her husband extremely ugly. News of a healer, Jesus, who can restore her sight brings about her cure, with the warning from Jesus that she will curse his name. Myrtocle’s sight is duly restored, allowing her to see the man she supposes to be her husband, the handsome young Roman officer Aurelius Galba, who is in love with her. Cured, Myrtocle falls into the arms of Galba, and Arcesius, in jealous anger, kills him. Her story ends as she stares directly into the setting sun, losing her sight again, concealing the fact that she had ever seen Arcesius. The action is framed by a shepherd who, in the Prelude, seeks a lost lamb, and in the closing moments of the opera finds it again, a parable heard from Mary Magdalene, as Jesus enters Jerusalem. The Introduction suggests the pastoral scene on which the Prelude opens, with hints, at its heart, of greater drama.
The three-act opera Gernot was first performed at the Court Theatre in Mannheim in 1897, its libretto by Gustav Kastropp. The action is set near Lake Constance in times before the Roman wars. Gernot, King of the Suevi, wanders through the woods, seeking a girl that he had seen in the mountains, his search impeded by fairies. Their Queen appears in a crystal grotto and will have Gernot as King by her side. He, however, seeks a mortal wife, and the fairy queen curses him to misfortune in love and death. Helma has been pledged in obedience to her brother Mahod, but meets Gernot and the couple marry, with a celebration that ends the first act. Gernot has made himself King of the Suevi by murdering King Wulf, and it turns out that Mahod, supposed brother of Helma, is in fact the son of Wulf. Mahod heads a rebellion, eager to assert his rights as king, and kills Gernot, who, in a final scene, is taken by elves to join their Queen, who welcomes him. The Prelude to the second act leads to a scene of general court rejoicing, the royal wedding, as the curtain rises.
D’Albert’s first opera, Der Rubin (The Ruby), is an oriental fantasy, described as a musical fairy-story. It was first performed at the Court Theatre in Karlsruhe in 1893 and is based on a tale by Friedrich Hebbel, published first in that form in 1843, with a second dramatic version as a three-act Märchen-Lustspiel in 1851. Set in Baghdad, the plot centres on the young Assad, a poor Turkish fisherman’s son, who travels to Baghdad and after various exploits, leading to his imprisonment, throws away a priceless ruby, thus setting free the sultan’s favourite daughter, Princess Fatima, from the spell that has kept her captive in a precious stone. Assad thus wins the hand of the Princess and becomes Caliph. The orchestra introduces the narrative in an effectively romantic overture, which brings its own moments of narrative excitement.
The fourth of d’Albert’s nineteen completed operas, Die Abreise (The Departure), is a one-act comedy with a libretto by Ferdinand von Sporck, based on a play by August von Steigentesch. It was first staged in Frankfurt in 1898. Gilfen, tiring of his jaded marriage to Luise, considers undertaking a journey to help revive their life together, but suspects the motives of his friend Trott, who is encouraging him to go. Gilfen sets out, but returns almost at once, to find that his suspicions are justified, and that Trott has made advances to Luise. In the end the couple are reconciled and it is Trott who leaves on a journey. The light-hearted overture, with its suggestions of fin-de-siècle Paris, makes a characteristic introduction to the work.
The orchestral suite Aschenputtel (Cinderella) dates from 1924 and follows the tale, familiar from the work of the Brothers Grimm. The first movement finds Aschenputtel by the hearth, where her stepmother and stepsisters have forced her to sleep. A little white bird comes to help her in her tasks, challenged by her stepmother to pick out peas and lentils thrown into the ashes, if she would go to the ball at the King’s palace. It is the white dove, bringing other birds to help, that allows Aschenputtel to complete her tasks, and eventually provides her with a fine dress, so that she can go to the ball in the royal palace, where the King’s son is to choose a wife. The ball is held on three successive evenings, with Aschenputtel each time more splendidly dressed by the little birds, and each time making her escape home. On the third occasion, however, she loses a golden slipper. The third movement of the suite depicts the ball and the fourth the Prince and Aschenputtel’s father and her two stepsisters. The two sisters try to fit a foot into the golden slipper, as the Prince seeks the identity of the girl he had danced with, one cutting off her big toe and the other her heel, and both betrayed by the bleeding of these self-inflicted wounds. Eventually the Prince is united with his beloved Aschenputtel, their union celebrated in the final Wedding Polonaise and Peasant Dance 0. In the German fairy-tale the little birds have the last word, pecking out the eyes of Aschenputtel’s stepsisters, as they attend the royal wedding.
Das Seejungfräulein (The Mermaid) was written in 1897, intended for d’Albert’s third wife, the singer Hermine Finck, and written quickly during a summer holiday by Lake Starnberg in Bavaria, while he was still under Wagnerian influence. The text, derived from the story by Hans Andersen of a mermaid who seeks to become human for love of a mortal, is by James Grun, librettist for Pfitzner’s first two operas. The little mermaid has saved a handsome prince from drowning, although he is unaware of the identity of his rescuer. The mermaid has been taught that only through the love of a mortal can she gain a soul and, having left her mermaid sisters and failing to secure the love of her prince in marriage, she is saved from death by final transformation into a bird.
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