Page:A Dictionary of Music and Musicians vol 3.djvu/689
with the hidden forces of nature which makes a German look upon the world of spirits as so many impersonations of those forces. An Italian could only treat such a subject from the outside, and it says much for Spontini's dramatic talent that he so frequently found appropriate, and in some cases striking, expression for this spirit-life. 'Alcidor' might have succeeded, if it had not been so soon followed by ' Oberon.' Spontini virtually confessed that his conception was only a super- ficial one, by insisting on the most gorgeous scenery. But the golden palaces and gardens, the glittering statues, the columns of compressed vapour, the living fire, the brilliant processions and dances, required music of corresponding bril- liancy ; and his massive musical effects, so objected to by his opponents, -were only in keeping with the rest. The tuned anvils in 'Alcidor' have long been used as an illustration of the pitch to which Spontini carried noise in his later operas. One would imagine that this detail must have come from those who knew either the opera or the score ; but the latter, now in the Imperial library at Berlin, only shows three anvils tuned to different notes, instead of ten v and the effect is very much that of bells. 1 The opening chorus of the ist act. in which they occur, is one of the finest numbers in the opera. The singers are Ismenor's gnomes, occupied in destroying the Temple of Love and forging ' chains for the world,' and after their boisterous declamation the song of the mourning sylphs comes in as a most effective contrast. The next chorus of dream-gods was taken from 'Pelage' (see p. 6696), where it is no. 6.
Another grand opera was due for the summer of 1826, and a week after the production of 'Alcidor' Spontini asked Count Briihl whether a revised and lengthened version of ' Milton ' would do for the purpose. The Count thought the material too scanty, but the King (June 29) agreed to the proposal. Spontini having ob- tained 1 1 months' leave, started for Paris, where he was present at a revival of 'Olympie* on Feb. 28, 1826, returning immediately afterwards to Berlin. Nothing more was heard of 'Milton,' and during this year he furnished no work for the King's theatre. Ernst Eaupach was now librettist to the opera, and Spontini agreed with him on a subject from German medieval history, which eventually became the opera ' Agnes von Hohenstaufen.' The first act long enough for a complete opera was ready by 1827, and per- formed May 28. The whole three acts were finished in 1829, and produced June 12 for the marriage of Prince Wilhelrn, the present Ger- man Emperor. Spontini, dissatisfied with his work, had the libretto altered by Baron von Lichtenstein and other friends, and made more vital changes in the music than in almost any other of his grand operas. In this form it was revived Dec. 6, 1837.
German medieval history at this time occupied
i The song 'Vnus n'avait pas tort,' from Gounod's ' Philemon et Baucis,' so finely sung by Mr, Santley. has familiarised London audiences with the anvil as an accompaniment.
��much attention, and thus no doubt influenced Spontini's choice of a subject. He set to work with the seriousness which was his main charac- teristic as an artist; read, studied, and did everything to imbue himself with the spirit of the epoch, one wholly foreign to anything he had before attempted. 8 The libretto in its final form was a good one on the whole. The scene is laid at Mayence in 1194, during the reign of the Emperor Henry VI. of Hohenstaufen, and the plot turns on the factions of the Guelpha and Ghibellines. Here Spontini was again in his element the grand historical drama of 'Cortez' and 'Olympia.' The work is of a wholly different stamp from 'NurmahaT and 'Al- cidor,' and deserves to be ranked with his Paris operas. In grandeur of conception it equals, and occasionally surpasses, 'Olympic.' The latter half of the 2nd act is a colossal production, unparalleled in operatic literature. It would be impossible to add one iota to the passion which rages through the scene, or to pile up one addi- tional element in the music without sacrificing all clearness in the component parts. The novelty of the local colouring, so distinct from that of ' Cortez,' ' Olympia,' or ' Alcidor,' is ad- mirable. Gloomy, forceful, and melancholy, all indicates the spirit of the heroic age. The music too is thoroughly German, the harmonies richer and more satisfying, the melodies quite national in character ; isolated passages recalling Spohr, and even Weber, though without any- thing like servile imitation. Could anything be more characteristic than the German waltz in the finale of the 1st act? The French knights and troubadours, who contrast with the Ger- mans, are equally well defined. The music is throughout the result of an entire absorption in the dramatic situation and characters. 3 A comparison of it with the sentimental ballad- like effusions of even good German composers under similar circumstances will serve to ac- centuate the difference between them and Spon- tini. Neither is there any sign of exhaustion of inventive power. The stream of melody flows as freely as ever; indeed there is a breadth, an dan, and a fire in some of these melodies, to which he rarely attains in his earlier operas instance the terzetto in the 2nd act, ' Ja, statt meines Kerkers Grauen,' and Agnes' solo ' Mein Konig droben.' The critiques of the day were most unjustly severe; but though the music was never published the MS. score exists, and an examination of it will fully bear out all that we have said. It is not too late to form an impartial judgment, and Germans should re- cognise that they have a duty to perform to 'Agnes von Hohenstaufen,' as the only opera which deals worthily with a glorious period of German history. When this has been fairly acknowledged it will be time enough to look out for its defects.
It was the last opera which Spontini completed.
2 ' Spontini In Deutschland,' p. 102 (Leipzig, Steinacker und Hart- knoch, 1830).
3 As for instance the Nun's Chorus in the 2nd act.