A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Singspiel

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SINGSPIEL. This term has been in use in Germany for the last 300 years to denote a dramatic representation with music; not any one particular kind—singing being capable of being employed in such various ways—but any entertainment in which spoken dialogue and singing alternate. In time speech gave way at intervals not only to singing, but to singing by several voices at once. Later, when the spoken dialogue had been brought into entire subjection to music, as was the case in Italy after the revolution effected in the whole nature of dramatic representation by the rise of opera, not only concerted vocal pieces were introduced into the German Singspiel, but instrumental music and its protégé monody as well. We find the earliest traces of the Singspiel in the German miracle-plays, which were gradually developed outside the churches from the Passions given inside them. The Passions were sung throughout, while in the miracle-plays spoken words in German were introduced, the singing still being in Latin, as for example in the 'Ludus paschalis de passione Domini, MS. of the 13th century. In course of time the Latin text, and consequently the music, was thrust into the background. In a 14th-century MS. called 'Marienklage,' preserved in the convent of Lichtenthal near Baden, Mary sings in German. Indeed we already find the typical German miracle-play in the 'Spiel von den zehn Jungfrauen' performed at Eisenach in 1322, in which all the words sung are German. These plays were generally performed on the eves of the great festivals, such as Whit Sunday, Epiphany, etc. Gradually the ecclesiastical element disappeared, leaving only the secular, and thus originated the Shrove Tuesday plays, in which the characteristics of whole classes of society, priests, doctors, travelling scholars, etc., were held up to ridicule. Nuremberg and Augsburg were specially celebrated for these plays, written for the most part by Hans Bosenblut (about 1405), Hans Folz of Worms (about 1480), both living in Nuremberg, and Nicolaus Mercator. They gradually however degenerated into obscene pieces, until in the 16th century Hans Sachs and Jakob Ayrer (both of whom introduced music into their plays) started the movement which ended in the reformation of the German stage. By Ayrer we still have a 'Schöns neus singets Spiel,' 'Der Münch im Kesskorb,' sung in 1618 by five persons 'entirely on the melody of the English Roland.' This melody is repeated 54 times, and one cannot help suspecting that the English stage was to some extent Ayrer's model. A reaction from these 'people's plays' (as they might be called) was caused by the 'school plays' in Latin, annually performed by the pupils of the Jesuits. Between the acts German interludes with music were introduced, and these were virtually Singspiele in the modern sense. The first Singspiel in imitation of the Italian opera without any spoken dialogue was 'Dafne,' written by Martin Opitz and composed by Heinrich Schütz in 1627; unfortunately this has been lost. The earliest instance of an independent German Singspiel with singing and spoken dialogue was 'Seelewig,' a sacred Waldgedicht or Freudenspiel. In a spoken play of Harsdörffer's (1644) were introduced Arias after the Italian manner, composed (see Eitner's 'Monatsheft für Musikgeschichte,' 1881, nos. 4, 5, 6), by Siegmund Gottlieb Staden (born in 1607 at Nuremberg, succeeded his father as organist of St. Sebald in 1634, and died in 1655). The piece is intended for private performance, and written for 3 trebles, 2 altos, 2 tenors, 1 bass, 3 violins, 3 flutes, 3 reeds, and one large horn, the bass being taken throughout by a theorbo. No two voices ever sing at the same time, and the instruments have short symphonies to themselves. The only regular stage at that time was the Italian opera-house of each capital (that of Vienna being built in 1651, and that of Dresden in 1667) and of Nuremberg and other Imperial cities. The German Singspiel found a home in Hamburg in the theatre built in 1678, but soon encountered a formidable rival in German opera, founded by Reinhard Keiser. After this, half a century went by before the Singspiel is heard of again. In 1743 the Döbbelin company in Berlin produced without success a German Liederspiel, 'Der Teufel ist los,' founded on the English piece 'The Devil to pay,' followed by Schürer's 'Doris' (1747) and Scheibe's 'Thusnelda' (1749), both very successful. Thus encouraged, Koch's company began to play Singspiele in Leipzig, Weimar, and Berlin, their first piece being 'Die verwandelten Weiber,' another version of the 'Devil to pay,' written by C. F. Weisse, composed by J. A. Hiller, and produced at Leipzig in 1764 with great success. The same authors produced a succession of similar pieces, 'Der lustige Schuster' (1765), 'Lottchen am Hofe,' and 'Die Liebe auf dem Lande' (1767), 'Die Jagd' (1771), 'Aerndtekranz' and 'Der Dorfbarbier' (1772). Neefe, Reichardt, Stegemann, Schweitzer, and others, brought to perfection this new species, now called Operetta.

Independently of all this going on in North Germany, the German Singspiel had sprung up in Vienna, starting curiously enough with 'Die doppelte Verwandlung' (1767), an adaptation from the French 'Le Diable à quatre,' Sédaine's version of 'The Devil to pay.' Werner, Haydn's predecessor at Eisenstadt, had already produced at the Court German Theatre a Tafelstück (i.e. piece intended for private performance) called 'Der Wienerische Tändelmarkt' (1760). The marionette plays, of which Haydn was so fond, were Singspiele, and he supplied the court of Esterhaz with 'Philemon und Baucis' (1773), 'Genoveva' (1777), 'Dido,' a parody on a grand opera (1778), and 'Die erfüllte Rache' (1780). 'Der krumme Teufel,' to words by Kurz, was a real Singspiel. Dittersdorf's 'Doctor und Apotheker,' 'Liebe im Narrenhause,' 'Hieronymus Knicker,' 'Rothe Käppchen,' etc., produced at the Imperial Nationaltheater, were brilliant successes. Kauer (1751–1831) composed no fewer than 200 Singspiele, and Schenk was almost equally prolific. The classic Singspiel was founded by Mozart with his 'Entführung' (July 12, 1782), which according to Goethe threw everything else of the kind into the shade; though whether one is justified in calling it a Singspiel at all is a moot point, the dramatic importance of the music seeming to entitle it to rank as an opera. Even the 'Zauberflöte' (1791) was styled a Singspiel on the title-page of the PF. score. From this point the Singspiel proper becomes continually rarer, though Wenzel Müller's 'Schwester von Prag,' 'Das neue Sonntagskind,' and a few more deserve mention. Lortzing's works are a mixture of opera and Singspiel, certain numbers in the 'Czar und Zimmermann,' 'Waffenschmied,' and 'Undine' being quite in the Lied-style, and the music consequently of secondary importance, while in others the music undoubtedly assists in developing the characters, and raises these portions to the dignity of opera. We are here brought face to face with the main distinction between Opera and Singspiel; the latter by no means excludes occasional recitative in place of the spoken dialogue, but the moment the music helps to develope the dramatic denoument we have to do with Opera, and not with Singspiel. It is worth noting that no other nation possesses a form identical with the German Singspiel; the French Vaudeville comes nearest to it, but for this well-known tunes are adapted, instead of the songs being specially composed for the piece as in Germany.

[ F. G. ]