Page:A Dictionary of Music and Musicians vol 3.djvu/685

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page needs to be proofread.


King, or possibly the Home-Minister also. Un- acquainted with Berlin or the German language, and surrounded by a crowd of parasites, he soon fell into mistakes which it was extremely difficult to rectify with so suspicious a person. A few months of ill-concealed irritation on both sides led to open collision. On Oct. 25, at a meeting to arrange the repertoire for the week, with Briihl in the chair, Spontini spoke of the latter' s sketch as ' parfaitement ridicule,' because it did not contain at least two grand operas, the 'Vestale' and 'Armida'; styled the pieces selected 'des miseres, des niaiseries,' etc., and talked in the most violent way of the Count's bad management. Briihl tried to give him an idea of what subordination meant in Prussia, but subordination Spontini would not hear of. 'Don't attempt to treat me,' he writes on Nov. 12, ' as a mere subordinate, for I am nothing of the kind, neither by my person, my character, my contract, nor my talent ; for although my post happens to be included in your department, it is so in a wholly different sense from what you appear, or pretend, to think.' The whole letter is very angry, and very rude, and it was long before the two were again on terms of even outward civility. Briihl took his grievance straight to the king, and peace was at length re-established. The following extract will show Briihl's opinion of Spontini at this time :

' He is,' he writes to Witzleben, ' extremely passionate, and once in a passion oversteps all bounds ; uses expres- sions which no man of honour can pardon, and then considers his natural bad temper excuse enough for anything. He is very suspicious, and at the same time very credulous, putting himself at the mercy of any one who will flatter his vanity ; and in consequence is sur- rounded by a host of unsatisfactory characters, who make him their shuttlecock. His pride and vanity have really reached the sublime of the ridiculous ; and temper, sometimes assuming the guise of modesty, directs, or rather misdirects, all his actions. . . . And to such a man has been confided the conduct of business of more than ordinary intricacy 1 '

This description, written under obvious irritation, should in justice be counterbalanced by the con- sideration of Spontini's great qualities as an artist. But that Bruhl's estimate was in the main correct, the sequel will show.

During the preparations for the first perform- ance of * Olympia,' Spontini had an opportunity of appearing before the court and public with a new composition. In the beginning of 1821 the Grand-Duke Nicholas, heir-presumptive to the throne of Russia, and his consort, paid a visit to Berlin, and court-festivities on a grand scale were instituted in their honour. Moore's ' Lalla Rookh* was then much talked of, and Briihl conceived the idea of representing the principal scenes in a series of tableaux-vivants. Schinkel undertook the scenery and arrangement of the groups, and Spontini composed the songs, intro- ductory march, and dance-music. The perform- ance took place Jan. 2 7, 1 8 2 1 , at the Royal Palace, and was pronounced to be the most brilliant and quaintly beautiful thing of the kind ever seen. The actors were all members of the court-circle Shah Jehander was played by Prince William, now (1883) Emperor j Abdallah by the Duke

VOL. III. PT. 6.



�� ��<f Cumberland ; Jehanara by the Duchess ; the Peri by Princess Elise Radziwill ; Aliris by the "rand-Duke Nicholas; and Lalla Rookh by the Grand-Duchess. On Feb. II the performance was repeated before a select audience comprising the most distinguished artists and scientific men in Berlin. Hensel, Fanny Mendelssohn's hus- band, was commissioned by the King to paint the tableaux, for presentation to the Grand Duchess. 1 They were arranged in consecutive order : first the stories told by Feramors, then the 'Veiled Prophet ' in two scenes ; ' Paradise and the Peri,' and the ' Fire- Worshippers,' in three each. Then the 'Feast of Roses' in pantomime. A sort of running commentary on the representation was furnished by a number of songs written by Spiker, set by Spontini, and executed behind the scenes by the best singers from the opera and a small orchestra. 8 Spontini's work con- sists of 4 instrumental and 6 vocal pieces. One of the latter is a chorus of genii (3 soprani and i tenor) sung while Nourmahal is sleeping, and a real work of genius. The singers vocalise on the A, while the instruments are playing a light accompaniment. The other vocal pieces are the songs, the second being a free translation of the opening of 'Paradise and the Peri.' Spontini's work now suffers from inevitable com- parison with Schumann's music. As an Italian he had neither romantic imagination nor depth of expression enough for the subject. But taking the piece as a whole, it is possibly more in character with Moore's poetry than the oratorio- form chosen by Schumann.

The first performance of 'Olympia' was eagerly anticipated. March 5, 1821, was first fixed, but it was postponed till May 14, a delay for which Spontini was entirely to blame. The translator, E. A. Hoffmann, only got the last act from him bit by bit, the chorus-master had not seen a note of it by Feb. 18, nor had the ballet-master been consulted. Spontini insisted on at least three months rehearsals. The expenditure on the mt- en-scene was so lavish that even the king remon- strated. Statira was played by Milder, Olympia by Schulz, and Cassander and Antigonus by Bader and Blume. The chorus and orchestra were mate- rially strengthened, the scenery was by Schinkel and Gropius, and there were 42 rehearsals. The result was one of the most brilliant and perfect performances ever seen, and an enormous success. Even Briihl was carried away, and wrote to Milder, ' you have given us a perfect representa- tion, and added another flower to your crown as an artist.' Spontini's triumph was complete. Even his opponents acknowledged that 'Olympia' had no rival among modern operas. Zelter wrote to Goethe that he did not like the work, but could not help going again and again.

Spontini's supremacy in the musical world lasted exactly five weeks, but on June 18, 1821,

1 The importance of this event In Hensel's life may be seen from the ' Mendelssohn Family.' vol. 1. p. 95.

2 ' Lalla Kukh. A festival play with songs and dances, performed at the Royal Palace of Berlin, Jan. 27, 1821. Edited by Count Briihl and 8. a Bplker. Berlin. L. W. Wittich. 1822/ PF. score, Schlesinger of Berlin.


�� �