DER TROMPETER VON SÄKKINGEN
Oper in 3 Acts, with a Prologue
Libretto: Rudolf Bunge, after Joseph Viktor von Scheffel’s poem Der Trompeter von Säckingen
First performed: Carola Theater (Stadttheater), Leipzig, 4 May 1884
Next in our line-up of comic operas: one of the most popular German works of the late nineteenth century.
The opera is based on a popular poem by Joseph Victor von Scheffel (1826-86). A New York Met programme from 1887 called it “one of the most charming poetic works of modern German literature … with its beautiful pictures of mediaeval life and its quaint philosophy and its love story that have charmed two generations of Germans”.
The opera takes place in the seventeenth century, at the end of the Thirty Years’ War.
Prologue: Werner Kirchhofer, a law student at Heidelberg, is expelled for causing a disturbance outside the window of the Electress Palatinate. He and the other students join the Landsknecht troopers, Werner as its trumpeter.
Act I: The town of Säckingen is celebrating the feast day of St Fridoline, the Irish missionary who founded Säckingen Abbey in the sixth or seventh century. Peasants dance and sing, but they are also on the eve of revolt against the nobility. Werner saves Maria, his commanding officer’s pretty daughter, and her aunt, the Gräfin von Wildenberg, from the Hauenstein peasants. Maria falls in love with him, while the Gräfin is reminded of her long-lost son, kidnapped by gypsies.
The rest of the opera takes place at the Freiherr’s castle.
The Freiherr von Schönau, Maria’s father, grumbles about his gout, for which the best cure is good wine. He receives a letter from the Graf von Wildenberg, who wants his son Damyan to marry Maria. This will close a breach between the two families; the Graf and Gräfin separated after the loss of their son. The Freiherr, on Maria’s suggestion, hires Werner as his bugler at the castle.
Act II: The Gräfin surprises Werner making love to Maria while he should be teaching her music. (Shades of The Barber of Seville!) Reluctantly, the Graf fires his bugler, who rejoins the regiment, bidding a sad farewell to Maria. This is the once famous aria “Behüt’ dich Gott, es war so schön gewesen”, with a lovely solo on (of course!) the trumpet:
Act III: The peasants attack the castle, but Werner bravely repels them. Damian (who has arrived with his father) scarcely covers himself in glory; he runs away from the enemy. Maria certainly doesn’t want to marry Damian, who is an idiot and a coward – but the Graf doesn’t want her to wed a commoner, even one who’s brave and has been to Heidelberg. Ah, but Werner isn’t a commoner at all! He’s the Gräfin’s son, kidnapped by gypsies as a baby. (As the audience guessed early on.) She recognizes him, in the time-honoured way, because he has a strawberry birthmark on his arm.
Der Trompeter, Nessler’s ninth opera, was an extraordinary success. It was performed several thousand times in Germany within a few years – more than 900 times in 1888 alone.
The critics were baffled. “The most remarkable thing in this unprecedentedly successful opera,” wrote Eduard Hanslick, “is precisely its success.” The work itself, he thought, was “a musical mediocrity”. Grove (Dictionary of Music and Musicians) thought it and Der Rattenfänger von Hameln (The Pied Piper of Hamelin), his other big hit, “owe their popularity to an easy superficiality of style, which commends itself to the less musical portion of the German public”. Gustav Mahler thought it was “dreadful”, but still had to conduct the work often.
What the critics objected to was its musical conventionality. The opera appeared in 1884, three years after Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal (1881). Wagner had revolutionized opera; in his epic, quasi-symphonic operas he had jettisoned conventional opera forms (trios, duets) and replaced them with “endless melody” (heightened recit). Now Wagner, the titan of German opera, was dead, and the musical world trembled at his passing. What would the next generation of composers do?
Nessler carried on writing quaintly romantic number operas in the tradition of Lortzing and Flotow, with their gentle love stories and picturesque German folklore. And the public loved them.
Pace the critics, it’s easy to see why the German public liked it. The best tunes stick in the ear, particularly “Behüt’ dich Gott, es war so schön gewesen” – deservedly a favorite baritone concert aria.
Yes, the plot is sentimental and familiar from dozens of operas: the lovers who can’t marry because he’s of the wrong social class, and her father wants her to marry someone else. And all is sorted out when he’s reunited with his parents. In fact, it’s the same basic story as Smetana’s Bartered Bride. But Nessler handles the plot skilfully, with several good choruses and plenty of charm.
The audience would also have liked seeing one of their favorite poems brought to life. Then, too, there is the opera’s Germanness: students carousing at Heidelberg; Landsknechte; peasants dancing the church; and the May Procession, with dancers portraying King May, Princess May Blossom, Prince Woodlord, and various German rivers.
There’s only one recording of the opera: Helmuth Froschauer’s 1994 recording, starring Hermann Prey (Werner).