E.T.A. HOFFMANN'S OPERA UNDINE
AMZ-ARTICLE BY CARL MARIA VON WEBER


 



E.T.A. Hoffmann, 1822
Etching by Johann Passini
after Wilhelm Hensel


 ALLGEMEINE MUSIKALISCHE ZEITUNG

The 19th of March                No. 12                         1817

 

About the opera,  U n d i n e, based on the fairy tale of the same title, written by  Baron de la Motte Fouque himself, with music by E.T.A. Hoffmann, and first performed at the Royal Theatre in Berlin 

 

When I resolved so say something in public about this beautiful work, inadvertently, for the same purpose, the form of advertisements, announcements, reviews, or whatever one wants to call them, passed by my inner eye while, at the same time, I realized how immensely difficult it would be to gain through them something similar to the impression that the work is able to make. With respect to this, to me, it either always seemed to amount to society's general opinions whereby, without rendering any proof, one party finds it [the work] good, the other finds it bad, while the moderate [party] neither condemns nor elevates it, and whereby everything merely gains weight and credibility due to the personality of the one who renders a judgment, based on the partial trust that he has gained [in society]; or, -- it [the work] appeared to me to have been dissolved into small parts that have been strewn about when it [the opinion] engaged in technical details of musical construction of such great works that can not reach everyone, immediately.   The greatest effects and beauties only emanate from the kind of their arrangement as a whole while they, if they are depicted and discussed separately, lose their entire character and even appear to bear witness against themselves, since they, viewed separately, almost lose their importance.  Only rarely can even the most lively description make us feel their true organic life as part of the whole.  Of course, this opinion is also subject to manifold limitation, and particularly in the case of already widely distributed art works, the analysis of the construction and structure of which can only be beneficial to those who want to educate themselves about them.  However, in the case at hand, with respect to which the aim is to merely acquaint the public with a work by outlining the spiritual realm in which it resides and to describe, with a few characteristic strokes, the form that the composer has given to it, it appears necessary to me to first explain the way in which this reviewer views and considers the topic and thinks about it; from this, everyone can [then] easily decide to what extent he can agree with the reviewer's judgment that is based on this.  With respect to this I believe that I have to insert the following passage from a larger work of mine *) [Künstlerleben; the artist's life], before I proceed to the actual announcement of the opera, since it, moreover, to a large extent, also describes the creation of the opera Undine. --

    In order to properly judge a contemporary work of art, that kind of calm, unbiased mood is required that, being ready to receive any kind of impression, is carefully shielded from any certain opinion or direction of feeling, save a certain openness of the soul for the subject that is being treated.  Only in this way, to the artist, there is given pure authority over our minds and feelings so that he can transport us into the world that he has created and in which He, a powerful ruler of all passionate emotions, lets us feel with him and through him pain, lust, awe, joy, hope and love.  Then it can be proven, very soon,  whether he has been able to create a great form that we can carry in our hearts, for the duration, or whether he created separate bits and pieces of his imagination that only allow us to like these while we forget the whole over them.      

    In no work of art is this more difficult to avoid, and therefore also so prevalent, as in opera.  Of course it is clear that I am referring to that kind of opera that Germans want:  a work of art that is complete within itself, in which all parts and contributions of related and employed art forms melt into each other and thus vanish and, by becoming lost to a certain extent, create a new world. 

    In most instances, separate pieces [of music] determine the applause for the entire work.  Rarely, these parts -- which arouse us in a friendly manner while we listen to them -- vanish in a great, overall impression, at the end, as it actually should be; for, first, one has to grow to like the entire work and then, when one has become more familiar with it, one can enjoy the beauty of the parts of which it consists.    

    The nature and the inner essence of opera, consisting as a whole in the whole, brings forth this great difficulty that only the heroes of art could overcome.  Every piece of music appears through its appropriate construction, as an organic, independent creation that rests in itself; however, at the same time [particularly the ensemble piece] can and should, showing many outer layers at the same time, be like a multi-faced Janus head that can be perceived at a glance.  

    Herein lies the great, profound secret of music, which can be felt but not expressed; the surging and the contradicting natures of anger and love, of the 'delight' of pain, where salamanders and sylphs embrace and flow into each other, are united here.  With one word, what love is to man, music is to art and to man, since it truly is love, itself, the purest, most ethereal language of passion, embracing thousand-fold all changes in color of all emotions, and yet, only representing one truth, that can, however, be understood by thousands of feeling human beings, at the same time.  

    This truth of musical language, may it appear in any new, unusual form that it wants to appear in, finally and triumphantly, claims its rights.  The fates of all eras in which works of art were created prove this sufficiently and frequently. For example, nothing stranger than Gluck's creations could have appeared in that time in which lustful Italian musical waves had engulfed and softened all mindsAt present we, albeit in quite another, but perhaps not less dangerous way, are about to be drowned by certain errors of art.  Circumstances of our times have only allowed for the extremes to rule: death and lust. Depressed by the horrors of war, having become familiar with all manner of misery, one was, in order to cheer oneself up, in search of the most basely-tantalizing pleasures in art.   The theatre turned into a showcase in which one--fearfully avoiding the beautifully enriching emotional upheaval that arises out of the true enjoyment of a true work of art--allowed one scene after another to pass before one's eyes; satisfied with having been tickled by trivial fun and trivial melodies, or having been blinded by the nonsense of machine gimmickry.  With people having become accustomed to being confronted by all manner of sensational effects of irregular life, in the theatre, too, this kind of sensationalized effect was the only one that was able to take hold of an audience.  To follow a gradual development of passion or an ingeniously developed intensification of all interest, is called strenuous, boring, and, due to one's inattentiveness, incomprehensible.  -- --

    Opinions, contradicting each other in all manner (due to the just-mentioned reasons) is what I have had to hear of the opera Undine.  As much as was possible I tried to remain unbiased while, at the same time, I could not refrain from expecting something important, which the writings of Hr. Hoffmann duly justified.  He who was able to capture Mozart's spirit so perfectly with his lava-stream of fantasy and profound emotions, in his Don Juan essay (First part of the "Phantasiestücke in Callots Manier"), can not render anything that is basically mediocre; he could, at most, touch its border or bend it, but not dwell in it in an empty manner.   

     To the reviewer the rendition appears as a dramatized fairy tale in which some intricate interconnections could have been presented with more clarity and certainty.  Hr. von Fouque knew the fairy tale only too well and often, in such a case, a kind of self-delusion is possible to the effect that others might be as familiar with the topic as oneself is.  However, it is by no means incomprehensible, as many would want to state.   

    All the more precisely and clearly, in well-defined colors and outlines, did the composer allow the opera to come to life.  It is truly one piece, and after having heard it several times, the reviewer can not remember a single passage that would have torn him away of the magical imagery that the tone poet was able to evoke in his soul.   Indeed, he so powerfully, from beginning to end, engages one's interest in the musical development so that, after having heard the work only once, one can really comprehend it and so that, in truly artistic innocence and modesty, details blend in, in kind. 

    With a rare degree of renunciation, the greatness of which only he can appreciate who knows what it means to sacrifice the glory of momentary applause, Hr. Hoffmann has refrained from enriching single pieces [of his work] to the disadvantage of the rest of them, which is so easy by drawing attention to them and by elaborating on them more than they, as parts of an entire work of art, would deserve.  Inexorably he moves on, guided by the visible striving to only be true, and to elevate dramatic life rather than constraining it or holding it up in its flow. As varied and as characteristically depicted the various traits of the main characters appear, they are surrounded by, or rather there arises out of everything that ghostlike, fairy-tale like life, the sweet awe of which is the characteristic of the magical. -- Kühleborn is most prominent (the reviewer, like Fouque, assumes the reader's familiarity with the topic of this fairy tale) and emerges most characteristically through the choice of melodies and instrumentation that, always remaining faithful to him, announces his sinister appearance. Since he does not appear as fate itself but as the executor of its will, this is very appropriate. Next to him, the lovely child of the waves,  Undine, whose water melodies appear as lovely waves here and boldly and confidently announce themselves there.  Highly successful and depicting her entire character appears to the reviewer the aria in the 2nd act which is treated so incredibly lovely and ingeniously, that it can serve as a sample for the entire work and which will be added here *) [It is supposed to follow in a few weeks].  -- The fiery, yet also wavering Huldebrand who is drawn to and fro by every feeling of love, and the pious, simple priest with his serious choral melody, are most important after these. Berthalda, the fisher and his wife and the Duke and Duchess remain more in the background.   The choruses of the entourage breathe a cheerful, active life that, in several pieces, develops in enticing freshness, in contrast to the sinister choruses of the earth and water spirits that progress in an agitated, peculiar manner.  

     Most successful and conceived in a really great manner appears to the reviewer the finale of the opera in which the composer, as the jewel in his crown, unfolds all harmonies in a pure eight-part double chorus, and in which the words "gute Nacht aller Erdensorg' und Pracht" are expressed with a melody that is truly devout, profound and filled with sweet melancholy, so that the actually tragic ending leaves behind such a wonderful feeling of calm. Here, the overture and the final chorus join hands, enveloping the work.  The first entices us and opens up a magical world, beginning calmly, becoming increasingly agitated and fiery and, without closing off entirely, leads straight into the action; the latter is calming and completely satisfying.  The entire work is one of the most ingenious that has been presented to us in recent times.  It is the beautiful result of the most profound familiarity with and understanding of the topic, rendered with a profoundly thought-through development of ideas and effects of all of its artistic material, having been shaped into the most beautiful work of art through beautiful and profound melodies.   

    With this, it goes without saying that great instrumental effects, knowledge of harmony and often new combinations, correct declamation, etc. are contained in it, as those means that are at the command of every true master, without the fluent treatment of which no freedom of the artistic mind is conceivable.  

    However, due to the fact that praise and criticism have to occur, the reviewer does not want to hide some wishes, although, with respect to Undine, he does not wish anything to be different since everything, as it stands, is in the way in which it is necessary, and since one should actually wait if and when such wishes would be fulfilled in other works.  However, in one work, one can still hear what a composer's favorite habits are, of which true friends will always warn him, since they, in the end, tend to become a device.    

    Thus the reviewer has noticed and he wishes that small, short figures, that are lacking in variety and since they easily overshadow or darken the Cantilena and  require of the conductor a great knowledge and care in making it reappear, be avoided; then, a predilection for the violoncello and the viola, for diminished seventh-chords, and often too quickly broken-off endings, that, at least at the first listening, sound somewhat disturbing and that, while not being incorrect, are somewhat unsatisfactory; -- and finally certain middle registers that, due to their having been frequently used by Cherubini, entice the audience to listen for similarities.  

    With respect to decorations and costumes, the staging is splendid, with respect to voices and acting, it can be called successful. The constantly well-filled theatre is proof of the public's interest in this opera that appears to remain constant or even increasing.  Those who do not mean the work well attribute this to the decorations, in part; however, the reviewer has to note that, wherever this is the case with other works, the audience just waits to see them and then leaves while here, they remain and also remain enthralled by the work.  This alone proves their interest in the opera, itself.  The composer could also have achieved more applause by adding a few final measures to the endings, but refrained from doing so in order not to impede the flow of the action.  

    May Hr. Hoffmann soon present to the world something as well-developed as this opera is, and his multi-talented mind that brought him fame as a writer rather quickly and that earns him, as a professional man (as Royal Prussian Court Councilor in Berlin) the respect of his colleagues, may also allow him to remain active in this art form.  

    Written in Berlin in the year 1817.

    (Received at the end of February).

                                                                 Carl Maria von Weber.