The opera years (1821-3)

It is the central irony of Schubert's career that in 1820 he stood on the threshold of fame as a composer of German opera, yet he was never to fulfil his own aspirations, and the hopes of his supporters, with a major stage success. The next three years were to be dominated by various operatic projects, not one of which reached the stage. In June 1821 his additional numbers for an adaptation of Hérold La Clochette were highly praised; and in December 1823 his incidental music for the romantic play Rosamunde won general applause. But a full-length opera of his own composition was never to be performed in his lifetime, or for a long time after his death. This reversal of fortune marks the turning point of Schubert's career, and its importance can hardly be understood without some knowledge of the political background of operatic affairs at this time.

Even in the capital cities of Germany, opera was still a primarily Italian form of entertainment, practised by Italian artists, usually in the Italian language, under the patronage of royal or aristocratic princes. It is true that Italian and French operas were frequently produced in German translations; professional singers like Vogl sang in whatever language was required of them, like their modern counterparts; and producers were similarly versatile, so that in practice there was often close co-operation between the Italian and German artists. But the German contribution to the repertory was still confined either to translations, or to Singspiel in the tradition of sentimental comedy. The idea of a new kind of native opera, German in language and style, and serious in intent, had taken root firmly only during the period of the revolutionary wars, along with the renaissance of German poetry and German culture. The idea was new and exciting. Gluck had never written a German opera. Mozart, encouraged by the sympathy of the Emperor Joseph II for German ideals, had written two, both comedies with spoken dialogue, though one, The Magic Flute, reached out beyond the commonplace to the sublime. Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio, had a noble theme, and nobody could deny its seriousness of purpose, but it too relied on spoken dialogue, and did not altogether escape the comic tone of the traditional Singspiel. The concept of through-composed, all-sung


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