The Music Criticism of Hugo Wolf

By Henry Pleasants; Hugo Wolf | Go to book overview

53. Le Prophète without Honor

May 17, 1885

Signor Mierzwinski ended his guest engagement at the Court Opera as prophet, i.e., as Meyerbeerian prophet. If there is precious little that is prophet-like about this Meyerbeerian hero, Signor Mierzwinski robbed him even of the semblance of any such thing. This is said rather as praise than as criticism. Anyone does a praiseworthy deed who, for example, exposes a swindler. Meyerbeer's Jan of Leyden should have remained a publican. As such he could have disposed of all Anabaptist riff-raff in a perfectly natural way by recourse to his sturdy fists. He would have remained a man, and spared us the unedifying spectacle of a second Damocles over whose anointed head swing the drawn swords of three vagabonds (so-called apostles of the heavenly kingdom). He should have used a stout club, first to clear the premises of the three Anabaptist wretches, and then, after the noble Obertal has played a nasty trick on him, instead of putting his head between his legs, look up bravely and think how best to pay him back, not with the help of other scoundrels, but on his own.

Such a Jan of Leyden would, to be sure, hardly have become a prophet, or, if he had, then a hero, an inspired prophet who believes in himself and who, because he believes in himself, exerts power over others. But this Meyerbeerian prophet has control neither over himself nor over others. Arrived at the summit of his power, with all the emblems of supreme authority, a crown upon his head and a sword in his hand, surrounded by an adoring populace, radiant in royal attire, he suddenly becomes a coward, a flyswatter too weak to defend the tail of an ass, for purely out of fear he denies his mother. Why out of fear? Because the three pitiless dagger tips tickle his nose. What, in front of all the people praying for the prophet's health and welfare, an attempted assassination? A fine idea, indeed! But what is all that to the librettist, to the composer, to the audience? It's effective, and that's that. (The kind reader may wonder how in this day and age one can get worked up over the subject matter of Le Prophète. My only excuse is that the performance which it is my pleasure to review was, for me, a premiere.)

Thus I also heard for the first time Frau Papier as the famous prophet mother, Fidès. I had already -- I say this without further ado -- formed the most horrible visions of the ridiculousness and absurdity of this musico‐ dramatic forceps delivery. The text of the role goes with the music no less

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