Meanwhile opera in Italy was pursuing its triumphant course. The introduction of the finale brought the two great divisions of opera into closer connection, and most of the great composers of this period succeeded as well in opera buffa as in opera seria. The impetus given to the progress of the art by the brilliant Neapolitan school was ably sustained by such composers as Nicolo Piccinni (1728-1800), a composer who is now known principally to fame as the unsuccessful rival brought forward by the Italian party in Paris in the year 1776 in the vain hope of crushing Gluck. Piccinni sinks into insignificance by the side of Gluck, but he was nevertheless an able composer, and certainly the leading representative of the Italian school at the time. He did much to develop the concerted finale, which before his day had been used with caution, not to say timidity, and was so constant in his devotion to the loftiest ideal of art that he died in poverty and starvation. Cimarosa (1749-1801) is the brightest name of the next generation. He shone particularly in comedy. His 'Gli Orazi e Curiazi,' which moved his contemporaries to tears, is now forgotten, but 'Il Matrimonio Segreto' still delights us with its racy humour and delicate melody. The story is simplicity itself, but the situations are amusing in themselves, and are led up to with no little adroitness, Paolino, a young lawyer, has secretly married Carolina, the daughter of Geronimo, a rich and avaricious merchant. In order to smooth away the difficulties which must arise when the inevitable discovery of the marriage takes place, he tries to secure a rich friend of his own, Count Robinson, for Geronimo's other daughter, Elisetta. Unfortunately Robinson prefers Carolina, and proposes himself as son-in-law to Geronimo, who is of course delighted that his daughter should have secured so unexceptionable a parti, while the horrified Paolino discovers to his great dissatisfaction that the elderly Fidalma, Geronimo's sister, has cast languishing eyes upon himself. There is nothing for the young couple but flight, but unfortunately as they are making their escape they are discovered, and their secret is soon extorted. Geronimo's wrath is tremendous, but in the end matters are satisfactorily arranged, and the amiable Robinson after all expresses himself content with the charms of Elisetta. 'Il Matrimonio Segreto' was produced at Vienna in 1792, and proved so very much to the taste of the Emperor Leopold, who was present at the performance, that he gave all the singers and musicians a magnificent supper, and then insisted upon their performing the opera again from beginning to end. Cimarosa was a prolific writer, the number of his operas reaching the formidable total of seventy-six; but, save for 'Il Matrimonio Segreto,' they have all been consigned to oblivion. Although he was born only seven years before Mozart, and actually survived him for ten years, he belongs entirely to the earlier school of opera buffa. His talent is thoroughly Italian, untouched by German influence, and he excels in portraying the gay superficiality of the Italian character without attempting to dive far below the surface.
Even more prolific than Cimarosa was Paisiello (1741-1815), a composer whose works, though immensely popular in their day, did not possess individuality enough to defy the ravages of time. Paisiello deserves to be remembered as the first man to write an opera on the tale of 'Il Barbiere di Siviglia.' This work, though coldly received when it was first performed, ended by establishing so firm a hold upon the affections of the Italian public, that when Rossini tried to produce his opera on the same subject, the Romans refused to give it a hearing.
Paer (1771-1839) belongs chronologically to the next generation, but musically he has more in common with Paisiello than with Rossini. His principal claim to immortality rests upon the fact that a performance of his opera 'Eleonora' inspired Beethoven with the idea of writing 'Fidelio'; but although his serious efforts are comparatively worthless, many of his comic operas are exceedingly bright and attractive. 'Le Maitre de Chapelle,' which was written to a French libretto, is still performed with tolerable frequency in Paris.
It is hardly likely that the whirligig of time will ever bring Paisiello and his contemporaries into popularity again in England, but in Italy there has been of late years a remarkable revival of interest in the works of the eighteenth century. Some years ago the Argentina Theatre in Rome devoted its winter season almost entirely to reproductions of the works of this school. Many of these old-world little operas, whose very names had been forgotten, were received most cordially, some of them—Paisiello's 'Scuffiara raggiratrice,' for instance—with genuine enthusiasm.
Wars and rumours of wars stunted musical development of all kinds in Germany during the earlier years of the eighteenth century. After the death of Keiser in 1739, the glory departed from Hamburg, and opera seems to have lain under a cloud until the advent of Johann Adam Hiller (1728-1804), the inventor of the Singspiel. Miller's Singspiele were vaudevilles of a simple and humorous description interspersed with music, occasionally concerted numbers of a very simple description, but more often songs derived directly from the traditions of the German Lied. These operettas were very popular, as the frequent editions of them which were called for, prove. Yet, in spite of their success, it was felt by many of the composers who imitated him that the combination of dialogue and music was inartistic, and Johann Friedrich Reichardt (1752-1814) attempted to solve the difficulty by relegating the music to a merely incidental position and conducting all the action of the piece by means of the dialogue. Nevertheless the older form of the Singspiel retained its popularity, and, although founded upon incorrect aesthetic principles—for no art, however ingenious, can fuse the convention of speech and the convention of song into an harmonious whole—was the means in later times of giving to the world, in 'Die Zauberfloete' and 'Fidelio,' nobler music than had yet been consecrated to the service of the stage.
Although Mozart's (1756-1791) earliest years were passed at Salzburg, the musical influences which surrounded his cradle were mainly Italian. Salzburg imitated Vienna, and Vienna, in spite of Gluck, was still Italian in its sympathies, so far at any rate as opera seria was concerned. Mozart wrote his first opera, 'La Finta Semplice,' for Vienna, when he was twelve years old. It would have been performed in 1768 but for the intrigues of jealous rivals and the knavery of an impresario. It was not actually produced until the following year, when the Archbishop of Salzburg arranged a performance of it in his own city to console his little protege for his disappointment at Vienna. It is of course an extraordinary work when the composer's age is taken into account, but intrinsically differs little from the thousand and one comic operas of the period, Mozart's first German opera, 'Bastien und Bastienne,' though written after 'La Finta Semplice,' was performed before it. It was given in 1768 in a private theatre belonging to Dr. Anton Meszmer, a rich Viennese bourgeois. It follows the lines of Miller's Singspiele closely, but shows more originality, especially in the orchestration, than 'La Finta Semplice.' The plot of the little work is an imitation of Rousseau's 'Devin du Village,' telling of the quarrels of a rustic couple, and their reconciliation through the good offices of a travelling conjurer. It was significant that the Italian and German schools should be respectively represented in the two infant works of the man who was afterwards to fuse the special beauties of each in works of immortal loveliness. Mozart's next four operas were, for the most part, hastily written—'Mitridate, Re di Ponto' (1770) and 'Lucio Silla' (1775) for Milan, "La Finta Giardiniera' (1775) for Munich, and 'Il Re Pastore' (1775) for Salzburg. They adhere pretty closely to the conventional forms of the day, and, in spite of the beauty of many of the airs, can scarcely be said to contain much evidence of Mozart's incomparable genius. In 1778 the young composer visited Paris, where he stayed for several months. This period may be looked upon as the turning-point in his operatic career. In Paris he heard the operas of Gluck and Gretry, besides those of the Italian composers, such as Piccinni and Sacchini, whose best works were written for the French stage. He studied their scores carefully, and from them he learnt the principles of orchestration, which he was afterwards to turn to such account in 'Don Giovanni' and 'Die Zauberfloete,' The result of his studies was plainly visible in the first work which he produced after his return to Germany, 'Idomeneo.' This was written for the Court Theatre at Munich, and was performed for the first time on the 29th of January, 1781. The libretto, by the Abbe Giambattista Varesco, was modelled upon an earlier French work which had already been set to music by Campra. Idomeneo, King of Crete, on his way home from the siege of Troy, is overtaken by a terrific storm. In despair of his life, he vows that, should he reach the shore alive, he will sacrifice the first human being he meets to Neptune. This proves to be his son Idamante, who has been reigning in his stead during his absence. When he finds out who the victim is—for at first he does not recognise him—he tries to evade his vow by sending Idamante away to foreign lands. Electra the daughter of Agamemnon, driven from her country after the murder of her mother, has taken refuge in Crete, and Idomeneo bids his son return with her to Argos, and ascend the throne of the Atreidae. Idamante loves Ilia, the daughter of Priam, who has been sent to Crete some time before as a prisoner from Troy, and is loved by her in return. Nevertheless he bows to his father's will, and is preparing to embark with Electra, when a storm arises, and a frightful sea monster issues from the waves and proceeds to devastate the land. The terror-stricken people demand that the victim shall be produced, and Idomeneo is compelled to confess that he has doomed his son to destruction. All are overcome with horror, but the priests begin to prepare for the sacrifice. Suddenly cries of joy are heard, and Idamante, who has slain the monster single-handed, is brought in by the priests and people. He is ready to die, and his father is preparing to strike the fatal blow, when Ilia rushes in and entreats to be allowed to die in his place. The lovers are still pleading anxiously with each other when a subterranean noise is heard, the statue of Neptune rocks, and a solemn voice pronounces the will of the gods in majestic accents. Idomeneo is to renounce the throne, and Idamante is to marry Ilia and reign in his stead. Every one except Electra is vastly relieved, and the opera ends with dances and rejoicings.
The music of 'Idomeneo' is cast for the most part in Italian form, though the influence of Gluck is obvious in many points, particularly in the scene of the oracle. Here we find Mozart in his maturity for the first time; he has become a man, and put away childish things. In two points 'Idomeneo' is superior to any opera that had previously been written—in the concerted music (the choruses as well as the trios and quartets), and in the instrumentation. The chorus is promoted from the part which it usually plays in Gluck, that of a passive spectator. It joins in the drama, and takes an active part in the development of the plot, and the music which it is called upon to sing is often finer and more truly dramatic than that allotted to the solo singers. But the chorus had already been used effectively by Gluck and other composers; it is in his solo concerted music that Mozart forges ahead of all possible rivals. The power which he shows of contrasting the conflicting emotions of his characters in elaborate concerted movements was something really new to the stage. The one quartet in Handel's 'Radamisto' and the one trio in his 'Alcina,' magnificent as they are, are too exceptional in their occurrence to be quoted as instances, while the attempts of Rameau and his followers to impose dramatic significance into their concerted music, though technically interesting, do but faintly foreshadow the glory of Mozart. The orchestration of 'Idomeneo,' too, is something of the nature of a revelation. At Munich, Mozart had at his disposal an excellent and well-trained band, and this may go far to explain the elaborate care which he bestowed upon the instrumental side of his opera. The colouring of the score is sublime in conception and brilliant in detail. Even now it well repays the closest and most intimate study. 'Idomeneo' is practically the foundation of all modern orchestration.
Mozart's next work was very different both in scope and execution. It has already been pointed out that the two first works which the composer, as a child, wrote for the stage, followed respectively the Italian and German models. Similarly, he signalised his arrival at the full maturity of his powers by producing an Italian and German masterpiece side by side. 'Die Entfuehrung aus dem Serail' was written for the Court Theatre at Vienna, in response to a special command of the Emperor Joseph II. It was produced on July 13, 1782. The original libretto was the work of C.F. Bretzner, but Mozart introduced so many alterations and improvements into the fabric of the story that, as it stands, much of it is practically his own work.
The Pasha Selim has carried off a Christian damsel named Constanze, whom he keeps in close confinement in his seraglio, in the hope that she may consent to be his wife. Belmont, Constanze's lover, has traced her to the Pasha's country house with the assistance of Pedrillo, a former servant of his own, now the Pasha's slave and chief gardener. Belmont's attempts to enter the house are frustrated by Osmin, the surly major-domo. At last, however, through the good offices of Pedrillo, he contrives to gain admission in the character of an architect. Osmin has a special motive for disliking Pedrillo, who has forestalled him in the affections of Blondchen, Constanze's maid; nevertheless he is beguiled by the wily servant into a drinking bout, and quieted with a harmless narcotic. This gives the lovers an opportunity for an interview, in which the details of their flight are arranged. The next night they make their escape. Belmont gets off safely with Constanze, but Pedrillo and Blondchen are seen by Osmin before they are clear of the house. The hue and cry is raised, and both couples are caught and brought back. They are all condemned to death, but the soft-hearted Pasha is so much overcome by their fidelity and self-sacrifice that he pardons them and sends them away in happiness.
Much of 'Die Entfuehrung' is so thoroughly and characteristically German, that at first sight it may be thought surprising that it should have succeeded so well in a city like Vienna, which was inclined to look upon the Singspiel as a barbarian product of Northern Germany. But there is a reason for this, and it is one which goes to the root of the whole question of comic opera. Mozart saw that Italian comic operas often succeeded in spite of miserable libretti, because the entire interest was concentrated upon the music, and all the rest was forgotten. The German Singspiel writers made the mistake of letting their music be, for the most part, purely incidental, and conducting all the dramatic part of their plots by dialogue. Mozart borrowed the underlying idea of the opera buffa, applied it to the form of the Singspiel, which he kept intact, and produced a work which succeeded in revolutionising the history of German opera. But, apart from the question of form, the music of 'Die Entfuehrung' is in itself fine enough to be the foundation even of so imposing a structure as modern German music. The orchestral forces at Mozart's disposal were on a smaller scale than at Munich; but though less elaborate than that of 'Idomeneo,' the score of 'Die Entfuehrung' is full of the tenderest and purest imagination. But the real importance of the work lies in the vivid power of characterisation, which Mozart here reveals for the first time in full maturity. It is by the extraordinary development of this quality that he transcends all other writers for the stage before or since. It is no exaggeration to say that Mozart's music reveals the inmost soul of the characters of his opera as plainly as if they were discussed upon a printed page. In his later works the opportunities given him of proving this magical power were more frequent and better. The libretto of 'Die Entfuehrung' is a poor affair at best, but, considering the materials with which he had to work, Mozart never accomplished truer or more delicate work than in the music of Belmont and Constanze, of Pedrillo, and greatest of all, of Osmin.
In 1786 Mozart wrote the music to a foolish little one-act comedy entitled 'Der Schauspieldirektor,' describing the struggles of two rival singers for an engagement. A sparkling overture and a genuinely comic trio are the best numbers of the score; but the libretto gave Mozart little opportunity of exercising his peculiar talents. Since his original production various attempts have been made to fit 'Der Schauspieldirektor' with new and more effective libretti, but in no case has its performance attained any real success.
For the sake of completeness it may be well to mention the existence of a comic opera entitled 'L'Oie du Caire,' which is an exceedingly clever combination of the fragments left by Mozart of two unfinished operas, 'L'Oca del Cairo' and 'Lo Sposo Deluso,' fitted to a new and original libretto by the late M. Victor Wilder. In its modern form, this little opera, in which a lover is introduced into his mistress's garden inside an enormous goose, has been successfully performed both in France and England.
Not even the success of 'Die Entfuehrung' could permanently establish German opera in Vienna. The musical sympathies of the aristocracy were entirely Italian, and Mozart had to bow to expediency. His next work, 'Le Nozze de Figaro' (1786), was written to an adaptation of Beaumarchais's famous comedy 'Le Mariage de Figaro,' which had been produced in Paris a few years before. Da Ponte, the librettist, wisely omitted all the political references, which contributed so much to the popularity of the original play, and left only a bustling comedy of intrigue, not perhaps very moral in tendency, but full of amusing incident and unflagging in spirit. It speaks volumes for the ingenuity of the librettist that though the imbroglio is often exceedingly complicated, no one feels the least difficulty in following every detail of it on the stage, though it is by no means easy to give a clear and comprehensive account of all the ramifications of the plot.
The scene is laid at the country-house of Count Almaviva. Figaro, the Count's valet, and Susanna, the Countess's maid, are to be married that day; but Figaro, who is well aware that the Count has a penchant for his fiancee, is on his guard against machinations in that quarter. Enter the page Cherubino, an ardent youth who is devotedly attached to his mistress. He has been caught by the Count flirting with Barberina, the gardener's daughter, and promptly dismissed from his service, and now he comes to Susanna to entreat her to intercede for him with the Countess. While the two are talking they hear the Count approaching, and Susanna hastily hides Cherubino behind a large arm-chair. The Count comes to offer Susanna a dowry if she will consent to meet him that evening, but she will have nothing to say to him. Basilio, the music-master, now enters, and the Count has only just time to slip behind Cherubino's arm-chair, while the page creeps round to the front of it, and is covered by Susanna with a cloak. Basilio, while repeating the Count's proposals, refers to Cherubino's passion for the Countess. This arouses the Count, who comes forward in a fury, orders the immediate dismissal of the page, and by the merest accident discovers the unlucky youth ensconced in the arm-chair. As Cherubino has heard every word of the interview, the first thing to do is to get him out of the way. The Count therefore presents him with a commission in his own regiment, and bids him pack off to Seville post-haste. Figaro now appears with all the villagers in holiday attire to ask the Count to honour his marriage by giving the bride away. The Count cannot refuse, but postpones the ceremony for a few hours in the hope of gaining time to prosecute his suit. Meanwhile the Countess, Susanna, and Figaro are maturing a plot of their own to discomfit the Count and bring him back to the feet of his wife. Figaro writes an anonymous letter to the Count, telling him that the Countess has made an assignation with a stranger for that evening in the garden, hoping by this means to arouse his jealousy and divert his mind from the wedding. He assures him also of Susanna's intention to keep her appointment in the garden, intending that Cherubino, who has been allowed to put off his departure, shall be dressed up as a girl and take Susanna's place at the interview. The page comes to the Countess's room to be dressed, when suddenly the conspirators hear the Count approaching. Cherubino is hastily locked in an inner room, while Susanna slips Into an alcove. While the Count is plying his wife with angry questions, Cherubino clumsily knocks over a chair. The Count hears the noise, and quickly jumps to the conclusion that the page is hiding in the inner room. The Countess denies everything and refuses to give up the key, whereupon the Count drags her off with him to get an axe to break in the door. Meanwhile Susanna liberates Cherubino, and takes his place in the inner room, while the latter escapes by jumping down into the garden. When the Count finally opens the door and discovers only Susanna within, his rage is turned to mortification, and he is forced to sue for pardon. The Countess is triumphant, but a change is given to the position of affairs by the appearance of Antonio, the gardener, who comes to complain that his flowers have been destroyed by someone jumping on them from the window. The Count's jealous fears are returning, but Figaro allays them by declaring that he is the culprit, and that he made his escape by the window in order to avoid the Count's anger. Antonio then produces a paper which he found dropped among the flowers. This proves to be Cherubino's commission. Once more the secret is nearly out, but Figaro saves the situation by declaring that the page gave it to him to get the seal affixed. The Countess and Susanna are beginning to congratulate themselves on their escape, when another diversion is created by the entrance of Marcellina, the Countess's old duenna, and Bartolo, her ex-guardian. Marcellina has received a promise in writing from Figaro that he will marry her if he fails to pay a sum of money which he owes her by a certain date, and she comes to claim her bridegroom. The Count is delighted at this new development, and promises Marcellina that she shall get her rights.
The second act (according to the original arrangement) is mainly devoted to clearing up the various difficulties. Figaro turns out to be the long-lost son of Marcellina and Bartolo, so the great impediment to his marriage is effectually removed, and by the happy plan of a disguise the Countess takes Susanna's place at the assignation, and receives the ardent declarations of her husband. When the Count discovers his mistake he is thoroughly ashamed of himself, and his vows of amendment bring the piece to a happy conclusion.
It seems hardly possible to write critically of the music of 'Le Nozze di Figaro,' Mozart had in a superabundant degree that power which is characteristic of our greatest novelists, of infusing the breath of life into his characters. We rise from seeing a performance of 'Le Nozze,' with no consciousness of the art employed, but with a feeling of having assisted in an actual scene in real life. It is not until afterwards that the knowledge is forced upon us that this convincing presentment of nature is the result of a combination of the purest inspiration of genius with the highest development of art. Mozart knew everything that was to be known about music, and 'Le Nozze di Figaro,' in spite of its supreme and unapproachable beauty, is really only the legitimate outcome of two centuries of steady development. Perhaps the most striking feature of the work is the absolute consistency of the whole. In spite of the art with which the composer has Individualised his characters, there is no clashing between the different types of music allotted to each. As for the music itself, if the exuberant youthfulness of 'Die Entfuehrung' has been toned down to a serener flow of courtliness, we are compensated for the loss by the absence of the mere bravura which disfigures many of the airs in the earlier work. The dominant characteristic of the music is that wise and tender sympathy with the follies and frailties of mankind, which moves us with a deeper pathos than the most terrific tragedy ever penned. It is perhaps the highest achievement of the all-embracing genius of Mozart that he made an artificial comedy of intrigue, which is trivial when it is not squalid, into one of the great music dramas of the world.
Mozart's next work, 'Don Giovanni' (October 29, 1787), was written for Prague, a city which had always shown him more real appreciation than Vienna. It was adapted by Da Ponte from a Spanish tale which had already been utilised by Moliere. Although, so far as incident goes, it is not perhaps an ideal libretto, it certainly contains many of the elements of success. The characters are strongly marked and distinct, and the supernatural part of the story, which appealed particularly to Mozart's imagination and indeed determined him to undertake the opera, is managed with consummate skill.
Don Giovanni, a licentious Spanish nobleman, who is attracted by the charms of Donna Anna, the daughter of the Commandant of Seville, breaks into her palace under cover of night, in the hope of making her his own. She resists him and calls for help. In the struggle which ensues the Commandant is killed by Don Giovanni, who escapes unrecognised. Donna Elvira, his deserted wife, has pursued him to Seville, but he employs his servant Leporello to occupy her attention while he pays court to Zerlina, a peasant girl, who is about to marry an honest clodhopper named Masetto. Donna Anna now recognises Don Giovanni as her father's assassin, and communicates her discovery to her lover, Don Ottavio; Elvira joins them, and the three vow vengeance against the libertine. Don Giovanni gives a ball in honour of Zerlina's marriage, and in the course of the festivities seizes an opportunity of trying to seduce her. He is only stopped by the interference of Anna, Elvira, and Ottavio, who have made their way into his palace in masks and dominoes. In the next act the vengeance of the three conspirators appears to hang fire a little, for Don Giovanni is still pursuing his vicious courses, and employing Leporello to beguile the too trustful Elvira. After various escapades he finds himself before the statue of the murdered Commandant. He jokingly invites his old antagonist to sup with him, an invitation which the statue, to his intense surprise, hastens to accept. Leporello and his master return to prepare for the entertainment of the evening. When the merriment is at its height, a heavy step is heard in the corridor, and the marble man enters. Don Giovanni is still undaunted, and even when his terrible visitor offers him the choice between repentance and damnation, yields not a jot of his pride and insolence. Finally the statue grasps him by the hand and drags him down, amid flames and earthquakes, to eternal torment.
The taste of Mozart's time would not permit the drama to finish here. All the other characters have to assemble once more. Leporello gives them an animated description of his master's destruction, and they proceed to draw a most edifying moral from the doom of the sinner. The music to this finale is of matchless beauty and interest, but modern sentiment will not hear of so grievous an anti-climax, and the opera now usually ends with Don Giovanni's disappearance.
The music of 'Don Giovanni' has so often been discussed, that brief reference to its more salient features will be all that is necessary. Gounod has written of it: 'The score of "Don Giovanni" has influenced my life like a revelation. It stands in my thoughts as an incarnation of dramatic and musical impeccability,' and lesser men will be content to echo his words. The plot is less dramatically coherent than that of 'Le Nozze di Figaro,' but it ranges over a far wider gamut of human feeling. From the comic rascality of Leporello to the unearthly terrors of the closing scene is a vast step, but Mozart is equally at home in both. His incomparable art of characterisation is here displayed in even more consummate perfection than in the earlier work. The masterly way in which he differentiates the natures of his three soprani—Anna, a type of noble purity; Elvira, a loving and long-suffering woman, alternating between jealous indignation and voluptuous tenderness; and Zerlina, a model of rustic coquetry—may especially be remarked, but all the characters are treated with the same profound knowledge of life and human nature. Even in his most complicated concerted pieces he never loses grip of the idiosyncrasies of his characters, and in the most piteous and tragic situations he never relinquishes for a moment his pure ideal of intrinsic musical beauty. If there be such a thing as immortality for any work of art, it must surely be conceded to 'Don Giovanni.'
'Cosi fan tutte,' his next work, was produced at Vienna in January, 1790. It has never been so successful as its two predecessors, chiefly on account of its libretto, which, though a brisk little comedy of intrigue, is almost too slight to bear a musical setting. The plot turns upon a wager laid by two young officers with an old cynic of their acquaintance to prove the constancy of their respective sweethearts. After a touching leave-taking they return disguised as Albanians and proceed to make violent love each one to the other's fiancee. The ladies at first resist the ardent strangers, but end by giving way, and the last scene shows their repentance and humiliation when they discover that the too attractive foreigners are their own lovers after all. There is much delightful music in the work, and it is greatly to be regretted that it should have been so completely cast into the shade by 'Le Nozze di Figaro,'
Mozart's next opera, 'La Clemenza di Tito,' was hastily written, while he was suffering from the illness which in the end proved fatal. The libretto was an adaptation of an earlier work by Metastasio. Cold and formal, and almost totally devoid of dramatic interest, it naturally failed to inspire the composer. The form in which it was cast compelled him to return to the conventions of opera seria, from which he had long escaped, and altogether, as an able critic remarked at the time, the work might rather be taken for the first attempt of budding talent than for the product of a mature mind. The story deals with the plotting of Vitellia, the daughter of the deposed Vitellius, to overthrow the Emperor Titus. She persuades her lover Sextus to conspire against his friend, and he succeeds in setting the Capitol on fire. Titus, however, escapes by means of a disguise, and not only pardons all the conspirators, but rewards Vitellia with his hand. The opera was produced at Prague on the 6th of September, 1791, and the cold reception which it experienced did much to embitter the closing years of Mozart's life.
'Die Zauberfloete,' his last work, was written before 'La Clemenza di Tito,' though not actually produced until September 30, 1791. The libretto, which was the work of Emanuel Schikaneder, is surely the most extraordinary that ever mortal composer was called upon to set.
At the opening of the opera, the Prince Tamino rushes in, pursued by a monstrous serpent, and sinks exhausted on the steps of a temple, from which three ladies issue in the nick of time and despatch the serpent with their silver spears. They give Tamino a portrait of Pamina, the daughter of their mistress, the Queen of Night, which immediately inspires him with passionate devotion. He is informed that Pamina has been stolen by Sarastro, the high-priest of Isis, and imprisoned by him in his palace. He vows to rescue her, and for that purpose is presented by the ladies with a magic flute, which will keep him safe in every danger, while Papageno, a bird-catcher, who has been assigned to him as companion, receives a glockenspiel. Three genii are summoned to guide them, and the two champions thereupon proceed to Sarastro's palace. Tamino is refused admittance by the doorkeeper, but Papageno in some unexplained way contrives to get in, and persuades Pamina to escape with him. They fly, but are recaptured by Monostatos, a Moor, who has been appointed to keep watch over Pamina. Sarastro now appears, condemns Monostatos to the bastinado, and decrees that the two lovers shall undergo a period of probation in the sanctuary. In the second act the ordeal of silence is imposed upon Tamino. Pamina cannot understand his apparent coldness, and is inclined to listen to the counsels of her mother, who tries to induce her to murder Sarastro. The priest, however, convinces her of his beneficent intentions. The lovers go through the ordeals of fire and water successfully, and are happily married. The Queen of Night and her dark kingdom perish everlastingly, and the reign of peace and wisdom is universally established. The humours of Papageno in his search for a wife have nothing to do with the principal interest of the plot, but they serve as an acceptable contrast to the more serious scenes of the opera.
The libretto of the 'Die Zauberfloete' is usually spoken of as the climax of conceivable inanity, but the explanation of many of its absurdities seems to lie in the fact that it is an allegorical illustration of the struggles and final triumph of Freemasonry. Both Mozart and Schikaneder were Freemasons, and 'Die Zauberfloete' is in a sense a manifesto of their belief. Freemasonry in the opera is represented by the mysteries of Isis, over which the high-priest Sarastro presides. The Queen of Night is Maria Theresa, a sworn opponent of Freemasonry, who interdicted its practice throughout her dominions, and broke up the Lodges with armed force. Tamino may be intended for the Emperor Joseph II., who, though not a Freemason himself as his father was, openly protected the brotherhood; and we may look upon Pamina as the representative of the Austrian people. The name of Monostatos seems to be connected with monasticism, and may be intended to typify the clerical party, which, though outwardly on friendly terms with Freemasonry, seems in reality to have been bent upon its destruction. Papageno and his wife Papagena are excellent representatives of the light-hearted and pleasure-loving population of Vienna. It is difficult to make any explanation fit the story very perfectly, but the suggestion of Freemasonry is enough to acquit Mozart of having allied his music to mere balderdash; while, behind the Masonic business, the discerning hearer will have no difficulty in distinguishing the shadowy outlines of another and a far nobler allegory, the ascent of the human soul, purified by suffering and love, to the highest wisdom. It was this, no doubt, that compelled Goethe's often expressed admiration, and even tempted him to write a sequel to Schikaneder's libretto. 'Die Zauberfloete' is in form a Singsgiel—that is to say, the music is interspersed with spoken dialogue—but there the resemblance to Hiller's creations ceases. From the magnificent fugue in the overture to the majestic choral finale, the music is an astonishing combination of divinely beautiful melody with marvels of contrapuntal skill. Perhaps the most surprising part of 'Die Zauberfloete' is the extraordinary ease and certainty with which Mozart manipulates what is practically a new form of art. Nursed as he had been in the traditions of Italian opera, it would not have been strange if he had not been able to shake off the influences of his youth. Yet 'Die Zauberfloete' owes but little to any Italian predecessor. It is German to the core. We may be able to point to passages which are a development of something occurring in the composer's earlier works, such as 'Die Entfuehrung,' but there is hardly anything in the score of 'Die Zauberfloete' which suggests an external influence. Its position in the world of music is ably summarised by Jahn: 'If in his Italian operas Mozart assimilated the traditions of a long period of development and in some sense put the finishing stroke to it, with "Die Zauberfloete" he treads on the threshold of the future, and unlocks for his country the sacred treasure of national art.'
Of Mozart's work as a whole, it is impossible to speak save in terms which seem exaggerated. His influence upon subsequent composers cannot be over-estimated. Without him, Rossini and modern Italian opera, Weber and modern German, Gounod and modern French, would have been impossible. It may be conceded that the form of his operas, with the alternation of airs, concerted pieces and recitativo secco, may conceivably strike the ears of the uneducated as old-fashioned, but the feelings of musicians may best be summed up in the word of Gounod: 'O Mozart, divin Mozart! Qu'il faut peu te comprendre pour ne pas t'adorer! Toi, la verite constante! Toi, la beaute parfaite! Toi, le charme inepuisable! Toi, toujours profond et toujours limpide! Toi, l'humanite complete et la simplicite de l'enfant! Toi, qui as tout ressenti, et tout exprime dans une langue musicale qu'on n'a jamais surpassee et qu'on ne surpassera jamais.'
THE CLOSE OF THE CLASSICAL PERIOD
Mozart and Gluck, each in his respective sphere, carried opera to a point which seemed scarcely to admit of further development. But before the advent of Weber and the romantic revolution there was a vast amount of good work done by a lesser order of musicians, who worked on the lines laid down by their great predecessors, and did much to familiarise the world with the new beauties of their masters' work. The history of art often repeats itself in this way. First comes the genius burning with celestial fire. He sweeps away the time-worn formulas, and founds his new art upon their ruins. Then follows the crowd of disciples, men of talent and imagination, though without the crowning impulse that moves the world. They repeat and amplify their leader's maxims, until the world, which at first had stood aghast at teaching so novel, in time grows accustomed to it, and finally accepts it without question. Next comes the final stage, when what has been caviare to one generation is become the daily bread of the next. The innovations of the master, caught up and reproduced by his disciples, in the third generation become the conventional formulas of the art, and the world is ripe once more for a revolution!
Deeply as Gluck's work affected the history of music, his immediate disciples were few. Salieri (1750-1825), an Italian by birth, was chiefly associated with the Viennese court, but wrote his best work, 'Les Danaides,' for Paris. He caught the trick of Gluck's grand style cleverly, but was hardly more than an imitator. Sacchini (1734-1786) had a more original vein, though he too was essentially a composer of the second class. He was not actually a pupil of Gluck, though his later works, written for the Paris stage, show the influence of the composer of 'Alceste' very strongly. The greatest of Gluck's immediate followers—the greatest, because he imbibed the principles of his master's art without slavishly reproducing his form—was Mehul (1763-1817), a composer who is so little known in England that it is difficult to speak of him in terms which shall not sound exaggerated to those who are not familiar with his works. How highly he is ranked by French critics may be gathered from the fact that when 'Israel in Egypt' was performed for the first time in Paris some years ago, M. Julien Tiersot, one of the sanest and most clear-headed of contemporary writers on music, gave it as his opinion that Handel's work was less conspicuous for the qualities of dignity and sonority than Mehul's 'Joseph.' Englishmen can scarcely be expected to echo this opinion, but as to the intrinsic greatness of Mehul's work there cannot be any question. He was far more of a scientific musician than Gluck, and his scores have nothing of his master's jejuneness. His melody, too, is dignified and expressive, but he is sensibly inferior to Gluck in what may be called dramatic instinct, and this, coupled with the fact that the libretti of his operas are almost uniformly uninteresting, whereas Gluck's are drawn from the immortal legends of the past, is perhaps enough to explain why the one has been taken and the other left. Mehul's last and greatest work, 'Joseph,' is still performed in France and Germany, though our national prejudices forbid the hope that it can ever be heard in this country except in a mutilated concert version. The opera follows the Biblical story closely, and Mehul has reproduced the large simplicity of the Old Testament with rare felicity. From the magnificent opening air, 'Champs paternels,' to the sonorous final chorus, the work is rich in beauty of a very high order. Of his other serious works few have remained in the current repertory, chiefly owing to their stupid libretti, for there is not one of them that does not contain music of rare excellence. 'Stratonice,' a dignified setting of the pathetic old story of the prince who loves his father's betrothed, deserves to live if only for the sake of the noble air, 'Versez tous vos chagrins,' a masterpiece of sublime tenderness as fine as anything in Gluck. 'Uthal,' a work upon an Ossianic legend, has recently been revived with success in Germany. It embodies a curious experiment in orchestration, the violins being entirely absent from the score. The composer's idea, no doubt, was to represent by this means the grey colouring and misty atmosphere of the scene in which his opera was laid, but the originality of the idea scarcely atones for the monotony in which it resulted. Although his genius was naturally of a serious and dignified cast, Mehul wrote many works in a lighter vein, partly no doubt in emulation of Gretry, the prince of opera comique. Mehul's comic operas are often deficient in sparkle, but their musical force and the enchanting melodies with which they are begemmed have kept them alive, and several of them—'Une Folie,' for instance, and 'Le Tresor Suppose'—have been performed in Germany during the last decade, while 'L'Irato,' a brilliant imitation of Italian opera buffa, has recently been given at Brussels with great success.
Although born in Florence and educated in the traditions of the Neapolitan school, Cherubini (1760-1842) belongs by right to the French school. His 'Lodoiska,' which was produced in Paris in 1791, established his reputation; and 'Les Deux Journees' (1800), known in England as 'The Water-Carrier,' placed him, in the estimation of Beethoven, at the head of all living composers of opera. Posterity has scarcely endorsed Beethoven's dictum, but it is impossible to ignore the beauty of Cherubini's work. The solidity of his concerted pieces and the picturesqueness of his orchestration go far to explain the enthusiasm which his works aroused in a society which as yet knew little, if anything, of Mozart. Cherubini's finest works suffer from a frigidity and formality strangely in contrast with the grace of Gretry or the melody of Mehul, but the infinite resources of his musicianship make amends for lack of inspiration, and 'Les Deux Journees' may still be listened to with pleasure, if not with enthusiasm. The scene of the opera is laid in Paris, under the rule of Cardinal Mazarin, who has been defied by Armand, the hero of the story. The gates of Paris are strictly guarded, and every precaution is taken to prevent Armand's escape; but he is saved by Mikeli, a water-carrier, whose son he had once befriended, and who now repays the favour by conveying him out of Paris in his empty water-cart. Armand escapes to a village near Paris, but is captured by the Cardinal's troops while protecting his wife Constance, who has followed him, from the insults of two soldiers. In the end a pardon arrives from the Queen, and all ends happily. In spite of the serious and even tragic cast of the plot, the use of spoken dialogue compels us to class 'Les Deux Journees' as an opera comique; and the same rule applies to 'Medee,' Cherubini's finest work, an opera which for dignity of thought and grandeur of expression deserves to rank high among the productions of the period. Lesueur (1763-1837) may fitly be mentioned by the side of Mehul and Cherubini. His opera 'Les Bardes,' though now forgotten, has qualities of undeniable excellence. Its faults as well as its beauties are those of the period which produced it. It is declamatory rather than lyrical, and decorative rather than dramatic, but in the midst of its conventions and formality there is much that is true as well as picturesque.
During the closing years of the eighteenth and at the beginning of the nineteenth century the activity of the French school of opera is in remarkable contrast with the stagnation which prevailed in Italy and Germany. Italy, a slave to the facile graces of the Neapolitan school, still awaited the composer who should strike off her chains and renew the youth of her national art; while Germany, among the crowds of imitators who clung to the skirts of Mozart's mantle, could not produce one worthy to follow in his steps. Yet though French opera embodied the finest thought and aspiration of the day, it is only just to observe that the impetus which impelled her composers upon new paths of progress came largely from external sources. It is curious to note how large a share foreigners have had in building up the fabric of French opera. Lulli, Gluck, and Cherubini in turn devoted their genius to its service. They were followed by Spontini (1774-1851), who in spite of chauvinistic prejudice, became, on the production of 'La Vestale' in 1807, the most popular composer of the day. Spontini's training was Neapolitan, but his first visit to Paris showed him that there was no place upon the French stage for the trivialities which still delighted Italian audiences. He devoted himself to careful study, and his one-act opera 'Milton,' the first-fruits of his musicianship, showed a remarkable advance upon his youthful efforts. Spontini professed an adoration for Mozart which bordered upon idolatry, but his music shows rather the influence of Gluck. He is the last of what may be called the classical school of operatic composers, and he shows little trace of the romanticism which was beginning to lay its hand upon music. He was accused during his lifetime of overloading his operas with orchestration, and of writing music which it was impossible to sing—accusations which sound strangely familiar to those who are old enough to remember the reception of Wagner in the seventies and eighties. His scores would not sound very elaborate nowadays, nor do his melodies appear unusually tortuous or exacting, but he insisted upon violent contrasts from his singers as well as from his orchestra, and the great length of his operas, a point in which he anticipated Meyerbeer and Wagner, probably reduced to exhaustion the artists who were trained on Gluck and Mozart. 'La Vestale' was followed in 1809 by 'Fernand Cortez,' and in 1819 by 'Olympie,' both of which were extremely successful, the latter in a revised form which was produced at Berlin in 1821. Spontini's operas are now no longer performed, but the influence which his music exercised upon men so different as Wagner and Meyerbeer makes his name important in the history of opera.
Although Paris was the nursery of all that was best in opera at this period, to Germany belongs the credit of producing the one work dating from the beginning of the nineteenth century which deserves to rank with the masterpieces of the previous generation—Beethoven's 'Fidelio.' Beethoven's (1770-1827) one contribution to the lyric stage was written in 1804 and 1805, and was produced at Vienna in the latter year, during the French occupation. The libretto is a translation from the French, and the story had already formed the basis of more than one opera; indeed, it was a performance of Paer's 'Eleonora' which originally led Beethoven to think of writing his work. Simple as it is, the plot has true nobility of design, and the purity of its motive contrasts favourably with the tendency of the vast majority of lyric dramas. Florestan, a Spanish nobleman, has fallen into the power of his bitterest enemy, Pizarro, the governor of a state prison near Madrid. There the unfortunate Florestan is confined in a loathsome dungeon without light or air, dependent upon the mercy of Pizarro for the merest crust of bread. Leonore, the unhappy prisoner's wife, has discovered his place of confinement, and, in the hope of rescuing him, disguises herself in male attire and hires herself as servant to Rocco, the head gaoler, under the name of Fidelio. In this condition she has to endure the advances of Marcelline, the daughter of Rocco, who neglects her lover Jaquino for the sake of the attractive new-comer. Before Leonore has had time to mature her plans, news comes to the prison of the approaching visit of the Minister Fernando on a tour of inspection. Pizarro's only chance of escaping the detection of his crime is to put an end to Florestan's existence, and he orders Rocco to dig a grave in the prisoner's cell. Leonore obtains leave to help the gaoler in his task, and together they descend to the dungeon, where the unfortunate Florestan is lying in a half inanimate condition. When their task is finished Pizarro himself comes down, and is on the point of stabbing Florestan, when Leonore throws herself between him and his victim, a pistol in her hand, and threatens the assassin with instant death if he advance a step. At that moment a flourish of trumpets announces the arrival of Fernando. Pizarro is forced to hurry off to receive his guest, and the husband and wife rush into each other's arms. The closing scene shows the discomfiture and disgrace of Pizarro, and the restoration of Florestan to his lost honours and dignity.
The form of 'Fidelio,' like that of "Die Zauberfloete," is that of the Singspiel. In the earlier and lighter portions of the work the construction of the drama does not differ materially from that of the generality of Singspiele, but in the more tragic scenes the spoken dialogue is employed with novel and extraordinary force. So far from suggesting any feeling of anti-climax, the sudden relapse into agitated speech often gives an effect more thrilling than any music could command. At two points in the drama this is especially remarkable—firstly, in the prison quartet, after the flourish of trumpets, when Jaquino comes in breathless haste to announce the arrival of the Minister; and secondly, in the brief dialogue between the husband and wife which separates the quartet from the following duet. Leonore's famous words, 'Nichts, nichts, mein Florestan,' in particular, if spoken with a proper sense of their exquisite truth and beauty, sum up the passionate devotion of the true-hearted wife, and her overflowing happiness at the realisation of her dearest hopes, in a manner which for genuine pathos can scarcely be paralleled upon the operatic stage.
It is hardly necessary to point out to the student of opera the steady influence which Mozart's music exercised upon Beethoven's development. Yet although Beethoven learnt much from the composer of 'Don Giovanni,' there is a great deal in 'Fidelio' with which Mozart had nothing to do. The attitude of Beethoven towards opera—to go no deeper than questions of form—was radically different from that of Mozart. Beethoven's talent was essentially symphonic rather than dramatic, and magnificent as 'Fidelio' is, it has many passages in which it is impossible to avoid feeling that the composer is forcing his talent into an unfamiliar if not uncongenial channel. This is especially noticeable in the concerted pieces, in which Beethoven sometimes seems to forget all about opera, characters, dramatic situation and everything else in the sheer delight of writing music. No one with an ounce of musical taste in his composition would wish the canon-quartet, the two trios or the two finales, to take a few instances at random, any shorter or less developed than they are, but one can imagine how Mozart would have smiled at the lack of dramatic feeling displayed in their construction.
'Fidelio,' as has already been said, is the only opera produced in Germany at this period which is deserving of special mention. Mozart's success had raised up a crop of imitators, of whom the most meritorious were Suessmayer, his own pupil; Winter, who had the audacity to write a sequel to 'Die Zauberfloete'; Weigl, the composer of the popular 'Schweizerfamilie' the Abbe Vogler, who, though now known chiefly by his organ music, was a prolific writer for the stage; and Dittersdorf, a writer of genuine humour, whose spirited Singspiel, 'Doktor und Apotheker,' carried on the traditions of Hiller successfully. But though the lighter school of opera in Germany produced nothing of importance, upon the more congenial soil of France opera comique, in the hands of a school of earnest and gifted composers, was acquiring a musical distinction which it was far from possessing in the days of Gretry and Monsigny. Strictly speaking, the operas of Mehul and Cherubini should be ranked as operas comiques, by reason of the spoken dialogue which takes the place of the recitative; but the high seriousness which continually animates the music of these masters makes it impossible to class their works with operas so different in aim and execution as those of Gretry. Of the many writers of opera comique at the beginning of this century, it will be enough to mention two of the most prominent, Nicolo and Boieldieu. Nicolo Isouard (1777-1818), to give him his full name, shone less by musical science or dramatic instinct than by a delicate and pathetic grace which endeared his music to the hearts of his contemporaries. He had little originality, and his facility often descends to commonplace, but much of the music in 'Joconde' and 'Cendrillon' lives by grace of its inimitable tenderness and charm. Nicolo is the Greuze of music. Boieldieu (1775-1834) stands upon a very different plane. Although he worked within restricted limits, his originality and resource place him among the great masters of French music. His earlier works are, for the most, light and delicate trifles; but in 'Jean de Paris' (1812) and 'La Dame Blanche' (1825), to name only two of his many successful works, he shows real solidity of style and no little command of musical invention, combined with the delicate melody and pathetic grace which rarely deserted him. The real strength and distinction of 'La Dame Blanche' have sufficed to keep it alive until the present day, although it has never, in spite of the Scottish origin of the libretto, won in this country a tithe of the popularity which it enjoys in France. The story is a combination of incidents taken from Scott's 'Monastery' and 'Guy Mannering.' The Laird of Avenel, who was obliged to fly from Scotland after the battle of Culloden, entrusted his estates to his steward Gaveston. Many years having passed without tidings of the absentee, Gaveston determines to put the castle and lands up for sale. He has sedulously fostered a tradition which is current among the villagers, that the castle is haunted by a White Lady, hoping by this means to deter any of the neighbouring farmers from competing with him for the estate. The day before the sale takes place, Dickson, one of the farmers, is summoned to the castle by Anna, an orphan girl who had been befriended by the Laird. Dickson is too superstitious to venture, but his place is taken by George Brown, a young soldier, who arrived at the village that day. George has an interview with the White Lady, who is of course Anna in disguise. She recognises George as the man whose life she saved after a battle, and knowing him to be the rightful heir of Avenel, promises to help him in recovering his property. She has discovered that treasure is concealed in a statue of the White Lady, and with this she empowers George to buy back his ancestral lands and castle. Gaveston is outbidden at the sale, and George weds Anna. Boieldieu's music has much melodic beauty, though its tenderness is apt to degenerate into sentimentality. In its original form the opera would nowadays be unbearably tiresome, and only a judicious shortening of the interminable duets and trios can make them tolerable to a modern audience. In spite of much that is conventional and old-fashioned, the alternate vigour and grace of 'La Dame Blanche' and the genuine musical interest of the score make it the most favourable specimen of this period of French opera comique. It is the last offspring of the older school. After Boieldieu's time the influence of Rossini became paramount, and opera comique, unable to resist a spell so formidable, began to lose its distinctively national characteristics.
WEBER AND THE ROMANTIC SCHOOL
Although, for the sake of convenience, it is customary to speak of Weber as the founder of the romantic school in music, it must not be imagined that the new school sprang into being at the production of 'Der Freischuetz.' For many years the subtle influence of the romantic school in literature—the circle which gathered round Tieck, Fichte, and the Schlegels—had been felt in music. We have seen how the voluptuous delights of Armida's garden affected even the stately muse of Gluck; and in the generation which succeeded him, though opera still followed classic lines of form, in subject and treatment it was tinged with the prismatic colours of romance. Mehul's curious experiments in orchestration, and the solemn splendour of Mozart's Egyptian mysteries, alike show the influence of the romantic spirit as surely as the weirdest piece of diablerie ever devised by Weber or his followers. Yet though intimations of the approaching change had for long been perceptible to the discerning eye, it was not until the days of Weber that the classical forms and methods which had ruled the world of opera since the days of Gluck gave way before the newer and more vivid passion of romance. Even then it must not be forgotten that the romantic school differed from the classic more in view of life and treatment of subject than in actual subject itself. The word romance conjures up weird visions of the supernatural or glowing pictures of chivalry; but although it is true that Weber and his followers loved best to treat of such themes as these, they had by no means been excluded from the repertory of their classical predecessors. The supernatural terrors of 'Der Freischuetz' must not make us forget the terrific finale to 'Don Giovanni,' nor can the most glowing picture from 'Euryanthe' erase memories of Rinaldo and the Crusaders in 'Armide.' The romantic movement, however, as interpreted by Weber, aimed definitely at certain things, which had not previously come within the scope of music, though for many years they had been the common property of art and literature. The romantic movement was primarily a revolt against the tyranny of man and his emotions. It claimed a wider stage and an ampler air. Nature was not henceforth to be merely the background against which man played his part. The beauty of landscape, the glory of the setting sun, the splendour of the sea, the mystery of the forest—all these the romantic movement taught men to regard not merely as the accessories of a scene in which man was the predominant figure, but as subjects in themselves worthy of artistic treatment. The genius of Weber (1786-1826) was a curious compound of two differing types. In essence it was thoroughly German—sane in inspiration, and drawing its strength from the homely old Volkslieder, so dear to every true German heart. Yet over this solid foundation there soared an imagination surely more delicate and ethereal than has ever been allotted to mortal musician before or since, by the aid of which Weber was enabled to treat all subjects beneath heaven with equal success. He is equally at home in the eerie horrors of the Wolf's Glen, in the moonlit revels of Oberon, and in the knightly pomp and circumstance of the Provencal court.
Weber's early years were a continual struggle against defeat and disappointment. His musical education was somewhat superficial, and his first works, 'Sylvana' and 'Peter Schmoll,' gave little promise of his later glory. 'Abu Hassan,' a one-act comic opera, which was produced in 1811, at Munich, was his first real success. Slight as the story is, it is by no means unamusing, and the music, which is a piece of the daintiest filagree-work imaginable, has helped to keep the little work alive to the present day. Such plot as there is describes the shifts of Hassan and Fatima, his wife, to avoid paying their creditors, who are unduly pressing in their demands. Finally they both pretend to be dead, and by this means excite the regret of their master and mistress, the Sultan and Sultana, a regret which takes the practical form of releasing them from their embarrassments.
In 'Der Freischuetz' Weber was at last in his true element. The plot of the opera is founded upon an old forest legend of a demon who persuades huntsmen to sell their souls in exchange for magic bullets which never miss their mark. Caspar, who is a ranger in the service of Prince Ottokar of Bohemia, had sold himself to the demon Samiel. The day is approaching when his soul will become forfeit to the powers of evil, unless he can bring a fresh victim in his place. He looks around him for a possible substitute, and his choice falls upon Max, another ranger, who had been unlucky in the preliminary contest for the post of chief huntsman, and is only too ready to listen to Caspar's promise of unerring bullets. Max loves Agathe, the daughter of Kuno, the retiring huntsman, and unless he can secure the vacant post, he has little hope of being able to marry her. He agrees eagerly to Caspar's proposal, and promises to meet him at midnight in the haunted Wolf's Glen, there to go through the ceremony of casting the magic bullets. Meanwhile Agathe is oppressed by forebodings of coming evil. The fall of an old picture seems to her a presage of woe, and her lively cousin Aennchen can do little to console her. The appearance of Max on his way to the Wolf's Glen, cheers her but little. He too has been troubled by strange visions, and as the moment of the rendezvous approaches his courage begins to fail. Nevertheless he betakes himself to the Glen, and there, amidst scenes of the wildest supernatural horror, the bullets are cast in the presence of the terrible Samiel himself. Six of them are for Max, to be used by him in the approaching contest, while the seventh will be at the disposal of the demon. In the third act Agathe is discovered preparing for her wedding. She has dreamed that, in the shape of a dove, she was shot by Max, and she cannot shake off a sense of approaching trouble. Her melancholy is not dissipated by the discovery that, instead of a bridal crown, a funeral wreath has been prepared for her; however, to console herself, she determines to wear a wreath of sacred roses, which had been given her by the hermit of the forest. The last scene shows the shooting contest on which the future of Max and Agathe depends. Max makes six shots in succession, all of which hit the mark. At last, at the Prince's command, he fires at a dove which is flying past. Agathe falls with a shriek, but is protected by her wreath, while Samiel directs the bullet to Caspar's heart. At the sight of his associate's fate Max is stricken with remorse, and tells the story of his unholy compact. The Prince is about to banish him from his service, when the hermit appears and intercedes for the unfortunate youth. The Prince is mollified, and it is decided that Max shall have a year's probation, after which he shall be permitted to take the post of chief huntsman and marry Agathe.
'Der Freischuetz' is, upon the whole, the most thoroughly characteristic of Weber's works. The famous passage for the horns, with which the overture opens, strikes the note of mystery and romance which echoes through the work. The overture itself is a notable example of that new beauty which Weber infused into the time-honoured form. If he was not actually the first—for Beethoven had already written his 'Leonore' overtures—to make the overture a picture in brief of the incidents of the opera, he developed the idea with so much picturesque power and imagination that the preludes to his operas remain the envy and despair of modern theatrical composers. The inspiration of 'Der Freischuetz' is drawn so directly from the German Volkslied, that at its production Weber was roundly accused of plagiarism by many critics. Time has shown the folly of such charges. 'Der Freischuetz' is German to the core, and every page of it bears the impress of German inspiration, but the glamour of Weber's genius transmuted the rough material he employed into a fabric of the richest art. Of the imaginative power of such scenes as the famous incantation it is unnecessary to speak. It introduced a new element into music, and one which was destined to have an almost immeasurable influence upon modern music. Weber's power of characterisation was remarkable, as shown particularly in the music assigned to Agathe and Aennchen, but in this respect he was certainly inferior to some of his predecessors, notably to Mozart. But in imaginative power and in the minute knowledge of orchestral detail, which enabled him to translate his conceptions into music, he has never been surpassed among writers for the stage. Modern opera, if we may speak in general terms, may be said to date from the production of 'Der Freischuetz.'
Operatic composers are too often dogged by a fate which seems to compel them to wed their noblest inspirations to libretti of incorrigible dulness, and Weber was even more unfortunate in this respect than his brethren of the craft. After 'Der Freischuetz,' the libretti which he took in hand were of the most unworthy description, and even his genius has not been able to give them immortality. 'Euryanthe' was the work of Helmine von Chezy, the authoress of 'Rosamunde,' for which Schubert wrote his entrancing incidental music. Weber was probably attracted by the romantic elements of the story, the chivalry of mediaeval France, the marches and processions, the pomp and glitter of the court, and overlooked the weak points of the plot. To tell the truth, much of the libretto of 'Euryanthe' borders upon the incomprehensible. The main outline of the story is as follows. At a festival given by the King of France, Count Adolar praises the beauty and virtue of his betrothed Euryanthe, and Lysiart, who also loves her, offers to wager all he possesses that he will contrive to gain her love. Adolar accepts the challenge, and Lysiart departs for Nevers, where Euryanthe is living. The second act discovers Euryanthe and Eglantine, an outcast damsel whom she has befriended. Eglantine secretly loves Adolar, but extracts a promise from Lysiart, who has arrived at Nevers, that he will marry her. In return for this she gives him a ring belonging to Euryanthe, which she has stolen, and tells him a secret relating to a mysterious Emma, a sister of Adolar, which Euryanthe has incautiously revealed to her. Armed with these Lysiart returns to the court, and quickly persuades Adolar and the King that he has won Euryanthe's affection. No one listens to her denials; she is condemned to death, and Adolar's lands and titles are given to Lysiart. Euryanthe is led into the desert to be killed by Adolar. On the way he is attacked by a serpent, which he kills, though not before Euryanthe has proved her devotion by offering to die in her lover's place. Adolar then leaves Euryanthe to perish, declaring that he has not the heart to kill her. She is found in a dying condition by the King, whom she speedily convinces of her innocence. Meanwhile Adolar has returned to Nevers, to encounter the bridal procession of Eglantine and Lysiart. Eglantine confesses that she helped to ruin Euryanthe in the hope of winning Adolar, and is promptly stabbed by Lysiart. Everything being satisfactorily cleared up, Euryanthe conveniently awakes from a trance into which she had fallen, and the lovers are finally united. Puerile as the libretto is, it inspired Weber with some of the finest music he ever wrote. The spectacular portions of the opera are animated by the true spirit of chivalry, while all that is connected with the incomprehensible Emma and her secret is unspeakably eerie. The characters of the drama are such veritable puppets, that no expenditure of talent could make them interesting; but the resemblance between the general scheme of the plot of 'Euryanthe' and that of 'Lohengrin' should not be passed over, nor the remarkable way in which Weber had anticipated some of Wagner's most brilliant triumphs, notably in the characters of Eglantine and Lysiart, who often seem curiously to foreshadow Ortrud and Telramund, and in the finale to the second act, in which the single voice of Euryanthe, like that of Elisabeth in 'Tannhaeuser,' is contrasted with the male chorus.
Weber's last opera, 'Oberon,' is one of the few works written in recent times by a foreign composer of the first rank for the English stage. The libretto, which was the work of Planche, is founded upon an old French romance, 'Huon of Bordeaux,' and though by no means a model of lucidity, it contains many scenes both powerful and picturesque, which must have captivated the imagination of a musician so impressionable as Weber. The opera opens in fairyland, where a bevy of fairies is watching the slumbers of Oberon. The fairy king has quarrelled with Titania, and has vowed never to be reconciled to her until he shall find two lovers constant to each other through trial and temptation. Puck, who has been despatched to search for such a pair, enters with the news that Sir Huon of Bordeaux, who had accidentally slain the son of Charlemagne, has been commanded, in expiation of his crime, to journey to Bagdad, to claim the Caliph's daughter as his bride, and slay the man who sits at his right hand. Oberon forthwith throws Huon into a deep sleep, and in a vision shows him Rezia, the daughter of the Caliph, of whom the ardent knight instantly becomes enamoured. He then conveys him to the banks of the Tigris, and giving him a magic horn, starts him upon his dangerous enterprise. In the Caliph's palace Huon fights with Babekan, Rezia's suitor, rescues the maiden, and with the aid of the magic horn carries her off from the palace, while his esquire Sherasmin performs the same kind office for Fatima, Rezia's attendant. On their way home they encounter a terrific storm, raised by the power of Oberon to try their constancy. They are ship-wrecked, and Rezia is carried off by pirates to Tunis, whilst Huon is left for dead upon the beach. At Tunis more troubles are in store for the hapless pair. Huon, who has been transported by the fairies across the sea, finds his way into the house of the Emir, where Rezia is in slavery. There he is unlucky enough to win the favour of Roshana, the Emir's wife, and before he can escape from her embraces he is discovered by the Emir himself, and condemned to be burned alive. Rezia proclaims herself his wife, and she also is condemned to the stake; but at this crisis Oberon intervenes. The lovers have been tried enough, and their constancy is rewarded. They are transported to the court of Charlemagne, where a royal welcome awaits them.
Although written for England, 'Oberon' has never achieved much popularity in this, or indeed in any country. The fairy music is exquisite throughout, but the human interest of the story is after all slight, and Weber, on whom the hand of death was heavy as he wrote the score, failed to infuse much individuality into his characters. 'Oberon' was his last work, and he died in London soon after it was produced. During the last few years of his life he had been engaged in a desultory way upon the composition of a comic opera, 'Die drei Pintos,' founded upon a Spanish subject. He left this in an unfinished state, but some time after his death it was found that the manuscript sketches and notes for the work were on a scale sufficiently elaborate to give a proper idea of what the composer's intentions with regard to the work really were. The work of arrangement was entrusted to Herr G. Mahler, and under his auspices 'Die drei Pintos' was actually produced, though with little success.
At the present time the only opera of Weber which can truthfully be said to belong to the current repertory is 'Der Freischuetz,' and even this is rarely performed out of Germany. The small amount of favour which 'Euryanthe' and 'Oberon' enjoy is due, as has been already pointed out, chiefly to the weakness of their libretti, yet it seems strange that the man to whom the whole tendency of modern opera is due should hold so small a place in our affections. The changes which Weber and his followers effected, though less drastic, were in their results fully as important as those of Gluck. In the orchestra as well as on the stage he introduced a new spirit, a new point of view. What modern music owes to him may be summed up in a word. Without Weber, Wagner would have been impossible.
Louis Spohr (1784-1859) is now almost forgotten as an operatic composer, but at one time his popularity was only second to that of Weber. Many competent critics have constantly affirmed that a day will come when Spohr's operas, now neglected, will return to favour once more; but years pass, and there seems no sign of a revival of interest in his work. Yet he has a certain importance in the history of opera; for, so far as chronology is concerned, he ought perhaps to be termed the founder of the romantic school rather than Weber, since his 'Faust' was produced in 1818, and 'Der Freischuetz' did not appear until 1821. But the question seems to turn not so much upon whether Spohr or Weber were first in the field, as whether Spohr is actually a romantic composer at all. If the subjects which he treated were all that need be taken into account, the matter could easily be decided. No composer ever dealt more freely in the supernatural than Spohr. His operas are peopled with elves, ghosts, and goblins. Ruined castles, midnight assassins, and distressed damsels greet us on every page. But if we go somewhat deeper, we find that the real qualities of romanticism are strangely absent from his music. His form differs little from that of his classical predecessors, and his orchestration is curiously arid and unsuggestive; in a word, the breath of imagination rarely animates his pages. Yet the workmanship of his operas is so admirable, and his vein of melody is so delicate and refined, that it is difficult to help thinking that Spohr has been unjustly neglected. His 'Faust,' which has nothing to do with Goethe's drama, was popular in England fifty years ago; and 'Jessonda,' which contains the best of his music, is still occasionally performed in Germany. The rest of his works, with the exception of a few scattered airs, such as 'Rose softly blooming,' from 'Zemire und Azor,' seem to be completely forgotten.
Heinrich Marschner (1796-1861), though not a pupil of Weber, was strongly influenced by his music, and carried on the traditions of the romantic school worthily and well. He was a man of vivid imagination, and revelled in uncanny legends of the supernatural. His works are performed with tolerable frequency in Germany, and still please by reason of their inexhaustible flow of melody and their brilliant and elaborate orchestration. 'Hans Heiling,' his masterpiece, is founded upon a sombre old legend of the Erzgebirge. The king of the gnomes has seen and loved a Saxon maiden, Anna by name, and to win her heart he leaves his palace in the bowels of the earth and masquerades as a village schoolmaster under the name of Hans Heiling. Anna is flattered by his attentions, and promises to be his wife; but she soon tires of her gloomy lover, and ends by openly admitting her preference for the hunter Conrad. Her resolution to break with Hans is confirmed by an apparition of the queen of the gnomes, Hans Heiling's mother, surrounded by her attendant sprites, who warns her under fearful penalties to forswear the love of an immortal. Hans Heiling is furious at the perfidy of Anna, and vows terrible vengeance upon her and Conrad, which he is about to put into execution with the aid of his gnomes. At the last moment, however, his mother appears, and persuades him to relinquish all hopes of earthly love and to return with her to their subterranean home. There is much in this strange story which suggests the legend of the Flying Dutchman, and, bearing in mind the admiration which in his early days Wagner felt for the works of Marschner, it is interesting to trace in 'Hans Heiling' the source of much that is familiar to us in the score of 'Der Fliegende Hollaender.' Of Marschner's other operas, the most familiar are 'Templer und Juedin,' founded upon Sir Walter Scott's 'Ivanhoe,' a fine work, suffering from a confused and disconnected libretto; and 'Der Vampyr,' a tale of unmitigated gloom and horror.
Weber and Marschner show the German romantic school at its best; for the lesser men, such as Hoffmann and Lindpaintner, did little but reproduce the salient features of their predecessors more or less faithfully. The romantic school is principally associated with the sombre dramas, in which the taste of that time delighted; but there was another side to the movement which must not be neglected. The Singspiel, established by Hiller and perfected by Mozart, had languished during the early years of the century, or rather had fallen into the hands of composers who were entirely unable to do justice to its possibilities. The romantic movement touched it into new life, and a school arose which contrived by dint of graceful melody and ingenious orchestral device to invest with real musical interest the simple stories in which the German middle-class delights. The most successful of these composers were Kreutzer and Lortzing.
Conradin Kreutzer (1782-1849) was a prolific composer, but the only one of his operas which can honestly be said to have survived to our times is 'Das Nachtlager von Granada.' This tells the tale of an adventure which befell the Prince Regent of Spain. While hunting in the mountains he falls in with Gabriela, a pretty peasant maiden who is in deep distress. She confides to him that her affairs of the heart have gone awry. Her lover, Gomez the shepherd, is too poor to marry, and her father wishes her to accept the Croesus of the village, a man whom she detests. The handsome huntsman—for such she supposes him to be—promises to intercede for her with his patron the Prince, and when her friends and relations, a band of arrant smugglers and thieves, appear, he tries to buy their consent to her union with Gomez by means of a gold chain which he happens to be wearing. The sight of so much wealth arouses the cupidity of the knaves, and they at once brew a plot to murder the huntsman in his sleep. Luckily Gabriela overhears their scheming, and puts the Prince upon his guard. The assassins find him prepared for their assault, and ready to defend himself to the last drop of blood. Fortunately matters do not come to a climax. A body of the Prince's attendants arrive in time to prevent any bloodshed, and the opera ends with the discomfiture of the villains and the happy settlement of Gabriela's love affairs. Kreutzer's music is for the most part slight, and occasionally borders upon the trivial, but several scenes are treated in the true romantic spirit, and some of the concerted pieces are admirably written. Lortzing (1803-1852) was a more gifted musician than Kreutzer, and several of his operas are still exceedingly popular in Germany. The scene of 'Czar und Zimmermann,' which is fairly well known in England as 'Peter the Shipwright,' is laid at Saardam, where Peter the Great is working in a shipyard under the name of Michaelhoff. There is another Russian employed in the same yard, a deserter named Peter Ivanhoff, and the very slight incidents upon which the action of the opera hinges arise from the mistakes of a blundering burgomaster who confuses the identity of the two men. The music is exceedingly bright and tuneful, and much of it is capitally written. Scarcely less popular in Germany than 'Czar und Zimmermann' is 'Der Wildschuetz' (The Poacher), a bustling comedy of intrigue and disguise, which owes its name to the mistake of a foolish old village schoolmaster, who fancies that he has shot a stag in the baronial preserves. The chief incidents in the piece arise from the humours of a vivacious baroness, who disguises herself as a servant in order to make the acquaintance of her fiance, unknown to him. The music of 'Der Wildschuetz' is no less bright and unpretentious than that of 'Czar und Zimmermann'; in fact, these two works may be taken as good specimens of Lortzing's engaging talent. His strongest points are a clever knack of treating the voices contrapuntally in concerted pieces, and a humorous trick of orchestration, two features with which English audiences have become pleasantly familiar in Sir Arthur Sullivan's operettas, which works indeed owe not a little to the influence of Lortzing and Kreutzer.
Inferior even to the slightest of the minor composers of the romantic school was Flotow, whose 'Martha' nevertheless has survived to our time, while hundreds of works far superior in every way have perished irretrievably. Flotow (1812-1883) was a German by birth, but his music is merely a feeble imitation of the popular Italianisms of the day. 'Martha' tells the story of a freakish English lady who, with her maid, disguises herself as a servant and goes to the hiring fair at Richmond. There they fall in with an honest farmer of the neighbourhood named Plunket, and his friend Lionel, who promptly engage them. The two couples soon fall in love with each other, but various hindrances arise which serve to prolong the story into four weary acts. Flotow had a certain gift of melody, and the music of 'Martha' has the merit of a rather trivial tunefulness, but the score is absolutely devoid of any real musical interest, and the fact that performances of such a work as 'Martha' are still possible in London gives an unfortunate impression of the standard of musical taste prevailing in England. Otto Nicolai (1810-1849) began by imitating Italian music, but in 'Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor,' a capital adaptation of Shakespeare's 'Merry Wives of Windsor,' which was only produced a few months before his death, he returned to the type of comic opera which was popular at that time in Germany. He was an excellent musician, and the captivating melody of this genial little work is supplemented by excellent concerted writing and thoroughly sound orchestration.
To this period belong the operas written by three composers who in other branches of music have won immortality, although their dramatic works have failed to win lasting favour.
Mendelssohn's (1809-1847) boyish opera 'Die Hochzeit des Camacho' is too inexperienced a work to need more than a passing word, and his Liederspiel 'Heimkehr aus der Fremde' is little more than a collection of songs; but the finale to his unfinished 'Lorelei' shows that he possessed genuine dramatic power, and it must be a matter for regret that his difficulties in fixing on a libretto prevented his giving anything to the permanent repertory of the stage.
Schubert (1797-1828) wrote many works for the stage—romantic operas like 'Fierrabras' and 'Alfonso und Estrella,' operettas like 'Der haeusliche Krieg,' and farces like 'Die Zwillingsbrueder.' Most of them were saddled by inane libretti, and though occasionally revived by enthusiastic admirers of the composer, only prove that Schubert's talent was essentially not dramatic, however interesting his music may be to musicians.
Schumann's (1810-1856) one contribution to the history of opera, 'Genoveva,' is decidedly more important, and indeed it seems possible that after many years of neglect it may at last take a place in the modern repertory. It is founded upon a tragedy by Hebbel, and tells of the passion of Golo for Genoveva, the wife of his patron Siegfried, his plot to compromise her, and the final triumph of the constant wife. The music cannot be said to be undramatic; on the contrary, Schumann often realises the situations with considerable success: but he had little power of characterisation, and all the characters sing very much the same kind of music. This gives a feeling of monotony to the score, which is hardly dispelled even by the many beauties with which it is adorned. Nevertheless 'Genoveva' has been revived in several German towns of late years, and its music has always met with much applause from connoisseurs, though it is never likely to be generally popular.
ROSSINI, DONIZETTI, AND BELLINI
While Weber was reconstructing opera in Germany and laying the foundations upon which the vast structure of modern lyrical drama was afterwards reared by the composers of our own day, reforms, or at any rate innovations, were being introduced into Italian opera by a musician scarcely less gifted even than the founder of the romantic school himself. Rossini (1792-1868) owed but little of his fame to instruction or study. As soon as he had been assured by his master that he knew enough of the grammar of music to write an opera, he relinquished his studies once for all, and started life as a composer. In this perhaps he showed his wisdom, for his natural gifts were of such a nature as could scarcely have been enhanced by erudition, and the mission which he so amply fulfilled in freeing his national art from eighteenth-century convention was certainly not one which depended upon a profound knowledge of counterpoint. Nature had fortunately endowed him with precisely the equipment necessary for the man who was to reform Italian opera. The school of Paisiello, notwithstanding its many merits, had several grievous weaknesses, of which the most prominent were uniformity of melodic type, nerveless and conventional orchestration, and intolerable prolixity. Rossini brought to his task a vein of melody as inexhaustible in inspiration as it was novel in form, a natural instinct for instrumental colour, and a firm conviction that brevity was the soul of wit. He leapt into fame with 'Tancredi,' which was produced in 1813 and established his reputation as a composer of opera seria. In opera buffa, a field in which his talents shone even more brilliantly, his earliest success was made with 'L'Italiana in Algeri' (1813), which was followed in 1815 by the world-famous 'Barbiere di Siviglia.' This was originally produced in Rome under the name of 'Almaviva,' and strangely enough, proved an emphatic failure. For this, however, the music was scarcely responsible. The people of Rome were at that time devotees of the music of Paisiello, and resented the impertinence of the upstart Rossini in venturing to borrow a subject which had already been treated by the older master. 'Il Barbiere' soon recovered from the shock of its unfriendly reception, and is now one of the very few of Rossini's works which have survived to the present day. The story is bright and amusing and the music brilliant and exhilarating, but it is to be feared that the real explanation of the continued success of the little opera lies in the opportunity which it offers to the prima donna of introducing her favourite cheval de bataille in the lesson scene. The scene of the opera is laid at Seville. Count Almaviva has fallen in love with Rosina, a fascinating damsel, whose guardian, Bartolo, keeps her under lock and key, in the hope of persuading her to marry himself. Figaro, a ubiquitous barber, who is in everybody's confidence, takes the Count under his protection, and contrives to smuggle him into the house in the disguise of a drunken soldier. Unfortunately this scheme is frustrated by the arrival of the guard, who arrest the refractory hero and carry him off to gaol. In the second act the Count succeeds in getting into the house as a music-master, but in order to gain the suspicious Bartolo's confidence he has to show him one of Rosina's letters to himself, pretending that it was given him by a mistress of Almaviva. Bartolo is delighted with the news of the Count's infidelity and hastens to tell the scandal to Rosina, whose jealousy and disappointment nearly bring Almaviva's deep-laid schemes to destruction. Happily he finds an opportunity of persuading her of his constancy while her guardian's back is turned, and induces her to elope before Bartolo has discovered the fraud practised upon him. The music is a delightful example of Rossini in his gayest and merriest mood. It sparkles with wit and fancy, and is happily free from those concessions to the vanity or idiosyncrasy of individual singers which do so much to render his music tedious to modern ears. Of Rossini's lighter works, 'Il Barbiere' is certainly the most popular, though, musically speaking, it is perhaps not superior to 'La Gazza Ladra,' which, however, is saddled with an idiotic libretto. None of his tragic operas except 'Guillaume Tell,' which belongs to a later period, have retained their hold upon the affections of the public. Nevertheless there is so much excellent music in the best of them, that it would not be strange if the course of time should bring them once more into favour, provided always that singers were forthcoming capable of singing the elaborate fioriture with which they abound. Perhaps the finest of the serious operas of Rossini's Italian period is 'Semiramide' a work which is especially interesting as a proof of the strong influence which Mozart exercised upon him. The plot is a Babylonian version of the story of Agamemnon, telling of the vengeance taken by Arsaces, the son of Ninus and Semiramis, upon his guilty mother, who, with the help of her paramour Assur, had slain her husband. Much of the music is exceedingly powerful, notably that which accompanies the apparition of the ghost of Ninus (although this is evidently inspired by 'Don Giovanni'), and the passionate scene in which the conscience-stricken Assur pours forth his soul in tempest. More thoroughly Italian in type is 'Mose in Egitto,' a curious though effective version of the Biblical story, which is still occasionally performed as an oratorio in this country, a proceeding which naturally gives little idea of its real merits. In 1833 it was actually given under the proper conditions, as a sacred opera, strengthened by a generous infusion of Handel's 'Israel in Egypt,' under the direction of Mr. Rophino Lacy. It would be an idle task to give even the names of Rossini's many operas. Suffice it to say that between 1810 and 1828 he produced upwards of forty distinct works. In 1829 came his last and greatest work, 'Guillaume Tell,' which was written for the Grand Opera in Paris. The libretto was the work of many hands, and Rossini's own share in it was not a small one. It follows Schiller with tolerable closeness. In the first act Tell saves the life of Leuthold, who is being pursued by Gessler's soldiers; and Melchthal, the patriarch of the village, is put to death on a charge of insubordination. His son Arnold loves Matilda, the sister of Gessler, and hesitates between love and duty. Finally, however, he joins Tell, who assembles the men of the three forest cantons, and binds them with an oath to exterminate their oppressors or perish in the attempt. In the third act comes the famous archery scene. Tell refuses to bow to Gessler's hat, and is condemned to shoot the apple from his son's head. This he successfully accomplishes, but the presence of a second arrow in his quiver arouses Gessler's suspicions. Tell confesses that had he killed his son, the second arrow would have despatched the tyrant, and is at once thrown into prison. In the last act we find Arnold raising a band of followers and himself accomplishing the rescue of Tell; Gessler is slain, and Matilda is united to her lover.
'Guillaume Tell' is not only indisputably Rossini's finest work, but it also give convincing proof of the plasticity of the composer's genius. Accustomed as he had been for many years to turning out Italian operas by the score—graceful trifles enough, but too often flimsy and conventional—it says much for the character of the man that, when the occasion arrived, he could attack such a subject as that of Tell with the proper seriousness and reserve. He took what was best in the style and tradition of French opera and welded it to the thoroughly Italian fabric with which he was familiar. He put aside the excessive ornamentation with which his earlier works had been overladen, and treated the voices with a simplicity and dignity thoroughly in keeping with the subject. The choral and instrumental parts of the opera are particularly important; the latter especially have a colour and variety which may be considered to have had a large share in forming the taste for delicate orchestral effects for which modern French composers are famous. 'Guillaume Tell' was to have been the first of a series of five operas written for the Paris Opera by special arrangement with the government of Charles X. The revolution of 1830 put an end to this scheme, and a few years later, finding himself displaced by Meyerbeer in the affections of the fickle Parisian public, Rossini made up his mind to write no more for the stage. He lived for nearly forty years after the production of 'Guillaume Tell,' but preferred a life of ease and leisure to entering the lists once more as a candidate for fame. What the world lost by this decision, it is difficult to say; but if we remember the extraordinary development which took place in the style and methods of Wagner and Verdi, we cannot think without regret of the composer of 'Guillaume Tell' making up his mind while still a young man to abandon the stage for ever. Nevertheless, although much of his music soon became old-fashioned, Rossini's work was not unimportant. The invention of the cabaletta, or quick movement, following the cavatina or slow movement, must be ascribed to him, an innovation which has affected the form of opera, German and French, as well as Italian, throughout this century. Even more important was the change which he introduced into the manner of singing fioriture or florid music. Before his day singers had been accustomed to introduce cadenzas of their own, to a great extent when they liked. Rossini insisted upon their singing nothing but what was set down for them. Naturally he was compelled to write cadenzas for them as elaborate and effective as those which they had been in the habit of improvising, so that much of his Italian music sounds empty and meaningless to our ears. But he introduced the thin edge of the wedge, and although even to the days of Jenny Lind singers were occasionally permitted to interpolate cadenzas of their own, the old tradition that an opera was merely an opportunity for the display of individual vanity was doomed.