Edited by Antony Beaumont
World premiere of the Critical Edition: 27.01.2019, Berlin
On the basis of an “Overture in F major”, Johannes Brahms recommended Alexander Zemlinsky in early 1895 for a monthly stipend from the Vienna Education Ministry. Freed temporarily from the daily burden of giving lessons, Zemlinsky now happily found himself with sufficient time to complete the orchestration of his first opera, Sarema. It is possible that he submitted the Overture without a title page, which would account for the rather vague reference to it in Brahms’s letter of recommendation. In fact, two different title pages for the work were left in Zemlinsky’s estate. One, dated “in September 1894”, contains the remark “for Wartenegg’s Ring der Ofterdingen”, while the other, dated “1895”, cites no literary source. How to explain this? In May 1890, the Deutsches Volkstheater in Vienna had announced a “Lustspiel competition”. From the 262 plays submitted, the jury awarded first prize to the comedy Der Ring des Ofterdingen by Wilhelm von Wartenegg (1839-1914), custodian of the Imperial Art Gallery.
At the premiere, given on 12 March 1891, “the audience called for numerous curtain calls following the first act,” reported the Wiener Zeitung. “Then the applause became fainter and more scattered.” At the final curtain there was whistling and booing. “Egregious rubbish”, wrote Arthur Schnitzler in his diary. Cuts were undertaken, and subsequent performances were received with acclaim. A few months after the premiere, the text appeared as a Reclam volume, and during the 1891-92 season the play notched up impressive successes in cities including Karlsruhe, Leipzig, Oldenburg and Schwerin. Further stagings were announced for Berlin and Prague. It is not out of the question that Zemlinsky himself was intended to take part in the Prague production. Although there is no proof of this, why else would he have interrupted work on Sarema, which had been his highest priority, if not to fulfil a paid commission? The Prague premiere was scheduled for the end of November at the New German Theatre, but it never took place. After the production was cancelled, at short notice, there was no need for incidental music.
Occasional solo passages for harp in the Lustspiel-Ouvertüre suggest the backdrop of a Romantic minnesinger performance, and the C major second theme perfectly fits the “Kranzlied” in the fourth act of Wartenegg’s play. In the end, however, the score was published without the literary reference, though by facilitating the monthly grant, it had already achieved Zemlinsky’s purpose. In 1901, he borrowed the principal theme for a pantomime with piano accompaniment, Ein Lichtstrahl, which was intended for performance at Berlin’s Buntes Theater “Überbrettl”. This plan, too, fell through. As a result, in spite of Brahms’ praise, this Lustspiel-Ouvertüre – a charming, fleet-footed work – was consigned to the archives and forgotten for over 120 years.
Text: Antony Beaumont (translation: Richard Evidon)