Neither dusty nor well-behaved!

Marlene Hahn | Chefdramaturgin | Wednesday 26.10.2022

In conversation with musicologist Dr Irmlind Capelle, since 2009 First Chairwoman of the Albert-Lortzing-Gesellschaft e.V. about the century composer Albert Lortzing, his history, his time.

If I were to arrange to have a glass of wine with Albert Lortzing this evening, what kind of person would be sitting opposite me?

"A slender middle figure with dark curly hair, friendly beautiful face; his pretty dark eyes were of a good-natured mischievous expression, cheerfully lively; his whole appearance, his whole being full of cheerfulness and mood, skilful and pleasing on the stage as in life, never failed to make the most pleasant impression there as there. (Philipp Düringer 1851, p. 8)

"Lortzing was a peculiarity who could so easily not be blamed, his conciliatory bonhomie, his all-conquering kindness healed the wound of his sharp wit before it hurt. - Lortzing was wilful, not wild, - funny, not boisterous, - cheerful of heart and light of mind, never reckless" (Philipp Düringer 1851, p. 12).

How would the evening probably go? What would be talked about?

If you joined in, it would be a lively, cheerful evening, witty in the best sense of the word. The main topic would probably be the theatre, the social life of the city, mutual acquaintances or topics that you still bring up, because Albert Lortzing was a curious person who turned towards the other person. Politics would probably play only a minor role. For that, it needed the private, familiar setting.

What would he say about Leipzig?

He would praise Leipzig as a "city of science, especially for music" (AL, 27 May 1833), but also accuse it of being a "city of pleasure": "I don't think any city can compete with the local boozing. I can put up with the soirees, you can go to bed afterwards, but the local breakfasts, which are the order of the day every Sunday, especially in my acquaintance, should be taken by the devil. Such a breakfast begins at 10 o'clock in the morning and lasts until 3 or 4 o'clock in the afternoon, so you have to pull yourself together if you have comedy to play.

In terms of landscape, however, Lortzing liked it better in his earlier engagement and especially in Detmold: "Despite this, my dear Detmold with many dear acquaintances often emerges from these rapturous pleasures. My longing there, especially as spring is approaching and I can see the magnificent surroundings, is indescribable and this longing increases when I take a look at the environs of Leipzig, which (a pleasant promenade around the city and the so-called Rosenthal notwithstanding) are most ludicrous". (all quotations: AL, 5 April 1834)

Which cliché about Albert Lortzing persists, perhaps even to this day, unjustly?

The image of a composer of only cheerful, Biedermeier operas, whereby "Bieder" is understood pejoratively as "dusty", "well-behaved" and no longer interesting today. On the one hand, this fails to recognise the variety of themes Lortzing addressed in his 13 full-length operas, of which unfortunately only three are known today, and their stylistic range, which also includes the "festival opera" "Hans Sachs", the romantic magic opera "Undine", the "Regina", which Lortzing only called an "opera", and the comic-romantic magic opera "Rolands Knappen".

In principle, Lortzing had deliberately chosen the German variant of the French opéra-comique, i.e. musically opera with spoken dialogue, thematically conversation opera. Regarding the recitative, Lortzing said: "I consider prose to be more appropriate in German comic opera. The German always sings recitatives in comic opera as if he were wearing armour or a priest's shirt." (AL to Karl Gollmick on 30 November 1843)

The French Opéra-comique in the 19th century also had a wide range of themes, they are conversation operas and all topics that people talk about are dealt with, i.e. no past heroic stories or stories from mythology or the Bible are told, but - even if the plot is set in past centuries - contemporary topics are dealt with and since Albert Lortzing was a politically very alert mind, the politics of the day always play a role in all his operas. Quite apart from the fact that he was very good with language and therefore the dialogues in particular are often very pointed, his operas are above all very suitable for the stage: Lortzing knew and calculated the effect on stage very precisely and probably created some of the roles in his operas quite accurately for the abilities of his colleagues in Leipzig.

How can we imagine the conditions at a municipal theatre like the one in Leipzig at that time today?

From a purely legal point of view, the municipal theatre was run by a theatre deputation, which was part of the magistrate. This elected the director, who in turn hired the staff. From 1832 to 1844, Sebald Ringelhardt was the director of the municipal theatre and he led the theatre financially very successfully, even if there was criticism of the content.

There were a lot of performances at the Leipzig theatre, and during the fair there were even daily performances. Since at that time the staff of the theatre and opera were not yet clearly separated, several members of the ensemble, such as Albert Lortzing, performed in both sections.

The orchestra that played - as it does today - was the Gewandhausorchester or its However, Lortzing complained at the beginning of his engagement: "The local orchestra can generally always be called brave and would perform even better if the noble art did not go to waste, as is unfortunately the case everywhere, but the circumstances in this respect are so - how shall I put it - stupid for a city like Leipzig; the orchestra is subservient to the concert lover (who is, however, important) and the theatre, which earns them the most, is a secondary matter. If today the Musikverein organises a concert and the theatre director wants to give an opera at the same time, the concert takes precedence and the opera audience must be content with substitute orchestra members; I repeat once again that the theatre earns the orchestra four times as much as the Musikverein". (Lortzing to Anton Schindler, February 1834)

And for Albert?

"Lortzing spent his happy golden years in Leipzig. Content in the cosy family circle at the side of his beloved parents, his gentle wife ... Cheerful and merry among his friends, he found scope for his humour on and off the stage. A relationship among the members of the stage of such a rare kind that the Leipzig collegiality of our period has become, so to speak, famous in the theatre world". 
(Düringer 1851, p. 10)

Lortzing always had a contract as an actor and singer in Leipzig under Ringelhardt and even after the first successes of his operas, Ringelhardt did not change this. He said: "Oh no, Herr Lortzing is a good actor. At the same time he can compose his funny operas; who knows whether he will become a good Capellmeister." 
(Düringer 1851, p. 25)

What inspired him in his work?

The theatre: Lortzing composed almost exclusively for the theatre and mainly chose tried and tested plays as the basis for his operas. No classics and no current success plays, but rather, as is repeatedly quoted, "lost mediocrity". Lortzing himself put it this way: "For my part, at least, I no longer wish to risk treating a classical play that is still in the repertoire as an opera text." 
(Lortzing to Karl Gollmick on 30 November 1843)

What did his way onto the stage, into the spotlight look like?

Lortzing went on the road with his parents from 1812 onwards, because the parents turned their hobby into a profession due to the poor economic situation. This means: Albert lived in Berlin from 1801 to 1811 and received the "normal" school education there, but also piano lessons with Johann Heinrich Griebel, a member of the orchestra of the Royal Theatre, and theoretical lessons with Karl Friedrich Rungenhagen, in whose important and exclusive Liedertafel his father was a member. More is not known about his lessons, but Lortzing emphasises in his autobiography: "even if only employed by travelling theatres, they [the parents] took care of my musical education as far as possible". But his general education can't have been bad either: Lortzing could converse in French, knew a little Latin and even bits of Italian. Since he had already been on stage himself since the age of 11, he knew the common theatre repertoire in drama and opera by heart.

Lortzing himself reports that he already composed as a child (sonatas, dances, marches) and very soon also wrote small choruses and music for the theatre.

Düringer summarises his education as follows: "From his earliest youth, music was our Albert's favourite pastime; in addition to the fortepiano, he played several orchestral instruments, including the violin and violoncello, studied the works of Albrechtsberger and other theorists of his own accord, preferred to converse with experienced musicians, attempted small compositions at an early age and, despite the liveliness of his temperament, showed a rare diligence from his youth, which he also later practised in all directions. (Dürigner 1851, p: 7). An intensive phase of theoretical study can be discerned before Lortzing's engagement at the Detmold Court Theatre in November 1826: On 24 February 1826 he wrote an interlude to D. F. E. Auber's opera "Der Schnee" for the role of the Prince (= Prinz von Neuberg) on 24 February 1826. Compared to the earlier surviving compositions, including the one-act "Ali, Pascha von Janina" from 1823, this aria shows a clearly improved compositional technique and more differentiated instrumentation. With his engagement at the Court Theatre in Detmold, Lortzing was finally a professional, both as an actor and singer - he received his first adult engagement in about 1820 with Sebald Ringelhardt in Cologne - and as a composer.

Why did Albert Lortzing die impoverished and forgotten?

Between 1846 and 1850, Lortzing had moved three times: to Vienna in 1846, then back to Leipzig in 1849 and to Berlin in April 1850. Each move cost about a year's salary, compare the letters from Berlin to his wife. From 1845 Albert was without engagement several times: in 1845/1846 he "went private" in Leipzig after being dismissed as conductor by the new director of the city theatre after one year. In 1848, after the revolution in Vienna, he was not immediately without an engagement, but the theatre director could not pay the fees and from September 1848 to July 1849 he received no fee at all. Lortzing accepted the engagement in Leipzig offered to him by the theatre director Wirsing after the successful premiere of "Roland's Squires" in 1849 on 1 August 1849, but he gave it up again in October 1849 because he felt he had been treated unfairly. He took up his last engagement on 1 May 1850 at the Friedrich Wilhelmstädtisches Theater in Berlin.

During this time, Lortzing also had to care for four children, pay a dowry for his daughter and pay for his son to study.

In addition to minor works, Lortzing wrote the three operas "Zum Großadmiral", "Regina" and "Rolands Knappen" during this time, of which "Regina" was not performed at all, as it dealt with the 'circumstances of the time' and was only completed when the revolution had been put down. "Zum Großadmiral" and "Rolands Knappen" were premiered in Leipzig, but were not requested by nearly as many theatres as "Der Waffenschmied", for example, was. For a long time, however, Lortzing lived mainly from the fees for his operas: his salary as an actor and singer or later as a Kapellmeister was barely enough for the bare necessities, but the fees enabled him to provide a comfortable life for himself and his family, at least in Leipzig (and even to put some money aside). Lortzing received only a one-time fee from the theatres for his operas, which covered the right to perform for all time. Lortzing only got to know the comforts of a royalty - that is, the composer's share in every performance - at the very end in Berlin.

Whether it was correct that Lortzing had dared to move from the stage to the stage, i.e. in the last years he only sought an engagement as Kapellmeister, i.e. whether he met the requirements of a Kapellmeister post, can hardly be answered in view of too few sources. In retrospect, however, it is striking that Lortzing's decision comes at a time when the Kapellmeister profession was changing: the demands on the conductor were increasing due to the increasingly complex scores (Wagner, Verdi), which is why a Kapellmeister was expected to perform well as a conductor but not as a composer.

What else should you know about Albert Lortzing?

Lortzing liked to talk about people - his letters are therefore much more significant for the history of theatre between 1830 and 1850 than for his own compositional activity - but never talked badly about them, instead emphasising even to his parents: "By the way, I ask you not to announce this news, because I don't like to cause people more shame than they have caused themselves". (Lortzing to his parents on 4 January 1833). Furthermore, one must be aware, as Jürgen Lodemann rightly points out, that Lortzing does not use anti-Semitic clichés either in his letters or in his opera texts; at no point does he say a bad word about Jews.

If you were to go on a date with him today: What would you do? What questions would you bring with you?

We know very little about directing in German theatres up to 1850. I would like to know more about that and then also ask him what he thinks about some of the more recent productions of his operas.

A favourite quote from "Undine"?

"Where perjury dwells no more,
where only eternal peace is enthroned!"

Albert Lortzing

Dear Mrs. Capelle, thank you very much for this conversation.