When thinking of opera, one’s mind typically falls to Italian simply because it seems that all librettos are written in that language despite the nationality of the musical composer. Still, there are many other countries who have a long steeped tradition in the genre of opera and Germany is one of them, with many well-known German composers.
Even during the time when Hitler rose and sat in power over the German government, music, art and yes, opera, were still very important to the culture.
We would like to take some time to look at some famous German composers of operatic music throughout history.
1. Richard Wagner
Pronounced VAHG-ner, this composer was unique in the fact that not only did he write the music but he also penned the librettos as well. His work is considered part of the romantic era and he changed the art form with his inception of Gesamtkunstwerk, which translates to “total work of art.” This concept is meant to combine many forms of art including visual, literary text, music and theatrics.
Wagner was born in 1813 and was not only inspiring to other artists, he was also filled with controversy, specifically for his anti-Semitic writings. The latter made Adolf Hitler a fan of his work. It is reported that some of Wagner’s works were played at camps holding Jews to “re-educate” them.
The first teacher to ever try to educate Wagner in music told him that he would “torture the piano in a most abominable fashion.” Still, he didn’t let that stop him and by his early teens he was composing his own works. It is said his own sense of confidence made him seem stuck up to others. After his death, The New York Times printed an obituary that said, “In the face of mortifying failures and discouragements, he apparently never lost confidence in himself.”
Die Feen, meaning The Fairies was Wagner’s first opera but it was never produced. His next opera Rienzi was in its stage of composition until he and his wife had to leave Riga, Russia, where they were living, because of outstanding debts. This opera was refused production in Paris because of the political leanings it portrayed but he was able to produce it in Germany.
Most famous for his operas Ring Cycle and Tristan and Isolde, Wagner passed on at sixty-nine in Venice. Still, after his death his music would still be controversial due to the appreciation it garnered from Hitler.
2. Ludwig van Beethoven
One of the most interesting facts about our next German operatic composer is that he was deaf. Ludwig van Beethoven is considered a dominant contributor to during the time when music transitioned from Classical to Romantic. He was baptized on December 17, 1770 in Bonn, Germany and it seems that this was an important place to start. Most likely because there are no real records of the date in which he was born.
AS the eldest Beethoven was born to an alcoholic father who seemed to fancy himself a gifted musician. When he began to train Ludwig he did so with such brutality the force of it never left the composer. He was beaten and locked away to practice.
While in school it seems that Beethoven was an average student when it came to math and spelling and some historians believe he may have been dyslexic. He would say that “music comes to me more readily than words.” When he was ten Beethoven left school to study music full time. His teacher, the Court Organist Christian Gottlob Neefe, arranged for Beethoven to meet Back and shortly after Beethoven composed his first piece.
Despite his hearing loss later in life Beethoven would go on to compose many great works including his two operas Vestas Feuer and Fidelio. The first is just a small portion of an opera with a libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder, who was also an actor. After starting composition on the work Beethoven gave up on it and today only about ten minutes of music remained.
The next, Fidelio, which was first named Leonore, or The Triumph of Marital Love, did make it to the theater and premiered at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna on November 20, 1805. Most importantly this opera was the very first of its genre to be produced after World War II. The only theater not damaged by war was the Theatre des Westens and that is where it was performed.
Beethoven is considered, by most, the paramount composer that has ever lived. His works are up there with other geniuses like Shakespeare and Mozart.
3. Richard Strauss
The next German operatic composer on our list was born in 1864 in Munich and was the eldest child of a father who was also a musician. His works were of great influence and prominence during the Romantic period of music composition. Unlike the other two German composers on our list Strauss has written numerous operas, many of which survive in the standard repertoire today.
Before he reached the age of twenty Strauss had penned nearly one-hundred and fifty pieces of music that included chamber and orchestral pieces. His early works reflect his father’s influence, who happened to be a horn player himself. Strauss’ father hated Wagner as an artist and as a human being even though he had performed in several Wagner operas.
Having a musician father helped Strauss open doors that may have otherwise been closed to him. Strauss was hired to compose work for the Meiningen Orchestra and they extended an invitation for the composer to conduct the debut of his work. After this Strauss was invited to stay on at the Meiningen to be an assistant conductor.
Once out on his own Strauss was free to idolize Wagner, as he had always wanted to, but was unable to due to his father’s opinions. His first opera, Guntram, was not a success but he would go on to write many more including Salome, Der Rosenkavalier, and Elektra. Salome was the first success in opera Strauss saw yet it was considered by some to be offensive. Elektra was the first time Strauss would work with Hugo von Hofmannsthal. The pair would collaborate on five more operatic works over the next twenty years, which includes Der Rosenkavavlier.
The influence Strauss has given to composers not to mention the sheer magnitude of works he created is a testament to the man. He passed away from kidney failure on September 8, 1949.
4. George Frideric Handel
Part of the Baroque period George Frideric Handel was born in 1685 and had a desire to study music at a very young age. His father, Georg, was not on board with this idea since he considered this journey to be unreliable to earning a living wage. The elder Handel didn’t even let his son play an instrument. If it weren’t for the sneaky approach his mother took to support his dreams, some of Germany’s most revered operas may not exist.
By his late teens Handel had already studied the organ and violin under Frideric Wilhelm Zachow and was well on his way into composing his own works. Still, Handel’s father insist he choose another profession and reluctantly the younger Handel was admitted to the law program at the University of Halle. Yet, he would drop out shortly since his passion for music was too hard to overcome.
At eighteen he took a position as a violinist at the Hamburg Opera’s Goose Market Theater. He would also give lessons to earn extra money. His first opera Almira premiered in 1705 and it was an instant hit. It ran for twenty performances and Handel went on to compose more operas that were successes. It was then that Handel was inspired to travel to Italy.
While in Italy Handel composed Agrippina and Rodrigo but he learned about the music scene in London so he decided to head there to see how he did. Handel was commissioned to compose an opera for the King’s Theater and the result was Rinaldo, which was the piece that put him on the operatic map. Upon his success Handel went on to produce more works for English royalty and subsequently became a citizen of that nation.
Still, his roots are in Germany and that is why he made out list of operatic composers today. After suffering a stroke in 1737 the public thought he would never write again but he was stubborn and in six weeks he was not only composing more work he was back at the organ playing.
Handel had a second stroke in 1743 but again, he recovered quickly and astounded audiences with his compositions and organ work. Then, in 1750, Handel lost his vision in one eye but he was determined to keep working on music. Two years later he lost sight in his other eye and was officially blind. Yet, his persistence and tenacity proved to be his greatest strength. Handel relied on his memory to still compose and still create music. An amazing feat by not only a blind man, but a composer who met with so much physical and familial opposition.
In 1759 the door on his creation was finally shut when Handel died at his place in London. He was seventy-four years old, a young age by today’s standards. Since he had not children of his own Handel distributed his fortune among his servants and a good deal of charitable organizations.
By time he died the legacy of his work would be left behind in nearly fifty operas and thirty oratorios, not to mention his orchestral works and concerti grossi. A museum at his home in London was established in 2001 and there one can visit the rooms where the man wrote an astonishing number of operatic works.
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