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Center Stage: Operatic Culture and Nation Building in Nineteenth-Century Central Europe

Philipp Ther
Translated from the German by Charlotte Hughes-Kreutzmuller
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    Center Stage
    Book Description:

    This volume, a revised and extended version of two well-reviewed books published in German and Czech, explores the social and political background to this “opera mania” in nineteenth century Central Europe. After tracing the major trends in the opera history of the period, including the emergence of national genres of opera and its various social functions and cultural meanings, the author contrasts the histories of the major houses in Dresden (a court theater), Lemberg (a theater built and sponsored by aristocrats), and Prague (a civic institution). Beyond the operatic institutions and their key stage productions, composers such as Carl Maria von Weber, Richard Wagner, Bedřich Smetana, Stanisław Moniuszko, Antonín Dvořák, and Richard Strauss are put in their social and political contexts. The concluding chapter, bringing together the different leitmotifs of social and cultural history explored in the rest of the book, explains the specificities of opera life in Central Europe within a wider European and global framework.

    eISBN: 978-1-61249-330-5
    Subjects: History, Music

Table of Contents

  1. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xii)
    Gary B. Cohen

    Philipp Ther’sCenter Stage: Operatic Culture and Nation Building in Nineteenth-Century Central Europeis a most welcome addition to the series, Central European Studies. In 2006 Oldenbourg/Böhlau Verlag in Vienna published a book in German as Ther’sHabilitationthesis that was based on the same initial body of research. He then revised the study for publication in Czech by Dokořán in Prague in 2008. Both these versions drew much praise in scholarly reviews. Now with this newly revised and expanded English version, a broader English-reading public will gain access to Ther’s work, which adds important new dimensions to our understanding...

  2. Part One

    • Introduction
      (pp. 1-28)

      Opera wasthecultural institution of the nineteenth century. It functioned as a magnet to the masses, yet at the same time represented a quest for high culture. Opera was a marker of prestige by which its patrons demonstrated their wealth and power, and hence was a very political institution. Also as an art form, opera was at the heart of society.¹ As grand palaces of culture, opera theaters marked the center of European cities like the cathedrals of the Middle Ages. As opera cast its spell, almost every European city and society aspired to have its own opera house...

  3. Part Two The Royal Theater in Dresden

    • CHAPTER ONE Organization and Control of the Royal Theater
      (pp. 31-46)

      Even in appearance, the royal theaters of the eighteenth century were unlike the grand opera theaters to come. Often integrated into the royal residence or, as in Vienna, Berlin, and Dresden, situated conveniently close by, they were by no means public institutions. Their primary function was to entertain the court and its guests and to provide a platform for the royal families. Each major European court vied with the next to host events with the best musicians and star singers.

      The royal seat of Dresden became renowned for its theater in the eighteenth century. The Saxon princes, until 1763 also...

    • CHAPTER TWO Constructing National Culture
      (pp. 47-66)

      Carl Maria von Weber’s appointment as Principal Conductor in Dresden heralded the emergence of a German branch of opera. His work as composer and conductor should not, however, be regarded as the fulfillment of nationalistic ambitions. To appreciate Weber’s understanding of nation and the political content of his operas, a distinction must be made between his Romantic nationalism and the ethnic nationalism of the subsequent generation, born in the 1810s.

      Like most cultured people of the age, Weber believed that music bore specific national characteristics. But while he subscribed to the theory of different national styles, he did not link...

    • CHAPTER THREE Europeanization and Musical Modernism
      (pp. 67-86)

      Conductor Ernst von Schuch (1846–1914) was the first person to leave a lasting imprint on the Dresden opera after Richard Wagner. Unlike his predecessors, he did not compose his own works and so broke with a long tradition of composer conductors at German royal theaters. In confining himself to interpreting music, Schuch preceded Toscanini (1867–1957), to whom he is occasionally likened.¹

      Schuch’s work and especially his cooperation with Richard Strauss are not only of interest for the study of music history. His activities at the royal theater highlight the link between its growing independence and its artistic blossoming....

  4. Part Three The Polish Theater in Lemberg

    • CHAPTER FOUR Social Foundations
      (pp. 89-110)

      Aristocratic theaters, after royal theaters, were among the first institutions to stage opera in Central Europe. They were a prominent feature of the Habsburg Empire, Poland, Venice, and other countries with powerful aristocracies. In the rare instances when the term “aristocratic theater” is used in German or English language literature, it usually denotes theaters within mansions or castles.¹ Many of these existed in the Habsburg Empire, Prussia, and Russia. Similarly to the royal theaters of the eighteenth century, they were run as venues for private entertainment and attended by selected invited guests. Some of the wealthiest aristocratic families even maintained...

    • CHAPTER FIVE Provincial Opera
      (pp. 111-130)

      In the dramatic terms of opera, one might say that from the eighteenth century Lemberg languished under a curse of marginality. Throughout the many territorial changes in Central Europe, the town remained on the periphery. This was true in the Polish Commonwealth, the Habsburg Empire, restored Poland, and the Soviet Union and still holds true for present-day Ukraine. During the 146 years of Austrian rule, Galicia came to be a byword for remoteness and poverty. German-language literature frequently referred to the province as “semi-Asia,”¹ echoing the partition propaganda in which Prussia and Austria portrayed Poland as backward and uncultured to...

  5. Part Four The Czech National Theater in Prague

    • CHAPTER SIX Launching the National Theater Project
      (pp. 133-148)

      The history of the National Theater in Prague is itself dramatic enough to serve as the plot of an opera. The first act would open with a group of dignitaries inspired by the idea of founding a national theater. But to do so they must overcome the weaknesses of the ascendant nation’s cultural life, which they would sing of in the first ensemble scene: the neglect of the language, the meager repertoire, and the limitations of the public. Then a determined young lawyer, of such impressive stature that he would have to be a powerful bass baritone (František Ladislav Rieger),...

    • CHAPTER SEVEN A Theater for All Classes
      (pp. 149-158)

      The very grandeur of the National Theater posed a challenge to the people running it. It had capacity for nearly twice as many patrons as the Provisional Theater and was equipped with the latest stage technology. The public’s expectations rose in consequence. Prague critics demanded performances which could measure up to those of the major European theaters and especially the Royal Theater in Vienna. New faces were called for to run the new theater. A “great assembly” of the National Theater Association, in which all shareholders were eligible to take part, was held in March 1883 to discuss potential candidates....

    • CHAPTER EIGHT The Opera Nation
      (pp. 159-192)

      Looking back on the National Theater’s first season, František Adolf Šubert proudly pointed out that not one German work had been performed. This anti-German sentiment, shared by many members of Czech society, was something of anidée fixe. A glance at the repertoires of the Provisional Theater and the National Theater in its first decade shows that most of the competition for Czech drama and opera did not come from Germany or Austria but from France and Italy.

      This lasting antagonism toward German culture was rooted in a Czech sense of inferiority compounded by the arrogant German attitude that the...

  6. Part Five Comparison, Cultural Transfers, and Networks

    • CHAPTER NINE Opera and Society
      (pp. 195-204)

      Music is inextricably linked with its social and spatial environment. The varying sizes and acoustics of opera theaters and concert halls clearly have a significant impact on the cultural practice of music. But there are also music spaces beyond the walls and boundaries of standing theaters or concert halls. This chapter about cultural spaces takes a topographic approach to address questions of when and why certain works, fashions, styles, and genres were diffused over considerable geographic and social distances.

      Most literature on European cultural and opera history is written from a centrist viewpoint. Much more is known about musical life...

    • CHAPTER TEN Nationalizing Opera
      (pp. 205-236)

      At the beginning of the nineteenth century, music theater was distinctly international in character, being almost synonymous with Italian opera in many countries. How did opera increasingly come to be perceived as an expression of the nation in various countries after 1848? How did national genres of opera develop? The three main elements indicating the nationalization of opera are the singing language, the dramatic and musical content of works, and their reception and the proportion of native pieces in the repertoire.

      The existence of German, Polish, and Czech opera cannot be regarded as a given or the natural result of...

    • CHAPTER ELEVEN Cultural Exchanges and Europeanization
      (pp. 237-254)

      On the surface, national opera traditions seem to have developed over the course of the nineteenth century by a process of divergence. In addition to the once universal genre of Italian opera and its slightly younger French offshoot, by around 1900, there was German, Russian, Czech, Polish, Hungarian, and Ukrainian opera. And the list could go on, to include the national opera traditions which emerged later on the periphery of the Russian Empire and in some western European countries.

      Coincident with this divergence, however, is an element of convergence. Although tradition was “invented”¹ at different times and in many different...

  7. Bibliography and Sources
    (pp. 255-284)