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ClassicsOnline Home » URSPRUCH, A.: Unmoglichste von Allem (Das) (Munich Pianopianissimo Musiktheater Ensemble, Bautzen Sorbian Nation Ensemble Orchestra, Yinon)
Anton Urspruch (1850–1907)
The Most Impossible Thing of All
The Most Comic Opera in German
Anton Urspruch’s work was heavily influenced by Liszt and Wagner. He was born in Frankfurt am Main on 17 February 1850 to parents who worked in the theatre. Having finished his schooling, he studied music with M. Wallenstein, Ignaz Lachner, Joachim Raff and, from 1871 onwards, with Franz Liszt in Weimar. Liszt called his favourite pupil “Antonio” and used to address him as “Dear and most excellent friend”.¹
The opera Das Unmöglichste von Allem (The Most Impossible Thing of All) is considered to be Urspruch’s masterpiece. The libretto is by the composer, after the comedy El mayor imposible by Félix Lope de Vega Carpio (1562–1635). Theodora Urspruch-Kircher, the composer’s daughter, describes it as follows: “…a comic opera in the most subtle and artistically refined sense of the term, whose structure, grace and grateful vocal lines were well received whenever it was performed. The première [on 5 November] 1897 in Karlsruhe was conducted by Felix Mottl; performances followed in Darmstadt [25 November 1897 under De Haan, the court kapellmeister], Weimar, Leipzig, Cologne [on 20 October] 1898 [conducted by Arno Kleffel and directed by Alois Hofmann], Elberfeld and Frankfurt in 1899, and Prague under Leo Blech. This last performance was probably the best; the famous critic, Dr Batka, judged it to be outstanding. Leading musicians and critics hailed the arrival, finally, of a comic opera of cultivated taste and intelligent wit, its structure so well crafted, its thematic development executed with such judicious art as to be unparalleled since the operas of Mozart.”²
Urspruch-Kircher goes on to say that, compared with “the path pursued by other contemporaries such as Reger and Richard Strauss”, Urspruch felt he was “a progressive modernist, who wished to advance tradition in a thoroughly responsible way, not to tear down.” In later life he therefore “felt called to carry on developing stylistically”.³
The critic writing for the Kölner Tageblatt noted that “Urspruch has succeeded in doing what has been considered the most impossible thing of all, namely writing an opera that doesn’t betray any significant Wagnerian influence.” Though shortly afterwards, he notes: “When Ramon appears disguised as a nobleman, [one hears] with some surprise that the famous Stolzing motif from Die Meistersinger has been harnessed to help with characterisation—the most authentic courtly motif applied to the imposter.”
In the love duet, too, we are reminded for a second time of that which Urspruch has avoided in this otherwise totally unwagnerian opera; I am referring to the E major sextuplet accompaniment, which is reminiscent of the scene in the bridal chamber in Lohengrin.4
In this connection the Rheinische Kourier of 20 October 1899 states: “Wagner has impressed himself on our time. No one may escape his influence, no one ignore the towering ideas of this the greatest writer of music dramas. And Urspruch has neither intended to do so, nor done so. Of course he has abandoned the antiquated forms of the aria etc. His work is built up around the scenes, which are structured in such a way in the libretto as to lend themselves to a naturally symphonic musical treatment.”5
Urspruch’s theoretical reflections in connection with his ode Frühlingsfeier (Spring Celebration), Op 26, for tenor, choir and orchestra, concerning the marrying of words and music, are instructive with regard to his position vis à vis Richard Wagner: “If such ideas and images are to be turned into music, it is particularly fortunate if the poet’s words are intrinsically designed for setting. Since the time when the true, great art of poetry distanced itself from its most natural companion, music, this is far less often the case than might generally be assumed. Music is governed by different formal and expressive rules to poetry. If the latter is not drafted with reference to the former from the outset, and the two do not happen to correspond by some fortunate coincidence, it is rarely possible to bring about a happy union of the two muses, especially when more extended literary works are involved.”6
In the following paragraph, Urspruch even cites Wagner, whose theoretical writings about art he had clearly absorbed and made his own: “In this second part, both are under the spell of the “microcosm”, musical painting and even detailed depiction come into their own, colour replaces line, indeed, to use Wagner’s sage interpretation of a classification Schiller applied to poetry, the sentimental style is set against the naïve style. Starting from this microcosm, and following the God who reveals himself in nature, poetry now becomes both the revelation and the preaching of a true religion of nature.”7 This clearly derives from Wagner’s notion of a “religion of art” (Kunstreligion).
The closeness of Urspruch’s theories to Richard Wagner’s is also apparent in his essay on Gregorian chant. Urspruch’s ideas about the “modern age” virtually paraphrase remarks that Wagner made about Schiller in connection with Beethoven’s Ninth and Wagner’s dialectical play on the words “Mode” (“mode” in the sense of fashion), “modern” (“modern”) and “[ver]modern” (“to moulder”) in his poem Modern of 1880. Urspruch writes: “A modern man, a modern artist—the term sounds almost melancholy! It reminds us so much that things are transient. For only that which is modish is “modern”, and things are à la mode today only because they weren’t so yesterday and won’t be so tomorrow. Everything based on the fashion—which Schiller rightly castigated as brazen—should be referred to as mouldering, not modern.”8
Further on in the essay, Urspruch draws an analogy with the plot of Wagner’s Parsifal: “Let Gregorian chant therefore remain an untouched jewel, kept pure so that, like a Holy Grail, it may yet prolong the life of another half-dead Titurel, heal the sin-induced sickness of the Amfortases of this world, and perhaps at some point in the future bestow the crown upon some pure Parsifal.”9
These examples not only point to Urspruch having had an exact knowledge of Wagner’s oeuvre, but also to his having learned from it. The critic Fritz Volbach makes the same point in his review of the première of Das Unmöglichste von Allem, when he observes: “Urspruch goes his own way, but it is in no wise opposed to the paths Wagner prescribed for us. It is true that he disdains to appear to imitate Wagner or his language, but he has been all the more successful in grasping the spirit of the great man.”10
Urspruch does nonetheless praise the “magnificent old melismas” in his essay on Gregorian chant, “for what we have now looks like a poor editio facilis of the original”.11 This is a clear nod to his maternal heritage: his mother, Anna Elisabeth Sänger, was born into the family of a Jewish cantor from Obernbreit in Bavaria.
Urspruch’s daughter is evasive when it comes to explaining how her father’s compositions were silenced by the “worldwide catastrophes that have occurred since the beginning of the twentieth century” and “the crises and impossible dilemmas of musical life, which have still not been properly dealt with to this day, but also by the considerable demands the works make with regard to the calibre of the performers and the audience”.12
In his handbook Die Oper der Gegenwart, which was published in Berlin in 1922, Julius Kapp calls to mind that, a year after Hugo Wolf’s Corregidor (1896), Anton Urspruch also chose to build on the “foundations for a future comic opera“ laid by Giuseppe Verdi in Falstaff (1893): “Alongside Verdi, his main influences are Cornelius (in the consistent, almost frivolous use of contrapuntal devices like canon and fugue to comic effect) and Mozart (in the way he deals with the ensemble in the finale).”13 Nonetheless, “despite all the precise work and technical mastery, [all that emerges] is the erudite creation of an over-ingenious intellect; it lacks the compelling force of true artistic productivity”.14 There are clear anti-Semitic overtones in this judgement by a man who would later be responsible for overseeing and steering the programming of German theatres during the Third Reich; his argument tacitly refers to Wagner’s pamphlet Das Judentum in der Musik, and he concludes by noting that Das Unmöglichste von Allem “therefore completely disappeared after being staged for a short period”.15
As Franz Schreker’s humorous juxtaposition of excerpts from reviews of his works demonstrates, the qualities that Kapp cites to dismiss Urspruch’s score—“ingenious, cleverly thought out, recherché”—were also applied to Schreker’s operatic compositions by critics.16
After Anton Urspruch’s premature death on 11 January 1907, his works were given noticeably less often than during his lifetime, but they sank into oblivion as a result of the racial laws and the “Aryanisation of musical life” in Germany.
The Pianopianissimo Music Theatre’s revival of Das Unmöglichste von Allem in September 2011 in Leverkusen and then Bad Nauheim was also the première of the original, uncut version of the opera; the conductor Felix Mottl had already made extensive cuts when he first gave the work in Karlsruhe, and these were retained for all subsequent productions during the composer’s lifetime.
Pianopianissimo’s new production of Anton Urspruch’s second and most performed opera received a gratifying number of extremely positive reviews, and the critics were unanimous in their praise of the quality of the score. There was less agreement about the quality of the libretto.
Urspruch is by no means alone in attracting contradictory opinions about his calibre as a librettist. Questions over libretto quality seem to be positively characteristic of post-Wagnerian music dramas. In the 1950s, Richard Wagner himself was still being pilloried for his operatic libretti—until the critics of his texts realised that it was precisely these poetic narratives that inspired him to create his undisputedly fine music and that became indissolubly bound up with it.
Much the same is true of Hans Pfitzner’s most tuneful opera, Die Rose vom Liebesgarten—it has taken until the present, twenty-first century for musicologists and men of letters to arrive at a totally new, positive evaluation of the libretto, which was jointly written by James Grun and Hans Pfitzner. And things are not that different when it comes to the libretto Anton Urspruch wrote for his comic opera. Clearly, only this libretto could inspire him to write the music, whose quality is not disputed—and give rise to its genuine humour.
Before I became properly acquainted with Urspruch’s score, Peter Cornelius’s comic opera Der Barbier von Bagdad (The Barber of Baghdad) was the only German comic opera I knew that was genuinely funny.17 But the humour in Das Unmöglichste von Allem is better than that in Cornelius’s work, which was held in high regard among Liszt’s circle of friends and whose influence on Urspruch’s score is discernible in a number of places. Whereas in Hermann Götzen’s excellent comic opera Der Widerspenstigen Zähmung (The Taming of the Shrew) there is more amusement to be derived from the plot than from the music, in Der Barbier von Bagdad linking comic episodes with musical writing that employs caricature and repeated sequences heightens the amusement. The comic moments in Wagner derive primarily from schadenfreude. Anton Urspruch’s Das Unmöglichste von Allem, on the other hand, can make an audience laugh out loud.
Allow me to give just one example from the wide range of comic effects Urspruch produces—his unbelievable rhymes of “zu früh so” (“too early so”), “nie so” (“never so”) and “Müh’ so” (“trouble so”) on the name Feniso (CD 2, ):
ROBERTO: Einer Braut wohl –
DIANA: Nicht betracht’ mich zu früh so!
ROBERTO: Naht der Freier artig nie so –
DIANA: Gieb um ihn Dir nur nicht Müh’ so!
ROBERTO: Wie der würd’ge Don Feniso!
DIANA, CELIA, DIENER (erstaunt): Don Feniso!18
There is real comedy in the verbal and musical ambiguity and double entendre of the contrast between “Tafel” (“table”) and “Schatten” (“shadows”),19 and in Feniso’s shrill interjection “and the charming Diana!”20 in the middle of the dreamy vocal and orchestral evocation of a Spanish summer evening in the Act Two garden scene ensemble “Welch ein Abend!”,21 which makes the listener laugh in spite of himself (CD 2, ).
The poet and lawyer Lukas von Bostel (1649–1716) recognised early on that Lope de Vega’s El mayor imposible was eminently suitable material for an opera; Das Unmöglichste Ding / In einem Sing-Spiel vorgestellet (The Most Impossible Thing, Presented as a Lyrical Drama) was set to music in 1684 by Johann Philipp Förtsch (1652–1732) and given at the Oper am Gänsemarkt in Hamburg. More than two hundred years later, Anton Urspruch (1850–1907) based his second full-length opera on Lope de Vega’s comedy. Urspruch could speak Spanish and wrote his own linguistically and dramatically independent version to be used as a libretto.
 (Staged) Prelude: Having won a victory in battle, the Queen dismisses her warriors so that they may conquer beautiful women in their own country. Roberto retorts that women are not easy prey—they are guarded by fathers, brothers and husbands. The Queen counters that any woman can look after herself. On the field of battle, nothing is impossible for a man, but to keep watch over a woman whose mind is set on love is the most impossible thing of all. Roberto wagers his honour that he can safeguard his sister Diana against any suitors who might set their sights on her. The Queen accepts the wager. She secretly asks Lisardo to conquer Diana to teach Roberto a lesson, promising to give him all possible assistance. To Roberto she repeats that defending one’s sister is the most impossible thing of all.
 Scene I: Fulgencio wants to marry the young servant Celia. Roberto promises to grant him her hand in marriage—and a generous wedding present into the bargain—if he can manage to keep Diana secure. Fulgencio has given his sidekicks Pedrillo and Catarina instructions to treat anyone who might woo Diana in such a way that they will not dare to make a second attempt. The servants give Roberto a demonstration, using Fulgencio as a stand-in. He receives a sound drubbing in the process.
 Scene II: Diana has noticed that her brother’s behaviour towards her has changed and he no longer trusts her. She assumes that he is in love. Celia says she will get to the bottom of what is bothering Roberto with the help of Fulgencio, who is in love with her. Diana is to hide and eavesdrop on Celia’s conversation.
 Scene III: Fulgencio happens upon Celia, who seems unhappy. She uses her womanly wiles to get him to tell her about Roberto’s wager with the Queen. Fulgencio hopes to get a kiss for his pains, but does not.
 Scene IV: Diana, who is disappointed in her brother, decides to accept Lisardo’s suit. After all, she alone is mistress of her own heart!
 Scene V: Catarina introduces Ramon into the house disguised as a French merchant. Despite a suspicious Fulgencio keeping an eye on him, Ramon manages to give Diana a portrait of Lisardo. Although Fulgencio keeps on interrupting him, Ramon nevertheless succeeds in taking up with Celia on the one hand and receiving from Diana a portrait for Lisardo on the other. He promises Diana that he will return wearing a different disguise.
 Scene VI: Diana shows Celia Lisardo’s portrait.
 Scene VII: Fulgencio tells the servants to hang curtains over all the windows, so that none of the approaching soldiers can catch sight of Diana from the street. But Diana and Celia stand in the window so that they can greet the Queen and watch the soldiers. Diana espies Lisardo riding beside the Queen, and, alongside him, Ramon, who is no longer wearing his disguise. When the cortege has passed the house, Diana gives Fulgencio a telling off, making it clear that she doesn’t want to set eyes on her brother, who is behind all this.
 Scene VIII: Roberto is beside himself with rage that his sister stood in the window and Fulgencio failed to keep her out of sight. He decides to take Diana to task.
No sooner has he gone to find her in her room than Diana herself enters. She is alarmed to realise that she has forgotten to hide Lisardo’s portrait. Celia sends a message to Ramon. When Roberto returns with the portrait and accuses his sister of having strayed from the path of virtue, Celia comes back and maintains that she herself found the portrait in church and passed it on to Diana.
Ramon now appears in the street dressed as a crier. A reward has been offered to anyone who finds a male portrait that has been lost in the Church of the Immaculate Conception. Roberto sends Fulgencio to find out whether this is true.
Diana asks her brother what right he has to deprive her of her freedom. When he himself comes to marry, his jealousy will be the ruin of even his future wife’s virtue. Fulgencio returns and confirms Celia’s story; he has received ten ducats for returning the portrait to the crier. Roberto is relieved and asks Diana’s forgiveness. She determines to prove to her brother that the most impossible thing of all really is impossible.
 Scene I: In the palace pleasure garden, Lisardo shows the Queen Diana’s portrait. The prank has taken a serious turn, and he now really has fallen in love with Diana. The Queen promises to help him. Ramon has a plan: Roberto is related to the Governor of Seville. Ramon will send Roberto a present of some thoroughbred horses on the Governor’s behalf. This will give him a reason for staying in Roberto’s house, since he will have to look after the horses. Albano and Lisardo will then pretend they are Don Ramon’s servants, but only Albano will leave the house again. The Queen agrees to the plan.
 Scene II: Roberto tells the Queen that he is going to marry Diana to Don Feniso. When the Queen asks whether Diana is happy with the choice, he says that she will have to obey him, as is fitting for a woman. The Queen dismisses Feniso as a fop and a dandy.
 Scene III: The Queen announces the forthcoming betrothal, which upsets Lisardo considerably. Ramon cannot understand the way Roberto is treating his sister. Roberto himself is beginning to realise how rash his wager was.
 Scene IV: In the park of Roberto’s house, Fulgencio announces to his master the visit of an unknown nobleman.
 Scene V: Ramon introduces himself to Roberto as Don Pedro and hands him a letter that purports to come from his cousin. While Roberto is reading the missive, Ramon gives Diana, who has recognised him despite his disguise, a letter from Lisardo.
 Scene VI: Diana reads Lisardo’s love letter to Celia. She gives Ramon, who comes in just as she is finishing, a reply for Lisardo. Ramon tells Diana his plan.
 Scene VII: Albano drags a chest draped in cloth through the gate, which Fulgencio has opened. Lisardo is hidden behind the trunk. Ramon outwits the servants, whose torches are extinguished, and Lisardo manages to hide in the bushes.
 Scene VIII: Roberto informs Diana that he has promised to give her to Feniso in marriage. Diana angrily refuses, but the servants are already announcing Don Feniso.
 Scene IX: Feniso woos Diana, who responds with cutting sarcasm, much to Roberto’s annoyance.
 Scene X: The singers whom Diana has invited to provide musical entertainment during the festivities perform their song—about a girl who determines her own destiny and outwits a mother who has her closely guarded. Roberto is annoyed. In an ambiguous dialogue, Diana refuses Feniso and accepts Lisardo, who is concealed, unnoticed, in the shadows. She then announces that she is going to take a bath, and that no one should therefore go near the garden.
 Scene XI: Diana calls to Lisardo, who emerges from the shadows and declares his love to her. Diana gives herself to him. Ramon and Celia warn Lisardo to get out of the garden, but the gate is locked.
 Scene XII: Celia breathlessly reports to the servants Pedrillo and Catarina, whom Fulgencio has posted as sentries, that she has seen a man in the bushes.
 Scene XIII: Lisardo bursts out of the bushes with his face muffled and brandishing a pistol, forces the servants to open the gate and thus makes good his escape.
 Scene XIV: Roberto sees the open gate and demands to know what has happened.
He decides to kill his sister for her disobedience. Diana swears she would rather become a nun than remain under his roof. Roberto is ready to pack her off to a convent immediately, but Ramon succeeds in persuading him to wait until the following morning.
Fulgencio hopes that Celia will finally agree to be his wife when Diana has become a nun and Celia no longer has to attend to her needs.
 Scene I: In Roberto’s house, Pedrillo and Catarina wonder how the intruder got into the garden. Diana appears.
 Scene II: Diana has weightier questions on her mind: Why must she submit to others just because she was born a woman, and why can’t she make her own decisions? When she sees the two servants posted to keep watch, she tries to send them away, but Fulgencio tells them to stay where they are. Diana wonders why her brother is humiliating her so.
 Scene III: Lisardo can be heard singing outside in the street. This rekindles Diana’s hope. Fulgencio swears that Lisardo’s efforts will remain fruitless.
 Scene IV: Ramon pretends he is mortally ill and thus manages to despatch the two servants to fetch a doctor and a notary. While making his confession to Fulgencio in the absence of a priest, he clings to him in such a way that Fulgencio has his back to the open door, allowing Diana and Celia to escape. Ramon reveals his true identity to Fulgencio and tells him he is a complete fool.
 Scene V: Out in the street, a veiled Diana and Celia meet Lisardo and his servant Albano. Lisardo and Diana fall into each other’s arms. Albano asks Celia how they managed to escape.
 Scene VI: Roberto and Feniso approach the group. Lisardo maintains that he is defending one of the veiled women from her jealous husband and asks Roberto to help him. Roberto thinks that if Diana sees Lisardo with another woman, she is bound to agree to marry Feniso. He therefore loudly declares that he will offer the lady his protection and accompanies his own sister to Lisardo’s house.
 Scene VII: The Queen has invited all parties to assemble in the palace when the wager is over. Roberto triumphantly declares that he has won.
 Scene VIII: Fulgencio storms in and tells Roberto that Diana and Celia have escaped and Don Pedro is, in reality, Ramon. Roberto realises that he himself accompanied Diana to Lisardo’s house and challenges him to a duel. Lisardo replies that he has entrusted Diana to the Queen’s protection.
 Scene IX: Diana falls to her knees before the Queen and asks her to decide the matter. But the Queen leaves the decision to Diana, who can thus finally officially sink into Lisardo’s arms. Ramon and Celia likewise seek the Queen’s blessing. The Queen notes that the two couples prove that to guard a woman is the most impossible thing of all.
Peter P. Pachl
English translation: Susan Baxter
¹ Theodora Kircher-Urspruch, Gedenkschrift zum 125. Geburtstag von Anton Urspruch (17. 2. 1850—11. 1. 1907). Lebens- und Werkskizze eines Komponisten um die Jahrhundertwende. Typescript in the family‘s possession.
4 Kölner Tageblatt, quoted from N.N. (ed. August Cranz): Urtheile der Presse. Leipzig (1897), p.3.
5 Rheinischer Kourier, quoted from N.N. (ed. August Cranz): Urtheile, p.4.
6 Anton Urspruch, Zur Aufführung meiner Komposition der Klopstockschen Frühlingsfeier. Im zweiten Abonnements-Konzert des Philharmonischen Chores in Berlin, 17. Januar 1902. Typescript, Anton Urspruch Society, Münster.
7 Anton Urspruch: Zur Aufführung meiner Komposition der Klopstockschen Frühlingsfeier.
8 Anton Urspruch Der Gregorianische Choral, ed. P. Ambrosius Kienle, Beuron 1901 [Allgemeine Musik-Zeitung, Berlin, August 1901].
10 Fritz Volbach, in: Frankfurter Zeitung, Frankfurt am Main, 7 November 1897, cited from Cranz (ed.), Urtheile, p.3.
11 Urspruch, Der Gregorianische Choral. (In the first impression: “edition facilc”).
12 Kircher-Urspruch Gedenkschrift.
13 Dr Julius Kapp, Die Oper der Gegenwart, Berlin 1922, p.61f.
16 Cf. Franz Schreker, Mein Charakterbild, in: Musikblätter des Anbruch, vol.3, Vienna 1921, p.128.
17 But in Peter Cornelius’s final work, the opera Gunlöd, based on the Edda, which I have also staged, I cannot understand the ”merriment” that the composer refers to when writing to his bride Bertha.
18 Anton Urspruch, Das Unmöglichste von Allem. Score, ed. Peter P. Pachl, Berlin 2011, p.272ff.
19 Ibid., p. 298.
20 Ibid., p. 285.
21 Ibid., p.281f.
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URSPRUCH, A.: Unmoglichste von Allem (Das) (Munich...