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ClassicsOnline Home » BENDA, J.A.: Ariadne auf Naxos / Pygmalion
Jiri Antonin (Georg Anton) Benda (1722- 1795)
The Benda family has occupied an important and continuing place in music in Germany for some 250 years. The founder of the musical dynasty, Jan Jiri Benda, was born in 1686 in a village in Bohemia and combined the trades of weaver and musician. He married Dorota Brixi, a member of the Skalsko branch of a distinguished family of Czech musicians, and five of their six children became musicians, working In Germany. There the eldest son of the family, Frantisek, composer of some eighty violin sonatas and fifteen concertos, entered the service of the Prussian Crown Prince, continuing as Konzertmeister after the latter's accession to the furone as Frederick the Great. Frantisek Benda was a colleague of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bachin Potsdam, where both showed a certain originality in an otherwise musically conservative court, the former more notably in his violin concertos. In 1742, two years after Frederick's accession, the Benda family joined Frantisek in Potsdam. The second son, Jan Jiri Benda, had also entered the service of the Crown Prince as a viola-player, continuing his service at Potsdam as a violinist, while the fourth, Joseph Benda, joined the Prussian royal orchestra in 1742 and later succeeded his eldest brother as Konzertmeister. A daughter of the family, Anna, found a career for herself as Kammersangerin in the service of the Duke of Saxe-Gotha, on the recommendation of her brother Jiri Antonin. In Gotha she married the court violinist and composer Dismas Hatas.
Jiri Antonin Benda, known in German as Georg Benda, was born in 1722 at Staré Benátky and had his schooling in Bohemia before moving in 1742 with the rest of his family to join his brother Frantisek at Potsdam. In 1750 he became Kapellmeister to Duke Friedrich III of Saxe-Gotha. Gotha had long and distinguished musical traditions, to which Benda contributed, breaking new ground there with his Italian opera seria Xindo riconnosciuto, written for the Duchess Luise Dorothea. There followed a period in Italy for further study which resulted in the composition of two Intennezzi, Il buon marito and Il nuovo maestro di capella, performed in Gotha in 1766 and 1767. More significantly he was largely responsible for giving wide popularity to the form of melodrama. His early and very successful attempts at the genre were written after the arrival in Gotha in 1774 of the theatrical troupe directed by the Swiss actor Abel Seyler, a company which had been active in Hanover and Weimar. For the Seyler troupe Benda wrote his melodramas Ariadne auf Naxos, Medea and Pygmalion, the first two of which aroused the admiration of Mozart, who heard performances in Mannheim and himself planned something of the same kind on the subject of Semiramide. Benda also wrote a series of singspiel for the Gotha theatre.
Benda had been given the title of Kapelldirektor in 1770, but resigned in 1778, moving to Hamburg and to Vienna. Finding no position there, he returned in 1779 to Gotha, living in retirement at first at the nearby Georgenthal before moving to Ohrdruf. He spent his final years at Köstritz, where he died in 1795. His compositions include some half dozen other stage works, singspiele, melodramas and a children's operetta, a quantity of church music and vocal compositions, keyboard sonatas and sonatinas and some thirty symphonies, ten harpsichord concertos and eleven violin concertos.
Benda's achievement in the new form of melodrama was a significant one, involving a coherent musical structure that accompanied and illustrated the chosen texts, reflecting not only the incidents of the narrative but also the psychological states of the characters of the drama. His use of recurrent motifs gave unity to the music, as in Medea, where a principal motif appears in the programmatic overture, a summary of what is to follow. Benda's daring in the field of melodrama, the most influential new form of music theatre in the later eighteenth century did not remain without successors. His development of the form was the beginning of a movement that declined only at the beginning of the nineteenth century, but left its effect on opera.
The use of music with drama was not, of course, a new thing. The specific form of melodrama, however, owes much to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose Pygmalion, the basis of Benda and Gotter's later work, was written in 1762 and set to music by Coignet for performance in Lyons in 1770, with some musical contribution also from Rousseau. The work was published in 1771 and staged at the Opera in Paris the following year, remaining in repertoire thereafter, in spite of the reservations of the author. Pygmalion made its way to the Vienna court opera in 1772, with music by Noverre's collaborator, Franz Asplmayer, the first example of the form in a German-speaking country. Anton Schweitzer's setting of Rousseau's text was given in Weimar in 1772, to Goethe's approval. These earlier attempts, with the French text of Rousseau, do nothing to diminish Benda's very real success with the form, acknowledged by Mozart, who, in a letter to his father on 12th November 1778, praised the form, particularly Benda's Medea, which he had seen in Mannheim, describing its composer as his favourite among Lutheran Kapellmeister. In later letters he is still enthusiastic about the form, its declaimed recitative with, as he suggests, musical obligato, a feature that might be used in opera, and decides to tackle duodrama himself, on the subject of Semiramis, with the writer Gemmingen, although whatever he wrote of this proposed work has not survived. He makes use of melodrama in his unfinished Zaide and in his music for Thamos, König in Ägypten. It is hardly necessary to draw attention to the use Beethoven made of melodrama in Fidelio or Weber in Der Freischütz, in both cases to mark a dramatic climax.
The Seyler Troupe, for which Benda wrote his first melodrama, Ariadne auf Naxos, had originally formed the core of the Hamburg Theatre and after its closure in 1769 the company travelled. With the troupe, which was in Weimar at the end of 1771, was the writer Johann Jakob Christian Brandes, husband of the actress Charlotte Koch. Brandes later described the origin of the first German melodrama in 1790 in the introduction to his collected works:
Ariadne on Naxos was written in Weimar in 1774. Many friends, among others the distinguished composer and Kapellmeister Schweitzer, had often urged me to write a Singspiel or a piece with musical accompaniment...To achieve this and at the same time to give an opportunity to my wife, who through natural talent and study in her art had reached a position of distinction as an actress, I wrote, so that she could demonstrate her ability in a suitable role, the duodrama Ariadne on Naxos, on the subject of the well known cantata of the same name by our excellent poet Herr von Gerstenberg ...Through flattering chance, the widowed Duchess of Weimar honoured this little piece and gave encouragement, and I gave it to Schweitzer to compose the music. He worked on it diligently and happily and had besides some rehearsals of this musical fragment, in the presence of people knowledgeable in music, with the greatest acclaim, when the unfortunate fire at the castle in Weimar put an end to the piece, with the complete destruction too of all that had been done. Schweitzer's musical masterpiece remained unfinished.
The destruction of the castle and the theatre forced the Seyler company to move again, this time to Gotha, where they settled, with a recommendation from the Duchess Anna Amalia, to be welcomed by Duke Ernst II, Brandes goes on to give an account of what happened:
With the removal of the theatre from Weimar to Gotha, I had the opportunity to make the acquaintance of the Duke's Kapellmeister Georg Benda and to win his friendship. He read Ariadne and recommended the piece to the Most Serene Duchess and the former Most Serene Princess Luise. Both these honoured connoisseurs favoured the text with flattering words of praise and desired that it be staged as soon as possible with musical accompaniment. Schweitzer was then busy with his opera Alceste and Benda was invited in his place to undertake the composition of this duodrama. His Serene Highness the Duke himself gave the idea for the costume of Ariadne according to ancient Greek taste; the decor for the production was suitably arranged: in some weeks Benda too had completed the composition and so this new phenomenon was staged for the first time in Gotha in January 1775 at the Court Theatre in the presence of the whole court and received with great acclaim. This is a short account of the origin of a piece that in Germany and elsewhere caused such a sensation, entertaining for some time the public wherever there were theatres and swelling the coffers of theatre directors.
The story of Ariadne has a long enough operatic history, from the lost Arianna of Monteverdi, a serious attempt to recreate ancient drama, after the success of the pastoral Orfeo, to Richard Strauss and, most recently, Alexander Goehr. The story itself had remained current, not least from the version of it that appears in Ovid's Heroides. The subject is treated by Brandes as follows: Theseus has carried off Ariadne, daughter of Minos, King of Crete, to the island of Naxos, after she has helped him to escape with his life from the labyrinth of the Minotaur. Theseus decides to stay on the island with Ariadne but is persuaded by his companions to abandon her and return to Athens. The scene is set at the point when Theseus, with sad words, parts from Ariadne, She wakes and awaits Theseus, who, she thinks, has gone lion-hunting. A mountain nymph reveals to Ariadne her fate and she sees the Greek ship disappearing over the horizon. There is a thunder-storm. The voice of the mountain nymph is heard again, telling Ariadne that her rescuer is at hand, but she must first offer herself to the god Neptune, to still his anger, Ariadne climbs a rock, is struck by lightning and falls into the sea.
Benda makes use of a relatively large orchestra of strings, pairs of flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns and timpani, and four off-stage trombones. The form of the piece is surprisingly simple, but for the period nevertheless novel. At the beginning there is a prelude in the style of a French overture. This is immediately followed by the melodrama. As soon as the curtain rises, the sleeping Ariadne is seen, with Theseus approaching her. The form is so arranged that the recapitulation of the overture marks the beginning of the drama. When, in the second part of the piece, Ariadne realises that Theseus has abandoned her, the principal theme of the overture is heard again and Benda relates the lament of Ariadne to the lament of Theseus, as he abandons her. The music is developed coherently, with a use of motifs that suggests the later technique of Wagner, as motifs are associated with certain events or psychological states.
With his Ariadne Benda laid the foundations for a genre that continued without significant changes into the nineteenth century. The esteem in which Benda was held is evident not only from Mozart's testimony, but from accounts such as that from Christian Gottlob Neefe, Beethoven's teacher in Bonn, which appeared in 1777 in the Gotha Theatre Journal:
Admiration and respect seize me whenever I see a score by Benda or hear a performance of one of his works. His Ariadne -what glowing lofty fantasy and rich power of invention! How profoundly everything is covered over! How profoundly everything is felt in the heart! Soon the music moves forward, now with the declamation, now accompanying it, to prepare the feelings and the action resulting from them, to support, to elevate and to lead on, when the actor or actress can give no further expression to inner stress. It is all so new and yet so true, so diverse and yet so congruent.
Pygmalion, an adaptation of Rousseau's seminal work, was first performed at Gotha on 20th September 1779, after Benda's return from Vienna. The story, which again has its place in the work of Ovid, deals with Pygmalion, King of Cyprus, who, through the licentiousness of the women of Amathusa, known as the Propoetides, had so taken against women that he had renounced love and resolved to remain unmarried. In seclusion he occupied himself with sculpture, creating a statue with which he fell in love. He calls on the goddess of love to give life to the statue and his petition is heard, bringing him, in this version of the story, final happiness.
Brigitte Quadlbauer was born in the Austrian province of Styria in 1950 and has an active career that has brought engagements throughout Austria and Germany in theatre, cinema and television.
Hertha Schell was born in Vienna in 1945 and has enjoyed a widely successful career in the theatre from her time in the 1960s with the Staatstheater Hannover to more recent activity in Vienna and in the cinema. Her earlier roles have included that of Medea in the version of the legend by Grillparzer.
Peter Uray, born in Schärding in 1939, had his early dramatic training in Linz and has a busy career in the theatre and cinema, radio and television in Austria and Germany. He is a member of the Vienna Volkstheater and Professor at the Hochschule fur Musik und darstellende Kunst in Graz.
Prague Chamber Orchestra
The Prague Chamber Orchestra was established in 1951 and during the 45 years of its existence has won a distinguished international reputation, with appearances at major European festivals and tours abroad to the Americas and throughout Europe, as well as to Japan. The orchestra has collaborated with soloists of the greatest distinction, including Accardo, Badura-Skoda, the Beaux Arts Trio, Gilels, Gulda, Hendricks, Holliger, Michelangeli and others of similar eminence. There have been more than a hundred recordings, with a Golden Record award after selling a million discs and on three occasions the Grand Prix du Dsique de l'Academie Charles Cros as well as the Austrian Wiener Flotenuhr.
Christian Benda The conductor and cellist Christian Benda was born in Brazil, descended from a family of Bohemian composers whose earlier members established a musical dynasty at the court of Frederick the Great. Discovered by Pierre Fournier, who launched him on a career as a soloist, and supported by Paul Tortelier, whom he often conducted, he made his first appearances on tours with ensembles from Eastern Europe, including the Prague Symphony and the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestras, playing the Brahms Double Concerto with Josef Suk and, as a conductor, appearing with a number of soloists of great distinction, including Lazar Berman, Michel Beroff, Bruno Giuranna, Boris Pergamenschikov, Pierre Amoyal and Barbara Hendricks. His many recordings, as cellist or conductor, include a disc devoted to the symphonies of his ancestor Jiri Antonfn Benda and he has enjoyed the distinction of conducting a televised concert in Prague Castle in the presence of President Vaclav Havel.
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BENDA, J.A.: Ariadne auf Naxos / Pygmalion