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ClassicsOnline Home » WEINBERGER: Svanda Dudak
Jaromír Weinberger (1896–1967):
Does Jaromír Weinberger have serious rivals as opera’s textbook “one hit wonder”? What makes his case unparalleled is the phenomenal success his solitary hit enjoyed before historical forces swiftly rendered it scarce. When Švanda dudák (1927) is recalled at all, it is often because of this comet-like quality, as well as a few other salient facts: the omnipresent Max Brod’s participation; rapid translation into seventeen languages; the forgotten composer’s suicide in Florida four decades later. What silenced Švanda’s pipes?
In his magisterial Czech Opera (Cambridge, 1988) John Tyrrell’s unmistakably dismissive verdict on Švanda concentrates on a perceived inauthenticity of
means. Others, perhaps forgetting Švanda’s designation as “folk opera,” criticize Weinberger’s use of Smetana-like musical elements as trying too hard to be recognizably “Czech” for foreign audiences. Weinberger’s later career might substantiate this charge of too-eager cosmopolitanism, had not the need to “assimilate” (and to keep moving quickly) been imposed on him by concrete historical factors. Weinberger unveiled the operetta Frühlingsstürme (a disastrously inapposite title for a 1933 Berlin work by a Czech Jew); created a Schiller-based final opera Wallenstein for an unimpressed Vienna (1937); penned
a 1939 Fugue on ‘Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree’ after seeing George VI perform the song in a newsreel. Only this last won popular favour. Safely in the United States by 1939, Weinberger rapidly became a purveyor of musical Americana, producing the ballet Saratoga, a Lincoln Symphony, an orchestral Legend of Sleepy
Hollow and a Prelude and Fugue on Dixie.
Writing in 1986, Tyrrell noted that, “[f]or all its success abroad, Weinberger’s opera did not achieve popular success in Prague and it has not been heard at
the National Theatre since 1933. Its fate serves to demonstrate that there is a limit to the currency of nostalgic patriotism and that its symbols, however skilfully presented, will not in themselves be enough to ensure acceptance.” Perhaps after 1989’s Velvet Revolution, it is evident that, during the regimes that dominated Czechoslovakia after 1933, there were other considerations in Prague’s official operatic showplace not staging a work by a Jew long since expatriated to America. Whatever its reception in Prague, Švanda was quickly given around the world, where its lavishly displayed tokens of Czechness could be enjoyed on their own terms. How current Czech audiences responded to Weinberger’s opera would be interesting to gauge.
At Prague Conservatory, Weinberger studied under Dvorák’s pupil Víteslav Novák, who evoked local folkmusic in classical compositions (Slovak Suite, South Bohemian Suite). Weinberger’s studies with Max Reger in Leipzig increased his skill at (and predisposition to) the counterpoint evident in Švanda’s ensembles. Like Smetana before him, he took his musical skills abroad to earn a living, teaching composition at Ithaca College (1922–26). Only Švanda’s success put him sound financially. Librettist Miloš Kareš spent his rather short life (1891–1944) in Prague, writing and editing, eventually becoming a director and dramaturg in Czech radio. The inspiration for Weinberger and Kareš’s success was Josef Tyl (1808–1856). This author, actor
and administrator had dominated Prague’s busily contested Czech-language theatrical life from the 1830s on. His father was a military band oboist, an interesting
background for the creator of several of the Czech Revival’s archetypal Musician Heroes. Strakonický dudák (The Strakonice Bagpiper, 1847), still sometimes staged in the Czech Republic, gave rise to several quickly forgotten operas before Weinberger’s.
Strakonice sits at the confluence of the Volynka and Vltava rivers, 120 miles southwest of Prague. Even today it boasts a hotel named Švanda Dudák. Little
specifically pertaining to the region figures verbally or musically in Weinberger’s opera. Kareš took from Tyl’s play mainly the central lovers (Švanda and Dorota), their essential natures (good-hearted but given to wandering in his case, faithful in hers) and their final reunion; with the trope of the spellbinding power of a musical instrument (a legacy of Die Zauberflöte). As Tyrrell observes, the figure of the musician and the cult of musicality became widespread images both in and of the emerging Czech culture. Bagpipers turned up in stage pieces of all kinds, for local colour and as “guarantor of the work’s ‘Czechness’”:
“[A]bove all it was the central figure of the bagpiper…that seems to have struck a special chord with Czech audiences. Švanda the bagpiper, a Czech
village Orpheus whose instrument has magic powers, personified the musicality of the Czech people; and the fact that Švanda was a folk musician, playing an instrument with purely folk connotations emphasized that is musicality was inherent, rather than learned.”
To expand Švanda’s resonance beyond Czech territory, Prague’s multitasking Max Brod took determined charge of “arrangements” (as with Janáček and Kafka), propelling the opera to its meteoric international prominence. With Brod’s prodding (and adaptation, and translation), Universal Edition
published the piano/vocal score in 1928 with both Czech and German texts. Granted translating sung Czech, with its fixed initial stresses, is hard, Brod’s invention sometimes carried him far afield. But the music retains its considerable charm in any language. Švanda sports an overture over ten minutes in duration, containing more than twenty changes of tempo. This return to Romanticism (Weber, Berlioz) bucked contemporary trends, especially for comic opera. But then Švanda contains a high proportion of orchestral music for its decade; if Wolf-Ferrari’s once popular intermezzo-laden works provided one model, Švanda’s frequent interlarded dance numbers hark back to Smetana’s Bartered Bride. The overture’s mockingly bright brass “laughter” suggests an attentive ear towards
Richard Strauss; its rushing strings evoke Smetana, as does the broad, nostalgic “Bohemian” melody introducing Dorota’s folkish “Na tom našem dvore”. But Weinberger, even when partially derivative, shows vigour and flair.
Dorota’s confidence in her marriage’s enduring strength is touching—and borne out. Still, having been married just a week, her “loyal” Švanda is instantly lured away by Babinský’s promises of romantic locales and derring-do. Babinský’s “free and epic” Ballad theme recurs at his timely interventions in Švanda’s fate. The most demanding rôle as concerns tessitura and interpretive range, this high-lying tenor must be Robin
Hood, self-sacrificing operetta charmer, and Wagner’s Loge rolled into one. Babinský tries to lure Švanda to adventures and other women so he himself can claim Dorota, but proves so anxious to rescue the bagpiper and to tell Dorota his intentions that the threatened romantic displacement never seems remotely possible.
Švanda’s triangular temptations resolve in the nostalgic message that there is no place like home: no matter how much glory one’s art garners, the loyal woman at home—and the country she represents—must be man’s destination. The dark, desirous and ultimately vindictive Queen appears only in the opera’s middle
scenes; perhaps deriving structurally (as in vocal type) from another Zwischenfach tough customer, Rusalka’s Foreign Princess. Entering to a polka, Švanda rouses her spirits with his playing, earning her subjects’ admiring choral polonaise: dance rhythms underline the opera’s key moments.
The Act II plot owes something to the Orpheus legend generally but more to Offenbach’s Orphée aux Enfers (1858) with its sense of parody, devilish sporting
propositions and relatively casual passage among worlds. Weak devil figures typify Czech opera plots; this one attempts to play his guest’s bagpipes. The one effective strategy shown by Švanda’s Devil—showing he hero an image of his beloved to seal his deal—bespeaks a trick picked up from Gounod’s Méphistophélès. Similar goings-on with cruel royal women, bargaining devils and easy (by exalted Gluckian standards) rescues from death’s clutches mark Dvorák’s 1899 The Devil and Kate.
Švanda was first performed on 28th April, 1927 at Prague’s National Theatre (that enduring symbol of Czech music-centred nationalism) under its music
director, Otakar Ostrcil. Baritone Václav Novák created Švanda; Theodor Schütz, the original Števa in Jenůfa, sang Babinský. Prague-born soprano Ada Nordenová (Dorota) joined Ostrcil in the 1933 recording of The Bartered Bride (Naxos Historical 8.110098/9). The initial land office run on Weinberger’s opera followed a hit staging Brod arranged in Breslau. Most “international” stagings were done in Brod’s German version, including the Metropolitan (and United States) première in 1931 and Covent Garden’s in 1934, with enviable Wagnerian casts. Since World War II productions have proved sparse.
Reviewing the Met première, the venerable W.J. Henderson noted Weinberger’s insouciant contrapuntal mastery and rich orchestral texture; his generally warm verdict still seems warranted:
“Between the scenes are orchestral interludes which will give pleasure to all music-lovers who are willing to forego conversation…[T]he score is the creation of a sound musician…The inferno scene, which ought to be funnier, is too long and heavy. But Schwanda is generally good theatre, is a good spectacle, has bright and communicative spirit, and some tunes that will probably linger in the white light of Broadway. Except for the recitatives, the whole score is written with an élan, an unction and a gaiety of mind altogether felicitous. The fact that scholarship and technical mastery are found on almost every page will not force itself upon the attention of the typical opera-goer. Nor will it disturb the peace of the analytical mind, for Weinberger’s juggling of counterpoint and orchestration is all done with a satirical smile.”
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WEINBERGER: Svanda Dudak