Overture to The Conspirators
Length: c. 7 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances
That Schubert composed 13 operas - only two were staged during his lifetime, and those under less than ideal circumstances - is a well-kept secret. Libretto problems is the reason usually given, not that there aren't repertory operas with fairly awful (but livelier) texts. With Schubert, there are other shortcomings as well: music that fails to propel what story there is and the inability to come up with the big tune at crunch time, text notwithstanding.
At least one opera that deserves a better fate than it has been accorded - a one-acter and thereby able to fit into an operatic triple bill - is Die Verschworenen (The Conspirators). It dates from the spring of 1823, with Schubert having regained his spirits and a measure of his health from the previous year, when he began to suffer the ravages of the venereal disease that would kill him five years later. 1823 saw the creation of the thunderous Piano Sonata in A minor, D. 784, and the first of his two song cycles, Die schöne Müllerin (the other being Winterreise), as well as this setting of a text by Ignaz Castelli, a supplier to Viennese composers of brief, imaginative librettos. Castelli based his book on Aristophanes' Lysistrata, retaining the central argument of the Greek master's plot: the women go on strike, refusing bed and board to their men until they can curb their proclivity to rush off to war at the slightest provocation.
Schubert here created a succession of beguiling tunes, nimble and witty as the text. He intended the work for performance at Vienna's Kärntnertor Theater, to which it was duly submitted. But this was the era of Chancellor Metternich and his band of censors, a small army that presided not only over the moral health of the Austrian citizenry but was charged with rooting out conspiracies against the monarchy. While tacitly approving the plot's sexual overtones, under no circumstances could "conspirators" be part of the title, what with enemies of the state lurking under every bed. Thus the title was changed to the anodyne Der häusliche Krieg (The Domestic War), which made no difference at all to its immediate fate: The opera was rejected by the Kärtnertor Theater, nor was it heard anywhere until 1861, more than three decades after the composer's death. It has rarely resurfaced since that time.
A major impediment to productions in the 19th century of Die Verschworenen prior to and subsequent to 1861 was the absence from the manuscript of an overture. It must have gotten lost somewhere along the way, because Schubert would certainly not have submitted an "incomplete" opera for performance.
The overture had, like so many of Schubert's manuscripts, gone into a sort of limbo after his death: sold by Schubert's brother, Ferdinand, to his nephew, the lawyer Dr. Eduard Schneider, who sold off portions of his collection at various intervals. The few that remained in his possession he left to his sister, Theresia Krasser, and they remained with her family until 1959, at which time what was left was bought by the Vienna Stadtbibliothek. Among them, its sharp-eyed music director, Dr. Fritz Racek, found a larger than usual stack of papers - 12 pages - which turned out to be the almost-completed overture to Die Verschworenen, a sonata movement in F major, with a slow introduction and an energetic coda. Missing, however, were the first three pages, including the title page, making it unidentifiable at first glance.
Dr. Racek quickly found the relationship to Die Verschworenen and filled in the missing pages from portions of the opera proper, in accordance with the composer's own practice in the 12 pages at hand. It is a most engaging, polished trifle, with hints of Weber (the horns at the outset), and a good deal of the spirit of Rossini, whose popularity had crested some years before in Vienna, replete with a Rossinian "storm" episode.
We owe much of the story of the Overture to a letter by the indefatigable Schubert scholar Dr. Maurice Brown, published in the British periodical Music & Letters in 1964, wherein he shares with the world the story of Dr. Racek's discovery.
- Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.