Mysterious attributions: Reception of Die Zauberharfe

May 13, 2016
Ray Heigemeir
Franz Schubert

Overture zum 3. Akt, Die Zauberharfe, original manuscript by Franz Schubert (1797-1828); libretto by Georg von Hofmann.
Memorial Library of Music, MLM 948
[download images of this work]

Guest blogger: Benjamin Ory

Die Zauberharfe, or “The Magic Harp,” was a melodrama premiered on August 19, 1820 at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna. The original cast included Ferdinand Schimon (Palmerin, tenor), Karl Erdmann Rüger (Arnulf), Josefa Gottdank (Melinda), Frl. Botta (Ida), and Nikolaus Heurteur (Folko). There were seven repeat performances through October 12, before the work was subsequently withdrawn from the repertory. The majority of Hofmann’s text and some of the musical numbers were lost, and thus, no further staged performances were able to occur. The manuscript of the Act III Overture now resides in Stanford’s Memorial Library of Music.

Die Zauberharfe, Act III overture

By all accounts, Die Zauberharfe was a flop. An independent review in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung describes the affair, noting that even the menagerie of shiny decorations, mechanical objects, and colorful costumes could not hold the viewer’s attention—the play was utterly nonsense and boring. There were, however, positive things to say about Schubert’s musical prowess—“one concedes [he] has much talent and skills” and that he salvaged what he could, but there was a general consensus that he could benefit from a better text. This is an early Schubert work, and later scholars, such as Elizabeth Norman McKay, have noted that Schubert takes many steps here towards his mature style here, tempering both his lyrical genius and displaying masterful motivic development.

Much of the interest regarding Die Zauberharfe involves its subsequent reuse by Schubert and, posthumously, by publishers. Schubert did not write an overture to his drama Rosamunde, which premiered on December 20, 1823, and he instead used a variety of overtures, including at one point, the Act I Overture from Die Zauberharfe. A more explicit connection between these two dramas comes from a piano forte duet, purportedly arranged by Schubert in 1825 with an explicit description “Overture to the play ‘Rosamunde’.” Elizabeth McKay questions this link, as an original manuscript of this has never appeared. Whether the association is correct or not, the reception history of Die Zauberharfe has been unquestionably attached to the later production. The cover page of the Act III Overture at Stanford gives credence to this:

Die Zauberharfe, title page

The Rosamunde subtitle, in parentheses, was undoubtedly added later, by a foreign hand. Schubert also did not write the description in the bottom-right corner of the manuscript, which reads:

According to the references, Die Zauberharfe, melodrama with choruses and songs in 3 Acts, premiered on August 19th, [1]820. The music was very pleasing, but the libretto was not. The autograph score copy of the romance is likely with Joseph Hüttenbrenner at present.

Though most of the Die Zauberharfe’s original manuscript resides in the Stadtbibliothek in Vienna, the score of this particular overture was included in the Memorial Library of Music catalog in 1948. After Schubert’s death, the manuscript, along with many possession of his estate, was given to his brother Ferdinand. By 1830, the manuscript was in the hands of the publisher Diabelli (who had published the ill-attributed piano duet), and by 1865 the manuscript was in the hands of another publisher, C.A. Spina. An effort to publish this particular overture was thwarted, and the manuscript was sold, potentially in 1874 to a “Dr. Kafka.” This might refer to the Viennese collector Johann Kafka, who possessed several autograph manuscripts of Schubert, including some lieder. Beyond these crumbs, however, the trail of the manuscript’s provenance goes cold until its entrance to the Stanford University libraries.

While Die Zauberharfe has never been performed as a complete melodrama, certain excerpts are performed with regularity, and there have been a limited number of concert performances of the entire existing music. The Act I Overture is particularly well-known, probably as a result of the Rosamunde connection, and there are both early publications of this overture, by M. J. Leisdorf and C.A. Spina, and early recordings, dating back to 1911. As for the music of the entire melodrama, two notable productions have occurred. In 1885 in Hamburg, Die Zauberharfe’s incidental music was used for Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and in 1983, a complete concert performance was conducted by Tito Gotti, recorded and distributed by Bongiovanni Records.

Speidel, Liane. Franz Schubert—ein Opernkomponist?.Vienna: Böhlau Verlag Ges.m.b.H und Co.KG, 2012, 215. See Also:  Anonymous. “Theater an der Wien: Schubert, Die Zauberharfe (Zauberspiel)” Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung IV, nr. 69 (August 26, 1820): 548.
With thanks to Astrid Smith, Rare Book and Special Collections Digitization Specialist, and the Digital Production Group for providing downloadable images of this manuscript.
Benjamin OryGuest blogger Benjamin Ory is a musicology graduate student in the Department of Music, Stanford University. He studies history of music theory and form in the 19th century.