Heinrich Marschner had the unfortunate luck to have his career fall between those of Weber and Wagner. While his star ascended and his music became popular for a while, it took time to cast off the influence of Die Freischütz, and he was quickly overshadowed by the juggernaut of Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, and all the gods of Valhalla. So it is difficult for us today to recreate the milieu in which Marschner offered his works to the world, including 23 operas and music dramas.
Born in Zittau in 1795, Marschner studied under several music masters, and in several cities including Vienna. There, he hoped to study with Beethoven, who ended up slightly discouraging him. By way of Brastislava he eventually settled in Dresden, and as a Kapellmeister developed his interest in opera sufficiently to write six of them—and the last of these is his Opus 67: so he was no slacker in creative output.
Each of these needed to pass muster with the director of the Dresden Opera, who was no less than Carl Maria von Weber, with whom Marschner perceived a growing animosity. When Weber died, his position—which should have logically fallen to Marschner, did not. The disgruntled composer took off for Berlin, then peripatetically to Danzig, then Leipzig.
Marschner was 32 years old, and had been twice married (and twice a widower) by this time, and was bitterly disappointed at losing Weber's post at Dresden. A period of melancholy settled on him, and during a gloomy walk through the Kirchhofe in Madgeburg, he conceived the Gothic idea of writing a "witches' chorus". In this frame of mind he was well disposed to consider the even gloomier libretto of Der Vampyr that his brother-in-law, W. A. Wohlbrück wrote for him in 1827. Vampire tales were particularly in vogue at this time throughout England, France, and Germany, thanks to—believe it or not!—Frankenstein (the novel).
The Gothic Story Challenge
Recall that it was written by Mary Wollstonecraft in 1816, as a kind of lark during a rainy summer spent in Switzerland with her future husband Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron. It was Byron who suggested that since they were all sequestered by the weather they should write spooky stories, and they all did; but only Mary's creation emerged fully formed as her Gothic novel. Lord Byron had sketched out a few ideas about a vampire, a dead man who could rise back to the living through the use of moonlight and drinking blood from the living. Never completed as a story, Byron abandoned it at the end of their stay. But there are several other elements of this famous rainy Swiss vacation that aren't usually told.
One is that the trio was accompanied by Claire, Mary's half-sister, who was carrying Byron's child, and a young man who was Byron's "personal physician," Dr. John Polidori. One only has to add that Shelley's pregnant wife Harriet committed suicide soon thereafter, and that Shelley was romantically involved with Claire before he married Mary to understand that these enormously passionate and extravagant people led lives that weren't so very far off from the exuberant characters that they depicted in their writings. They were members of the top level of society, but their personal lives were among the most shocking and scandalous of the times. Frankenstein went on to be a sensation when it was published in 1818, leading the way to the Gothic horror tales that blazed through Europe.
The Mysterious Doctor Polidori
Capitalizing on this fantastic wave, Dr. Polidori, who had ambitions to be a writer as well, acquired the fragment of the vampire story from Byron (there were hints that the two were passionate about one another) and finished it in his own manner, publishing it anonymously in the New Monthly Magazine in 1819, simply as "The Vampyre," stating honestly that it was "of a fragment from Lord Byron." Readers assumed that Byron had written it (we are not sure to what extent Polidori abetted this notion, but he later said "I beg leave to state that your correspondent has been mistaken in attributing that tale in its present form to Lord Byron. The fact is that though the groundwork is certainly Lord Byron's, its development is mine"). Nonetheless, Byron's name became associated with the development of the taste for the Gothic and horror-romance. It became fashionable to construct "follies" on ones estate to resemble ruined castles or broken battlements to lend an air of chilly menace to the landscape.
Both the original Byron fragment and Polidori's re-working of the tale are extant (see Byron's and Polidori's here). There is very little similar between them. What is of interest to us in all this is that Polidori's tale concerns the vampire Lord Ruthven, a member of the aristocracy. He is urbane and cruel, and does not yet possess those weaknesses of mirrors and garlic that we associate with Dracula (they are reserved for the next incarnation, through author Bram Stoker). While previous tales of bloodsucking creatures were peasant stories, this was a clever and subtle shift, made more horrible because it concerned the ruling class gone amok. The byword of Polidori's story, and it informs all the variants of story/novel/opera, is Ruthven's repeated admonition, like a knell, to his friend Aubry, "Remember your oath!" —that is, not to betray him as the vampire. Giving one's Word—the sacred honor of the upper class was being used to cause its own destruction. In the story, Aubry keeps to his word: he and everyone around him dies, fallen victim to the vampire (rather like a Hammer Films version of The Pirates of Penzance, or the Slave of Duty).
It is not too wide a stretch to think of the horrible goings-on in The Vampyre as emblematic of the equally shocking lives he aristocracy were leading, and it thus becomes a subversive commentary that Polildori achieved, whether unconsciously or not. While his short story was expanded by others and adapted several times as a play, going on to thrill France and Germany, Polidori himself did not achieve much success, and for whatever reason committed suicide in 1821.
Le Vampire (in French) was the play that Wohlbrück showed to Marschner, after he wrote his melancholy witches' chorus. The 1820's were a ferment of fantasy and rebellion against the formalists in the Romantic Movement. This was not only the time of Beethoven's great Ninth Symphony, but hot on its heels was Berlioz' iconoclastic Symphonie Fantastique, itself inspired by Mendelssohn's choral work Die Erste Walpurgisnacht, based on Goethe's Faust. In Germany, Goethe had enlarged his masterwork to epic dimensions, and Ludwig Spohr's opera based on it established some of the musical conventions to depict Gothic horror, demons and witches.
Weber's operatic fantasies did much of the same thing, but in a gentler way; it was up to Marschner to take the musical vocabulary of Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Spohr, and Weber, and forge it into something even more remarkable. While Mozart sent Don Giovanni to hell on a shower of downward sliding notes, it's nothing compared to the shrieking piccolos and col'legno strings in Berlioz' witches' Sabbath. It was a musical vocabulary that had never been heard before.
The contrast of an established world-order thrown into panic and disarray is effectively depicted in Marschner's Der Vampyr by juxtaposing the more formal, idyllic music of Weber, with the more torn and bruised chromatic fantasy of Berlioz. Whereas Berlioz creates tension and throws the lister off-base by creating melodies with tiny intervals almost sliding up and down as though being in a swoon (what we call chromaticism), in Der Vampyr most of those small intervals progress only downward. It is a depressing, thoroughly black, demoralizing way of signifying the evil dead dragging the living into hell. The wordless scene in which Ruthven is revived by the exposure to moonlight is extraordinary, as his condition is revealed only in such music.
Ruthven under the influence of the moon.
Der Vampyr hinges on Aubry's dilemma of whether to break his oath to Ruthven. Only in the opera (and play it is based on), Aubry realizes they all will die if he does not rat on his friend, and exposes him as a vampire at his wedding. Worse things might happen at weddings these days, but in this case Lord Ruthven is dragged into hell to the accompaniement of just such chromatic passages. True love has triumphed over the old aristocratic order and the sacred bond of an ill-conceived oath.
Aubry denouncing his former friend.
Marschner displays considerable talent in creating a musical impetus that is like wild horses running off, impelled by fate, or an overarching Evil. Listen to the opening notes of the Overture; they have been described as the devil knocking. Listen for the stately, formal arias suddenly interrupted by the brassy and overweening bass of Lord Ruthven, insisting on his new order of chaos. His evil is dashed at the end, out-doing Don Giovanni's or Faust's exit to Hades. It is an opera built of shocking contrasts, and is as fresh and accessible today as when it was written.
While a rival opera of the same name was produced shortly after Marschner's Vampyr, it was thoroughly entrenched in the manner of Spohr and did not hold the public's imagination, while Marschner's work played all over Europe. Marschner went on to write many other operas, including the first based on Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (preceding Rossini's version), and for many years he was the sole voice of German operatic expression. His three best known works were edited and emended by Wagner (including an additional aria in Der Vampyr), and they were revised by Hans Pfitzner in the 1920's, but Marschner's vision and innate talent shine through.