SCHUBERT: Der Graf von Gleichen

What better occasion is
there? We value this as our “relaxation” entertainment of choice
even when the stories of the operas; imbued with chaos, unrequited desire,
and murder, are events that would frustrate any normal person. Meant to whisk
us away from the realities of our own lives and transport us to a world that
we wish to be more interesting than our own, these stories are the perfect
entertainment for any quiet evening at home. So, how about this: an opera
that includes, love, adultery, the exoticism of turkey, and…la piËce
de la rÈsistance the guy who, in the end, gets not one, but TWO girls!!!
How’s that for a tabloid driven plot line? Eat your heart out
Brangelina, Bennifer, and Tom-Cat?!!!

Der Graf von Gleichen, Schubert’s last attempt at writing a
“great” opera, was left incomplete due to his death. Hey, did
Schubert compose operas? He did. In fact, he wrote 16 operas but they remain
the least known of his works. It is an intriguing prospect to find out why
this is so. How is it that a composer with such a magnificent symphonic
understanding and a most blessed ability to write for the human voice would
be unable to combine these two elements into one grand genre of opera. This
being said, it is not to say that Der Graf von Gleichen fails
entirely; there are indeed moments of beauty and that Schubertian
delicateness that is always recognizable. Nevertheless, as a whole, the opera
is not what you might expect from this renowned master.

At the beginning of 1824, and depressed with the failure of his theatre
works weighing on his mind, Schubert abandoned the writing of operas and
devoted his last years to songs and instrumental music, but it was the
“opera” that haunted him throughout his short life. Why might
this be? A probable hypothesis is this: All composers after Beethoven tried
to adhere to his level of musical accomplishment. Beethoven struggled
inherently with his opera Fidelio. A struggle made evident in the
gestation period he took to compose it, and the attention he paid to its
dramatic structure and realization. Was Schubert haunted by Beethoven’s
grandiose operatic contribution, as Brahms and Mahler were haunted by his
symphonies? More than likely, but why did Schubert’s operas fail? Why
couldn’t he fuse together the elements he so clearly had control over,
in their separate genres, into one. To answer this, we need to play a game of
“sleuth” and collect significant evidence that might leads us to
a coherent conclusion. In any opera study, one must look first at the value
and validity of the libretto.

Eduard von Bauernfeld was one of Schubert’s closest friends during
his last years. Unlike other occasional librettists amongst Schubert’s
friends, Bauernfeld was a professional writer. As early as 1825, it seems
that the plan for a Bauernfeld-Schubert collaboration was born. A medieval
epic was to be the course of action, although Bauernfeld was not entirely
happy about this idea. Therefore, he proposed the subject of the Count of
Gleichen, a “true” legend that had appeared among the tales
published by the brothers Grimm. In his letters, Bauernfeld mentions that he
had adopted Mozart’s point of view and tried to write a play where the
“poetry should be the music’s obedient daughter.” Schubert
began to compose the music in 1826 and was so excited that he did not even
wait for the approval of the censors. Of course, the opera was viewed
negatively, surely because of its finale and subject matter.

Enrst, the Count of Gleichen, has been imprisoned during the Crusades and
is now the slave of the Sultan of Cairo. The Sultan’s daughter,
Suleika, loves Ernst and convinces her father to let him and the other
Christian slaves go. Suleika returns with Ernst to his country and converts
to Christianity, but not before he tells her that he has a wife and son back
home. This is already outrageous, but the kicker is this: on the way to home
to Turkey, they stop in Rome and get special permission from the Pope, and
along with the Countess agreement, the Count of Gleichen can marry Suleika
and live happily ever after with his “two” wives. That the
Viennese censors did not allow such a story to be presented in Austrian
theatres isn’t any big surprise, but what was Schubert thinking?
Moreover, what was Bauernfeld thinking? Obviously, both were naÔve if they
thought a such a story would be accepted, by the censors or the public for
that matter. Ironically, even Bauernfeld spoke of his libretto as a
“Turkish-Christian mess.” It has several weaknesses which are not
balanced by an operatic effectiveness.

So, is this a comic opera or to be taken seriously? If it is supposed to
be a comic one, and it seems that the traditional structure of two acts and
the extant conventions of opera buffa would suggest so. Why do the main
characters have serious parts and belong to the upper class? Humour in opera
means you have fun about somebody or something, and Schubert’s
compassion, his perception of other people’s feelings, made that quite
impossible for him. A sympathetic irony is the closest thing to humour we can
find in Schubert’s work and that was surely not what Bauernfeld had in
mind. In the aesthetic of the early 19th century, a comic opera should
conclude with the traditional happy conclusion and so, it is quite difficult
to avoid this “marriage ‡ trios” becoming ridiculous.
However, did Schubert really want the opera to end like this; remember it was
unfinished? So who finished it?

Richard D¸nser, an Austrian composer born in Bregenz in 1959 (yes
1959…he’s still alive) has taught composition at some of
Vienna’s most renowned music schools, and has a particular penchant for
orchestral arrangments. In 1995, he decided to complete and reconstruct
Der Graf von Gleichen, and completed it in 1997. Therefore, whether
or not this is what Schubert would have written is unknown.

This live recording by OEHMS is D¸nser’s realization of Der Graf
von Gleichen
, with Act I beginning in the Sultan’s palace in
Cairo. Interestingly, Schubert opens the opera with a choral number. The
Chor der indischer Sklaven: a slave chorus is accompanied by light
and sprightly woodwinds (woodwinds are prominent throughout the opera to
suggest the “exotic” flavour of India). The male chorus sounds a
little strained in the tenor section, but this is surely because of
Schubert’s use of a high-tessitura, another influence from Beethoven,
who wrote incredibly difficult ranges for choruses, even in his masses. The
opening chorus does contain a beautiful string accompaniment and woodwind
introduction to the Frauen und Sklaven where the chorus promotes
excellent German diction, perhaps even obscuring the guttural quality of the
language. Chorus master, Wolfgang Schwendinger, is to be commended for his
work with the chorus, especially since choral predominance is immediately
established at the opera’s opening. The only negativity here is that
the orchestral texture is rather thick in the middle range instruments and
somewhat distorts the clarity of the voices.

After the introduction, a spoken dialogue occurs before every operatic
number. Although this is an excellent use of narration by Schubert, the
speaker actually interrupts the flow and naturalness of the opera. It stops
the action rather than enhance it, and in this recording we are not even
given the speaker’s dialogue in the CD booklet. Therefore, unless you
understand German, you will not understand the narration, an unfortunate
exclusion by OEHMS Classics. The following number is the Recitativ und
of the Graf that begins with a lovely vocal entrance by Florian
Boesch, with full-bodied and well-produced lines. The text is beautifully
effected, but Boesch sings it almost too lyrically for a recitative. The
speech-like quality is not there, and even though this recitative might not
be the strongest composed moment in Schubert’s opera, the singer is
still responsible to maintain the speech-like declamation of recitative. The
woodwind responses to the Graf’s singing are appropriate and the
orchestral accompaniment is reflective of the melodic commentary. Perhaps,
though, Schubert might not have used so many unisons between certain
instruments and the voice, but imbued the orchestra with it’s own

The Graf’s aria fails immediately because there is almost no
division between the recitative and cavatina. The cavatina should have a
completely different flavour than the recit, but Boesh fails to effect this.
The singing here is rather rough and perhaps not delicate enough or lyrical
enough for Schubert. The ends of Boesche’s phrases are not rounded and
completed with a sense of shape, but sung robustly…almost to the point
that he seems to yell.

Nr. 5 Arie, is sung by Suleika and followed by a recitative und
by the Graf and Suleika. Cornelia Horak begins this with a lovely
tone, and complimented by Schubert’s orchestral commentary, this piece
works well. There is a continual repeated bass that almost reflects the
heart-beat that is obviously representative of high passion. Horak has
exquisite upper notes on “Sˆnne so feurig und wild,”
however she immediately moves into a type of straight-tone on the descent
which is not attractive. The Graf’s entrance is more intimate here than
in his previous cavatina and Boesch’s voice is more pleasing when sung
delicately. There is good conversation between the two characters, but the
duet tempts Boesch back into his non-lyrical singing. Horak’s singing
here is lovely and it becomes bothersome that the two main voices are not in
sync, as they should be. The orchestra is delicate if not a little too
subdued and could offer more support to the voices.

In the next scene, Schubert cleverly inserts a March (‡ la Beethoven),
that is Turkish in flavour. The march is to introduce the character of the
Sultan, however this is an immediate transition from the duet between the
Graf and Gr‰fin, so it completely obscures the intimacy of the previous scene
with it’s pompous flavour and rhythmic intensity. One might also think,
here, of Mozart’s Die Entf¸hrung aus dem Serail (The Abduction
from the Seraglio) and it’s Turkish elements. It is Suleika’s
birthday and three Indian princes have come to congratulate her, but she has
already chosen a husband, the Graf. As the Sultan arrives, the orchestra
evokes his regal position and Schubert imbues this music with dotted rhythms
and lots of brass. The Sultan is also sung by Boesch, and he begins with a
nice tone in his recitative, but again there is a lack of legato singing in
the aria, almost making it too choppy. Interestingly, Schubert’s arias
don’t change mood as do the arias of Mozart or Haydn, and there is no
Da Capo in sight.

To follow, the Graf gives Suleika a red rose, which is a sign of love in
the Orient, and her passion explodes in an aria that almost seems like a
“revenge-aria.” One would expect a lyrical and heart-wrenching
piece, like Countess Almaviva’s “Dove Sono,” but
instead Suleika seems almost infuriated in love. Horak approaches the
difficulty of this aria, “Ja, ich leib ihn” in which she
admits her love for the Graf. There is a particularly lovely moment where the
agitation changes to a lyrical and passionate evocation of the word
“Liebesblume.” She displays her incredible range in this aria,
soaring into the upper tessitura and although Horak handles it well, there
are still moments of pushing, and straight tone that make her sound as if her
voice is getting tired. This is especially so at the end of the aria on
Grofl ist der Liebe Macht” that ends in an
extraordinarily high tessitura, perhaps too high for this type of aria.

To make things even more interesting, the Graf immediately tells Suleika
that he has a wife and son back home. She also addresses the Graf as
“my friend,” which seems like a mistake on the part of the
librettist. Why would Suleika address the Count as her friend after
she’s just poured her heart out in the previous aria? The effect of the
aria is somewhat lost because of this. In the Finale of Act I, the Graf and
Suleika sing a duet that is performed rather stagnantly. There is more vocal
confrontation between Horak and Boesch here, rather than a merging of the two
voices into one…which would be more representative of two people in
love. This duet makes clear that the two voices are not well suited to each

The finale is quite long and goes through many changes. One, in
particular, occurs at “Sich die Purpurblume, die du mir
” where Suleika begins to mention that she will become
Christian and leave for Europe with the Graf. The orchestra is rather
stagnant here and rather than contributing to the emotion of the scene,
Schubert uses it merely as accompaniment; perhaps this is another reason why
Schubert’s operas weren’t as successful as his other works. At
Du weiflt dafl in Frankenkleidern bisweilen” Suleika
pleas with her father, the Sultan, to release the Christian slaves. Schubert
uses some orchestral drama to enhance this scene, with regal dotted motives
in the brass as Suleika pleas, “Mein Vater!” The most
beautiful moment occurs at “Leb Wohl auf hurz, dann ewig dir
.” She too is leaving. If Schubert wrote every moment in the
opera with such beauty as this, his operas would have been very successful.
Unfortunately, he only gives us small tastes of what his operatic writing
might have developed into had he lived longer. The chorus then sings praises
of joy, and there is a good balance between the choral voices and orchestra.
Oh Freiheit!” is sung with high intensity, and almost
evokes hints of the Chorus of Prisoners in Beethoven’s

Act II begins in the Occident, on an autumn evening. The chorus also
begins this act, again showing Schubert’s penchant for choral
importance. There is lovely homophonic harmony here, and the orchestra
lightly accompanies with pizzicati that help establish the mood.
There is some polyphony used at the end of the chorus but the piece perhaps
lacks the climax that we might expect from a chorus at this point in the

Nr. 13 is an aria sung by the Gr‰fin, used to introduce us to her
character. Countess Ottilie despairs about her husband’s absence.
Letizia Scherrer sings her “Trocknet nicht” with a
lovely warm sound and evokes much empathy from the listener. What makes this
aria work well is that Schubert uses the orchestra in a more active approach,
by making it reflect the mood and tone of the Countess’ emotions. It is
truly a lovely moment, and connects the Gr‰fin to other forlorn women of high
prestige, ‡ la Octavia, or Countess Almaviva. The string finale to the aria
is very heart wrenching and another one of those moments in which we see
visions of an operatic Schubert that might have been.

The chorus enters again to snare-drum accompaniment, and the now free
slaves sing a vibrant “Vaterland.” The pilgrims return
led by the Graf who sees his wife and child for the first time. His
recitative and aria “Burg meiner V‰ter” obscures his
personality entirely…or at least more than it had been previously. He
sings of how much he loves his wife and son, which is highly unbelievable,
especially when he has arrived with his mistress, Suleika. A clear flaw in
the libretto, any audience member in Schubert’s day, and surely a
present-day one, would have a difficult time relating to the bigamous nature
of the count.

In his return, the Gr‰fin recognizes him, and she is overwhelmed with
happiness. The following recognition aria is confusing. For a scene of
reuniting, the orchestra should invoke excitement and the furvor of the
moment, but instead there is unresponsiveness, perhaps because the Graf is in
love with two women. It is really very confusing as he sings
Unendlich, Unendlich is diese Lust!” (Unending,
Unending is this love!) The duet that ensues between the Graf and Gr‰fin is
rather un-exciting and again yearns for a moment of excitement.

The next scene is Suleika, who has now realized that if she is to live
here with the count that she must be accepted by the countess. She asks God
to help her accept this fate in, “Guter Gott, nimm aus dem Herzen
dieses Sehnen
.” Although this is a very beautiful aria,
Horak’s voice seems more over-taxed than ever. The clarity with which
she began the opera is missing and the beautiful legato that would display
this aria’s rightful beauty, does not exist. As she finishes her
prayer, the Gr‰fin enters and we have a duet between Suleika and the
countess. The seriousness of the meeting is well presented in the orchestra
by ominous diminished 7th chords. Schubert doesn’t use this sonority
much throughout the opera, so their position here is well noted. There is a
beautiful contrasting recitative where at the end, the Gr‰fin asks,
O liebst du ihn?” (Do you love him?) A poignant
question leading to the duet, we expect that with Suleika’s answer the
duet would merge the two women’s voices in a glorious display of either
acceptance or not. We might think here of the great duet of Norma and
Adalgisa, but here Suleika and the Gr‰fin rarely sing together in harmony. It
is more of a question/response style that might occur in a recitative, not a
full-blown duet. Regardless, the Countess accepts Suleika.

Finally, there is the anticipated trio. By this point we are asking,
“what woman would really go for this? Most women can’t relate,
and this is a probable reason why this opera has not retained any popularity
or a solid position within the operatic canon. The trio between the Graf,
Gr‰fin, and Suleika begins with a lovely string accompaniment that is
evocative of Mozart’s Soave sia il vento from CosÏ fan
. Here he “does” have the women singing in thirds (and
gloriously I might add) to the muttering of the Graf under the texture. Even
though Boesch doesn’t really add to this trio, vocally, it is still
possibly the most well-constructed number in the opera. The orchestra is
responsive to the emotions of the characters, and there is an enhanced sense
of drama that we haven’t yet experienced.

Why Schubert has the Graf sing for most of the Act II finale is beyond me.
Boesch sings some lovely lines but all in all, there is no climactic ending
here. His long speech is followed by, none other than, “the
chorus”. It rejoices in knowing that the Pope has granted the count his
wish to be married to two women, and that the countess has accepted Suleika.
One of the main problems for any realization of the final scene is that it
was not sketched by Schubert.

It seems to me that Schubert could have used this final attempt at opera
to evolve, but he didn’t. The conventional description of Turkish
cruelty is absent, as are warlike tunes, and instead we have an
“impossible love story”. Compared to other Turkish operas, the
opportunity of composing marches and other characteristic music is not there.
Such a vision leaves little room for comical elements and thus Schubert
cannot overcome the discrepancies of the libretto. It seems that the rightful
category for the Der Graf von Gleichen is in the semi-seria
category. In addition, Schubert’s characters are not well defined
musically. They tend to remain the means of describing a story rather than
representing distinctive personalities that develop through the course of
action. Clearly, Schubert had not yet acquired a sufficient sense of dramatic
timing. He might have with more experience and come to understand the need to
build up tension and release it so to retain interest and produce more
surprise elements.

Schubert, however, continues to remain a mystery to us. What might have
become of him if he had lived? Might he have become the next Beethoven,
surely a goal that he tried to achieve in life, at least in his compositions.
Regardless of this, Schubert’s lieder and symphonies remain a staple of
German art and culture. He will continue to be highly respected for his
contribution to German musical development, and his operas shouldn’t be
excluded from this statement. Even though his operas are not masterpieces
like many of his other works, we cannot exclude them because they are another
page, another aspect to the personality that we continue to investigate. Any
Schubert fan should undoubtedly listen to this opera, or any, if only to hear
the moments that suggest a sensitive, passionate, and intelligent operatic
composer in the making.

Mary-Lou Patricia Vetere, PhD (ABD), M.A., Mus.B

image_description=Franz Schubert: Der Graf von Gleichen
product_title=Franz Schubert: Der Graf von Gleichen
product_by=Florian Boesch (Graf (Count) / Sultan), Cornelia Horak (Suleika), Letizia Scherrer (Grafin (Countess) / Fatime), Kurt Sternik (speaker), KornmarktChor Bregenz, Wolfgang Schwendinger, chorus master, Symphonieorchester Vorarlberg, Christoph Eberle, conductor
product_id=Oehms Classics OC903