"Some of my operas bring a few pleasant hours to many honest souls. That's enough for me." So Gustav Albert Lortzing explained of his ambitions as a composer. It turned out, however, that Lortzing far outdid himself, for his music, especially his most well-known light operas, Zar und Zimmermann ("Czar and Carpenter") and Undine, continue to entertain audiences 150 years after his death. Yet this same man spent his final years in financial straits so severe that he was untreated by a doctor on the eve of his death.
The son of two actors, Lortzing made debut as a stage performer at age ten. He had a natural affinity for music, taking lessons from the leader of a theater orchestra, and made extra money working as a music copyist. When he could, Lortzing studied music theory and composition, but these studies never lasted very long. They served him well enough, however, for he worked as an actor, singer, director, conductor, librettist, and composer for nearly 30 years. Long before Wagner, Lortzing was a composer who controlled his creative work from composition to direction, even singing in the premiere productions of his most famous operas.
His first one-act work, written in 1824, was well-received, and two years later, Lortzing took up residency as a composer at the site of that first success, the Court Theater in Detmold. His next two works, The Pole and His Child and Scenes from Mozart's Life, were also moderately successful, and Lortzing moved to a more prominent post at the State Theater in Leipzig. At that time, composing was less a profession than a sideline for Lortzing, who earned most of his income from acting and conducting. He had his first taste of real popularity as a composer with his first comic opera, Die Beiden Schutzen, which he produced in Leipzig, but it was Zar und Zimmermann, written in 1837, that began the spread of his name across the German-speaking world and far beyond. Lortzing's light operas borrowed elements of French opera comique, paralleling them in some respects, although his music was shaped by his innate understanding -- as an actor, singer, and producer -- of the needs and tastes of his German-speaking audience. His ability to synthesize the many influences around him, coupled with his practical experience in theater, may account for the fact that Zar und Zimmermann, unlike most other German light opera, achieved considerable success in Prague, London, Scandinavia, and Imperial Russia. Unfortunately for Lortzing, this widespread success took place in the decades before the first notions of modern copyright protection were written into law, and he hardly benefited from the work's continued popularity. In 1842, he premiered another work, Der Wildschutz, which has proved enduringly popular for its richly melodic score. Ironically, his most serious work of this period, the fairy-tale opera Undine, met with limited and very slow acceptance.
Lortzing's success and financial security were assured until the middle of 1845, when he suddenly lost his musical position in Leipzig amid a financial crisis at the Leipzig City Theater, where he'd been happily employed since 1833. After months of financial uncertainty made worse by his declining health, including the ominous first onset of deafness, he moved to Vienna to accept the offer of a two-year contract as kapellmeister at the Theater an der Wien, contingent upon the success of his new work, Der Waffenschmied ("The Conqueror of Worms"), which was written specifically for Vienna. His reception there was mixed at best, as Viennese audiences found the German humor in his librettos not entirely to their liking; additionally, the financial arrangements under which his appointment had been made had also become undone, amid a political upheaval that swept the city.
By 1847, Lortzing was forced to return to Leipzig as a result of another financial upheaval. He eked out a marginal existence for the next few years, returning to acting in spite of his worsening health in order to support his family, and finally accepting a poorly paying appointment in Berlin in 1850. His final work, Die Opernprobe, was premiered at Frankfort on January 20, 1851 -- the composer lay ill in bed, unable to afford a doctor's care, and died the following day.
Albert Lortzing was a vastly influential figure in German popular culture and the most important composer of light opera in the German-speaking world before Johann Strauss II, and he ranks just behind Strauss and Franz Lehar in popularity. His music remains most popular, of course, in Germany and Austria, where it is still performed with some regularity. Recordings of the best of his works have been made in Germany by EMI and Deutsche Grammophon, and the most popular of them, Zar und Zimmermann and the far more serious and poetic Undine, are easily available in America. Recordings of his operas Der Waffenschmied and the beautiful Der Wildschutz are also available.
© Bruce Eder /TiVo