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Carl Zeller

Carl Zeller is a good example of a "one-work" composer -- for if a musician is to be defined by a single composition, let it be one so lush and alluring as to endure across 100 years or more, past any changes in style and taste that take place, and that is the case with his operetta Der Vogelhändler. Carl Johann Adam Zeller was born in St. Peter in der Au, in Lower Austria, in 1842, the son of a village doctor. As a boy, he was endowed with a beautiful soprano voice that made music a natural choice of activity, and the fact that he seemed to possess a natural proficiency on several instruments led him to take lessons from the local church organist. By age 11, he was singing in the boys' choir of the Vienna court chapel, but Zeller and his family had far more practical goals in mind for his future -- he entered Vienna University as a law student taking lessons in harmony and counterpoint in his spare time with Simon Sechter, and it was as a lawyer that he presented himself to the world upon graduation in 1869. He worked as a solicitor and in 1873 he joined the Ministry of Education and Culture. The creative impulse, especially in music, continued to beckon, however, and Zeller wrote plays, songs, and choral works in his spare time. In 1876 Zeller finished a comic opera entitled Jaconde, set in Cromwell-era Scotland, and followed this up with the operettas Carbonari (1880) and Vagabunde (1886). None of these made much impact, but that all changed in 1891 with the premiere of Der Vogelhändler (The Birdseller), which provided Viennese operetta with a fresh, new successful work at a point when Johann Strauss II and most of his contemporaries had ceased replenishing the repertory with the same regularity that they had in the previous two decades. In many ways, along with the Strauss pastiche Wiener Blut, Der Vogelhändler, with its richly inventive melodies and inspired use of pieces for solo and chorus, represented the final great flowering of nineteenth century operetta. Zeller enjoyed one more major success with Der Obersteiger (1894) which, alas, has not endured as a complete operetta (though its Sei nicht bös, for tenor solo, continues to be performed). Sadly, Zeller's final years were blighted by serious health problems and his forced retirement from civil service, preceding his death at the age of 56.
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