Ill-Fated Opera

By Stefan Höppner

Few people today are familiar with Goethe’s libretto “Claudine of Villa Bella” – although parts of it were put to music by Beethoven, Brahms and Hugo Wolf. The 18-year-old Franz Schubert even composed a full-length opera which has unfortunately been lost. The Hessian composer Peter Müller didn’t fare much better; he sent his completed “Claudine” to Weimar in 1825 and waited in vain for two years before receiving a response.


A small simple story: Goethe's libretto "Claudine von Villa Bella", here the front page of an edition from 1780. © Archive Theatre, Movie and Media Studies at Vienna University

While examining Goethe’s private books and his borrowed volumes from the Ducal Library for the MWW project “Goethe’s Libraries in Weimar”, we regularly encounter minor incidents which are worth retelling, but haven’t found any resonance in the annals of literary history. This is where we report about rare manuscripts, underrated writers and lesser-known stories from Goethe’s circle. 

Part II of the blog series “Weimar’s Hidden Treasures” 

The Hessian composer Peter Müller has all but faded into obscurity. Born in 1791, the year Mozart died, he composed his first songs while studying Theology and Pedagogy in Heidelberg. After completing his studies in Giessen, Müller began his career in his home town. Starting in 1817, he worked as a teacher and church musician at the Pedagogical Seminar of the Hesse-Darmstadt grand duchy, a position he held for more than 20 years until 1839 when he became the pastor in the nearby village of Staden. In addition to his pastoral duties, he continued making music and composed popular and church songs, some of which can still be found in Hessian Protestant hymnals today. He was also fascinated by larger formats and secular subjects. During his time in Friedberg, he composed the opera “Claudine of Villa Bella”, based on a libretto by Goethe.

Today Goethe’s text is almost as unknown as the composer. He wrote it as a side project before moving to Weimar from Frankfurt. In 1776, the libretto was published as a small book by the Berlin-based publisher Mylius – but received a tepid response. Dissatisfied with this version, Goethe reworked the text during his Italian journey. Johann Friedrich Reichardt composed music for the libretto; Beethoven, Brahms and Hugo Wolf did the same with individual songs. The 18-year-old Franz Schubert even set the entire “Claudine of Villa Bella” to music, but unfortunately all of his work has been lost.

Rescuing adventurers and vagabonds

The libretto tells a simple, short story. Claudine, the daughter of the Sicilian nobleman Alonzo, wants to marry her suitor Don Pedro. Meanwhile, her cousin Lucinde is walking through the woods when she meets the travelling adventurer Rugantino, who immediately falls in love with her and wants to take her with him, along with his friends, a group of vagabonds. After various mishaps and escapades, which culminate in Rugantino taking the girl hostage for a short time, he finally reveals he is Pedro’s long-lost brother Carlos. Claudine goes off in search of Lucinde, who had apparently run away disguised as a man. Unfortunately Claudine is almost kidnapped by the scheming Basco, the new leader of the robbers. Pedro and Carlos, together with Lucinde (now safe and sound), succeed in rescuing Claudine from his clutches. Alonzo returns with Claudine to his castle.

One might assume that Claudine is the heroine of the story, but the secret hero is rather the maverick Rugantino. In the first version, set in Spain, his character bears far more extreme traits: as the embodiment of Sturm and Drang, “Crugantino” is locked up in the dungeon and even refuses a reprieve, for he “cannot bear your civil society”. But at the last moment, the two brothers reconcile. As mentioned above, this first version wasn’t particularly well-received, but it did establish the robber theme in theatre in the 1770s, with which Schiller achieved his first triumph.

Blank verse instead of prose

When Goethe reworked the libretto in 1787/88 in Rome, he not only set the dialogue in verse, he also softened the characters, in particular, Rugantino. He used blank verse for the dialogues which had been originally written in prose. Apparently he hoped this more stylised form would resemble the Italian opera buffa more closely. It was this version which appealed so strongly to 19th-century composers – though this was probably due just as much to Goethe’s standing as it was to the text which, after all, had been merely a side project.

Peter Müller sent his completed “Claudine” to Weimar in July 1825 – not to Goethe, but to Grand Duke Carl August. Unfortunately, the Duke showed little interest in Müller’s submission; he didn’t bother replying, even after the composer inquired whether he should send another piece instead. It seems it didn’t occur to Müller to establish contact with Goethe directly. The score ended up in the collection of the Grand Ducal library, where it would have likely stayed indefinitely. After waiting two years, Müller finally asked to have his score returned on 29 July 1827. This time he received a quick response – from the author of the libretto. Goethe borrowed the score from the library on 7 August and sent it back to Müller. There is no record of any accompanying letter. And to this day, Müller’s “Claudine of Villa Bella” has never been staged.

From the robber milieu to Pompeii

It would be a long time before one of Müller’s operas was produced – his second work “The Last Days of Pompeii”. Based on the popular book of the same name, his eldest son Adolf wrote the libretto which the theologian put to music “in three acts and postlude” as its title relates. The monumental novel by the acclaimed British author Edward Bulwer-Lytton, first published in 1834, portrays the fate of a group of city dwellers just days before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Several of the protagonists are Christians or convert to the new religion, which may have contributed to the story’s appeal.

Countless adaptations of the story have been made since, including six silent films, as well as an opera by the Italian composer Errico Petrella. Peter Müller’s “Last Days of Pompeii” preceded Petrella’s by five years – Müller’s piece was performed at Christmas 1853. The opera was enthusiastically received at the world premiere, which was staged at the respected Darmstadt Hoftheater. In 1855 the Darmstadt-based Leske Verlag published a printed version of the libretto. And with that ends the story of Müller’s success as an opera composer, for it seems he produced no further opera works.

“Claudine of Villa Bella” was destined to remain an ill-fated work in Müller’s oeuvre. The score was rediscovered in his estate after his passing. When Müller died at age 86 in 1877, his obituary in the “Darmstädter Zeitung” asked: “Following the death of this modest man, will his most precious treasures, the two operas, finally be taken out of drawer and performed?” This wish never came true.

PD Dr. Stefan Höppner is head of the MWW research project “Writers’ Libraries” based in Weimar.