Ferenc Erkel (1810–1893) has been called the founder of the Hungarian national opera, however, one should remember that Erkel was given the opportunity to carry out such a historic turn within the institutional framework of the Hungarian National Theatre. This institution, along with the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, was the primary manifestation of the national ideals and cultural goals of the Hungarian Reform Age. With the exception of Bánk bán and Hunyadi László which enjoyed wide popularity in several Hungarian theatres, Erkel’s operas were never or only occasionally performed outside the walls of the National Theatre and its successor, the Budapest Opera House. Thus his operas need to be interpreted and analysed in the light of the cultural disposition that reigned around the theatre and the intellectual trends and changes in taste that influenced its directorial policies.
At the 1837 opening of the National Theatre (called the Hungarian Theatre in Pest until 1840) professional theatre production in Hungary looked back upon a past of about fifty years. The early performances by German touring companies were followed by regular seasons in German from 1787 onwards at the Buda Burgtheater, transformed for theatrical purposes from the church of the Carmelite monastery suppressed by Joseph II. Various kinds of plays with music and singing were cultivated from the outset, and from 1789 operas in the strict sense of the word were performed with remarkable frequency, although usually not in their original form. As generally established on German stages, opere buffe, including those by Mozart which made up the bulk of the repertory, were performed in Singspiel form, i.e. the recitatives were substituted by prose dialogues. Performances in German also took place regularly in the rapidly growing city of Pest. The idea of building a theatre designated to this purpose soon awakened. The new building was to replace the Rondella (or round bastion), a part of the abandoned city walls that functioned as the provisional theatre of Pest since the late 18th century. The Municipal Theatre opened in 1812 with incidental music to Kotzebues König Stephan and Die Ruinen von Athen, composed by Beethoven. With its capacity to house 3,200 spectators, it was more suitable for opera performances than for drama. In this theatre, the audiences of Pest-Buda could luxuriate in the main trends of contemporary fashion in international opera production with only a short delay.
At its beginning in the 1790s acting in Hungarian did not have the resources that would have enabled it to compete with the international opera repertory of the German companies. The Hungarian company acting in Buda from 1793 onwards engaged ten musicians altogether and this number did not increase considerably later. The immediate models of its musical repertory are to be sought in the Viennese Volksstück,a popular play with musical insertions which influenced contemporary Hungarian literature. The first local play was performed in the very first season of the Hungarian troupe; it was Philipp Hafner’s “merry tragedy” Evakathel und Prinz Schnudi,adapted into Hungarian as Pikkó herceg és Jutka Perzsi, staged with genuine music numbers composed by Joseph Chudy.1 In 1812 the young Gábor Rótkrepf (later Mátray) wrote songs to István Balog’s historical play Csernyi György, the melodies being partly of his own invention, and partly well-known popular tunes. The performances achieved great success on a provisional stage in Pest.
In the 1820s the centre of theatre playing in Hungarian shifted to Kolozsvár in Transylvania (now Cluj-Napoca, Romania). The first Hungarian stone theatre was erected there in 1821. It housed a permanent Hungarian theatrical company and focused on international opera, played in Hungarian. French opéra comique was much cultivated in the beginning, then operas with higher demands on performance were launched with Weber’s Der Freischütz, performed in 1825, and a series of Rossini’s works, later on. It was in the Kolozsvár theatre that music accompanied an opera from the beginning to the end for the first time, following the 1830s introduction of the new manner of recitativo accompagnato instead of spoken dialogues.2 The construction of the theatre was stimulating for the output of genuine Hungarian musical piecesas well. Béla futása [Béla’s Flight], set to music for the Kolozsvár stage by József Ruzitska in 1822, has proved extremely popular and long-lived. It was based on the Hungarian adaptation of Kotzebue’s play that was supposed to be performed at the opening of the German Theatre of Pest, had the censor not intervened. There followed Kemény Simon composed by both Ruzitska and György Arnold separately (1826) and Mátyás királynak választása [The Election of King Matthias] with the music of József Heinisch and György Arnold (1829) to dramas of the Hungarian playwright Károly Kisfaludy.
Ferenc Erkel began his musical career in this Transylvanian metropolis. He did not hold a position at the theatre and had to content himself with giving piano recitals and conducting an amateur orchestra. by his own account he received the main incentive to become an advocate of the Hungarian national opera for his whole life after seeing Béla’s Flight in Kolozsvár. Unfortunately, his music composed in that town got lost. From 1835 on Erkel acted as a conductor of the Hungarian National Stage in the Buda Burgtheater, the forerunner of the National Theatre. The theatre’s company was formed from members of the disbanded Kolozsvár troupe. Between December 1835 and November 1837 he was associate conductor of the German Municipal Theatre in Pest. Since the theatre was living through one of its best operatic eras, Erkel had the opportunity to get thoroughly acquainted with the sujets and roles in contemporary Italian and French opera and to observe the methods of running a modern theatre efficiently.3
Like all German theatres in Hungary (and in Austria for that matter), the Municipal Theatre in Pest had a mixed repertory of various musical and prose genres and non-theatrical spectacles. Therefore, it is understandable that the Hungarian Theatre in Pest had also been designed as a multifunctional theatrical institution from the beginning. However, this multi-functionality was severely restricted by the deficiencies of the staff. For historical reasons the ensemble had practically no educated opera singers at the outset, and in the first months only four out of the twenty male members of the stage company assumed parts that were exclusively singing roles. Therefore, actors appearing mainly in plays had to double even in through-composed operas. As for the actresses, the proportion of actors to singers was eleven to four.4 Naturally, specialisation within the singing genres was lacking until the modernisation of the opera repertory made it impossible to apply the light singing technique of musical pieces.5
In the eyes of the leading liberals of the Reform Age the poor state of opera at the Hungarian Theatre was not a bit worse than what it deserved. They deemed the Hungarian Theatre as an institution of national education, which had to stimulate the writing of genuine plays in the mother tongue, therefore, they destined it to be a house of spoken drama primarily. Consequently, in the four months after the opening of the Hungarian Theatre, only thirteen operatic performances and six concerts were staged, as opposed to the eighty-nine dramas in prose. At the German Municipal Theatre this proportion was 56 to 31 in favour of drama. Apart from the Italian and French comic operas borrowed from the repertory of the former Hungarian National Stage in Buda, only two through-composed operas and two opéra comiques were staged in the first months of the existence of the Hungarian Theatre.
The opening performance given on 22 August, 1837 unveiled the prevailing ideas concerning music. Only a chorus was inserted into the allegoric prologue (Árpád ébredése [Árpád’s Awakening]) written for the festive occasion by Mihály Vörösmarty, one of the greatest Hungarian poets and playwrights, then Schenk’s piece Belizár was performed with an overture composed by local conductor József Heinisch for this occasion. Between these two principal items of the programme Hungarian dances were inserted.6 As far as the music is concerned, the programme was typical of the pre-Erkel Hungarian stage; there was almost no theatrical performance without more or less music of some kind, but it was the very ubiquity of the music that confined it to a clearly supplementary and decorative role. Moreover, music was not recognised as a medium of dramatic expression. The inclusion of verbunkos dances in the programme indicated the demand for the representation of the Hungarian national element as a symbol of national emotions on stage.
A comparison of box office receipts from performances of pieces of various genres made the theatrical management realise in the very first months, that the institution could not survive if they did not give musical genres more attention, since opera and various musical forms collectively termed as parody attracted twice as large audiences as plays did.7 As a result, a fast decision was made to organise a semi-independent opera division. This decision, as a result of which opera gained a substantial foothold in the repertory and achieved increasing popularity, was of course not to the liking of the actors and of the literate public opinion. Opera got into the centre of violent polemics both inside and outside the theatre, a clash of interests and principles later termed as the “opera war”. Although some literate groups could hardly find aesthetic justification for the genre, the expansion of opera could not be halted. By engaging Ferenc Erkel and prima donna Rozália Schodel (1811–1854), who had given some occasional guest performances earlier, in January 1838, opera reached a higher state of quality in the Hungarian Theatre. Under Erkel’s direction educated opera singers were engaged and the orchestra was enlarged and reorganised. Thus in due course an efficient opera company was established. The new conductor acquired full authority over the matters the orchestra. He invited five musicians from Vienna, among them Georg Kaiser (who later took the Hungarian name György Császár), took the post of the concert master, and soon became the assistant conductor of the theatre. He was also an excellent composer. The size of the orchestra rose thereby to 348 and at the same time the chorus was increased to a number of 32. In the 1838–39 season Erkel made eight opera premières, among them as a serious feat of arms, a genuine Hungarian piece.9
Given the predominance of comic opera in the operatic repertory of the first period at the Hungarian Theatre, Rossini’s The Barber of Sevilla having been the first opera performed there at all, it is no wonder that the première of the first genuine Hungarian musical play in April, 1839 was also a comic opera. Csel [The Intrigue]) composed by Endre Bartay to István Jakab’s original libretto bears traces of Rossini’s and Donizetti’s influence and also makes use of the verbunkos.10 Although Bartay attempted to introduce the recitative he retained prose dialogues, too, which made the piece somewhat out of date even at the time of the first performance. Thus Csel cannot be designated as the first Hungarian opera in the sense the word conveyed around 1840. A full-fledged Hungarian opera could no longer grow out directly from the old-type comic sujets or the Singspiel-like genres mixing singing with spoken dialogue. This fact was clearly exemplified by Erkel’s first opera Bátori Mária which was premièred on 8, August 1840. With this première the Hungarian national opera of full artistic validity was born from a determined and sensitive adaptation of the fashionable typology of plotting and characterisation of a certain type of contemporary international music drama. Erkel had premièred Italian melodramas like Beatrice di Tenda and Lucrezia Borgia on the National Stage, that clearly mark the point where he had taken up the cultivation of the genre, shortly before. Similarly to his models, the heroine in his first opera is also put through a tragic ordeal, dies innocently and becomes an emblem of moral integrity. The appropriation of international models by Erkel did not contradict any of the current interpretations of the concept of “national art” coined at the time by some influential circles of national liberal thinkers.