Die Zwillingsbrüder, D. 647 (1818-19)
Students of Schubert have never ceased to marvel at the vast productivity of this darling of the muses, who managed to turn out, in the thirtyone years of his brief life, more pages of superb music than most composers can aspire to in a biblical lifetime. Yet few realize that the largest single body of his work was devoted to not the 650 songs, not the ten symphonies or the fifteen string quartets, not even the countless piano duets, but to opera. Like most composers of his age, Schubert realized that the sure path to fame and recognition passed over the opera stage, and he tried his hand at the intractable genre from his earliest years. If Des Teufels Lustschloss (1813) was essentially an apprentice work by the sixteenyearold composer that still bears the corrections of his teacher Antonio Salieri in the surviving manuscript, Die Zwillingsbrüder (1820) was a commissioned work that gave Schubert his first hearing on the Viennese stage.
Die Zwillingsbrüder was commissioned from the twenty-one-year-old composer in 1818 by the Kärntnertor Theater in Vienna, and more specifically by the author of the libretto, Georg Ernst von Hofmann, who served as house poet, set designer, and stage manager at the rival Theater an der Wien. The motivating force behind the commission was the theater's highly respected baritone Johann Michael Vogl, who had met and befriended Schubert in 1817 and was to become one of the supreme early interpreters of his lieder. Vogl undoubtedly expected to receive a flattering baritone role as a vehicle for his own performances. In the event, as the title Die Zwillingsbrüder ("The Twin Brothers") implies, he received two at once.
Hofmann based his libretto on a farce entitled Les deux Valentins by the little-known French playwright Marc-Antoine-Madeleine Désangiers. The plot turns on a case of mistaken identity that is at least as old as Plautus's The Twin Menaechmi. The hot-tempered soldier Franz Spiess (bass) returns to his native village as a war invalid with a patch over a missing eye. Eighteen years earlier the village elder (bass) had promised him his infant daughter in marriage; Spiess now arrives to claim the hand of the eighteen-year-old girl, Lieschen (soprano). She, however, is in love with Anton (tenor) and views the coming event with trepidation. Enter Franz's twin brother Friedrich, who is identical to him in every respect except that he wears his patch over the other eye and withdraws his claims on Lieschen. The happy ending is not long in the offing: after a minor complications and confusions the two brothers are reconciled (as the two roles are by the same singer, Friedrich's voice has to be spoken by a deus ex machina) and Lieschen is allowed to marry her beloved Anton.
Schubert must have started work on the score almost as soon as he received the commission, for the overture, the last part to be composed, is dated January 19, 1819. Thereupon the work lay unperformed for a year and a half, much to the composer's worry and chagrin. Although later commentators have claimed that the theater's repertoire was filled with Rossini, forcing German singspiel to the sidelines, the true reasons for the delay are more likely to be found in Schubert's own explanation: "In spite of Vogl, it is difficult to outwit such canaille as Weigl, Treitschke, and their lot. That is why instead of my operetta that give garbage enough to make one's hair stand on end." Indeed, a glance at the 1819-20 playbills of the Kärntnertor Theater reveals a long list of works by such minor masters as Gyrowetz, Weigl, and Ignaz von Seyfried. Schubert, despite Vogl's energetic advocacy, simply had to wait his turn.
That turn came on June 14, 1820, when the work finally received its première at the Kärntnertor Theater. Schubert's friends turned out in full force to applaud the young composer, who was dressed too shabbily to accept the applause himself and remained hidden in his box. The reviews were appreciative but ambivalent: the leading music journal of the day, the Leipzig Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung (June 17, 1820), was disturbed by a certain tinge of melancholy, claiming that Die Zwillingsbrüder "has much originality and many interesting passages [...] but it is a blot on the work that the sentiments of simple country folk are interpreted much too seriously, not to say heavy-handedly." Surprisingly, this view is seconded by a remarkable independent source: the travel diaries of Wolfgang Mozart Jr., who found that the work "contains some pretty things but is kept a little too serious." Today, given the bland uniformity of Vienna's singspiel fare in the 1820s, it is precisely the work's "gloom" that attracts our interest. Equally interesting are the echoes of Rossini to be heard in the sprightly overture and the ensemble numbers, especially the quintet (no. 5) and the terzetto (no. 8). Indeed the overture, which brooks comparison with the well-known Overtures in the Italian Style (D. 590-591), has been able over the years to hold its own and has recently been issued in a study score (Adliswil, 2000).
Die Zwillingsbrüder remained on the boards for a total of seven performances, which, by the standards of the day, must be accounted a success. This, at any rate, was the opinion of the Kärntnertor Theater itself, which promptly commissioned another singspiel from the young composer: Die Zauberharfe, which premièred a mere two months later and impressed critics only with its nondescript blandness. Die Zwillingsbrüder, however, has managed to keep a slender toehold in the repertoire. It was published in vocal score by Peters in Leipzig (1872) and in full score as part of the complete edition (1889); it was mounted in Vienna in a heavily revised pastiche by J. N. Fuchs (1882) and performed in its original form in Strasbourg (1897) and the Vienna Kammeroper (1978). A fine recording by Wolfgang Sawallisch, with the main roles taken by singers of the stature of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Nicolai Gedda, Helen Donath, and Kurt Moll, appeared in 1975.
Bradford Robinson, 2005
Performance material: Breitkopf und Härtel, Wiesbaden