Written by Paul Cooke
Painting by Moritz von Schwind
Guides to the greatest classical music of all time will routinely praise some of Schubert’s symphonies, piano music, chamber music and songs. They never direct our attention to his operas, yet these take up more space in the complete edition of his works than any other form in which he wrote. Over a period of a decade and a half he completed 11 and began another seven, recognising, perhaps, that they were his best chance of achieving fame and fortune. Or, if not that, at least the freedom to compose, away from the drudgeries of being a schoolmaster.
Die Zwillingsbrüder (The Twin Brothers) was not Schubert’s first work for the stage, but it was his first to be produced, receiving its premiere at Vienna’s Kärntnertortheater on 14 June 1820. It was a one-act Singspiel, a form of music drama now regarded as a genre of opera and perhaps a waystation in the development of a recognisably ‘German’ opera. Singspiel featured spoken dialogue interspersed with music, was often comic in tone, and was regarded as a middle- to lower-class entertainment.
The libretto was written by Georg Ernst von Hofmann, who had also commissioned the work: he had in mind a vehicle for the baritone Johann Michael Vogl, who had met Schubert in 1817 and become a gifted interpreter of his Lieder. Die Zwillingsbrüder had limited success, although it did garner seven performances and a commission for another Singspiel. The weakness of the libretto, which features a love triangle involving identical twin brothers and a young girl, is sometimes seen as a factor, as is the disparity between the superficiality of the subject matter and the more refined nature of Schubert’s music. Wolfgang Mozart Jr thought it contained “some pretty things but is kept a little too serious”.
Two months later, Die Zauberharfe (The Magic Harp) premiered but was no more successful than its predecessor. Another six months later, at the same theatre and with no staged works allowed because it was Ash Wednesday, and emblematic of the true nature of Schubert’s talents, his song Erlkönig was performed: twice.