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Overture to Rosamunde, D. 644

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Franz Schubert
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Lang Lang, piano Dec. 1 - 3, 2005
© Richard Freed
Overture to Rosamunde, Op. 26 (D. 644)

The overture attached to Schubert's music for Helmina von Chézy's play Rosamunde was originally composed as part of an earlier set of incidental music for Georg Ernst von Hofmann's play Die Zauberharfe ("The Magic Harp"), and was first heard in that context on August 19, 1820, more than three years before Rosamunde was introduced on the same stage. The National Symphony Orchestra's first performance of the piece was conducted by Hans Kindler on February 19, 1933; Itzhak Perlman conducted the most recent ones, on October 26, 27 and 28, 2000.

The Overture is scored for flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons in pairs, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, and strings. Duration, 10 minutes.

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Helmina von Chézy (née Wilhelmina Christiana Klencke, 1783-1856) was an ambitious but not very gifted writer whose name is remembered because of her excellent taste in music and her persuasiveness with two of the great composers of her time. She wrote the libretto for Carl Maria von Weber's opera Euryanthe , and it was while preparing for the premiere of that work in Vienna in October 1823, that she got hold of Schubert and persuaded him to compose incidental music for her play Rosamunde, Fürstin von Zypern ("Rosamunde, Princess of Cyprus"), which opened two months later (December 20). Weber's opera actually enjoyed a successful premiere, though Chézy's unfortunate text kept it from circulating much after that. Rosamunde , however, was hopeless from the outset, and disappeared after only two performances; Schubert's contribution was the only part of that enterprise to survive, and it continues to be performed and enjoyed on its own. Posterity, then, may be generous to Helmina von Chézy for the music she brought into being, if not for her own creative efforts. It may be noted that about a month before his death Schubert set one of her poems in one of his last and most remarkable songs, Der Hirt auf dem Felsen ("The Shepherd on the Rock"), an extended piece with clarinet obbligato.

Curiously, the best-known part of the Rosamunde music, the overture that opens the present concerts, was not performed with the play. Under the pressure of his two-week deadline to compose the incidental music (three choruses, three entr'actes, a song, two pieces of ballet music), Schubert did not try to write a new overture, but used the one he had composed the previous year for his opera Alfonso und Estrella . Since that opera had not been performed (it did not reach the stage until 1854), the overture was new to the public in 1823, but when the Rosamunde was published (as late as 1891) as Op. 26, it was not with the Alfonso und Estrella Overture, which had actually introduced the play in the theater, but with a still earlier one which, as noted above, Schubert had composed in 1820 for a different play by a different writer, called The Magic Harp -said to have been even more of a mess than Rosamunde , and even more quickly forgotten. Portions of this overture, in fact, had appeared in a still earlier work, one of the two Overtures in the Italian Style Schubert composed in 1817 (the one in D major, D. 590, which cites a tune from Rossini's opera Tancredi ) .

Whatever its origins and by any name, this is one of Schubert's finest orchestral pieces, filled with ingratiating tunes and demonstrating his characteristic warmheartedness and good humor in a masterly utilization of the orchestra's resources which he did not surpass even in his glorious final symphony.