The European Musical Context of the Operas of Slavko Osterc

Na mednarodnem muzikološkem simpoziju se je med tujimi referenti ponovno izkazal Anglež Niall O’Loughlin s svojim referatom, v katerem je analiziral širši evropski glasbeni kontekst oper slovenskega skladatelja Slavka Osterca. O tem sem že pisal v svojem prispevku v slovenščini. Ker pa je veliko bralcev v tujini, ki berejo raje izvirne tekste v angleščini, dodajam še tekst v izvirniku, saj gre za poizkus tujega muzikologa in glasbenega zgodovinarja, da promovira slovenskega skladatelja in glasbo v mednarodnem okolju.

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Slavko Osterc

During the first thirty years of the 20th century, there was considerable development of opera all over Europe. It was natural that people thought that after the deaths of Wagner and Verdi there was no more scope for grand or romantic opera. Some composers did attempt to carry on the tradition, notably Richard Strauss in, for example, Der Rosenkavalier. In many cases there was also a reaction against the whole of the romantic movement which took a number of forms, but two new lines of activity became apparent: the use of subjects deriving from the ancient world especially Greece became more frequent, as did works with exotic, psychological and mysterious dimensions.


Richard Gerstl – Arnold Schönberg

In the pre-First World War years the operas of Zemlinsky, Schreker, Richard Strauss, Debussy, Arnold Schönberg and Bartók were very significant in this direction. During the First World War there were new works by Schreker and Korngold that confirmed this trend. After the war operas and other dramatic works by Paul Hindemith, Ernst Křenek, Kurt Weill, Ernst Toch, Alban Berg, Darius Milhaud, Janáček, Stravinsky and other composers brought a further line of development, particularly in two respects: the reduction in size and scale of operas and the use of pastiche and parody.


Ernst Křenek – Jonny spielt auf

Financial pressures after the First World War meant that expenditure was often, but not always, on a reduced scale with fewer singers, smaller orchestras or ensembles and shorter duration, with one-act works being very common. Even three-act operas sometimes lasted less than an hour. How would all of this affect the development of the operas of Slavko Osterc?

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Niall O’Loughlin, photo by Marijan Zlobec

Osterc composed all his operas between 1921 and 1930. We can mention briefly three works from the early 1920s before his studies in Prague, a romantic opera on a traditional Slovene legend, Krst pri Savici (‘Baptism at the Savica’) in 1921, Kralj Edip (‘King Oedipus’) composed 1922-25, but now lost, and in 1923 the one-act opera Osveta (‘Revenge’), based on Die Sühne by Theodor Körner. In Prague it is certain that Osterc encountered many different operas and plays in a very lively cultural environment, undoubtedly stimulating his imagination in numerous ways.

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Alois Haba

After his return from studies with Alois Hába and others in Prague, his mature contribution to the genre consists of five operas composed in the years 1927 to 1930, broadly speaking in three categories: the extended one-act opera, the full-length opera and the minute-opera. In the first category is Iz komične opere of 1928; in the second: Krog s kredo of 1928-29; and in the third are three one-act very short (10-15 minutes) operas: Saloma, Medea and Dandin v vicah (all of 1930). We shall briefly examine each in turn, first on their own accounts and secondly, noting possible influences from other composers working within Europe.


Theodor Körner

Iz komične opere of 1928

Osterc’s Iz komične opere (‘From the Comic Opera’) of 1928 is a one-act opera (which he called a ‘sketch’) taking its topic from a novel by the French poet Louis-Henri Murger (1822-1861) about the Bohemian life in Paris. It was first performed at the Ljubljana Opera House on 9 May 1928. Murger’s most famous work is called Scènes de la vie bohème, dating from the years 1847-49 and published in 1851. This source was used by Puccini and Leoncavallo, whose operas, both called La Bohème of 1896 and 1897 respectively, were based on Scènes de la vie bohème. Osterc’s plot does not involve the characters made famous in Puccini’s setting, notably Rodolfo and Mimi, but rather a Brazilian Creole named Dubreuil, a forgetful Charval and the beautiful Juliette, Dubreuil’s niece.


Louis-Henri Murger

Osterc laid out the opera with a short introduction and seven loosely connected scenes, and a rather inconsequential plot. Dragotin Cvetko gave some musical details: ‘it was orchestrated in chamber music fashion, for four first and four second violins, two violas, cellos and double basses. The instrumentation is transparent. In the musical sections, normal singing alternates with melodrama and recitation. There are no duets, terzettos or ensembles; at the end everyone laughs in a short epilogue.’


Emil Orlik – Klabund

The idiom of the work is conveyed in an early review by Stanko Vurnik of the first performance. He noted with musical examples the following:

1. bitonality (G major and A flat major simultaneously)

2. parallel seconds and fourths

3. note-clusters built up one note at a time

4. unusual canons, often with prominent chromaticisms

5. flexible arioso

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Béla Bartók

Although the operas of Puccini and Leoncavallo were both in four acts, Osterc used a one-act format. In the first three decades of the 20th century, the one-act opera became very common, partly because composers were reacting against the idea of a romantic opera of long duration, particularly those of Richard Wagner. Accordingly Osterc wanted to produce a satirical anti-romantic work which by implication mocked the idea of an extended plot. After the First World War there was also the problem of funding expensive productions for which there was little money, a problem that was alleviated by reducing the number of acts and the total length.


Leoš Janaček

The early one-act operas of Richard Strauss, Salome of 1905 and Elektra of 1909 set a precedent, but in practice this was not true because they were extended romantic works, being performed without a break and each lasting just over one hour and 45 minutes. These operas were followed all over Europe in the next twenty years by numerous single-act operas of varying lengths, but mostly of approximately one-hour’s duration.


Arnold Schönberg

One can note in this connection such works as Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle of 1911, Schoenberg’s Erwartung of 1909 and Die glückliche Hand of 1913, Korngold’s Der Ring von Polykrates of 1914 and Violanta of 1916. The operas by Bartók and Korngold were about an hour in length, although Schoenberg’s fiercely expressionistic essays were only half that length or less. Busoni’s Arlecchino of 1916, his Turandot of 1916 and Puccini’s Trittico of 1918 (Il tabarro, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi) fit the mould very well, all lasting roughly an hour each. The three operas by Puccini were actually performed in Ljubljana in 1923. Yet all these operas, with the exception of Busoni’s Arlecchino, were still serious works of some power. Even the one-act operas of Paul Hindemith which dated from the early 1920s were equally tragic and somewhat forbidding.

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Alban Berg

The trend of composers not writing anything even vaguely comic was continued in three-act operas with Alban Berg’s Wozzeck of 1922 and Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová of 1921 and The Makropulos Case of 1925. The latter’s The Cunning Little Vixen of 1923 provides a little light relief even though its underlying message of the life of animals acts as a serious comment on human frailty.


Kurt Weill

The character of Osterc’s opera is quite different from all the serious works, taking the spirit of two of the operas of Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), Arlecchino and Turandot. Busoni took a very strong anti-romantic view of opera and was very sympathetic to the ideas of the commedia dell’arte, notably the use of masks and puppet-like characters. In addition, in Arlecchino, there is a strong parodistic element with quotations from Mozart’s Don Giovanni and a march that sounds very similar to the one that appears in the first act of Beethoven’s Fidelio. The appearance in the later 1920s of Křenek’s Jonny spielt auf and works by Kurt Weill, Ernst Toch and Darius Milhaud, set a new trend of critical and satirical drama and it was this that fundamentally influenced Osterc. It is clear from Osterc’s writings on opera that were published in the late 1920s that he was well acquainted with these developments. For example, the jazz-like idiom of Křenek’s opera, which was performed in Ljubljana in 1928, was as suitable for the subject of Iz komične opere as was the popular style of works like Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny-Songspiel of 1927 and Die Dreigroschenoper of 1928. The one-act opera Von Heute auf Morgen by Arnold Schönberg also of 1928 may have had some bearing on the tone of Osterc’s opera, even if its twelve-note technique was not used. The example of the miniature operas of Toch, Hindemith and Milhaud was only later followed by Osterc.


Ernst Toch

The full-length five-act opera: Krog s kredo of 1929-30

Moving on to consider Osterc’s major opera of this period, Krog s kredo (‘The Chalk Circle’), composed in the years 1928-29, one can imagine that the composer was taking a somewhat cynical view of the subject and using all his musical resources to reinforce this idea in a full-length opera of imposing character. It showed a remarkable assurance in handling the operatic medium, but, like the instrumental works of the same period, also gave a clear indication of the techniques of some of the works to follow in the next decade. The Chalk Circle play was originally Chinese, a story of rampant corruption, but also involving a magic method of deciding the truth between two disputants, something akin to the Judgement of Solomon as related in the Bible. In the early 1920s, the German poet and dramatist Klabund (the nom de plume of Alfred Henschke) rewrote a French translation of the play as Der Kreidekreis with new characters and additional dramatic features, and published it in Berlin in 1925. Klabund’s play soon became very popular all over Central Europe, with two operatic settings appearing in quick succession, the first by Osterc in a Slovene translation and the second by Alexander Zemlinsky completed in 1931 (Der Kreidekreis).


Alexander Zemlinsky

Antony Beaumont reports that Klabund’s play, Der Kreidekreis, was performed in Prague some thirty times in 1925, surely an opportunity for both Osterc, who had recently arrived in Prague, and Zemlinsky, who was resident there at the same time, to become acquainted with the play before embarking on their musical realisations. The translation of Klabund’s text into Slovene was undertaken by Oton Župančič, with the operatic libretto written by Milan Skrbinšek.


Stanko Vurnik in 1920

Criticism of the work does seem to stem from the original review by Stanko Vurnik who thought that the work was too romantic. Cvetko suggested that pressure may have been put on Osterc by the Ljubljana opera to make it an extended romantic work. Cvetko’s comments involve a certain amount of speculation, because at the time of writing, the score had disappeared. The reappearance of the score in the late 1980s made possible the first performance (in Maribor) in 1995.


Franz Schreker

Krog s kredo is an opera that draws in many threads from the European operatic environment. It has elements of mystery, possibly inspired by Pelléas et Mélisande by Debussy, Ariane et Barbe-Bleue by Paul Dukas and Bluebeard’s Castle by Bartók.


Paul Dukas

Three operas of Korngold may also have had some influence here: Korngold’s Die tote Stadt of 1910, Der Ring von Polykrates of 1914 and Violanta of 1916 all work in a historical context with elements of mystery and magic, as does Franz Schreker’s Der ferne Klang of 1910. One can also take into account the influence of Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire of 1925, with its hallucinatory images. We also know of Osterc’s knowledge of the fantasy and symbolism of Kogoj’s Črne maske because of his enthusiastic review of the opera after its first performance in 1929.

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Erich Wolfgang Korngold

One important aspect of the style that he used in Krog s kredo is the appearance of oriental-sounding pentatonic or near-pentatonic melodies and the use of Chinese-sounding instruments, especially the flute and gong. The use of Chinese melodies had in fact already been used by Busoni and Puccini in their operatic versions of the Turandot story. In 1905 Busoni had composed incidental music for the Chinese fable Turandot, but later on, probably in 1913, he used some of this music to create an opera, which was completed in 1917, to be a suitable companion piece for his own hour-long Arlecchino. Busoni extracted the melodies for his Turandot from the Geschichte der Musik by August Wilhelm Ambros, while Puccini’s version of Turandot (incomplete at his death in 1924) used certain Chinese melodies to create a suitable atmosphere. There does not appear to have been a performance in Ljubljana of Puccini’s Turandot, but it may well have been performed in Prague while Osterc was there.


Ferruccio Busoni

It is carefully laid out, however, with arias, arioso and what is in effect recitative, even if it is not composed as a ‘number’ opera. The composer made each act continuous by composing skilful transitions and bridges between the different styles. The following musical example shows the Chinese effect (flute, violin and gong), the flexible recitative of the character Tong and the strophic song of the girl in the cage.

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Niall O’Loughlin and Wolfgang Marx from Dublin in Maribor, photo by Marijan Zlobec

Three ‘minute’ operas: Saloma, Medea, Dandin v vicah

Osterc’s three miniature operas which date from 1929-30 caused great interest. With a duration of 10-15 minutes each they have to make their points without delay and with no romantic overtones. Cvetko summed up the purpose of the minute-opera very concisely: ‘the minute opera is not about the characterization of the performers’ but more ‘the quickest possible course of events’. The musical style naturally uses a fairly simple idiom, with short melodies or melodic fragments and precise word-setting with very few repeated phrases. Osterc notes in his article on the minute-opera that the idea arose in 1927, in the works of Hindemith, Toch and Milhaud, of which he is clearly familiar. He stressed that in the minute opera the dramatic nature of the opera should be limited and the pathos removed.

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Niall O’Loughlin and Helmut Loos from Leipzig in Ljubljana. photo by Marijan Zlobec

The parody opera Saloma (‘Salome’) of 1929-30 was the first, followed by Medea and Dandin v vicah (‘Dandin in Purgatory’), both of 1930. Dandin v vicah is described as ‘operna groteska’, while Saloma is called ‘minutna opera-parodija’. As was frequently the case at the time, some topics, those for Saloma and Medea, were taken from classical antiquity, while Dandin was derived from Molière. Medea was first performed on 27 February 1928 and Dandin v vicah on 27 February 1932, both at the Ljubljana Opera House. There is no indication of a performance of Saloma in the composer’s lifetime.

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Darius Milhaud

Saloma in fact lasts a mere 11 minutes, using many of the features of the instrumental music to dramatic effect. Particularly notable is the wry and sardonic tone of the instrumental writing which supports the parodistic character of the story. Osterc is clearly mocking Strauss’s Salome, the libretto for which was a German translation of Oscar Wilde’s powerful original French-text play.


Aubrey Beardsley – Salome

In this opera, the dramatic events were carefully planned: from the refusal of Jokanaan to Salome’s advances all the way to the extended and impressive Dance of the Seven Veils and to Salome’s demand for the head of Jokanaan. Unlike in the story of Salome as related by Oscar Wilde and Richard Strauss, Osterc’s Herod is bored with Salome’s dancing and calls for her to stop.



Strauss’s famous Dance of the Seven Veils is replaced, almost in cabaret fashion, by a rather tired waltz. The original climax is replaced by a very negative anti-climax.


Richard Strauss in 1904

Medea was based on the gruesome play by the ancient Greek playwright, Euripides. In this story Medea punishes her husband, Jason, for his infidelity and desertion by killing her two children, his intended new bride and her father King Creon. In a brief span of time Osterc sets out the essence of the plot and the trickery by which it was achieved. By compressing the story so drastically it makes the events more horrendous.

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Egon Schiele – Arnold Schönberg, 1917

The third of Osterc’s minute operas, Dandin v vicah (‘Dandin in Purgatory’), is a fantasy opera, based on the play by Molière called Georges Dandin ou le Mari confondu (‘Georges Dandin or the Confounded Husband’) in which, by marrying a woman of higher station than himself, a man causes problems for himself. Some of the character of the plot of Schönberg’s Von Heute auf Morgen of 1928 was carried over into Dandin’s situation, but we have no evidence that Osterc was aware of the work.

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Darko Brlek and Niall O’Loughlin, photo by Marijan Zlobec

The idea of the ‘minute opera’ was one of a number of fashions in the 1920s. While discussing the whole French musical scene in the 1920s, James Harding relates a discussion between Hindemith and Milhaud. Because Milhaud had been very active and successful in the composition of a number of operas, he was thought to be a suitable person to invite to write a new opera. Hindemith’s instructions were something like: ‘Write an opera and make it as short as possible.’ Harding continues: ‘The reaction against Wagner and his long, excessively long epics was in full swing’. ‘Hindemith’s own Hin und Zurück took precisely fourteen minutes to perform. Milhaud … broke all records with an opera called L’Enlèvement d’Europe (‘The Abduction of Europa’). It was nine minutes long.’ Encouraged by his publisher he added two more operas derived from Greek myths, a favourite source for opera plots during this period. These were L’abandon d’Ariane (‘The Abandonment of Ariadne’) and La Délivrance de Thésée (‘The Deliverance of Theseus’) lasting eleven and eight minutes respectively, making a grand total for the three operas of 27 minutes.


Paul Hindemith with viola

Compared to Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, which is not a long opera at just under two hours, L’abandon d’Ariane seems positively tiny. Another short opera that appears to have interested Osterc was that by Ernst Toch, the 1927 work Die Prinzessin auf der Erbse (‘The Princess on the Pea’), although this lasts about 35 minutes and is based on a rather incredible story by Hans Christian Andersen.

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Niall O’Loughlin and Matjaž Barbo during a coffee break, photo by Marijan Zlobec


First it is clear that Osterc was very much influenced by operatic activities all over Europe, partly from his experiences in Prague and partly from his encounters with works performed in the Ljubljana Opera House. He was well aware of new trends as seen in his reporting on performances in Ljubljana in which he noted these features in his writings. Secondly, he also followed some of the modern ideas found in many of these works in the operas that he himself composed.


Marij Kogoj

We can note the remote influence of Puccini in Iz komične opere, but more the stylistic hints that he derived from Stravinsky, Kurt Weill and Ernst Křenek. It was first performed in Ljubljana soon after its composition. With Krog s kredo he reverted to the full-scale opera that was still being composed in Europe.


Arthur Honegger

It is a work which shows some stylistic influence of composers such Hindemith and Honegger, but it draws into its orbit a great many of the features of his own instrumental works of this period. These instrumental works did receive performances in Osterc’s lifetime, but the opera did not, presumably because of the demands of mounting such an elaborate work in the difficult financial times of the 1930s.

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Niall O’Loughlin and composer Igor Štuhec, photo by Marijan Zlobec

In any case it is well paced dramatically with skilful blending of the recitative, strophic and instrumental styles. This was not the case with the minute operas, which show the obvious influence of Darius Milhaud in their brevity and concise dramaturgy, and in two of them Milhaud’s preference for well-known plots from the ancient world. But they also show some direct and indirect influence of Paul Hindemith. Two of Osterc’s minute operas (Medea and Dandin v vicah) were performed in Ljubljana in 1928 and 1932 respectively, helping to establish his reputation, but Saloma was not performed in the composer’s lifetime.


Igor Stravinsky

What then is the importance of Osterc’s operatic compositions? It is clear that they were not copies of the standard European examples, but ones which extended the ideas with some imagination, drawing ideas together in a different mix. Iz komične opere, for example, was not a pale imitation of operas by Puccini or Leoncavallo, but an opera with a totally different plot and perspective and a completely anti-romantic style, taking its cue from works by Křenek, Stravinsky, Weill and Milhaud.


Ernst Křenek

As Krog s kredo predated Zemlinsky’s Der Kreidekreis there can be no question of copying; it is clear that they were composed independently. In any case the two works differ in many basic respects. Osterc made very distinct ways of treating Klabund’s text and paced the opera accordingly. With the minute operas Osterc’s style did not imitate that of Milhaud. Rather he took some stylistic features from Weill, Hindemith and Ernst Křenek. Overall then, in all these works Osterc made distinctive contributions to the development of opera in Slovenia.

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