Franz Schubert, Overture to Claudine von Villa Bella, D. 239

by Christopher H. Gibbs

Written for the concert Opus Posthumous, performed on March 26, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Born January 31, 1797, in Vienna
Died November 19, 1828, in Vienna
Composed from July 26, 1815 to September 1815
Premiered on April 26, 1913 at the Gemeindehaus Wieden in Vienna
Performance Time: Approximately 8 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 French horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, 22 violins, 8 violas, 8 cellos, and 6 double basses

The teenage Schubert tried his hand at all genres current at the time, from small-scale domestic music to Masses, symphonies, and operas. Most of these early pieces were meant to be played at home, at his school, or in community settings—they were projects through which he hoped to hone his craft (among his teachers was the formidable Antonio Salieri) and were not intended to generate public fame. He seems rarely to have looked back at these works as his ambitions became ever grander.

Although his Lieder, keyboard and chamber music, and symphonies eventually won a central place in the repertoire, Schubert’s name is rarely associated with dramatic music even though he wrote it over the entire course of his brief career. He composed his first operas and Singspiels (operas with spoken German dialogue) in his teens, and in 1820 Die Zwillingsbruder (The Twin Brothers) had a run of performances at a prestigious theater in Vienna. His incidental music for Rosamunde proved more popular than the dreary play it accompanied at its 1823 premiere in Vienna. In addition to short works and various unrealized projects, he completed two major operas: Alfonso und Estrella (1821–22) and Fierabras (1823).

Schubert composed Claudine von Villa Bella, a three-act Singspiel, in the summer of 1815, the most prolific period of his short life. He was immersed, at the time, in the poetry of Goethe, which inspired his first masterpieces: Gretchen am Spinnrade (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel) the previous October and Erlkönig later that year. Like most of his early large works, Claudine was never presented in public during his lifetime, although there were plans for performances of the overture in 1818. Schubert’s older brother Ferdinand informed him that the piece “comes in for much criticism . . . The wind parts are said to be so difficult as to be unplayable, particularly those for the oboes and bassoon.” The first documented public performance of the first act of Claudine had to wait until the twentieth century as most of the opera had been destroyed. Schubert had given the manuscript to his friend Josef Hüttenbrenner, whose housekeeper burned the second and third acts during the 1848 revolution. The charming overture is scored for an orchestra of Classical proportions and begins with an intense Adagio introduction followed by an Italianate Allegro vivace.

Christopher H. Gibbs is James H. Ottaway Jr. Professor of Music at Bard College.