Music and the Romantic Vampire

Music and the Romantic Vampire

By Thomas Grey

Written for the concert The Vampire, performed on March 17, 2013 at Carnegie Hall.

While the vampire as a figure of folklore or legend goes back to ancient times and can be traced around the globe, the modern literary vampire was born in the company of Doctor Frankenstein’s monster on the shores of Lake Geneva in the early summer of 1816. A clutch of vacationing English Romantics—including Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and his young fiancée Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin—passed some days of that notoriously wet season reading German “ghost stories” and, at Byron’s suggestion, inventing new ones of their own. Two years later, Mary Shelley published her Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, and a year after that Byron’s physician John Polidori produced a novella, The Vampyre (London, 1819), developed from a prose fragment his celebrated patron had published directly following the gathering in Switzerland. More to the point, however, Polidori’s aristocratic vampire, Lord Ruthven, derived his charismatic powers of fascination from the model of Lord Byron himself. Polidori’s anonymously published tale was immediately and persistently attributed to Byron, and his vampire’s travels between the mountains of Greece and the salons of London society clearly evoked the highly publicized activities of the famous poet.

Heinrich Marschner’s 1827 opera Der Vampyr thus rode the crest of a wave of vampire enthusiasm inspired by Polidori’s tale and the cult of Lord Byron throughout Europe. Popular vampire melodramas sprang up instantly in England and France. The resourceful playwright and impresario James Robinson Planché (the librettist for Weber’s Oberon in 1826) produced The Vampire; or, the Bride of the Isles at London’s Lyceum Theatre in 1820, adapted from a melodrama by Charles Nodier and two others that had appeared in Paris less than two months earlier. (It is symptomatic of the “vampiric” nature of the popular stage in this period that Planché would be re-adapting the same material yet again, in the form of Marschner’s opera, for the London stage in 1829.) Closely modeled on these two vampire melodramas, in turn, was a “romantic drama in three acts” by one Heinrich Ludwig Ritter, Der Vampyr, oder die Todten-Braut (“The Vampire, or the Bride of the Dead”), borrowing their fanciful dream-prologue set in Fingal’s Cave and the attribution of the source story to the stylish Lord Byron. When Marschner discussed the idea of turning the German drama into a libretto with his new brother-in-law, Wilhelm August Wohlbrück, in 1826, the time was clearly ripe for the Byronic vampire to make an entrance on the operatic stage.

Marschner’s operatic version of the Byronic vampire, Lord Ruthven, looks back to Mozart’s Don Giovanni on one hand, and forward to Wagner’s Flying Dutchman on the other. The character that Marschner’s librettist, Wohlbrück, adapted from the popular stage vampires of the day is clearly related to the aristocratic libertine of the Don Juan type: a serial seducer who must, in the end, be punished for his reckless ways. Ruthven’s three female victims in the course of the opera can even be identified with those of Mozart and Da Ponte’s Don Giovanni. The high-born, unyielding Malvina, Ruthven’s principal victim whom he seeks to marry and destroy, is the Donna Anna figure. His first conquest, Janthe (the name is a relic of Byron’s Greek setting) is a willing, deluded victim of somewhat lesser social status, comparable to Donna Elvira; like Elvira, she considers herself betrothed to the seducer. The peasant-girl Emmy, seduced in the midst of her own wedding preparations, is a slightly sentimentalized counterpart to Zerlina. In the Act 2 trio “Ihr wollt mich nur beschämen” her fiancé, George, is forced to look on, powerless and frustrated, as Ruthven presses himself on Emmy, recalling the plight of Masetto in the first-act finale of Mozart’s opera.

Ruthven is, like Don Giovanni, a baritone “anti-hero” capable of suave, lyrical seduction and energetic ensemble singing. But our first introduction to the character, in his solo recitative and aria in Act 1 (“Ha! Noch einen ganzen Tag! … Ha! Welche Lust!”), immediately reveals the inner demon, singing of his thirst for the blood of young maidens against a roiling D minor accompaniment suffused with chromatic descending lines, low trombone chords, and screeching piccolos. A later key moment of self-revelation, the “grand scene” with the tenor protagonist, Aubry, in Act 2 (“Wohl, du zwingst mich zum Verbrechen”), brings Ruthven closer to the musical-dramatic orbit of Wagner’s Dutchman as he threatens Aubry with his own fate—to destroy “whomever on earth is dearest to you”—should Aubry fail to keep his oath of silence regarding Ruthven’s vampiric identity. (A brief echo of the agitated C minor theme from the overture to Der Freischütz toward the end of this fraught encounter reminds us of another close musical-dramatic relative, Weber’s Caspar, who also seeks to extend a diabolical pact at the expense of innocent victims.)

Wagner’s Dutchman shares the pale, mesmerizing countenance of the Byronic vampire, though unlike Ruthven, he longs not for an extended lease on his “undead” existence, but a final release from it. Ruthven, like Don Juan/Don Giovanni, seeks only the continued renewal of earthly pleasures. His duets with his weaker, non-noble victims Janthe and Emmy draw principally on a pleasurable, post-Mozartian Biedermeier melos laced with a lightly sensual melodic chromaticism deriving, like that of Marschner’s contemporary Louis Spohr, from the example of Mozart. But each of these duets, like the Ruthven-Emmy-George trio in Act 2, moves toward a faster-tempo concluding movement that reveals through some harmonic or melodic means the underlying demonic identity and intentions of the vampire. The duet in which Ruthven eventually seduces Emmy to her perdition (“Leise dort zur fernen Laube”) is essentially, in both its text and music, a translation of the famous duettino from Don Giovanni, “Là ci darem’ la mano,” into the language of Romantic opera. In Marschner’s duet, A major becomes A minor, strings are augmented with a trombone obbligato, and Giovanni’s gentle chromatic persuasions a ratcheted into a higher gear. Ruthven’s signature chromatic descent informs the brief A major conclusion, which dissolves into an ominous whisper in the minor mode in the coda. The carousing villagers who provide comic relief before the denouement in Act 2 remind us of the mixture of comedy and high drama which had recommended Don Giovanni to the Romantic taste. But the hearty “village” tone of their drinking song, no less than the polyphonic textures of the following ensemble, bring us closer to the world of the Norwegian sailors in Wagner’s Dutchman.

That Marschner’s Romantic variations on classical and early Romantic models (Mozart and Weber) were not without influence on Richard Wagner we know from the fact that Wagner collaborated on a production of Der Vampyr with his brother, Albert, a tenor, actor, and theater manager, during his early operatic apprenticeship in the town of Würzburg in 1833. (Wagner’s new, extended conclusion for Aubry’s aria “Wie ein schöner Frühlingsmorgen” is featured in the present performance of Marschner’s score.)

The aristocratic pedigree of the early Romantic vampire is another sign of his roots in the late ancien régime. It is not difficult to see his vampirism as a thinly veiled critique of feudal privilege: the economic exploitation of the peasant class and the sexual exploitation of lower- or middle-class female virtue, as in Don Giovanni’s or Count Almaviva’s exercise of the notorious droit du seigneur. The predatory aristocrat of the revolutionary imagination fed off the life forces of the “third estate” in the form of its labor and moral virtue. The model for later, modern vampires in the title character of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) is still a “count,” it is true, but he has become an exotic outsider, a bloodless relic from the distant past, preserved, like the quaint folk customs and superstitions of his countrymen, only in the remote mountains of Transylvania. (There is perhaps still a Wagnerian element to the modern vampire, as a dangerous yet compelling intruder from an alien sphere.) After more than two centuries of cultural migrations and resurrections in all different mediums, the vampire has become one of our most potent mythic tropes. Heinrich Marschner’s Lord Ruthven constitutes a fascinating operatic link between origins of the figure in early Romantic fiction and melodrama and the ubiquitous presence of the vampire in the mythology of modern popular culture.

Dr. Grey is Professor of Musicology at Stanford University. He is the author of Wagner’s Musical Prose: Texts and Contexts.