Overture to The Golden Cross (1875)

Overture to The Golden Cross (1875)

By Anthony Burton

Written for the concert Bruckner’s Divided Vienna, performed on Dec 1, 1999 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In “Bruckner’s divided Vienna” of the late 19th century, Ignaz Brüll (1846-1907) belonged to the opposite camp to Bruckner’s: the circle surrounding Johannes Brahms. A successful pianist and composer even before the age of twenty, the Moravian-born Brüll became Brahms’s favorite interpreter of his new works, both as a solo pianist and as his partner in two-piano try-outs of orchestral pieces. Outside the music room, he was valued for his ability to keep up with Brahms on his walks in the Vienna Woods, and for his knowledge of French. He traveled to Italy with Brahms, and introduced him to the pleasures of summer vacations at the lakeside resort of Ischl. What Brahms seems to have especially valued in his younger colleague was his directness and simplicity of character. In his biography of Brahms, Richard Specht, who knew both of them, described Brüll as “a man of middle height, who was apparently flaccid, but in reality strong and under whose bald head was a calm, kindly face with radiant blue child’s eyes, a dreamily smiling mouth and a long, fair, silky beard. You succumbed from the first moment to this dear, great infant.”

The list of Brüll’s music includes works in most of the categories favored by Brahms: symphonies, serenades, two piano concertos and a violin concerto, chamber music, piano music, solo songs, part songs. Unlike Brahms’s, it also includes operas–no fewer than ten of them. Of these, by far the most popular, much to the detriment of Brüll’s later works, was the second, Das goldener Kreuz. This was first performed in Berlin in December 1875, with the great Lilli Lehmann as the heroine; within a year it was also produced in Prague and in Vienna, where it was conducted by the celebrated Hans Richter. It was taken up by the touring Carl Rosa company in England in 1878, and was presented by a German Gesangverein (choral society) in New York the following year; a production at the Metropolitan Opera followed in 1886. The opera remained popular in Germany for many years: in 1892 the critic Eduard Hanslick wrote that “it still holds sway on all the German stages”.

It is a sign of the divisions prevailing in Vienna that, according to Specht, The Golden Cross “was even played off against Wagner” (whose Ring cycle had its first complete performances in 1876). This opposition now seems ridiculously contrived, because Brüll’s opera was aimed at a completely different public from that of Wagner’s music dramas. It is a two-act Singspiel, a light opera with spoken dialogue, in the tradition of Lortzing among German composers, and Boieldieu and Auber among the French. Hanslick described it “one of those agreeable Singspiele which in the spirit of the old opéra comique were able to create a happy blend of the touching and the cheerful”. The libretto, adapted from a French source by the highly experienced Salomon Herman Mosenthal, is set in a French village at the time of the Napoleonic wars. To save her brother from the draft, Christine offers to marry anyone who will take his place, giving the recruiting sergeant a golden cross as a pledge; her offer is taken up by the nobleman Gontran, and on his return from the wars he claims Christine as his bride.

The Overture to the opera demonstrates Brüll’s generous flow of melody, and his efficient handling of the orchestra, if also a certain musical naïveté which was affectionately mocked by Brahms: the London critic who wrote in 1878 about its “rigid adherence to one key” was not entirely right–the main Allegro is correct enough in its varied key -scheme–but not entirely wrong either. E major is not only the basic key of the main Allegro, but also the key of all three segments of the introduction which precedes it: the first a short Adagio; the second based on Gontran’s Act I Romance (which returns in the Act I Finale, to the words “Fatherland, homeland, you see me depart”, and again in the Act II Finale); the third a quick march which recurs in the Act II Finale when the soldiers return from the war. Of the four main themes of the main section, the second has echoes of Weber; the third, an expressive violin melody preceded by an accompaniment figure in the lower strings and bassoon, is again taken from the opera, from a second Romance of Gontran in Act II; the fourth once more suggests the military background of the opera, as does the short but emphatic coda.