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date: 16 October 2019

Wertherlocked

  • Rodney Milnes

Extract

Drame lyrique in four acts by Jules Massenet to a libretto by Edouard Blau, Paul Milliet and (Jean-François-Romain-)Georges Hartmann, based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774); Vienna, Hofoper, 16 February 1892.

In his ever-unreliable Mes souvenirs, Massenet recalls how his publisher Georges Hartmann accompanied him to Bayreuth for Parsifal in 1886 and gave him a copy of Goethe’s novel when they stopped at Wetzlar on the return journey. With picturesque circumstantial detail the composer describes starting to read it in a noisy, smoke-filled beer hall and finding especial inspiration in the quotation from Ossian that was to form the emotional climax of the opera. In fact, the idea of a Werther opera is mentioned in a letter as early as 1880, and it was germinating even while Massenet was engaged on Manon in 1882. In 1885 he started composition; Hartmann had in all likelihood sketched the scenario, but the libretto was by Blau and Milliet, and the inclusion of the publisher’s name on the title page had more to do with percentages than authorial responsibility. It is also possible that Hartmann’s bankruptcy and the absorption of his business by Heugel the year before the première of ...

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