“Music, when soft voices die…”

When Franz Schubert died in 1828, his brother Ferdinand consigned his manuscripts to a cupboard, where they gathered dust. On a visit in 1839 the composer Robert Schumann unearthed the “Great” C major symphony, subsequently given its first performance by Mendelssohn. Little did they know there was much more to be discovered.

In 1823 Franz Schubert (left) had composed the incidental music to Rosamunde, Fürstin von Zypern (Rosamunde, Princess of Cyprus), a play written by Helmina von Chézy. The play survived only two performances at the Theater an der Wien, before vanishing into oblivion. The music survived, but quite by chance.

Helmina von Chézy (1783-1856) was a German poet and playwright, best known for writing the libretto for Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Euryanthe (1823). Unfortunately, she does not seem to have been very good. The press did not like the libretto of Euryanthe and was scathing about Rosamunde with comments such as “an utterly insipid work” whose authoress had “in a single year been the undoing of two great composers”.

The incidental music to Rosamunde consists of three entr’actes, two ballet tunes, a romance for contralto, a chorus of spirits, a shepherd’s melody and chorus, and a hunting-chorus. There is no overture, but at the first performance the overture to the opera Alfonso und Estrella was used. Later still, the overture to the melodrama Die Zauberharfe was published as the Rosamunde Overture and is still performed under that name.

The Rosamunde music might have been lost forever, had it not been for the English writer Sir George Grove (right) and the composer Sir Arthur Sullivan. In 1867, thirty-nine years after his death, they travelled to Vienna in search of Schubert manuscripts. They rescued seven more symphonies, including the “Unfinished”, some of the Masses, operas and chamber works, and a quantity of miscellaneous pieces and songs. They were particularly excited about their final discovery, which Grove described in an article in The Musical Times (October, 1897):

“I found, at the bottom of the cupboard, and in its farthest corner, a bundle of music-books two feet high, carefully tied round, and black with the undisturbed dust of nearly half-a-century. … These were the part-books of the whole of the music in Rosamunde, tied up after the second performance in December 1823, and probably never disturbed since. Dr. Schneider [the curator] must have been amused at our excitement; but let us hope that he recollected his own days of rapture; at any rate, he kindly overlooked it, and gave us permission to take away with us and copy what we wanted.”

There are several recording of excerpts from the delightful Rosamunde music, including an eloquent rendition by Günther Wand (1984) with the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra. The complete score, lasting a full hour, is seldom heard in the concert hall, but there are notable recordings by Karl Münchinger, Bernard Haitink, Kurt Masur, and Claudio Abbado.

Helmina von Chézy immediately recognized the lyricism and beauty of the score, which she described as “a majestic stream, winding through the poem’s complexities like a sweetly transfiguring mirror, grandiose, purely melodious, soulful, unspeakably touching and profound.” Listeners ever since have been in unanimous agreement.

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