Suppé: Overture to Poet and Peasant
FRANZ VON SUPPÉ
BORN: April 18, 1819. In (or on a boat near) Spalato, Dalmatia, which is today Split, Croatia
DIED: May 21, 1895. Vienna, Austria
WORLD PREMIERE: August 24, 1846. The composer conducted at the premiere of the operetta Poet and Peasant at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien
SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—January 13, 1918. Alfred Hertz conducted in a Cort Theatre pops concert. MOST RECENT—December 2004. Edwin Outwater conducted as part of a Viennese New Year program
INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, harp, and strings
DURATION: About 9 mins
Take a deep breath and marvel at the name of Francesco Ezechiele Ermengildo Cavaliere di Suppé Demelli, who in daily life went by just Franz von Suppé. Croatia is proud to claim him as its own, and he was indeed born in what is now that country, although at the time it was in the Kingdom of Dalmatia within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His parents were Austrian, and his father was assigned to Dalmatia in a civil-servant capacity. The family was actually of Belgian extraction. Franz was distantly related to Gaetano Donizetti, who encouraged his career as a composer. He also was an accomplished singer, and one of the roles in which he appeared professionally was Dulcamara, the basso snake-oil salesman in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore.
Italy figured prominently in his upbringing. While being schooled in Cremona and Padua, he basked in the musical opportunities of the region, even meeting Rossini, Verdi, and distant cousin Donizetti in Milan. After his father’s death, Franz and his mother moved to Vienna, where he threw himself into musical studies. His principal teachers there were the revered music theorist Simon Sechter and Ignaz von Seyfried, a Mozart pupil. In 1840, Seyfried wrote Suppé a glowing recommendation that underscored his talent and achievements in serious composition, and the same year he also helped him secure a low-level, apparently volunteer position on the music staff at the Theater in der Josefstadt, an establishment that is today the oldest continuously operating theatre in Vienna. In 1841, Suppé’s first theater-piece, a musical farce titled Jung lustig, im Alter traurig (Jolly when Young, Sad when Old) was produced there, and it earned a superlative review. That launched him on his path as a stage composer. He would compose nearly fifty operas, mostly in an operetta style, plus an immense number of burlesques and parodies, for a succession of prestigious Viennese theaters.
He conducted many important operatic productions and is credited with establishing (with his 1860 piece Das Pensionat—The Boarding School) the genre of Viennese operetta, as distinct from the French operettas that slightly preceded it and then developed in parallel in Paris. Many of his Viennese operettas were hits, but Suppé never reached quite the height Johann Strauss, Jr. achieved with Die Fledermaus in 1874. Suppé responded two years later with his three-act comic opera Fatinitza, enlisting the same librettists who had crafted Die Fledermaus. It was a huge international success, enabling the composer to purchase an impressive estate in Lower Austria. There he composed his late operetta Boccaccio (1879), based only slightly on the Decameron, which scored what he termed the greatest triumph of his life. By that time he was internationally acclaimed and immensely wealthy. In 1881, he was given the Freedom of the City of Vienna, the ultimate honor for a composer in the city that viewed itself (not unjustly) as the center of song.
His operettas were of their time, and almost none of them are produced today. What keeps his name alive are his operetta overtures, principally those for his Dichter und Bauer (Poet and Peasant, 1846) and Leichte Kavallerie (Light Cavalry, 1866), but sometimes those for Ein Morgen, Mittag und Abend in Wien (Morning, Noon, and Night in Vienna, 1844) and Die schöne Galathée (Beautiful Galatea, 1865). Suppé had already used some material from the Poet and Peasant Overture in two works before this overture reached its final form, heading the operetta that would make it famous. Its delicious episodes include a lyrical cello solo, an infectious waltz, and a syncopated, cancan-flavored Allegro sprepitoso (“boisterous allegro”). They suggest that the entire operetta must be a delight, though few of us can hope to ever see it onstage.—James M. Keller