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Although his work has been generally neglected in the 20th century, Heinrich Marschner
was a leading figure in German Opera in the period between Weber and Wagner, and wrote
twenty-three operas and singspiels. He was born in Zittau, in 1795, and although studied law at the University of Leipzig, spent a considerable time developing his love of music.
His father was a Horndrechsler, a craftsman who made items of horn or ivory, but was a man who also had an abiding interest in music, and allowed his son the liberty to develop his considerable talent.
A meeting with a Hungarian nobleman, Count Thaddaeus Amadée de Varkony, led to an attempt to induce Beethoven to accept Marschner as a pupil, in 1815. The following year Marschner became music teacher in the household of Count Johann Nepomuk Zichy, whose principal residence was in Pressburg (the modern Bratslava). There he undertook further sudy with Heinrich Klein, a leading figure in the music of the place. It was in Pressburg that he turned his more serious attention to the theatre with an opera, Der Kiffhäuser Berg, based on a Thuringian legend, a magic opera in the then currently popular style, but following Weber's example in using folk narrative material. In 1817, marschner married, but became a widower within months, his wife dying of gangrene. Throughout his life, he was married three more times.
Another opera, Heinrich IV und Aubigné, had some success thanks to Weber, who saw to its production in Dresden, where Marschner settled in 1821, without immediate employment.
The first theatre commission Marschner undertook in Dresden was the composition of incidental music for Kleist's play, Prinz Friedrich von Homburg, and this was followed by music for an unsuccessful Volks-Trauerspiel, Schön Ella, a work that relied heavily on the archetypal German romantic ballad, Lenore. In Dresden, Marschner was appointed Weber's assistant in 1823, although he had hoped to offer the position to his friend Johann Gänsbacher, to whom he was under some obligation. Relations between Weber and Marschner were never smooth, and the latter seemed to resent the obvious musical and dramatic influence that Weber perceptibly had on his own work. In 1824 Marschner became director of the German and the Italian opera in Dresden, undertaking, as he complained, most of the duties of Weber and of Morlacchi, the superintendent of the Italian opera. Marschner's second wife died in 1825. Weber died in June, 1826, and Marschner, unsuccessful in his petition to the court for Weber's position, resigned, travelling first to Berlin, then to Danzig, where he had a six-month contract at the opera, writing the two-act Lukretia, the title rôle being performed by his new wife, Marianne. Lukretia is the first of the great Marschner works that use massive forces and driving melodies, with a strong theme. It concerns the Roman legend of Lucrece, a Roman matron, illustrious for her virtue. She was the victim of rape by Sextus, son of Tarquinius Superbus. Having enjoined her husband, Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, and his friends to avenge her, she stabbed herself to death. The ensuing revolt drove the Tarquins from Rome.
In 1827 Marschner returned to Leipzig, where his opera Der Vampyr, a subject of topical interest, won success. This was the first collaboration with his brother-in-law, Wilhelm August Wohlbrück, which was to continue through many of Marschner's most successful theatre works. Der Vampyr was followed by an opera derived from Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, Der Templer Und die Jüdin. Four years later he was successful in his application for the position of Kapellmeister in Hanover, a position he retained, in spite of difficulties, for the rest of his career.
In 1830 Marschner was offered the position of conductor at the Hanover Hoftheater. There his compositions won him considerable fame, but he wanted to make more of an impression in Berlin, and wrote Des Falkners Braut with that end in mind. Although the opera was promised to Berlin, the production was sabotaged, and not mounted until later, in Leipzig.
In 1833 Marschner achieved his greatest success with the opera Hans Heiling, a work that established him as the leading proponent of German romantic opera. Subsequent dramatic works met varied reception, although his achievement was widely recognized. Hans Heiling follows the example of Weber's Der Freischütz, but in form exercised a strong influence on Wagner. In harmonic language Marschner was adventurous, and in Hans Heiling he provided a new rôle for the operatic baritone, as demon-king. The work has a clear influence on Wagner's Der Fliegende Holländer both in narrative and in certain elements of detail.
It is a most ingeniously structured opera: for example, the work begins with a chorus of underground sprites mining and smithing gold. After the premise is revealed, that Heiling is to seek his bride in the upper-world, instead of the scene changing to that place, the curtain descends, and we hear the Ouverture. Perhaps it is simply the exigencies of the stage that two large sets needed to be hauled in and out, and an overture was the only way to keep the story going without a break in the act, but it is a coup de théâtre that comes across as very modern. Other innovations include a bravura scene in a storm that uses a solo contrabass to create a spine-tingling effect. To this day, Hans Heiling remains Marschner's most accessible work, even though Der Vampyr has made it to television, and is one of those operas that dramaturges feel free license to update ad libitum.
Marschner spent much of his remaining years in Hanover, writing for pageants, musical plays (singspiels), and the occasional opera. His last opera, Sangeskönig Hiarne had elements of Wagnerian scope to it, but he was unable to compete with the authentic Wagner: the rising composer of German myth who was not all that much younger than he. Marschner took Hiarne to Paris, as no German house would stage it, and there he found himself competing with the Parisian production of Tannhäuser, to his disadvantage. Hiarne was not performed in his lifetime; and while Wagner was instrumental in getting some of Marschner's earlier operas staged, it was evident that he was coming into his own, and there was no room for the old school.
Marschner died in Hanover in 1861, having written 23 works for the musical theater, and many lieder, some accompanied by orchestra, piano, or guitar. His work has a freshness to it, and his harmonic palette is unequalled in his contemporaries. He is not one to languish in moods or ask for prolonged contemplation of atmospherics. He is decisive and always approachable: his music is a tonic to the heavier Germanic composers; perhaps the most applicable parallel is Wagner's Die Meistersinger with its blend of humor and stolid seriousness in its presence.
Some other facts about some of the descendants of Heinrich August Marschner who emigrated to America:
Heinz Otto Alexander Marschner married Flora Nettleton Whitney, who later married a Mr. Fenton; her son Robert Alexander Marschnerchanged his name in 1943 to Fenton.
Their daughter Katherine married James Bernard Verdin and their grandchildren are called
Another Marschner descendant Alfred Guido Marschner was editor of a German newspaper Der Sheboygan Republikaner which became part of The National Democrat. He was postmaster on and off 1857 to 1869fought in the Civil War for the Wisconsin Volunteers and bravely defended Sheboygan against Indians (who didn't attack).
Marschner's descendants have surnames such as Zoermer, Kozick, Nelson, Parys, Englking, Wierwill, and Hahn.