Heinrich Heine and William Ratcliff.
o the general reader of today, Heinrich Heine is best known as the author of some of the most exquisite poetry in the German language. His poems, especially in the settings of Robert Schumann, have become beloved of the Lieder afficionado and it seems certain that it is this aspect of the poer's work which will always serve to keep his name before the musical public. And yet his youthful tragedy, William Ratcliff (1822), has had a number of operatic settings, all but one now forgotten: by the Russian [Cesar] Cui (1869), the Hungarian [Mór] Vavrinecz (1894), the Italians Villafiorita (1907)and [Emilio] Pizzi (1889), the Frenchman [Xavier] Leroux (1906), [the Dutchman Cornelis Dopper (1901) who set it in one act], and most important of all, and the one which in some measure keeps the play alive, that of Pietro Mascagni (1895).
It is a commonplace of Heine criticism to denigrate this play and to pass over it as nothing more than an aberration of the poet's youth. And yet Heine himself, even in his later years, held it in some esteem. He described it as a "great act of confession: and for this reason only it is given attention by biographers, when, indeed, they do more than merely glance at it. In order to give the listener of Mascagni's work some perspective on the play, it is perhaps worthwhile to spend some space on Heine's "tragedy, or dramatic ballad," as he called it.
Heine seems to have kept even the date of his birth something of a mystery; he often said he was born on New Year's Eve, 1800, so as to be able to say "I am one of the first men of the century," but at other times gave the date as the 13th of December, 1799; other reports give the date as being two years earlier, December 13, 1797. Thus from the beginning he seems to have deliberately cultivated a sense of "shadowy past," such an important feature of Ratcliff. His sense of ancestry was stong: in his Memoirs he tells about his great-uncle Simon de Geldern: "Everything I was told about him made an ineradicable impression on my young mind, and I plunged so deeply into his peregrinations and vicissitudes that I often had the queer feeling in broad daylight that I myself was my late great-uncle and that my life was only a continuation of his life who had died so long ago." This statement is of course comparable to Ratcliff's whole feeling of the past, and though one of the spectral beings that pursues him throughout the play is that of his father and not great-uncle, the same feel of the past is there. Heine was greatly attached to both his mother and father. (An interesting touch: his mother's name was Betty, and he gives the name "Schön-Betty" to Maria's mother. Maffei, in his Italian translation altered this to "Bella-Elisa.") And though his mother survived him, the following sentences from Schnabelewopski serve to sum up his feeling that he is only an extension of his ancestors: "It is so hard to realize that people we love so much are dead. But then they are not dead, they live on in us and dwell in our soul." It is this same intuition that draws Ratcliff on to his final tragedy.