Aladdin's story, taken from the Arabian One Thousand and One Nights, has been told many times and in many different ways. This operatic version by the Danish composer, C.F.E. Horneman, dates from the turn of the 19th to the 20th century and has the lush harmonies and flowing melodies you might expect from a piece of its time. Horneman adds new lustre to the old fairy tale about Aladdin and Princess Gulnare as they escape the forces of nocturnal magic and pursue happiness.
Facing headwinds: a life’s work
By Inger Sørensen
Christian Frederik Emil Horneman (1840-1906) was born to a long line of artists and musicians: his father’s father was Christian Horneman, the painter of miniatures from life of both Haydn and Beethoven. His father, Johan Ole Emil Horneman, was a pianist, music publisher and composer. He wrote numerous piano pieces and songs, including ‘Højt fra træets grønne top’ (High upon the Christmas tree, bright the star is glowing) and ‘Dengang jeg drog af sted’ (When I went off to war) which have established themselves as a regular part of Danish family life. It was therefore odds on that C.F.E Horneman, like his father known as Emil, should also be a musician. He began composing as a boy, and studied at the Conservatory in Leipzig from 1858-1860, where he established a lifelong friendship with his contemporary there, Edvard Grieg. On his return home he established a music publishing house and later was a co-founder of the music society Euterpe, committed to the promotion of new Nordic music. He went on to co-found the Concert Society, appearing as conductor, and established his own music institute.
Even if C.F.E. Horneman largely earned his bread by teaching, he was always conscious that composition was his true calling, and that his particular specialism was dramatic music. The opera Aladdin became his life’s work, his focus for forty years, no matter what the obstacles placed in his way.
A few years after his return from Leipzig Horneman decided to write an opera on the story of Aladdin, not based on the dramatic poem by Adam Oehlenschläger, but rather on the original version in One Thousand and One Nights. He chose Benjamin Feddersen, a close friend of his and Grieg’s, to write the text. Between 1859 and 1865, Feddersen had translated and reworked a series of comedies and plays with music for the Casino, Copenhagen’s first private theatre. He supplied texts for the vocal scenes in The Florentine Flower Girls, which had music by Horneman, Grieg and Viggo Kalhauge, and was performed at the Casino on 14 June 1864.
Horneman composed the overture to Aladdin that year, 1864, and conducted the first performance at Euterpe on 14 April 1866, with a second performance on 8 May. It wasn’t a huge success, even though a reviewer wrote that the overture was a work that stood witness to its composer’s gifts despite not being of striking originality. The overture was sound and designed with strength, skilfully orchestrated and melodic throughout.
Horneman continued to work steadily on his opera, which he took with him as he travelled around Europe with the support of a grant, the Anckerske Legat, in the autumn of 1867. He was industrious, and by 1 November could report to Feddersen, his lyricist, that everyone in Germany that he’d played the music to had declared that it was amongst the best and most original things they had heard recently.
On his return home Horneman continued to work on Aladdin and, despite both short and long interruptions, had finished his sketches by 1868 or 1869. He orchestrated the first two acts, though later he could not remember exactly when. When his father died in May 1870, he had to put aside his work on Aladdin in order to earn his own living, as he had married Louise Nannestad in 1866 and Elizabeth, the first of their children, had been born in 1867.
Once, in November 1872, Horneman nearly lost the score of Aladdin: a fire broke out while he was sitting teaching in his apartment at 8 Løvstræde. He quickly conveyed his wife and their daughter Elizabeth, who was five, from the building. Elizabeth explained, many years later, that her father had gone into the house to fetch three of her grandfather’s paintings and the score of Aladdin, remarking that everything else could be left to burn.
The score was saved, but it was many years before Horneman picked it up again to pursue his work. The battle for daily bread had first priority, and in addition to working with his publishing firm and on a journal, the Nordic Music Magazine, the Concert Society and later the establishing of the Music Institute, took all his time.
Finally, something happened in 1883: supported by a group which included, amongst others, Grieg, the Royal Danish Theatre’s conductor H.S. Paulli and the choirmaster C.L. Gerlach, Horneman received a share in an annual grant made by the state. The award characterised Horneman as ‘one of our most gifted young composers, whose opera will bring honour both to him and to his fatherland, if he has the opportunity to get it finished’.
Horneman was glad to receive this help, and got on with the orchestration of the two last acts as well as undertaking various revisions. In the spring of 1888 he was able to deliver Aladdin to the Royal Danish Theatre. The musical censor, the royal conductor Johan Svendsen, offered a very brief judgement: on 25 April he wrote to the head of the theatre, ‘A very promising work which I give the warmest recommendation for acceptance by the Royal Danish Theatre’. Unfortunately the judgement of Benjamin Feddersen’s text was diametrically opposite. Erik Bøgh wrote: ‘Of all the awful opera texts that have been submitted to the Royal Danish Theatre, I know none that, in relation to spirit and formless working out, stand lower than this mishandling of this famous subject’.
Horneman was furious that ‘this bastard, Erik Bøgh’, as he called the Royal Danish Theatre’s censor, had so many completely meaningless objections that the text had to be reworked, but at the beginning of September 1888 a new version of the text was submitted. Erik Bøgh made no attempt to hide his highly critical view of the text, but admitted that it was the music of the composition which was decisive in an opera’s success, and that he was ready, after expressing his dissatisfaction with the text’s ‘inartistic habits’ again, to leave the final decision to Johan Svendsen. Because of these divergent responses, Horneman was told that it would probably be a long time before his opera was performed.
However, the theatre changed their mind. The 25th anniversary of the accession of King Christian IX, nicknamed ‘the father-in-law of Europe’ because three of his daughters had married a king, prince or an emperor, was due to fall on 18 November. The event, naturally with many guests from abroad, should be celebrated with the appropriate pomp and circumstance so an opera was required, but there was nothing appropriate in the theatre’s repertoire. Instead, they thought of the new Danish opera, Horneman’s Aladdin, and a decision to present it was taken just six weeks before the royal celebration.
This was a hazardous enterprise, beyond reason. The musical parts were not ready, and there weren’t enough copyists to complete the required work, so Horneman himself had to settle for three young and rather slow writers and enroll his daughter, Elisabeth Rosenberg, too. She would later establish her own career as an actress.
One of Horneman’s students helped him with corrections in the soloists’ parts, and in many instances whole scenes had to be left out. The composer worked with the Swedish tenor singing Aladdin, Arvid Ødman, and Niels Juel Simonson, who was to sing Noureddin. The celebrated bass Peter Schram, who was to sing the part of the Sultan, wrote to his daughter that Wagner was a fool besides Horneman when it came to writing difficult music.
The Director, Pietro Krohn, realised how long the opera was, and how difficult it would be to learn, so at the last moment he began to make cuts. On more than one occasion, Horneman was ready to take his score under his arm and leave the Royal Danish Theatre. Emotions ran so high that he was, in the end, banned from attending rehearsals because he kept insisting on having his own ideas realised.
The result of these chaotic preparations was inevitable, and we can compare the opera’s fate to that of Beethoven’s Fidelio, a fiasco when it was first performed in Vienna in 1805 because the audience largely comprised Napoleon’s occupying troops. The guests at the premiere of Aladdin had a similarly uninformed audience in the stalls, distinguished guests who gave their greatest applause to the ballet. Horneman angrily described the outcome to Grieg: ‘As you must already have heard, Aladdin was a fiasco on the king’s anniversary day. No wonder: the pasty-faced Comtesses and over-fed gentlemen who had just arrived from the great banquet at Børsen, the Exchange, together with the other kings and princesses, strongly impressed the public but were entirely unreceptive to an opera, especially a new opera by a Danish composer’.
Horneman was especially furious that virtually all the singers were miscast, with voice types that did not suit the music written for their roles. Whole scenes were cut out, and the orchestra’s expectation that they would have a chance to rehearse it properly after the gala was mistaken. The head of the theatre would not sacrifice more time for an opera which had already premiered, no matter what the original terms had been.
The response in the press was very varied. In the Illustrated Times, Charles Kjærulf slashed the opera down, while the reviewer in Music Magazine was, on the whole, positive, though like many others, mentioned the poor text: ‘If only this text had been laid out properly for musical forms: it contains hardly any resting points, and gives only the sparsest opportunities for motives to return. Even greater praise is due to the composer who, on this poor foundation, has been able to build a work of real significance’.
Berlingske Tidende’s reviewer thought that the opera was inspired by Wagner, and had more positive things to say: ‘To the opera’s undeniable credit we hear a strong rhythmic ingenuity and most of all orchestration that is exceptionally rich, sounds well and is highly refined.’ It was not as great a failure, because of its inadequate rehearsal, as Horneman himself thought, but the opera could not be staged again.
In 1895 Horneman received some compensation for the way in which his opera had been handled by the Royal Danish Theatre when the Society for the Publication of Danish Music published a piano score that Horneman himself had prepared, which was provided with texts in both Danish and German.
When the piano score was complete, Jakob Fabricius praised Horneman in a substantial article on the front page of Illustrated Times, which began with the words: ‘Musical society has, with the publication of this, Horneman’s principal work, fulfilled what must be considered its duty: to give its official acknowledgement and contribute to smoothing the path in life which the less fortunate conditions under which it first saw the light would call for’.
In early summer 1898, Horneman undertook a journey around Germany with state support, primarily with the intention of presenting Aladdin to various opera houses. He sent the piano score in advance to, amongst others, the opera houses in Berlin, Dresden, Frankfurt, Weimar, Mannheim, Mainz, Stuttgart and Wiesbaden. Johan Svendsen and the theatre director P. Hansen both gave the opera their best recommendation, and Horneman had printed a brochure with extracts from reviews of Aladdin, but all in vain. Aladdin has never been staged in Germany.
Edvard Fallesen, who had been theatre director when the opera was first performed, and his successor P. Hansen, said many times to Horneman that they owed him rehabilitation for the scandalous first performance, but their words led to nothing. So when P. Hansen handed over the reins to Einar Christiansen in 1899, Horneman was quick to turn to him to raise the possibility of performing his mishandled magnus opus again. Christiansen responded positively, but there were other new operas which had priority, including Lange-Müller’s Viking Blood and a piece by August Enna, so the season 1900/01 was the earliest possibility. At last, on 25 May 1900, Christiansen finally announced, after being persuaded by Johan Svendsen and the stage director, Julius Lehmann, that it was their serious intention to perform the opera, hopefully in the coming season.
In February 1901, Julius Lehmann and Horneman met to discuss the production, and Horneman asked for permission to rework the mise-en-scène, which was granted. It took him the whole summer, and on 5 September he sent the revised material to Lehmann, but it was another two and a half months before Lehmann had time to call Horneman to a meeting. This was held at the director’s house in Købmagergade so that they could quarrel in all joviality. They seem to have succeeded in reaching a shared understanding, and in a letter printed later in the newspaper Nationaltidende regarding a detail in the performance, we hear that Horneman described the eventual staging as ‘excellent, full of fantasy and tasteful’. Einar Christiansen took on the casting of the roles in consultation with Horneman, and said in an interview to mark the premiere that the theatre had fully complied with the composer’s requirements.
The premiere, on 4 April 1902, was an overwhelming success, and there were 18 performances to full houses. Horneman’s daughter Elisabeth wrote about this, the last time Aladdin was performed: she met her father in Kongens Nytorv, the square outside the Royal Danish Theatre. He didn’t say a word, but pointed, smiling, over to the theatre and its glowing red light, signifying a sold-out house. Finally, he had won the recognition for his work he had always dreamt of.
The day after the premiere, Nationaltidende printed this notice: ‘Horneman’s “Aladdin” was performed last night for the first time in a new production. It is presented in a new and brilliant staging, and similarly the music is, in my view, good and resilient, in its points a notable rendering. The public were greatly interested in the substantial musical beauties the work contains, especially in the two central acts which made a great effect’.
In return, on 7 April the paper took advantage of the fact that the famous Austro-Hungarian conductor Hans Richter had attended the premiere and instead of a traditional review, brought an interview with him. Richter was a prominent opera conductor with rich experience from, amongst other places, the court opera in Vienna and Bayreuth, where he had directed the first complete performances of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen in 1876, so his views were not just preferences. He had been pleased to make acquaintance, he said, with a work that was so highly gifted, sound, warm and fine in its artistic nature, and he took his hat off to the great compositional skill with which it was written. He was especially impressed with the fugue in the style of Handel which formed the closing chorus.
Despite the 18 sold out performances, Aladdin has not been performed at The Royal Danish Theatre since 31 October 1903. This neglect may have been caused, in part, by the 1919 revival of Oehlenschläger’s play in a splendid version by Johannes Poulsen with music by Carl Nielsen, which was then revived in 1940 and again in 1959. In 1953 Danmarks Radio presented, as their first opera production ever, an abbreviated version of Horneman’s Aladdin with the best singers of the time, including Thyge Thygesen, Ruth Guldbæk and Holger Byrding, conducted by Launy Grøndahl.
His wish came true: Horneman’s Aladdin
By Niels Bo Foltmann
Horneman’s Aladdin survives in two different versions, the first from 1888 and a substantially reworked version that formed the basis of the production stage at the Royal Danish Theatre in the 1902/03 and 1903/04 seasons. It is this second version which can be heard on this release. Horneman had great difficulty in putting the finishing touches to his work, and the original performance material shows how he repeatedly made changes to the score, even after the rehearsals had begun. On practical grounds, it was impossible to insert all these changes in the orchestral parts for the 1902 performances, but it has been possible to take account of all Horneman’s latest changes in preparing this edition, so on this release we can hear the composer’s final intentions for the first time.
The overture is the only part of the opera that has held a place in the Danish concert repertoire. It was composed as early as 1864, before Horneman began work on the opera itself. He revised it several times, including for the first performance of the opera in 1888, when he extended the orchestration by adding a piccolo, two extra horns and a tuba. This version was used for the 1902 presentation, though Horneman took that opportunity to make a substantial cut in the overture’s central section.
Horneman was a real master of instrumentation, and in Aladdin he showed his talent in a well-sounding score that is full of fantasy. He covers the whole of the romantic opera’s colour palette, from the sombre atmosphere at the beginning of the first act and in the cemetery scene in the fourth act to the pompous celebratory music of the third act. The opera involves a vocal ensemble, with very demanding parts for the three central characters, Aladdin, Noureddin and Gulnare. This is especially so for Aladdin’s lyric-dramatic tenor part, which places great demands on the singer, who is the only soloist to appear in all four acts. The chorus, too, has an important role and appears in many different guises: as elves and gnomes in the magic cave; as an unseen chorus which escorts the Genie of the Ring; as invisible spirits and genies in the churchyard and finally as Ispahan’s Persians in the great scene around the Sultan’s palace.
As with Wagner’s leitmotifs, Horneman employs motives which are tied to particular elements in the story. For example, the Genie of the Ring is characterized by a peculiar ‘mystic’ harmony when it fulfils Aladdin’s wishes. Something similar applies to the overture’s introductory string motive, which in this opera represents the magic element, for example in the scene in the cave in the first act, and in relation to the abduction of Gulnare in the third act. Even if the opera’s subject has a certain Eastern colouring, Horneman is very cautious in applying it to his music. Only occasionally is the orchestral movement coloured by sounds inspired by the Orient, as in the ballet in the third act, and especially in the wedding dance which follows, which may remind the listener of the ballet music in Verdi’s Aida.