The many courts of Germany and of the Habsburg Empire and its capital Vienna were open to influence from both Italy and France. It was, indeed, one of the achievements of great German composers of the late Baroque period to bring about their own synthesis of Italian, French and German. This is heard in one form in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and in another in the music of Handel.
While Hamburg, even in Handel's brief time there, found a place for German-language opera, it was in general Italian opera that predominated. In Vienna the Emperor Joseph II attempted, principally in the 1780s, to establish a German opera, the National- Singspiel. It was to this that Mozart contributed his successful Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio), but the Emperor's early attempts were unsuccessful.
The traditional German Singspiel had had a longer history, parallel to the popular comedy of Italy and France. As in those countries, the division between the purely popular and the more formal and literary comedy diminished. This led to a form of German- language comic opera, with some spoken dialogue, on a variety of subjects. In some, like Mozart's Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute), elements of earlier popular comedy continue. The comic bird- catcher Papageno is one of a long line of such characters, an ordinary man set in the most extraordinary surroundings. Comedy lies, as always, in the inappropriate situation and the down- to- earth reaction to it.
Singspiel continued also in a serious vein, reflecting the parallel developments in Italy and France, as well as in German theatre, with its middle- class drama, if one may so translate the word burgerlich (bourgeois), without giving it a pejorative meaning. Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio , first staged in Vienna in 1805, deals in generally serious terms with a loyal wife's attempt to rescue her imprisoned husband. Carl Maria von Weber's work Der Freischutz (The Marksman), still in language and elements of spoken dialogue a Singspiel, includes all the elements of German romanticism and leads the way forward to full- blown German romantic opera.
German Romantic Opera
Vienna brought together Italian opera and German Singspiel. Gluck and his librettist Calzabigi had brought about a reform, influenced, in some respects, by French theatre and in some works by the opera comique . Here, as in the major cities in Germany, two forms of opera co- existed, the Italian and the German. The 19 th century, however, with all its political and cultural changes, gave a new impetus to German opera, not only to Beethoven and to Weber, but to composers like Marschner, Spohr and Lortzing.
Towering over his contemporaries in ambition and achievement, Richard Wagner introduced, from the 1840s onwards, new musical and dramatic conceptions of the art of opera or music- drama. At first he added to the existing romantic tradition in Der fliegende Hollander (The Flying Dutchman), Tannhäuser and Lohengrin . The first of these tells of the ghostly Dutch sea-captain, fated to sail with his phantom crew until redeemed by a woman's disinterested love. Tannhauser turns to the medieval poet of that name and his temptation by the worldly pleasures offered by the Mount of Venus, while Lohengrin offers a story derived from the legends of the Knights of the Grail. It was, however, with his tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), Parsifal , Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg) that he created a new and comprehensive art-form. While the last of these praises true German art in a plot based on the activities of the Mastersingers of the 16 th century, The Ring is a massive conception dealing with the superhuman. The four works, to be performed on successive nights in the theatre Wagner built in Bayreuth, are closely interwoven, related by recurrent themes and fragments of themes associated with ideas and characters in the drama. The plot of this massive operatic cycle is derived from Teutonic legend, stories of the old gods and the final destruction of their Valhalla.