Sunday, November 6, 2016

Often I get up in the middle of the night and stop all the clocks - Hofmannsthal's melancholy Mozartish Cavalier of the Rose

The Cavalier of the Rose (1911), better known as Der Rosenkavalier, was written by Hugo von Hofmannsthal as a libretto.  Strauss had wanted to follow the intense Salome (1905) with something more light and fun and Mozartish.  Instead, working with Hofmannsthal, he did the intense and in many ways quite similar Elektra (1909) as his next opera.  They saved the farcical romantic comedy for next time.  I doubt I would guess, blindfolded, that the music was by the same composer, although the many waltzes might let me guess it was Austrian; I would never guess that the cross-dressing hero and fast-moving physical comedy came from Hofmannsthal, who is admittedly a pretty blank slate, at least not until the great act of renunciation in the last act of the opera.

PRINCESS: There’s many a matter here on earth
nobody could ever believe
did they but hear the story told.
But the one it happens to, that one believes and knows not how…  (Act 3, p. 524)

The princess, the tragic figure of the comedy, begins the play in bed with her young lover, the 17-year-old Octavian, who is so beautiful that everyone he meets, female and male, falls in love with him.  When the grotesque and foolish Baron intrudes on the boudoir, Octavian disguises himself as a female servant.  The Baron is smitten; the comedy is ready to begin – a duel, disguises, pranks, waiters dashing about, like that.  In the next act, Octavian meets his female counterpart Sophia, coincidentally engaged to the vulgar Baron.  There’s the romance.

But wait, didn’t the play begin with Octavian in love with – sleeping with – the Princess?  Didn’t he burst into tears when she suggests that “sooner or later” he will leave her for “one younger and more lovely than I” (427)?  Hofmannsthal includes the necessary frothy, sparkling romantic plot, but he puts this sadder love affair behind it.

PRINCESS:  Time is a strange thing.
While one just lives for the moment, it is nothing.
But then all at once
we feel nothing else but it,
it’s all around us, it’s right inside us,
it trickles away in our faces, it trickles in the mirror,
in my temples it flows away.
And between you and me it is flowing too.
Soundless, as an hour-glass.
Ah Quinquin [Octavian’s nickname]!
Often I hear it flow incessantly.
Often I get up in the middle of the night
and stop all the clocks.  (Act 1, 428-9)

Or as she says earlier, “It’s all a mystery, so much is mysterious” (424).  She is such an unusual character that as beautiful as her part is, she is absent for most of the rest of the opera.  There are hints that she is the Empress of Austria.

Another unusual feature of the libretto is that it only occasionally looks like a libretto, employing choruses and refrains and set-piece arias and so on, although it has all of those at times.  It mostly looks like a play.  The dialogue mostly looks like conversation.  It is highly readable.  Thus, I read it.

Christopher Holme did the version in Selected Plays and Libretti.


  1. Hoffmannsthal was able to touch beauty from time to time. I still remember, vividly, the first time I read his Manche freilich:

  2. Wonderful stuff - and that's what he abandoned!