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6 - Operatic Innovation: A Village Romeo and Juliet and Margot le Rouge (1898–1902)

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 June 2021

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Summary

GESTATION

Even before the opportunity to hear parts of Koanga in London in 1899, Delius had embarked on yet another work for the stage, as if he was anxious to move on from the aesthetic world of his third opera to pastures new. In fact, it appears that the ink of Koanga was barely dry before Delius approached Keary with a request for a libretto based on the Swiss author Gottfried Keller’s short story ‘Romeo und Julia auf dem Dorfe’ from the collection Die Leute von Seldwyla written between 1856 and 1874. Keller was associated with the German-speaking literary movement of ‘Bourgeois’ or ‘Poetic’ Realism, one which promoted virtue in ordinary, local people, customs, events and morals. As Christopher Palmer has commented, it ‘implied the statistical norm, the social generality; subject matter was drawn from the unexceptional rather than from the phenomenal, and settings tended to restrict themselves to the provincial and homespun’. Keller, along with his contemporaries, Theodor Storm, Adalbert Stifter, Eduard Friedrich Mörike and Nikolaus Lenau, sought refuge in the settled order, observing value and honesty in rural, peasant life rather than in urban reality, and essentially represented a reaction to the insidious influences of materialism and industrialisation (just as Romanticism had earlier reacted to the starker truths of the Age of Reason) which threatened to overwhelm it. In one of his most famous stories, ‘Romeo und Julia auf dem Dorfe’, which was based on a newspaper report of a local tragedy, Keller tells of pauper lovers who commit suicide by drowning together. The progeny of two feuding farmers, Manz and Marti, who fall out over a coveted strip of land separating their fields, Sali and Vreli (Vreli) are forbidden to see each other (hence the reference to Shakespeare's famous drama). Riven with hate, the two fathers are impoverished by the cost of futile litigation – Manz becomes a humble publican, Marti sells all except his dilapidated cottage – and the families become homeless beggars; yet, with poetic irony, the ruinous process brings Sali and Vreli closer together and they grow up to fall in love.

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The Music of Frederick Delius
Style, Form and Ethos
, pp. 177 - 220
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2021

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