Burghauser catalogue number
Date of composition
completed: 28 September 1870
Premiere - date and place
a broadcast performance of excerpts: 6 February 1938, Prague (in German)
complete stage performance in Czech translation: 10 December 1938, Olomouc
complete concert performance with the original German libretto: 17 September 2014, Prague
6 February 1938: Walter Windholz - Alfred, Richard Kubla - Harald, Fine Reich-Dörich - Alvina, Julius Gutman - Sieward, Radio Orchestra, conductor Georg Singer
10 December 1938: Otto Kubin - Alfred, Anna Richterova - Alvina, Jaroslav Sobota - Dorset, Boris Jevtusenko - Sieward, Ada Frank - Gothron, Adolf Richter - Harald, Stefa Petrova - Rovena, Jan Dvorny - messenger, conductor Adolf Heller, director: Oskar Linhart
17 September 2014: Felix Rumpf - Alfred, Ferdinand von Bottmer - Harald, Petra Froese - Alvina, Peter Mikulas - Sieward, Jorg Sabrowski - Gothron, Tilmann Unger - Dorset, Jarmila Baxova - Rovena, Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonic Choir Brno, conductor Heiko Mathias Forster
Czech Radio, 2014, Prague
Author of the libretto
Karl Theodor Körner
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, violins, violas, cellos, double basses + mixed choir + soloists
Parts / movements
1st act: The Camp of the Danes
2nd act: A Wilderness in the Forest
3rd act: A Rocky Glen in the Forest
King Alfred - baritone
Alvina, Alfred's fiancee - soprano
Prince Harald - tenor
Prince Gothron - bass
Servant Sieward - bass
Dorset, Alfred's friend - tenor
Rovena, Alvina's friend
approx. 140 min.
When he was writing his first opera, 29-year-old Dvorak had already been a violist with the Provisional Theatre Orchestra for eight years. Performing various operas from past and present on an almost daily basis had a major impact on his career as a composer. Moreover, during the course of the 1860s, the repertoire also began to feature important works from the Czech environment, in particular, Bedrich Smetana’s The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, The Bartered Bride and Dalibor. Dvorak by that time already had a series of works from different genres to his name: symphonies, string quartets and songs, among others. Dvorak’s resolve to now master the operatic form was, however, conditional upon finding a suitable libretto, which was not easy by any means: Czech librettos were few and far between and their standard was dubious to say the least. As Bedrich Smetana complained in an article: “There is a greater shortage of good librettos than good composers”. In addition, as a composer, Dvorak was still completely unknown, and he didn’t have the funds to purchase a new libretto. He thus decided to use a German text written almost sixty years previously, entitled Alfred der Grosse, whose author was the Neo-Romantic German poet Karl Theodor Korner (1791-1813). The libretto, which is set somewhere in England in the year 878, during the war between the English and the Danes, had already been set to music in the past by Johann Philip Schmidt, Josef Joachim Raff and Friedrich von Flotow, and apparently Ludwig van Beethoven had also expressed an interest in the material even prior to this. The same story was also set to music by Gaetano Donizetti, however, his Alfredo il Grande is written to a different text. This is the only time that Dvorak wrote music to a German libretto and, if he initially thought of staging his work at the Czech Provisional Theatre, he may have assumed that the libretto would be translated into Czech. This practice wasn’t at all unusual at that time, as in the case of operas by Skroup or Skuhersky; even the libretto for Smetana’s Libuse was originally written in German.
In the libretto the story was originally arranged into seven tableaux, but Dvorak separated the first of these and combined others to create three acts. The musical setting was greatly influenced by Dvorak’s special – and, at that time, still considerably uncritical – interest in Wagner’s music. The score for Alfred bears a series of traits typical of the Bayreuth Master: copious use of leitmotifs, a compact orchestral setting, and “endless”, richly modulating melodies. When the opera was first staged many years later, the critics even noted that “the score of Alfred is more Wagnerian than Wagner; Dvorak’s submission to his great example is here almost unqualified in its sincerity”. The work may be seen as formally fragmented and indistinctive in terms of expression, yet it is nevertheless a promising demonstration of the composer’s sense of the impact of choral scenes and the full orchestral sound. We will note an interesting compositional detail in the leitmotif characterising King Alfred, which is almost identical to the melody of the De Geyter Internationale. However, neither of the composers could have “copied” this tune: Pierre De Geyter only wrote his Internationale eighteen years later and Dvorak’s opera was never performed during his lifetime.
While we do not know precisely when work began on the opera, the dates added to various parts of the score indicate that the composition took Dvorak at least five months. The opera was completed – according to the composer’s own notes written at the end of the score – on 28 September 1870. It took him almost another month to write the overture, which was finished on 19 October. According to Dvorak’s biographer Otakar Sourek, the composer regarded this work as a beginner’s attempt and “he concealed the fact that he had written this score right up until his death; even his closest friends were unaware of its existence”. Yet the memoirs of Czech pianist and teacher Josef Jiranek tell us that Dvorak was, in fact, open about the score and even passed it on for appraisal to the greatest Czech authority on music at the time, Bedrich Smetana. Jiranek was Smetana’s pupil and he even lived with Smetana’s family for a time, thus one might assume that this source is credible. Jiranek’s memoirs unfortunately do not tell us how Smetana responded: “I have no idea what Smetana’s conclusion was, nor do I know where the opera disappeared to (it did not remain in Smetana’s possession). It is not inconceivable that Dvorak burned it.” Jiranek’s last note may have some relevance, however, since a number of Dvorak’s early works met the same fate; the composer was highly self-critical and would destroy material he deemed unworthy. But this was not the case with the score of Alfred. As far as we are aware, Dvorak never sought to have the work performed later on, nor does the opera appear on any of his lists of his own works. The overture is an exception, however, given that Dvorak planned to perform the piece in Prague in 1881 at a concert organised by the Association of Czech Journalists. In the end, the overture was replaced by something else (whether at Dvorak’s request or for some other reason remains a mystery). The composer didn’t abandon his first opera altogether, however. When he was writing the love scene featuring Vanda and Slavoj in the opera Vanda in 1875, he used the music (merely transposed into a different key) from Alvina’s and Harald’s duet in Act One of Alfred.
premiere and subsequent history
Although the overture was performed – under the title “Tragic Overture” – for the first time within a year of the composer’s death, at a Czech Philharmonic concert on 4 January 1905, listeners weren’t able to hear further extracts from the work until 6 February 1938 during a German broadcast at Prague Radio. It was only in December of that year that the opera was staged in its entirety for the first time. The first – and, to date, the only – staging of Alfred took place in Olomouc in what was then known as the Czech Theatre. The opera was presented in a Czech translation by Anna Richterova, who also sang the role of Alvina; the production was conducted by Adolf Heller. The premiere naturally attracted a lot of attention, a number of musicians travelled to Olomouc, along with the composer’s daughter Magda and son Antonin. The next (and evidently also the last) time audiences were given the chance to hear at least a cross-section of the opera occurred on the 120th anniversary of Dvorak’s birth, 8 September 1961, when excerpts from the work were broadcast by Plzen Radio, performed by the Plzen Radio Orchestra conducted by Josef Blacky, featuring soloists from the Plzen Opera. The world premiere of the opera featuring the original German libretto was held as a concert performance on 17 September 2014 during the Dvořák Prague International Music Festival.
significance of the work
Even though this early Dvorak opera will never become part of the repertoire and, where the composer’s operatic oeuvre is concerned, it will always be regarded as more of a rarity, it is worthy of closer examination at the very least since it gives us a greater understanding of the continuity of Dvorak’s compositional development and the ideas upon which he built his compositional style during the late 1860s and early 1870s. Certain methods the composer used in this early work then thread their way through his subsequent operas, right up to his final opera, Armida.
the story is set in England in the year 878
The Danish army, led by Prince Harald and Prince Gothron, have set up camp after a victorious battle against the English and they are now preparing to celebrate. Gothron is the only one not sharing in the festivities: the night before, the English King Alfred appeared to him in a dream wearing a crown of victory. In the meantime, Harald arrives with his retinue and a group of British captives, among them Alfred’s betrothed Alvina, whom Harald immediately begins to court. He tries in vain to gain her favour, and his threats also fall on deaf ears. Alvina rejects him, preferring to be imprisoned instead.
King Alfred discovers from his servant that his army has been overcome and that Alvina is now a prisoner in the hands of the enemy. Alfred decides to get inside the Danish camp disguised as a harp player. On his way into the encampment he finds himself at the castle tower where Alvina is imprisoned, and he hears her song coming from a window. Alfred promises the girl that he will come to rescue her very soon. Suddenly he is surprised by Gothron’s men who drag the alleged harper into the camp. Meanwhile, Alvina has managed to escape from prison and arrives at the Danish camp just when Alfred discloses his true identity. The company is taken by surprise and the couple take this opportunity to flee the Danish camp, while Gothron shivers with terror as he remembers his dream.
Alvina comes upon a group of British soldiers and tells them that the king is alive and already on his way to meet his company. After urging them to go after their sovereign, she is surprised by Harald and taken captive once again. In the prison where the British captives are held, he makes amorous advances towards Alvina once again, but she refuses him, as before. At that moment, however, Alfred’s victorious army comes charging into the camp; Harald takes his own life, and Alfred and Alvina delight in their happy reunion. The people cheer for their beloved ruler and rejoice in their freedom.