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Music with Ease > 19th Century German Opera (except Wagner) > Martha (Flotow)

An Opera by Friedrich Flotow

A short notice of this work can hardly be omitted, and it seems to be best in place here. A "Critical History of Opera" has recently been written (in America, certainly) in which the name of Flotow is not even mentioned. And yet, Flotow’s "Martha," once popular everywhere, has still a place on the borders of the living operatic land. It is one of the operas which Mr. Charles Manners, suggesting a list for the present volume, expressly mentioned as being "always acceptable" to his patrons.

Friedrich Flotow was a German (born in 1812, the son of a landed nobleman), and he has sometimes been classed with composers of the German romantic school. But it is more convenient to place him with Rossini and his followers, since, as Mr. Streatfeild puts it, his music is "merely a feeble imitation of the popular Italianisms of his day." He established himself in Paris in 1827, and one opera produced there, in 1839, ran for fifty-three nights in twelve months. From 1856 to 1863 he was intendant of the Court Theatre at Schwerin, but he lived near Vienna from 1868 till his death in 1883.

The action of "Martha" takes place in England during the reign of Queen Anne; and the story is that of a freakish beauty of high rank, Lady Henrietta, who disguises herself as a peasant, calls herself Martha, and, with her maid Betsy, similarly disguised, joins a crowd of girls going to the hiring fair at Richmond. Two young farmers, Plunkett and Lionel, engage Martha and her companion for twelve months. They do not like their situation, and escape the same night, aided by an uncouth cavalier who, also disguised, had escorted them to Richmond. The two farmers, in the short space of time, had fallen desperately in love with the girls, and four Acts are required to show how the passion proceeds. In the end Martha, who has reassumed her proper rank, discovers that Lionel is the son and heir of a peer, and they are espoused. Plunkett at the same time is wedded to Betsy, and the curtain descends on two pairs of happy lovers.

It was at Vienna that "Martha" was first produced in November 1847. it "quickly spread all over the world," though London did not hear it till 1858. The success which it attained may be ascribed chiefly to the "trivial tunefulness" of the melodies, and to the light and attractive character of the work generally. There is plenty of lively and well-accentuated rhythm; the harmonies are often pleasing; and the orchestration is piquant. But the score is not of much musical interest.

When "Martha" was mentioned to its composer, it was generally to eulogise "The Last Rose of Summer," to the mortification of poor Flotow, whose only merit as regards this popular Irish air was that he had picked out and appositely placed it in his opera.

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