At the Semperoper, Dresden, revived again this December, Švanda Dudák or Schwanda der Dudelsackpfiefer, the opera by Jaromír Weinberger (1896-1967). When it premiered in 1927, it became an instant hit, performed numerous times. Its success was cut short by the Nazi annexation of the Sudetenland and later of the Czech Republic. Weinberger, being Jewish, had to flee but the opera would have been proscribed in any case because it would have been deemed subversive. Švanda Dudák is a nationalist work, celebrating Czech identity. It's based on the play Strakonický dudák, by Josef Kajetán Tyl (1808-1856), who opposed the Hapsburgs and was involved in the uprisings of 1848 and thereafter. To this day, there's a brewery in Strakonice called "Dudel" which uses bagpipes in its marketing material.
Central European bagpipes, and the specifically Bohemian Dudel, are symbolic, because they connect to folk traditions and communal music making. They'd be played at country dances, in beer halls and in local celebrations, played by individuals, often by itinerant musicians. The bags were made of goatskin, woolly edges left hanging, and the pipes of goat horn. Goats, of course, signify the Devil. Dancing, drunkeness, sex and individualism : a provocative mix. Scottish bagpipes, used in mass tattoos and in battle, are rather different.
Švanda the bagpiper has just got married, ie settled down, when the rascal Babinský suggests they run away. They leave the farm for a palace, The Queen is under a spell, her heart frozen like ice. Švanda's music brings her back to life, but when she finds out he's married, she orders his execution. A spell that can be switched on and off, as suits ? Švanda escapes, by music and by magic, but then ends up in Hell because he made a silly promise to his wife. Švanda and Babinský challenge the Devil himself, cheating him at his own game and playing the Dudel with its uncanny powers. Švanda Dudák is thus slyly subversive. Švanda's music gets him out of tricky situations. He's an unpretentious Czech peasant but he has the smarts ! Not for nothing did Smetana embed a reference to Švanda in Má vlast.
Janáček,, but not everyone needs to be a genius to be good enough to listen to. and this is certainly worthwhile. I even relish the vaguely jazz elements, which remind us how up to date Weinberger and his audiences were. Read more here about Weinberger and his background with Max Reger - the Dresden connection again (see my article on Dresden and Reger here). Švanda Dudák isn't a "rare" opera, or difficult. Weinberger himself, who committed suicide in 1967, would have been aware of the recording conducted by Winfried Zillig in Frankfurt in 1948, which features a youthful Christa Ludwig as the Queen. It's in German, which works very well, and is very good. Postwar, Zillig conducted a lot of music which had been suppressed under the Reich, and his performances were broadcast on the radio, which was how Europeans then got their music, not from recordings. . The 2012 Semperoper Dresden production is in Czech, and available on CD. There are numerous recordings of the Polka and Fugue, so popular that Leopold Stokowski considered using them in Fantasia.
Top photo coutest Semperoper Dresdem, lower photo a bill for the first run of the opera in 1927