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2016/11/08

Work of the Week: Karl Amadeus Hartmann – Simplicius Simplicissimus

On 11 November, Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s 1930s opera Simplicius Simplicissimus will be given its UK premiere at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London. The Independent Opera production, directed by Polly Graham with Timothy Redmond conducting the Britten Sinfonia, will use a new English translation by David Poutney.

In three acts, the opera tells the story of a naïve shepherd boy, Simplicius Simplicissimus, during the horrific Thirty Years’ War which devastated Germany in the seventeenth century. Simplicius doesn’t understand his father who tries to warn him of the evils of the world, nor his mysterious dreams of a ‘tree of life’. After a series of unfortunate events, such as the destruction of his family farm and his kidnapping, Simplicius retrospectively understands his dream as a metaphor for social injustice.

Hartmann’s Simplicius Simpliccissimus – History repeats itself

Hartmann’s work, based on the 1668 novel “Der Abentheurliche Simpliccimus Teutsch” by Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, was also shaped by the political circumstances of his present time. Though it was composed in 1934-1935, Simplicius Simplicissimus was not premiered until 1949 since Hartmann’s music was classified as “degenerate Art” by the Nazi regime. A parallel is drawn between the two historically distinct events, and the opera becomes an allegorical outcry against war and tyranny.

I became acquainted with the book and the descriptions of the Thirty Year’s War captured my attention. How current the line seemed to me: “The times are so strange, that nobody knows whether they will get out of it all without losing their life.” Then, as now, the individual was helplessly at the mercy of the devastating brutality of the age, where people were close to losing their souls. There was no hope for salvation, except in the most simple-minded human brought forth against it. – Karl Amadeus Hartmann

Hartmann realises this historic parallel musically by incorporating among others passages of Jewish melodies, creating a complex network of compositional meaning. Also prominent is the use of a German folk melody from the 13th century, put to the words “oh world I must leave you” (“Oh Welt ich muss dich lassen”). Withdrawal from the world is a very important theme in Hartmann’s work, but at the same time, the opera shows its impossibility: reality can be found reflected in Hartmann’s engagement with an older history, and even in Simplicius innocent fantasies.

The Independent Opera’s production of Simplicius Simplissimus will have repeat performances on the 15, 17 and 19 November. Next year the work will be performed in Bremen, Germany from 28 January.

 

 

Photo: Monika Rit­ters­haus, Oper Frank­furt 2009