Bringing Legends to Life: Weinberger's 'Švanda the Bagpiper'

WOO-1234-Schwanda-300-2Folklore is full of loveable rogues, the sort of characters that are famous in some circles and infamous in others, and a few of them have inspired remarkable music.

The most famous example may be the legendary trickster Till Eulenspiegel, a prominent figure in German folk stories. He was portrayed in music by Richard Strauss, in the popular tone poem "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks" -- a vivid portrait that seems to end with Till's execution, but then reminds us that legends are difficult to kill.

There are similar figures in other cultures. English folklore describes the heroic outlaw Robin Hood. His story appears in any number of traditional ballads, and in a set of incidental music by Arthur Sullivan. Robin even inspired an Oscar-winner, in Erich Wolfgang Korngold's flamboyant score for the 1938 Hollywood movie The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn.

But have you heard of another, similar figure among the world's folk tales -- the one called Babinsky? If not, you might try your favorite search engine. Plug in Babinsky's name -- using the first name Vaclav -- and you'll come up with plenty of hits. But most of them will be in Czech -- because his story comes from Bohemia.

In real life, Babinsky might have been little more than a common crook -- maybe even a murderer. But the Babinsky of legend is famous as a valiant "noble highwayman." And Babinsky can also be found in music, as he's a pivotal character in one of the 20th century's most popular operas -- Jaromir Weinberger's brilliant, Czech folk opera, Švanda the Bagpiper.

Weinberger was born in Prague in 1896. He got positive notices for a few of his early works, but it wasn't until Švanda appeared, in 1927, that his career took off. The opera was performed some 2000 times during the next few years, making its American debut at the Metropolitan in 1931.

Weinberger never had another success quite like it. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1938 to escape Nazi persecution, and eventually became an American citizen. But his musical career went steadily downhill, and he took his own life in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 1967.

Biographer David Kushner calls him "an enigmatic and tragic figure," writing that Weinberger "longed for the return of a culture that, after the height of his career, had ceased to exist."

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Švanda the Bagpiper from the Saxon State Opera, in a production featuring the Dresden Staatskapelle -- and while the opera is often performed in an early, German translation, the Dresden production presents it in the original Czech. The stars are baritone Christoph Pohl as Švanda, soprano Marjorie Owens as his wife Dorotka, and tenor Ladislav Elgr as the legendary Babinsky.