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Otto Nicolai and “The Merry Wives of Windsor”

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Carl Otto Ehrenfried Nicolai (June 9, 1810 –May 11, 1849) was a German composer, conductor, and founder of the Vienna Philharmonic who is best known for his operatic version of Shakespeare’s comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor as Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor but also composed four other operas, lieder, and works for orchestra, chorus, ensemble, and solo instruments. Nicolai, a child prodigy, was born in Königsberg, Prussia, now Kaliningrad, Russia. He received his first musical education from his father, himself a composer and musical director, Carl Ernst Daniel Nicolai. During his childhood his parents divorced, and while still a youth, early in June 1826, Nicolai ran away from his parents’ “loveless” home, taking refuge in Stargard with a senior legal official called August Adler who treated the musical prodigy like a son and, when Nicolai was seventeen, sent him to Berlin where he took singing lessons at the Zum Grauen Kloster school and studied music with Goethe’s favorite, Carl Friedrich Zelter.

In 1830, following two years further study at the Royal Institute for Church Music, Nicolai began teaching music and singing in concerts, but still struggled in poverty. He had already published his earliest compositions, including his Op. 4 choral work, Preussens Stimme and the Six Lieder, Op. 6. After some initial successes in Germany, including his Symphony No. 1 in C of 1831 and public concerts, Nicolai became musician and organist to the Prussian embassy chapel in Rome from 1833 to 1836, where he studied with Giuseppe Baini. Contact with the theatre led him to drop contrapuntal studies and turn to composing opera. When Giuseppe Verdi declined the libretto of Il proscritto by the proprietors of La Scala in Milan, it was offered instead to Nicolai. Later, Nicolai refused a libretto by the same author, and it went to Verdi, whose Nabucco was his first early success.

After returning to Vienna to serve as Kapellmeister at the Hoftheater for a year, Nicolai returned to Italy in 1838 and began working on his first operas. Enrico II, originally entitled Rosmonda d’Inghilterra (1839), and Il templario (1840), after Scott’s Ivanhoe, were successes at their premieres, though his subsequent Italian operas, much influenced by Bellini, received lukewarm receptions. He became enamored of Italian culture and spoke of its great influence on him, not only in the realm of music but also in literature and painting. All of Nicolai’s operas were originally written in Italian, the sole exception being his last and best known opera, The Merry Wives of Windsor, written in German. At one time he was more popular in Italy than Verdi himself was.

Nicolai made a reputation in Trieste and Turin before becoming principal conductor at the Vienna Hofoper in 1841. His uncompromising standards, and energy in founding the Vienna Philharmonic Concerts in 1842 for the purpose of presenting adequate performances of Beethoven’s music made a great impact. During the early 1840s, Nicolai established himself as a major figure in the concert life of Vienna. In 1844 he was offered the position, vacated by Felix Mendelssohn, of Kapellmeister at the Berlin Cathedral; but he did not reestablish himself in Berlin until the last year of his life. In 1848 he returned to Berlin as opera Kapellmeister and cathedral choir director. On May 11, 1849, two months after the premiere of The Merry Wives of Windsor, and only two days after his appointment as Hofkapellmeister at the Berlin Staatsoper, he collapsed and died from a stroke in Berlin. On the very same day of his death, he was elected a member of the Royal Prussian Academy of Arts.

Nicolai has come to be viewed by many as a one-work composer, and his masterpiece was the comic opera Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor or The Merry Wives of Windsor (1849). It brought to a peak the bourgeois Romantic comic opera and his own creativity, reconciling his conflicting imaginative and intellectual impulses. His church and orchestral music is conventional, while his partsongs and choruses show his penchant for felicitous melodies. Nicolai was artistically bound by a certain perfectionism and caution that hampered his productivity. However, The Merry Wives of Windsor occupies an important position in German Romantic operatic repertoire and remains one of the most popular comic operas of the 19th century.

The following work by Otto Nicolai is contained in my collection:

The Merry Wives of Windsor (1849): Overture.

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources

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