About Franz Schubert's opera "Sakontala"
During the autumn of 1820, Schubert started working on a large-scale romantic opera in three acts (and with partly spoken dialogue) for soloists, choir and orchestra. The text was based on the classical poet Kalidasa’s drama "Sakontala", and a friend of Schubert (professor of physics Johann Phillip Neumann) wrote the libretto. For unknown reasons Schubert never completed the opera. In the standard literature on Schubert this fragment is usually referred to as a minor, totally incomplete torso.
During the summer of 2001 the Finnish "cultural entrepreneur" Antti Sairanen decided to investigate the possibility of "rescuing" one of Schubert's numerous unfinished works for the stage by attempting to produce a performable version. Among his choices, "Sakontala" (because of the quality of the original Kalidasa text) became a preferred item. In the spring of 2002 he contacted me with this general idea, and we decided to have a closer look at the Sakontala fragment. Sairanen managed to obtain a copy of the fragment from the international Schubert society in Tübingen. One of the ideas discussed was to attempt a "rendering" of Schubert’s unfinished music combined with new music composed by me - accepting the inevitable stylistic "clash" as a virtue.
To my amazement, however, the "fragment" proved to consist of more than 400 pages of unknown music by Schubert in his own hand. The fragment consisted of pages with 16 staves, organised as an orchestral score. Schubert had fully written and composed the vocal parts with text. But only very rarely and sporadically did he write accompaniment, hint at orchestration or give harmonisation etc. Clearly he was writing a kind of "shorthand" and intended to fill in all the remaining music later. A few notes here and there would do to support his memory. Some measures remain totally empty. Approximately midway in the work, however, he suddenly stopped composing, never to resume the work. Possibly he had doubts about the dramatic potential of the libretto.
Hardly any other great composer left so much music unfinished as Schubert. Many hours of music by him still collect dust in archives and libraries, and an unknown number of manuscripts were never registered or are still considered lost. With a strange twist of luck - and through the persistent interest of Antti Sairanen - Dr. Aigner, the intendant of the Musiksammlung der Wiener Stadt-und Landesbibliothek suddenly discovered the full Neumann libretto in an antiquarian bookseller's and transferred this to a generally readable form.
Slowly discarding the idea of "stylistic clash", I realised that the part of the libretto which Schubert finished made a dramaturgically meaningful whole. Schubert’s fragment ends, strangely, with a movement that resembles a "finale". By moving certain scenes from the finished first act to the unfinished second act a dramatic unity could be obtained, creating an opera which would last about two hours in performance.
The work to reconstruct the score would obviously be time-consuming and require a rather unusual combination of historical, theoretical and compositional ability and insight. The interpretation of Schubert’s writing (notably his text in "Gothic" handwriting), the interpretation and decoding of harmonic structure and the full orchestration of the score did appear to me to be possible, however. The aim was never to "compose like Schubert", but to use his fragment as the sole background for all technical and artistic decisions. This is comparable for instance to Deryck Cooke's reconstruction of the Mahler's 10th, or Anthony Payne's recent reconstruction of Elgar's 3rd Symphony. As will be understood, the work constitutes a combination of scholarship, analysis and artistic endeavour, but certainly mainly focussed on the latter. The value of the fact that the public thus may have access to almost two hours of unknown music by Schubert needs no underlining.
Kalidasa is often referred to as "the Homer of India" and is the most famous classical oriental poet; a poet of major importance for Goethe, among others. The text to Sakontala with its origins in a literary masterpiece makes it unique in Schubert’s oeuvre; practically all of the other libretti composed by Schubert are second rate. The play has tragic as well as comic elements, and Schubert’s opera now and again brings Weber's "Freischütz" to mind - though Schubert had no way of knowing about this work composed almost exactly at the same time.
Karl Aage Rasmussen