Today I’d like to talk about an official, even a section chief, who does not fit into the usual prejudice and who shows that the most beautiful flowers bloom in the strangest places.
It is the story of a man who in his spare time found the muse to compose works of incredible beauty. Stage plays of such power, with such a wealth of melodies and colours, that even today, after more than a hundred years, they delight the hearts of people.
Of course I’m talking about Carl Zeller, the creator of the operetta “Der Vogelhändler” (The Bird Trader).
He was born in 1842 as the son of a well-known Viennese doctor and came into contact with the culture of this city at an early age.
At the age of seven he was already sitting at the organ, learning various orchestral instruments and singing soprano solos at church festivals. So it comes as no surprise that he was soon to be a member of the Imperial and Royal Court Singers’ Boys’ Choir.
There he had the luck to learn from the famous music theorist Simon Sechter, who had already introduced Franz Schubert and Anton Bruckner to the basics of music.
But Carl Zeller had health problems at an early age. He himself complained about stinging in the chest while singing, and after a medical examination he was declared unsuitable for service as a singer at the court.
Since he was, however, an extraordinarily intelligent and diligent pupil, he received a scholarship of 300 guilders, which secured his further career.
He studied law and composition at the same time and then joined the Austrian Ministry of Education and Culture as a civil servant, where he finally became head of the section.
Contemporaries spoke appreciatively of his elegant appearance. Thanks to her and his winning manners, he was quickly accepted into the best society, where he was regarded as a gifted narrator who liked to underline his speeches with witty ideas.
In his spare time he composed his first works for the stage, leisurely and at long intervals. But in the 1870s, when his inclinations increasingly turned to music, he got more and more into a conflict between his vocation and his breadwinning.
But he always remained true to the motto of the old Habsburg nobility: “The civil servant has nothing, but this he certainly has”.
He even rejected the position as artistic director of the Vienna Court Theatre. Financial security as a civil servant was apparently more important to him than the intellectual freedom of an artist.
But we must not see him as a ossified soul of a civil servant, but rather as a person who needed a fixed point of reference in order to cast his dreams into music all the more surely.
Unfortunately, he did not grow very old. Due to a bad fall he began to lose his muscles, which attacked his spinal cord and finally made it impossible for him to walk and speak.
So he died, bitterly and without the consolation of making music, in the late summer of 1898.
Despite his early death and the fact that he could only compose in free hours during his lifetime, he stands on an equal footing with Carl Millöcker, Franz von Suppé and Johann Strauss, the three grandmasters of Viennese operetta.
The most famous work from his pen, which is still one of the most popular of the genre today, is “Der Vogelhändler”. Written in 1891, it experienced more than 180 performances in a row and can still be seen on every stage in the world today.
With “Der Vogelhändler” Carl Zeller has succeeded in creating the prototype of the Austrian Heimatoperette, written for an urban audience for whom he conjured up a glorified rural past.
The Tyroleans in their traditional costumes confidently meet aristocrats who think they are close to the people , a natural bursch sings a love song in duet with a countess, and the choir of villagers laughs at the caprioles of the nobility. All this is surrounded by waltzes and ländlers, which drive you to your feet at first hearing.
One only has to listen to Adam’s appearance , as he smashes his self-confident “Griaß ench Gott” (Good greet you) out into the world, to understand why this operetta took the hearts of the Viennese by storm.
Beyond that, I don’t want to tell anything about this work.
Nothing about Zellers mastery, his grandiose architecture especially in the ensembles and choir scenes or about the dramatic momentum in the spacious finales of the I. and II. Act.
Nor about the skill of the libretto and the quick-wittedness and wit with which the individual figures are drawn.
You must experience and feel these things for yourself, to which I cordially invite you!