Monday 20 March 1995
Usually providing his own texts, Sutermeister adapted works by Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Wilde and Stevenson during the 50 years that he was actively engaged in writing operas. His first major success, Romeo and Juliet, was, according to the 1954 edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ``after Rosenkavalier . . . the most frequently performed modern opera''. A later opera, Raskolnikoff, reached La Scala, Milan, while others were staged in Munich and Berlin. From 1963 to 1975 Sutermeister taught composition at the Hanover Hochschule fr Musik.
The chief influences in forming Sutermeister's style were Arthur Honegger, who first inspired him to write music, and Carl Orff, with whom he studied for a time. He particularly admired the Verdi/Boito Otello and Falstaff, and also Debussy's Pellas et Mlisande, striving in his own operas to combine musical and dramatic expression in the manner of those masterpieces. When, in the Fifties and Sixties, he was considered old-fashioned, he found his own audience with hugely successful television operas.
Sutermeister was born in Feuerthalen, in the canton of Schaffhausen. After studying philology in Basle and Paris, in 1931 he turned to musicology at Basle University. From 1932 to 1934 he attended the Akademie der Tonkunst in Munich, where his teachers included Walter Courvoisier, Hans Pfitzner and Carl Orff. Returning to Switzerland, he worked for a year as a rptiteur at the Municipal Theatre in Berne, before becoming a full-time composer. Sutermeister's first opera, Die schwarze Spinne, with text by A. Rosler, was written for radio and broadcast in 1936. A stage version was performed at St Gall in 1949. Meanwhile, his ballet Das Dorf unter dem Gletscher was danced at Karlsruhe in 1937 and followed in 1938 by Andreas Gryphius, the first of eight cantatas that he wrote, and one of his finest early works.
Romeo and Juliet, for which Sutermeister made his own adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy, was commissioned by Karl Bhm, who conducted the premiere at the Dresden State Opera in 1940. Maria Cebotari, the soprano for whom the part of Juliet was specially written, scored a great personal triumph. The opera, too, was very successful and for the next 20 years continued to appear frequently in German-speaking theatres. Die Zauberinsel, adapted from The Tempest, was also given its first performance at Dresden, in 1942, but proved less popular than his previous Shakespeare setting.
Sutermeister's next theatre piece was Niobe, a monodrama with text by his brother Peter, first performed at Zurich in 1946. Combining speech, choral music and dance, this work most clearly shows the influence of Orff. For the opera which followed, Sutermeister went to Stockholm, where Raskolnikoff was premiered at The Royal Swedish Opera on 14 October 1948. The text, based on Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, was again by Peter Sutermeister. Though the musical idiom of Raskolnikoff remains as easy to assimilate, the dramatic structure has become more complicated than in Sutermeister's earlier operas: two separate orchestras illustrate the outer and inner life of the protagonist, who is represented by two different singers, a tenor and a bass. I went to a performance of Raskolnikoff in Stockholm at that time and found it an utterly absorbing experience, which still remains vivid after 47 years. Though less generally popular than Romeo and Julieta, it was staged in a number of other theatres, including La Scala, where it received four performances in 1950, conducted by Issay Dobrowen, who had conducted the premiere.
A variety of works followed: two radio-ballads, Fingerhtchen and Die Fsse im Feuer, were broadcast in 1950, and respectively staged in St Gall and at the City Opera, Berlin, later the same year. Der Rote Steifel, the adaptation of a fairy tale by Wilhelm Hauff, Das Kalte Hertz, was performed at Stockholm in 1951. Titus Feuerfuchs, a burlesque opera based on Nestroy's Der Talisman, scored some success in Basle in 1958, although the composer was accused of diluting the satire of the original. However, two television operas were extremely popular: Seraphine (1959), a comic opera after Rabelais, was staged at the Cuvillis Theatre, Munich, in 1960; while Das Gespenst von Canterville (1964), based on Oscar Wilde's story "The Canterville Ghost", was even more successful. Der Flaschenteufel ("The Bottle Imp"), adapted by R.K. Weibel from a story by Robert Louis Stevenson, was screened on German television in 1971.
Sutermeister's penultimate stage work, Madame Bovary, first given in Zurich in 1967, is loosely based on Flaubert's novel. With many characters cut, it consists largely of monologues for Emma Bovary, who was superbly sung by Anneliese Rothenberger. For his final opera, he adapted Eugne Ionesco's play Le Roi Branger. Premiered at the 1985 Munich Festival, with only six characters, a tiny chorus and small orchestra, this work, in its modest way, is as effective as anything Sutermeister wrote.
Heinrich Sutermeister, composer: born Feuerthalen, Switzerland 12 August 1910; Professor of Free Composition, Hochschule fr Musik, Hanover, 1963- 75; died Morges, Switzerland 16 March 1995.
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