Beloved and Betrayed: Georg Benda’s powerful Ariadne auf Naxos


Saturday, April 11, 2015, 7:30 pm, Washburn Hall at Mechanics Hall, Worcester
Sunday, April 12, 2015, 4:00 pm, Modern Theatre at Suffolk University, Boston


Concerto in E Minor for traverso, strings and continuo, L2.4  Franz Benda ?(1709–1786) ?

    Allegro con brio    

Short intermission

Ariadne auf Naxos    Music by Georg Benda (1722–1795)
        Libretto by Johann Christian Brandes (1735–1799

Marya Lowry • Ariadne
Robert Walsh • Theseus
Suzanne Stumpf • traverso, Voice of the Oreade
Sarah Darling • violin
Jesse Irons • violin
Marcia Cassidy • viola
Daniel Ryan • cello
Michael Bahmann • harpsichord

Production crew:
    Director: Suzanne Stumpf
    Stage Manager: Marjorie Scarff
    Lighting (Worcester performance): Joseph Chilorio
    Lighting (Boston performance): Nick Robinson

Translation of the libretto by Pamela Dellal

Program Notes

This program features two substantial works by the brothers Franz and Georg Benda. Bohemian by birth and active in Germany, they were part of a musical family that, in their generation, also included the violinists Joseph and Johann Benda, and the soprano Anna Franziska Benda. Franz Benda was recognized as a violin virtuoso, while Georg Benda was best known for his melodramas, a form he did not invent but popularized, developing it into a sophisticated art form.

Franz Benda spent most of his career in the service of King Fredrick the Great of Prussia, serving as his Konzertmeister from 1771. Also an accomplished singer, Benda was known for his expressive style of playing, including extravagant and affecting ornamentation not only in slow movements but in the fast ones as well. His Flute Concerto in E Minor survives in a manuscript dated between 1760 and 1770. This brilliant work begins with an Allegro con brio which alternates between turbulent and plaintive characters. Its graceful and lyrical Adagio is followed by a clever and lithe Presto with many surprising twists and turns. Throughout the emotionally-charged work, Benda creates great drama within the dialogue between soloist and orchestra.

Franz Benda’s younger brother Georg Benda developed the form of the melodrama while serving as Kapelldirector at the court of Saxe Gotha. After the arrival of the Seyler theatrical troupe at Gotha in 1774, Georg Benda was commissioned to compose his first and (in the opinion of many) best melodrama, Ariadne auf Naxos.
The melodrama, a much-neglected musical genre today, was a popular form in the late 18th-century. First created by Jean-Jacques Rousseau around 1762, the form was largely brought to prominence by Georg Benda. The aim of the genre is to unite declamatory text with music that supports its drama. Benda’s masterful melodramas were known to have been admired by W. A. Mozart who carried around scores of his Medea and Ariadne auf Naxos, writing in a letter to his father in 1778:

“…I have always wanted to write a drama of this kind. I cannot remember whether I told you anything about this type of drama the first time I was here? On that occasion I saw a piece of this kind performed twice and was absolutely delighted. Indeed, nothing has ever surprised me so much, for I had always imagined that such a piece would be quite ineffective! You know, of course, that there is no singing in it, only recitation, to which the music is like a sort of obbligato accompaniment to a recitative. Now and then words are spoken while the music goes on, and this produces the finest effect. The piece I saw was Benda’s ‘Medea’. He has composed another one, ‘Ariadne auf Naxos’, and both are really excellent. You know that of all the Lutheran Kapellmeisters Benda has always been my favourite, and I like those two works of his so much that I carry them about with me.”

The text for Ariadne auf Naxos was written by Johann Christan Brandes, an actor and playwright who was a member of the Syler theatrical troupe. Using a tragic cantata by H. W. von Gerstenberg as a model, Brandes wrote the text for his wife Charlotte, a well-known singer and actress. She played the role of Ariadne in the work’s premiere.
The tragic tale of Theseus deserting his beloved Ariadne on the island of Naxos is colorfully captured in Benda’s musical text painting. Musical motifs foreshadow or reinforce the action and emotional drama throughout the work, from Theseus’ inner struggles to Ariadne’s reminiscences to her abject terror as the reality of her fate becomes clear.

For our performances, we are presenting the modern day premiere of Benda’s chamber version of this work, scored for four-part strings. In keeping with the 18th-century custom of presenting melodrama in the local language where the performance is given, we are performing the work in English translation.

— Daniel Ryan and Suzanne Stumpf