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Friedrich von Flotow: Friedrich von Flotow (b. Tuetendorf, 26 April 1812; d. Darmstadt, 24 Jan 1883).
There was no rags-to-riches romance about the career of Friedrich von Flotow. Nobly born in the German duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, he was intended for diplomatic life and sent to Paris to train for that purpose at the age of fifteen. In the French capital, however, he found artistic circles more congenial and quickly became aware of his own musical potential. After a period of serious study he was able to gain a hearing for his music at private soirees in the aristocratic salons so fashionable at the time, frequently in partnership with the equally ambitious but impecunious Offenbach. He came before the wider public in 1839 with Le Naufrage de la Meduse at the Theatre de la Renaissance, and subsequent operas composed for Paris made their way to England and Germany to win him international recognition. None of these early successes, however, has stood the test of time.
The work by which Friedrich von Flotow is still remembered is Martha, which began life as a ballet for Paris in 1844 and was then turned into an opera for Vienna three years later. Skilfully combining gaiety with sentimentality, this finds the composer at his best, pouring out a stream of fresh, spontaneous melody. Its highly unlikely story is set in the reign of Queen Anne and centres on the annual Richmond Fair. The score breathes the unsophisticated charm of the countryside, even incorporating the Irish air The last rose of summer', and when produced with taste the opera can still cast a delicate spell. Friedrich von Flotow's lyrical gift is not to be sneered at, and the graceful expertise of his writing for the voice is proved by the fact that tenors of the calibre of Caruso and Gigli chose to appear in the role of Lionel while Sembrich and De los Angeles are numbered among the distinguished sopranos who have appeared as Lady Harriet. Above all, perhaps, Martha is famous for Lionel's aria 'Ach, so fromm' (better known in Italian as 'M'appari'), which no leading tenor for generations has left out of his repertoire. For all its use of a German text, an English setting and an Irish folk song, Martha reflects its composer's musical training by being essen- tially French in spirit.
Friedrich von Flotow continued to compose operas, songs and chamber works, but he never recaptured the romantic rapture of Martha. Only in that one opera, it seems, did he ever find a story tailor-made for his individual brand of pretty lyricism. He was no work-shy dilettante, however, for in addition to composition he threw himself into the duties of intendant of the court theatre at Schwerin from 1856 to 1863. He spent his later years first in Paris, then near Vienna, and enjoyed the satisfaction of seeing his operas performed as far afield as St Petersburg and Turin. If it appears somewhat sad that a composer who had undoubted talent and the financial means to foster it should leave so little behind, it is no mean reflection on him that the music of Martha still exerts its charm almost a century after his death.
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