Jan van Gilse: Helga von Stavern (1911)

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  • VanGilse401Concerts3
  • Cover of the manuscript score of Jan van Gilse's 1910-1912 opera Helga von Stavern
  • Opening page of the manuscript score of Act i of Jan van Gilse's 'Helga von Stavern' in the composer's handwriting
  • Portrait of Jan van Gilse
  • The world première of excerpts from Helga von Stavern was given at 401COncerts 3 at the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterloo, on May 29, 2016 by Jolien De Gendt (Helga), Pieter Dhoore (piano) and Ann Vancoillie (violin)

Libretto: Jan van Gilse
World premere symphonic fragments: 28 November 1915
Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, Jan van Gilse concert
Jan van Gilse: Helga von Stavern ‘Verwandlungsmusik & finale’* (Along with Jan van Gilse: ‘Vorspiel zu Eine Lebensmesse’; ‘Drie gezangen voor Rabindranoth Tagore’s ‘Gitanjali’’ (voor sopraan en orkest)*; ‘Fourth Symfonie’. *
Alida Loman, sopraan (Helga), Thom Denijs, bariton (Haron), Concertgebouworkest, conductor: Jan van Gilse.

29 mei 2016-04-16
Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo
‘Ist es denn wahr?’ (Act III, scène 3, Helga’s monologue* en Verwandlungsmusik)
Jolien De Gendt, sopraan (Helga), Ann Vancoillie (violin), Pieter Dhoore (piano).
* Wereldpremière
Download via: 401Concerts 3 download

Korte inhoud

Tekst: René Seghers
Partners: Nederlands Muziek Instituut, Kröller-Müller Museum

401COnc3Logo130401Concerts 3 (Video)
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Helga, einen reiche Kaufmannswitwe
Haron, eine Seefahrer in Dienste Helgas
Eelco, ein junger Knecht
Hinke, dessen Weib
Der Stadtvogt
Focco, ein alter Diener
Iglo, Helga’s Schreiber
Der Kurier des Grafen von Holland
Der Küstenwacher
Ein verwundeter Matrose
Ein alter Fischer
Ein junges Weib
Onno, ein Strandräuber
Ein Bootsmann
Hero, streitbarer Knecht Helgas    
Lars, streitbarer Knecht Helgas
Ein Koch, zwei Landsknechte, Diener und streitbare Knechte der Frau Helga, Gäste, Helgas Männer, Frauen und Kinder aus dem Volk

The Frisian town of Stavern on the South Sea coast (today a city on the banks of the IJssel lake, following the closure of the South Sea by a dike in 1932) is de facto governed by the merciless rich merchant widow Helga von Stavern. Her sole purpose in life is accumulating more money and enslaving and humiliating the town’s inhabitants, whom she believes to own because she provides all labour in the town. No one can soften her mind, and when Hinke, the wife of fisherman Eelco, begs for mercy just because Eelco refused to be spanned in front of Helga’s wagon like a horse, she says that if he wants to be free, he can be free, as a beggar outside the town walls and only after having been punished in full. When her captain Haron returns from a fruitful commercial trip, he seeks to marry Helga. She replies that she will marry him if he brings her the most precious thing on Earth. While Haron rushes off to find it, she exclaims that the most precious thing on Earth is obviously her freedom. She regards all men as weak. When Haron returns he brings ships laden with golden corn. Because she has enough riches, he believed that this precious corn would make her beloved with the people of Stavern. Helga is not amused. She is insulted by his stupidity and casts him off like a dog. The corn she has thrown in the harbour, rather than giving it to the hungry people. This causes Eelco to step forward and curse her: she will one day meet her fate and be poor. Provoked, Helga tosses an expensive ring from the finger into the sea, exclaiming that just as she will never see that ring again, she will never be poor. In the third act she is up for a banquet with the nobility of Stavern when a shocked servant brings her the ring she threw into the sea. It was found in the fish the cook was preparing for the dinner. All flee her, believing her cursed. Then bad tidings start pouring in. The people are rising against her because they believe she is the cause of the economic disaster that hit the town after a mysterious sandbank blocked the harbour for visiting ships. They believe it was the corn that Helga threw in the harbour that caused the sandbank to rise. She gets news of her ships being sacked by pirates. Then she loses support of her protector, the Count, who forfeits all her belongings because of the crimes she committed against the people.

In her grand aria ‘Ist es denn wahr? Ist es denn wirklich, wirklich wahr?’ she asks herself if this can be true? (An excerpt of this aria can be heard in the video trailer here presented of 401Concerts 3. She finds a 1001 reason why not she is to blame for all the misery of the people, but it doesn’t help. In a delirium she summons the spirits of the past to help, most of all she calls upon Haron, who once was so faithful to her. Then she faints. Following the ‘Verwandlungsmusik’ the scene changes to Eelco’s fisherman’s hut on the beach. It is winter. Helga, now a beggar, knocks on their door, freezing and starving, she begs to warm herself just a little at the fire. Hinke is softened by the sad figure but Eelco roughly sends her off. Then his friend comes in, saying that a ship stranded on the coast and they need to loot its cargo fast, before others discover it. Then Haron enters, Helga in his arm. He tells Eelco that he better steals the cargo than to interfere. While Hinke brings pillows for the dying Helga, Haron and Helga sing a love duet. She is at piece with God and dies happily in his arms.


A modern Dutch composer would not easily hatch the plan to just compose an opera without any subvention from the government of an opera house/festival. Jan van Gilse however belonged to the last remnants of a romantic era in which such madness was almost expected from composers. In the years of composing Helga time was also on his side. His talent has already repaid him fame as a composer during his apprentice years with Franz Wüllner in Cologne and then with Engelbert Humperdinck in Berlin. His first late romantic works in the spirit of Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler, among them the First Symphony and the dramatic cantata Sulamith found much praise. Still a student his Second Symphony was premiered in the Concertgebouw by none less a conductor than Willem Mengelberg. In the season 1908/1909 Van Gilse was repetitor and conductor with the North-Dutch Opera and his Third Symphony ‘Erhebung’ marked his debut as a conductor at the Concertgebouw. It reaped his the ‘Michael Beer Preis’, which came with a stipend for two years of musical ‘orientation’ in Rome.  
It was in Rome that Van Gilse wrote the libretto for Helga von Stavern, after the old Dutch legend of the Lady of Stavoren. Still in Rome he composed the first scenes before transferring to Munich in 1911. There he continued to work on the opera, which reaped him the compliments of Egon Pollak, although the latter expressed doubts over the libretto. Regardless, Pollak proved so enthusiastic by the music that he offered to produce the piano-vocal score as a labour of love. Van Gilse had high hopes for his opera. In 1912 his ‘Lebensmesse’ proved a triumph in Germany and the Netherlands and on August 18 he completed the composition of Helga von StavernVan Gilse believed that Pollak would easily realize a performance in Frankfurt on the wings of his connections there, but the director of the opera house rejected the very idea with a mere glance at the libretto. Interested publishers also decided not to publish it after having read the text. This is in hindsight hardly surprising. Just as Gerard von Brucken Fock's opera Jozal (composed 1910-1912) Helga von Stavern is another veritable attempt to create an intellectual-moralist opera. Von Brucken Fock’s work was morally-religious, Van Gilse’s opera was by design a politically-economical opera. It can hardly be a coincidence that two such anti-dramatic, wholly intellectual subject emerged simultaneously from the minds of two Dutch composers. For better or worse, such a thing was and is probably as exclusive to the Netherlands as Peking opera is to China. After the director of the Munich opera advised Van Gilse to let the opera rest for a while and then rework the libretto, he shelved it until November 28, 1915. Then he performed the ‘Verwandlungsmusik’ and the subsequent finale of the opera in a concert in the Concertgebouw dedicated to his own music, conducted by himself.
That this forgotten and unperformed opera nonetheless holds a very prominent place in my upcoming handbook of Dutch and Flemish operas finds its ground both in the grandiose music of Helga von Stavern and in the fact that twenty-eight years later he would compose the Dutch operatic masterpiece sine qua non with Thijl (1938-1940). Helga von Stavern was composed in a time that already marked a transition in Van Gilse’s composing. Following his Italian period his musical colours became more modern. While Mahler and Richard Strauss are still omnipresent in his Fourth Symphony (1910-1915), they are already interspersed with fascinating impressionist colouring, an edge of bohemia and an orchestral refinement that can only be described as Van Gilse’s own. The kettle drum rolls in the second part of the Fourth Symphony clearly take an advance on those in Thijl. It was parallel with the composition of the Fourth Symphony that Van Gilse worked on Helga von Stavern. The heartless title role, modelled on Brünnhilde's Immolation scene and the world of Richard Strauss tone poems precedes Turandot’s ruthless, egocentric monologues. The ‘Verwandlungsmusik’ ranks among the best music that Van Gilse had written till then and forms the closure of his late romantic period.
While being fascinated by this opera, I would not plead here for a scenic performance within the boundaries of the Dutch National Opera. A scenic performance of Helga von Stavern would even be unthinkable with state funding. However, with an eye to the programming of the Holland Festival over the past twenty years one might argue that with a concert performance of Helga von Stavern one could not possible squander as much money as has been spent in recent years on Timbuktu theatre and exotic location visits while looking for obscure theatrical concepts in the most exotic locations imaginable. Musicologist John Smit has already done some prework constructing a performance version of the ‘Verwandlungsmusik’.
Independent from Smit’s activities, 401DutchOperas performed the world première of Helga’s act III monologue ‘Ist es denn wahr?’ on May 29 2016 during 401Concerts 3 in the Kröller-Müller Museum Otterlo, followed by the ‘Verwandlungsmusik’ (in a reduction for piano and violin). Soprano Jolien De Gendt was Helga, Pieter Dhoore accompanied her from the piano and Ann Vancoillie was the violin soloist. The music deeply impressed those present, as can still be heard in the audio and video recording of the concert in the 401Concerts 3 download.

Download 401Concerts 3 met Helga von Stavern

401COnc3Logo150De opname van ons derde 401NederlandseOperas concert in het Kröller-Müller Museum is downloadbaar via 401Concerts 3, met daarin naast de fragmenten uit Jan van Gilse's Helga von Stavern ook aria’s en duetten uit Daniël de Lange'Lioba, Cornelis Doppers De blinde van Casteel Cuillé, Gerard von Brucken Focks Jozal, Julius Röntgens Agnete en De lachende CavalierJan Brandts Buys’ De kleermakers van Marken (Die Schneider von Schönau) en Richard Hagemans Caponsacchi.