Otto Nicolai was an almost exact contemporary of Frederic Chopin, and their dates ar almost identical. Both died far too young, destroying immense potential for future development, Nicolai from a stroke only two months after the first performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor (Die Lustigen Weiber van Windsor) at the age of only thirty eight .
Nicolai had been a child prodigy, who, having run away from home aged sixteen when his divorced parents’ estrangement began to affect him deeply, found greater support with his adopted family, who sent him to Berlin for his musical training with Mendelssohn’s teacher Carl Friedrich Zelter. By twenty-one he had had the first of his two symphonies performed, and begun working in the Prussian embassy in Rome. He began to have opera librettos offered him and vied with Verdi in popularity; indeed, he turned down the libretto which became Verdi’s first major success, Nabucco. He wrote a number of operas in Italian, including Rosmonda d’Jnghiltera (‘Rosamond of England’) and JI Proscritti (The Banished or The Exiled), which Verdi turned down. Many of his operas were melodramas or tragedies, and The Merry Wives, his only opera in German, was also his first and last comedy, based, of course, on Shakespeare ‘s play of the same name.
By 1841 he had become Court Composer in Vienna and a major figure on the Viennese musical scene. In 1842 Nicolai and some musical friends who met regularly at the local hostelry discussed the prospect of beginning a professional symphony orchestra in Vienna and the result was the Vienna Philharmonic, today known as Die Wiener Philharmoniker, which was to be, and remains, based in the Golden Salle of the Musikverein in Vienna. Reluctantly Nicolai accepted the post of conductor, and so today is known as the founder of one of the great orchestras of the world. Its annual New Year’s Day Concert, offering unequalled performances of music by the Strauss Family, is broadcast from the Musikverein live round the world . Incidentally, it has one of the most rigorous of all orchestral recruitment procedures; each new member serves an apprenticeship of three years in the orchestra, and only when that has been passed can an application for a permanent place be submitted! The 150th Anniversary of the orchestra in 1992 saw a wonderful performance on New Year’s Day of the Merry Wives overture conducted by the great Carlos Kleiber, and in 2017 the 175th included magical choruses from the opera. Apart from Nicolai’s masterpiece, however, many of his works for orchestra, chamber ensemble, piano and voice have disappeared virtually without trace.
The libretto follows Shakespeare’s comedy in chronicling Sir John Falstaff’s shameless mistreatment of the ladies in his life, and their subsequent revenge.
The overture begins with an atmospheric introduction, which leads into a scherzo-like Allegro not dissimilar to the magic conjured by Mendelssohn in his overture A Midsummer Night’s Dream, including, as that work does also, a theme which for a short while brings everything down to earth, although the donkey-braying is not quite so overt!
Notes by HDJ 12th May 2018