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Braunfels’s Aristophanic opera, Die Vögel

This paper will examine the political and religious dynamics of an ambitious operatic version of Aristophanes’ Birds. Walter Braunfels’s Die Vögel, was produced to great acclaim in 1920, performed in all the important German opera houses, then suppressed by the Nazi regime, and successfully revived only starting in the late 1970s. Surprisingly, it seems so far to have eluded the attention of reception scholars. And yet, its thorough rethinking of the plot and meaning of Aristophanes’ comedy merits our consideration, especially as it is now widely acknowledged to be a significant milestone in the history of German opera. Repeated productions in European and American opera houses as well as recordings on CD and DVD have introduced Die Vögel to a wider audience, and its success has confirmed the view of Bruno Walter, who conducted the premiere, that it is an “inspired and intelligent metamorphosis” of Aristophanes’ comedy.

Birds was produced in 414 BCE, after the departure of the Sicilian Expedition, but before its ignominious defeat. Whatever one’s critical slant on this play, it is hard to resist the conclusion that the historical apogee of Athenian imperial ambition inspired Aristophanes’ grandest and most audacious fantasy. I will argue for a similar preoccupation with the will to power in Braunfels’s opera, fueled both by the composer’s sociopolitical orientation and religious beliefs and by historical events during the years in which Braunfels reshaped Birds into Die Vögel, writing both libretto and music, 1913-1919.

Braunfels came from a wealthy Jewish family, who like many highly assimilated Jews were conservative politically and socially. Moreover, Braunfels converted to Catholicism as a young man, and deep Christian conviction underlies much of his creative output, emphatically including Die Vögel, whose libretto initially follows the Aristophanic original to a great extent, but in the second act demonstrates decisively the importance of the Christian principle of obedience. To this one must add Braunfels’s experience as a soldier in the Great War, precisely during the period when he is thinking through the shape of his opera, and which undoubtedly influenced his depiction of the terribly mistaken war Ratefreund, Braunfels’s Peisetairos, and the birds wage against Zeus.

In Braunfels’s interpretation, Ratefreund, in his pursuit of power, persuades the birds to dethrone the gods and take their place, drawing them from their true nature, which he lacks the imagination to understand. Hoffegut, his Euelpides and a character of far greater significance in Die Vögel than in Birds, is the one whose idealism leads him to intuit and treasure the innocent world of nature the birds embody. This is made especially clear in the long duet between Hoffegut and the Nightingale that begins Act 2. The innocence of the birds is manifest, however, even as its subversion by Ratefreund is in full swing, in the childlike joy of the wedding ceremony for two pigeons that consecrates the new (but soon to be destroyed) city, an element ironically transferred from the hieros gamos of the triumphant Peisetairos at the end of Birds.

The plot veers definitively from Birds with the arrival of Prometheus in a role entirely reversed from that in Aristophanes. As a friend to man (and bird), Prometheus warns them that they are fools to challenge Zeus, whose power they hopelessly underestimate. This Prometheus recalls the magnificent rebel of Goethe’s poem, but he has made his peace with Zeus, who has forgiven him and will forgive the birds and their human leaders if they repent of their rebellion. Ratefreund with foolhardy confidence declares war, and the birds prepare for battle. Zeus sends a terrifying storm that destroys the bird’s city, and chastened they acknowledge his power and sing his praises. Ironically, however, Ratefreund, the instigator of the destruction, abandons the birds and returns to his normal existence, seeming not to have learned anything. Hoffegut is a changed man, his relation to God and God’s creation somehow transfigured by the Nightingale’s song and her innocent kiss.