Early Goth Music: Gothic Themes in Selected Operas

Posted by James Bell on September 15, 2009 in Blog tagged with

For the purposes of brevity, I’m going to ignore grey areas such as rock operas and sung-through musicals.

Bear in mind also that this is by no means comprehensive, being a purely personal selection.


Mozart, Don Giovanni (1787)

For all the popularity of Gothic novels in the eighteenth century, Gothic elements are notably absent from opera of the same period. The only things that come even vaguely close are the sea monster in Idomeneo, and perhaps the Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte.

Don Giovanni (subtitled Il dissoluto punito, or ‘The Rake Punished’) is Mozart’s treatment of the Don Juan legend, with a libretto which draws from various sources including Molière and the commedia dell’arte. (Lorenzo da Ponte also provided the libretti for Le Nozze di Figaro and Cosi Fan Tutte). Only the climax of Don Giovanni is notably Gothic – but what a climax! It presents a radical and startling shift in tone: everything so far has been broadly comic, bordering on farce. Nothing has prepared the audience for possibly the most intense and chilling scene in the whole of opera. The statue of the Commendatore, killed by Don Juan in a duel, appears and threatens the Don with damnation unless he changes his ways.


Is Don Juan dragged to Hell by his ‘unrealised value’, the sort of mature man he never became? Or does his refusal to repent make him heroic? The ambiguity of the opera, and its uneven tone, has successfully evaded resolution for over two hundred years. The Romantics found inspiration in the figure of a man living and dying by his own values, refusing to repent even in the face of Hell. Frequently the moralizing sextet at the end was not performed, ending the opera instead with Don Juan’s damnation. (Mahler, who was also a conductor, insisted upon this in his performances.)

There was a longstanding tendency to perform this opera in a very full-blooded Romantic mode, with Wagnerian singers and conductors. This tradition continued right up to the reign of Wilhelm Furtwängler, whose legendary Don Giovanni from Salzburg 1954 made a star of the great bass Cesare Siepi. (While Siepi’s swashbuckling characterization is one of my favourites, I prefer the recording he made the following year under the baton of Josef Krips, whose conducting style sounds much less eccentric to the modern ear.)

For no reason except that I like it, here’s the infamous ‘catalogue aria’, in which the servant Leporello recounts his master’s conquests.



Weber, Der Freischütz (1821)

Carl Maria von Weber is viewed by some as the legitimate heir to Mozart, by others as a forerunner of Wagner.

In many ways Der Freischütz (‘The Free-shooter’, roughly) is an archetypal opera: it has delightful, intensely melodic music, a ridiculous ‘plot’, and needs at least an hour taken out.

In common with Don Giovanni, the Gothic elements are not central. Often described as a ‘folk opera’, Der Freischütz relates the efforts of the young gamekeeper Max to win the heart of his beloved Agathe. The villain Kaspar has made a Satanic pact and, like Lord Ruthven in Der Vampyr, hopes to extend his life on earth at the expense of others. The memorable ‘Wolf’s Glen’ scene features the raising of the devil ‘Zamiel’ and his demonic chorus of minions.


Der Vampyr (1829), by Weber’s contemporary Heinrich Marschner, is one of the few operas in which Gothic elements are central throughout. It has a complicated genesis, being based upon a play which was in turn based upon Polidori’s The Vampyre -itself based upon a fragment by Byron!

Der Vampyr was the subject of a witty 1992 experiment by the BBC, who filmed an updated version in English and broadcast it in installments as ‘The Vampyr: A Soap Opera’. The ‘translation’ (by Charles Hart, who also provided the lyrics for Lloyd Webber’s Phantom) was so far removed that it was effectively impossible to judge the original. Ruthven becomes ‘Ripley’, a property developer in yuppie-era London. Ironically, his vampire nature makes him perfectly suited for the world of big business.

Der Vampyr was evidently popular enough throughout the nineteenth century for Gilbert and Sullivan to satirise it in Ruddigore (1887), but was only recently staged in Italy for the first time in 180 (!) years.


Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer (1843) is his first ‘mature’ opera, and also one of his more approachable. It is his treatment of the ‘flying dutchman’ story, which previously had been used for comic purposes. Unusually for composers, Wagner wrote his own libretti: in his hands, it became a story of redemption through love. It features such familiar tropes as the wandering ghost and the phantom ship, and tells of a romantic triangle between two mortals and the eponymous Dutchman.

Some productions have presented a more Freudian view of things, with the Dutchman a figment of the heroine Senta’s imagination.


Gounod’s Faust (1859) was once among the most popular of all operas, but performances are now a relative rarity. Like other French operas of the period, Faust consists of five acts and a ballet. It is based on Goethe’s Faust Part One, with the ending changed (though Ken Russell’s strange production, which contradicted the text in many ways, saw Marguerite executed as in the poem.)

Faust himself is a bit of a bore, selling his soul for the love of a girl whom he then proceeds to drive mad, but Mephistopheles is a marvelous creation. He is by turns comic and sinister, even if he lacks the biting satire of Goethe’s original.

This opera is deeply important for Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera and many of its subsequent adaptations (some of which actually fused the two stories). Gounod also wrote an opera called La nonne sanglante (‘The Bloody Nun’), which is apparently adapted by the prolific Eugène Scribe from an episode in The Monk. Goethe’s Faust was also adapted as Mefistofele (1861) by Arrigo Boito who, as librettist instead of composer, would collaborate on Verdi’s last two operas, Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893). Curiously, Mefistofele was featured in Batman Begins. Draw from that what you will…


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