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Fifteen minutes before the end of the first act of The Student Prince, the members of a Heidelberg student society, the Saxon Corps, gather at the Inn of the Three Golden Apples to find out if Karl Franz, the Crown Prince of Karlsberg, a recently enrolled student at the University of Heidelberg, will join their ranks. The music is continuous, from their entrance to the end of the act, except for one brief speech (and, perhaps, for the prolonged applause after the two major musical numbers in the scene). By the end of the act, we have seen the Prince accept and be accepted by the students (against the wishes of his valet, Lutz) and we have seen his love for Kathie, a waitress at the inn, begin to flower. Karl Franz, in fact, fully becomes the "Student Prince" of the operetta - and the audience sees on stage what he will remember in the later acts as the "Golden Days" of youth and love.(1)
The musical-dramatic scene in which this action unfolds is technically the finale of act 1. Though the scene seems somewhat casually constructed, it actually underwent considerable revision during the creation of the show.(2) This finale is undeniably a powerful musical number that gives us our primary image of The Student Prince, and it elucidates the yearning of the Prince and Kathie in the bittersweet acts that follow for this Eden of love and camaraderie.
Operetta, if we may generalize about so protean a form, is usually thought of as a group of discrete musical numbers separated by spoken dialogue. There also exists, however, a strong tradition of extended finales, which typically include several numbers that are connected by transitional music to the individual acts of operettas.(3) The finale tradition may stem from the convention of writing elaborate solo ensemble finales in late eighteenth-century opera buffa(4) - act 2 of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro is the exemplar here. The extended-finale tradition is pervasive enough that we also find examples in some of the best-known operettas (e.g., Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus [act 2], Offenbach's La Perichole [act 1], Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado [act 1],(5) and Lehar's The Merry Widow [act 2]). American operetta subscribed as well to this tradition: Victor Herbert's act finales are varied and brilliant, and the act finales in Reginald De Koven's Robin Hood (1890) are appropriately singled out for special mention in the New Grove Dictionary of American Music (1986). Few who have had the good fortune to see a production of John Philip Sousa's El Capitan (1896) will forget the finale in act 2, where the reluctant hero is propelled into battle by the strains of the march.
All this would have been mere history to Sigmund Romberg, who was writing The Student Prince, his first original operetta, for the 1924 Broadway season. While some internal finales can be considered more complex from a dramatic standpoint,(6) and others more assured in their flow, the first-act finale of The Student Prince is a watershed against which we may measure twentieth-century operetta. How was it written? How does it work?
Sigmund Romberg and the Creation of
The Student Prince
Sigmund Romberg (1887-1951), a Hungarian by birth, became interested in music as a career while studying civil engineering in Vienna and initially became involved with the musical theater there.(7) He worked as a chorepetitor (i.e., coach-accompanist) at the Theater an der Wein and studied musical composition and orchestration with Richard Heuberger (1850-1914), the conductor of the Wiener Mannergesangverein (Vienna Men's Chorus). While in Vienna, Romberg frequently visited his cousin Alfred Gruenfeld and met (through Heuberger) Franz Lehar (1870-1948), the famous operetta composer. Romberg emigrated to the United States and arrived in New York City in 1909, practically penniless, and secured employment as a pianist in a local restaurant. He came to the attention to the theater mogul J. J. Shubert, who hired him to write music for The Whirl of the World, a Shubert revue (which opened at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York City on January 10, 1914). During December 1913, Romberg left the restaurant circuit to become a staff composer with the Shubert Theatrical Corporation.
Romberg was involved with all the Shubert Passing Show revues from 1914 to 1919. The music that he composed for these Winter Garden extravaganzas was very much in the revue style - or in what he himself described as the "Winter Garden" style.(8) In addition to writing for musical revues, he also adapted European operettas for the American stage: among his most successful adaptations were The Blue Paradise (premiere, Casino Theatre, August 5, 1915), Maytime (premiere, Shubert Theatre, August 16, 1917), and Blossom Time (premiere, Ambassador Theatre, September 29, 1921). With his European training and New York experience of adapting Viennese works for American audiences, Romberg was eager to compose an original operetta of his own in the Viennese style.
The result was his critically acclaimed and commercially successful The Student Prince, which had its New York premiere performance at the Jolson Theatre on December 2, 1924.(9) This work is a musical adaptation of the 1901 German play Alt-Heidelberg by Wilhelm Meyer-Foerster. Romberg's musical adaptation closely follows the scenario of the play, including its unhappy ending. Briefly, the plot of The Student Prince concerns Prince Karl Franz (Karl Heinrich in the play) from mythical Karlsberg, who enters the University of Heidelberg accompanied by his tutor Dr. Engel and his valet, the comic Lutz. The Prince falls in love with Kathie, a waitress at the Inn of the Three Golden Apples. He is recalled to Karlsberg when news reaches him that his grandfather, the King, is dying. His sorrow is compounded when he learns that he is required to enter an arranged marriage with the Princess Margaret. The Prince returns to Heidelberg one last time to see Kathie. The operetta ends as the two realize that they can never be together and that all they will ever have is the memory of their romance.
The first German-language performance of Alt-Heidelberg in the United States took place on March 5, 1902, at the Pabst Theatre in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.(10) The initial New York presentation of the play (also in German) occurred seven months later on October 21 at the Irving Theatre. The play was performed for the first time in English in New York at the Princess Theatre on December 15, 1902. Another English-language version, created by (and starring) Richard Mansfield, opened on October 2, 1903, as the initial attraction at the Lyric Theatre in New York.
The Shuberts owned the rights to the play, and they were interested in converting their property into an operetta as early as 1919. A letter, dated February 28, 1919, from J. J. Shubert to Gustave Schirmer reads: "It is understood that you are to have the music rights to the play which Mr. Edgar Smith is to do on the style of [sic] |Alt Heildelberg' on the advance payment of $2500.00, receipt whereof is hereby acknowledged."(11) Shubert gives no information in this letter about who would write the musical score; however, Elliott Arnold, author of the novelized biography on Sigmund Romberg, maintains that Romberg was interested in this project at least as early as spring 1922.(12)
Edgar Smith, the translator and adaptor of foreign musicals for the New York stage (who is cited in Shubert's letter), did not in fact prepare the libretto for The Student Prince. It was written by Dorothy Donnelly, who was known to the Shuberts through her work on Blossom Time. A photostatic copy of her contract with the Shuberts survives in the Shubert Archive, bearing the date August 1922 (no more specific date is provided). The contract notes: Confirming our conversation, it is understood that you are to write for us a musical libretto of the play, 'OLD HEIDELBERG.' You are to write all the lyrics that shall be necessary from time to time and make such revisions in the manuscript so it can be used as a play with music. . . . You agree to deliver to …