Ferenc Erkel: King Stephen



For Hungarian music the life and work of Ferenc Erkel (1810–1893) are of almost immeasurable importance. It is a mighty entity, still alive today. Like the chess player that he was – namely one of the best in Hungary – he built up and directed the musical life of Hungary as a strategist of genius. As a performer he was one of the best conductors of his time. Beginning in 1838, he was for thirty-six years the director of the opera company at the Hungarian National Theatre; through his persistent hard work he raised Hungarian operatic performance to an international level.  Before the middle of the 1840s there was no better pianist living in Hungary. His work as a piano teacher reached its consummation at the Music Academy, established by Liszt and Erkel together in 1875 with Liszt as the president and Erkel as the director. In 1853 he founded the country’s first permanent concert-giving orchestra, the Philharmonic Society, which still operates today. In 1867 he founded the National Hungarian Choral Association which in terms of its membership was the largest civil organization in the country, and still is through its modern legal successor. As a composer he wrote the Hungarian national anthem, which found its way into hymnbooks as a sacred song of the Church. He also wrote virtuoso instrumental works, incidental music for the theatre, choral works and cantatas, but in his work as a composer he put opera above everything.

He composed nine operas – why so few? Well, did Verdi work as the main conductor of a theatre, with no deputy? Did Donizetti have to found and conduct an orchestra to give concerts? Did Rossini help establish and then direct a music academy where had to teach as a professor with the greatest number of classes? Did Puccini found his nation’s choral society? Indeed, which nation’s leading opera composer had all his life to grapple with the fact that he was without a patron in his own country? Is there another composer of whose eleven children four sons (Gyula, Sándor, Elek and László) figure in their own right in the country’s musical history books?

Erkel fought for the cultural, political and economic independence of Hungary within the Habsburg Empire as did Verdi in an Italy struggling against Habsburg rule. The bloody defeat of the revolutions of 1848 and the cruel reprisals that followed were never forgotten by the different peoples of the empire. Italy gained its independence after the Battle of Solferino in 1859, whereas Hungary eight years later in 1867 managed to secure an ambiguous compromise, following Austria’s defeat at the Battle of Königgrätz in 1866 during the Austro-Prussian War. Erkel did not follow political fashion, and remained till the end of his life faithful to the period of his youth, the Reform Era (1825–1848), a period of socio-political modernisation.

Dezső Legánÿ, in his monograph on Erkel the opera composer, wrote: ‘We cannot simply describe Erkel’s development as a road leading from the “number opera” of Italy towards the continuity of Wagnerian opera; of course it is foolish to deny the external influences that affected the composer, but these in themselves were not the trigger that caused his transformation as a composer – they were merely its colouring. Erkel’s development was influenced in part by an organic inner change, during which his style was increasingly and more deeply influenced by Hungarian features and forms; and in part by the librettos he chose as support for his changing musical style, librettos always modern in their approach. Apart from his two comic operas, all his librettos are based on Hungarian historical dramas, in whose succession we see evidence of the composer’s inner growth: Erkel’s interest moved gradually from individuals and their tragedy towards the popular Hungarian plays whose often heroic characters portray human destiny in terms of national drama, or indeed daily life in the countryside.’ Erkel’s librettos can be understood anywhere in the world; they are rooted in dramatic clashes between sin and virtue. As such they are not specific to one nation, but convey a message of general validity.

The creation of a national art music in eastern Europe went down two roads: either the musical forms established by the great foreign masters were given a national content by making use of the music of the people, or new forms were created using the rhythms specific to the national language. In his early operas Erkel introduced the Hungarian musical element into existing operatic forms. In King Stephen he experimented with transferring the specific rhythms of Hungarian words into his music. He achieved his goal: without any elements from popular music he wrote music that is Hungarian through and through. This is what lends the work its real importance in the history of music.

Crowned in the year 1000, Stephen was Hungary’s first Christian ruler and founder of the Hungarian state. He was canonized in 1083, the feast of St Stephen being 20 August. Erkel had planned as early as 1846 to compose an opera on King Stephen. In the end it became Erkel’s last completed opera. He began writing it in 1874 and by 1875 he had finished two acts, but because of the libretto he left off composing. In 1880 he had the libretto revised and by 1882 the work was down on paper. The orchestration was done in part by Erkel’s sons and finished by the summer of 1884. Although the opera was intended for the opening of the Budapest Opera House that year, in the end the première took place half a year later, on 14 March 1885, to huge success. It was given twelve more times that year, a feat unmatched to my knowledge by any other Hungarian opera. In 1896, after the death of their father, Erkel’s sons revised it, expanding it with fourteen new items. Following the work’s revival in 1910 it was then only performed in the 1930s, at which time the work was cut to half its length entirely without justification. Between 1945 and 1990 it was not possible to perform it under an atheist dictatorship for political reasons. In 1993 a performance broadcast on the radio was recorded and a television film made of the opera, but the work had been subjected to barbarous alterations. The libretto was completely re-written, the plot changed, the music reduced, and new items were written to be inserted. No opera by Erkel has given rise to so many errors, false interpretations, posthumous denigration and negative assessment as King Stephen.  It was precisely this that prompted the creators of this recording to revive the opera, 125 years after its première, in the form in which its composer conceived it. After eighteen months of preparation the première took place in Komárom on 10 July 2010, the bi-centenary of the composer’s birth.

The present recording has been made using Erkel’s manuscript score and parts. Items subsequently added have been removed and the cuts made in the 1930s restored. Most of the extensive ballet music of Act 2 has been omitted since this part of the work was not performed at the original première. The music was learned using a vocal score reflecting the state the opera was in at its première. Chorus parts that were illegible had to be deciphered and a score made for the chorus. We wish to express our thanks to the Music Department of the National Széchényi Library for providing us with facilities for research, and to the staff of the Opera House’s music library, without whose help we could not have carried out the work of preparation, in particular the reproducing of copies. In the recording studio we had only seven hours at our disposal, and in this short time we recorded a concert performance.

To understand the libretto a few historical facts need to be clarified. The plot is only partially fictitious. The main characters of the opera were historically real, with the exception of the main intriguer Sebős. On stage are five key figures from Hungarian history: the Hungarian ‘holy family’, namely King Saint Stephen, Queen Blessed Gisela, and their son Prince Saint Emeric (Imre), as well as Bishop Saint Gerard (Gellért) Sagredo who was Prince Emeric’s tutor, and the Archbishop of Esztergom, Saint Astrik.

Stephen is remembered as the founder of the Hungarian kingdom. He concluded an alliance with the semi-independent local princes, and those who rebelled against him he put down with a strong hand. Faced with the ancient religion of the Hungarians or one of the rites of Christianity (Apostolic, Byzantine or Roman) he chose to align the country with Rome. As far as we know he had two sons, the first of whom died young, hence the heir to the throne became his second son Emeric.

According to Saint Emeric’s legend, he betrothed himself to the Virgin Mary in a vow of chastity. Despite this he married Princess Crescimira (Patricissa, daughter of King Krešimir III) of Croatia. The saint’s legend says they lived a so-called Josephite, or spiritual, marriage – named after the marriage of the Virgin Mary to Joseph, and not uncommon among ruling families in the Middle Ages. Resisting desire, their marriage remained unconsummated.

According to the opera’s plot, Emeric was murdered on his cousin Peter Orseolo’s orders, as was another legitimate heir to the throne, Vazul. As fiction it is credible, since he had an interest in both of their deaths. It is true that after the death of Stephen, Peter came to the throne. A violent ruler, he was twice deposed, only managing to regain the throne with the help of the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II, and in the end dying a terrible death. But according to historians it was Vazul who tried to assassinate Stephen, and when this failed Stephen himself made sure he was incapacitated as a ruler.

Little certain is known about the religion of the pagan Hungarians. According to hypotheses it resembled Christianity in its structure, but differed from it in its content. They believed in one god whose name was ‘Öregisten’ – Great God, or Atyaisten – Father God. The name ‘Hadúr’ – God of War – is a romantic invention of early nineteenth-century literature which, however, is still today widespread in Hungary. A significant number of the Hungarians were already Christian at the start of Stephen’s reign.




King Stephen – unlike Erkel’s other operas  – does not portray a political figure who fails as a consequence of his bad decisions; it portrays a saint. A saint who in all circumstances comes to the right decisions when the actions of all around him are governed by their emotions. The story involves conflict between a vow made to God and the filial obedience required to act responsibly as a ruler, but beyond that an important role is played by manly firmness, passionate and proud love, wounded vanity, unbridled careerism and the lust for power. To these can be added the clash of the pagan and Christian worlds. Eventually everything around Stephen collapses, but he preserves his faith and when he dies he is glorified.


CD I / Track 1  CD I / Track 1 Act one scene one shows the Diet in session. The King wants to resolve the danger of war threatening from the south as well as the question of the succession to the throne by his son marrying Princess Crescimira, daughter of the King of Croatia. Imre bows to the will of his father. The Diet greet the plan with unanimous approval and Stephen sends his cousin Peter Orseolo to fetch the bride. I/2. The despairing Imre remains alone with his tutor Bishop Gellért. The Queen arrives with her ladies-in-waiting who rejoice at the news of the wedding. The Prince, after the ladies have left, confesses to his mother and Bishop Gerard that he is secretly betrothed to the Virgin Mary. He has taken a vow of chastity of which he may tell no-one. The Bishop advises him to obey his father, and at the same time keep his vow. I/3. Sebős, Emeric’s squire, enters to congratulate him on his betrothal, but is interrupted by Jóva, one of Gisella’s ladies-in-waiting. She is agitated, and complains to the Queen that her daughter Zolna has been abducted. Seeing Sebős, she recognizes him as the culprit; it then emerges that not only is he an abductor, he is also a pagan worshipper of idols. As Gisella consoles her lady-in-waiting, Emeric banishes Sebős from court until he repents his misdeeds and converts to Christianity. As the guards drag him off, Sebős swears revenge. I/4. A crowd scene follows in which all are celebrating, except for Emeric.

I/5. Act two opens before dawn beside the Danube. Alone, Sebős utters curses and bewails his fate, he has lost his beloved and is in disgrace. I/6. Zolna arrives with her mother. The young couple declare their passionate love. Her mother is ready to yield to her daughter’s pleading, but the warning sound is heard of a church bell summoning the faithful to Mass at dawn. Both implore Sebős to convert, but in vain. I/7. Sebős remains alone. His curses are interrupted by the arrival of Vazul. Sebős sees in this loyal relative of Stephen the means to execute his revenge. Making use of Vazul’s pagan religion, he stirs up in him a lust for power. In the meantime dawn breaks on the day of the wedding. I/8. A herald arrives, and announces to the people that King Stephen has invited everyone to attend his son’s wedding. The King and his son enter in procession, and Peter and Crescimira arrive on board boats. The wedding guests process into the church. I/9. Peter remains outside. He has fallen love with Emeric’s bride, and Sebős addresses him. The two intriguers join forces: Peter desires for himself both Crescimira and the throne, while Sebős is animated by his vengeful hatred of Christianity and the ruling house of Árpád. The wedding guests come out of the church. I/10. Crescimira professes herself to be in future a loyal daughter of her new homeland.

I/11. Act three takes place in the newly-weds’ room. The chorus of wedding guests sing a beautiful farewell to the married couple. Crescimira sings an aria to Emeric declaring her love. I/12. He, however, tells her that he cannot belong to her. Since he cannot reveal his secret vow, Crescimira erupts in an outpouring of wounded feelings and jealousy. II/1. After their duet Emeric departs. Crescimira’s second aria follows, portraying the young wife’s state of mind, ranging from a burning desire for revenge to profound despair. Zolna arrives, and seeing Crescimira’s distracted state, she lets Peter in through a hidden door, and escapes with her beloved. II/2. The conspirator goads Crescimira more and more, her husband has spurned her, his heart belongs to another. He persuades her she should murder Emeric, and gives her a phial of poison. Outside the commotion of armed men is heard, a battle against the pagans. Crescimira rushes out in agitation. Through the hidden door Sebős arrives. He has let King Stephen know that Vazul – instigated in fact by Sebős himself – is marching against him at the head of the pagans. Sebős departs through the hidden door. II/3. Crescimira returns in agitation, hesitating. Peter eagerly enquires what happened. As Crescimira confesses her terrible deed, she exultantly reveals that she knew about Emeric’s vow made to the Virgin Mary, she heard it from Sebős. Crescimira becomes deranged. The act closes with the commotion of armed men.

II/4. Act four, scene one, begins with an aria sung by Zolna, who has abandoned her mother and left her religion for the sake of her lover. The two are due to meet here before dawn in the forest, in front of the pagan altar. II/5. Presently a pagan army arrives led by Prince Vazul and the shaman Barang, intending to perform a sacrifice to the God of War. The sacrificial rite is interrupted by the arrival of the King and his followers. The passions of this scene almost lead to fighting, but Stephen puts a stop to it by laying down his arms and praying. He then steps towards the sacrificial fire of the God of War and puts it out by touching it with the Cross. According to the pagan religion the God of War’s fire will devour everything, and all who attack the God of War will be struck dead. But this does not happen, the great bonfire goes out immediately. The pagans stand shaken in their belief, and Stephen’s soldiers want to attack them. The King, however, waves them back, and announces a general pardon. The pagans along with Vazul are converted, and together with Stephen’s followers sing a hymn of the Holy Cross. II/6. Scene two begins with Gisella’s prayer in the palace. The triumphant King enters in procession having successfully restored the unity of the nation without bloodshed. At that moment Jóva enters with the news of the death of Emeric. II/7. From the other side Crescimira enters in a frenzy, seeing her husband in a vision. II/8. Stephen worries over the fate of Hungary and is about to appoint Vazul as heir to the throne when General Csanád arrives with news that Vazul, who had converted, has been murdered by Peter’s assassins when he tried to establish the King’s peace. Stephen dismisses the court except for the three princes Endre, Béla and Levente. He can no longer defend them and requests them to go into exile until the evildoers are avenged by God. An off-stage chorus laments the death of Emeric, and Stephen seeks God’s consolation. II/9. Sebős steals in intending to murder the King. Stephen prays for his enemies, on hearing which Sebős realizes the consequence of his actions and collapses. He asks for death from the King. Stephen forgives him, but banishes him. For the first time in the opera we hear the words Saint Stephen from the lips of the broken Sebős. II/10. Stephen asks God to show him the future to see whether his sufferings have been in vain. Accompanied by incidental music, four grand visions unfold on the stage. The first is the fall of Peter. The second is the handing over of the Golden Bull, Hungary’s Magna Carta and Europe’s second constitution, issued by King Endre II in 1222. The third is the apotheosis of King Matthias, whom Hungarians still today refer to as ‘the just’ and who was one of the most glorious rulers of Hungarian history. The fourth vision is when the Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa asked for the support of the Hungarian magnates in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748) amidst theatrical surroundings at the Diet in Pressburg in 1741, and was granted it. Erkel’s opera ends with the apotheosis of King Stephen: Oh, be thou guardian of our nation, King Saint Stephen above in heaven!