Hello, and welcome to my post for Music Month. My post is going to be on an opera by the famous Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, about the famous Anglo-Saxon King, Alfred the Great.
So first of all, who was Dvorak, and why did he chose to write about Alfred the Great?
Antonin Dvorak lived from 1841 to 1904. The opera Alfred was his opera, written in 1870. He would later be invited to conduct in Great Britain and later the United States. His compositions were extremely well received, and his sixtieth birthday in 1901 became a national event, when the Emperor of Austria-Hungary made him a member of the Upper House of the Imperial Council. He died in 1904, and is widely considered to be one of the greatest Czech composers who ever lived.
So why did he chose Alfred the Great as the subject for his first opera?
There are a number of possible reasons for choosing him. First of all, Alfred the Great as an opera choice was not unprecedented. The libretto of Alfred the Great by Karl Theodor Körner had been used for opera several times before, and it had the benefit of essentially being in the public domain by the time Dvorak came to write his opera. It is possible that the subject was chosen due to the situation of the time, with the Franco-Prussian War going on, the themes of nationalism, foreign occupation would have been highly relevant. It is also possible that since many of the themes of the opera itself, such as the heroic struggle between Danes and Saxons was modelled off the themes of Richard Wagner, since it was well-known that Dvorak was fond of Wagner, and at this period of his life, his work was frequently inspired by Wagner’s.
The opera is divided into three Acts. The opera is set in 878 AD, the year when Alfred the Great, having been driven out of his kingdom by invading Danish armies returned from hiding in the Somerset Marshes to lead the English forces in winning a decisive battle at Edington.
The first act begins with the Danish soldiers, having defeated Alfred’s army and conquered England enjoying a feast in Alfred’s former castle. One of the older Danish leaders Gothron is not participating in the revelries, due to a dream he had, when Alfred stood before him in an unearthly glow.
A younger Danish commander, Harald, enters triumphantly, having just executed several English prisoners. Gothron, concerned about the younger man’s overconfidence, advises him against underestimating Alfred. Harald ignores these warnings, and Gothron and his troops leave to search for Alfred who has gone into hiding in the forests.
One of the prisoners taken during the Danish victory was Alfred’s betrothed Alvina. While Harald offers her the chance to become his wife, Alvina refuses, and Harald has her imprisoned in one of the towers.
Act 2 [ edit | edit source ]
The second act begins with King Alfred resolving to continue the fight against the Danes, despite his recent defeat. He then meets his servant Sivard, who informs him of his fiancée’s imprisonment. Alfred resolves to rescue her, by infiltrating his castle disguised as a harpist.
Alfred (disguised) and Sivard manage to avoid Gothron’s forces and enter the castle. They hear Alvina singing from her tower and promise to rescue her. Gothron returns and becomes suspicious of the Alfred and Sivard. He tells them that Alfred can play for the Danes and Sivard must leave.
Gothron and Alfred enter the great hall, and Gothron is mocked by Harald for failing to capture Alfred. They then learn that Alvina has escaped from her tower, and Gothron orders Alfred to sing a celebration of the Danish victory. Alfred does so, but his song gradually becomes a celebration of Alfred and English. The furious Danes prepare to execute Alfred, and he reveals himself to them in full splendour. Alvina, who has sneaked into the room takes advantage of the surprise to blow out the only remaining torch. In the resulting chaos caused by the sudden darkness, Alfred and Alvina escape. The soldiers attempt to recapture them, but fail to do so. Gothron is forced to remember his dream.
In the third act, Alfred’s soldiers have assembled in the forests. Alvina tells them that Alfred has gone to recruit more troops, and tells them to go and help their King. They leave her, and she is recaptured by Harald. Once again he offers her the chance to convert to paganism. She refuses and is imprisoned with the other English soldiers.
Meanwhile, Alfred has gathered reinforcements, and meets with his forces. Alfred prays for God to grant them courage and victory.
Alvina is imprisoned with other the other English prisoners. She inspires them not to give up hope, and Harald informs them that Alfred and his forces have attacked. Alfred then enters, having won the battle and killed Gothron. He offers Harald a guarantee of safe return to Denmark, be he chooses death. Alfred and Alvina reunite, and the opera ends celebrating Alfred’s victory.
The opera’s historical accuracy is debatable, as it involves the death of the Danish leader Guthtrum, (called Gothron in the opera), when he is not recorded to have died in battle, but in bed. Furthermore there is no record of Alfred’s wife being taken prisoner by the Danish forces, however there is a popular story that Alfred disguised himself as a harpist to infiltrate the Danish camp, so the plot of the opera is not entirely without basis in the stories told about Alfred. Given that my much of the history of Alfred the Great has been argued to be more folklore than fact, perhaps the opera should not be criticised for it, especially given that the opera itself has some lovely music, which is available below.