Personalities | Peter Cornelius | High Romantic | Opera

1824–74, German

The German composer Peter Cornelius first intended to be an actor, but instead chose music after studying in Mainz, his home town, and Berlin. In 1852, Cornelius went to Weimar, where he encountered Liszt, then Kapellmeister to the grand duke. While admiring him, Cornelius was wary of the influence of Wagner, the giant of contemporary German opera, and instead chose to go his own musical way. His objective was to make German comic opera more substantial than the light, frothy offerings then being composed. He found the story he wanted in the classic collection of Arabian fairy tales, the 1001 Nights. The result was The Barber of Baghdad (1858), with libretto as well as music by Cornelius, which was first performed at Weimar. Liszt conducted. Unfortunately, opponents of the ‘New German School’ led by Liszt sabotaged the premiere and the opera failed. Cornelius’ historical drama, Der Cid (‘The Lord’, 1865), was based on the life of the medieval Spanish hero Roderigo Diaz de Vivar and the Gunlöd (completed 1891) was based on Norse legend.

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