About this work
This is a highly admired, though hardly flawless, late-Romantic opera. A well-known interlude from the opera, with a soaring string theme haloed by harps, is one of the loveliest short works in the classical repertoire.
Franz Schmidt (1874 - 1939) wrote this work during one of the most frustrating periods of his professional life. Although he was the best cellist in the Vienna Imperial Court Opera orchestra under Gustav Mahler, the concertmaster of the orchestra (Mahler's brother-in-law Arnold Rosé) refused to promote him to principal cellist. So from 1896 to 1914 Schmidt received second-chair pay, even though Mahler gave him all the important solo work. Meanwhile, he was gathering attention as a composer, particularly when, in December 1903 he premiered a gorgeous orchestral work that became the famous "Interlude" and the "Carnival Music" of this opera. By August 1904 Schmidt was composing the opera, basing it on an unfinished Fantasia for piano with orchestral accompaniment.
He selected Victor Hugo's famous novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame as his source. His chosen librettist was a professional chemist and amateur poet named Leopold Wilk (1876 - 1944). Wilk was not a very inspired writer, so the words of the text are sometimes pedestrian. Moreover, neither the composer nor Wilk were experienced in dramatic principles of the theater, and the plot of the opera has faults, as well. While these factors have obviously retarded the acceptance of the opera into the repertoire, Schmidt's gorgeous and skillfully conceived music keeps it on the edge of acceptance.
Having begun writing the music as early as 1903 as pure instrumental music, Schmidt continued composing the opera as a quasi-symphonic orchestral piece, adding the vocal parts later. This is a decidedly unusual way of writing an opera, and resulted in a score that is built around symphonic forms that one can readily identify in the score. This may have influenced Alban Berg, whose two operas, Wozzeck and Lulu, are similarly structured.
Nevertheless, the vocal parts integrate with the orchestral seamlessly, and with remarkable clarity. The playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who had already written texts for two Richard Strauss operas, wrote to Strauss after Notre Dame's premiere, praising the way the words of the text almost always came through and gently suggesting that Strauss could benefit by similarly finding a way to occasionally allow the words to prevail.
Wilk focused his drama on the central female character, Esmeralda, keeping her character that of a child-woman who almost unconsciously stirs feelings in the men she encounters, particularly the Archdeacon whose morality succumbs to lust for her; Phobus, with whom she is no more than infatuated; Gringoire, her husband in an unconsummated marriage; and Quasimodo, the gentle hunchback to whom she turns for a substitute for parental love.
The opera had a few years of considerable popularity after the 1914 premiere, but faded from view in the 1920s. After World War II the Vienna State Opera successful revived it. It was taken up at the Vienna Volksoper where it received numerous performances.