Opera house musicians have often found playing for ballet performances something of a chore. It was certainly so for Austrian symphonic composer Franz Schmidt (1874-1939), when in 1896 he became a cellist with the Vienna Court Opera orchestra. He delighted in playing in orchestral concerts of the Vienna Philharmonic, and for operas under such conductors as Wilhelm Jahn and Hans Richter. He was scathing, however, about his experience of playing under Court Ballet Director, Josef Bayer: "I liken him, in order not to insult this rank, to an Austrian regimental music sergeant only in so far as he possessed the arrogance and coarseness of one in richest measure. His ability as conductor and musician, however, would not have satisfied the needs of the post of regimental music sergeant by a long way. He was beneath all criticism and was further devalued by the pitifulness and vulgarity of his compositions."
Yet, in his line, Josef Bayer was a master of his craft and for thirty years was musical head of ballet in Vienna. Born there on 6th March 1852, he studied at the Vienna Conservatory under Josef Hellmesberger senior (1828-93), Anton Bruckner (1824-96) and Otto Dessoff (1835-92) and was from 1870 until 1898 a violinist in the Court Opera Orchestra. The peak of his career was those thirty years in charge of ballet there from 1883 until his death in Vienna on 12th March 1913. During that time he composed over twenty one-act ballets, many other dance scenes and divertissements, and numerous operettas and light music for other venues.
Perhaps by the time Franz Schmidt joined the Court Opera orchestra, Bayer's inspiration was running a little dry. Certainly his greatest successes came in earlier years. The first was in January 1885 with the ballet Wiener Walzer (Viennese Waltzes), which portrayed the evolution of the Viennese waltz over the previous century, with favourite melodies woven into the score. Its considerable success was overshadowed in 1888, however, by what was to prove the Vienna Court Opera's greatest ballet creation ever. Originally entitled Im Puppenladen (In the Doll Shop), it finally came to be known as Die Puppenfee (The Fairy Doll) after its central role. It became the most overwhelmingly successful ballet of its time in Vienna, and in all was performed on over a hundred European stages. To this day it holds a place in the schedules of the Vienna State Opera (successor of the Court Opera), having been performed there over eight hundred times in total.
Bayer consolidated his reputation with further ballet scores without ever quite achieving the same acclaim again. Still in 1888, Osterreichische Marsche (Austrian Marches), a ballet after the manner of Wiener Walzer, was staged in Prague. Then, a year later, the Vienna Court Opera staged another one-act ballet, Sonne und Erde (Sun and Earth). Among later ballet scores was Rund um Wien (Around Vienna), produced at the Court Opera in October 1894 to celebrate the golden jubilee of the Waltz King Johann Strauss (1825-99) as conductor and composer. Bayer also paid further homage to Johann Strauss later, by arranging for performance the Waltz King's unfinished ballet score Aschenbrodel (Cinderella).
First produced on 4th October 1888, Die Puppenfee was choreographed by the Court Ballet Master, Joseph Hassreiter (1845-1940), to a scenario by himself and designer Franz Gaul (1837-1906). Camilla Pagliero danced the role of the Fairy Doll. Whatever Franz Schmidt may have said, its music is utterly charming, full of delightful tunes and fetching orchestral effects. The scenario obviously owes much to E. T. A. Hoffmann's 1815 story Der Sandmann (The Sandman), in which a doll comes to life, and which was used in Offenbach's Les contes d'Hoffmann. In purely ballet terms, it owes something to Coppelia and was in turn an inspiration for La boutique fantasque.
The ballet is preceded by  a short prelude, featuring a toy trumpet and introducing themes to be heard later in the ballet.  The curtain rises on a toyshop, where the proprietor is working on a doll's head, while assistants dust the other dolls. They are interrupted by the arrival of a postman with a package.  Other visitors then follow, including a salesman with merchandise, and a girl bringing a broken doll for repair.  Then potential customers begin to arrive, headed by a peasant with his wife and daughter. Clumsily the peasant disturbs a toy, which falls to the floor. 5 Then comes a well-to-do English family, anxious to buy a doll.  They are first shown one that fails to work, and they start to leave, but the proprietor urges them to stay.  He shows them a doll dressed in Upper-Austrian national costume, which proceeds to dance a Tyrolean Landler.  Then they are shown a baby doll that crawls around, the music clearly evoking its cries of 'Papa' and 'Mama'.  Next the visitors are shown a Chinese doll, which dances a polka, after which  a Spanish doll does a fiery Spanish dance complete with castanet accompaniment.  Then a Japanese doll dances a slow mazurka, and  a Harlequin performs a rousing tarantella. Other toys join in as the music rises to a climax, stirring all the dolls into motion.  Then comes the piece de resistance in a fairy doll, which dances a graceful waltz.  The English family are enraptured. They give an order to buy her and arrange for her to be sent to them. Then they and the peasants leave, and the shop closes for the night.  Later, as midnight strikes, the shop magically comes alive.  At the centre of the activity is the fairy doll.  The other dolls join her in a divertissement, which also features Punchinellos with tiny cymbals. In turn, all the dolls seen earlier take part in a grand waltz, laughing and dancing.  After a brief pause,  the toys embark on a triumphal march, followed  by a lively galop.  Then they all return to their boxes, gathered around their fairy queen. Disturbed by the noise, the shopkeeper now rushes in, but finds everything in order. As he stands puzzled by the disturbance, the ballet ends with a tableau of dolls around their fairy queen.
Sonne und Erde, again with a scenario by Hassreiter and Gaul, was first staged at the Vienna Court Opera on 19th November 1889. Its subject is the seasons and the elements, and it is divided into a prelude and four scenes, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter. The nature of the scenario is concisely summarised by quoting the titles of the dances Bayer later extracted for the ballroom, Parapluie-Marsch (Umbrella March), Sonnen-Walzer (Sun Waltz), Bade-Galopp (Bathing Galop) and Christkindl-Polka (Christ-Child Polka). In this first ever recording we hear just the prelude and music from two of the scenes�XScene I (Spring) and Scene IV (Winter).
© Andrew Lamb
ReviewsBesides offering more up-to-date sound, moreover, this bargain Naxos CD is noteworthy for its enterprise in including the first recording of music from another Bayer ballet - Sonne und Erde ('Sun and Earth') - Andrew Lamb, Gramophone, July 2004