Behind the Song: ‘M’appari’ from Friedrich von Flotow’s Martha

‘M’appari’ is the best-known name for the central aria from Friedrich von Flotow’s Martha, a romantic comic opera in four acts. Flotow – who was born into a musical family, his mother playing the piano and his father the flute – composed some thirty operas during his lifetime, beginning his career after studying at the Conservatoire de Paris, before achieving his first big success with Alessandro Stradella, which premiered in Hamburg at the end of 1844. But his work has fallen into obscurity: Martha is sometimes described as the most performed opera of the second half of the nineteenth century, but today even it experiences only the occasional revival.

Flotow’s style drew from the music of his home country Germany, incorporating elements of German folk song; from the Italian bel canto which emphasised virtuoso technique, mellifluous legato punctuated by staccato, the frequent alteration of tempo, and a highly articulated manner of phrasing; and from the French habits of the composers he studied under and befriended, including Anton Reicha, Charles Gounod, and Jacques Offenbach, plus the genre of opéra comique. His melodramas were stylish and graceful, but came to be perceived as derivative and middlebrow, their pulpy lightness and lack of musical daring no doubt contributing to their popularity.

The success of Alessandro Stradella in Germany and Austria, where it enjoyed an acclaimed run at the Theater am Kärntnertor in Vienna, led that theatre to commission of Flotow a new work. Thus Martha premiered at the Theater am Kärntnertor on 25 November 1847. In German with a libretto by Friedrich Wilhelm Riese, based on a story by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges, and set in Richmond, England in the year 1710, it tells of two young noblewomen who to relieve their boredom attend a country fair and masquerade as maids.

Lady Harriet Durham and her confidante Nancy are hired by two young farmers, half-brothers Lyonel and Plunkett. They give their names as Martha and Julia, but when the women discover that they have bound themselves to work for their new masters for a year, they make a hasty escape. However Lyonel has fallen in love with Martha, and it is from his state of despair, in the third act of the opera, that the song ‘M’appari’ begins to emerge.

The compositional history of both Martha and ‘M’appari’ is complex. Martha – in full Martha oder Der Markt zu Richmond (Martha or the Market of Richmond) – was itself an adaptation from Flotow’s earlier work on a ballet, Lady Harriette ou La Servante de Greenwich, which he composed on short notice with Friedrich Burgmüller and Édouard Deldevez, and was performed by the Paris Opera Ballet at the Salle Le Peletier on 21 February 1844. The libretto for the ballet was written by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges, who Flotow worked with again a couple of years later, on the two-act opera L’âme en peine which premiered in Paris on 29 June 1846.

So Martha is an outgrowth of two earlier works, but perhaps owing to the opera’s convoluted origins, there is some debate as to when ‘M’appari’ first appeared. It was written for L’âme en peine and seems to have been part of Martha from the first performance in Vienna, but thanks to The Complete Opera Book by the American critic Gustvav Kobbé, it has sometimes been cited as a later addition, upon the opera’s debut at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris in December 1865. On that occasion, Léon Carvalho, the director of the Théâtre Lyrique, inserted into Act 4 of Flotow’s opera a baritone aria from L’âme en peine entitled ‘Depuis le jour j’ai paré ma chaumière’.

Certainly ‘M’appari’ was conceived as part of Martha in the original German, where it was known as ‘Ach! so fromm, ach! so traut’. Martha travelled from Vienna on to Weimar, Dresden, and Leipzig, then Budapest and Prague. And by 1849 it had made its way to London, where it was sometimes performed in five acts, with the libretto translated into English by Charles Jefferys. It was produced in New York City in 1852, and in Melbourne in 1856. And it was first performed in France by the Théâtre-Italien at the Salle Ventadour in Paris on 11 February 1858. This Italian version of Flotow’s opera introduced the song as ‘M’appari tutt’amor’.

‘Ach! so fromm, ach! so traut’

Ach! so fromm, ach so traut,
Hat mein Auge sie erschaut;
Ach! so mild, und so rein
Drang ihr Bild in’s Herz mir ein.
Banger Gram, eh’ sie kam,
Hat die Zukunft mir umhüllt,
Doch mit ihr blühte mir
Neues Dasein lusterfüllt.
Weh! Es schwand, was ich fand, ach!
Mein Glüch erschauf ich kaum,
Bin erwacht und die Nacht
Raubte mir den süssen traum.
Martha! Martha!
Du entschwandest, und mein Glück
Nahmst Du mit Dir;
Gib mir wieder, was Du fandest,
Oder theile es mit mir.

‘M’appari’ (or ‘Martha, Martha, O Return Love!’) translated into English by Charles Jefferys

When first I saw that form endearing,
Sorrow from me seem’d to depart:
Each graceful look, each word so cheering,
Charm’d my eye and won my heart.

Full of hope, and all delighted,
None could feel more blest than I;
All on earth I then could wish for,
Was near her to live and die:

But alas! ’twas idle dreaming,
And the dream too soon hath flown;
Not one ray of hope is gleaming;
I am lost, yes I am lost, for she is gone.

When first I saw that form endearing,
Sorrow from me seem’d to depart:
Each graceful look, each word so cheering,
Charm’d my eye and won my heart.

Martha, Martha, I am sighing,
I am weeping still for thee;
Come thou lost one, come though dear one,
Thou alone can’st comfort me:

Ah! Martha return! Come to me.

‘M’appari’

M’appari tutt’ amor,
Il mio sguardo l’incontrò;
Bella si che il mio cor,
Ansioso a lei volo;
Mi ferì, m’invaghi
Quell’ angelica beltà,
Sculta in cor dall’amor
Cancellarsi non potrà:
Il pensier di poter
Palpitar con lei d’amor,
Puo sopir il martir
Che m’affana e stranzia il cor.

M’appari tutt’amor,
Il mio sguardo l’incontrò;
Bella si cheil mio cor
Ansioso a lei volo;
Marta, Marta tu sparisti
E il mio corcol tuo n’ando!
Tu la pace mi rapisti,
Di dolor io morirò.

* * *

In 1906 the New York Metropolitan Opera staged a production of Martha, starring the great tenor Enrico Caruso in the role of Lyonel. Caruso continued to perform the role across subsequent seasons, recording ‘M’appari’ for Victor in 1917 along with other extracts. And perhaps it was this which enshrined Martha and ‘M’appari’ in the mind of James Joyce, an opera lover and admirer of Caruso, who in 1917 was busy writing Ulysses, and had attempted to interview the tenor when he visited Dublin for a concert in August 1909.

‘M’appari’ features prominently in Ulysses. It first enters the stream of consciousness of Leopold Bloom in the ‘Aeolus’ episode, when heading towards the offices of the Freeman’s Journal just after noon, a conversation over an advertisement with the porter Red Murray makes Bloom think of the Italian tenor Giovanni Matteo Mario and the opera Martha. A few hours later, ‘M’appari’ floats through ‘Sirens’.

The ‘Sirens’ episode dwells on the music being played and listened to inside the Ormond Hotel. Bloom, using the pseudonym Henry Flower, is engaged in an amorous exchange of letters with a woman named Martha Clifford. He realises that his wife Molly, herself an opera singer, is carrying out an affair with her concert manager Blazes Boylan, who Bloom curiously follows yet studiously avoids.

Early in ‘Sirens’, Bloom buys two sheets of cream vellum paper, planning to write to Martha Clifford, before spotting Boylan and tracking him to the Ormond Hotel. Once there, he bumps into Richie Goulding, and Bloom and Goulding agree to eat dinner together inside. Boylan swiftly leaves the hotel, and Bloom sighs understanding that Boylan is off to rendezvous with Molly. While Bloom dines on a meal of liver and bacon and mashed potatoes, in the saloon room behind the bar Simon Dedalus and two friends make bawdy jokes, discuss Bloom and Molly, and sing songs.

Dedalus begins to sing ‘M’appari’, and the tenderness of the song, the singer’s strained but talented vocals, Bloom’s memories of Molly and the pressing thought she is about to have sex, and the coincidence of the opera’s title with the name of Martha Clifford, come together to imbue the episode with its delicate yet plaintive atmosphere, befitting the emotional states of the assorted characters and the gentle warmth of the late afternoon. As Simon Dedalus comes to the climax of ‘M’appari’, Bloom is cuckolded:

‘Singing. Waiting she sang. I turned her music. Full voice of perfume of what perfume does your lilactrees. Bosom I saw, both full, throat warbling. First I saw. She thanked me. Why did she me? Fate. Spanishy eyes. Under a peartree alone patio this hour in old Madrid one side in shadow Delores shedolores. At me. Luring. Ah, alluring.

—Martha! Ah, Martha!

Quitting all languor Lionel cried in grief, in cry of passion dominant to love to return with deepening yet with rising chords of harmony. In cry of lionel loneliness that she should know, must martha feel. For only her he waited. Where? Here there try there here all try where. Somewhere.

Co-ome, thous lost one!
Co-ome, thou dear one!

Alone. One love. One hope. One comfort me. Martha, chestnote, return!

Come …!

It soared, a bird, it held its flight, a swift pure cry, soar silver orb it leaped serene, speeding, sustained, to come, don’t spin it out too long long breath he breath long life, soaring high, high resplendent, aflame, crowned high in the effulgence symbolistic, high, of the etherial bosom, high, of the high vast irradiation everywhere all soaring all around about the all, the endlessnessnessness …….

To me!

Siopold!
Consumed.’

Snatches of ‘M’appari’ subsequently appear in ‘Oxen of the Sun’ and ‘Circe, while in ‘Eumaeus’ Bloom portrays to Simon Dedalus’ son Stephen his preference for ‘light opera of the Don Giovanni description’, calling Martha ‘a gem in its line’.

And back once again to ‘Sirens’, ‘M’appari’ and Bloom’s letter to Martha Clifford intermingle with another reference to Friedrich von Flotow. The aria ‘Letzte Rose’ from Martha, sung by the title character with interjections from Lyonel, takes its lyrics from the poem ‘The Last Rose of Summer’ by the Irish poet Thomas Moore. As Bloom sits and writes his letter in the Ormond, he adds a postscript – ‘I feel so sad. P. S. So lonely blooming’ – which echoes the line ‘Left blooming alone’ from the poem’s first verse.

‘M’appari’ appears elsewhere in popular culture. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly, music lingers over the courtyard as L.B. ‘Jeff’ Jefferies gazes out of his Greenwich Village apartment, a broken leg confining him to a wheelchair. Some of it is popular music, from contemporary singers like Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, and Nat King Cole, while the block’s resident songwriter-pianist, a middle-aged bachelor, gropes when he is not entertaining for a more classically-minded tune.

Amid the bustle and lull of the courtyard, we hear the opening bars of ‘M’appari’. They are whistled just beyond the half-way point of Rear Window, as Jeff eats half a sandwich in the late evening, leaving his telephoto lens to one side for the moment but in a practise that has become habitual inquisitively looking out.

The couple across the courtyard are lowering their dog in his basket down to do his business and frolic in the flowerbeds, and Miss Lonelyhearts – ageing and lovelorn – is attentively making herself over in the mirror and mustering some courage before heading across the road to a restaurant. The songwriter is entertaining two female guests, and the ballet dancer, Miss Torso, is busy rehearsing a routine.

Jeff smiles behind his sandwich when he spots Miss Lonelyhearts applying her lipstick and putting on her velvet hat: he is fond of her, feels empathy for her, and at the same time reaches for his long lens. As he focuses in on her form endearing ‘M’appari’ fades, for the whistler has presumably walked farther down the street. Jeff watches Miss Lonelyhearts from the bedroom into the kitchen, where she takes a stiff drink before heading out. The songwriter tinkles on the piano, and Miss Torso and her partner twirl and receive a few useful pointers. When Jeff turns back to Miss Lonelyhearts crossing the street, we are straight into the first verse of the popular song ‘Waiting for My True Love to Appear’.

‘Many dreams ago / I dreamed many dreams, / Waiting for my true love to appear. / Though each night / Someone filled my dreams / Still…’ then as Miss Lonelyhearts takes her seat, alone at the red-chequered table, and is approached by the restaurant’s waiter, suddenly Lars Thorwald appears and crosses towards his apartment, the man Jeff believes to have murdered his wife. As Thorwald steps into the road, he almost gets run over, honked at by a car horn, but ‘Waiting for My True Love to Appear’ obstinately continues.

Like ‘M’appari’ it is both source or diegetic music, in so far as it is being played across the courtyard and is audible to the characters in Rear Window, and incidental music, meant to accompany the action of the film so subtly that it goes almost unnoticed by the audience amid the constant fragments of songs and other noises and street sounds. But if the transition from ‘M’appari’ to ‘Waiting for My True Love to Appear’ is seamless, maintaining the same soft contemplative tone, Thorwald’s appearance puts a dark twist on the second song: as Jeff scoots back into the shadows of his apartment, we might wonder whether Thorwald’s wife will reappear, or whether we are listening to the disembodied voice of the recently deceased.

In Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Mel Stuart’s adaptation of the children’s book by Roald Dahl, ‘M’appari’ is performed by Willy Wonka himself, played by Gene Wilder, during the ‘Wonka Wash’ scene. Wilder sings the tail end of the aria in the original German as he and his retinue are covered with soapsuds. ‘M’appari’ is sung as a serenade, with guitar accompaniment, in the 1979 coming of age film Breaking Away. And ‘M’appari’ features once more in the American version of The Office, during the sixth season episode ‘The Lover’ when Jim uses the piece to conceal a conversation from Dwight.