J. W. F.
OBER-AMMERGAU, Bavaria, Oct. 4, 1875.
The town lies at the end of a lovely green valley. Behind it
are fir-clad mountains with rocky peaks: on one side a great
square rocky peak, which towers above all and is surmounted by
a cross. On each side of the valley sloping hills, fir-clad to
the top. A rapid, clear stream runs by on the edge of the
village. Green pastures dotted with haymakers, a few scattered
trees and a distant town fill the charming valley. Virginia
creepers hang on the walls, and gay flowers fill pretty
balconies and peep through sunny little casements. All is
simple and neat, and the bright fresco pictures on the fronts
of many houses lighten it all.
On a high hill overlooking the town they are placing a
colossal crucifixion group, presented by King Ludwig II. in
Erinnerung an die Passionsspiele—in memory of the
Passion play—Christ on the cross, with the Virgin and St.
John, one on each side. The two latter were ready to be hoisted
on to the pedestal: the former is partly up the hill. All are
surrounded by heavy planking, so that it is impossible to judge
of the artistic merit, but the great group cannot fail to have
a fine effect when viewed from a distance.
Yesterday (October 3d) was the eventful day. Our tickets had
been ordered by telegraph, and we had "the best seats." The
performance was to begin at nine o'clock, and at a quarter
before nine we were in our places.
The building in which the play is given is of plain rough
wood without paint ("or polish"); in the interior a gallery and
two side-galleries, below them a parterre, and on each side of
it a standing-place, all of plain, unpainted boards. The
orchestra was sunk below the level of the stage, the proscenium
painted to represent columns and entablature. The curtain
represented, or seemed intended to represent, Jerusalem. The
whole place could not probably contain over six hundred people,
and was about half full. There were very few foreigners.
The play to be represented was not the "Passion play," which
is given every ten years, but the Kreuzesschule, which
is played once in fifty years—last in 1825. In it the
play is taken from the Old Testament, and the tableaux from the
New Testament—the reverse of the Passion play.
The orchestra began punctually at nine o'clock. There were
about twenty performers, and they played with skill and taste.
The selection of music was admirable. They commenced with a
sort of prelude, slow and declamatory. Perfect silence reigned,
and the deep interest of the spectators was, from the first and
throughout, shown in their expressive faces. Men and women at
times shed tears, and made not the slightest effort to hide
their emotion. The black head-*kerchiefs of many of the women
spectators, tight to the skull with ends hanging down behind,
seemed in harmony with the scene.
The prelude ended, the Chorus entered with slow and
dignified pace—seven men and women from one side, six
from the other, all in a kind of Oriental costume, picturesque
and handsome. The tallest came first, and so on in gradation,
so that when ranged in front of the curtain they formed a kind
of pyramid. The central figure then began the prologue, an
explanation. Then the basso commenced singing an air, during
which the Chorus divided, falling back to the sides and
kneeling, while the curtain rose, displaying the first tableau.
This lasted nearly three minutes, during which time the figures
were really perfectly motionless. The basso finished his air
and the tenor sang another while the curtain was up. This
tableau represented the cross supported by an angel, while
grouped around were men, women and children looking up at it in
adoration. This was the "Kreuzesschule"—the school of the
Cross—the prologue to the piece. The picture had the
simplicity of the best school: no affected attitudes—all
plain, earnest and beautiful. When the curtain fell the Chorus
again took their places in front of it, a duet was sung, then a
chorus, and then they countermarched and retired in quiet
Then came the first part. A prelude by the orchestra, and
the curtain rises on Abel, dressed in
sheep skin, by his altar, from which smoke ascends, he
returning thanks. Enter Cain in leopard skin, much disturbed
and angry. They discourse, Abel all sweetness, Cain bitter
and cross. An angel in blue mantle, like one of Raphael's in
the "Loggia," appears at the side and comforts Abel. Then
Eve in white dress—evidently it had been a puzzle to
dress her—and buskins, who says sweet words to Cain.
Then Adam in sheep skin, very sad at all this difficulty.
Eve sweetly strives to reconcile Cain to his brother, and
appeals to him with much feeling. He discourses at length,
then appears to relent and embraces Abel, but is evidently
playing the hypocrite, and as the curtain falls you see that
hate is in his heart.
The curtain down, the orchestra plays a prelude, the Chorus
enters as before, and the leader speculates on Cain's behavior.
"Is he honest?"—"Ah no, his heart is full of hate: he
meditates evil." The Chorus divides as before, falls back and
the curtain rises. This tableau represents the hate and rage of
the people and Pharisees toward Christ, who drives the traders
out of the Temple. In grouping, costume, color, tone, action
and completeness it was truly a marvelous picture. The stage
was crowded with figures: Christ in the centre, behind—a
row of columns on each side—a scourge in his left hand,
his right upheld in admirable action; in the background a group
in wild confusion; on the right, richly dressed priests and
Pharisees, indignant and fierce; in front, sellers of sheep and
doves, money-changers and traders of various kinds. All the
elements of a great picture were here shown in the highest
degree, and no words of praise could be too strong to express
the idea of its merits and its charm. This tableau lasted
nearly two minutes, with the most complete steadiness, the
basso singing an aria. The curtain then fell, and the Chorus,
taking its place, sang and retired as before. This ended the
first part, Cain's hate prefiguring the hatred toward
Then came Part Second. The curtain rose on Cain by the side
of his ruined in a soliloquy. Enter Abel, gentle and mild. Eve
comes in, and again tries to make peace, and Cain again plays
the hypocrite and invites his brother into the wood on some
pretext. They retire, leaving Eve disturbed by she knows not
what. Adam enters, shares her fears and goes out to seek his
sons. Thunder and lightning, admirably represented, and then
enter Cain disheveled and disturbed. His mother knows not what
has happened, but is agonized and calls for her Abel. An angel
appears at the side and discloses all by asking Cain, "Where is
thy brother?" and then announcing the fiat of the Most High to
him. He rushes off as Adam enters bearing the body of Abel; and
his mother, sitting down beside the dead body, makes a most
touching picture of a Pietà. Adam with
upstretched arms appeals to God, and the curtain falls. This
was the "Blutschuld"—the crime of blood—and
prefigured the betrayal of Christ by Judas for the thirty
pieces of silver.
After a most beautiful prelude by the orchestra, the Chorus
again enters; the leader expresses his horror at Cain's action
and his pity for a fate thus given over to Satan; they again
divide, and the curtain rises on the tableau of Judas receiving
the money. At the end the high priest and other priests, in
appropriate costume, stand on a platform beyond a railing.
Judas in the centre, by a table, is taking the money from an
attendant: all around are groups, admirably arranged,
expressing, in face and attitude, wonder or pleasure or
disgust. The same artistic ideas and beautiful arrangement and
the same unaffected simplicity. This tableau lasted one minute
and a half, while the tenor sang an aria, "Oh, better for him
that he had never been born."
The third part was Das Opfermahl—the offering
of bread and wine by Melchisedek to Abraham, prefiguring the
Last Supper. Prelude by orchestra. The curtain rises,
displaying Melchisedek before an altar, on which are bread and
wine. Four attendants are near him. He, in a flowing white robe,
discourses to them. The scene is simple and natural. Enter
Abraham and attendants on one side and Lot and attendants on
the other, all dressed in Roman mantles, buskins and
helmets. The stage was filled and the grouping admirable.
Abraham and Lot discourse, embrace and part, Lot and his
followers retiring. Melchisedek comes forward and addresses
Abraham, who replies at some length. Then Melchisedek
prepares his bread and wine, takes some, then offers to
Abraham, who eats and drinks. Meantime, a most charming
chorus of Handel is sung behind the scenes, while
Melchisedek and his attendants offer the bread and wine to
all of Abraham's suite, who partake reverentially. Tableau
and chorus, and the curtain descends. The ease and simple
quiet action of all this scene were remarkable.
Enter Chorus as before: leader speaks. They divide and the
curtain rises on the tableau of the Last Supper. I know not
whether it was taken from any one picture—I think
not—but it was simply and effectively grouped, and it
recalled both Lionardo and Andrea del Sarto. This lasted two
and a half minutes, during which time the contralto sang an air
The fourth part—Die Ergebung
(Resignation)—was represented in the play by Abraham's
willingness to sacrifice his son at God's command, prefiguring
the agony of Christ in the Garden.
After a prelude by the orchestra the curtain rose and
discovered Abraham and Isaac in loving discourse, with figures
in the background, admirably costumed and grouped. An angel in
white robe and blue mantle appears and delivers his heavenly
message to the astounded Abraham. His agony was simply and
feelingly depicted. He appears at last resigned, when Sarah, in
red robe and Eastern headdress, enters to renew his grief. The
beauty of this woman was of the highest order in feature and
expression, and her dress was truly artistic. The scene between
these two was most touchingly acted. Isaac reappears, thinking
that he is simply going on a journey, and, scarcely
comprehending his mother's great grief, presents his companion
to her as a comfort and stay, thus prefiguring John and Mary at
the cross. Abraham and Isaac depart, and the curtain falls.
Then another prelude by the orchestra, and the Chorus
appears: the leader delivers the epilogue. They divide and
kneel, and the curtain rises on the tableau of the scene in
Christ, on an elevation, is kneeling: an angel stands in
front of him. Below, the apostles are all asleep in groups.
Behind, in the centre, Judas advances with the soldiers, who
bear tall lanterns. It was like a picture of Carpaccio, and
worthy of that great master. This tableau lasted two and a
quarter minutes, during which time the tenor sang an aria.
The fifth part—Es ist vollbracht (It is
fulfilled)—represents Abraham going out to sacrifice his
son, prefiguring the Crucifixion. The curtain rises on Sarah,
full of agony, which is most simply and powerfully depicted.
Attendants enter, who tell a long story: then Abraham and Isaac
appear, and there is a most striking scene—Sarah
fainting, the friend sustaining her, the others grouped around
in various picturesque attitudes. An angel appears, simple and
practical, like those of the good old painters, and delivers
the blessing. The curtain falls.
Again the orchestra in a superb prelude: then the Chorus
appears, and, after the epilogue, divides and kneels as the
curtain rises on a tableau which my imagination never could
have pictured, for its wonderful completeness, its power, its
feeling, its artistic beauty and its marvelous expression far
exceeded any idea that I had of the power of men and women to
represent such a picture—the Crucifixion.
The stage was crowded with figures, Christ in the centre,
fully extended on the cross, with no signs whatever of support
to disturb the illusion—the thieves on one side and the
other, with arms over the cross, as frequently represented; the
group at the foot of the cross so touchingly tender—the
soldiers, the priests, the people—all grouped with such
consummate skill, such harmony of
colors, such appropriateness and vigor of expression, as
have never, to my thinking, been excelled in the greatest
pictures of the greatest masters. Here was most remarkably
shown the wonderful artistic talent and feeling of these
simple people. There was nothing repulsive in any way,
scarcely painful, except tenderly so. You breathlessly gazed
on this wondrous scene, and when, after three minutes, the
curtain fell, you were speechless with admiration and
emotion. A lovely air by the soprano accompanied this
tableau, and after the curtain fell a grand chorus completed
the fifth part.
The sixth part—Durch Dunkel zum Lichte (through
Darkness to Light)—ended the programme. The play
represented Joseph, with all his honors upon him, receiving his
old father and his brothers—prefiguring the Ascension of
After the prelude by the orchestra the curtain rises and
discovers old Jacob, surrounded by his sons in various groups.
The scene and costumes were admirable and appropriate. In the
midst of a discourse Joseph bursts in in fine attire, followed
by a great train, among which are two darkies, taken bodily
from Flemish pictures. After much embracing and blessing and
forgiveness, the curtain falls as Jacob with outstretched arms
thanks the Lord and prophesies all good things.
Then again the orchestra, and again our Chorus enters on the
scene, and after the epilogue, "At last all woe is ended," they
divide and kneel, as the curtain rises on the scene of the
Ascension. This was most simply represented. Christ ascends
from the tomb, standing on it, surrounded by angels, while
figures appropriately grouped around make a picture which
recalled Perugino. The basso sings an aria, and a grand chorus,
"Alleluja!" ends this most remarkable performance.
There was no delay nor interruption throughout. Not the
sound of a hammer nor the whisper of a prompter was ever heard.
There was no applause whatever from the audience until the end,
and then it seemed to come from the strangers. The three
hours—for the end was precisely at twelve—seemed
not more than one, so filled was the mind with the simple,
grand beauty and the artistic completeness of the whole thing.
No personality appears for an instant. There are no bills to
tell the names of the actors, nor did any actor or actress at
any time look toward the audience.
Never since early childhood have the Bible stories been
brought back with such vividness, such tender and absorbing
interest. Tradition, faith and earnestness have made this a
people of artists. If one could believe, as all must wish, that
love of money-making and speculation will not invade this
simple village, to the demoralization of its people, the
satisfaction would be most complete. Be that as it may, I shall
always owe a debt of gratitude to Ober-Ammergau, and as long as
memory lasts shall remember Die Kreuzesschule.