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Imperial Operetta: Princess Alix of Hesse and Tsarevich Nicholas of Russia

During the time they were at Coburg, Princess Alix of Hesse and Tsarevich Nicholas of Russia became engaged, a date they would treasure for the rest of their lives – 8 April 1894. Whilst they were in Coburg, visited the theatre and saw an operetta of which they would become affectionately fond, Carl Zeller’s popular piece in three acts, Der Vogelhändler [The Birdseller].

Both recorded seeing the operetta in their diaries and developed a particular love for one of its songs, sung by character Adam Wie mein Ahn’l zwanzig Jahr, returning to its own recurring rhyme, No amal, no amal sing nur sing, Nachtigall. Indeed, so popular was this last song that 200,000 copies of the score were sold of it, within a few months alone. It has remained one of those handful of operettas which continues to be performed on the German stage, since its premiere on 10 January 1891 in Vienna’s Theater an der Wien. It was, therefore, already established by the time of the imperial engagement in 1894 and its fashionable success in Coburg was but an expression of the popularity it had enjoyed since it was first shown in the imperial Habsburg capital. Its appeal was metropolitan and universal. It was performed at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1895.

Why did this piece appeal then to Princess Alix and the Russian Tsarevich, so much? Both appreciated music. Princess Alix ‘adored’ Wagner and was an accomplished pianist, although she underwent ‘torment’ as she told her later biographer, Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, when once asked to play for Queen Victoria and her guests and suite at Windsor Castle, saying that her hands were so clammy, they hardly worked on the piano keys and that it was ‘one of the worst ordeals of her life’. Her music teacher in Darmstadt was Dutch, W. de Haan, the Director of the Darmstadt Opera. Baroness Buxhoeveden wrote that she played the piano ‘brilliantly’.

As Tsarina, she had a Becker upright piano in her famous ‘Mauve Boudoir’ at the Alexander Palace, which she played. Alexandra gave her husband, Tsar Nicholas II, a grand piano (1898) as a gift, decorated by the artist Ernest Karlovich Liphart, on the theme of Orpheus. It survives, acquired from the Music Department of the Hermitage in 1940. A less ornate piano stood in the Tsar’s study in the Winter Palace.

To listen to the refrain today is to hear a warm, nineteenth-century piece of romance. It is entirely understandable how this would fit into the letters and moments exchanged by the young couple, whose correspondence also included dried flowers, pressed into the pages, watercolour headings and also, poems.

The story is set in the eighteenth century Rhineland, appropriate for Princess Alix, who was a Princess of Hesse and by Rhine. The operetta’s plot centres around its leading characters, Adam, a bird-seller from the Tyrol and the local village postmistress, Christel. I wonder if the plot appealed to Princess Alix and the Tsarevich for more personal reasons. There are numerous misunderstandings and the lovers, Christel and Adam, finally are reconciled, having been devastated by the loss of one another. Together, they go to spend life in the Tyrol.

Princess Alix and the Tsarevich’s own story was, of course, fraught with complications, not least because of the matter of changing religious confession, which was the major reason which led Alix to write her letter to Nicholas in November 1893 to say that she would be a ‘sin’ to change her Lutheran belief (Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, 32). As long ago as 1884, the Tsarevich had met the twelve-year-old Alix, who came to Russia with her family for the wedding of her elder sister, Princess Elisabeth ‘Ella’ of Hesse, to Nicholas’s uncle, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich.

The seventeen-year-old Alix returned to St Petersburg to spend the winter of 1889 with her sister, Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna, and it was properly there that the romance between the couple as adults began, although the roots had been planted in Russia, much earlier. Alix had written to Nicholas in November 1893 that she considered it would be a ‘sin’ to change her belief, her Lutheran confession. Finally, Alix’s resistance broke and on 8 April they were engaged at Coburg, whether both had gone for what would be one of the great gatherings of nineteenth-century European royalty, for the wedding of Alix’s beloved brother, Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hesse and Princess Victoria Melita of Edinburgh, both incidentally, grandchildren of Queen Victoria.

Nicholas wrote to his mother, Empress Marie Feodorovna: ‘We were left alone, and with her very first words she consented! The Almighty only knows what happened to me then. I cried like a child and she did too…’ (ed. Edward J. Bing, Letters of Tsar Nicholas and Empress Marie, 76). It was a day they would cherish in memory all their lives, as their wartime correspondence clearly demonstrates, with the date being referred to it both letters and telegrams both on the day itself and the day before.

Movingly, a little telegraph code book, used by the Tsarevich and Princess Alix during their engagement, was treasured by Alix, who carefully preserved in Baroness Buxhoeveden’s words ‘every souvenir of that time, that even in her imprisonment, she had it with her’ (Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, The Life and Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna, 39). This tiny book was tragically discovered amongst those pathetic items left behind in the Ipatiev House at Ekaterinburg, the infamous building also known by its sinister byname ‘The House of Special Purpose’, in whose cellar, the Russian Imperial Family were brutally murdered on the night of 16/17 July 1918.

Der Vogelhändler was not, however, purely associated with their actual betrothal. It was performed at Coburg prior to this event. We know this because Nicholas records in his diary of his arrival at Coburg on 4 April, four days before the actual engagement. After unpacking and going to a family dinner with ‘Aunt Marie and Uncle Alfred’ [Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, became Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha on the death of his uncle, Duke Ernest II of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, elder brother of Albert, the Prince Consort, in 1893], the Tsarevich wrote in his diary that they walked to the Coburg theatre, where they saw performed ‘an excellent operetta, Vogelhändler’. The following evening a different play was given, Das Stiftungsfest, followed by The Clowns, two days later. On the day of the engagement there was no visit to the theatre, but instead a court concert, where the Bavarian regimental string orchestra ‘played brilliantly’ (Maylunas and Mironenko, 48).

Much later in their wartime correspondence, Nicholas referred to this touchingly written from Tsarist military Headquarters [Stavka] on 8 April 1916: ‘I must begin my letter on this date in remembrance of what happened 22 years ago! I think there was a concert that evening at Coburg and a Bavarian band played; poor [Uncle] Alfred was rather tired fr[om] his dinner & kept dropping his stick with a crashing noise! Do you remember?’ (ed. Joseph T. Fuhrmann, The Complete Wartime Correspondence of Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra, 447). Alexandra also recorded the Bavarian orchestra in her diary entry for 8 April 1894, a date she underlined. The diary survives in the State Archives of the Russian Federation in Moscow. She answered Nicholas’s question a few days later, on 11 April 1916: ‘You remember the primroses we picked these days at Rosenau? Oh, yes I remember U[ncle] Alfred dropping granny’s [Queen Victoria’s] stick & being rather “tired”…’ (Ibid, 452).

The refrain No amal, no amal sing nur sing, Nachtigall occurs in number 12 of the score, Finale II. Both Nicholas and Alix appear to have particularly loved this piece, roughly translating to Once more, oh sing oh sing once more, Nightingale. Ten days after their engagement, they saw Der Vogelhändler again at the Coburg theatre, as Nicholas wrote again of that ‘charming’ operetta, in his diary, that Alix ‘love[d]’ the ‘nightingale aria’ (Maylunas and Mironenko, 56).

Nicholas’s own words in a letter to Alix sum up their relationship with this operetta. Writing to her back in home in Russia from the Imperial Palace at Gatchina, he repeated the refrain Noch einmal, noch einmal, noch einmal – nachtigall’. Nicholas knew German among his many languages, though his correspondence with Alix was almost exclusively in English, whilst telegrams could be in Russian. He wrote on 23 April 1894: ‘Oh! That delightful sweet melody. For ever shall I love and remember those golden days in Coburg!’ (Ibid, 61).

Both always did.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019