Goldmark’s wild Amazons: drama and exoticism in the Penthesilea Overture (1879)

Roper, J. (2015) Goldmark’s wild Amazons: drama and exoticism in the Penthesilea Overture (1879). In: Exoticism, Orientalism and National Identity in Musical Theatre: International Musicological Conference on the Centenary of the Death of Karl Goldmark, 11-12 December 2015, Budapest. (Unpublished)


Although Goldmark’s reputation today lies principally in his development of scene and character in operas, his dramatic capabilities were equally in evidence his symphonic works. Several of his concert overtures are programmatic and are based closely on works for the stage. Striking amongst these is his Penthesilea overture. The inspiration for Pentesilea came from Heinrich von Kleist’s colourful and exotic play of the same title. Based on the ancient Greek story of the Queen of the Amazon Warriors, its setting and subject matter were very much in vogue in certain contemporary Viennese circles. Violent battle scenes stand in stark contrast to sensual dreams, and the tension between love and death is ever-present. Selecting three key scenes for his overture, Goldmark created a vivid representation of the subject, abounding with exotic detail. The music is highly chromatic, the orchestration rich, the contrast extreme. Contemporary critical response to the overture was mixed: understandable as it was written at a time when polarised opinions about programme music were emerging. Ever keen to pursue his agenda both against programme music and Kleist’s play, Eduard Hanslick found the opening particularly shocking and the subject distasteful. Even Wagner’s Valkyries could not compete with Goldmark’s wild Amazons, he asserted. Meanwhile, Hugo Wolf questioned his ability to do justice to Kleist’s play, though this standpoint may have been motivated as much by his rivalry with Goldmark as by genuine musical critique. Other critics, however, viewed the work positively, and its performance under Hans Richter led to its more widespread inclusion in orchestral repertoire in the years that followed. Using these diverse reactions as a starting point, this paper will explore how Goldmark recreated the drama of Kleist’s Penthesilea. In so doing, it will address the extent to which it was designed to appeal to the tastes of a late 19th-century audience at a time when opinions about programme music were in a state of flux. A video of this presentation is available at

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