In a bath house in Augsburg, Albrecht, the son of a Bavarian count, makes acquaintance with the bath maidservant Agnes Bernauer around the year 1428. It is love at first sight and they get married without delay. Albrecht’s father Duke Ernst opposes this marriage however for reasons of social status and even the common people do not all approve of this union: comments among the regulars in a Munich tavern range from agreement via mistrust to furious opposition. What is more, the Albrecht and Agnes take up residence in the Duke’s castle.
The couple’s marriage however also have public consequences: according to rumours among the people on the street, Albrecht’s dispute with his father could have political implications. Agnes also does not see the future as being all too positive and when Albrecht has to leave the palace for a few days, she entreats him not to be away too long.
Agnes’s dark forebodings are confirmed: in Albrecht’s father’s chancellery in Munich, the chancellor is contemplating the death sentence pronounced by Duke Ernst for Agnes with mixed feelings. And elsewhere in Munich, a raging monk is attempting to turn religious believers against Agnes, but is silenced by supporters of Albrecht.
This is however all in vain. Albrecht has hardly left the castle when disaster strikes: Duke Ernst’s bailiffs break into Agnes’s bedchamber at midnight and pull her out of bed to bring her to the judge. She is given short shrift and when she is drowned in the Danube in Straubing, sensation-seeking witches are looking on gleefully.
Albrecht is so embittered over the murder that he resolves to raze Munich to the ground and hurries to the gates of the city. At the last minute however, messengers bring him the news that his father has died and that he is now Duke of Bavaria. Profoundly shocked, the young man accepts his fate and even his deceased wife seems to support him: the figure of Agnes appears as a heavenly vision in the sky.
When Orff’s daughter Godela was engaged by the Bayerische Staatschauspiel theatre in 1942, she was given the title role in Hebbel’s drama Agnes Bernauer. As the actress complained that she found it difficult to identify with this sentimental figure in the play, Orff also read Hebbel’s work and resolved to write his own version of the drama. The composer aimed to combine this plot with original Bavarian dialect which he had come across in Johann Andreas Schmeller’s well-known Bavarian dictionary Bayerisches Wörterbuch to create a piece of genuine Bavarian theatre. With his innovative word creations, he even went far beyond the scope of Schmeller’s dictionary.
A further influence of the work intended for theatre players originated from a manuscript dating from the fifteenth century, entitled Liederbuch der Clara Hätzerlin (Augsburg 1471). The collection of over 2000 poems provided Orff with valuable inspiration and had a profound influence on the scenes in the bath house, the witches as bystanders and in the bedchamber. The chorus scenes with overtones of antiquity lend the balladesque work a clear structure: the witches’ role “viewing from the walls” for example harks back to the teichoscopy of antiquity. Die Bernauerin hereby represents a turning point in Orff’s career, not only forming the conclusion of his previous creative phase, but also pointing towards the Greek dramas in the composer’s later phase.
Hinter der Bühne: S. (2 Gl. · gr. Tamt. · mind. 6 kl. Tr. · mind. 3 Rührtr. · gr. Tr.) - 2 Klav. · Org.
Im Orchester, später hinter der Bühne: Solo-Tenor -
Hinter der Bühne, später auf der Bühne: gr. gem. Chor -
Aus der Höhe: Solo-Sopran