Finding a Home for the Longest Opera Ever Written
My apartment has become the temporary lodging place for the complete works of the Hungarian-American composer Gabriel von Wayditch (1888-1969), whose output includes 14 operas. Several of these are more than five hours in duration, and one—Eretnekek (which translates into English as The Heretics)—lasts over eight hours and is cited in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest opera ever written.
Basically this translates into large heavy volumes of orchestral scores and piano reductions, a good many filling up 1200 manuscript pages. The piano reduction of Eretnekek fills some 1531 pages compiled in four separately bound volumes, and its orchestral score, also bound in four volumes, goes up to 2850 pages. (He died before he completed the orchestration.)
What makes this particular story so unusual is that this vast body of work was created over a period of more than 60 years with little-to-no incentive. Only one of Wayditch’s operas, Horus, was ever performed during his lifetime and apparently not particularly well. (Two contemporaneous reviews survive.) The operas offer a variety of potential production pitfalls in addition to their unwieldy duration: they require large forces (110-piece orchestras), many require scene changes every few minutes, and all were written in Hungarian. Since they were not composed with specific performances in mind there are also problems with the performance materials: e.g. there are no parts and many of the piano reductions, in an effort to be representative of the orchestration, are virtually unplayable with two hands and a single piano. The elaborate plots of many of these works—he wrote his own libretto as well—recall the wild fantasies of outsider artist Henry Darger, whose obsessive life’s work, also created in obscurity, begs a comparison with Wayditch.
Some back story for why I’m currently housing these materials is probably in order here. I first learned about this music 25 years ago when I chanced upon LP recordings of two short Wayditch operas, The Caliph’s Magician and Jesus Before Herod, which were issued by Musical Heritage Society. The booklet notes included a phone number to call for a Gabriel von Wayditch Music Foundation if interested in learning more about the music. I was intrigued enough by the music I heard on those LPs to call the phone number. It turned out to be the home phone number of the composer’s son, a tax account who financed those recordings and had dedicated his life to championing his father’s music.
Through the years I stayed in touch with the composer’s son, helping to get those LPs re-issued on CD (and thankfully they are still commercially available from VAI), writing the Grove Dictionary entry on Wayditch, trying to interest people in performing these works, and most recently—now that the composer’s son has died and his grandson has entrusted me with them—finding a permanent home for these unique manuscripts.
I’ve been intimately acquainted with this story for decades, but having these scores surrounding me has made the questions I’ve long harbored about this music all the more concrete: What force would drive someone to create such a vast body of work without any opportunities, either financial or promotional? How many other composers like Gabriel von Wayditch are there out there and what keeps their music from being more known? What could be done to preserve the legacies of such composers and keep the flames of support for them burning after they or their descendants are no longer around to carry the torch?