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FERDINAND SABATHIL 1856[52?] - 1937

I am looking at a black and white photograph, that is entitled ‘F. Sabathil 1. Floetist der Hofkapelle in Schwerin’. It shows a small, middle-aged man of light build holding a flute. His face is turned towards the camera and dark eyes stare uncompromisingly from behind a pair of spectacles. The gravity of his expression is emphasised by a topping of short dark hair, severely parted in the middle. Larger than average ears and nose make the face seem smaller, an effect emphasised by his large bushy beard and moustache. However closer examination of the photo reveals a slight twinkle in the eye and the suggestion of a smile lurks beneath the facial yard brush. The hand holding the flute is sporting a wedding ring.
Ferdinand Sabathil was born on November 11th, 1856 [or 1852 according to some sources] in Sangerberg near the larger spa town of Marienbad which was then part of Germany and is now in the Czech Republic. I have found no accounts of his early life, but he seems to have been come from a musical family. It is for certain that he studied flute at the Conservatoire in Prague with Vilém Blodek, and his name is included in the list of end-of-year examinees at the Prague Konservatorium in 1873, for which occasion he performed music by Terschak. After completing his studies, Sabathil worked in Saaz [home of the hop used in Pilsner beer] for a few years before in 1882 attaining the position of Principal Flute in the Hofkapelle orchestra in Schwerin. This must have been a very desirable and sought-after chair, and an exciting place for a musician to work. Schwerin, positioned midway between Bayreuth and Prague, had been a centre of musical excellence since the beginning of the 18th century. A newer theatre had been built there in 1836, then re-built fifty years later and opened in 1886, shortly after Sabathil’s arrival. It was the first public building in Schwerin to have electric lighting and a photograph of it, taken in 1906, shows a very grand hall with a high moulded ceiling from which several chandeliers are suspended. The building was 56 metres long and 25 metres wide. It featured a ballroom and a concert hall that could seat 600 people and had space for many more to stand. However, Sabathil’s own living conditions may not have been equal to the grandeur of his work surroundings. Although there is no record of the state of the living quarters for musicians after the 1886 re-build, a Schwerin court musician had written in 1791 “The house in which I live is in such a bad state that the rain comes in through the roof and I fear that the ceilings may collapse. The floors are rotten in some parts of the rooms and the [heating] oven, which is 20 years old, can no longer be heated, wind and rain come in through the windows….’ it seems nothing ever changes for musicians, and, as a nice piece of irony, an oil painting of the orchestra members at Schwerin in 1770 was recently sold by Sothebys for £27,500 !!
But the musical compensations must have been huge. In the first two decades following the opening of the new Herzogliche Hoftheater there were around 1,300 productions, including performances of operas by Wagner with the composer and his wife, Cosima, present in the audience. And in 1883, when Brahms performed his new second piano concerto, composed just two years previously, Sabathil would have been playing in the orchestra. He would have been involved in the huge music festival held in Schwerin in 1890 when the local choir was joined by choirs from the larger surrounding towns including Rostock and Neubrandenburg, and the orchestra was strengthened by players from Bremen, Darmstadt and elsewhere. Sabathil also played in the orchestra at Bayreuth during the1888 and 1889 seasons for the performances of ‘Parsifal’ and ‘Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg’ so Debussy, attending those performances, must have heard the flautist play. Sabathil’s career was obviously going well and in November of 1888, he was honoured by having the title ‘Chamber Musician' bestowed on him by the Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. Thereafter, however, little seems to be known of him except that he died in Graz on October 6th 1937.
But what did Sabathil compose? More than four hundred works including pieces for orchestra, piano pieces, flute pieces and brass music are attributed to Ferdinand Sabathil, and from 1890 until 1908 there are a large number of reports of performances of his works in Europe and especially in the United Kingdom. His music seems to have been particularly popular with Military Bands. But what was Sabathil doing writing military band music? And here the researcher meets an enormous hiccup: at least four musicians with the surname Sabathil were living and working at the same time, most of them had been born in the same town and, worst of all, two of them appear to have been called Ferdinand. I have found a single reference to another Ferdinand Sabathil [1895 - ] who emigrated to the US at the age of 15 and settled in New York. As yet I have found no other evidence of his life, so did he exist? if so, it might explain the several otherwise apparently posthumously published editions of Sabathil’s music. To him could probably be attributed the ‘Scherzo Capriccio’ that has been recorded by Janet Webb, is listed in Samantha Chang’s repertoire and can be heard on YouTube in a version for flute and guitar played by Christine Draeger. Two earlier artists had separately recorded the Scherzo Capriccio, John Lemmoné and John Amadio of whom The Gramophone review, August 1923 speaks very warmly. Indeed it speaks at length about the performer, Mr. Amadio who ‘is a very brilliant flautist’, decrying the fact that ‘the flute has suffered on the gramophone from this tendency to virtuosity’ and then, in a nice piece of unintended irony, goes on to say very little about the composition, only summing it up with the words ‘the pieces he chooses to play are invariably pieces giving plenty of opportunity for the display of his brilliance…the present record is the best that I have heard of Mr. Amadio’s playing and the two pieces [Sabathil and Doppler] scarcely deserve to have harsh things said of them’. Disentangling the works to their respective composers will be a long and complex job. Contemporary newspapers are no help because, almost invariably, they refer to the composer only by his surname. We can safely assume that the American Ferdinand Sabathil was responsible for composing the Alice Roosevelt Waltz, debuted on Independence Day 1902 with the young lady herself dancing. Whilst, on the other hand, it seems reasonable to assign the Karlsbader Waltz to the German Ferdinand Sabathil, whilst a contemporary 1908 German source also ascribes the popular Canary Polka to him. And the more I researched, the more I realised the mire of confusion that I had entered into. For instance, there is a modern sheet music edition also with the title ‘Canary Bird Polka’ which is attributed to the slightly later Rudolf Sabathil [1875 - 1942]. Rudolf was born in Sangerberg, the same town as Ferdinand, but he was a historian and his work largely concentrated on the local dialect and traditional music of the Egerland. Of the other notable Sabathils:
S. Sabathil was a piano maker in nearby Marienbad, Leonhart Sabathil owned a spa in the same town, and Johann Sabathil was a schoemaker. When I came across Melanie Sabathil, I was intrigued to find that her son’s marriage possibly linked me to the Sabathil family. So there is definitely lots more here for me to uncover.
So, which Ferdinand composed the ‘Ständchen’ that I am publishing? I presume that the clue is in the name and that this work is definitely attributable to the German Ferd. Sabathil. The edition is based on the publication in 1939, after the composer’s death, by Rudall Carte and held by the British Library shelfmark g.70.j.(10)
A sample of the music can be heard at https://soundcloud.com/rosflute/sabathil. If you have any more information about this/these composers, please let me know!