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Petermännchen: Poltergeist or Weeverfish?

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Detail from Die Fischerei. Lithograph. Reproduction number LC-USZ62-14497, Prints and Photographs Division.

The following is a guest post by Rachel Weiss, an intern whom we interviewed on Monday.

Just after the turn of the twentieth century, the Music Division was still a fledgling organization.  In 1902, Oscar Sonneck was named its first Chief, and he laid the groundwork for the development of many of the division’s wonderful collections.  Sonneck was especially influential in establishing the Music Division’s collection of opera librettos, some of which I have become intimately acquainted with this summer.  Specifically, I am cataloging the last 1100 librettos in the Albert Schatz collection, most of which pertain to operas, although I have come across several oratorios, some cantatas, and a few requiems.

Schatz became interested in opera at a young age, and as an adult this interest manifested itself in the form of collecting.  Resolved to write a complete and correct history of opera (ha!), Schatz embarked on a mission to acquire as many of these booklets as possible.  Forty-two years and 12,000 librettos later, as Schatz’s seventieth birthday was approaching, it became clear to him that he had undertaken an extremely difficult task, one that he would not complete during his lifetime.  This realization led him to donate his immense collection to the Library of Congress in 1908, and Sonneck happily accepted it into the Music Division.  The Schatz collection includes librettos printed between about 1650 and 1900 in at least eight languages.  Many of them include beautiful illustrations, some of them are popular favorites (Verdi, anyone?), and some of them are downright strange.  Just for fun, here’s an example of the kind of thing I may come across on any given day.

A few weeks ago I came across the two-part opera Das Petermännchen (1794), composed by Joseph Weigl with a libretto by Karl Friedrich Hensler.  As a person who can read very little German and speak none, I appealed to Google translate for help, and the translation of Petermännchen I received was “weever.”  And what is a weever, you may ask?  My thoughts exactly.  Google informed me that a weever is a type of scary fish that hides in the sand with only its eyes showing, then surprise-attacks its prey.  These fish may be used in bouillabaisse – fish stew – but also sting people with their poisonous barbs.  At this point I began to think all of this was just a little far-fetched, so I turned to the first page and translated a little bit just out of curiosity.  Surprisingly, the opera was actually about fishermen!

Amused, but somewhat in disbelief, with further research I found that Petermännchen has a second meaning.  In German folklore Petermännchen is a small ghost who protects his territory by rewarding good people and punishing trespassers.  This appeared to be a more likely subject for an opera, and upon closer inspection I discovered a note on the title page that translated to “from the ghost story by Mr. Spiess.”  Is it a coincidence that the translation of Petermännchen connects with the opera’s fish-related theme?  Maybe, maybe not.  Either way, it makes a great story!


Comments (2)

  1. Nice job! It’s great to see posts by interns, and this one is wonderful.

  2. Great story! Thank you so much. I appreciate the backgrounds and obscure information I find in the library blogs continues to enchant. Again thank you.

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