Page:A Dictionary of Music and Musicians vol 2.djvu/141

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LIBRETTO.
129
 

hands. The same cannot be said of Germany, where few dramatists of repute have condescended to co-operate with the musician, and where, till quite lately, even the finest dramatic subjects (e.g. Beethoven's Fidelio) were defaced by the execrable doggrel believed to be particularly suitable for operatic purposes. In all these respects a deep change has been wrought by Wagner's reform. In that great poet and greater musician the two faculties are inseparably blended, and in his work therefore the reciprocity between music and poetry may be studied in its most perfect form. His own words on the subject will be of interest. 'In Rienzi,' he says, 'my only purpose was to write an opera, and thinking only of this opera, I took my subject as I found it ready made in another man's finished production.… With the Flying Dutchman, I entered upon a new course, by becoming the artistic interpreter of a subject which was given to me only in the simple, crude form of a popular tale. From this time I became, with regard to all my dramatic works, first of all a poet; and only in the ultimate completion of the poem was my faculty as a musician restored to me. But as a poet I was again from the beginning conscious of my power of expressing musically the import of my subjects. This power I had exercised to such a degree, that I was perfectly certain of my ability of applying it to the realisation of my poetical purpose, and therefore was at much greater liberty to form my dramatic schemes according to their poetical necessities, than if I had conceived them from the beginning with a view to musical treatment.'

The result of this freedom of workmanship is easily discoverable in Wagner's later music-dramas, such as 'Tristan' or 'The Valkyrie.' They are to all intents and purposes dramatic poems full of beauty and interest, quite apart from the aid of musical composition. For the latter, indeed, they appear at first sight unadapted, and he must be a bold man who would think of resetting the 'Niblung' Trilogy, as Rossini reset the 'Barber of Seville' after Paisiello. The ordinary characteristics of the libretto, such as the aria, or the duet, as distinguished from the dialogue, have entirely disappeared, and along with these have gone those curious reiterations by various persons of the same sentence, with a corresponding change only of the personal pronoun. In this and other respects Wagner's music-dramas must be considered by themselves, and the strict imitation of their form in ordinary libretti, written for ordinary musicians, would be simply fatal. At the same time his work has been of great influence on the structure of the dramatic poem in modern opera. Musicians have become more critical in their choice of subjects, and the librettists accordingly more careful in providing them, especially as the natural sense of the public also seems to be awakening from its long slumber. It is indeed a significant fact that the three most successful operas of recent years, Gounod's 'Faust,' Bizet's 'Carmen,' and Goetz's 'The Taming of the Shrew,' are all founded on stories of intense human interest, more or less cleverly adapted to operatic purposes. It is true that in France and Germany the dramatic interest was never at so low an ebb as in Italy or in this country. Numerous operas might be named which owe their permanent success to a bright and sparkling libretto, and others in which the genius of the musician has been weighed down by the dulness of the operatic bard; 'Martha,' 'Fra Diavolo,' and 'Le Postilion de Longjumeau,' belong to the former class; 'Così fan Tutte,' 'La Clemenza di Tito,' and 'Euryanthe,' nicknamed 'Ennuyante' by the despairing [1]composer, to the latter. It is also a significant fact that by far the finest music Rossini ever wrote occurs in the 'Barber,' and in 'William Tell,' and that 'Faust' remains Gounod's unsurpassed masterpiece, the inspiration of the composers being in each case distinctly traceable to the dramatic basis of their music. Instances of a similar kind from the works even of the most 'absolute' musicians might be multiplied ad libitum. The lesson thus taught has indeed been fully recognised by the best composers. Beethoven was unable to fix upon a second subject after Fidelio; and Mendelssohn, in spite of incessant attempts, found only one to satisfy his demands; and that, alas! too late for completion. The libretto of his unfinished opera 'Loreley,' by Emanuel Geibel the well-known poet, was afterwards set by Max Bruch, and performed with considerable success. The importance of the libretto for the artistic as well as the popular success of an opera is therefore beyond dispute, and modern composers cannot be too careful in their choice. To assist them in that choice, or to lay down the law with regard to the construction of a model libretto, the present writer does not feel qualified. A few distinctive features may however be pointed out. In addition to the human interest and the truth of passion which a libretto must share with every dramatic poem, there ought to be a strong infusion of the lyrical element, not to be mistaken for the tendency towards 'singing a song' too rampant amongst tenors and soprani. The dramatic and the lyrical motives ought on the contrary to be perfectly blended, and even in ordinary dialogue a certain elevation of sentiment sufficient to account for the sung instead of the spoken word should be maintained. This again implies certain restrictions with regard to the choice of subject. One need not share Wagner's absolute preference for mythical subject-matter to perceive that the scene of an opera ought to be as far as possible removed from the platitudes of common life, barring, of course, the comic opera, in which the contrast between the idealism of music and the realities of every-day existence may be turned to excellent account. With regard to the observance of musical form opinions of course will differ widely; but that the poet ought to some extent to conform to the musician's demands no reasonable person will deny. The

  1. Weber's Life, by his son, ii. 519.