1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Wagner, Wilhelm Richard
WAGNER, WILHELM RICHARD (1813-1883), German dramatic composer, poet and essay-writer, was born at Leipzig on the 22nd of May 1813. In 1822 he was sent to the Kreuzschule at Dresden, where he did so well that, four years later, he translated the first twelve books of the Odyssey for amusement. In 1828 he was removed to the Nicolaischule at Leipzig, where he was less successful. His first music master was Gottlieb Müller, who thought him self-willed and eccentric; and his first production as a composer was an overture, performed at the Leipzig theatre in 1830. In that year he matriculated at the university, and took lessons in composition from Theodor Weinlig, cantor at the Thomasschule. A symphony was produced at the Gewandhaus concerts in 1833, and in the following year he was appointed conductor of the opera at Magdeburg. The post was unprofitable, and Wagner's life at this period was very unsettled. He had composed an opera called Die Feen adapted by himself from Gozzi's La Donna Serpente, and another, Das Liebesverbot, founded on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, but only Das Liebesverbot obtained a single performance in 1836.
In that year Wagner married Wilhelmina Planer, an actress at the theatre at Königsberg. He had accepted an engagement there as conductor; but, the lessee becoming bankrupt, the scheme was abandoned in favour of a better appointment at Riga. Accepting this, he remained actively employed until 1839, when he made his first visit to Paris, taking with him an unfinished opera based on Bulwer Lytton's Rienzi, and, like his earlier attempts, on his own libretto. The venture proved most unfortunate. Wagner failed to gain a footing, and Rienzi, destined for the Grand Opera, was rejected. He completed it, however, and in 1842 it was produced at Dresden, where, with Madame Schroeder Devrient and Herr Tichatschek in the principal parts, it achieved a success which went far to make him famous.
But though in Rienzi Wagner had shown energy and ambition, that work was far from representing his preconceived ideal. This he now endeavoured to embody in Der fliegende Holländer, for which he designed a libretto quite independent of any other treatment of the legend. The piece was warmly received at Dresden on the 2nd of January 1843; but its success was by no means equal to that of Rienzi. Spohr, however, promptly discovered its merits, and produced it at Cassel some months later, with very favourable results.
On the 2nd of February 1843 Wagner was formally installed as Hofkapellmeister at the Dresden theatre, and he soon set to work on a new opera. He chose the legend of Tannhäuser, collecting his materials from the ancient Tannhäuser-Lied, the Volksbuch, Tieck's poetical Erzählung, Hoffmann's story of Der Sängerkrieg, and the medieval poem on Der Wartburgkrieg. This last-named legend introduces the incidental poem of “Loherangrin,” and so led Wagner to the study of Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival and Titurel, with great results later on. But for the present he confined himself to the subject in hand; and on the 19th of October 1845 he produced his Tannhäuser, with Schroeder Devrient, Johanna Wagner, Tichatschek and Mitterwurzer in the principal parts. Notwithstanding this powerful cast, the success of the new work was not brilliant, for it carried still further the principles embodied in Der fliegende Holländer, and the time was not ripe for them. But Wagner boldly fought for them, and might have prevailed earlier had he not taken part in the political agitations of 1849, after which his position in Dresden became untenable. In fact, after the flight of the king and the subsequent suppression of the riots, a warrant was issued for his arrest; and he had barely time to escape to Weimar, where Liszt was at that moment engaged in preparing Tannhäuser for performance, before the storm burst upon him with alarming violence. In all haste Liszt procured a passport and escorted his guest as far as Eisenach. Wagner fled to Paris and thence to Zürich, where he lived in almost unbroken retirement until the autumn of 1859. During this period most of his prose works — including Oper und Drama, Über das Dirigieren, Das Judentum in der Musik — were given to the world.
The medieval studies which Wagner had begun for his work at the libretto of Tannhäuser bore rich fruit in his next opera Lohengrin, in which he also developed his principles on a larger scale and with a riper technique than hitherto. He had completed the work before he fled from Dresden, but could not get it produced. But he took the score with him to Paris, and, as he himself tells us, “when ill, miserable and despairing, I sat brooding over my fate, my eye fell on the score of my Lohengrin, which I had totally forgotten. Suddenly I felt something like compassion that the music should never sound from off the death-pale paper. Two words I wrote to Liszt; his answer was the news that preparations were being made for the performance of the work, on the grandest scale that the limited means of Weimar would permit. Everything that care and accessories could do was done to make the design of the piece understood. Liszt saw what was wanted at once, and did it. Success was his reward; and with this success he now approaches me, saying ‘See, we have come thus far; now create us a new work, that we may go further.’”
Lohengrin was, in fact, produced at Weimar under Liszt's direction on the 28th of August 1850. It was a severe trial to Wagner not to hear his own work, but he knew that it was in good hands, and he responded to Liszt's appeal for a new creation by studying the Nibelungenlied and gradually shaping it into a gigantic tetralogy. At this time also he first began to lay out the plan of Tristan und Isolde, and to think over the possibilities of Parsifal.
During his exile Wagner matured his plans and perfected his musical style; but it was not until some considerable time after his return that any of the works he then meditated were placed upon the stage. In 1855 he accepted an invitation to London, where he conducted the concerts of the Philharmonic Society with great success. In 1857 he completed the libretto of Tristan und Isolde at Venice, adopting the Celtic legend modified by Gottfried of Strasburg's medieval version. But the music was delayed until the strange incident of a message from the emperor of Brazil encouraged Wagner to complete it in 1859. In that year Wagner visited Paris for the third time; and after much negotiation, in which he was nobly supported by the Prince and Princess Metternich, Tannhäuser was accepted at the Grand Opera. Magnificent preparations were made; it was rehearsed 164 times, 14 times with the full orchestra; and the scenery and dresses were placed entirely under the composer's direction. More than £8000 was expended upon the venture; and the work was performed for the first time in the French language and with the new Venusberg music on the 13th of March 1861. But, for political reasons, a powerful clique was determined to suppress Wagner. A scandalous riot was inaugurated by the members of the Parisian Jockey Club, who interrupted the performance with howls and dog-whistles; and after the third representation the opera was withdrawn. Wagner was broken-hearted. But the Princess Metternich continued to befriend him, and by 1861 she had obtained a pardon for his political offences, with permission to settle in any part of Germany except Saxony. Even this restriction was removed in 1862.
Wagner now settled for a time in Vienna, where Tristan und Isolde was accepted, but abandoned after fifty-seven rehearsals, through the incompetence of the tenor. Lohengrin was, however, produced on the 15th of May 1861, when Wagner heard it for the first time. His circumstances were now extremely straitened ; it was the darkness before dawn. In 1863 he published the libretto of Der Ring des Nibelungen. King Ludwig of Bavaria was much struck with it, and in 1864 invited Wagner, who was then at Stuttgart, to come to Munich and finish his work there. Wagner accepted with rapture. The king gave him an annual grant of 1200 gulden (£120), considerably enlarging it before the end of the year, and placing a comfortable house in the outskirts of the city at his disposal. The master expressed his gratitude in a “Huldigungsmarsch.” In the autumn he was formally commissioned to proceed with the tetralogy and to furnish proposals for the building of a theatre and the foundation of a Bavarian music school. All promised well, but no sooner did his position seem assured than a miserable court intrigue was formed against him. His political indiscretions at Dresden were made the excuse for bitter persecutions: scandalmongers made his friendship with the ill-fated king a danger to both; and Wagner was obliged to retire to Triebschen near Lucerne for the next six years.
On the 10th of June 1865 at Munich, Tristan und Isolde was produced for the first time, with Herr and Frau Schnorr in the principal parts. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, first sketched in 1845, was completed in 1867 and first performed at Munich under the direction of Hans von Bülow on the 21st of June 1868. The story, though an original one, is founded on the character of Hans Sachs, the poet-shoemaker of Nuremberg. The success of the opera was very great; but the production of the Nibelung tetralogy as a whole still remained impracticable, though Das Rheingold and Die Walküre were performed, the one on the 22nd of September 1869 and the other on the 26th of June 1870. The scheme for building a new theatre at Munich having been abandoned, there was no opera-house in Germany fit for so colossal a work. A project was therefore started for the erection of a suitable building at Bayreuth (q.v.). Wagner laid the first stone of this in 1872, and the edifice was completed, after almost insuperable difficulties, in 1876.
After this Wagner resided permanently at Bayreuth, in a house named Wahnfried, in the garden of which he built his tomb. His first wife, from whom he had parted since 1861, died in 1865; and in 1870 he was united to Liszt's daughter Cosima, who had previously been the wife of von Bülow. Meantime Der Ring des Nibelungen was rapidly approaching completion, and on the 13th of August 1876 the introductory portion, Das Rheingold, was performed at Bayreuth for the first time as part of the great whole, followed on the 14th by Die Walküre, on the 16th by Siegfried and on the 17th by Götterdämmerung. The performance, directed by Hans Richter, excited extraordinary attention; but the expenses were enormous, and burdened the management with a debt of £7500. A small portion of this was raised (at great risk) by performances at the Albert Hall in London, conducted by Wagner and Richter, in 1877. The remainder was met by the profits upon performances of the tetralogy at Munich.
Wagner's next and last work was Parsifal, based upon the legend of the Holy Grail, as set forth, not in the legend of the Morte d'Arthur, but in the versions of Chrestien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach and other less-known works. The libretto was complete before his visit to London in 1877. The music was begun in the following year, and completed at Palermo on the 13th of January 1882. The first sixteen performances took place at Bayreuth, in July and August 1882, under Wagner's own directing, and fully realized all expectations.
Unhappily the exertion of directing so many consecutive performances seems to have been too much for the veteran master's strength, for towards the close of 1882 his health began to decline rapidly. He spent the autumn at Venice, and was well enough on Christmas Eve to conduct his early symphony (composed in 1833) at a private performance given at the Liceo Marcello. But late in the afternoon of the 13th of February 1883 his friends were shocked by his sudden death from heart failure.
Wagner was buried at Wahnfried in the tomb he had himself prepared, on the 18th of February; and a few days afterwards King Ludwig rode to Bayreuth alone, and at dead of night, to pay his last tribute to the master of his world of dreams.
In the articles on Music and Opera, Wagner's task in music-drama is described, and it remains here to discuss his progress in the operas themselves. This progress has perhaps no parallel in any art, and certainly none in music, for even Beethoven's progress was purely an increase in range and power. Beethoven, we know, lost sympathy with his early works as he grew older; but that was because his later works absorbed his interest, not because his early works misrepresented his ideals. Wagner's earlier works have too long been treated as if they represented the pure and healthy childhood of his later ideal; as if Lohengrin stood to Parsifal as Haydn, Mozart and early Beethoven stand to Beethoven's last quartets. But Wagner never thus represented the childhood of an ideal, though he attained the manhood of the most comprehensive ideal yet known in art. To change the metaphor the ideal was always in sight, and Wagner never swerved from his path towards it; but that path began in a blaze of garish false lights, and it had become very tortuous before the light of day prevailed. Beethoven was trained in the greatest and most advanced musical tradition of his lime. For all his Wagnerian impatience, his progress was no struggle from out of a squalid environment; on the contrary, one of his latest discoveries was the greatness of his master Haydn. Now Wagner's excellent teacher Weinlig did certainly, as Wagner himself testifies, teach him more of good music than Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart could have seen in their youth; for he showed him Beethoven. But this would not help Wagner to feel that contemporary music was really a great art; indeed it could only show him that he was growing up in a pseudo-classical time, in which the approval of persons of “good taste” was seldom directed to things of vital promise. Again, he began with far greater facility in literature than in music, if only because a play can be copied ten times faster than a full score. Wagner was always an omnivorous reader, and books were then, as now, both cheaper than music and easier to read. Moreover, the higher problems of rhythmic movement in the classical sonata forms are far beyond the scope of academic teaching, which is compelled to be contented with a practical plausibility of musical design; and the instrumental music which was considered the highest style of art in 1830 was as far beyond Wagner's early command of such plausibility as it was obviously already becoming a mere academic game. Lastly, the rules of that game were useless on the stage, and Wagner soon found in Meyerbeer a master of grand opera who was dazzling the world by means which merely disgusted the more serious academic musicians of the day.
In Rienzi Wagner would already have been Meyerbeer's rival, but that his sincerity, and his initial lack of that musical savoir faire which is prior to the individual handling of ideas, put him at a disadvantage. Though Meyerbeer wrote much that is intrinsically more dull and vulgar than the overture to Rienzi, he never combined such serious efforts with a technique so like that of a military bandmaster. The step from Rienzi to Der fliegende Holländer is without parallel in the history of music, and would be inexplicable if Rienzi contained nothing good and if Der fliegende Holländer did not contain many reminiscences of the decline of Italian opera; but it is noticeable that in this case the lapses into vulgar music have a distinct dramatic value. Though Wagner cannot as yet be confidently credited with a satiric intention in his bathos, the fact remains that all the Rossinian passages are associated with the character of Daland, so as to express his vulgar delight at the prospect of finding a rich son-in-law in the mysterious Dutch seaman. Meanwhile the rest of the work (except in the prettily scored “Spinning Song,” and other harmless and vigorous tunes) has more affinity with Wagner's mature style than the bulk of its much more ambitious successors, Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. The wonderful overture is more highly organized and less unequal than that of Tannhäuser; and although Wagner uses less Leit-motif than Weber (see Opera, ad fin.) and divides the piece into “numbers” of classical size, the effect is so continuous that the divisions could hardly be guessed by ear. Moreover, the work was intended to be in one act, and is now so performed at Bayreuth; and, although it is very long for a one-act opera, this is certainly the only form which does justice to Wagner's conception.
Spohr's appreciation of Der fliegende Holländer is a remarkable point in musical history; and his criticism that Wagner's style (in Tannhäuser) “lacked rounded periods” shows the best effect of that style on a well-disposed contemporary mind. Of course, from Wagner's mature point of view his early style is far too much cut up by periods and full closes; and its prophetic traits are so incomparably more striking than its resemblance to any earlier art that we often feel that only the full closes stand between it and the true Wagner. But Spohr would feel Wagner's works to be an advance upon contemporary romantic opera rather than a foreshadowing of an unknown future. When we listen to the free declamation of the singers at the outset of Der fliegende Holländer — a declamation which is accompanied by an orchestral and thematic texture as far removed from that of mere recitative as it is from the forms of the classical aria — the repetition of a whole sentence in order to form a firm musical close has almost as quaint a ring as a Shakespearean rhymed tag would have in a prose drama of Ibsen. To Spohr the frequency of these incidents must have produced the impression that Wagner was perpetually beginning arias and breaking them off at once. With all its defects, Der fliegende Holländer is the most masterly and the least unequal of Wagner's early works. As drama it stood immeasurably above any opera since Cherubini's Medée. As a complete fusion between dramatic and musical movement, its very crudities point to its immense advance towards the solution of the problem, propounded chaotically at the beginning of the 17th century by Monteverde, and solved in a simple form by Gluck. And as the twofold musical and dramatic achievement of one mind, it already places Wagner beyond parallel in the history of art.
Tannhäuser is on a grander scale, but its musical execution is disappointing. The weakest passages in Der fliegende Holländer are not so helpless as the original recitatives of Venus in the first act; or Tannhäuser's song, which was too far involved in the whole scheme to be ousted by the mature “New Venusberg music” with which Wagner fifteen years later got rid both of the end of the overture and what he called his “Palais-Royal” Venus. It is really very difficult to understand Schumann's impression that the musical technique of Tannhäuser shows a remarkable improvement. Not until the third act does the great Wagner arbitrate in the struggle between amateurishness and theatricality in the music, though at all points his epoch-making stagecraft asserts itself with a force that tempts us to treat the whole work as if it were on the Wagnerian plane of Tannhäuser's account of his pilgrimage in the third act. But the history of mid-19th-century music is unintelligible until we face the fact that, when the anti-Wagnerian storm was already at its height, Wagner was still fighting for the recognition of music which was most definite just where it realized with ultra-Meyerbeerian brilliance all that Wagner had already begun to detest. No contemporary, unaided by personal knowledge, could be expected to trust in Wagner's purity of ideal on the strength of Tannhäuser, which actually achieved popularity by such coarse methods of climax as the revivalistic end of the overture, by such maudlin pathos as O du mein holder Abendstern, and by the amiably childish grand-opera skill with which half the action is achieved by processions and a considerable fraction of the music is represented by fanfares. These features established the work in a position which it will always maintain by its unprecedented dramatic qualities and by the glory reflected from Wagner's later achievements; but we shall not appreciate the marvel of its nobler features if we continue at this time of day to regard the bulk of the music as worthy of a great composer.
After even the finest things in Tannhäuser, the Vorspiel to Lohengrin comes as a revelation, with its quiet solemnity and breadth of design, its ethereal purity of tone-colour, and its complete emancipation from earlier operatic forms. The suspense and climax in the first act is so intense, and the whole drama is so well designed, that we must have a very vivid idea of the later Wagner before we can see how far the quality of musical thought still falls short of his ideals. The elaborate choral writing sometimes rises to almost Hellenic regions of dramatic art; and there is no crudeness in the passages that carry on the story quietly in reaction from the climaxes — a test far too severe for Tannhäuser and rather severe for even the mature works of Gluck and Weber. The orchestration is already almost classically Wagnerian; though there remains an excessive amount of tremolo, besides a few lapses into comic violence, as in the yelpings which accompany Ortrud's rage in the night-scene in the second act. But the mere tone-colours of that scene are enough to make a casual listener imagine that he is dealing with the true Wagner: the variety of tone never fails, and depends on no immoderate paraphernalia; for, far-reaching as are the results of the systematic increase of the classical pairs of wind-instruments to groups of three, this is a very modest reform compared to the banausic “extra attractions” of every new production of Meyerbeer's.
But there is another side to the picture. With the growing certainty of touch a stiffness of movement appears which gradually disturbs the listener who can appreciate freedom, whether in the classical forms which Wagner has now abolished, or in the majestic flow of Wagner's later style. Full closes and repeated sentences no longer confuse the issue, but in their absence we begin to notice the incessant squareness of the ostensibly free rhythms. The immense amount of pageantry, though (as in Tannhäuser) good in dramatic motive and executed with splendid stage-craft, goes far to stultify Wagner's already vigorous attitude of protest against grand-opera methods; by way of preparation for the ethereally poetic end he gives us a disinfected present from Meyerbeer at the beginning of the last scene, where mounted trumpeters career round the stage in full blast for three long minutes; and the prelude to the third act is an outburst of sheer gratuitous vulgarity. Again, the anti-Wagnerians were entirely justified in penetrating below the splendidly simple and original orchestration of the night-scene between Ortrud and Telramund, and pointing out how feebly its music drifts among a dozen vague keys by means of the diminished 7th; a device which teachers have tried to weed out of every high-flown exercise since that otiose chord was first discovered in the 17th century. The mature Wagner would not have carried out twenty bars in his flattest scenes with so little musical invention. We must not forget that these boyish demerits belong to the work of a man of thirty-five whose claims and aspirations already purported to dwarf the whole record of the classics. And the defects are in all respects commonplace; they have no resemblance to that uncanny discomfort which often warns the wise critic that he is dealing with an immortal.
The crowning complication in the effect of Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser and Lohengrin on the musical thought of the 19th century was that the unprecedented fusion of their musical with their dramatic contents revealed some of the meaning of serious music to ears that had been deaf to the classics. Wagnerism was henceforth proclaimed out of the mouths of babes and sucklings; learned musicians felt that it had an unfair advantage; and by the time Wagner's popularity began to thrive as a persecuted heresy he had left it in the lurch.
Wagner had hardly finished the score of Lohengrin before he was at work upon the poem of Der Ring des Nibelungen. And with this he suddenly became a mature artist. On a superficial view this is a paradox, for there are many more violations of probability and much graver faults of structure in the later works than in the earlier. Every critic could recognize the structural merits of the earlier plays, for their operatic conventionalities and abruptness of motive are always intelligible as stage devices. Jealousy might prompt a doubt whether these plays were within the scope of “legitimate” music; but they were obviously stories of exceptional musical and romantic beauty, presented with literary resources unprecedented in operatic libretti. Now the later dramas are often notoriously awkward and redundant; while the removal of those convenient operatic devices which symbolize situations instead of developing them, does not readily appear to be compensated for by any superior artistic resource. But there is a higher point of view than that of story-telling. In the development of characters and intellectual ideas Wagner's later works show a power before which his earlier stagecraft shrinks into insignificance. It would not have sufficed even to indicate his later ideas. To handle these so successfully that we can discriminate defects from qualities at all, is proof of the technique of a master, even though the faults extend to whole categories of literature. The faults make analysis exceptionally difficult, for they are no longer commonplace; indeed, the gravest dangers of modern Wagnerism arise from the fact that there is hardly any non-musical aspect in which Wagner's later work is not important enough to produce a school of essentially non-musical critics who have no notion how far Wagner's mature music transcends the rest of his thought, nor how often it rises where his philosophy falls. Thus the prominent school of criticism which appraised Wagner in the 19th century by his approximation to Darwin and Herbert Spencer, appraises him in the 20th by his approximation to Bernard Shaw; with the absurd result that Götterdämmerung is ruled out as a reactionary failure. It is true that its only conceivable moral is flatly the opposite of that “redemption by love” which Wagner strenuously preaches in a passage at the end which remained unset because, he considered it already expressed by the music. Indeed, though Wagner's later treatment of love is perhaps the main source of his present popularity it seldom rises to his loftiest regions except where it is thwarted. The love that is disguised in the deadly feud between Isolde and Tristan, before the drinking of the fatal potion, rises even above the music; the love-duet in the second act depends for its greatness on its introduction, before the lovers have met, and its wonderful slow movement (shortly before the catastrophe) where they are almost silent and leave everything to the music: the intervening twenty minutes is an exhausting storm in which the words are the sophisticated rhetoric of a 19th-century novel of passion, translated into terribly turgid verse and set to music that is more interesting as an intellectual ferment than effective as a representation of emotions which previous dramatists have wisely left to the imagination. But so long as we treat Wagner like a prose philosopher, a librettist, a poet, a mere musician, or anything short of the complex and many-sided artist he really is, we shall find insuperable obstacles to understanding or enjoying his works. A true work of art is incomparably greater than the sum of its ideas; apart from the fact that, if its ideas are innumerable and various, prose philosophers are apt to complain that it has none. And every additional idea that does not merely derange an art enlarges it as it were by a new dimension in space. Wagner added all the arts to each other, and in one of them he attained so consummate a mastery that we can confidently turn to it when his words and doctrines fail us. Even when we treat him merely as a dramatist our enjoyment of his later works gains enormously if we take them as organic wholes, and not as mere plots dressed up in verse and action. It matters little that Parsifal requires two nameless attendant characters in a long opening scene, for the sole purpose of telling the antecedents of the story, when a situation is thereby revealed which for subtlety and power has hardly a parallel since Greek tragedy. The vast myth of the Ring is related in full several times in each of the three main dramas, with ruthless disregard for the otherwise magnificent dramatic effect of the whole; hosts of original dramatic and ethical ideas, with which Wagner's brain was even more fertile than his voluminous prose works would indicate, assert themselves at all points, only to be thwarted by repeated attempts to allegorize the philosophy of Schopenhauer; all efforts to read a consistent scheme, ethical or philosophical, into the result are doomed to failure; but all this matters little, so long as we have Wagner's unfailing later resources in those higher dramatic verities which present to us emotions and actions, human and divine, as things essentially complex and conflicting, inevitable as natural laws, incalculable as natural phenomena.
Wagner's choice of subjects had from the outset shown an imagination far above that of any earlier librettist; yet he had begun with stories which could attract ordinary minds, as he dismally realized when the libretto of Der fliegende Holländer so pleased the Parisian wire-pullers that it was promptly set to music by one of their friends. But with Der Ring des Nibelungen Wagner devoted himself to a story which any ordinary dramatist would find as unwieldy as, for instance, most of Shakespeare's subjects; a story in which ordinary canons of taste and probability were violated as they are in real life and in great art. Wagner's first inspiration was for an opera (Siegfried's Tod, projected in 1848) on the death of Germany's mythical hero; but he found that the story needed a preliminary drama to convey its antecedents. This preliminary drama soon proved to need another to explain it, which again finally needed a short introductory drama. Thus the plan of the Ring was sketched in reverse order; and it has been remarked that Götterdämmerung shows traces of the fact that Wagner had begun his scheme in the days when French grand opera, with its ballets and pageantry, still influenced him. There is little doubt that some redundant narratives in the Ring were of earlier conception than the four complete dramas, and that their survival is due partly to Wagner's natural affection for work on which he had spent pains, and partly to a dim notion that (like Browning's method in The Ring and the Book) they might serve to reveal the story afresh in the light of each character. Be this as it may, we may confidently date the purification of Wagner's music at the moment when he set to work on a story which carried him finally away from that world of stereotyped operatic passions into which he had already breathed so much disturbing life.
The disturbing life already appears in Der fliegende Holländer, at the point where Senta's father enters with the Dutchman, and Senta (who is already in an advanced state of Schwärmerei over the legend of the Flying Dutchman) stands rooted to the spot, comparing the living Dutchman with his portrait which hangs over the door. The conflict between her passionate fascination and her disgust at her father's vulgarity is finely realized both in music and drama; but, if we are able to appreciate it, then the operatic convention by which Senta avows her passion becomes crude. Ethical and operatic points of view are similarly confused when it is asserted that the Flying Dutchman can be saved by a faithful woman, though it appears from the relations between Senta and Erik that so long as the woman is faithful to the Dutchman it does not matter that she jilts some one else. Erik would not have been a sufficiently pathetic operatic tenor if his claim on Senta had been less complete. In Tannhäuser and Lohengrin Wagner's intellectual power develops far more rapidly in the drama than in the music. The Sängerkrieg, with its disastrous conflict between the sincere but unnatural asceticism of the orthodox Minnesingers and the irrepressible human passion of Tannhäuser, is a conception the vitality of which would reduce Tannhäuser's repentance to the level of Robert le Diable, were it not that the music of the Sängerkrieg has no structural power, and little distinction beyond a certain poetic value in the tones of violas which had long ago been fully exploited by Mozart and Méhul, while the music of Tannhäuser's pilgrimage ranks with the Vorspiel to Lohengrin as a wonderful foreshadowing of Wagner's mature style. Again, the appeal to “God's judgment” in the trial by battle in Lohengrin is a subject of which no earlier librettist could have made more than a plausible mess — which is the best that can be said for the music as music. But as dramatist Wagner compels our respect for the power that without gloss or apology brings before us the king, a model of royal fair-mindedness and good-nature, acquiescing in Telramund's monstrous claim to accuse Elsa without evidence, simply because it is a hard and self-evident fact that the persons of the drama live in an age in which such claims seemed reasonable. Telramund, again, is no ordinary operatic villain; there is genuine tragedy in his moral ruin; and even the melodramatic Ortrud is a much more life-like intrigante than might be inferred from Wagner's hyperbolical stage-directions, which almost always show his manner at its worst.
In Lohengrin we take leave of the early music that obscured Wagner's ideals, and in the Ring we come to the music which transcends all other aspects of Wagnerism. Had Wagner been a man of more urbane literary intellect he might have been less ambitious of expressing a world-philosophy in music-drama; and it is just conceivable that the result might have been a less intermittent dramatic movement in his later works, and a balance of ethical ideas at once more subtle and more orthodox. But it is much more likely that Wagner would then have found his artistic difficulties too formidable to let the ideas descend to us from Walhalla and the Hall of the Grail at all. More than a modicum of rusticity is needed as a protection to a man who attempts such colossal reforms. This necessity had its consequences in the disquieting inequalities of Wagner's early work, and the undeniable egotism that embittered his fiery nature throughout his life; while the cut-and-dried system of culture of later Wagnerian discipleship has revenged him in a specially sacerdotal type of tradition, which makes progress even in the study of his works impossible except through revolt. Such are the penalties exacted by the irony of fate for the world's persecution of its prophets.
Genuinely dramatic music, even if it seem as purely musical as Mozart's, must always be approached through its drama; and Wagner's masterpieces demand that we shall use this approach; but, as with Mozart, we must not stop on the threshold. With Mozart there is no temptation to do so. But with Wagner, just as there are people who have never tried to follow a sonata but who have been awakened by his music-dramas to a sense of the possibilities of serious music, so there are lovers of music who avow that they owe to Wagner their appreciation of poetry. But people whose love of literature is more independent find it hard to take Wagner's poetry and prose seriously, unless they have already measured him by his music. He effected no reform in literature; his meticulous adherence to the archaic alliteration of the Nibelungenlied is not allied with any sense of beauty in verbal sound or verse-rhythm; and his ways of expressing emotion in language consist chiefly in the piling-up of superlatives. Yet he was too full of dramatic inspiration to remain perpetually victimized by the conscientious affectations of the amateur author; and, where dramatic situations are not only poetical but (as in the first act of Die Walküre and the Waldweben scene in Siegfried) too elemental for strained language, Wagner is often supremely eloquent simply because he has no occasion to try to write poetry. Sometimes, too, when a great dramatic climax has given place to a lyrical anticlimax, retrospective moods, subtleties of emotion and crowning musical thoughts press in upon Wagner's mind with a closeness that determines every word; and thus not only is the whole third act of Tristan, as Wagner said when he was working at it, of “overwhelming tragic power,” but Isolde's dying utterances (which occupy the last five minutes and are, of course, totally without action or dramatic tension) were not unlike fine poetry even before the music was written. But, as a rule, Wagner's poetic diction must simply be tolerated by the critic who would submit himself to Wagner's ideas.
If we wish to know what Wagner means, we must fight our way through his drama to his music; and we must not expect to find that each phrase in the mouth of the actor corresponds word for note with the music. That sort of correspondence Wagner leaves to his imitators; and his views on “Leit-motif-hunting,” as expressed in his prose writings and conversation, are contemptuously tolerant. We shall indeed find that his orchestra interprets the dramatic situations which his poetry roughly outlines. But we shall also find that, even if we could conceive the poetry to be a perfect expression of all that can be given in words and actions, the orchestra will express something greater; it will not run parallel with the poetry; the Leitmotif system will not be a collection of labels; the musical expression of singer and orchestra will not be a mere heightened resource of dramatic declamation. All that kind of pre-established harmony Wagner left behind him the moment he deserted the heroes and villains of romantic opera for the visionary and true tragedy of gods and demi-gods, giants and gnomes, with beauty, nobility and love in the wrong, and the forces of destruction and hate set free by blind justice.
Let us illustrate Wagner's mature use of Leitmotif by the theme which happens to be associated with Alberich's ring. The fact that this theme is commonly called the “Ring-motif” is a glaring instance of what Wagner has had to endure from his friends. Important as the ring is throughout the tetralogy, Wagner would no more think of associating a theme with it for its own sake than he would think of associating a theme with Wotan's hat. Why should a Ring-motif be transformed into the theme representing Walhalla? Are we to guess that the connexion of ideas is that Wotan had eventually to pay for Walhalla by the ring? But if we attend to the circumstances under which this theme arises, its purport and development become deep and natural. The Rhine-daughters have been teasing the Nibelung Alberich, and are rejoicing in the light of the Rhine-gold which shines at the top of a rock as the sun strikes it through the water. Alberich does not think much of the gold if its only use is for these water-children's games. But one of the Rhine-daughters tells him that “he who could make the gold into a ring would become master of the world,” and to these words the so-called Ring-motif is first sung (see Melody, Example 11). The Rhine-daughter sings it in a childlike, indolently graceful way which well expresses the kind of toy the ring or the world itself would be to her. One of her sisters bids her be careful, but they reassure themselves with the thought that the Rhine-gold is safe, since no one can win it who does not renounce love. Alberich broods over what he hears, and already the theme changes its character as he thinks of such mastery of the world as he might gain by it (Melody, Ex. 12). He curses love and grasps the gold. The theme of world-mastery grows dark with the darkness of the Nibelung's mind. The waters of the Rhine change into black mists which grow grey and thin, while the now sinister theme becomes softer and smoother. Then it breaks gently forth in a noble, swinging rhythm and massively soft brazen tones, as Wotan awakes on a mountain height and gazes upon Walhalla, his newly finished palace which he has bid the giants build, so that from it he may rule the world (Melody, Ex. 13). The theme thus shows no trivial connexion with a stage-property, mechanically important in the plot; but it represents the desire for power, and what that desire means to each different type of mind. The gods, as the giants plaintively admit, “rule by beauty”; hence the “Walhalla-motif.” What it becomes in the mind of the Nibelung is grimly evident when Alberich uses his ring in Nibelheim. The Rhine-daughters' exultant cry of “Rhine-gold” is there tortured in an extremely remote modulation at the end of a very sinister transformation of the theme; and the orchestration, with its lurid but smothered brass instruments, its penetrating low reed tones and its weird drum-roll beaten on a suspended cymbal, is more awe-inspiring than anything dreamed of by the cleverest of those composers who do not create intellectual causes for their effects.
A famous and typical instance of Wagner's use of Leitmotif in tragic irony is the passage where Hagen gives Siegfried friendly welcome, to the melody of the curse which Alberich pronounced on the ring and all who approached it. The more subtle examples are inexhaustible in variety and resource; and perhaps the climax of subtlety is the almost entire absence of Leitmotif in the first scene of the third act of Götterdämmerung, when Siegfried throws away his last chance of averting his doom. The Rhine-daughters appear to him, and ask him to give them the ring that is on his finger. Siegfried refuses. They laugh at his stinginess and disappear. Siegfried is piqued, and calls them back to offer them the ring. Unfortunately they tell him of its curse, and prophesy death to him if he keeps it. This arouses his spirit of contradiction; and he tells them that they might have won it from him by coaxing, but never by threats, and that he values his life no more than the stone he tosses away as he speaks to them. In spite of the necessary allusions to the ominous theme of the curse, which would give any less great composer ample excuse for succumbing to the listener's sense of impending doom, Wagner's music speaks to us through the child-minds of the Rhine-daughters and terrifies us with the ruthless calm of Nature.
Almost as subtle, and much more directly impressive, is the pathos of the death of Siegfried, which is heightened by an unprecedented appeal to a sense of musical form on the scale of the entire tetralogy. Siegfried's whole character and career is, indeed, annihilated in the clumsy progress towards this consummation; but Shakespeare might have condoned worse plots for the sake of so noble a result; and indeed Wagner's awkwardness arises mainly from fear of committing oversights. Hagen, the Nibelung's son, has managed to make Siegfried unwittingly drink a love-potion with Gutrune, which causes him to forget his own bride, Brünnhilde. Siegfried is then persuaded to transform himself by his magic Tarnhelm into the likeness of his host, Gutrune's brother Gunther, in order to bring Brünnhilde (whose name is now quite new to him) from her fire-encircled rock, so that Gunther may have her for his bride and Siegfried may wed Gutrune. This is achieved; and Brünnhilde's horror and bewilderment at meeting Siegfried again as a stranger in his own shape creates a situation which Siegfried cannot understand, and which Hagen pretends to construe as damning evidence that Siegfried has betrayed Gunther's honour as well as Brünnhilde's. Hagen, Gunther and Brünnhilde therefore agree that Siegfried must die. In order to spare Gutrune's feelings it is arranged that his death shall appear as an accident in a hunting party. While the hunting party is resting Siegfried tells stories of his boyhood, thus recalling the antecedents of this drama with a charming freshness and sense of dramatic and musical repose. When he comes to the point where his memory has been clouded by Hagen's spells, Hagen restores his memory with another magic potion. Siegfried calmly continues to tell how he found Brünnhilde asleep on the fiery mountain. Hagen affects to construe this as a confession of guilt, and slays him as if in righteous wrath. The dying Siegfried calls on Brünnhilde to awaken, and asks “Who hath locked thee again in sleep?” He believes that he is once more with Brünnhilde on the Valkyries' mountain height; and the harmonies of her awakening move in untroubled splendour till the light of life fades with the light of day and the slain hero is carried to the Gibichung's hall through the moonlit mists, while the music of love and death tells in terrible triumph more of his story than he ever knew.
The bare conception of such art as this shows how perfect is the unity between the different elements in Wagner's later music-drama. If the music of Tristan is more polyphonic than that of Lohengrin, it is because it is hardly figurative to call its drama polyphonic also. Compare the mere fairy-tale mystery of Lohengrin's command that Elsa shall never ask to know his name, with the profound fatalism of Isolde's love-potion. Apart from the gain in tragic force resulting from Wagner's masterly development of the character of Brangaene, the raw material of the story was already suggestive of that astounding combination of the contrasted themes of love and death, the musical execution of which involves a harmonic range almost as far beyond that of its own day as the ordinary harmonic range of the 19th century is beyond that of the 16th. In his next work, Die Meistersinger, Wagner ingeniously made poetry and drama out of an explicit manifesto to musical critics, and proved the depth of his music by developing its everyday resources and so showing that its vitality does not depend on that extreme emotional force that makes Tristan und Isolde almost unbearably poignant. Few things are finer in music or literature than the end of the second act of Die Meistersinger, from the point where Sachs's apprentice begins the riot, to the moment when the watchman, frightened at the silence of the moonlit streets so soon after he has heard all that noise, announces eleven o'clock and bids the folk pray for protection against evil spirits, while the orchestra tells us of the dreams of Walther and Eva and ends by putting poetry even into the pedantic ineptitudes of the malicious Beckmesser. Die Meistersinger is perhaps Wagner's most nearly perfect work of art; and it is a striking proof of its purity and greatness that, while the whole work is in the happiest comic vein, no one ever thinks of it as in any way slighter than Wagner's tragic works. The overwhelming love-tragedy of Tristan und Isolde is hardly less perfect, though the simplicity of its action exposes its longueurs to greater notoriety than those which may be found in Die Meistersinger.
These two works interrupted the execution of the Ring and formed the stepping-stones to Parsifal, a work which may perhaps be said to mark a further advance in that subtlety of poetic conception which, as we have seen, gave the determining impulse to Wagner's true musical style. But in music he had no more to learn, and Parsifal, while the most solemn and concentrated of all Wagner's dramas, is musically not always unsuggestive of old age. Its harmonic style is, except in the Grail music, even more abstruse than in Tristan; and the intense quiet of the action is far removed from the forces which in that tumultuous tragedy carry the listener through every difficulty. Again, while the Eucharistic features in Parsifal attract some listeners, the material effect of their presentation on the stage has been known to repel others who are beyond suspicion of prejudice. But the greatness of the art is, like its subject, worlds away from material impressions; and a wide consensus regards Wagner's last work as his loftiest, both in music and poetry. Certainly no poet would venture to despise Wagner's imaginative conception of Kundry. In his letters to his, friend Mathilde Wesendonck, it appears that while he was composing Tristan he already had the inspiration of working out the identification of Kundry, the messenger of the Grail, with the temptress who, under the spell of Klingsor, seduces the knights of the Grail; and he had, moreover, thought out the impressively obscure suggestion that she was Herodias, condemned like the wandering Jew to live till the Saviour's second coming. The quiet expression of these startling ideas is more remarkable than their adoption; for smaller artists live on still more startling ideas; but most remarkable of all is the presentation of Parsifal, both in his foolishness and in the wisdom which comes to him through pity. The chief excuse for doubting whether Wagner's last work is really his greatest is that most of its dramatic subtleties are beyond musical expression, since they do not lead to definite conflicts and blendings of emotion. Where the orchestra shows that Parsifal is becoming half-conscious of his quest while Kundry is beguiling him with memories of his mother, — and also during the two changes of scene to the Hall of the Grail, where the orchestra mingles the agony of Amfortas and the sorrow of the knights with the tolling of the great bells, — the polyphony is almost as dramatic as in Tristan, while the prelude and the Charfreitagszauber are among the clearest examples of the sublime since Beethoven. But elsewhere there are few passages in which the extremely recondite harmonic style can be with certainty traced to anything but habit. This style originated, indeed, in a long experience of the profoundest dramatic impulses; but as a habit it does not seem, like the greatest things in art, the one inevitable treatment of the matter in hand. But, whatever our doubts, we may safely regard Parsifal as a work which, like Beethoven's last fugues, invites attack rather from those critics who demand what flatters their own vanity than from those who wish to be inspired by what they could never have foreseen for themselves.
In Wagner's harmonic style we encounter the entire problem of modern musical texture. Wagner effected vast changes in almost every branch of his all-embracing art, from theatre-building and stage-lighting to the musical declamation of words. Most of his reforms have since been intelligently carried out as normal principles in more arts than one; but, shocking as the statement may seem to 20th-century orthodoxy, Wagnerian harmony is a universe as yet unexplored, except by the few composers who are so independent of its bewildering effect on the generation that grew up with it, that they can use Wagner's resources as discreetly as he used them himself. The last two examples at the end of the article on Harmony show almost all that is new in Wagner's harmonic principles. The peculiar art therein is that while the discords owe their intelligibility and softness to the smooth melodic lines by which in “resolving” they prove themselves but transient rainbow-hues on or below the surface, they owe their strangeness to the intense vividness with which at the moment of impact they suggest a mysteriously remote foreign key. Wagner's orthodox contemporaries regarded such mixtures of key as sheer nonsense; and it would seem that the rank and file of his imitators agree with that view, since they either plagiarize Wagner's actual progressions or else produce such mixtures with no vividness of key-colour and little attempt to follow those melodic trains of thought by which Wagner makes sense of them. There is far more of truly Wagnerian harmony to be found before his time than since. It was so early recognized as characteristic of Chopin that a magnificent example may be seen at the end of Schumann's little tone-portrait of him in the Carnaval: a very advanced Wagnerian passage on another principle constitutes the bulk of the development in the first movement of Beethoven's sonata Les Adieux; while even in the “Golden Age” of music, and within the limits of pure diatonic concord, the unexpectedness of many of Palestrina's chords is hardly less Wagnerian than the perfect smoothness of the melodic lines which combine to produce them.
Wagnerian harmony is, then, neither a side-issue nor a progress per saltum, but a leading current in the stream of musical evolution. That stream is sure sooner or later to carry with it every reality that has been reached by side-issues and leaps; and of such things we have important cases in the works of Strauss and Debussy. Strauss makes a steadily increasing use of avowedly irrational discords, in order to produce an emotionally apt physical sensation. Debussy has this in common with Strauss, that he too regards harmonies as pure physical sensations; but he differs from Strauss firstly in systematically refusing to regard them as anything else, and secondly in his extreme sensibility to harshness. We have seen (in the articles on Harmony and Music) how harmonic music originated in just this habit of regarding combinations of sound as mere sensations, and how for centuries the habit opposed itself to the intellectual principles of contrapuntal harmony. These intellectual principles are, of course, not without their own ground in physical sensation; but it is evident that Debussy appeals beyond them to a more primitive instinct; and on it he bases an almost perfectly coherent system of which the laws are, like those of 12th-century music, precisely the opposite of those of classical harmony. The only illogical point in his system is that the beauty of his dreamlike chords depends not only on his artful choice of a timbre that minimizes their harshness, but also on the fact that they enter the ear with the meaning they have acquired through centuries of harmonic evolution on classical lines. There is a special pleasure in the subsidence of that meaning beneath a soothing sensation; but a system based thereon cannot be universal. Its phenomena are, however, perfectly real, and can be observed wherever artistic conditions make the tone of a mass of harmony more important than the interior threads of its texture. This is of constant occurrence in classical pianoforte music, in which thick chords are subjected to polyphonic laws only in their top and bottom notes, while the inner notes make a solid mass of sound in which numerous consecutive fifths and octaves are not only harmless but essential to the balance of tone. In Debussy's art the top and bottom are also involved in the antipolyphonic laws of such masses of sound, thus making these laws paramount.
The irrational discords of Strauss are also real phenomena in musical aesthetics. They are an extension of the principle on which gongs and cymbals and all instruments without notes of determinate pitch, are employed in otherwise polyphonic music.But it is important to realize that both these types of modern harmony are radically non-Wagnerian. Haydn uses a true Straussian discord in The Seasons, in order to imitate the chirping of a cricket; but the harshest realism in Götterdämmerung (the discord produced by the horns of Hagen and his churls in the mustering-scene in the second act) has a harmonic logic which would have convinced Corelli. And of Debussy's antipolyphonic art there is less in Wagner than in Beethoven. The present influence of Wagnerian harmony is, then, somewhat indefinite, since the most important real phenomena of later music indicate a revolt both from it and from earlier classical methods. It has had, however, a marked effect on weaker musical individualities. Musical public opinion now puts an extraordinary pressure on the young composer, urging him at all costs to abandon “out-of-date” styles however stimulating they maybe to his invention. It is no exaggeration to say that a parallel condition in literature would be produced by a strong public opinion to the effect that any English style was hopelessly out of date unless it consisted exclusively of the most difficult types of phrase to be found in the works of Browning and Meredith. The brilliant success of Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel, in which Wagnerian technique is applied to the diatonic style of nursery songs with a humorous accuracy undreamed of by Wagner's imitators, points a moral which would have charmed Wagner himself; but until the revival of some rudiments of musical common sense becomes widespread, there is little prospect of the influence of Wagner's harmonic style being productive of anything better than nonsense.
The very sense of dramatic fitness has temporarily vanished from public musical opinion, together with the sense of musical form, in consequence of another prevalent habit, that of presenting shapeless extracts from Wagner's operas as orchestral pieces without voices or textbooks or any hint that such adjuncts are desirable. But this vandalism, which Wagner condoned with a very bad grace, now happily begins to give way to the practice of presenting long scenes or entire acts, with the singers, on the concert-platform. This has the merit of bringing the real Wagner to ears which may have no other means of hearing him, and it fosters no delusion as to what is missing in such a presentation. The guidance of Hans Richter has given us a sure bulwark against the misrepresentation of Wagner; and so there is hope that Wagner may yet be saved from such an oblivion in fetish-worship as has lost Handel to us for so long. As with Shakespeare and Beethoven, the day will never come when we can measure the influence of so vast a mind upon the history of art. Smaller artists can make history; the greatest absorb it into that daylight which is its final cause.
(D. F. T.)
- The composer's niece.
- The subsequent division into three acts, as given in all the published editions, has been effected in the crudest way by inserting a full close in the orchestral interludes at the changes of scene, and then beginning the next scene by taking up the interludes again. The true version can be recovered from the published score as follows: In act I skip from the last bar but four to the 41st bar of the introduction to the 2nd act; and at the end of the 2nd act skip from the last bar but five to the 8th bar of the entr'acte to the 3rd act.