Richard Wagner in Bayreuth
FOR an event to be great, two things must be united—the lofty sentiment of those who accomplish it, and the lofty sentiment of those who witness it. No event is great in itself, even though it be the disappearance of whole constellations, the destruction of several nations, the establishment of vast empires, or the prosecution of wars at the cost of enormous forces: over things of this sort the breath of history blows as if they were flocks of wool. But it often happens, too, that a man of might strikes a blow which falls without effect upon a stubborn stone; a short, sharp report is heard, and all is over. History is able to record little or nothing of such abortive efforts. Hence the anxiety which every one must feel who, observing the approach of an event, wonders whether those about to witness it will be worthy of it. This reciprocity between an act and its reception is always taken into account when anything great or small is to be accomplished; and he who would give anything away must see to it that he find recipients who will do justice to the meaning of his gift. This is why even the work of a great man is not necessarily great when it is short, abortive, or fruitless; for at the moment when he performed it he must have failed to perceive that it was really necessary; he must have been careless in his aim, and he cannot have chosen and fixed upon the time with sufficient caution. Chance thus became his master; for there is a very intimate relation between greatness and the instinct which discerns the proper moment at which to act.
We therefore leave it to those who doubt Wagner’s power of discerning the proper time for action, to be concerned and anxious as to whether what is now taking place in Bayreuth is really opportune and necessary. To us who are more confident, it is clear that he believes as strongly in the greatness of his feat as in the greatness of feeling in those who are to witness it. Be their number great or small, therefore, all those who inspire this faith in Wagner should feel extremely honoured; for that it was not inspired by everybody, or by the whole age, or even by the whole German people, as they are now constituted, he himself told us in his dedicatory address of the 22nd of May 1872, and not one amongst us could, with any show of conviction, assure him of the contrary. “I had only you to turn to,” he said, “when I sought those who I thought would be in sympathy with my plans,— you who are the most personal friends of my own particular art, my work and activity: only you could I invite to help me in my work, that it might be presented pure and whole to those who manifest a genuine interest in my art, despite the fact that it has hitherto made its appeal to them only in a disfigured and adulterated form.”
It is certain that in Bayreuth even the spectator is a spectacle worth seeing. If the spirit of some observant sage were to return, after the absence of a century, and were to compare the most remarkable movements in the present world of culture, he would find much to interest him there. Like one swimming in a lake, who encounters a current of warm water issuing from a hot spring, in Bayreuth he would certainly feel as though he had suddenly plunged into a more temperate element, and would tell himself that this must rise out of a distant and deeper source: the surrounding mass of water, which at all events is more common in origin, does not account for it. In this way, all those who assist at the Bayreuth festival will seem like men out of season; their raison-d'etre and the forces which would seem to account for them are elsewhere, and their home is not in the present age. I realise ever more clearly that the scholar, in so far as he is entirely the man of his own day, can only be accessible to all that Wagner does and thinks by means of parody,—and since everything is parodied nowadays, he will even get the event of Bayreuth reproduced for him, through the very un-magic lanterns of our facetious art-critics. And one ought to be thankful if they stop at parody; for by means of it a spirit of aloofness and animosity finds a vent which might otherwise hit upon a less desirable mode of expression. Now, the observant sage already mentioned could not remain blind to this unusual sharpness and tension of contrasts. They who hold by gradual development as a kind of moral law must be somewhat shocked at the sight of one who, in the course of a single lifetime, succeeds in producing something absolutely new. Being dawdlers themselves, and insisting upon slowness as a principle, they are very naturally vexed by one who strides rapidly ahead, and they wonder how on earth he does it. No omens, no periods of transition, and no concessions preceded the enterprise at Bayreuth; no one except Wagner knew either the goal or the long road that was to lead to it. In the realm of art it signifies, so to speak, the first circumnavigation of the world, and by this voyage not only was there discovered an apparently new art, but Art itself. In view of this, all modern arts, as arts of luxury which have degenerated through having been insulated, have become almost worthless. And the same applies to the nebulous and inconsistent reminiscences of a genuine art, which we as modern Europeans derive from the Greeks; let them rest in peace, unless they are now able to shine of their own accord in the light of a new interpretation. The last hour has come for a good many things; this new art is a clairvoyante that sees ruin approaching—not for art alone. Her warning voice must strike the whole of our prevailing civilisation with terror the instant the laughter which its parodies have provoked subsides. Let it laugh and enjoy itself for yet a while longer!
And as for us, the disciples of this revived art, we shall have time and inclination for thoughtfulness, deep thoughtfulness. All the talk and noise about art which has been made by civilisation hitherto must seem like shameless obtrusiveness; everything makes silence a duty with us—the quinquennial silence of the Pythagoreans. Which of us has not soiled his hands and heart in the disgusting idolatry of modern culture? Which of us can exist without the waters of purification? Who does not hear the voice which cries, “Be silent and cleansed"? Be silent and cleansed! Only the merit of being included among those who give ear to this voice will grant even us the lofty look necessary to view the event at Bayreuth; and only upon this look depends the great future of the event.
When on that dismal and cloudy day in May 1872, after the foundation stone had been laid on the height of Bayreuth, amid torrents of rain, and while Wagner was driving back to the town with a small party of us, he was exceptionally silent, and there was that indescribable look in his eyes as of one who has turned his gaze deeply inwards. The day happened to be the first of his sixtieth year, and his whole past now appeared as but a long preparation for this great moment. It is almost a recognised fact that in times of exceptional danger, or at all decisive and culminating points in their lives, men see the remotest and most recent events of their career with singular vividness, and in one rapid inward glance obtain a sort of panorama of a whole span of years in which every event is faithfully depicted. What, for instance, must Alexander the Great have seen in that instant when he caused Asia and Europe to be drunk out of the same goblet? But what went through Wagner’s mind on that day—how he became what he is, and what he will be—we only can imagine who are nearest to him, and can follow him, up to a certain point, in his self-examination; but through his eyes alone is it possible for us to understand his grand work, and by the help of this understanding vouch for its fruitfulness.
It were strange if what a man did best and most liked to do could not be traced in the general outline of his life, and in the case of those who are remarkably endowed there is all the more reason for supposing that their life will present not only the counterpart of their character, as in the case of every one else, but that it will present above all the counterpart of their intellect and their most individual tastes. The life of the epic poet will have a dash of the Epos in it—as from all accounts was the case with Goethe, whom the Germans very wrongly regarded only as a lyrist—and the life of the dramatist will probably be dramatic.
The dramatic element in Wagner’s development cannot be ignored, from the time when his ruling passion became self-conscious and took possession of his whole being. From that time forward there is an end to all groping, straying, and sprouting of offshoots, and over his most tortuous deviations and excursions, over the often eccentric disposition of his plans, a single law and will are seen to rule, in which we have the explanation of his actions, however strange this explanation may sometimes appear. There was, however, an ante-dramatic period in Wagner’s life—his childhood and youth— which it is impossible to approach without discovering innumerable problems. At this period there seems to be no promise yet of himself, and what one might now, in a retrospect, regard as a pledge for his future greatness, amounts to no more than a juxtaposition of traits which inspire more dismay than hope; a restless and excitable spirit, nervously eager to undertake a hundred things at the same time, passionately fond of almost morbidly exalted states of mind, and ready at any moment to veer completely round from calm and profound meditation to a state of violence and uproar. In his case there were no hereditary or family influences at work to constrain him to the sedulous study of one particular art. Painting, versifying, acting, and music were just as much within his reach as the learning and the career of a scholar; and the superficial inquirer into this stage of his life might even conclude that he was born to be a dilettante. The small world within the bounds of which he grew up was not of the kind we should choose to be the home of an artist. He ran the constant risk of becoming infected by that dangerously dissipated attitude of mind in which a person will taste of everything, as also by that condition of slackness resulting from the fragmentary knowledge of all things, which is so characteristic of University towns. His feelings were easily roused and but indifferently satisfied; wherever the boy turned he found himself surrounded by a wonderful and would-be learned activity, to which the garish theatres presented a ridiculous contrast, and the entrancing strains of music a perplexing one. Now, to the observer who sees things relatively, it must seem strange that the modern man who happens to be gifted with exceptional talent should as a child and a youth so seldom be blessed with the quality of ingenuousness and of simple individuality, that he is so little able to have these qualities at all. As a matter of fact, men of rare talent, like Goethe and Wagner, much more often attain to ingenuousness in manhood than during the more tender years of childhood and youth. And this is especially so with the artist, who, being born with a more than usual capacity for imitating, succumbs to the morbid multiformity of modern life as to a virulent disease of infancy. As a child he will more closely resemble an old man. The wonderfully accurate and original picture of youth which Wagner gives us in the Siegfried of the Nibelungen Ring could only have been conceived by a man, and by one who had discovered his youthfulness but late in life. Wagner’s maturity, like his adolesence, was also late in making its appearance, and he is thus, in this respect alone, the very reverse of the precocious type.
The appearance of his moral and intellectual strength was the prelude to the drama of his soul. And how different it then became! His nature seems to have been simplified at one terrible stroke, and divided against itself into two instincts or spheres. From its innermost depths there gushes forth a passionate will which, like a rapid mountain torrent, endeavours to make its way through all paths, ravines, and crevices, in search of light and power. Only a force completely free and pure was strong enough to guide this will to all that is good and beneficial. Had it been combined with a narrow intelligence, a will with such a tyrannical and boundless desire might have become fatal; in any case, an exit into the open had to be found for it as quickly as possible, whereby it could rush into pure air and sunshine. Lofty aspirations, which continually meet with failure, ultimately turn to evil. The inadequacy of means for obtaining success may, in certain circumstances, be the result of an inexorable fate, and not necessarily of a lack of strength; but he who under such circumstances cannot abandon his aspirations, despite the inadequacy of his means, will only become embittered, and consequently irritable and intolerant. He may possibly seek the cause of his failure in other people; he may even, in a fit of passion, hold the whole world guilty; or he may turn defiantly down secret byways and secluded lanes, or resort to violence. In this way, noble natures, on their road to the most high, may turn savage. Even among those who seek but their own personal moral purity, among monks and anchorites, men are to be found who, undermined and devoured by failure, have become barbarous and hopelessly morbid. There was a spirit full of love and calm belief, full of goodness and infinite tenderness, hostile to all violence and self-deterioration, and abhorring the sight of a soul in bondage. And it was this spirit which manifested itself to Wagner. It hovered over him as a consoling angel, it covered him with its wings, and showed him the true path. At this stage we bring the other side of Wagner’s nature into view: but how shall we describe this other side?
The characters an artist creates are not himself, but the succession of these characters, to which it is clear he is greatly attached, must at all events reveal something of his nature. Now try and recall Rienzi, the Flying Dutchman and Senta, Tannhauser and Elizabeth, Lohengrin and Elsa, Tristan and Marke, Hans Sachs, Woden and Brunhilda,—all these characters are correlated by a secret current of ennobling and broadening morality which flows through them and becomes ever purer and clearer as it progresses. And at this point we enter with respectful reserve into the presence of the most hidden development in Wagner’s own soul. In what other artist do we meet with the like of this, in the same proportion? Schiller’s characters, from the Robbers to Wallenstein and Tell, do indeed pursue an ennobling course, and likewise reveal something of their author’s development; but in Wagner the standard is higher and the distance covered is much greater. In the Nibelungen Ring, for instance, where Brunhilda is awakened by Siegfried, I perceive the most moral music I have ever heard. Here Wagner attains to such a high level of sacred feeling that our mind unconsciously wanders to the glistening ice-and snow-peaks of the Alps, to find a likeness there;— so pure, isolated, inaccessible, chaste, and bathed in love-beams does Nature here display herself, that clouds and tempests—yea, and even the sublime itself—seem to lie beneath her. Now, looking down from this height upon Tannhauser and the Flying Dutchman, we begin to perceive how the man in Wagner was evolved: how restlessly and darkly he began; how tempestuously he strove to gratify his desires, to acquire power and to taste those rapturous delights from which he often fled in disgust; how he wished to throw off a yoke, to forget, to be negative, and to renounce everything. The whole torrent plunged, now into this valley, now into that, and flooded the most secluded chinks and crannies. In the night of these semi-subterranean convulsions a star appeared and glowed high above him with melancholy vehemence; as soon as he recognised it, he named it Fidelity—unselfish fidelity. Why did this star seem to him the brightest and purest of all? What secret meaning had the word “fidelity” to his whole being? For he has graven its image and problems upon all his thoughts and compositions. His works contain almost a complete series of the rarest and most beautiful examples of fidelity: that of brother to sister, of friend to friend, of servant to master; of Elizabeth to Tannhauser, of Senta to the Dutchman, of Elsa to Lohengrin, of Isolde, Kurvenal, and Marke to Tristan, of Brunhilda to the most secret vows of Woden—and many others. It is Wagner’s most personal and most individual experience, which he reveres like a religious mystery, and which he calls Fidelity; he never wearies of breathing it into hundreds of different characters, and of endowing it with the sublimest that in him lies, so overflowing is his gratitude. It is, in short, the recognition of the fact that the two sides of his nature remained faithful to each other, that out of free and unselfish love, the creative, ingenuous, and brilliant side kept loyally abreast of the dark, the intractable, and the tyrannical side.
The relation of the two constituent forces to each other, and the yielding of the one to the other, was the great requisite by which alone he could remain wholly and truly himself. At the same time, this was the only thing he could not control, and over which he could only keep a watch, while the temptations to infidelity and its threatening dangers beset him more and more. The uncertainty derived therefrom is an overflowing source of suffering for those in process of development. Each of his instincts made constant efforts to attain to unmeasured heights, and each of the capacities he possessed for enjoying life seemed to long to tear itself away from its companions in order to seek satisfaction alone; the greater their exuberance the more terrific was the tumult, and the more bitter the competition between them. In addition, accident and life fired the desire for power and splendour in him; but he was more often tormented by the cruel necessity of having to live at all, while all around him lay obstacles and snares. How is it possible for any one to remain faithful here, to be completely steadfast? This doubt often depressed him, and he expresses it, as an artist expressed his doubt, in artistic forms. Elizabeth, for instance, can only suffer, pray, and die; she saves the fickle and intemperate man by her loyalty, though not for this life. In the path of every true artist, whose lot is cast in these modern days, despair and danger are strewn. He has many means whereby he can attain to honour and might; peace and plenty persistently offer themselves to him, but only in that form recognised by the modern man, which to the straightforward artist is no better than choke-damp. In this temptation, and in the act of resisting it, lie the dangers that threaten him—dangers arising from his disgust at the means modernity offers him of acquiring pleasure and esteem, and from the indignation provoked by the selfish ease of modern society. Imagine Wagner’s filling an official position, as for instance that of bandmaster at public and court theatres, both of which positions he has held: think how he, a serious artist, must have struggled in order to enforce seriousness in those very places which, to meet the demands of modern conventions, are designed with almost systematic frivolity to appeal only to the frivolous. Think how he must have partially succeeded, though only to fail on the whole. How constantly disgust must have been at his heels despite his repeated attempts to flee it, how he failed to find the haven to which he might have repaired, and how he had ever to return to the Bohemians and outlaws of our society, as one of them. If he himself broke loose from any post or position, he rarely found a better one in its stead, while more than once distress was all that his unrest brought him. Thus Wagner changed his associates, his dwelling-place and country, and when we come to comprehend the nature of the circles into which he gravitated, we can hardly realise how he was able to tolerate them for any length of time. The greater half of his past seems to be shrouded in heavy mist; for a long time he appears to have had no general hopes, but only hopes for the morrow, and thus, although he reposed no faith in the future, he was not driven to despair. He must have felt like a nocturnal traveller, broken with fatigue, exasperated from want of sleep, and tramping wearily along beneath a heavy burden, who, far from fearing the sudden approach of death, rather longs for it as something exquisitely charming. His burden, the road and the night—all would disappear! The thought was a temptation to him. Again and again, buoyed up by his temporary hopes, he plunged anew into the turmoil of life, and left all apparatus behind him. But his method of doing this, his lack of moderation in the doing, betrayed what a feeble hold his hopes had upon him; how they were only stimulants to which he had recourse in an extremity. The conflict between his aspirations and his partial or total inability to realise them, tormented him like a thorn in the flesh. Infuriated by constant privations, his imagination lapsed into the dissipated, whenever the state of want was momentarily relieved. Life grew ever more and more complicated for him; but the means and artifices that he discovered in his art as a dramatist became evermore resourceful and daring. Albeit, these were little more than palpable dramatic makeshifts and expedients, which deceived, and were invented, only for the moment. In a flash such means occurred to his mind and were used up. Examined closely and without prepossession, Wagner’s life, to recall one of Schopenhauer’s expressions, might be said to consist largely of comedy, not to mention burlesque. And what the artist’s feelings must have been, conscious as he was, during whole periods of his life, of this undignified element in it,—he who more than any one else, perhaps, breathed freely only in sublime and more than sublime spheres,— the thinker alone can form any idea.
In the midst of this mode of life, a detailed description of which is necessary in order to inspire the amount of pity, awe, and admiration which are its due, he developed a talent for acquiring knowledge, which even in a German—a son of the nation learned above all others—was really extraordinary. And with this talent yet another danger threatened Wagner—a danger more formidable than that involved in a life which was apparently without either a stay or a rule, borne hither and thither by disturbing illusions. From a novice trying his strength, Wagner became a thorough master of music and of the theatre, as also a prolific inventor in the preliminary technical conditions for the execution of art. No one will any longer deny him the glory of having given us the supreme model for lofty artistic execution on a large scale. But he became more than this, and in order so to develop, he, no less than any one else in like circumstances, had to reach the highest degree of culture by virtue of his studies. And wonderfully he achieved this end! It is delightful to follow his progress. From all sides material seemed to come unto him and into him, and the larger and heavier the resulting structure became, the more rigid was the arch of the ruling and ordering thought supporting it. And yet access to the sciences and arts has seldom been made more difficult for any man than for Wagner; so much so that he had almost to break his own road through to them. The reviver of the simple drama, the discoverer of the position due to art in true human society, the poetic interpreter of bygone views of life, the philosopher, the historian, the aesthete and the critic, the master of languages, the mythologist and the myth poet, who was the first to include all these wonderful and beautiful products of primitive times in a single Ring, upon which he engraved the runic characters of his thoughts— what a wealth of knowledge must Wagner have accumulated and commanded, in order to have become all that! And yet this mass of material was just as powerless to impede the action of his will as a matter of detail—however attractive—was to draw his purpose from its path. For the exceptional character of such conduct to be appreciated fully, it should be compared with that of Goethe,— he who, as a student and as a sage, resembled nothing so much as a huge river-basin, which does not pour all its water into the sea, but spends as much of it on its way there, and at its various twists and turns, as it ultimately disgorges at its mouth. True, a nature like Goethe’s not only has, but also engenders, more pleasure than any other; there is more mildness and noble profligacy in it; whereas the tenor and tempo of Wagner’s power at times provoke both fear and flight. But let him fear who will, we shall only be the more courageous, in that we shall be permitted to come face to face with a hero who, in regard to modern culture, “has never learned the meaning of fear.”
But neither has he learned to look for repose in history and philosophy, nor to derive those subtle influences from their study which tend to paralyse action or to soften a man unduly. Neither the creative nor the militant artist in him was ever diverted from his purpose by learning and culture. The moment his constructive powers direct him, history becomes yielding clay in his hands. His attitude towards it then differs from that of every scholar, and more nearly resembles the relation of the ancient Greek to his myths; that is to say, his subject is something he may fashion, and about which he may write verses. He will naturally do this with love and a certain becoming reverence, but with the sovereign right of the creator notwithstanding. And precisely because history is more supple and more variable than a dream to him, he can invest the most individual case with the characteristics of a whole age, and thus attain to a vividness of narrative of which historians are quite incapable. In what work of art, of any kind, has the body and soul of the Middle Ages ever been so thoroughly depicted as in Lohengrin? And will not the Meistersingers continue to acquaint men, even in the remotest ages to come, with the nature of Germany’s soul? Will they not do more than acquaint men of it? Will they not represent its very ripest fruit—the fruit of that spirit which ever wishes to reform and not to overthrow, and which, despite the broad couch of comfort on which it lies, has not forgotten how to endure the noblest discomfort when a worthy and novel deed has to be accomplished?
And it is just to this kind of discomfort that Wagner always felt himself drawn by his study of history and philosophy: in them he not only found arms and coats of mail, but what he felt in their presence above all was the inspiring breath which is wafted from the graves of all great fighters, sufferers, and thinkers. Nothing distinguishes a man more from the general pattern of the age than the use he makes of history and philosophy. According to present views, the former seems to have been allotted the duty of giving modern man breathing-time, in the midst of his panting and strenuous scurry towards his goal, so that he may, for a space, imagine he has slipped his leash. What Montaigne was as an individual amid the turmoil of the Reformation—that is to say, a creature inwardly coming to peace with himself, serenely secluded in himself and taking breath, as his best reader, Shakespeare, understood him, —this is what history is to the modern spirit today. The fact that the Germans, for a whole century, have devoted themselves more particularly to the study of history, only tends to prove that they are the stemming, retarding, and becalming force in the activity of modern society—a circumstance which some, of course, will place to their credit. On the whole, however, it is a dangerous symptom when the mind of a nation turns with preference to the study of the past. It is a sign of flagging strength, of decline and degeneration; it denotes that its people are perilously near to falling victims to the first fever that may happen to be rife —the political fever among others. Now, in the history of modern thought, our scholars are an example of this condition of weakness as opposed to all reformative and revolutionary activity. The mission they have chosen is not of the noblest; they have rather been content to secure smug happiness for their kind, and little more. Every independent and manly step leaves them halting in the background, although it by no means outstrips history. For the latter is possessed of vastly different powers, which only natures like Wagner have any notion of; but it requires to be written in a much more earnest and severe spirit, by much more vigorous students, and with much less optimism than has been the case hitherto. In fact, it requires to be treated quite differently from the way German scholars have treated it until now. In all their works there is a continual desire to embellish, to submit and to be content, while the course of events invariably seems to have their approbation. It is rather the exception for one of them to imply that he is satisfied only because things might have turned out worse; for most of them believe, almost as a matter of course, that everything has been for the best simply because it has only happened once. Were history not always a disguised Christian theodicy, were it written with more justice and fervent feeling, it would be the very last thing on earth to be made to serve the purpose it now serves, namely, that of an opiate against everything subversive and novel. And philosophy is in the same plight: all that the majority demand of it is, that it may teach them to understand approximate facts—very approximate facts—in order that they may then become adapted to them. And even its noblest exponents press its soporific and comforting powers so strongly to the fore, that all lovers of sleep and of loafing must think that their aim and the aim of philosophy are one. For my part, the most important question philosophy has to decide seems to be, how far things have acquired an unalterable stamp and form, and, once this question has been answered, I think it the duty of philosophy unhesitatingly and courageously to proceed with the task of improving that part of the world which has been recognised as still susceptible to change. But genuine philosophers do, as a matter of fact, teach this doctrine themselves, inasmuch as they work at endeavouring to alter the very changeable views of men, and do not keep their opinions to themselves. Genuine disciples of genuine philosophies also teach this doctrine; for, like Wagner, they understand the art of deriving a more decisive and inflexible will from their master’s teaching, rather than an opiate or a sleeping draught. Wagner is most philosophical where he is most powerfully active and heroic. It was as a philosopher that he went, not only through the fire of various philosophical systems without fear, but also through the vapours of science and scholarship, while remaining ever true to his highest self. And it was this highest self which exacted from his versatile spirit works as complete as his were, which bade him suffer and learn, that he might accomplish such works.
The history of the development of culture since the time of the Greeks is short enough, when we take into consideration the actual ground it covers, and ignore the periods during which man stood still, went backwards, hesitated or strayed. The Hellenising of the world—and to make this possible, the Orientalising of Hellenism—that double mission of Alexander the Great, still remains the most important event: the old question whether a foreign civilisation may be transplanted is still the problem that the peoples of modern times are vainly endeavouring to solve. The rhythmic play of those two factors against each other is the force that has determined the course of history heretofore. Thus Christianity appears, for instance, as a product of Oriental antiquity, which was thought out and pursued to its ultimate conclusions by men, with almost intemperate thoroughness. As its influence began to decay, the power of Hellenic culture was revived, and we are now experiencing phenomena so strange that they would hang in the air as unsolved problems, if it were not possible, by spanning an enormous gulf of time, to show their relation to analogous phenomena in Hellenistic culture. Thus, between Kant and the Eleatics, Schopenhauer and Empedocles, Aeschylus and Wagner, there is so much relationship, so many things in common, that one is vividly impressed with the very relative nature of all notions of time. It would even seem as if a whole diversity of things were really all of a piece, and that time is only a cloud which makes it hard for our eyes to perceive the oneness of them. In the history of the exact sciences we are perhaps most impressed by the close bond uniting us with the days of Alexander and ancient Greece. The pendulum of history seems merely to have swung back to that point from which it started when it plunged forth into unknown and mysterious distance. The picture represented by our own times is by no means a new one: to the student of history it must always seem as though he were merely in the presence of an old familiar face, the features of which he recognises. In our time the spirit of Greek culture is scattered broadcast. While forces of all kinds are pressing one upon the other, and the fruits of modern art and science are offering themselves as a means of exchange, the pale outline of Hellenism is beginning to dawn faintly in the distance. The earth which, up to the present, has been more than adequately Orientalised, begins to yearn once more for Hellenism. He who wishes to help her in this respect will certainly need to be gifted for speedy action and to have wings on his heels, in order to synthetise the multitudinous and still undiscovered facts of science and the many conflicting divisions of talent so as to reconnoitre and rule the whole enormous field. It is now necessary that a generation of anti-Alexanders should arise, endowed with the supreme strength necessary for gathering up, binding together, and joining the individual threads of the fabric, so as to prevent their being scattered to the four winds. The object is not to cut the Gordian knot of Greek culture after the manner adopted by Alexander, and then to leave its frayed ends fluttering in all directions; it is rather to bind it after it has been loosed. That is our task to-day. In the person of Wagner I recognise one of these anti-Alexanders: he rivets and locks together all that is isolated, weak, or in any way defective; if I may be allowed to use a medical expression, he has an astringent power. And in this respect he is one of the greatest civilising forces of his age. He dominates art, religion, and folklore, yet he is the reverse of a polyhistor or of a mere collecting and classifying spirit; for he constructs with the collected material, and breathes life into it, and is a Simplifier of the Universe. We must not be led away from this idea by comparing the general mission which his genius imposed upon him with the much narrower and more immediate one which we are at present in the habit of associating with the name of Wagner. He is expected to effect a reform in the theatre world; but even supposing he should succeed in doing this, what would then have been done towards the accomplishment of that higher, more distant mission?
But even with this lesser theatrical reform, modern man would also be altered and reformed; for everything is so intimately related in this world, that he who removes even so small a thing as a rivet from the framework shatters and destroys the whole edifice. And what we here assert, with perhaps seeming exaggeration, of Wagner’s activity would hold equally good of any other genuine reform. It is quite impossible to reinstate the art of drama in its purest and highest form without effecting changes everywhere in the customs of the people, in the State, in education, and in social intercourse. When love and justice have become powerful in one department of life, namely in art, they must, in accordance with the law of their inner being, spread their influence around them, and can no more return to the stiff stillness of their former pupal condition. In order even to realise how far the attitude of the arts towards life is a sign of their decline, and how far our theatres are a disgrace to those who build and visit them, everything must be learnt over again, and that which is usual and commonplace should be regarded as something unusual and complicated. An extraordinary lack of clear judgment, a badly-concealed lust of pleasure, of entertainment at any cost, learned scruples, assumed airs of importance, and trifling with the seriousness of art on the part of those who represent it; brutality of appetite and money-grubbing on the part of promoters; the empty-mindedness and thoughtlessness of society, which only thinks of the people in so far as these serve or thwart its purpose, and which attends theatres and concerts without giving a thought to its duties,—all these things constitute the stifling and deleterious atmosphere of our modern art conditions: when, however, people like our men of culture have grown accustomed to it, they imagine that it is a condition of their healthy existence, and would immediately feel unwell if, for any reason, they were compelled to dispense with it for a while. In point of fact, there is but one speedy way of convincing oneself of the vulgarity, weirdness, and confusion of our theatrical institutions, and that is to compare them with those which once flourished in ancient Greece. If we knew nothing about the Greeks, it would perhaps be impossible to assail our present conditions at all, and objections made on the large scale conceived for the first time by Wagner would have been regarded as the dreams of people who could only be at home in outlandish places. “For men as we now find them,” people would have retorted, “art of this modern kind answers the purpose and is fitting— and men have never been different.” But they have been very different, and even now there are men who are far from satisfied with the existing state of affairs—the fact of Bayreuth alone demonstrates this point. Here you will find prepared and initiated spectators, and the emotion of men conscious of being at the very zenith of their happiness, who concentrate their whole being on that happiness in order to strengthen themselves for a higher and more far-reaching purpose. Here you will find the most noble self-abnegation on the part of the artist, and the finest of all spectacles —that of a triumphant creator of works which are in themselves an overflowing treasury of artistic triumphs. Does it not seem almost like a fairy tale, to be able to come face to face with such a personality? Must not they who take any part whatsoever, active or passive, in the proceedings at Bayreuth, already feel altered and rejuvenated, and ready to introduce reforms and to effect renovations in other spheres of life? Has not a haven been found for all wanderers on high and desert seas, and has not peace settled over the face of the waters? Must not he who leaves these spheres of ruling profundity and loneliness for the very differently ordered world with its plains and lower levels, cry continually like Isolde: “Oh, how could I bear it? How can I still bear it?” And should he be unable to endure his joy and his sorrow, or to keep them egotistically to himself, he will avail himself from that time forward of every opportunity of making them known to all. “Where are they who are suffering under the yoke of modern institutions?” he will inquire. “Where are my natural allies, with whom I may struggle against the ever waxing and ever more oppressive pretensions of modern erudition? For at present, at least, we have but one enemy—at present!—and it is that band of aesthetes, to whom the word Bayreuth means the completest rout—they have taken no share in the arrangements, they were rather indignant at the whole movement, or else availed themselves effectively of the deaf-ear policy, which has now become the trusty weapon of all very superior opposition. But this proves that their animosity and knavery were ineffectual in destroying Wagner’s spirit or in hindering the accomplishment of his plans; it proves even more, for it betrays their weakness and the fact that all those who are at present in possession of power will not be able to withstand many more attacks. The time is at hand for those who would conquer and triumph; the vastest empires lie at their mercy, a note of interrogation hangs to the name of all present possessors of power, so far as possession may be said to exist in this respect. Thus educational institutions are said to be decaying, and everywhere individuals are to be found who have secretly deserted them. If only it were possible to invite those to open rebellion and public utterances, who even now are thoroughly dissatisfied with the state of affairs in this quarter! If only it were possible to deprive them of their faint heart and lukewarmness! I am convinced that the whole spirit of modern culture would receive its deadliest blow if the tacit support which these natures give it could in any way be cancelled. Among scholars, only those would remain loyal to the old order of things who had been infected with the political mania or who were literary hacks in any form whatever. The repulsive organisation which derives its strength from the violence and injustice upon which it relies—that is to say, from the State and Society—and which sees its advantage in making the latter ever more evil and unscrupulous,—this structure which without such support would be something feeble and effete, only needs to be despised in order to perish. He who is struggling to spread justice and love among mankind must regard this organisation as the least significant of the obstacles in his way; for he will only encounter his real opponents once he has successfully stormed and conquered modern culture, which is nothing more than their outworks.
For us, Bayreuth is the consecration of the dawn of the combat. No greater injustice could be done to us than to suppose that we are concerned with art alone, as though it were merely a means of healing or stupefying us, which we make use of in order to rid our consciousness of all the misery that still remains in our midst. In the image of this tragic art work at Bayreuth, we see, rather, the struggle of individuals against everything which seems to oppose them with invincible necessity, with power, law, tradition, conduct, and the whole order of things established. Individuals cannot choose a better life than that of holding themselves ready to sacrifice themselves and to die in their fight for love and justice. The gaze which the mysterious eye of tragedy vouchsafes us neither lulls nor paralyses. Nevertheless, it demands silence of us as long as it keeps us in view; for art does not serve the purposes of war, but is merely with us to improve our hours of respite, before and during the course of the contest,—to improve those few moments when, looking back, yet dreaming of the future, we seem to understand the symbolical, and are carried away into a refreshing reverie when fatigue overtakes us. Day and battle dawn together, the sacred shadows vanish, and Art is once more far away from us; but the comfort she dispenses is with men from the earliest hour of day, and never leaves them. Wherever he turns, the individual realises only too clearly his own shortcomings, his insufficiency and his incompetence; what courage would he have left were he not previously rendered impersonal by this consecration! The greatest of all torments harassing him, the conflicting beliefs and opinions among men, the unreliability of these beliefs and opinions, and the unequal character of men’s abilities—all these things make him hanker after art. We cannot be happy so long as everything about us suffers and causes suffering; we cannot be moral so long as the course of human events is determined by violence, treachery, and injustice; we cannot even be wise, so long as the whole of mankind does not compete for wisdom, and does not lead the individual to the most sober and reasonable form of life and knowledge. How, then, would it be possible to endure this feeling of threefold insufficiency if one were not able to recognise something sublime and valuable in one’s struggles, strivings, and defeats, if one did not learn from tragedy how to delight in the rhythm of the great passions, and in their victim? Art is certainly no teacher or educator of practical conduct: the artist is never in this sense an instructor or adviser; the things after which a tragic hero strives are not necessarily worth striving after. As in a dream so in art, the valuation of things only holds good while we are under its spell. What we, for the time being, regard as so worthy of effort, and what makes us sympathise with the tragic hero when he prefers death to renouncing the object of his desire, this can seldom retain the same value and energy when transferred to everyday life: that is why art is the business of the man who is recreating himself. The strife it reveals to us is a simplification of life’s struggle; its problems are abbreviations of the infinitely complicated phenomena of man’s actions and volitions. But from this very fact—that it is the reflection, so to speak, of a simpler world, a more rapid solution of the riddle of life—art derives its greatness and indispensability. No one who suffers from life can do without this reflection, just as no one can exist without sleep. The more difficult the science of natural laws becomes, the more fervently we yearn for the image of this simplification, if only for an instant; and the greater becomes the tension between each man’s general knowledge of things and his moral and spiritual faculties. Art is with us to prevent the bow from snapping.
The individual must be consecrated to something impersonal—that is the aim of tragedy: he must forget the terrible anxiety which death and time tend to create in him; for at any moment of his life, at any fraction of time in the whole of his span of years, something sacred may cross his path which will amply compensate him for all his struggles and privations. This means having a sense for the tragic. And if all mankind must perish some day—and who could question this! —it has been given its highest aim for the future, namely, to increase and to live in such unity that it may confront its final extermination as a whole, with one spirit-with a common sense of the tragic: in this one aim all the ennobling influences of man lie locked; its complete repudiation by humanity would be the saddest blow which the soul of the philanthropist could receive. That is how I feel in the matter! There is but one hope and guarantee for the future of man, and that is that his sense for the tragic may not die out. If he ever completely lost it, an agonised cry, the like of which has never been heard, would have to be raised all over the world; for there is no more blessed joy than that which consists in knowing what we know—how tragic thought was born again on earth. For this joy is thoroughly impersonal and general: it is the wild rejoicing of humanity, anent the hidden relationship and progress of all that is human.
Wagner concentrated upon life, past and present, the light of an intelligence strong enough to embrace the most distant regions in its rays. That is why he is a simplifier of the universe; for the simplification of the universe is only possible to him whose eye has been able to master the immensity and wildness of an apparent chaos, and to relate and unite those things which before had lain hopelessly asunder. Wagner did this by discovering a connection between two objects which seemed to exist apart from each other as though in separate spheres—that between music and life, and similarly between music and the drama. Not that he invented or was the first to create this relationship, for they must always have existed and have been noticeable to all; but, as is usually the case with a great problem, it is like a precious stone which thousands stumble over before one finally picks it up. Wagner asked himself the meaning of the fact that an art such as music should have become so very important a feature of the lives of modern men. It is not necessary to think meanly of life in order to suspect a riddle behind this question. On the contrary, when all the great forces of existence are duly considered, and struggling life is regarded as striving mightily after conscious freedom and independence of thought, only then does music seem to be a riddle in this world. Should one not answer: Music could not have been born in our time? What then does its presence amongst us signify? An accident? A single great artist might certainly be an accident, but the appearance of a whole group of them, such as the history of modern music has to show, a group only once before equalled on earth, that is to say in the time of the Greeks,—a circumstance of this sort leads one to think that perhaps necessity rather than accident is at the root of the whole phenomenon. The meaning of this necessity is the riddle which Wagner answers.
He was the first to recognise an evil which is as widespread as civilisation itself among men; language is everywhere diseased, and the burden of this terrible disease weighs heavily upon the whole of man’s development. Inasmuch as language has retreated ever more and more from its true province—the expression of strong feelings, which it was once able to convey in all their simplicity—and has always had to strain after the practically impossible achievement of communicating the reverse of feeling, that is to say thought, its strength has become so exhausted by this excessive extension of its duties during the comparatively short period of modern civilisation, that it is no longer able to perform even that function which alone justifies its existence, to wit, the assisting of those who suffer, in communicating with each other concerning the sorrows of existence. Man can no longer make his misery known unto others by means of language; hence he cannot really express himself any longer. And under these conditions, which are only vaguely felt at present, language has gradually become a force in itself which with spectral arms coerces and drives humanity where it least wants to go. As soon as they would fain understand one another and unite for a common cause, the craziness of general concepts, and even of the ring of modern words, lays hold of them. The result of this inability to communicate with one another is that every product of their co-operative action bears the stamp of discord, not only because it fails to meet their real needs, but because of the very emptiness of those all-powerful words and notions already mentioned. To the misery already at hand, man thus adds the curse of convention—that is to say, the agreement between words and actions without an agreement between the feelings. Just as, during the decline of every art, a point is reached when the morbid accumulation of its means and forms attains to such tyrannical proportions that it oppresses the tender souls of artists and converts these into slaves, so now, in the period of the decline of language, men have become the slaves of words. Under this yoke no one is able to show himself as he is, or to express himself artlessly, while only few are able to preserve their individuality in their fight against a culture which thinks to manifest its success, not by the fact that it approaches definite sensations and desires with the view of educating them, but by the fact that it involves the individual in the snare of “definite notions,” and teaches him to think correctly: as if there were any value in making a correctly thinking and reasoning being out of man, before one has succeeded in making him a creature that feels correctly. If now the strains of our German masters’ music burst upon a mass of mankind sick to this extent, what is really the meaning of these strains? Only correct feeling, the enemy of all convention, of all artificial estrangement and misunderstandings between man and man: this music signifies a return to nature, and at the same time a purification and remodelling of it; for the need of such a return took shape in the souls of the most loving of men, and, through their art, nature transformed into love makes its voice heard.
Let us regard this as one of Wagner’s answers to the question, What does music mean in our time? for he has a second. The relation between music and life is not merely that existing between one kind of language and another; it is, besides, the relation between the perfect world of sound and that of sight. Regarded merely as a spectacle, and compared with other and earlier manifestations of human life, the existence of modern man is characterised by indescribable indigence and exhaustion, despite the unspeakable garishness at which only the superficial observer rejoices. If one examines a little more closely the impression which this vehement and kaleidoscopic play of colours makes upon one, does not the whole seem to blaze with the shimmer and sparkle of innumerable little stones borrowed from former civilisations? Is not everything one sees merely a complex of inharmonious bombast, aped gesticulations, arrogant superficiality?—a ragged suit of motley for the naked and the shivering? A seeming dance of joy enjoined upon a sufferer? Airs of overbearing pride assumed by one who is sick to the backbone? And the whole moving with such rapidity and confusion that it is disguised and masked— sordid impotence, devouring dissension, assiduous ennui, dishonest distress! The appearance of present-day humanity is all appearance, and nothing else: in what he now represents man himself has become obscured and concealed; and the vestiges of the creative faculty in art, which still cling to such countries as France and Italy, are all concentrated upon this one task of concealing. Wherever form is still in demand in society, conversation, literary style, or the relations between governments, men have unconsciously grown to believe that it is adequately met by a kind of agreeable dissimulation, quite the reverse of genuine form conceived as a necessary relation between the proportions of a figure, having no concern whatever with the notions “agreeable” or “disagreeable,” simply because it is necessary and not optional. But even where form is not openly exacted by civilised people, there is no greater evidence of this requisite relation of proportions; a striving after the agreeable dissimulation, already referred to, is on the contrary noticeable, though it is never so successful even if it be more eager than in the first instance. How far this dissimulation is agreeable at times, and why it must please everybody to see how modern men at least endeavour to dissemble, every one is in a position to judge, according to, the extent to which he himself may happen to be modern. “Only galley slaves know each other,” says Tasso, “and if we mistake others, it is only out of courtesy, and with the hope that they, in their turn, should mistake us.”
Now, in this world of forms and intentional misunderstandings, what purpose is served by the appearance of souls overflowing with music? They pursue the course of grand and unrestrained rhythm with noble candour—with a passion more than personal; they glow with the mighty and peaceful fire of music, which wells up to the light of day from their unexhausted depths—and all this to what purpose?
By means of these souls music gives expression to the longing that it feels for the company of its natural ally, gymnastics—that is to say, its necessary form in the order of visible phenomena. In its search and craving for this ally, it becomes the arbiter of the whole visible world and the world of mere lying appearance of the present day. This is Wagner’s second answer to the question, What is the meaning of music in our times? “Help me,” he cries to all who have ears to hear, “help me to discover that culture of which my music, as the rediscovered language of correct feeling, seems to foretell the existence. Bear in mind that the soul of music now wishes to acquire a body, that, by means of you all, it would find its way to visibleness in movements, deeds, institutions, and customs!” There are some men who understand this summons, and their number will increase; they have also understood, for the first time, what it means to found the State upon music. It is something that the ancient Hellenes not only understood but actually insisted upon; and these enlightened creatures would just as soon have sentenced the modern State to death as modern men now condemn the Church. The road to such a new though not unprecedented goal would lead to this: that we should be compelled to acknowledge where the worst faults of our educational system lie, and why it has failed hitherto to elevate us out of barbarity: in reality, it lacks the stirring and creative soul of music; its requirements and arrangements are moreover the product of a period in which the music, to which We seem to attach so much importance, had not yet been born. Our education is the most antiquated factor of our present conditions, and it is so more precisely in regard to the one new educational force by which it makes men of to-day in advance of those of bygone centuries, or by which it would make them in advance of their remote ancestors, provided only they did not persist so rashly in hurrying forward in meek response to the scourge of the moment. Through not having allowed the soul of music to lodge within them, they have no notion of gymnastics in the Greek and Wagnerian sense; and that is why their creative artists are condemned to despair, as long as they wish to dispense with music as a guide in a new world of visible phenomena. Talent may develop as much as may be desired: it either comes too late or too soon, and at all events out of season; for it is in the main superfluous and abortive, just as even the most perfect and the highest products of earlier times which serve modern artists as models are superfluous and abortive, and add not a stone to the edifice already begun. If their innermost consciousness can perceive no new forms, but only the old ones belonging to the past, they may certainly achieve something for history, but not for life; for they are already dead before having expired. He, however, who feels genuine and fruitful life in him, which at present can only be described by the one term “Music,” could he allow himself to be deceived for one moment into nursing solid hopes by this something which exhausts all its energy in producing figures, forms, and styles? He stands above all such vanities, and as little expects to meet with artistic wonders outside his ideal world of sound as with great writers bred on our effete and discoloured language. Rather than lend an ear to illusive consolations, he prefers to turn his unsatisfied gaze stoically upon our modern world, and if his heart be not warm enough to feel pity, let it at least feel bitterness and hate! It were better for him to show anger and scorn than to take cover in spurious contentment or steadily to drug himself, as our “friends of art” are wont to do. But if he can do more than condemn and despise, if he is capable of loving, sympathising, and assisting in the general work of construction, he must still condemn, notwithstanding, in order to prepare the road for his willing soul. In order that music may one day exhort many men to greater piety and make them privy to her highest aims, an end must first be made to the whole of the pleasure-seeking relations which men now enjoy with such a sacred art. Behind all our artistic pastimes— theatres, museums, concerts, and the like—that aforementioned “friend of art” is to be found, and he it is who must be suppressed: the favour he now finds at the hands of the State must be changed into oppression; public opinion, which lays such particular stress upon the training of this love of art, must be routed by better judgment. Meanwhile we must reckon the declared enemy of art as our best and most useful ally; for the object of his animosity is precisely art as understood by the “friend of art,"—he knows of no other kind! Let him be allowed to call our “friend of art” to account for the nonsensical waste of money occasioned by the building of his theatres and public monuments, the engagement of his celebrated singers and actors, and the support of his utterly useless schools of art and picture-galleries—to say nothing of all the energy, time, and money which every family squanders in pretended “artistic interests.” Neither hunger nor satiety is to be noticed here, but a dead-and-alive game is played—with the semblance of each, a game invented by the idle desire to produce an effect and to deceive others. Or, worse still, art is taken more or less seriously, and then it is itself expected to provoke a kind of hunger and craving, and to fulfil its mission in this artificially induced excitement. It is as if people were afraid of sinking beneath the weight of their loathing and dulness, and invoked every conceivable evil spirit to scare them and drive them about like wild cattle. Men hanker after pain, anger, hate, the flush of passion, sudden flight, and breathless suspense, and they appeal to the artist as the conjurer of this demoniacal host. In the spiritual economy of our cultured classes art has become a spurious or ignominious and undignified need—a nonentity or a something evil. The superior and more uncommon artist must be in the throes of a bewildering nightmare in order to be blind to all this, and like a ghost, diffidently and in a quavering voice, he goes on repeating beautiful words which he declares descend to him from higher spheres, but whose sound he can hear only very indistinctly. The artist who happens to be moulded according to the modern pattern, however, regards the dreamy gropings and hesitating speech of his nobler colleague with contempt, and leads forth the whole brawling mob of assembled passions on a leash in order to let them loose upon modern men as he may think fit. For these modern creatures wish rather to be hunted down, wounded, and torn to shreds, than to live alone with themselves in solitary calm. Alone with oneself!—this thought terrifies the modern soul; it is his one anxiety, his one ghastly fear.
When I watch the throngs that move and linger about the streets of a very populous town, and notice no other expression in their faces than one of hunted stupor, I can never help commenting to myself upon the misery of their condition. For them all, art exists only that they may be still more wretched, torpid, insensible, or even more flurried and covetous. For incorrect feeling governs and drills them unremittingly, and does not even give them time to become aware of their misery. Should they wish to speak, convention whispers their cue to them, and this makes them forget what they originally intended to say; should they desire to understand one another, their comprehension is maimed as though by a spell: they declare that to be their joy which in reality is but their doom, and they proceed to collaborate in wilfully bringing about their own damnation. Thus they have become transformed into perfectly and absolutely different creatures, and reduced to the state of abject slaves of incorrect feeling.
I shall only give two instances showing how utterly the sentiment of our time has been perverted, and how completely unconscious the present age is of this perversion. Formerly financiers were looked down upon with honest scorn, even though they were recognised as needful; for it was generally admitted that every society must have its viscera. Now, however, they are the ruling power in the soul of modern humanity, for they constitute the most covetous portion thereof. In former times people were warned especially against taking the day or the moment too seriously: the nil admirari was recommended and the care of things eternal. Now there is but one kind of seriousness left in the modern mind, and it is limited to the news brought by the newspaper and the telegraph. Improve each shining hour, turn it to some account and judge it as quickly as possible!—one would think modern men had but one virtue left—presence of mind. Unfortunately, it much more closely resembles the omnipresence of disgusting and insatiable cupidity, and spying inquisitiveness become universal. For the question is whether mind is present at all to-day;—but we shall leave this problem for future judges to solve; they, at least, are bound to pass modern men through a sieve. But that this age is vulgar, even we can see now, and it is so because it reveres precisely what nobler ages contemned. If, therefore, it loots all the treasures of bygone wit and wisdom, and struts about in this richest of rich garments, it only proves its sinister consciousness of its own vulgarity in so doing; for it does not don this garb for warmth, but merely in order to mystify its surroundings. The desire to dissemble and to conceal himself seems stronger than the need of protection from the cold in modern man. Thus scholars and philosophers of the age do not have recourse to Indian and Greek wisdom in order to become wise and peaceful: the only purpose of their work seems to be to earn them a fictitious reputation for learning in their own time. The naturalists endeavour to classify the animal outbreaks of violence, ruse and revenge, in the present relations between nations and individual men, as immutable laws of nature. Historians are anxiously engaged in proving that every age has its own particular right and special conditions,— with the view of preparing the groundwork of an apology for the day that is to come, when our generation will be called to judgment. The science of government, of race, of commerce, and of jurisprudence, all have that preparatorily apologetic character now; yea, it even seems as though the small amount of intellect which still remains active to-day, and is not used up by the great mechanism of gain and power, has as its sole task the defending—and excusing of the present
Against what accusers? one asks, surprised.
Against its own bad conscience.
And at this point we plainly discern the task assigned to modern art—that of stupefying or intoxicating, of lulling to sleep or bewildering. By hook or by crook to make conscience unconscious! To assist the modern soul over the sensation of guilt, not to lead it back to innocence! And this for the space of moments only! To defend men against themselves, that their inmost heart may be silenced, that they may turn a deaf ear to its voice! The souls of those few who really feel the utter ignominy of this mission and its terrible humiliation of art, must be filled to the brim with sorrow and pity, but also with a new and overpowering yearning. He who would fain emancipate art, and reinstall its sanctity, now desecrated, must first have freed himself from all contact with modern souls; only as an innocent being himself can he hope to discover the innocence of art, for he must be ready to perform the stupendous tasks of self-purification and self-consecration. If he succeeded, if he were ever able to address men from out his enfranchised soul and by means of his emancipated art, he would then find himself exposed to the greatest of dangers and involved in the most appalling of struggles. Man would prefer to tear him and his art to pieces, rather than acknowledge that he must die of shame in presence of them. It is just possible that the emancipation of art is the only ray of hope illuminating the future, an event intended only for a few isolated souls, while the many remain satisfied to gaze into the flickering and smoking flame of their art and can endure to do so. For they do not want to be enlightened, but dazzled. They rather hate light —more particularly when it is thrown on themselves.
That is why they evade the new messenger of light; but he follows them—the love which gave him birth compels him to follow them and to reduce them to submission. “Ye must go through my mysteries,” he cries to them; “ye need to be purified and shaken by them. Dare to submit to this for your own salvation, and abandon the gloomily lighted corner of life and nature which alone seems familiar to you. I lead you into a kingdom which is also real, and when I lead you out of my cell into your daylight, ye will be able to judge which life is more real, which, in fact, is day and which night. Nature is much richer, more powerful, more blessed and more terrible below the surface; ye cannot divine this from the way in which ye live. O that ye yourselves could learn to become natural again, and then suffer yourselves to be transformed through nature, and into her, by the charm of my ardour and love!”
It is the voice of Wagner’s art which thus appeals to men. And that we, the children of a wretched age, should be the first to hear it, shows how deserving of pity this age must be: it shows, moreover, that real music is of a piece with fate and primitive law; for it is quite impossible to attribute its presence amongst us precisely at the present time to empty and meaningless chance. Had Wagner been an accident, he would certainly have been crushed by the superior strength of the other elements in the midst of which he was placed, out in the coming of Wagner there seems to have been a necessity which both justifies it and makes it glorious. Observed from its earliest beginnings, the development of his art constitutes a most magnificent spectacle, and—even though it was attended with great suffering—reason, law, and intention mark its course throughout. Under the charm of such a spectacle the observer will be led to take pleasure even in this painful development itself, and will regard it as fortunate. He will see how everything necessarily contributes to the welfare and benefit of talent and a nature foreordained, however severe the trials may be through which it may have to pass. He will realise how every danger gives it more heart, and every triumph more prudence; how it partakes of poison and sorrow and thrives upon them. The mockery and perversity of the surrounding world only goad and spur it on the more. Should it happen to go astray, it but returns from its wanderings and exile loaded with the most precious spoil; should it chance to slumber, “it does but recoup its strength.” It tempers the body itself and makes it tougher; it does not consume life, however long it lives; it rules over man like a pinioned passion, and allows him to fly just in the nick of time, when his foot has grown weary in the sand or has been lacerated by the stones on his way. It can do nought else but impart; every one must share in its work, and it is no stinted giver. When it is repulsed it is but more prodigal in its gifts; ill used by those it favours, it does but reward them with the richest treasures it possesses,—and, according to the oldest and most recent experience, its favoured ones have never been quite worthy of its gifts. That is why the nature foreordained, through which music expresses itself to this world of appearance, is one of the most mysterious things under the sun—an abyss in which strength and goodness lie united, a bridge between self and non-self. Who would undertake to name the object of its existence with any certainty?—even supposing the sort of purpose which it would be likely to have could be divined at all. But a most blessed foreboding leads one to ask whether it is possible for the grandest things to exist for the purpose of the meanest, the greatest talent for the benefit of the smallest, the loftiest virtue and holiness for the sake of the defective and faulty? Should real music make itself heard, because mankind of all creatures least deserves to hear it, though it perhaps need it most? If one ponder over the transcendental and wonderful character of this possibility, and turn from these considerations to look back on life, a light will then be seen to ascend, however dark and misty it may have seemed a moment before.
It is quite impossible otherwise: the observer who is confronted with a nature such as Wagner’s must, willy-nilly, turn his eyes from time to time upon himself, upon his insignificance and frailty, and ask himself, What concern is this of thine? Why, pray, art thou there at all? Maybe he will find no answer to these questions, in which case he will remain estranged and confounded, face to face with his own personality. Let it then suffice him that he has experienced this feeling; let the fact that he has felt strange and embarrassed in the presence of his own soul be the answer to his question For it is precisely by virtue of this feeling that he shows the most powerful manifestation of life in Wagner—the very kernel of his strength—that demoniacal magnetism and gift of imparting oneself to others, which is peculiar to his nature, and by which it not only conveys itself to other beings, but also absorbs other beings into itself; thus attaining to its greatness by giving and by taking. As the observer is apparently subject to Wagner’s exuberant and prodigally generous nature, he partakes of its strength, and thereby becomes formidable through him and to him. And every one who critically examines himself knows that a certain mysterious antagonism is necessary to the process of mutual study. Should his art lead us to experience all that falls to the lot of a soul engaged upon a journey, i.e. feeling sympathy with others and sharing their fate, and seeing the world through hundreds of different eyes, we are then able, from such a distance, and under such strange influences, to contemplate him, once we have lived his life. We then feel with the utmost certainty that in Wagner the whole visible world desires to be spiritualised, absorbed, and lost in the world of sounds. In Wagner, too, the world of sounds seeks to manifest itself as a phenomenon for the sight; it seeks, as it were, to incarnate itself. His art always leads him into two distinct directions, from the world of the play of sound to the mysterious and yet related world of visible things, and vice versa. He is continually forced—and the observer with him—to re-translate the visible into spiritual and primeval life, and likewise to perceive the most hidden interstices of the soul as something concrete and to lend it a visible body. This constitutes the nature of the dithyrambic dramatist, if the meaning given to the term includes also the actor, the poet, and the musician; a conception necessarily borrowed from Æschylus and the contemporary Greek artists—the only perfect examples of the dithyrambic dramatist before Wagner. If attempts have been made to trace the most wonderful developments to inner obstacles or deficiencies, if, for instance, in Goethe’s case, poetry was merely the refuge of a foiled talent for painting; if one may speak of Schiller’s dramas as of vulgar eloquence directed into uncommon channels; if Wagner himself tries to account for the development of music among the Germans by showing that, inasmuch as they are devoid of the entrancing stimulus of a natural gift for singing, they were compelled to take up instrumental music with the same profound seriousness as that with which their reformers took up Christianity,—if, on the same principle, it were sought to associate Wagner’s development with an inner barrier of the same kind, it would then be necessary to recognise in him a primitive dramatic talent, which had to renounce all possibility of satisfying its needs by the quickest and most methods, and which found its salvation and its means of expression in drawing all arts to it for one great dramatic display. But then one would also have to assume that the most powerful musician, owing to his despair at having to appeal to people who were either only semi-musical or not musical at all, violently opened a road for himself to the other arts, in order to acquire that capacity for diversely communicating himself to others, by which he compelled them to understand him, by which he compelled the masses to understand him. However the development of the born dramatist may be pictured, in his ultimate expression he is a being free from all inner barriers and voids: the real, emancipated artist cannot help himself, he must think in the spirit of all the arts at once, as the mediator and intercessor between apparently separated spheres, the one who reinstalls the unity and wholeness of the artistic faculty, which cannot be divined or reasoned out, but can only be revealed by deeds themselves. But he in whose presence this deed is performed will be overcome by its gruesome and seductive charm: in a flash he will be confronted with a power which cancels both resistance and reason, and makes every detail of life appear irrational and incomprehensible. Carried away from himself, he seems to be suspended in a mysterious fiery element; he ceases to understand himself, the standard of everything has fallen from his hands; everything stereotyped and fixed begins to totter; every object seems to acquire a strange colour and to tell us its tale by means of new symbols;—one would need to be a Plato in order to discover, amid this confusion of delight and fear, how he accomplishes the feat, and to say to the dramatist: “Should a man come into our midst who possessed sufficient knowledge to simulate or imitate anything, we would honour him as something wonderful and holy; we would even anoint him and adorn his brow with a sacred diadem; but we would urge him to leave our circle for another, notwithstanding.” It may be that a member of the Platonic community would have been able to chasten himself to such conduct: we, however, who live in a very different community, long for, and earnestly desire, the charmer to come to us, although we may fear him already,—and we only desire his presence in order that our society and the mischievous reason and might of which it is the incarnation may be confuted. A state of human civilisation, of human society, morality, order, and general organisation which would be able to dispense with the services of an imitative artist or mimic, is not perhaps so utterly inconceivable; but this Perhaps is probably the most daring that has ever been posited, and is equivalent to the gravest expression of doubt. The only man who ought to be at liberty to speak of such a possibility is he who could beget, and have the presentiment of, the highest phase of all that is to come, and who then, like Faust, would either be obliged to turn blind, or be permitted to become so. For we have no right to this blindness; whereas Plato, after he had cast that one glance into the ideal Hellenic, had the right to be blind to all Hellenism. For this reason, we others are in much greater need of art; because it was in the presence of the realistic that our eyes began to see, and we require the complete dramatist in order that he may relieve us, if only for an hour or so, of the insufferable tension arising from our knowledge of the chasm which lies between our capabilities and the duties we have to perform. With him we ascend to the highest pinnacle of feeling, and only then do we fancy we have returned to nature’s unbounded freedom, to the actual realm of liberty. From this point of vantage we can see ourselves and our fellows emerge as something sublime from an immense mirage, and we see the deep meaning in our struggles, in our victories and defeats; we begin to find pleasure in the rhythm of passion and in its victim in the hero’s every footfall we distinguish the hollow echo of death, and in its proximity we realise the greatest charm of life: thus transformed into tragic men, we return again to life with comfort in our souls. We are conscious of a new feeling of security, as if we had found a road leading out of the greatest dangers, excesses, and ecstasies, back to the limited and the familiar: there where our relations with our fellows seem to partake of a superior benevolence, and are at all events more noble than they were. For here, everything seemingly serious and needful, which appears to lead to a definite goal, resembles only detached fragments when compared with the path we ourselves have trodden, even in our dreams,— detached fragments of that complete and grand experience whereof we cannot even think without a thrill. Yes, we shall even fall into danger and be tempted to take life too easily, simply because in art we were in such deadly earnest concerning it, as Wagner says somewhere anent certain incidents in his own life. For if we who are but the spectators and not the creators of this display of dithyrambic dramatic art, can almost imagine a dream to be more real than the actual experiences of our wakeful hours, how much more keenly must the creator realise this contrast! There he stands amid all the clamorous appeals and importunities of the day, and of the necessities of life; in the midst of Society and State—and as what does he stand there? Maybe he is the only wakeful one, the only being really and truly conscious, among a host of confused and tormented sleepers, among a multitude of deluded and suffering people. He may even feel like a victim of chronic insomnia, and fancy himself obliged to bring his clear, sleepless, and conscious life into touch with somnambulists and ghostly well-intentioned creatures. Thus everything that others regard as commonplace strikes him as weird, and he is tempted to meet the whole phenomenon with haughty mockery. But how peculiarly this feeling is crossed, when another force happens to join his quivering pride, the craving of the heights for the depths, the affectionate yearning for earth, for happiness and for fellowship—then, when he thinks of all he misses as a hermit-creator, he feels as though he ought to descend to the earth like a god, and bear all that is weak, human, and lost, “in fiery arms up to heaven,” so as to obtain love and no longer worship only, and to be able to lose himself completely in his love. But it is just this contradiction which is the miraculous fact in the soul of the dithyrambic dramatist, and if his nature can be understood at all, surely it must be here. For his creative moments in art occur when the antagonism between his feelings is at its height and when his proud astonishment and wonder at the world combine with the ardent desire to approach that same world as a lover. The glances he then bends towards the earth are always rays of sunlight which “draw up water,” form mist, and gather storm-clouds. Clear-sighted and prudent, loving and unselfish at the same time, his glance is projected downwards; and all things that are illumined by this double ray of light, nature conjures to discharge their strength, to reveal their most hidden secret, and this through bashfulness. It is more than a mere figure of speech to say that he surprised Nature with that glance, that he caught her naked; that is why she would conceal her shame by seeming precisely the reverse. What has hitherto been invisible, the inner life, seeks its salvation in the region of the visible; what has hitherto been only visible, repairs to the dark ocean of sound: thus Nature, in trying to conceal herself, unveils the character of her contradictions. In a dance, wild, rhythmic and gliding, and with ecstatic movements, the born dramatist makes known something of what is going on within him, of what is taking place in nature: the dithyrambic quality of his movements speaks just as eloquently of quivering comprehension and of powerful penetration as of the approach of love and self-renunciation. Intoxicated speech follows the course of this rhythm; melody resounds coupled with speech, and in its turn melody projects its sparks into the realm of images and ideas. A dream-apparition, like and unlike the image of Nature and her wooer, hovers forward; it condenses into more human shapes; it spreads out in response to its heroically triumphant will, and to a most delicious collapse and cessation of will:—thus tragedy is born; thus life is presented with its grandest knowledge— that of tragic thought; thus, at last, the greatest charmer and benefactor among mortals—the dithyrambic dramatist—is evolved.
Wagner’s actual life—that is to say, the gradual evolution of the dithyrambic dramatist in him— was at the same time an uninterrupted struggle with himself, a struggle which never ceased until his evolution was complete. His fight with the opposing world was grim and ghastly, only because it was this same world—this alluring enemy—which he heard speaking out of his own heart, and because he nourished a violent demon in his breast—the demon of resistance. When the ruling idea of his life gained ascendancy over his mind—the idea that drama is, of all arts, the one that can exercise the greatest amount of influence over the world—it aroused the most active emotions in his whole being. It gave him no very clear or luminous decision, at first, as to what was to be done and desired in the future; for the idea then appeared merely as a form of temptation—that is to say, as the expression of his gloomy, selfish, and insatiable will, eager for power and glory. Influence—the greatest amount of influence—how? over whom?—these were henceforward the questions and problems which did not cease to engage his head and his heart. He wished to conquer and triumph as no other artist had ever done before, and, if possible, to reach that height of tyrannical omnipotence at one stroke for which all his instincts secretly craved. With a jealous and cautious eye, he took stock of everything successful, and examined with special care all that upon which this influence might be brought to bear. With the magic sight of the dramatist, which scans souls as easily as the most familiar book, he scrutinised the nature of the spectator and the listener, and although he was often perturbed by the discoveries he made, he very quickly found means wherewith he could enthral them. These means were ever within his reach: everything that moved him deeply he desired and could also produce; at every stage in his career he understood just as much of his predecessors as he himself was able to create, and he never doubted that he would be able to do what they had done. In this respect his nature is perhaps more presumptuous even than Goethe's, despite the fact that the latter said of himself: “I always thought I had mastered everything; and even had I been crowned king, I should have regarded the honour as thoroughly deserved.” Wagner’s ability. his taste and his aspirations—all of which have ever been as closely related as key to lock—grew and attained to freedom together; but there was a time when it was not so. What did he care about the feeble but noble and egotistically lonely feeling which that friend of art fosters, who, blessed with a literary and aesthetic education, takes his stand far from the common mob! But those violent spiritual tempests which are created by the crowd when under the influence of certain climactic passages of dramatic song, that sudden bewildering ecstasy of the emotions, thoroughly honest and selfless—they were but echoes of his own experiences and sensations, and filled him with glowing hope for the greatest possible power and effect. Thus he recognised grand opera as the means whereby he might express his ruling thoughts; towards it his passions impelled him; his eyes turned in the direction of its home. The larger portion of his life, his most daring wanderings, and his plans, studies, sojourns, and acquaintances are only to be explained by an appeal to these passions and the opposition of the outside world, which the poor, restless, passionately ingenuous German artist had to face. Another artist than he knew better how to become master of this calling, and now that it has gradually become known by means of what ingenious artifices of all kinds Meyerbeer succeeded in preparing and achieving every one of his great successes, and how scrupulously the sequence of “effects” was taken into account in the opera itself, people will begin to understand how bitterly Wagner was mortified when his eyes were opened to the tricks of the metier which were indispensable to a great public success. I doubt whether there has ever been another great artist in history who began his career with such extraordinary illusions and who so unsuspectingly and sincerely fell in with the most revolting form of artistic trickery. And yet the way in which he proceeded partook of greatness and was therefore extraordinarily fruitful. For when he perceived his error, despair made him understand the meaning of modern success, of the modern public, and the whole prevaricating spirit of modern art. And while becoming the critic of “effect,” indications of his own purification began to quiver through him. It seems as if from that time forward the spirit of music spoke to him with an unprecedented spiritual charm. As though he had just risen from a long illness and had for the first time gone into the open, he scarcely trusted his hand and his eye, and seemed to grope along his way. Thus it was an almost delightful surprise to him to find that he was still a musician and an artist, and perhaps then only for the first time.
Every subsequent stage in Wagner’s development may be distinguished thus, that the two fundamental powers of his nature drew ever more closely together: the aversion of the one to the other lessened, the higher self no longer condescended to serve its more violent and baser brother; it loved him and felt compelled to serve him. The tenderest and purest thing is ultimately—that is to say, at the highest stage of its evolution— always associated with the mightiest; the storming instincts pursue their course as before, but along different roads, in the direction of the higher self; and this in its turn descends to earth and finds its likeness in everything earthly. If it were possible, on this principle, to speak of the final aims and unravelments of that evolution, and to remain intelligible, it might also be possible to discover the graphic terms with which to describe the long interval preceding that last development; but I doubt whether the first achievement is possible at all, and do not therefore attempt the second. The limits of the interval separating the preceding and the subsequent ages will be described historically in two sentences: Wagner was the revolutionist of society; Wagner recognised the only artistic element that ever existed hitherto—the poetry of the people. The ruling idea which in a new form and mightier than it had ever been, obsessed Wagner, after he had overcome his share of despair and repentance, led him to both conclusions. Influence, the greatest possible amount of influence to be exercised by means of the stage! —but over whom? He shuddered when he thought of those whom he had, until then, sought to influence. His experience led him to realise the utterly ignoble position which art and the artist adorn; how a callous and hard-hearted community that calls itself the good, but which is really the evil, reckons art and the artist among its slavish retinue, and keeps them both in order to minister to its need of deception. Modern art is a luxury; he saw this, and understood that it must stand or fall with the luxurious society of which it forms but a part. This society had but one idea, to use its power as hard-heartedly and as craftily as possible in order to render the impotent—the people—ever more and more serviceable, base and unpopular, and to rear the modern workman out of them. It also robbed them of the greatest and purest things which their deepest needs led them to create, and through which they meekly expressed the genuine and unique art within their soul: their myths, songs, dances, and their discoveries in the department of language, in order to distil therefrom a voluptuous antidote against the fatigue and boredom of its existence— modern art. How this society came into being, how it learned to draw new strength for itself from the seemingly antagonistic spheres of power, and how, for instance, decaying Christianity allowed itself to be used, under the cover of half measures and subterfuges, as a shield against the masses and as a support of this society and its possessions, and finally how science and men of learning pliantly consented to become its drudges—all this Wagner traced through the ages, only to be convulsed with loathing at the end of his researches. Through his compassion for the people, he became a revolutionist. From that time forward he loved them and longed for them, as he longed for his art; for, alas! in them alone, in this fast disappearing, scarcely recognisable body, artificially held aloof, he now saw the only spectators and listeners worthy and fit for the power of his masterpieces, as he pictured them. Thus his thoughts concentrated themselves upon the question, How do the people come into being? How are they resuscitated?
He always found but one answer: if a large number of people were afflicted with the sorrow that afflicted him, that number would constitute the people, he said to himself. And where the same sorrow leads to the same impulses and desires, similar satisfaction would necessarily be sought, and the same pleasure found in this satisfaction. If he inquired into what it was that most consoled him and revived his spirits in his sorrow, what it was that succeeded best in counteracting his affliction, it was with joyful certainty that he discovered this force only in music and myth, the latter of which he had already recognised as the people’s creation and their language of distress. It seemed to him that the origin of music must be similar, though perhaps more mysterious. In both of these elements he steeped and healed his soul; they constituted his most urgent need:—in this way he was able to ascertain how like his sorrow was to that of the people, when they came into being, and how they must arise anew if many Wagners are going to appear. What part did myth and music play in modern society, wherever they had not been actually sacrificed to it? They shared very much the same fate, a fact which only tends to prove their close relationship: myth had been sadly debased and usurped by idle tales and stories; completely divested of its earnest and sacred virility, it was transformed into the plaything and pleasing bauble of children and women of the afflicted people. Music had kept itself alive among the poor, the simple, and the isolated; the German musician had not succeeded in adapting himself to the luxurious traffic of the arts; he himself had become a fairy tale full Of monsters and mysteries, full of the most touching omens and auguries—a helpless questioner, something bewitched and in need of rescue. Here the artist distinctly heard the command that concerned him alone—to recast myth and make it virile, to break the spell lying over music and to make music speak: he felt his strength for drama liberated at one stroke, and the foundation of his sway established over the hitherto undiscovered province lying between myth and music. His new masterpiece, which included all the most powerful, effective, and entrancing forces that he knew, he now laid before men with this great and painfully cutting question: “Where are ye all who suffer and think as I do? Where is that number of souls that I wish to see become a people, that ye may share the same joys and comforts with me? In your joy ye will reveal your misery to me.” These were his questions in Tannhauser and Lohengrin, in these operas he looked about him for his equals —the anchorite yearned for the number.
But what were his feelings withal? Nobody answered him. Nobody had understood his question. Not that everybody remained silent: on the contrary, answers were given to thousands of questions which he had never put; people gossipped about the new masterpieces as though they had only been composed for the express purpose of supplying subjects for conversation. The whole mania of aesthetic scribbling and small talk overtook the Germans like a pestilence, and with that lack of modesty which characterises both German scholars and German journalists, people began measuring, and generally meddling with, these masterpieces, as well as with the person of the artist. Wagner tried to help the comprehension of his question by writing about it; but this only led to fresh confusion and more uproar, —for a musician who writes and thinks was, at that time, a thing unknown. The cry arose: “He is a theorist who wishes to remould art with his far-fetched notions—stone him!” Wagner was stunned: his question was not understood, his need not felt; his masterpieces seemed a message addressed only to the deaf and blind; his people— an hallucination. He staggered and vacillated. The feasibility of a complete upheaval of all things then suggested itself to him, and he no longer shrank from the thought: possibly, beyond this revolution and dissolution, there might be a chance of a new hope; on the other hand, there might not. But, in any case, would not complete annihilation be better than the wretched existing state of affairs? Not very long afterwards, he was a political exile in dire distress.
And then only, with this terrible change in his environment and in his soul, there begins that period of the great man’s life over which as a golden reflection there is stretched the splendour of highest mastery. Now at last the genius of dithyrambic drama doffs its last disguise. He is isolated; the age seems empty to him; he ceases to hope; and his all-embracing glance descend once more into the deep, and finds the bottom, there he sees suffering in the nature of things, and henceforward, having become more impersonal, he accepts his portion of sorrow more calmly. The desire for great power which was but the inheritance of earlier conditions is now directed wholly into the channel of creative art; through his art he now speaks only to himself, and no longer to a public or to a people, and strives to lend this intimate conversation all the distinction and other qualities in keeping with such a mighty dialogue. During the preceding period things had been different with his art; then he had concerned himself, too, albeit with refinement and subtlety, with immediate effects: that artistic production was also meant as a question, and it ought to have called forth an immediate reply. And how often did Wagner not try to make his meaning clearer to those he questioned! In view of their inexperience in having questions put to them, he tried to meet them half way and to conform with older artistic notions and means of expression. When he feared that arguments couched in his own terms would only meet with failure, he had tried to persuade and to put his question in a language half strange to himself though familiar to his listeners. Now there was nothing to induce him to continue this indulgence: all he desired now was to come to terms with himself, to think of the nature of the world in dramatic actions, and to philosophise in music; what desires he still possessed turned in the direction of the latest philosophical views. He who is worthy of knowing what took place in him at that time or what questions were thrashed out in the darkest holy of holies in his soul—and not many are worthy of knowing all this—must hear, observe, and experience Tristan and Isolde, the real opus metaphysicum of all art, a work upon which rests the broken look of a dying man with his insatiable and sweet craving for the secrets of night and death, far away from life which throws a horribly spectral morning light, sharply, upon all that is evil, delusive, and sundering: moreover, a drama austere in the severity of its form, overpowering in its simple grandeur, and in harmony with the secret of which it treats—lying dead in the midst of life, being one in two. And yet there is something still more wonderful than this work, and that is the artist himself, the man who, shortly after he had accomplished it, was able to create a picture of life so full of clashing colours as the Meistersingers of Nurnberg, and who in both of these compositions seems merely to have refreshed and equipped himself for the task of completing at his ease that gigantic edifice in four parts which he had long ago planned and begun—the ultimate result of all his meditations and poetical flights for over twenty years, his Bayreuth masterpiece, the Ring of the Nibelung! He who marvels at the rapid succession of the two operas, Tristan and the Meistersingers, has failed to understand one important side of the life and nature of all great Germans: he does not know the peculiar soil out of which that essentially German gaiety, which characterised Luther, Beethoven, and Wagner, can grow, the gaiety which other nations quite fail to understand and which even seems to be missing in the Germans of to-day—that clear golden and thoroughly fermented mixture of simplicity, deeply discriminating love, observation, and roguishness which Wagner has dispensed, as the most precious of drinks, to all those who have suffered deeply through life, but who nevertheless return to it with the smile of convalescents. And, as he also turned upon the world the eyes of one reconciled, he was more filled with rage and disgust than with sorrow, and more prone to renounce the love of power than to shrink in awe from it. As he thus silently furthered his greatest work and gradually laid score upon score, something happened which caused him to stop and listen: friends were coming, a kind of subterranean movement of many souls approached with a message for him—it was still far from being the people that constituted this movement and which wished to bear him news, but it may have been the nucleus and first living source of a really human community which would reach perfection in some age still remote. For the present they only brought him the warrant that his great work could be entrusted to the care and charge of faithful men, men who would watch and be worthy to watch over this most magnificent of all legacies to posterity. In the love of friends his outlook began to glow with brighter colours; his noblest care—the care that his work should be accomplished and should find a refuge before the evening of his life—was not his only preoccupation. something occurred which he could only understand as a symbol: it was as much as a new comfort and a new token of happiness to him. A great German war caused him to open his eyes, and he observed that those very Germans whom he considered so thoroughly degenerate and so inferior to the high standard of real Teutonism, of which he had formed an ideal both from self-knowledge and the conscientious study of other great Germans in history; he observed that those very Germans were, in the midst of terrible circumstances, exhibiting two virtues of the highest order—simple bravery and prudence; and with his heart bounding with delight he conceived the hope that he might not be the last German, and that some day a greater power would perhaps stand by his works than that devoted yet meagre one consisting of his little band of friends—a power able to guard it during that long period preceding its future glory, as the masterpiece of this future. Perhaps it was not possible to steel this belief permanently against doubt, more particularly when it sought to rise to hopes of immediate results: suffice it that he derived a tremendous spur from his environment, which constantly reminded him of a lofty duty ever to be fulfilled.
His work would not have been complete had he handed it to the world only in the form of silent manuscript. He must make known to the world what it could not guess in regard to his productions, what was his alone to reveal—the new style for the execution and presentation of his works, so that he might set that example which nobody else could set, and thus establish a tradition of style, not on paper, not by means of signs, but through impressions made upon the very souls of men. This duty had become all the more pressing with him, seeing that precisely in regard to the style of their execution his other works had meanwhile succumbed to the most insufferable and absurd of fates: they were famous and admired, yet no one manifested the slightest sign of indignation when they were mishandled. For, strange to say, whereas he renounced ever more and more the hope of success among his contemporaries, owing to his all too thorough knowledge of them, and disclaimed all desire for power, both “success” and “power” came to him, or at least everybody told him so. It was in vain that he made repeated attempts to expose, with the utmost clearness, how worthless and humiliating such successes were to him: people were so unused to seeing an artist able to differentiate at all between the effects of his works that even his most solemn protests were never entirely trusted. Once he had perceived the relationship existing between our system of theatres and their success, and the men of his time, his soul ceased to be attracted by the stage at all. He had no further concern with aesthetic ecstasies and the exultation of excited crowds, and he must even have felt angry to see his art being gulped down indiscriminately by the yawning abyss of boredom and the insatiable love of distraction. How flat and pointless every effect proved under these circumstances— more especially as it was much more a case of having to minister to one quite insatiable than of cloying the hunger of a starving man— Wagner began to perceive from the following repeated experience: everybody, even the performers and promoters, regarded his art as nothing more nor less than any other kind of stage-music, and quite in keeping with the repulsive style of traditional opera; thanks to the efforts of cultivated conductors, his works were even cut and hacked about, until, after they had been bereft of all their spirit, they were held to be nearer the professional singer’s plane. But when people tried to follow Wagner’s instructions to the letter, they proceeded so clumsily and timidly that they were not incapable of representing the midnight riot in the second act of the Meistersingers by a group of ballet-dancers. They seemed to do all this, however, in perfectly good faith—without the smallest evil intention. Wagner’s devoted efforts to show, by means of his own example, the correct and complete way of performing his works, and his attempts at training individual singers in the new style, were foiled time after time, owing only to the thoughtlessness and iron tradition that ruled all around him. Moreover, he was always induced to concern himself with that class of theatricals which he most thoroughly loathed. Had not even Goethe, m his time, once grown tired of attending the rehearsals of his Iphigenia? “I suffer unspeakably,” he explained, “when I have to tumble about with these spectres, which never seem to act as they should.” Meanwhile Wagner’s “success” in the kind of drama which he most disliked steadily increased; so much so, indeed, that the largest theatres began to subsist almost entirely upon the receipts which Wagner’s art, in the guise of operas, brought into them. This growing passion on the part of the theatre-going public bewildered even some of Wagner’s friends; but this man who had endured so much, had still to endure the bitterest pain of all—he had to see his friends intoxicated with his “successes” and “triumphs” everywhere where his highest ideal was openly belied and shattered. It seemed almost as though a people otherwise earnest and reflecting had decided to maintain an attitude of systematic levity only towards its most serious artist, and to make him the privileged recipient of all the vulgarity, thoughtlessness, clumsiness, and malice of which the German nature is capable. When, therefore, during the German War, a current of greater magnanimity and freedom seemed to run through every one, Wagner remembered the duty to which he had pledged himself, namely, to rescue his greatest work from those successes and affronts which were so largely due to misunderstandings, and to present it in his most personal rhythm as an example for all times. Thus he conceived the idea of Bayreuth. In the wake of that current of better feeling already referred to, he expected to notice an enhanced sense of duty even among those with whom he wished to entrust his most precious possession. Out of this two-fold duty, that event took shape which, like a glow of strange sunlight, will illumine the few years that lie behind and before us, and was designed to bless that distant and problematic future which to our time and to the men of our time can be little more than a riddle or a horror, but which to the few who are allowed to assist in its realisation is a foretaste of coming joy, a foretaste of love in a higher sphere, through which they know themselves to be blessed, blessing and fruitful, far beyond their span of years; and which to Wagner himself is but a cloud of distress, care, meditation, and grief, a fresh passionate outbreak of antagonistic elements, but all bathed in the starlight of selfless fidelity, and changed by this light into indescribable joy.
It scarcely need be said that it is the breath of tragedy that fills the lungs of the world. And every one whose innermost soul has a presentiment of this, every one unto whom the yoke of tragic deception concerning the aim of life, the distortion and shattering of intentions, renunciation and purification through love, are not unknown things, must be conscious of a vague reminiscence of Wagner’s own heroic life, in the masterpieces with which the great man now presents us. We shall feel as though Siegfried from some place far away were relating his deeds to us: the most blissful of touching recollections are always draped in the deep mourning of waning summer, when all nature lies still in the sable twilight.
All those to whom the thought of Wagner’s development as a man may have caused pain will find it both restful and healing to reflect upon what he was as an artist, and to observe how his ability and daring attained to such a high degree of independence. If art mean only the faculty of communicating to others what one has oneself experienced, and if every work of art confutes itself which does not succeed in making itself understood, then Wagner’s greatness as an artist would certainly lie in the almost demoniacal power of his nature to communicate with others, to express itself in all languages at once, and to make known its most intimate and personal experience with the greatest amount of distinctness possible. His appearance in the history of art resembles nothing so much as a volcanic eruption of the united artistic faculties of Nature herself, after mankind had grown to regard the practice of a special art as a necessary rule. It is therefore a somewhat moot point whether he ought to be classified as a poet, a painter, or a musician, even using each these words in its widest sense, or whether a new word ought not to be invented in order to describe him.
Wagner’s poetic ability is shown by his thinking in visible and actual facts, and not in ideas; that is to say, he thinks mythically, as the people have always done. No particular thought lies at the bottom of a myth, as the children of an artificial culture would have us believe; but it is in itself a thought: it conveys an idea of the world, but through the medium of a chain of events, actions, and pains. The Ring of the Nihelung is a huge system of thought without the usual abstractness of the latter. It were perhaps possible for a philosopher to present us with its exact equivalent in pure thought, and to purge it of all pictures drawn from life, and of all living actions, in which case we should be in possession of the same thing portrayed in two completely different forms—the one for the people, and the other for the very reverse of the people; that is to say, men of theory. But Wagner makes no appeal to this last class, for the man of theory can know as little of poetry or myth as the deaf man can know of music; both of them being conscious only of movements which seem meaningless to them. It is impossible to appreciate either one of these completely different forms from the standpoint of the other: as long as the poet’s spell is upon one, one thinks with him just as though one were merely a feeling, seeing, and hearing creature; the conclusions thus reached are merely the result of the association of the phenomena one sees, and are therefore not logical but actual causalities.
If, therefore, the heroes and gods of mythical dramas, as understood by Wagner, were to express themselves plainly in words, there would be a danger (inasmuch as the language of words might tend to awaken the theoretical side in us) of our finding ourselves transported from the world of myth to the world of ideas, and the result would be not only that we should fail to understand with greater ease, but that we should probably not understand at all. Wagner thus forced language back to a more primeval stage in its development a stage at which it was almost free of the abstract element, and was still poetry, imagery, and feeling; the fearlessness with which Wagner undertook this formidable mission shows how imperatively he was led by the spirit of poetry, as one who must follow whithersoever his phantom leader may direct him. Every word in these dramas ought to allow of being sung, and gods and heroes should make them their own—that was the task which Wagner set his literary faculty. Any other person in like circumstances would have given up all hope; for our language seems almost too old and decrepit to allow of one’s exacting what Wagner exacted from it; and yet, when he smote the rock, he brought forth an abundant flow. Precisely owing to the fact that he loved his language and exacted a great deal from it, Wagner suffered more than any other German through its decay and enfeeblement, from its manifold losses and mutilations of form, from its unwieldy particles and clumsy construction, and from its unmusical auxiliary verbs. All these are things which have entered the language through sin and depravity. On the other hand, he was exceedingly proud to record the number of primitive and vigorous factors still extant in the current speech; and in the tonic strength of its roots he recognised quite a wonderful affinity and relation to real music, a quality which distinguished it from the highly evolved and artificially rhetorical Latin languages. Wagner’s poetry is eloquent of his affection for the German language, and there is a heartiness and candour in his treatment of it which are scarcely to be met with in any other German writer, save perhaps Goethe. Forcibleness of diction, daring brevity, power and variety in rhythm, a remarkable wealth of strong and striking words, simplicity in construction, an almost unique inventive faculty in regard to fluctuations of feeling and presentiment, and therewithal a perfectly pure and overflowing stream of colloquialisms—these are the qualities that have to be enumerated, and even then the greatest and most wonderful of all is omitted. Whoever reads two such poems as Tristan and the Meistersingers consecutively will be just as astonished and doubtful in regard to the language as to the music; for he will wonder how it could have been possible for a creative spirit to dominate so perfectly two worlds as different in form, colour, and arrangement, as in soul. This is the most wonderful achievement of Wagner’s talent; for the ability to give every work its own linguistic stamp and to find a fresh body and a new sound for every thought is a task which only the great master can successfully accomplish. Where this rarest of all powers manifests itself, adverse criticism can be but petty and fruitless which confines itself to attacks upon certain excesses and eccentricities in the treatment, or upon the more frequent obscurities of expression and ambiguity of thought. Moreover, what seemed to electrify and scandalise those who were most bitter in their criticism was not so much the language as the spirit of the Wagnerian operas—that is to say, his whole manner of feeling and suffering. It were well to wait until these very critics have acquired another spirit themselves; they will then also speak a different tongue, and, by that time, it seems to me things will go better with the German language than they do at present.
In the first place, however, no one who studies Wagner the poet and word-painter should forget that none of his dramas were meant to be read, and that it would therefore be unjust to judge them from the same standpoint as the spoken drama. The latter plays upon the feelings by means of words and ideas, and in this respect it is under the dominion of the laws of rhetoric. But in real life passion is seldom eloquent: in spoken drama it perforce must be, in order to be able to express itself at all. When, however, the language of a people is already in a state of decay and deterioration, the word-dramatist is tempted to impart an undue proportion of new colour and form both to his medium and to his thoughts; he would elevate the language in order to make it a vehicle capable of conveying lofty feelings, and by so doing he runs the risk of becoming abstruse. By means of sublime phrases and conceits he likewise tries to invest passion with some nobility, and thereby runs yet another risk, that of appearing false and artificial. For in real life passions do not speak in sentences, and the poetical element often draws suspicion upon their genuineness when it departs too palpably from reality. Now Wagner, who was the first to detect the essential feeling in spoken drama, presents every dramatic action threefold: in a word, in a gesture, and in a sound. For, as a matter of fact, music succeeds in conveying the deepest emotions of the dramatic performers direct to the spectators, and while these see the evidence of the actors’ states of soul in their bearing and movements, a third though more feeble confirmation of these states, translated into conscious will, quickly follows in the form of the spoken word. All these effects fulfil their purpose simultaneously, without disturbing one another in the least, and urge the spectator to a completely new understanding and sympathy, just as if his senses had suddenly grown more spiritual and his spirit more sensual, and as if everything which seeks an outlet in him, and which makes him thirst for knowledge, were free and joyful in exultant perception. Because every essential factor in a Wagnerian drama is conveyed to the spectator with the utmost clearness, illumined and permeated throughout by music as by an internal flame, their author can dispense with the expedients usually employed by the writer of the spoken play in order to lend light and warmth to the action. The whole of the dramatist’s stock in trade could be more simple, and the architect’s sense of rhythm could once more dare to manifest itself in the general proportions of the edifice; for there was no more need of “the deliberate confusion and involved variety of styles, whereby the ordinary playwright strove in the interests of his work to produce that feeling of wonder and thrilling suspense which he ultimately enhanced to one of delighted amazement. The impression of ideal distance and height was no more to be induced by means of tricks and artifices. Language withdrew itself from the length and breadth of rhetoric into the strong confines of the speech of the feelings, and although the actor spoke much less about all he did and felt in the performance, his innermost sentiments, which the ordinary playwright had hitherto ignored for fear of being undramatic, was now able to drive the spectators to passionate sympathy, while the accompanying language of gestures could be restricted to the most delicate modulations. Now, when passions are rendered in song, they require rather more time than when conveyed by speech; music prolongs, so to speak, the duration of the feeling, from which it follows, as a rule, that the actor who is also a singer must overcome the extremely unplastic animation from which spoken drama suffers. He feels himself incited all the more to a certain nobility of bearing, because music envelopes his feelings in a purer atmosphere, and thus brings them closer to beauty.
The extraordinary tasks which Wagner set his actors and singers will provoke rivalry between them for ages to come, in the personification of each of his heroes with the greatest possible amount of clearness, perfection, and fidelity, according to that perfect incorporation already typified by the music of drama. Following this leader, the eye of the plastic artist will ultimately behold the marvels of another visible world, which, previous to him, was seen for the first time only by the creator of such works as the Ring of the Nibelung —that creator of highest rank, who, like Æschylus, points the way to a coming art. Must not jealousy awaken the greatest talent, if the plastic artist ever compares the effect of his productions with that of Wagnerian music, in which there is so much pure and sunny happiness that he who hears it feels as though all previous music had been but an alien, faltering, and constrained language; as though in the past it had been but a thing to sport with in the presence of those who were not deserving of serious treatment, or a thing with which to train and instruct those who were not even deserving of play? In the case of this earlier kind of music, the joy we always experience while listening to Wagner’s compositions is ours only for a short space of time, and it would then seem as though it were overtaken by certain rare moments of forgetfulness, during which it appears to be communing with its inner self and directing its eyes upwards, like Raphael’s Cecilia, away from the listeners and from all those who demand distraction, happiness, or instruction from it.
In general it may be said of Wagner the Musician, that he endowed everything in nature which hitherto had had no wish to speak with the power of speech: he refuses to admit that anything must be dumb, and, resorting to the dawn, the forest, the mist, the cliffs, the hills, the thrill of night and the moonlight, he observes a desire common to them all—they too wish to sing their own melody. If the philosopher says it is will that struggles for existence in animate and inanimate nature, the musician adds: And this will wherever it manifests itself, yearns for a melodious existence.
Before Wagner’s time, music for the most part moved in narrow limits: it concerned itself with the permanent states of man, or with what the Greeks call ethos. And only with Beethoven did it begin to find the language of pathos, of passionate will, and of the dramatic occurrences in the souls of men. Formerly, what people desired was to interpret a mood, a stolid, merry, reverential, or penitential state of mind, by means of music; the object was, by means of a certain striking uniformity of treatment and the prolonged duration of this uniformity, to compel the listener to grasp the meaning of the music and to impose its mood upon him. To all such interpretations of mood or atmosphere, distinct and particular forms of treatment were necessary: others were established by convention. The question of length was left to the discretion of the musician, whose aim was not only to put the listener into a certain mood, but also to avoid rendering that mood monotonous by unduly protracting it. A further stage was reached when the interpretations of contrasted moods were made to follow one upon the other, and the charm of light and shade was discovered; and yet another step was made when the same piece of music was allowed to contain a contrast of the ethos—for instance, the contest between a male and a female theme. All these, however, are crude and primitive stages in the development of music. The fear of passion suggested the first rule, and the fear of monotony the second; all depth of feeling and any excess thereof were regarded as “unethical.” Once, however, the art of the ethos had repeatedly been made to ring all the changes on the moods and situations which convention had decreed as suitable, despite the most astounding resourcefulness on the part of its masters, its powers were exhausted. Beethoven was the first to make music speak a new language—till then forbidden—the language of passion; but as his art was based upon the laws and conventions of the ETHOS, and had to attempt to justify itself in regard to them, his artistic development was beset with peculiar difficulties and obscurities. An inner dramatic factor—and every passion pursues a dramatic course—struggled to obtain a new form, but the traditional scheme of “mood music” stood in its way, and protested—almost after the manner in which morality opposes innovations and immorality. It almost seemed, therefore, as if Beethoven had set himself the contradictory task of expressing pathos in the terms of the ethos. This view does not, however, apply to Beethoven’s latest and greatest works; for he really did succeed in discovering a novel method of expressing the grand and vaulting arch of passion. He merely selected certain portions of its curve; imparted these with the utmost clearness to his listeners, and then left it to them to divine its whole span. Viewed superficially, the new form seemed rather like an aggregation of several musical compositions, of which every one appeared to represent a sustained situation, but was in reality but a momentary stage in the dramatic course of a passion. The listener might think that he was hearing the old “mood” music over again, except that he failed to grasp the relation of the various parts to one another, and these no longer conformed with the canon of the law. Even among minor musicians, there flourished a certain contempt for the rule which enjoined harmony in the general construction of a composition and the sequence of the parts in their works still remained arbitrary. Then, owing to a misunderstanding, the discovery of the majestic treatment of passion led back to the use of the single movement with an optional setting, and the tension between the parts thus ceased completely. That is why the symphony, as Beethoven understood it, is such a wonderfully obscure production, more especially when, here and there, it makes faltering attempts at rendering Beethoven’s pathos. The means ill befit the intention, and the intention is, on the whole, not sufficiently clear to the listener, because it was never really clear, even in the mind of the composer. But the very injunction that something definite must be imparted, and that this must be done as distinctly as possible, becomes ever more and more essential, the higher, more difficult, and more exacting the class of work happens to be.
That is why all Wagner’s efforts were concentrated upon the one object of discovering those means which best served the purpose of distinctness, and to this end it was above all necessary for him to emancipate himself from all the prejudices and claims of the old “mood” music, and to give his compositions—the musical interpretations of feelings and passion—a perfectly unequivocal mode of expression. If we now turn to what he has achieved, we see that his services to music are practically equal in rank to those which that sculptor-inventor rendered to sculpture who introduced “sculpture in the round.” All previous music seems stiff and uncertain when compared with Wagner's, just as though it were ashamed and did not wish to be inspected from all sides. With the most consummate skill and precision, Wagner avails himself of every degree and colour in the realm of feeling; without the slightest hesitation or fear of its escaping him, he seizes upon the most delicate, rarest, and mildest emotion, and holds it fast, as though it had hardened at his touch, despite the fact that it may seem like the frailest butterfly to every one else. His music is never vague or dreamy; everything that is allowed to speak through it, whether it be of man or of nature, has a strictly individual passion; storm and fire acquire the ruling power of a personal will in his hands. Over all the clamouring characters and the clash of their passions, over the whole torrent of contrasts, an almighty and symphonic understanding hovers with perfect serenity, and continually produces concord out of war. Taken as a whole, Wagner’s music is a reflex of the world as it was understood by the great Ephesian poet—that is to say, a harmony resulting from strife, as the union of justice and enmity. I admire the ability which could describe the grand line of universal passion out of a confusion of passions which all seem to be striking out in different directions: the fact that this was a possible achievement I find demonstrated in every individual act of a Wagnerian drama, which describes the individual history of various characters side by side with a general history of the whole company. Even at the very beginning we know we are watching a host of cross currents dominated by one great violent stream; and though at first this stream moves unsteadily over hidden reefs, and the torrent seems to be torn asunder as if it were travelling towards different points, gradually we perceive the central and general movement growing stronger and more rapid, the convulsive fury of the contending waters is converted into one broad, steady, and terrible flow in the direction of an unknown goal; and suddenly, at the end, the whole flood in all its breadth plunges into the depths, rejoicing demoniacally over the abyss and all its uproar. Wagner is never more himself than when he is overwhelmed with difficulties and can exercise power on a large scale with all the joy of a lawgiver. To bring restless and contending masses into simple rhythmic movement, and to exercise one will over a bewildering host of claims and desires—these are the tasks for which he feels he was born, and in the performance of which he finds freedom. And he never loses his breath withal, nor does he ever reach his goal panting. He strove just as persistently to impose the severest laws upon himself as to lighten the burden of others in this respect. Life and art weigh heavily upon him when he cannot play wit their most difficult questions. If one considers the relation between the melody of song and that of speech, one will perceive how he sought to adopt as his natural model the pitch, strength, and tempo of the passionate man’s voice in order to transform it into art; and if one further considers the task of introducing this singing passion into the general symphonic order of music, one gets some idea of the stupendous difficulties he had to overcome. In this behalf, his inventiveness in small things as in great, his omniscience and industry are such, that at the sight of one of Wagner’s scores one is almost led to believe that no real work or effort had ever existed before his time. It seems almost as if he too could have said, in regard to the hardships of art, that the real virtue of the dramatist lies in self-renunciation. But he would probably have added, There is but one kind of hardship— that of the artist who is not yet free: virtue and goodness are trivial accomplishments.
Viewing him generally as an artist, and calling to mind a more famous type, we see that Wagner is not at all unlike Demosthenes: in him also we have the terrible earnestness of purpose and that strong prehensile mind which always obtains a complete grasp of a thing; in him, too, we have the hand’s quick clutch and the grip as of iron. Like Demosthenes, he conceals his art or compels one to forget it by the peremptory way he calls attention to the subject he treats; and yet, like his great predecessor, he is the last and greatest of a whole line of artist-minds, and therefore has more to conceal than his forerunners: his art acts like nature, like nature recovered and restored. Unlike all previous musicians, there is nothing bombastic about him; for the former did not mind playing at times with their art, and making an exhibition of their virtuosity. One associates Wagner’s art neither with interest nor with diversion, nor with Wagner himself and art in general. All one is conscious of is of the great necessity of it all. No one will ever be able to appreciate what severity evenness of will, and self-control the artist required during his development, in order, at his zenith, to be able to do the necessary thing joyfully and freely. Let it suffice if we can appreciate how, in some respects, his music, with a certain cruelty towards itself, determines to subserve the course of the drama, which is as unrelenting as fate, whereas in reality his art was ever thirsting for a free ramble in the open and over the wilderness.
An artist who has this empire over himself subjugates all other artists, even though he may not particularly desire to do so. For him alone there lies no danger or stemming-force in those he has subjugated—his friends and his adherents; whereas the weaker natures who learn to rely on their friends pay for this reliance by forfeiting their independence. It is very wonderful to observe how carefully, throughout his life, Wagner avoided anything in the nature of heading a party, notwithstanding the fact that at the close of every phase in his career a circle of adherents formed, presumably with the view of holding him fast to his latest development. He always succeeded, however, in wringing himself free from them, and never allowed himself to be bound; for not only was the ground he covered too vast for one alone to keep abreast of him with any ease, but his way was so exceptionally steep that the most devoted would have lost his breath. At almost every stage in Wagner’s progress his friends would have liked to preach to him, and his enemies would fain have done so too—but for other reasons. Had the purity of his artist’s nature been one degree less decided than it was, he would have attained much earlier than he actually did to the leading position in the artistic and musical world of his time. True, he has reached this now, but in a much higher sense, seeing that every performance to be witnessed in any department of art makes its obeisance, so to speak, before the judgment-stool of his genius and of his artistic temperament. He has overcome the most refractory of his contemporaries; there is not one gifted musician among them but in his innermost heart would willingly listen to him, and find Wagner’s compositions more worth listening to than his own and all other musical productions taken together. Many who wish, by hook or by crook, to make their mark, even wrestle with Wagner’s secret charm, and unconsciously throw in their lot with the older masters, preferring to ascribe their “independence” to Schubert or Handel rather than to Wagner. But in vain! Thanks to their very efforts in contending against the dictates of their own consciences, they become ever meaner and smaller artists; they ruin their own natures by forcing themselves to tolerate undesirable allies and friends. And in spite of all these sacrifices, they still find perhaps in their dreams, that their ear turns attentively to Wagner. These adversaries are to be pitied: they imagine they lose a great deal when they lose themselves, but here they are mistaken.
Albeit it is obviously all one to Wagner whether musicians compose in his style, or whether they compose at all, he even does his utmost to dissipate the belief that a school of composers should now necessarily follow in his wake; though, in so far as he exercises a direct influence upon musicians, he does indeed try to instruct them concerning the art of grand execution. In his opinion, the evolution of art seems to have reached that stage when the honest endeavour to become an able and masterly exponent or interpreter is ever so much more worth talking about than the longing to be a creator at all costs. For, at the present stage of art, universal creating has this fatal result, that inasmuch as it encourages a much larger output, it tends to exhaust the means and artifices of genius by everyday use, and thus to reduce the real grandeur of its effect. Even that which is good in art is superfluous and detrimental when it proceeds from the imitation of what is best. Wagnerian ends and means are of one piece: to perceive this, all that is required is honesty in art matters, and it would be dishonest to adopt his means in order to apply them to other and less significant ends.
If, therefore, Wagner declines to live on amid a multitude of creative musicians, he is only the more desirous of imposing upon all men of talent the new duty of joining him in seeking the law of style for dramatic performances. He deeply feels the need of establishing a traditional style for his art, by means of which his work may continue to live from one age to another in a pure form, until it reaches that future which its creator ordained for it.
Wagner is impelled by an undaunted longing to make known everything relating to that foundation of a style, mentioned above, and, accordingly, everything relating to the continuance of his art. To make his work—as Schopenhauer would say—a sacred depository and the real fruit of his life, as well as the inheritance of mankind, and to store it for the benefit of a posterity better able to appreciate it,—these were the supreme objects of his life, and for these he bore that crown of thorns which, one day, will shoot forth leaves of bay. Like the insect which, in its last form, concentrates all its energies upon the one object of finding a safe depository for its eggs and of ensuring the future welfare of its posthumous brood,—then only to die content, so Wagner strove with equal determination to find a place of security for his works.
This subject, which took precedence of all others with him, constantly incited him to new discoveries; and these he sought ever more and more at the spring of his demoniacal gift of communicability, the more distinctly he saw himself in conflict with an age that was both perverse and unwilling to lend him its ear. Gradually however, even this same age began to mark his indefatigable efforts, to respond to his subtle advances, and to turn its ear to him. Whenever a small or a great opportunity arose, however far away, which suggested to Wagner a means wherewith to explain his thoughts, he availed himself of it: he thought his thoughts anew into every fresh set of circumstances, and would make them speak out of the most paltry bodily form. Whenever a soul only half capable of comprehending him opened itself to him, he never failed to implant his seed in it. He saw hope in things which caused the average dispassionate observer merely to shrug his shoulders; and he erred again and again, only so as to be able to carry his point against that same observer. Just as the sage, in reality, mixes with living men only for the purpose of increasing his store of knowledge, so the artist would almost seem to be unable to associate with his contemporaries at all, unless they be such as can help him towards making his work eternal. He cannot be loved otherwise than with the love of this eternity, and thus he is conscious only of one kind of hatred directed at him, the hatred which would demolish the bridges bearing his art into the future. The pupils Wagner educated for his own purpose, the individual musicians and actors whom he advised and whose ear he corrected and improved, the small and large orchestras he led, the towns which witnessed him earnestly fulfilling the duties of his calling, the princes and ladies who half boastfully and half lovingly participated in the framing of his plans, the various European countries to which he temporarily belonged as the judge and evil conscience of their arts,—everything gradually became the echo of his thought and of his indefatigable efforts to attain to fruitfulness in the future. Although this echo often sounded so discordant as to confuse him, still the tremendous power of his voice repeatedly crying out into the world must in the end call forth reverberations, and it will soon be impossible to be deaf to him or to misunderstand him. It is this reflected sound which even now causes the art-institutions of modern men to shake: every time the breath of his spirit blew into these coverts, all that was overripe or withered fell to the ground; but the general increase of scepticism in all directions speaks more eloquently than all this trembling. Nobody any longer dares to predict where Wagner’s influence may not unexpectedly break out. He is quite unable to divorce the salvation of art from any other salvation or damnation: wherever modern life conceals a danger, he, with the discriminating eye of mistrust, perceives a danger threatening art. In his imagination he pulls the edifice of modern civilisation to pieces, and allows nothing rotten, no unsound timber-work to escape: if in the process he should happen to encounter weather-tight walls or anything like solid foundations, he immediately casts about for means wherewith he can convert them into bulwarks and shelters for his art. He lives like a fugitive, whose will is not to preserve his own life, but to keep a secret— like an unhappy woman who does not wish to save her own soul, but that of the child lying in her lap: in short, he lives like Sieglinde, “for the sake of love.”
For life must indeed be full of pain and shame to one who can find neither rest nor shelter in this world, and who must nevertheless appeal to it, exact things from it, contemn it, and still be unable to dispense with the thing contemned, —this really constitutes the wretchedness of the artist of the future, who, unlike the philosopher, cannot prosecute his work alone in the seclusion of a study, but who requires human souls as messengers to this future, public institutions as a guarantee of it, and, as it were, bridges between now and hereafter. His art may not, like the philosopher's, be put aboard the boat of written documents: art needs capable men, not letters and notes, to transmit it. Over whole periods in Wagner’s life rings a murmur of distress—his distress at not being able to meet with these capable interpreters before whom he longed to execute examples of his work, instead of being confined to written symbols; before whom he yearned to practise his art, instead of showing a pallid reflection of it to those who read books, and who, generally speaking, therefore are not artists.
In Wagner the man of letters we see the struggle of a brave fighter, whose right hand has, as it were, been lopped off, and who has continued the contest with his left. In his writings he is always the sufferer, because a temporary and insuperable destiny deprives him of his own and the correct way of conveying his thoughts—that is to say, in the form of apocalyptic and triumphant examples. His writings contain nothing canonical or severe: the canons are to be found in his works as a whole. Their literary side represents his attempts to understand the instinct which urged him to create his works and to get a glimpse of himself through them. If he succeeded in transforming his instincts into terms of knowledge, it was always with the hope that the reverse process might take place in the souls of his readers—it was with this intention that he wrote. Should it ultimately be proved that, in so doing, Wagner attempted the impossible, he would still only share the lot of all those who have meditated deeply on art; and even so he would be ahead of most of them in this, namely, that the strongest instinct for all arts harboured in him. I know of no written aesthetics that give more light than those of Wagner; all that can possibly be learnt concerning the origin of a work of art is to be found in them. He is one of the very great, who appeared amongst us a witness, and who is continually improving his testimony and making it ever clearer and freer; even when he stumbles as a scientist, sparks rise from the ground. Such tracts as “Beethoven,” “Concerning the Art of Conducting,” “Concerning Actors and Singers,” “State and Religion,” silence all contradiction, and, like sacred reliquaries, impose upon all who approach them a calm, earnest, and reverential regard. Others, more particularly the earlier ones, including “Opera and Drama,” excite and agitate one; their rhythm is so uneven that, as prose they are bewildering. Their dialectics is constantly interrupted, and their course is more retarded than accelerated by outbursts of feeling; a certain reluctance on the part of the writer seems to hang over them like a pall, just as though the artist were somewhat ashamed of speculative discussions. What the reader who is only imperfectly initiated will probably find most oppressive is the general tone of authoritative dignity which is peculiar to Wagner, and which is very difficult to describe: it always strikes me as though Wagner were continually addressing enemies; for the style of all these tracts more resembles that of the spoken than of the written language, hence they will seem much more intelligible if heard read aloud, in the presence of his enemies, with whom he cannot be on familiar terms, and towards whom he must therefore show some reserve and aloofness, The entrancing passion of his feelings, however, constantly pierces this intentional disguise, and then the stilted and heavy periods, swollen with accessary words, vanish, and his pen dashes off sentences, and even whole pages, which belong to the best in German prose. But even admitting that while he wrote such passages he was addressing friends, and that the shadow of his enemies had been removed for a while, all the friends and enemies that Wagner, as a man of letters, has, possess one factor in common, which differentiates them fundamentally from the “people” for whom he worked as an artist. Owing to the refining and fruitless nature of their education, they are quite devoid of the essential traits of the national character, and he who would appeal to them must speak in a way which is not of the people—that is to say, after the manner of our best prose-writers and Wagner himself; though that he did violence to himself in writing thus is evident. But the strength of that almost maternal instinct of prudence in him, which is ready to make any sacrifice, rather tends to reinstall him among the scholars and men of learning, to whom as a creator he always longed to bid farewell. He submits to the language of culture and all the laws governing its use, though he was the first to recognise its profound insufficiency as a means of communication.
For if there is anything that distinguishes his art from every other art of modern times, it is that it no longer speaks the language of any particular caste, and refuses to admit the distinctions “literate” and “illiterate.” It thus stands as a contrast to every culture of the Renaissance, which to this day still bathes us modern men in its light and shade. Inasmuch as Wagner’s art bears us, from time to time, beyond itself, we are enabled to get a general view of its uniform character: we see Goethe and Leopardi as the last great stragglers of the Italian philologist-poets, Faust as the incarnation of a most unpopular problem, in the form of a man of theory thirsting for life; even Goethe’s song is an imitation of the song of the people rather than a standard set before them to which they are expected to attain, and the poet knew very well how truly he spoke when he seriously assured his adherents: “My compositions cannot become popular; he who hopes and strives to make them so is mistaken.”
That an art could arise which would be so clear and warm as to flood the base and the poor in spirit with its light, as well as to melt the haughtiness of the learned—such a phenomenon had to be experienced though it could not be guessed. But even in the mind of him who experiences it to-day it must upset all preconceived notions concerning education and culture; to such an one the veil will seem to have been rent in twain that conceals a future in which no highest good or highest joys exist that are not the common property of all. The odium attaching to the word “common” will then be abolished.
If presentiment venture thus into the remote future, the discerning eye of all will recognise the dreadful social insanity of our present age, and will no longer blind itself to the dangers besetting an art which seems to have roots only in the remote and distant future, and which allows its burgeoning branches to spread before our gaze when it has not yet revealed the ground from which it draws its sap. How can we protect this homeless art through the ages until that remote future is reached? How can we so dam the flood of a revolution seemingly inevitable everywhere, that the blessed prospect and guarantee of a better future—of a freer human life—shall not also be washed away with all that is destined to perish and deserves to perish?
He who asks himself this question shares Wagner’s care: he will feel himself impelled with Wagner to seek those established powers that have the goodwill to protect the noblest passions of man during the period of earthquakes and upheavals. In this sense alone Wagner questions the learned through his writings, whether they intend storing his legacy to them—the precious Ring of his art—among their other treasures. And even the wonderful confidence which he reposes in the German mind and the aims of German politics seems to me to arise from the fact that he grants the people of the Reformation that strength, mildness, and bravery which is necessary in order to divert “the torrent of revolution into the tranquil river-bed of a calmly flowing stream of humanity”: and I could almost believe that this and only this is what he meant to express by means of the symbol of his Imperial march.
As a rule, though, the generous impulses of the creative artist and the extent of his philanthropy are too great for his gaze to be confined within the limits of a single nation. His thoughts, like those of every good and great German, are more than German, and the language of his art does not appeal to particular races but to mankind in general.
But to the men of the future.
This is the belief that is proper to him; this is his torment and his distinction. No artist, of what past soever, has yet received such a remarkable portion of genius; no one, save him, has ever been obliged to mix this bitterest of ingredients with the drink of nectar to which enthusiasm helped him. It is not as one might expect, the misunderstood and mishandled artist, the fugitive of his age, who adopted this faith in self-defence: success or failure at the hands of his contemporaries was unable either to create or to destroy it Whether it glorified or reviled him, he did not belong to this generation: that was the conclusion to which his instincts led him. And the possibility of any generation’s ever belonging to him is something which he who disbelieves in Wagner can never be made to admit. But even this unbeliever may at least ask, what kind of generation it will be in which Wagner will recognise his “people,” and in which he will see the type of all those who suffer a common distress, and who wish to escape from it by means of an art common to them all. Schiller was certainly more hopeful and sanguine; he did not ask what a future must be like if the instinct of the artist that predicts it prove true; his command to every artist was rather—
- Soar aloft in daring flight
- Out of sight of thine own years!
- In thy mirror, gleaming bright,
- Glimpse of distant dawn appears.
May blessed reason preserve us from ever thinking that mankind will at any time discover a final and ideal order of things, and that happiness will then and ever after beam down upon us uniformly, like the rays of the sun in the tropics. Wagner has nothing to do with such a hope; he is no Utopian. If he was unable to dispense with the belief in a future, it only meant that he observed certain properties in modern men which he did not hold to be essential to their nature, and which did not seem to him to form any necessary part of their constitution; in fact, which were changeable and transient; and that precisely owing to these properties art would find no home among them, and he himself had to be the precursor and prophet of another epoch. No golden age, no cloudless sky will fall to the portion of those future generations, which his instinct led him to expect, and whose approximate characteristics may be gleaned from the cryptic characters of his art, in so far as it is possible to draw conclusions concerning the nature of any pain from the kind of relief it seeks. Nor will superhuman goodness and justice stretch like an everlasting rainbow over this future land. Belike this coming generation will, on the whole, seem more evil than the present one—for in good as in evil it will be more straightforward. It is even possible, if its soul were ever able to speak out in full and unembarrassed tones, that it might convulse and terrify us, as though the voice of some hitherto concealed and evil spirit had suddenly cried out in our midst. Or how do the following propositions strike our ears?—That passion is better than stocism or hypocrisy; that straightforwardness, even in evil, is better than losing oneself in trying to observe traditional morality; that the free man is just as able to be good as evil, but that the unemancipated man is a disgrace to nature, and has no share in heavenly or earthly bliss; finally, that all who wish to be free must become so through themselves, and that freedom falls to nobody’s lot as a gift from Heaven. However harsh and strange these propositions may sound, they are nevertheless reverberations from that future world, which is verily in need of art, and which expects genuine pleasure from its presence; they are the language of nature—reinstated even in mankind; they stand for what I have already termed correct feeling as opposed to the incorrect feeling that reigns to-day.
But real relief or salvation exists only for nature not for that which is contrary to nature or which arises out of incorrect feeling. When all that is unnatural becomes self-conscious, it desires but one thing—nonentity; the natural thing, on the other hand, yearns to be transfigured through love: the former would fain not be, the latter would fain be otherwise. Let him who has understood this recall, in the stillness of his soul, the simple themes of Wagner’s art, in order to be able to ask himself whether it were nature or nature’s opposite which sought by means of them to achieve the aims just described.
The desperate vagabond finds deliverance from his distress in the compassionate love of a woman who would rather die than be unfaithful to him: the theme of the Flying Dutchman. The sweet-heart, renouncing all personal happiness, owing to a divine transformation of Love into Charity, becomes a saint, and saves the soul of her loved one: the theme of Tannhauser. The sublimest and highest thing descends a suppliant among men, and will not be questioned whence it came; when, however, the fatal question is put, it sorrowfully returns to its higher life: the theme of Lohengrin. The loving soul of a wife, and the people besides, joyfully welcome the new benevolent genius, although the retainers of tradition and custom reject and revile him: the theme of the Meistersingers. Of two lovers, that do not know they are loved, who believe rather that they are deeply wounded and contemned, each demands of the other that he or she should drink a cup of deadly poison, to all intents and purposes as an expiation of the insult; in reality, however, as the result of an impulse which neither of them understands: through death they wish to escape all possibility of separation or deceit. The supposed approach of death loosens their fettered souls and allows them a short moment of thrilling happiness, just as though they had actually escaped from the present, from illusions and from life: the theme of Tristan and Isolde.
In the Ring of the Nibelung the tragic hero is a god whose heart yearns for power, and who, since he travels along all roads in search of it, finally binds himself to too many undertakings, loses his freedom, and is ultimately cursed by the curse inseparable from power. He becomes aware of his loss of freedom owing to the fact that he no longer has the means to take possession of the golden Ring—that symbol of all earthly power, and also of the greatest dangers to himself as long as it lies in the hands of his enemies. The fear of the end and the twilight of all gods overcomes him, as also the despair at being able only to await the end without opposing it. He is in need of the free and fearless man who, without his advice or assistance—even in a struggle against gods—can accomplish single-handed what is denied to the powers of a god. He fails to see him, and just as a new hope finds shape within him, he must obey the conditions to which he is bound: with his own hand he must murder the thing he most loves, and purest pity must be punished by his sorrow. Then he begins to loathe power, which bears evil and bondage in its lap; his will is broken, and he himself begins to hanker for the end that threatens him from afar off. At this juncture something happens which had long been the subject of his most ardent desire: the free and fearless man appears, he rises in opposition to everything accepted and established, his parents atone for having been united by a tie which was antagonistic to the order of nature and usage; they perish, but Siegfried survives. And at the sight of his magnificent development and bloom, the loathing leaves otan’s soul, and he follows the hero’s history with the eye of fatherly love and anxiety. How he forges his sword, kills the dragon, gets possession of the ring, escapes the craftiest ruse, awakens Brunhilda; how the curse abiding in the ring gradually overtakes him; how, faithful in faithfulness, he wounds the thing he most loves, out of love; becomes enveloped in the shadow and cloud of guilt, and, rising out of it more brilliantly than the sun, ultimately goes down, firing the whole heavens with his burning glow and purging the world of the curse,—all this is seen by the god whose sovereign spear was broken in the contest with the freest man, and who lost his power through him, rejoicing greatly over his own defeat: full of sympathy for the triumph and pain of his victor, his eye burning with aching joy looks back upon the last events; he has become free through love, free from himself.
And now ask yourselves, ye generation of to-day, Was all this composed for you? Have ye the courage to point up to the stars of the whole of this heavenly dome of beauty and goodness and to say, This is our life, that Wagner has transferred to a place beneath the stars?
Where are the men among you who are able to interpret the divine image of Wotan in the light of their own lives, and who can become ever greater while, like him, ye retreat? Who among you would renounce power, knowing and having learned that power is evil? Where are they who like Brunhilda abandon their knowledge to love, and finally rob their lives of the highest wisdom, “afflicted love, deepest sorrow, opened my eyes"? and where are the free and fearless, developing and blossoming in innocent egoism? and where are the Siegfrieds, among you?
He who questions thus and does so in vain, will find himself compelled to look around him for signs of the future; and should his eye, on reaching an unknown distance, espy just that “people” which his own generation can read out of the signs contained in Wagnerian art, he will then also understand what Wagner will mean to this people—something that he cannot be to all of us, namely, not the prophet of the future, as perhaps he would fain appear to us, but the interpreter and clarifier of the past.
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