HAYDN AND HIS "CREATION"
It is a fact never to be forgotten, in hearing good papa Haydn's music, that he lived in the fine old world when stately men and women went through life in the grand manner with a languid pulse, when the earth and the days were alike empty, and hurry to get finished and proceed to the next thing was almost unknown, and elbowing of rivals to get on almost unnecessary. For fifty years he worked away contentedly as bandmaster to Prince Esterhazy, composing the due amount of music, conducting the due number of concerts, taking his salary of some seventy odd pounds per annum thankfully, and putting on his uniform for special State occasions with as little grumbling as possible, all as a good bandmaster should. He had gone through a short period of roughing it in his youth, and he had made one or two mistakes as he settled down. He married a woman who worked with enthusiasm to render his early life intolerable, and begged him in his old age to buy a certain cottage, as it would suit her admirably when she became a widow. But he consoled himself as men do in the circumstances, and did not allow his mistakes to poison all his life, or cause him any special worry. His other troubles were not very serious. A Music Society which he wished to join tried to trap him into an agreement to write important compositions for it whenever they were wanted. Once he offended his princely master by learning to play the baryton, an instrument on which the prince was a performer greatly esteemed by his retainers. Such teacup storms soon passed: Prince Esterhazy doubtless forgave him; the Society was soon forgotten; and Haydn worked on placidly. Every morning he rose with or before the lark, dressed himself with a degree of neatness that astonished even that neat dressing age, and sat down to compose music. Later in each day he is reported to have eaten, to have rehearsed his band or conducted concerts, and so to bed to prepare himself by refreshing slumber for the next day's labours. At certain periods of the year Prince Esterhazy and his court adjourned to Esterhaz, and at certain periods they came back to Eisenstadt: thus they were saved by due variety from utter petrifaction. Haydn seems to have liked the life, and to have thought moreover that it was good for him and his art. By being thrown so much back upon himself, he said, he had been forced to become original. Whether it made him original or not, he never thought of changing it until his prince died, and for a time his services were not wanted at Esterhaz or Eisenstadt. Then he came to England, and by his success here made a European reputation (for it was then as it is now—an artist was only accepted on the musical Continent after he had been stamped with the hall-mark of unmusical England). Finally he settled in Vienna, was for a time the teacher of Beethoven, declared his belief that the first chorus of the "Creation" came direct from heaven, and died a world-famous man.
To the nineteenth century mind it seems rather an odd life for an artist: at least it strikes one as a life, despite Haydn's own opinion, not particularly conducive to originality. To use extreme language, it might almost be called a monotonous and soporific mode of existence. Probably its chief advantage was the opportunity it afforded, or perhaps the necessity it enforced, of ceaseless industry. Certainly that industry bore fruit in Haydn's steady increase of inventive power as he went on composing. But he only took the prodigious leap from the second to the first rank of composers after he had been free for a time from his long slavery, and had been in England and been aroused and stimulated by new scenes, unfamiliar modes of life, and by contact with many and widely differing types of mind. Some of his later music makes one think that if the leap—a leap almost unparalleled in the history of art—had been possible twenty years sooner, Haydn might have won a place by the side of Mozart and Handel and Bach, instead of being the lowest of their great company. On the other hand, one cannot think of the man—lively, genial, kind-hearted, garrulous, broadly humorous, actively observant of details, careful in small money matters—and assert with one's hand on one's heart that he was cast in gigantic or heroic mould. That he had a wonderful facility in expressing himself is obvious in every bar he wrote: but it is less obvious that he had a great deal to express. He had deep, but not the deepest, human feeling; he could think, but not profoundly; he had a sense of beauty, delicate and acute out of all comparison with yours or mine, reader, but far less keen than Mozart's or Bach's. Hence his music is rarely comparable with theirs: his matter is less weighty, his form never quite so enchantingly lovely; and, whatever one may think of the possibilities of the man in his most inspired moments, his average output drives one to the reluctant conclusion that on the whole his life must have been favourable to him and enabled him to do the best that was in him. Yet I hesitate as I write the words. Remembering that he began as an untaught peasant, and until the end of his long life was a mere bandmaster with a small yearly salary, a uniform, and possibly (for I cannot recall the facts) his board and lodging, remembering where he found the symphony and quartet and where he left them, remembering, above all, that astonishing leap, I find it hard to believe in barriers to his upward path. It is in dignity and quality of poetic content rather than in form that Haydn is lacking. Had the horizon of his thought been widened in early or even in middle life by the education of mixing with men who knew more and were more advanced than himself, had he been jostled in the crowd of a great city and been made to feel deeply about the tragi-comedy of human existence, his experiences might have resulted in a deeper and more original note being sounded in his music. But we must take him as he is, reflecting, when the unbroken peacefulness of his music becomes a little tiresome, that he belonged to the "old time before us" and was never quickened by the newer modes of thought that unconsciously affected Mozart and consciously moulded Beethoven; and that, after all, his very smoothness and absence of passion give him an old-world charm, grateful in this hot and dusty age. If he was not greatly original, he was at least flawlessly consistent: there is scarce a trait in his character that is not reflected somewhere in his music, and hardly a characteristic of his music that one does not find quaintly echoed in some recorded saying or doing of the man. His placid and even vivacity, his sprightliness, his broad jocularity, his economy and shrewd business perception of what could be done with the material to hand, his fertility of device, even his commonplaceness, may all be seen in the symphonies. At rare moments he moves you strongly, very often he is trivial, but he generally pleases; and if some of the strokes of humour—quoted in text-books of orchestration—are so broad as to be indescribable in any respectable modern print, few of us understand what they really mean, and no one is a penny the worse.
The "Creation" libretto was prepared for Handel, but he did not attempt to set it; and this perhaps was just as well, for the effort would certainly have killed him. Of course the opening offers some fine opportunities for fine music; but the later parts with their nonsense—Milton's nonsense, I believe—about "In native worth and honour clad, With beauty, courage, strength, adorned, Erect with front serene he stands, A MAN, the Lord and King of Nature all," and the suburban love-making of our first parents, and the lengthy references to the habits of the worm and the leviathan, and so on, are almost more than modern flesh and blood can endure. It must be conceded that Haydn evaded the difficulties of the subject with a degree of tact that would be surprising in anyone else than Haydn. In the first part, where Handel would have been sublime, he is frequently nearly sublime, and this is our loss; but in the later portion, where Handel would have been solemn, earnest, and intolerably dull, he is light, skittish, good-natured, and sometimes jocular, and this is our gain, even if the gain is not great. The Representation of Chaos is a curious bit of music, less like chaos than an attempt to write music of the Bruneau sort a century too soon; but it serves. The most magnificent passage in the oratorio immediately follows, for there is hardly a finer effect in music than that of the soft voices singing the words, "And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters," while the strings gently pulse; and the fortissimo C major chord on the word "light," coming abruptly after the piano and mezzo-forte minor chords, is as dazzling in its brilliancy to-day as when it was first sung. The number of unisons, throwing into relief the two minor chords on C and F, should be especially noted. The chorus in the next number is poor, matched with this, though towards the end (see bars 11 and 12 from the finish) Haydn's splendid musicianship has enabled him to redeem the trivial commonplace with an unexpected and powerful harmonic progression. The work is singularly deficient in strong sustained choruses. "Awake the harp" is certainly very much the best; for "The heavens are telling" is little better than Gounod's "Unfold, ye everlasting portals" until the end, where it is saved by the tremendous climax; and "Achieved is the glorious work" is mostly mechanical, with occasional moments of life. As for the finale, it is of course light opera. On the whole the songs are the most delightful feature of the "Creation," and the freshness of "With verdure clad," and the tender charm of the second section of "Roaming in foaming billows," may possibly be remembered when Haydn is scarcely known except as an instrumental composer. The setting of "Softly purling, glides on, thro' silent vales, the limpid brook" is indeed perfect, the phrase at the repetition of "Thro' silent vales" inevitably calling up a vision, not of a valley sleeping in the sunlight, for of sunlight the eighteenth century apparently took little heed, but of a valley in the dark quiet night, filled with the scent of flowers, and the far-off murmur of the brook vaguely heard. The humour of the oratorio consists chiefly of practical jokes, such as sending Mr. Andrew Black (or some other bass singer) down to the low F sharp and G to depict the heavy beasts treading the ground, or making the orchestra imitate the bellow of the said heavy beasts, or depicting the sinuous motion of the worm or the graceful gamboling of the leviathan. It has been objected that the leviathan is brought on in sections. The truth, of course, is that the clumsy figure in the bass is not meant to depict the leviathan himself, but his gambolings and the gay flourishings of his tail. It is hard to sum up the "Creation," unless one is prepared to call it great and never go to hear it. It is not a sublime oratorio, nor yet a frankly comic oratorio, nor entirely a dull oratorio. After considering the songs, the recitatives, the choruses, in detail, it really seems to contain very little. Perhaps it may be described as a third-rate oratorio, whose interest is largely historic and literary.
MOZART, HIS "DON GIOVANNI" AND THE REQUIEM
It may well be doubted whether Vienna thought even so much of Capellmeister Mozart as Leipzig thought of Capellmeister Bach. Bach, it is true, was merely Capellmeister; he hardly dared to claim social equality with the citizens who tanned hides or slaughtered pigs; and probably the high personages who trimmed the local Serene Highness's toe-nails scarcely knew of his existence. Still, he was a burgher, even as the killers of pigs and the tanners of hides; he was thoroughly respectable, and probably paid his taxes as they came due; if only by necessity of his office, he went to church with regularity; and on the whole we may suppose that he got enough of respect to make life tolerable. But Mozart was only one of a crowd who provided amusement for a gay population; and a gay population, always a heartless master, holds none in such contempt as the servants who provide it with amusement. So Mozart got no respect from those he served, and his Bohemianism lost him the respect of the eminently respectable. He lived in the eighteenth century equivalent of a "loose set"; he was miserably poor, and presumably never paid his taxes; we may doubt whether he often went to church; he composed for the theatre; and he lacked the self-assertion which enabled Handel, Beethoven, and Wagner to hold their own. Treated as of no account, cheated by those he worked for, hardly permitted to earn his bread, he found life wholly intolerable, and as he grew older he lived more and more within himself and gave his thoughts only to the composition of masterpieces. The crowd of mediocrities dimly felt him to be their master, and the greater the masterpieces he achieved the more vehemently did Salieri and his attendants protest that he was not a composer to compare with Salieri. The noise impressed Da Ponte, the libretto-monger, and he asked Salieri to set his best libretto and gave Mozart only his second best; and thus by a curious irony stumbled into his immortality through sheer stupidity, for his second best libretto was "Don Giovanni"—of all possible subjects precisely that which a wise man would have given to Mozart. When Mozart laid down the pen after the memorable night's work in which he transferred the finished overture from his brain to the paper, he had written the noblest Italian opera ever conceived; and the world knew it not, yet gradually came to know. But the full fame of "Don Giovanni" was comparatively brief, and at this time there seems to be a hazy notion that its splendours have waned before the blaze of Wagner, just as the symphonies are supposed to have faded in the brilliant light of Beethoven. At lectures on musical history it is reverently spoken of; but it is seldom sung, and the public declines to go to hear it; and, though few persons are so foolish as to admit their sad case, I suspect that more than a few agree with the sage critic who told us not long since that Mozart was a little passe now. Is it indeed so? Well, Mozart lived in the last days of the old world, and the old world and the thoughts and sentiments of the old world are certainly a little passes now. But if you examine "Don Giovanni" you must admit that the Fifth and Ninth symphonies, "Fidelio," "Lohengrin," the "Ring," "Tristan," and "Parsifal" have done nothing to eclipse its glories, that while fresh masterpieces have come forth, "Don Giovanni" remains a masterpiece amongst masterpieces, that in a sense it is a masterpiece towards which all other masterpieces stand in the relation of commentaries to text. And though this, perhaps, is only to call it a link in a chain, yet it is curious to note how very closely other composers have followed Mozart, and how greatly they are indebted to him. Page upon page of the early Beethoven is written in the phraseology of the later Mozart; in nearly every bar of "Faust," not to mention "Romeo and Juliette," avowedly the fruit of a long study of "Don Giovanni," a faint echo of Mozart's voice comes to us with the voice of Gounod; Anna's cries, "Quel sangue, quella piaga, quel volto," with the creeping chromatic chords of the wood-wind, have the very accent of Isolda's '"Tis I, belov'd," and the solemn phrase that follows, in Tristan's death-scene. Apart from its influence on later composers, there is surely no more passionate, powerful, and moving drama in the world than "Don Giovanni." Despite the triviality of Da Ponte's book, the impetus of the music carries along the action at a tremendous speed; the moments of relief occur just when relief is necessary, and never retard the motion; the climaxes are piled up with incredible strength and mastery, and have an emotional effect as powerful as anything in "Fidelio" and equal to anything in Wagner's music-dramas; and most stupendous of all is the finale, with its tragic blending of the grotesque and the terrible. Or, if one considers detail, in no other opera do the characters depict themselves in every phrase they utter as they do in "Don Giovanni." The songs stamp Mozart as the greatest song-writer who has lived, with the exception of Handel, whose opera songs are immeasurably beyond all others save Mozart's, and a little beyond them. The mere musicianship is as consummate as Bach's, for, like Bach, Mozart possessed that facility which is fatal to many men, but combined with it a high sincerity, a greedy thirst for the beautiful, and an emotional force that prevented it being fatal to him. For delicacy, subtlety, due brilliancy, and strength, the orchestral colouring cannot be matched. And no music is more exclusively its own composer's, has less in it of other composers'. Beethoven is Beethoven plus Mozart, Wagner is Wagner plus Weber and Beethoven; but from every page of Mozart's scores Mozart alone looks at you, with sad laughter in his eyes, and unspeakable tenderness, the tenderness of the giants, of Handel, Bach, and Beethoven, though perhaps Mozart is tenderest of them all. He cannot write a comic scene for a poor clownish Masetto without caressing him with a divinely beautiful "Cheto, cheto, mi vo' star," and in presence of death or human distress the strangest, sweetest things fall from his lips. And finally, he is always the perfect artist without reproach; there is nothing wanting and nothing in excess; as he himself said on one occasion, his scores contain exactly the right number of notes. This is "Don Giovanni" as one may see it a century after its birth: a faultless masterpiece; yet (in England at least) it only gets an occasional performance, through the freak of a prima donna, who, as the sage critic said of Mozart, is undoubtedly "a little passee now."
After all, this is hardly surprising. Perfect art wants perfect listeners, and just now we are much too eager for excitement, too impatient of mere beauty, to listen perfectly to perfect music. And there are other reasons why "Don Giovanni" should not appeal to this generation. For many years it was the sport of the prima donna, and conductors and singers conspired to load it with traditional Costamongery, until at last the "Don Giovanni" we knew became an entirely different thing from the "Don Giovanni" of Mozart's thought. Not Giovanni but Zerlina was the principal figure; the climax of the drama was not the final Statue scene, but "Batti, batti"; Leporello's part was exaggerated until the Statue scene became a pantomime affair with Leporello playing pantaloon against Giovanni's clown. Such an opera could interest none but an Elephant and Castle audience, and probably only the beauty of the music prevented it reaching the Elephant and Castle long ago. So low had "Don Giovanni" fallen, when, quite recently, serious artists like Maurel tried to take it more seriously and restore it to its rightful place. Only, unfortunately, instead of brushing away traditions and going back to the vital conception of Mozart, they sought to modernise it, to convert it into an early Wagner music-drama. The result may be seen in any performance at Covent Garden. The thing becomes a hodge-podge, a mixture of drama, melodrama, the circus, the pantomime, with a strong flavouring of blatherskite. The opera is largely pantomime—it was intended by Mozart to be pantomime; and the only possible way of doing it effectively is to accept the pantomime frankly, but to play it with such force and sincerity that it is not felt to be pantomime. And the real finale should be sung afterwards. Probably many people would go off to catch their trains. But, after all, Mozart wrote for those who have no trains to catch when this masterpiece, the masterpiece of Italian opera, is sung as he intended it to be sung.
The Requiem is a very different work. There is plenty of the gaiety and sunshine of life in "Don Giovanni." The Requiem is steeped in sadness and gloom, with rare moments of fiery exaltation, or hysterical despair; at times beauty has been almost—almost, but never quite—driven from Mozart's thought by the anguish that tormented him as he wrote. While speaking of Bach's "Matthew" Passion, I have said it "was an appeal, of a force and poignancy paralleled only in the Ninth symphony, to the emotional side of man's nature ... the aesthetic qualities are subordinated to the utterance of an overwhelming emotion." Had I said "deliberately subordinated" I should have indicated the main difference as well as the main likeness between Bach's masterwork and Mozart's. The aesthetic qualities are subordinated to the expression of an overwhelming emotion in the Requiem, but not deliberately: unconsciously rather, perhaps even against Mozart's will. Bach set out with the intention of using his art to communicate a certain feeling to his listeners; Mozart, when he accepted the order for a Requiem from that mysterious messenger clad in grey, thought only of creating a beautiful thing. But he had lately found, to his great sorrow, that his ways were not the world's ways, and fraught with even graver consequences was the world's discovery that its ways were not Mozart's. Finding all attempts to turn him from his ways fruitless, the world fought him with contempt, ostracism, and starvation for weapons; and he lacked strength for the struggle. There had been a time when he could retire within himself and live in an ideal world of Don Giovannis and Figaros. But now body as well as spirit was over-wearied; spirit and body were not only tired but diseased; and when he commenced to work at the Requiem the time was past for making beautiful things, for his mind was preoccupied with death and the horror of death—the taste of death was already in his mouth. Had death come to him as to other men, he might have met it as other men do, heroically, or at least calmly, without loss of dignity. But it came to him coloured and made fearful by wild imaginings, and was less a thought than an unthinkable horror. He believed he had been poisoned, and Count Walsegg's grey-clad messenger seemed a messenger sent from another world to warn him of the approaching finish. As he said, he wrote the Requiem for himself. In it we find none of the sunshine and laughter of "Don Giovanni," but only a painfully pathetic record of Mozart's misery, his despair, and his terror. It is indeed a stupendous piece of art, and much of it surpassingly beautiful; but the absorbing interest of it will always be that it is a "human document," an autobiographical fragment, the most touching autobiography ever penned.
The pervading note of the whole work is struck at the beginning of the first number. Had Mozart seen death as Handel and Bach saw it, as the only beautiful completion of life, or even as the last opportunity given to men to meet a tremendous reality and not be found wanting, he might have written a sweetly breathed prayer for eternal rest, like the final chorus of the "Matthew" Passion, or given us something equal or almost equal to the austere grandeur of the Dead March in Saul. But he saw death differently, and in the opening bar of the "Requiem aeternam" we have only sullen gloom and foreboding, deadly fear begotten of actual foreknowledge of things to come. The discord at the fifth bar seems to have given him the relief gained by cutting oneself when in severe pain; and how intense Mozart's pain was may be estimated by the vigour of the reaction when the reaction comes; for though the "Te decet hymnus" is like a gleam of sweet sunshine on black waters, the melody is immediately snatched up, as it were, and, by the furious energy of the accompaniment, powerful harmonic progressions, and movement of the inner parts (note the tenor ascending to the high G on "orationem"), made expressive of abnormal glowing ecstasy. To know Mozart's mood when he wrote the Requiem is to have the key to the "Kyrie." His artistic sense compelled him to veil the acuteness of his agony in the strict form of a regular fugue; but here, as everywhere else in the Requiem, feeling triumphs over the artistic sense; and by a chromatic change, of which none but a Mozart or a Bach would have dreamed, the inexpressive formality of the counter-subject is altered into a passionate appeal for mercy. In no other work of Mozart known to me does he ever become hysterical, and in the Requiem only once, towards the end of this number, where the sopranos are whirled up to the high A, and tenors and altos strengthen the rhythm; and even here the pause, followed by that scholastic cadence, affords a sense of recovered balance, though we should observe that the raucous final chord with the third omitted is in keeping with the colour of the whole number, and not dragged in as a mere display of pedantic knowledge. The "Dies Irae" is magnificent music, but the effect is enormously intensified by Mozart first (in the "Kyrie") making us guess at the picture by the agitation of mind into which it throws him, and then suddenly opening the curtain and letting us view for ourselves the lurid splendours; and surely no more awful picture of the Judgment was ever painted than we have here in the "Dies Irae," "Tuba minim," "Rex tremendae," and the "Confutatis." The method of showing the obverse of the medal first, and then astonishing us with the sudden magnificence of the other side, is an old one, and was an old one even in Mozart's time, but he uses it with supreme mastery, and results that have never been equalled. The most astonishing part of the "Confutatis" is the prayer at the finish, where strange cadence upon cadence falls on the ear like a long-drawn sigh, and the last, longer drawn than the rest, "gere curam mei finis," followed by a hushed pause, is indeed awful as the silence of the finish. Quite as great is the effect of the same kind in the "Agnus Dei," which was either written by Mozart, or by Sussmayer with Mozart's spirit looking over him. Written by Mozart, the Requiem necessarily abounds in tender touches: the trebles at "Dona eis" immediately after their first entry; the altos at the same words towards the end of the number, and at the twenty-eighth bar of the "Kyrie"; the first part of the "Hostias," the "Agnus Dei," the wonderful "Ne me perdas" in the "Recordare." And if one wants sheer strength and majesty, turn to the fugue on "Quam olim Abrahae," or the C natural of the basses in the "Sanctus." But the prevailing mood is one of depressing sadness, which would become intolerable by reason of its monotony were it possible to listen to the Requiem as a work of art merely, and not as the tearful confessions of one of the most beautiful spirits ever born into the world.
As an enthusiastic lover of "Fidelio" I may perhaps be permitted to put one or two questions to certain other of its lovers. Is it an opera at all?—does it not consist of one wonderfully touching situation, padded out before and behind,—before with some particularly fatuous reminiscences of the old comedy of intrigue, behind with some purely formal business and a pompous final chorus? "Fidelio" exists by reason of that one tremendous scene: there is nothing else dramatic in it: however fine the music is, one cannot forget that the libretto is fustian and superfluous nonsense. Had Beethoven possessed the slightest genius for opera, had he possessed anything like Mozart's dramatic instinct (and of course his own determination to touch nothing but fitting subjects), he would have felt that no meaner story than the "Flying Dutchman" would serve as an opportunity to say all that was aroused in his heart and in his mind by the tale of Leonora. As he had no genius whatever for opera, no sense of the dramatic in life, the tale of Leonora seemed to him good enough; and, after all, in its essence it is the same as the tale of Senta. The Dutchman himself happens to be more interesting than Florestan because of his weird fate; but he is no more the principal character in Wagner's opera than Florestan is the principal character in Beethoven's opera. The principal character in each case is the woman who takes her fate into her own hands and fearlessly chances every risk for the sake of the man she loves. And just as Wagner wrote the best passage in the "Dutchman" for the moment when Senta promises to be faithful through life and death, so Beethoven in the prison scene of "Fidelio" wrote as tremendous a passage as even he ever conceived for the moment when Leonora makes up her mind at all costs to save the life of the wretched prisoner whose grave she is helping to dig. The tale is simple enough—there is scarcely enough of it to call a tale. Leonora's husband, Florestan, has somehow fallen into the power of his enemy Pizarro, who imprisons him and then says he is dead. Leonora disbelieves this, and, disguising herself as a boy and taking the name of Fidelio, hires herself as an assistant to Rocco, the jailer of the fortress in which Florestan is confined. At that time the news arrives that an envoy of the king is coming to see that no injustice is being done by Pizarro. Pizarro has been hoping to starve Florestan slowly to death; but now he sees the necessity of more rapid action. He therefore tells Rocco to dig a grave in Florestan's cell, and he himself will do the necessary murder. This brings about the great prison scene. Florestan lies asleep in a corner; Leonora is not sure whether she is helping to dig his grave or the grave of some other unlucky wretch; but while she works she takes her resolution—whoever he may be, she will risk all consequences and save him. Pizarro arrives, and is about to kill Florestan, when Leonora presents a pistol to his head; and, before he has quite had time to recover, a trumpet call is heard, signalling the arrival of the envoy. Pizarro knows the game is up, and Florestan that his wife has saved him. This, I declare, is the only dramatic scene in the play—here the thing ends: excepting it, there is no real incident. The business at the beginning, about the jailer's daughter refusing to have anything more to do with her former sweetheart, and falling in love with the supposed Fidelio, is merely silly; Rocco's song, elegantly translated in one edition, "Life is nothing without money"—Heaven knows whether it was intended to be humorous—is stupid; Pizarro's stage-villainous song of vengeance is unnecessary; the arrangement of the crime is a worry. These, and in fact all that comes before the great scene, are entirely superfluous, the purest piffle, very tiresome. Most exasperating of all is the stupid dialogue, which makes one hope that the man who wrote it died a painful, lingering death. But, in spite of it all, Beethoven, by writing some very beautiful music in the first act, and by rising to an astonishing height in the prison scene and the succeeding duet, has created one of the wonders of the music-world.
Being a glorification of woman—German woman, although Leonora was presumably Spanish—"Fidelio" has inevitably become in Germany the haus-frau's opera. Probably there is not a haus-frau who faithfully cooks her husband's dinner, washes for him, blacks his boots, and would even brush his clothes did he ever think that necessary, who does not see herself reflected in Leonora; probably every German householder either longs to possess her or believes that he does possess her. Consequently, just as Mozart's "Don Giovanni" became the playground of the Italian prima donna, so has "Fidelio" become the playground of that terrible apparition, the Wifely Woman Artist, the singer with no voice, nor beauty, nor manners, but with a high character for correct morality, and a pressure of sentimentality that would move a traction-engine. I remember seeing it played a few years ago, and can never forget a Leonora of sixteen stones, steadily singing out of tune, in the first act professing with profuse perspiration her devotion to her husband (whose weight was rather less than half hers), and in the second act nearly crushing the poor gentleman by throwing herself on him to show him that she was for ever his. A recent performance at Covent Garden, arranged specially, I understand, for Ternina, was not nearly so bad as that; but still Ternina scared me horribly with the enormous force of her Wifely Ardour. It may be that German women are more demonstrative than English women in public; but, for my poor part, too much public affection between man and wife always strikes me as a little false. Besides, the grand characteristic of Leonora is not that she loves her husband—lots of women do that, and manage to love other people's husbands also—but that, driven at first by affection and afterwards by purely human compassion, she is capable of rising to the heroic point of doing in life what she feels she must do. Of course she may have been an abnormal combination of the Wifely Woman with the heroic woman; but one cannot help thinking that probably she was not—that however strong her affection for Florestan, she would no sooner get him home than she would ask him how he came to be such a fool as to get into Pizarro's clutches. Anyhow, Ternina's conception of Leonora as a mixture of the contemptible will-less German haus-frau with the strong-willed woman of action, was to me a mixture of contradictions. Yet, despite all these things, the opera made the deep impression it does and always will make.
That impression is due entirely to the music and not to the drama. Dramatic music, in the sense that Mozart's music, and Wagner's, is dramatic, it is not. There is not the slightest attempt at characterisation—not even such small characterisation as Mozart secured in his "La ci darem," with Zerlina's little fluttering, agitated phrases. Nor, in the lighter portions, is there a trace of Mozart's divine intoxicating laughter, of the sweet sad laugh with which he met the griefs life brought him. There is none of Mozart's sunlight, his delicious, fresh, early morning sunlight, in Beethoven's music; when he wrote such a number as the first duet, intended to be gracefully semi-humorous, he was merely heavy, clumsy, dull. But when the worst has been said, when one has writhed under the recollection of an adipose prima donna fooling with bear-like skittishness a German tenor whose figure and face bewray the lager habit, when one has shuddered to remember the long-winded idiotic dialogue, the fact remains firmly set in one's mind that one has stood before a gigantic work of art—a work whose every defect is redeemed by its overwhelming power and beauty and pathos. There has never been, nor does it seem possible there ever will be, a finer scene written than the dungeon scene. It begins with the low, soft, throbbing of the strings, then there is the sinister thunderous roll of the double basses; then the old man quietly tells Leonora to hurry on with the digging of the grave, and Leonora replies (against that wondrous phrase of the oboes). After that, the old man continues to grumble; the dull threatening thunder of the basses continues; and Leonora, half terrified, tries to see whether the sleeping prisoner is her husband. Then abruptly her courage rises; her short broken phrases are abandoned; and to a great sweeping melody she declares that, whoever the prisoner may be, she will free him. These twenty bars are as great music as anything in the world: they even leave Senta's declaration in the "Dutchman" far behind; they are at once triumphant and charged with a pathos nearly unendurable in its intensity. The scene ends with a strange hushed unison passage like some unearthly chant: it is the lull before the breaking of the storm. The entry of Pizarro and the pistol business are by no means done as Wagner or Mozart would have done them. The music is always excellent and sometimes great, but persistently symphonic and not dramatic in character. However, it serves; and the strength of the situation carries one on until the trumpet call is heard, and then we get a wonderful tune such as neither Mozart nor Wagner could have written—a tune that is sheer Beethoven. The finale of the scene is neither here nor there; but in the duet between Leonora and Florestan we have again pure Beethoven. There is one passage—it begins at bar 32—which is the expression of the very soul of the composer; one feels that if it had not come his heart must have burst. I have neither space nor inclination to rehearse all the splendours of the opera, but may remind the reader of Florestan's song in the dungeon, Leonora's address to Hope, and the hundred other fine things spread over it. It is symphonic, not dramatic, music; but it is at times unspeakably pathetic, at times full of radiant strength, and always an absolutely truthful utterance of sheer human emotion. Wagner hit exactly the word when he spoke of the truthful Beethoven: here is no pose, no mere tone-weaving, but the precise and most poignant expression of the logical course taken by the human passions.
Excepting during his lifetime and for a period of some thirty years after his death, Schubert cannot be said to have been neglected; and last year there was quite an epidemic of concerts to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of his birth. Centenary celebrations are often a little disconcerting. They remind one that a composer has been dead either a much shorter or a much longer time than one supposed; and one gets down Riemann's "Musical Dictionary" and realises with a sigh that the human memory is treacherous. Who, for instance, that is familiar with Schubert's music can easily believe that it is a hundred years since the composer was born and seventy since he died? It is as startling to find him, as one might say, one of the ancients as it is to remember that Spohr lived until comparatively recent times; for whereas Spohr's music is already older than Beethoven's, older than Mozart's, in many respects quite as old as Haydn's, much of Schubert's is as modern as Wagner's, and more modern than a great deal that was written yesterday. This modernity will, I fancy, be readily admitted by everyone; and it is the only one quality of Schubert's music which any two competent people will agree to admit. Liszt had the highest admiration for everything he wrote; Wagner admired the songs, but wondered at Liszt's acceptance of the chamber and orchestral music. Sir George Grove outdoes Liszt in his Schubert worship; and an astonishing genius lately rushed in, as his kind always does, where Sir George would fear to tread, boldly, blatantly asserting that Schubert is "the greatest musical genius that the Western world has yet produced." On the other hand, Mr. G. Bernard Shaw out-Wagners Wagner in denunciation, and declares the C symphony childish, inept, mere Rossini badly done. Now, I can understand Sir George Grove's enthusiasm; for Sir George to a large extent discovered Schubert; and disinterested art-lovers always become unduly excited about any art they have discovered: for example, see how excited Wagner became about his own music, how rapt Mr. Dolmetsch is in much of the old music. But I can understand Wagner's attitude no better than I can the attitude of Mr. Shaw. I should like to have met Wagner and have said to him, "My dear Richard, this disparaging tone is not good enough: where did you get the introduction to 'The Valkyrie'?—didn't that long tremolo D and the figure in the bass both come out of 'The Erl-king'? has your Spear theme nothing in common with the last line but one of 'The Wanderer'? or—if it is only the instrumental music you object to—did you learn nothing for the third act of 'The Valkyrie' from the working-out of the Unfinished Symphony? did you know that Schubert had used your Mime theme in a quartet before you? do you know that I could mention a hundred things you borrowed from Schubert? Go to, Richard: be fair." Having extinguished Richard thus, and made his utter discomfiture doubly certain by handing him a list of the hundred instances, I should turn to Mr. Shaw and say, "My good G.B.S., you understand a good deal about politics and political economy, Socialism, and Fabians, painting and actors [and so on, with untrue and ill-natured remarks ad lib.], but evidently you understand very little about Schubert. That 'Rossini crescendo' is as tragic a piece of music as ever was written." Yet, after dismissing the twain in this friendly manner, I should have an uneasy feeling that there was some good reason for their lack of enthusiasm for Schubert. The very fact of there being such wide disagreement about the value of music that is now so familiar to us all, points to some weakness in it which some of us feel less than others; and I, poor unhappy mortal, who in my unexcited moments neither place Schubert among the highest gods, like Liszt and Sir George Grove, nor damn him cordially, like Wagner and Mr. Shaw, cannot help perceiving that along with much that is magnificently strong, distinguished, and beautiful in his music, there is much that is pitiably weak, and worse than commonplace. The music is like the man—the oddest combination of greatness and smallness that the world has seen. Like Wagner and Beethoven, Schubert was strong enough to refuse to earn an honest living; yet he yielded miserably to publishers when discussing the number of halfpence he should receive for a dozen songs. He had energy enough to go on writing operas, but apparently not intelligence to see that his librettos were worth setting, or to ensure that anything should come of them when they were set. He thought, rightly or wrongly, that he needed more counterpoint, yet continued to compose symphonies and masses without it, vaguely intending to the very end to take lessons from a sound teacher. He had spirit enough to fall in love (so far as stories may be relied on), but not to make the lady promise to marry him, nor yet resolutely to cure himself of his affliction. He had courage to face the truth, as he saw it, and he found life bitter, and not worth enduring; yet he could not renounce it, like Beethoven, nor end it as others have done. As in actual life, so in his music; having once started anything, he seemed quite unable to make up his mind to fetch it to a conclusion. He was like a man who lets himself roll down a hill because it is easier to keep on rolling than to stop. He repeats his melodies interminably, and then draws a double bar and sets down the two fatal dots which mean that all has to be played again. If the repeat had not been a favourite resort of lazy composers before his time he would have invented it, not because he was lazy, but because he wanted to go on and could not afford infinite music-paper. Hence his music at its worst is the merest drivel ever set down by a great composer; hence at anything but its best it lacks concentrated passion and dramatic intensity; more than any other composer's it has one prevailing note, a note of deepest melancholy; and therefore, when a few pieces are known, most of the rest seem barren of what is wanted by those who seek chiefly in music the expression of all the human passions.
Of his lengthiness, his discursiveness, Schubert might possibly have been cured, but not of his melancholy: it is the very essence of his music, as it was of his being. "The Wanderer" is his typical song: he was himself the wanderer, straying disconsolately, helplessly, hopelessly through a strange, chilly, unreal world, singing the saddest and sometimes the sweetest songs that ever entered the ears of men. That his home and his happiness lay close at hand counts for nothing; for he did not and could not know that he was the voice of the eighteenth century, worn out and keenly sensible of the futility of the purely intellectual life. Even had he arrived at a consciousness of the truth that the cure for his despair lay in throwing over the antiquated forms, modes, and ideas of the eighteenth century and living a nineteenth century life, free and conscienceless in nature's way, he would have been little better off; for the tendencies of many generations remained strong in him; and besides, had he the physical energy for a free, buoyant, joyous existence, was he not physiologically unfit for happiness? He lived with an ever-present consciousness of his impotence to satisfy his deepest needs. He was even destitute of that sense of the immeasurable good to come which of old time found expression in the fiction of a personal immortality, and in the nineteenth century in the complacent acceptance of full and vigorous life, with death as a noble and fitting close. Life and death alike were tragic, because hopeless, to Schubert. His career, if career it can be called, is infinitely touching. His helplessness moves one to pity, odd though it seems that one in some ways so strong should also in so many ways be so weak; and his death was as touching as his life. Of all the composers he met death with least heroism. Mozart, it is true, shrieked hysterically; but death to his diseased mind was merely an indescribable horror; and the fact of his hysteria proves his revolt against fate. Beethoven, during a surgical operation shortly before the end, saw the stream of water and blood flowing from him, and found courage to say, "Better from the belly than the pen;" and as he lay dying and a thunderstorm broke above the house, he threatened it with his clenched fist. Schubert learnt that he was to die, and turned his face to the wall and did not speak again. It is hard to say whether his music was sadder when he sang of death than when he sang of life. Even in his rare moments of good spirits one catches stray echoes of his prevailing note, and realises how completely his despair dominated him. He could not sing of love or fighting or of the splendours of nature without betraying his deep conviction of the futility of all created things. It is characteristic that his major melodies should often be as sad and wailing as his minor, and that his scherzos and other movements, in which he has deliberately set out to be light-hearted, should often be ponderous and without the nervous energy he manifests when he gives his familiar feelings free play.
Despite its incessant plaintive accent, his music is saved by the endless flow of melody, often lovely, generally characteristic, though sometimes common, in which Schubert continually expressed anew his one mood; and he was placed among the great ones by the miraculous facility he possessed of extemporising frequent passages of extraordinary power and bigness. At least half of his songs are poor—for a composer capable of rising to such heights; but of the remainder at least half are nearly equal to any songs in the world for sweetness, strength, and accurate expressiveness, while a few approach so close to Handel's and Mozart's that affection for the composer presses one hard to put them on the same level. But, compared with those high standards, Schubert, even at his best, is unmistakably felt to be second-rate, while his average—always comparing it with the highest—cannot truly be said to be more than fourth-rate. That he stands far above Mendelssohn and Schumann, and perhaps a little above Weber, almost goes without saying; for those composers have no more of the great style, the style of Handel and Mozart, and Bach and Beethoven at their finest, than Schubert, and they lack the lovely irresistibly moving melody and the bigness. But it must be recognised that Schubert never rose to a style of sustained grandeur and dignity; he was always colloquial, paying in this the penalty for the extreme facility with which he composed ("I compose every morning, and when I have finished one thing I commence something fresh"). Compose is scarcely the word to use: he never composed in the ordinary sense of the word; he extemporised on paper. Even when he re-wrote a song, it meant little more than that, dissatisfied with his treatment of a theme, he tried again. He never built as, for instance, Bach and Beethoven built, carefully working out this detail, lengthening this portion, shearing away that, evolving part from part so that in the end the whole composition became a complete organism. There is none of the logic in his work that we find in the works of the tip-top men, none of the perfect finish; but, on the contrary, a very considerable degree of looseness, if not of actual incoherence, and many marks of the tool and a good deal of the scaffolding. But, in spite of it all, the greatness of many of his movements seems to me indisputable. In a notice of "The Valkyrie," Mr. Hichens once very happily spoke of the "earth-bigness" of some of the music, and this is the bigness I find in Schubert at his best and strongest. When he depicts the workings of nature—the wind roaring through the woods, the storm above the convent roof, the flash of the lightning, the thunderbolt—he does not accomplish it with the wonderful point and accuracy of Weber, nor with the ethereal delicacy of Purcell, but with a breadth, a sympathy with the passion of nature, that no other composer save Wagner has ever attained to. He views natural phenomena through a human temperament, and so infuses human emotion into natural phenomena, as Wagner does in "The Valkyrie" and "Siegfried." The rapidly repeated note, now rising to a roar and now falling to a subdued murmur, in "The Erl-king" was an entirely new thing in music; and in "The Wanderer" piano fantasia, the working-out of the Unfinished symphony, and even in some of the chamber music, he invented things as fresh and as astounding. And when he is simply expressing himself, as at the beginning of the Unfinished, and in the first and last movements of the big C symphony, he often does it on the same large scale. The second subject of the C symphony finale, with its four thumps, seems to me to become in its development, and especially in the coda, all but as stupendous an expression of terror as the music in the last scene of "Don Giovanni," where Leporello describes the statue knocking at the door. In short, when I remember Schubert's grandest passages, and the unspeakable tenderness of so many of his melodies, it is hard to resist the temptation to cancel all the criticism I have written and to follow Sir George Grove in placing Schubert close to Beethoven.
WEBER AND WAGNER
There are critics, I suppose, prepared to insist that Weber, like Mozart, is a little passe now. And it is true that no composer, save Mozart, is at once so widely accepted and so seldom heard; for even Bach is more frequently played and less generally praised. At rare intervals Richter, Levi, or Mottl play his overtures; the pieces for piano and orchestra are occasionally dragged out to display the prowess of a Paderewski or a Sauer; and one or another of the piano sonatas sometimes finds its way into a Popular Concert programme. But the pieces thus made familiar to the public may be counted on one's ten fingers; and the operas are scarcely sung at all, though they contain the finest music that Weber wrote. The composers who have lived since Weber, even if they differed on every other subject and did not agree as to the value of his instrumental music, united to sing a common song in praise of the operas. Indeed, so enthusiastic were they, that after listening to them anyone who does not know his Weber well may easily experience a certain disappointment on looking carefully for the first time at the scores of "Der Freischuetz," "Oberon," and "Euryanthe"; and it is perhaps because they have experienced that disappointment, that some critics whose opinions are worth considering have come to think that a faith in Weber is nothing more than a part of the creed learned by every honest Wagnerite at the Master's knee. But it need be nothing so foolish, so baseless If you look, and look rightly, for the right thing in Weber's music, disappointment is impossible; though I admit that the man who professes to find there the great qualities he finds in Mozart, Beethoven, or any of the giants, must be in a very sad case. Grandeur, pure beauty, and high expressiveness are alike wanting. You look as vainly for such touches as the divine last dozen bars "Or sai chi l'onore" in "Don Giovanni," or the deep emotion of the sobbing bass at "the first fruits of them that sleep" in "I know that my Redeemer liveth," as for the stately splendour of "Come and thank Him" in the "Christmas Oratorio," or the passion of "Tristan." His music never develops in step with the movement of the drama he treats: if he writes a tragic scene, he is apt to commence with a scream; and if he is not at his best, then the scream may degenerate into a whimper before the moment for the climax has arrived. Like Spohr, with whom he had much in common, despite the difference between his mercurial temperament and the pedagogic gravity of the composer of "The Last Judgment," he set great store upon his learning, and was fond of trivial themes that admitted of obvious contrapuntal treatment. Even when he avoided that failing, his music is often uncouth and ponderous, while on its surface lies a superfluous, highly-coloured froth. The basses move with leaden-footed reluctance; the melodies consist largely of ineffective arpeggios on long-drawn chords; the embroidery seems greatly in excess of modest needs. All this may be conceded without affecting Weber's claim to a place amongst the composers; for that claim is supported in a lesser degree by the gifts which he shared, even if his share was small, with the greater masters of music, than by his miraculous power of vividly drawing and painting in music the things that kindled his imagination. Drawing and painting, I say; for whereas the other musicians sang the emotions that they experienced, Weber's music gives you the impression that he depicted the things he saw, that melody and harmony were to him as lines and colours to the painter. He is first, and perhaps greatest, of all the musicians who have attempted landscape; and that froth of seemingly superfluous colour and excess of melodic embroidery, instead of being in excess and superfluous, are the very essence of his music. Being a factor of the Romantic movement, that mighty rebellion against the tyranny of a world of footrules and ledgers, he lived and worked in a world where two and two might make five or seven or any number you pleased, and where footrules were unknown; he took small interest in drama taken out of the lives of ordinary men and enacted amidst everyday surroundings; his imagination lit up only when he thought of haunted glens and ghouls and evil spirits, the fantastic world and life that goes on underneath the ocean, or of men or women held by ghastly spells. Hence his operas are not so much musical dramas as series of tableaux, gorgeous glowing pictures of unheard-of things; in them we must expect only to find the elfish, the fantastic, the wild and weird and grotesquely horrible; and to look for drama, captivating loveliness, and emotional utterance, is to look for qualities which Weber did not try to attain, or only in a small measure and not very successfully. And if we consider carefully the remarks of the best critics amongst the later masters, Berlioz and Wagner, we can see that they knew Weber had not attained these high qualities,—that what they grew enthusiastic over was his astonishing pictorial gift, shown, first, in the pictures his imagination presented to him, and second, in the way he projected those pictures on to the music-paper before him, using the common musician's devices of his day to suggest line, colour, space, and atmosphere.
The precise provocation of this essay was a certain performance of "Lohengrin." During the first act the drama proceeded with charming, almost Mozartean, smoothness; and I was surprised to find that the smoother it went the more irresistibly the music reminded me of Weber, until I remembered that "Lohengrin" is Wagner's most Weberish opera, and that in his youth Wagner heard Weber sung, not as he is sung now—that is, like an early Wagner music-drama—but as Weber intended it to be sung, like a later Mozart opera. For Weber stood very near to Mozart, modern as he often seems. He was born before Mozart died; he worshipped him, and absolutely refused to speak to Salieri because Salieri had been Mozart's enemy; and it is easy to see, when once we rid ourselves of the idea that he was a rudimentary music-dramatist, that in his music he adhered as closely to Mozartean simplicity as his very different genius would permit. Perhaps, after all, it is his greatest glory that he is the connecting link between Mozart and Wagner, between the greatest composer born into the eighteenth century and the greatest born into the nineteenth; for the musical-pictorial art which he evolved from Mozart's technique was used by Wagner with only the slightest modifications in the making of his music-dramas. But whereas Weber was a factor in the Romantic movement when it was most magnificently unreasonable, Wagner came later, and, though he felt the force of the current, it did not carry him into the absurdities that weaken—for they do weaken—much of Weber's work. Wagner has been described as Weber, as Weber might have become; but the truth is that he was Weber's younger brother, who took Weber's art and used it to nobler ends with a degree of intellect, dramatic power, invention, and passion which Weber did not possess. To Weber the scenery was the important thing, and humanity almost seemed to be dragged in because the human voice was indispensable; but Wagner, going back to Mozart, restored humanity to its proper place, thus making his opera into real drama, and kept the fantastic creatures who haunted Weber's woods and glens and streams only as emblems of the natural forces that war for or against humanity. Above all, he got rid of Weber's stage villains—for Samiel is merely the stage villain of commerce; and, instead of the dusk and shadow in which Weber's fancy loved to roam, he gives us sunlight and the sweet air. "Lohengrin" is full of sunlight and freshness; full, too, of a finer mystery than ever Weber dreamed of—the mystery with which the most delicate German imagination invested the broad rivers that flowed through the black forests from some far-away land of unchangeable stillness and beauty, some "land of eternal dawn," as Wagner calls it. No more Mozartean music is in existence, save Mozart's own, than that first act of "Lohengrin," where Wagner, by dint of being Weberish, came nearer to Mozart than ever Weber came; for Weber never wrote anything which, regarded as absolute music, apart from its emotional significance, or the picture it suggests to the inner eye, is so purely beautiful as, for instance, the bit of chorus sung after Lohengrin concludes his little arrangement with Elsa. Both the first and the second acts are full of such melodies, any two of which would prove Wagner to be the greatest melody-writer of the century; and those critics who say that Verdi is greater because his melodies are more like Mozart's in form, would have said, had they lived last century, that Salieri was greater than Mozart because Salieri's melodies were more like Hasse's in form. Perhaps the last act might be quite as exquisite on the stage, for it is even more exquisite in the score; but that we shall not know until our operatic singers abandon their vanity and their melodrama, and by reading an occasional book, and sometimes going out into the world, learn how much they themselves would gain if they always worked with artistic sincerity.
ITALIAN OPERA, DEAD AND DYING
All art forms are conventions, and all conventions appear ridiculous when they are superseded by new ones. The old Italian opera form is laughed at to-day as an absurdity by Wagnerians, who see nothing absurd in a many-legged monster with a donkey's head uttering deep bass curses through a speaking-trumpet; and perhaps to-morrow the Wagnerian music-drama and the many-legged monsters will be laughed at by the apostles of a new and equally absurd convention. It is absolutely the first condition of the existence of an art that one shall be prepared to tolerate things ludicrously unlike anything to be found in real life; and when (for instance) you have swallowed the camel of allowing the heroes and heroines to sing their woes at all, it is a little foolish to strain at the gnat of permitting them to sing in this rather than in that way, when both ways are alike preposterous. It is not, therefore, on the score of its inherent absurdity that I should throw brickbats at Italian opera, any more than with the female dress of to-day before my eyes I should insist that the women who wore the fashions of ten years ago were only fit to be incarcerated in a lunatic asylum; knowing, as I do, that the dress of ten years ago was not—and could not be—more absurd than the dress of to-day. The only reasonable objection that can be brought against Italian opera is that when it is sincere it offers what no one wants, and that when it tries to offer what everyone wants it is not sincere. I cannot quite understand what this means, but will endeavour to explain.
Italian opera was moulded to its present form chiefly by Gluck, before whose time it was less irrational than it became later. In the beginning it was music-drama of a pedantic kind; then it served as the opportunity for setting singers to deliver a series of beautiful songs for the delectation of an audience largely seated in the wings; and finally Gluck, with his immense dramatic instinct and lack of lyrical invention, saw that by securing a story worth the telling, and telling it well, and inserting songs and concerted pieces only in situations where strong feelings demanded expression, and making his songs truthful expressions of those feelings, a form might be created which would enable him to lever out the best that was in him. Of these three periods of opera, the second was the luckiest; for then the form entirely fulfilled its purpose. The sole function of the story was to provide a motive for song after song; so that no one was scandalised or moved to laughter when the death of the hero was re-enacted because his death-song pleased the audience, or when the telling of the story was interrupted on any other equally ridiculous pretext. The characters were the merest puppets, or shadows of puppets; and there was no reason why Julius Caesar should not be a male soprano and sing charmingly feminine florid airs. In a word, there was no drama nor pretence of drama in the old Italian form; and those who can accept it as it is will find in many old Italian writers some perfect music of its sort, and in the Italian operas of Handel the divinest songs ever written—songs even more divine than Mozart's. But the childish delight in lovely melodies and in absolute perfection of vocal art, at its highest in the early part of the eighteenth century, died out rapidly after 1750; and Italian opera became the medium of the vulgarest instead of the most refined kind of ear-tickling. How Gluck rebelled, and determined to "reform" the opera stage, and how in reforming it he was impelled to a large extent by a desire to find a medium through which he could express himself, are matters well enough known to everyone nowadays. Like every other teacher, he left no disciples; for Mozart, the next master of Italian opera, was a hundred thousand miles away from him in intention, in method, and in achievement. He commenced where Gluck ended his pre-Reformation period; and all his life his intention was to please first, and only in the second place to express himself. But so splendid were his gifts, so inevitably did he fit the lovely word to the thrilling thought, so lucky was he in the libretto of "Don Giovanni" (the luckiest libretto ever devised), that he went clean ahead not only of Gluck but of Beethoven and every composer who has written opera since.
His operas stand at the parting of the ways. In them we find the fullest measure of dramatic truth combined with the most delicious ear-tickling. But it is safe to say that Mozart is the only composer of Italian operas who ever succeeded in combining the two things thus, for in Gluck there is short measure of sheer beauty, and in Handel—who used the oldest form—no attempt at drama. Mozart, like Gluck, had no disciples—only the second-rate men have disciples; but their example, and the tendency which they represented, had a curious result. Before their time all opera-writers had been avowed ear-ticklers. But after them, and especially after Mozart, the old line of composers may be observed to have split up into two lines, the one doing the old ear-tickling business, the other trying to express dramatic movement, and their thought and feeling, in the old medium. The first of these lines has not been broken to this day: Rossini came, and, after Rossini, Donizetti, Auber, Bellini, Meyerbeer, and the rest; and ear-tickler follows ear-tickler unto this day. The second line in its turn quickly split into those who, not content with the form, sought to alter it, and those who, quite content with it, went gaily on, turning out opera after opera, dealing with modern subjects in the old-fashioned way. Of these last Gounod must be reckoned the chief; and he began, not where Mozart left off, but with the Mozartean method of the "Don Giovanni" period. Now, it is of the very essence of the Italian opera of the Gluck-cum-Mozart model that it enables a composer to represent moments. The drama does not unfold gradually, as it does in the music-play, with its continuous flow of music marking the subtlest changes. It unfolds in jerks, each number advancing it a stage; so that Gluck never got any appearance of continuity whatever, while Mozart got it only by the consummate tact with which he arranged his pictures, and by the exciting pace at which he passes them before us. The figures seem to move, as in the Kinetoscope, or its forerunner the Wheel of Life: the Mozartean opera, when most dramatic, is a musical Wheel of Life. Gounod possessed neither Mozart's tact nor his fiery energy. Neither was called for in "Faust," which is not a drama, but a series of scenes, of crucial moments, from a drama; and since the moments were moments charged with the one feeling which Gounod appears to have felt very strongly or to have had the faculty for expressing, he is here at his very best. There was nothing spiritual in love as Gounod knew it—it was purely animal, though delicately animal; and Marguerite remains, and will remain, as the final expression of the most refined and voluptuous form of sensuality. What he had done in "Faust" he attempted to do again, with sundry differences, in "Romeo and Juliet"; and here the method which had served him so faithfully and so well in "Faust" utterly broke down. In "Faust" there were virtually but two characters, Faust and Marguerite, while in "Romeo" the stage was encumbered with Tybalt, Capulet, Mercutio, Laurent; and what would have been Mozart's opportunity was his undoing. He could give none of them pungent or characteristic language; they are the merest Italian operatic puppets; and it is only when they are off the stage that the opera shows any signs of life. In the story of "Romeo" the passion is of a far more fiery quality than in that of "Faust"; and whereas in "Faust" the passion, once aroused, remains at an even level until the finale, where it becomes a little more intense, in "Romeo" it is passion which gradually amounts to a tremendous climax in the Balcony scene, and in the Bedroom scene is strangely blended with chilly forebodings of death. The Mozartean method did not permit Gounod to depict these metamorphoses and blendings of feeling. Mozart himself would have been hard pressed to do it; and, for want of the only method that might have enabled Gounod to do it,—the Wagnerian method of continuous development of typical themes,—the unfolding of the drama hangs fire in every scene, not a scene ends at a higher pitch of feeling than it began. The last scene of all, the scene where a more sincere composer would have made his most stupendous effect, demanded at least sympathy with emotions for which Gounod at no time showed the slightest sympathy. He could give us the erotic fervour with which Romeo looks death in the eyes, but the mood preceding and indeed leading up to that fervour he could not give us—the mood which finds the world barren, ugly, and so repellent that death itself appears beautiful by comparison, the mood to which Christianity makes its strongest appeal. But it was not the subject which led to Gounod's failure in "Romeo and Juliet." He failed in every opera excepting "Faust," and he failed because, lacking perfect sincerity and perfect knowledge of his own powers, he endeavoured to express feelings he had never experienced, in a form which he would have felt at once to be inadequate had he experienced them for ever so brief a moment. As Gounod failed in "Romeo," and failed in every other opera, so every modern composer who tries to treat dramatic subjects in the old undramatic form has failed, and will fail. The Italian opera was well enough for the purpose it was devised to serve; but as soon as composers seek to put strenuous action, elaborately worked-out situations, and the gradual growth and change of human passion into it, we feel that there must be a lack of artistic sincerity somewhere. Italian opera may offer all these things, the things that the age wants in its opera, but it can never be sincere in offering them, and art is the one place where insincerity is intolerable.
But those who have heard "Romeo and Juliet" may possibly prefer even the insincere and unsatisfactory form of Italian opera which it represents to the perfectly sincere and perfectly satisfactory kind represented, say, by "La Favorita." For, as I said, when Italian opera is sincere it offers what no one wants—ear-tickling, and ear-tickling, moreover, of a sort which is gone completely out of fashion. Donizetti was a genuine descendant of the true line of opera-composers upon whom Gluck laid his curse, and he spent his life in devising pleasant noises to make his patrons' evenings pass agreeably. I cannot believe that anyone ever yet understood what "La Favorita" is all about, or that anyone ever wanted to understand. It is a series of songs of the inanest and insanest sort, without a single expressive bar, or a single tone-pattern which is beautiful regarded simply as a pattern. Even the famous "Spirito Gentil" is merely a stream of the brackish water that flowed, day and night, from Donizetti's pen, only it happens to be a little clearer than usual. But those tunes, so feeble and insipid now, pleased the ears of the time when Lord Steyne went to the opera for a momentary respite from boredom and to recruit his harem from the ballet corps; and Donizetti wrote them with no intention of posing as a grand composer, but simply as a humble purveyor of sweetmeats. In those days there was no music-hall, and the opera had to serve its purpose: hence the slight confusion which results in Donizetti, poor soul, being thought a better man than Mr. Jacobi is thought at the present time, although Mr. Jacobi cannot have less than a thousand times Donizetti's brains and invention. Mr. Jacobi's music is capital in its place; but I doubt whether it will be revived fifty years hence; and but for the fact that Donizetti was an opera-composer—and Mozart and Gluck were opera-composers too!—it is pretty certain that not the united prayers of Patti, Albani, Melba, and Eames would induce any operatic management to resurrect "La Favorita." Even up-to-date ear-tickling is not popular now in the opera-house: we go to the music-hall for it; and we don't want to pay a guinea at the opera to be tickled in a way that arouses no pleasurable sensations. Those terrific tonic and dominant passages for the trombones, sounding like the furious sawing of logs of wood, only make us laugh; and pretty tootlings of the flutes have long been done better, and overdone, elsewhere. Donizetti is amongst the dead whom no resurrection awaits.
VERDI YOUNG, AND VERDI YOUNGER
And first, for the sake of chronology, Verdi younger. "La Traviata" was produced in 1853, says the learned Grove, which I have consulted on the point, and "Aida" not till 1871. And though Verdi was not young, for an ordinary man, in 1871, he was very young indeed for the composer of "Falstaff" and "Otello"; while in the "Traviata" period one can scarcely say he was doing more than cutting his teeth, and not his wisdom teeth. One finds it difficult to understand how ever the thing came to be tolerated by musicians. Of course the desire to find a counter-blast to Wagner has done much for Verdi; but while one can understand how Dr. Stanford and others hoped to sweep away "Parsifal" with "Otello" and "Falstaff," it is not so easy to see what on earth they proposed to do with "Traviata." It won fame and cash for its composer in the old days when people went to the opera for lack of the music-hall, not yet invented; when Costa still lorded it not over living musical London merely, but over all the deceased masters, and without compunction added trombones to Mozart's scores, and defiled every masterwork he touched with his unspeakable Costamongery; when Wagner was either unheard of or regarded as a dangerous lunatic and immoral person; and it shows every sign of having been written to please the opera-goers of those days. Curiously, the critics of the time, in the words of the "Daily Telegraph," saw in "the Bayreuth master another form of Bunyan's man with the muck-rake," who "never sought to disguise the garbage he found in the Newgate Calendar of Mythland, or set his imagination to invent," and they were disgusted, also like the "Daily Telegraph," by "approaching incest" in "The Valkyrie"; yet they saw no harm whatever in the charming story of "Traviata"—the story of a harlot who reforms to the extent of retaining only one lover of her many, and who dies of consumption when that one's father does his best to drive her out upon the streets again by making her give up his son. Far from condemning the story myself, I am glad Verdi or his employers had the courage to go boldly to Dumas for it; only, let us be cautious how we condemn the morality of other opera-stories while praising the immorality of this. Let us see how Verdi has handled it. The opera is built after the same hybrid model as Gounod's "Romeo"; it is neither frankly the old Italian opera, existing for the sake of its songs, nor the later form in which the songs exist for the sake of the drama, but an attempt to combine the songs with the continuous working out of a dramatic impulse in the modern manner. But the attempt is far less successful than in "Romeo"; and indeed it is a faint-hearted one. Whenever a song occurs, the action is suspended, and all the actors save the lucky vocalist of the minute are at their wits' end to know where to look, and what to do with their hands, feet—their whole persons in fact—and the parts they are playing. And the songs are far from being expressive of the feeling of the situation that is supposed to call them up. The drinking tune in the first act is lively and appropriate enough; and not much more can be said against Violetta's song, "Ah! fors' e lui," than that while rather pretty its endless cadenzas are more than rather absurd. But in the next act Alfredo sings of the dream of his life to a pretty melody until he is interrupted by his sweetheart's maid, who tells him that his joy is at an end, and then he howls "O mio rimorso" to a march-tune of the rowdiest kind. Equally undramatic, untrue, false in feeling, are the sentimental ditties sung by Alfredo's father. The last act is best; but I must say that I have always found it a tedious business to watch Albani die of consumption. At the production of the piece, a soprano who must have looked quite as healthy played Violetta, and it is recorded that, when the doctor told how rapidly she was wasting away and announced her speedy decease, the theatre broke into uproarious merriment. I respect Madame Albani too highly to break into uproarious merriment at her pretence of consumption; but no one is better pleased when the business is over, although the music is more satisfactory here than in any other portion of the opera. Anyone who has sat at night with a friend down with toothache or cholera will recognise the atmosphere of the sickroom at once. But it is not pleasant enough to atone for the rest of the opera. For, to sum up, there is small interest in the drama, and, on the whole, smaller beauty in the music, of "La Traviata." It was made, as bonnets were made, to sell in the fifties; like the bonnets sold in the fifties, it is hopelessly out of date now; and it wants the inherent vitality that keeps the masterworks alive after the fashion in which they were written has passed away. The younger Verdi is not, after all, so vast an improvement on Donizetti and Bellini. His melodies are too often sadly sentimental, and any freshness with which he may have endowed them has long since faded. True, they occasionally have a terseness and pungency, a sheer brute force, which those other composers never got into their insipid tunes; while, on the other hand, Verdi rarely shows his strength without also showing a degree of vulgarity from which Bellini and Donizetti were for the most part free.
"Aida" is a different matter, though not so very different a matter. Here we have the young Verdi—Verdi in his early prime, for he was only fifty-eight; here also we have a story more likely to stir his rowdy imagination, if not more susceptible of effective treatment in the young Verdi manner. The misfortune is that the book is a very excerebrose affair. The drama does not begin until the third act: the two first are yawning abysms of sheer dulness. Who wants to see that Radames loves Aida, that Amneris, the king's daughter, loves Radames, that Aida, a slave, is the daughter of the King of the Ethiopians, that Radames goes on a war expedition against that king, beats him and fetches him back a prisoner, that the other king gives Radames his daughter in marriage, that Radames, highly honoured, yet wishes to goodness he could get out of it somehow? A master of drama would begin in the third act, reveal the whole past in a pregnant five minutes, and then hold us breathless while we watched to see whether Radames would yield to social pressure, marry Amneris, and throw over Aida, or yield to passion, fly with Aida, and throw over his country. All this shows the bad influence of Scribe, who usually spent half his books in explaining matters as simple and obvious as the reason for eating one's breakfast. Verdi knew this as well as anyone, and used the two first acts as opportunities for stage display. For "Aida" was written to please the Khedive of Egypt; and Verdi, always keenly commercial, probably knew his man. Now, when the masters of opera—Handel, Gluck, Mozart, Weber—got hold of a bad book, they nearly invariably "faked" it by getting swiftly over the weak points and dwelling on the strong; and, above all, they flooded the whole thing with a stream of delicious melody that hypnotises one, and for the time puts fault-finding out of the question. Not so Verdi. He wrote to please his audience, and he knew that what one can only call dark-skinned local colour was still fresh in spite of "L'Africaine," and that the vulgar would find delight in a blaze of glaring banners and showy spectacle. So he set the two first acts as they stood, trusting to local colour and spectacle to make them popular; and, as we know, at the time they were popular, and the populace exalted Verdi far above such second-rate fellows as Mozart and Beethoven. But now, when local colour has been done to death, and when it has had a quarter of a century to bleach out of Verdi's canvases, what remains to interest, I do not say to touch, one? Certainly not the expression of Radames' or Aida's love, for here as everywhere Verdi fails to communicate any new phase of emotion, but (precisely as he did in "Falstaff" and "Otello") has written music which indicates that he had some inkling of the emotion of the scene, and could write strains calculated not to prevent the scene making its effect. That Verdi has no well-spring of original feeling, perhaps explains why he is so poor in the scenes with Radames, Amneris, and Aida. (Also, perhaps, it explains why he has fallen back in his best period upon masterpieces of dramatic art for his librettos. It is almost outside human possibility to add anything to "Falstaff" or "Otello"; and such success as Verdi has made with them is the result of writing what is, after all, only glorified incidental music—music which accompanies the play. To class these accompaniments with the masterpieces of original opera is surely the most startling feat of modern musical criticism.) Moreover, the plan of writing each scene in a series of detached numbers—for, even where song might flow naturally into song, the two are quite detached—breaks up the interest as effectually as it does in "Traviata"; and the songs do not themselves interest. Verdi's music is not based, like the masters', upon the inflexions of the human voice under stress of sincere feeling, but upon figures and passages easily executed upon certain instruments. The great composers strove to make instruments speak in the accent of the human voice, while Verdi has always tried to make the voice sound like an instrument. His roulades and cadenzas, for example, sound prettier on the clarinet than on the voice, as one hears when he sets the one chasing the other in "Traviata"; and if only our orchestral players would take the trouble to play with the same expression as the stage artists sing, we might soon be content to have a repetition (with a difference) of the feat of the old-world conductor who, in the absence of the hero, played the part upon the harpsichord with universal applause. The stock patterns out of which the songs are made soon grow old-fashioned, and are superseded by fresh ones: hence Verdi's songs are the earliest portions of his operas to wither. There are two powerful scenes in "Aida"—the second of the second act, and the final in the last act. The last is certainly terribly repulsive at the first blush; but the weird chant of the priestesses in the brightly-lit temple, where the workmen are closing the entrance to the vault underneath in which we see Radames left to die, contrasts finely with the sweet music that accompanies the declaration of Aida that she has hidden there to die with him; and, while guessing at the splendour of the music Wagner might have given us here, one may still admit Verdi to have succeeded well in a smaller way than Wagner's. But on the whole "Aida" is to be heard once and have done with, for save these scenes there is little else in it to engage one. Aida is alive, but Amneris is a hopeless piece of machinery—something between the stage conception of a princess and the Lady with the Camellias, any difference in modesty being certainly not in favour of Amneris. The music very rarely rises above commonness—that commonness which is proclaimed in every bar of Verdi's instrumentation, and in his shameless Salvation Army rhythms; and it is sometimes (as in the Priest's solo with chorus in the last scene of the second act) odiously vulgar. "Aida" is more dramatic than "Traviata," has more of Verdi's brusque energy, less of his sentimentality; but it has none of the youthful freshness of his latest work. The young Verdi has already aged—how long will the old Verdi remain young?
"THE FLYING DUTCHMAN"
Wagner took "The Flying Dutchman", "Tannhaeuser," and "Lohengrin," in three long running steps; from "Lohengrin" he made a flying leap into the air, and, after spending some five or six years up there, he landed safely on "The Nibelung's Ring." The leap was a prodigious one, and you may search history in vain for its like; and still more astounding was it if you reckon from the point where the run was commenced. "The Flying Dutchman" was avowedly that point. "Die Feen" is boyish folly, and "Rienzi" an attempt to out-Meyer Meyerbeer. But in the "Dutchman" Wagner sought seriously to realise himself, to find the mode of best expressing the best that was in him. That mode he found in "The Rheingold" and mastered in "The Valkyrie," with its continuous development and transmogrification of themes. And (to discard utterly my former metaphor) after steeping oneself for several nights in that last great river of melody, wide and deep and clear, it is interesting to be led suddenly to its source, and see it bubbling up with infinite energy, a good deal of frothing, and some brown mud.
Compared with "The Valkyrie," "The Flying Dutchman" is ill-contrived and stagy. It is flecked here and there with vulgarity. It has far less of pure beauty; it has only its moments, whereas "The Valkyrie" gives hours of unbroken delight. "The Valkyrie" appeals to the primary instincts of our nature—instincts and desires that will remain in us so long as our nature is human; while for a large part of its effect the "Dutchman" trusts to a feeling which is elusive at all times and has no permanent hold upon us. Horror of the supernatural is not very deeply rooted in us, after all. Modern training tends to eliminate it altogether. In later life Goethe could not call up a single delightful shiver. There are probably not half a dozen stories in the world from which we can get it a second time. The unexpected plays a part in producing it, and the same means does not produce it twice with anything approaching the same intensity. Hence the Dutchman's phantom ship must be more ghost-like at each representation, its blood-red sails a bloodier red; and in the long-run, do what the stage carpenters will, we coldly sit and compare their work with previous ships. True, the music which accompanies its entry is always impressively ghastly; yet, while we know this, we are acutely conscious that our feeling is more or less a laudable make-believe—a make-believe that requires some little effort. Then Heine's notion, which seemed so brilliant at first, that the Dutchman could be redeemed by the unshakable love of a woman, has now all the disagreeable staleness of a decrepit and obvious untruth. It has no essential verity to give it validity, it is no symbol of a fact which is immediately and deeply felt to be a fact. The condition of redemption is entirely arbitrary: it might as reasonably be that the Dutchman should find a woman who would not shrink from eating his weather-stained hat. What was it to the Dutchman's damned soul if all the women in the world swore to love him eternally, so long as he was unable to love one of them? The true Wandering Jew is not the unloved man, but the man who cannot love, who is destitute of creative emotion and cannot build up for himself a world in which to dwell, but must needs live in hell—a world that others make, a world where he has no place. Wagner knew this, and makes the Dutchman fall in love with Senta; and that only leaves the drama more than ever in a muddle. One wants a reason for his suddenly being able to love. It cannot be because Senta promises to love him till death; for he has had hundreds of fruitless love-affairs before, and knows that all women promise that, and some of them mean it. Besides, the highest moment of the drama ought either to arrive when he feels love dawning in his loveless heart, or when he renounces his chance of salvation and sails away to eternal torment, believing that Senta made her promise in a passing fit of enthusiasm; and at one or other of those moments we ought to have some sign that he is redeemed. There is no such sign. The phantom ship falls to pieces, and the Dutchman is freed from his curse when Senta casts herself into the waves; and the highest moment of the whole drama is that in which the dreamy monomaniac, the modern Jeanne d'Arc, the real heroine of the opera, wins her own salvation, masters the world and makes it her heaven, by taking her fate in both hands and setting out to do the thing she feels most strongly impelled to do. If the Dutchman's salvation depends on himself, it is evidently unnecessary for Senta to be drowned; if it depends upon her, it only shows that Wagner, writing fifty years ago, and dazzled by the brilliance of a new idea, could not see so clearly as can be seen to-day that Senta was her own and not the Dutchman's saviour; and if (as it apparently does) it depends upon both Dutchman and Senta, then, at a performance at least, one can merely feel that something in the drama is very much askew, without knowing precisely what.