Richard Wagner - Composer of Operas
by John F. Runciman
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

Some characteristics of his harmony and instrumentation will most conveniently be considered later. For the present I wish to draw my reader's attention rather to Wagner the musico-dramatist than to Wagner the technical musician.




When Wagner left Paris on the proceeds of some work for Schlesinger which still remained to be done, he had learnt three lessons. The first, that it was foolish for an unknown man to go off into unknown lands, proved useful for a time. That is, for a time he put up with many vexations rather than undertake such adventures. No one likes to be starved and to see his wife starving, Wagner least of all men; and we shall see that, once settled in Dresden, he set his teeth and grinned and bore up against lack of appreciation and against actual insult, so determined was he that his Minna should, if possible, live in comfort. This lesson had been emphasized by his experiences before he received a permanent appointment. His creditors of the north, learning of the success of Rienzi, and little dreaming his profits to be L45, immediately began to worry him; and until he got the conductorship of the Royal opera-house his plight was little, if any, better than it was in the Paris days. The second lesson was, that whatever might happen in the future, it was futile to raise his eyes to Paris: Paris would not listen to him or to any sincere artist. The third was that nothing was to be hoped at all from the modern opera. That lesson he never forgot. Unfortunately its teaching clashed with that of lesson number one, and for some time it was neglected. But Dresden reinforced it as only a court-ridden town can, a town whose inhabitants were, almost to a man, the sort of flunkeys who hang around a Court.

Wagner did not wish to be kapellmeister—on the contrary, wished most vigorously not to be kapellmeister. What on earth he did wish to be, how he hoped to earn bread—he who had had only one opera produced, and gained L45 by it: it is idle to speculate concerning such questions. Excepting that he laboured incessantly at his operas—scheming and sketching, if not actually composing and writing—he would seem at this stage of his growth to have been a Mr. Micawber, whose contemporary, of course, he was. He flirted with von Luettichau, the intendant of the theatre, a fine specimen of a court barbarian. Wagner neither would nor wouldn't; and it was only when the theatre found it could not well do without him, and asked him to say definitely if he would, that he accepted the offer. We can imagine how poor, stupid, unimaginative Minna would rejoice at the news. She ought to have married a pork butcher, or would have behaved admirably as the mistress of a beerhouse or cafe; but as the wife of a man of genius—! To be the wife of the kapellmeister of one of Germany's principal opera-houses—a court opera-house—that was almost, if not quite, as good; and for the time she rested content with her lot. And we may believe that Richard, too, felt a double gratification, even against his deepest and truest instincts. The salary lifted a burden off his shoulders for a while; and was he not appointed to the very post his idol Weber had occupied? Nevertheless, things soon came to pass which show how the Richard who set off from Pillau to Paris with his bare travelling expenses, and the Richard who was to do yet madder things hereafter, was the Richard of this middle period. This von Luettichau said it was the rule of the court that a new conductor should serve a year on trial. Wagner was quite brutally reminded that the mighty Weber had been compelled to do so; and he was told he must do so. He point-blank refused; sent the Luettichau man a long explanation—which, I dare say, was never read—of why he couldn't accept such terms; spoke of the necessity of getting some sort of order and discipline into an orchestra which Reissiger had allowed to go to pieces, etc., etc. But he had to his credit, as we have seen, the triumphs of Rienzi and the Dutchman; and it shows how much he was wanted that Luettichau yielded; he waived the twelve months' probation without murmuring—a thing almost unheard of in the case of a German official, a German court official. So on the 2nd of February, 1843, he was sworn in "for life" as co-conductor with Reissiger; and promptly learnt that he had to wear a livery like others condemned to penal servitude for life. This was the least of his troubles.

Reissiger had been the slackest of theatre conductors, the slackest of the slack old school. I may have mentioned that once I had the misfortune to play the piano part in a number of his trios; and though these are the only compositions of his known to me they suffice. A man who had the patience to plod through the task of writing such dreary stuff and the presumption to send it forth to a world already familiar with Mendelssohn's trios, if not with Beethoven's, cannot have had a spark of the genuine, enthusiastic musician in him. His waltz—known as "Weber's last thoughts," in Germany and England as "Weber's last waltz"—must have been the fruit of a lucky accident—or perhaps he did have a moment of inspiration: it would be hard if that had not come once in a lifetime to a man who wrote so much. The little thing is certainly pretty. But it is not enough to counteract the impression made by his trios on me, nor by his operas and conducting-work on Wagner. The latter, indeed, was fond of telling anecdotes showing how entirely indifferent Reissiger was to his work, so long as he got through it somehow, reached home in good time, and drew his pay regularly. One story, though well enough known, ought to be mentioned, because it reveals the man whose duties Wagner had to share, and the result of whose faults Wagner had to cure and efface. Wagner met Reissiger on the river bridge one evening at nine o'clock, when the opera ought to have been in full swing with Reissiger at the conductor's desk. "Are you not conducting the opera to-night?" asked Wagner—possibly in a fit of consternation, thinking it might be his night. "Have had it," Reissiger replied; "how's that for smart conducting?" As long as they got through, Reissiger was content. Not so Wagner. His first duty was to make the band a smart, clean-playing, smooth-working machine; the players had to learn to follow his beat and to obey his directions; and he at once met with opposition. The bandsmen, like Reissiger, and in fact all officials who regard their posts as more or less sinecures, wanted to go on in the old slovenly fashion, rehearsing carelessly, hastily, or not at all, and quite satisfied so long as they got through. During the first weeks of the new regime the principal first violin declined to follow Wagner's directions, and, moreover, had the impudence to tell our arrogant Richard he was wrong, and, above all, to tell him in von Luettichau's presence. Wagner, having the pen of a too-ready writer—like old Sebastian Bach before him—sent in one of his long letters; and with that the trouble ceased for the moment. But similar episodes seem to have been of frequent occurrence during his six years of conductorship. Still, he introduced discipline into the band, and, on the whole, got on well with his men. With genuine artists, even of the humblest sort, he was always on good terms. He had a fine fund of good humour and sanguine cheerfulness, a ready wit and a kind heart; he won the respect due to a man who really knew his work, knew what he wanted, and how it could best be attained. What he wanted was performances worthy of the house to which he had come as conductor. Tricks were played on him, so that he had to direct operas which had been insufficiently rehearsed or not at all rehearsed; and the press made the most of shortcomings which he realized better than the critics.

He had compensations. August Roeckel became his assistant at the theatre and a close personal friend; he had Heine, Fischer, Uhlig and others amongst his intimates; and by what was undoubtedly the most artistic section of the community he was made much of. The Liedertafel chose him as its first Liedermeister. For the unveiling of a statue to Friedrich August I he organized a gigantic musical festival, writing for the occasion a hymn. Mendelssohn had composed something for the event; and the whole affair made the Dresden folk open their mouths as well as their ears. For the Liedertafel he wrote the Love-feast of the Apostles, which was performed on July 6 of this year (1843) with, so far as one can judge, immense effect and success. The pious press-men were, of course, scandalized by his very secular treatment of a sacred subject; they expected, or at least asked for, a Mendelssohnian psalm—and they would have grumbled even had they got it. It was considered a crime to compete with Mendelssohn, also a crime not to imitate him.

At this time he appears to have been happy with Minna; the good lady had all she wanted; and the rift within the lute did not show until Wagner later on began to kick against the pricks. Perhaps the greatest pleasure that he had at this time—perhaps the greatest he had had in his life—came through old Spohr the violinist, then conductor (and king) of the Cassel opera. Spohr had heard Rienzi at Dresden, and, antiquated stick though he was—as any one might guess who knows his Last Judgment or Calvary—he yet recognized in Wagner an original and deeply sincere musician. He wrote, after seeing the Flying Dutchman, "I believe I know my mind sufficiently to say that among the dramatic composers of our day I consider Wagner the most gifted." He produced the Dutchman at Cassel, directing the representation himself, and sent Wagner a letter which lifted that young man into the seventh heaven of delight. Wagner always cherished the recollection of this, the first genuine praise he had received from an older musician, and one famous throughout Europe; and on Spohr's death, long afterwards, he wrote one of the most beautiful obituary articles in all literature. His answer to Spohr shows that at this time there were no serious differences in the household; he speaks in terms of the greatest affection of his wife, and regrets that she is not there to share his joy. The Cassel performance took place June 5, 1843. It was unsolicited: Spohr himself had asked for the score; and this had a double or triple value to Wagner. Spohr's authority was immense throughout Germany; and the mere fact that he had asked for the Dutchman, and, later, performed it, was a recommendation to every other opera-house. And, as a matter of fact, it was done elsewhere, though in many towns the thing was found incomprehensible, and the score returned to Wagner unused, sometimes the parcel containing it unopened. By the way, Berlioz was in Dresden at the time, doing mountebank tricks with the orchestra, and after hearing, the Dutchman he went so far as to speak well of it. Liszt was enthusiastic over Rienzi.

When Spohr's letter arrived Minna was at Teplitz, ill; Wagner joined her there immediately his holiday began, but not before writing to Lehrs (July 7) that the book of Tannhaeuser was finished. Whether Lehrs received the letter I do not know, for he died on July 13. It will be remembered that it was Lehrs who gave Wagner the Saengerkrieg from which he drew both Tannhaeuser and Lohengrin. Before dealing with these operas, Wagner's first very great ones, we must pass in review the remainder of the Dresden days, ending with the insurrection of May 1849 and the flight to Switzerland.


Nothing in Wagner's life has been less perfectly understood, or more completely and wilfully misunderstood, than his share in this May insurrection of 1849. He was never at any time a politician; of politics he knew nothing, and he held the trade in profound, undisguised contempt. He wrote much about the State, and in every paragraph contrived to show the astounding breadth of his ignorance—an ignorance of that kind which Dr. Johnson might have described as not natural but acquired. Everlastingly he prattles about the State until he throws us into a condition of imbecile confusion. Then we resolutely sit down to his prose writings and track his meaning or meanings. And at last we perceive this: the State in his mind, the State he talked and wrote about, was something purely ideal, such a State as has never existed, and at the present day, nearly seventy years after Wagner's solitary plunge into practical politics, seems as unlikely as ever to come into existence. He wanted (1) an all-wise absolute monarch who should work the will of all his subjects, no matter how conflicting their interests might be; (2) some millions of these subjects to think alike on every conceivable question—to think, that is, as Wagner thought; these millions to make sublime sacrifice of themselves that Wagner's art-schemes might prosper. All this, be it noted, was to be the barest basis and beginning of the perfect State. How this point could be reached by our imperfect human race was a question he scorned to discuss: he simply assumed that it could be reached, and proceeded to further argument. The point had to be attained in the first place; then humanity—by which he meant German humanity—was to move upward, working out the beast, talking German philosophy, reading what is called German poetry (though Shakespeare might be tolerated), looking at what is called German painting, listening to German music, dreaming thin, mystical German dreams and munching thick German sausages. Thus should the inhabitants of a small subsidiary State, whose kings could be, and had been, made and unmade by other kings, create for themselves a new heaven on earth and become the wonder of the world.

It is very like sheer lunacy. But this account is no exaggeration of Wagner's doctrine and plans. The one truth which emerges and speaks unequivocally is that Richard, deeply dissatisfied with the theatre of the day, and tracing its sad degeneracy to the corrupt state of society, wished to see society upraised, not that men and women might live more happily, but that a finer, nobler theatre might flourish. The most magnificent egotist of the century, it seemed to him the prime concern of mankind that Richard Wagner's works should be understood and loved. Being an egotist also, if I may say so, on a national scale, he thought humanity could only be redeemed by German art. Disregarding the fact that Germany has had no painters, no poet of the first rank, no genuine dramatist, and that before "our art," as he persistently calls music, had got a root in Germany, three great schools had flourished, the English, the Flemish and the Italian—disregarding all this, he looked for the regeneration of the human species by means of the efforts of German artists alone. It is comical, and, I say, very like lunacy. Mr. Ernest Newman will have it that Wagner's was only a very mediocre intellect. The cold truth is that only a mighty intellect, gone wrong on one point, could have evolved the idea of such a new social system. For, mark you, Wagner propounded no scheme for the regeneration of humanity: he assumed that it could regenerate itself by wishing, or willing, and that then the thousand years of peace would commence, with Richard as conductor-in-chief. He could not see that humanity cannot jump out of its shadow and regenerate itself, any more than gentlemen of intelligence gone wrong on one point can see that Bacon could not have written Shakespeare's plays, or that perpetual motion is a crazy impossibility.

It is curious to picture the share Richard took in the Dresden ferment of 1848-49. Of course, all Europe was in a condition of excitement; and the powers that were got their guns ready, and their men. Political liberty was the thing aimed at: the "outs" wanted to be in. Every right-thinking man must be in sympathy with the "outs." The governments of Europe were in the hands of shameless place-seekers; the working men, the merchants, all other classes were supposed to labour and pay taxes for the benefit of these gentry. Money was squandered on useless court-flummery while men were toiling sixteen hours a day for bread. The aristocracy were resolved that this state of affairs should continue; the average citizens were resolved that it should not. What did Wagner propose?—obedience to the puppet king and a reformed opera! It is small wonder that he was considered a visionary. He made at least one speech, talking about the State, meaning thereby something very different from the meaning his audience attached to the word; he heard speeches, and undoubtedly in all sincerity read his own thoughts into them. He thought the millennium was at hand. When the fighting began he joined the revolutionists; though I can nowhere find proof that he shouldered a musket. Had he done so it is extremely probable he would have shot the man behind him. It is hard to get at the truth about these days of May. Perhaps he did help to escort supplies; but with his excitable brain we must remember that what he thought he saw and what he actually did see may be two very different things. A good many other people who were in Dresden at the time have let their pretty fancies run away with them; for their accounts of Wagner's doings contradict one another to such an extent that any attempt to reconcile them is futile. I must confess to a boundless distrust of "recollections" set down or spoken at any length of time after the event. Ask, reader, ask any of your friends to give an account of some striking occurrence of a year ago. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred it will not tally with yours. You may be wrong or your friend may be wrong: in either case some one's memory has played a trick. In this book I have omitted many a dozen picturesque touches, simply because there is no proof of their truth and every probability that they are false. It is perhaps enough to remember that the hopes of liberty were crushed, that Roeckel, Wagner's assistant and friend, was taken and afterwards sentenced to a long term of imprisonment, and that Wagner had to run for safety. From every point of view it was as well he got away from Dresden. If he had not got away he would have shared Roeckel's martyrdom. Had the revolution succeeded, a terrible disillusionment would have been his share of the spoils: the revolutionists thought a fine opera of no more importance than did their enemies, and had Richard asked to be set up in his kingdom he would have quickly found the defenders of liberty as adroit in evading him and his claims as any court flunkeys could be. It was well he got away from Dresden also because, as he afterwards said, the court livery had grown too tight for him. He had had a comfortable income, and had he not been Richard Wagner he might have vegetated happily, in the Reissiger way, for life. Minna would have been content. Being Richard Wagner, he felt his soul strangled; and that Minna had for some time been worrying about what he might do next is shown by his remark to a friend—that other people had their enemies outside their houses: his enemy sat at his own table.


Things had not gone well at the theatre. In spite of performances never before equalled in the town—nay, probably because of them—he had enemies all around, especially in the Jew-controlled press. His carefulness about rehearsals was called fussiness; his determination that the singers should not at their own sweet pleasure mar fine operas with interpolations, alterations and "liberties" generally, was called interference with their rights. Even when he played Beethoven's Pastoral and Ninth Symphonies, as they had never been given before, he was impertinently taken to task by press scribblers for departing from the Mendelssohn tradition. I have already expressed the opinion that Judaism in Music was a huge mistake; yet one must own that when one considers how the Jews consistently attacked him for venturing to challenge inferior Jew composers and conductors on their own ground, the thing seems almost excusable. At any rate, it is surprising that he dealt so tenderly with Mendelssohn. There is one point always to be borne in mind. Wagner was assailed at this time not so much qua composer as qua conductor. Now we of the generation of to-day—the younger members, anyhow—are so accustomed to really able conductors, that it is somewhat difficult to realize what things were like throughout Europe in 1843-49. Perhaps the nearest approach to a true idea may be formed by those who heard our own precious Philharmonic Society under the late Cusins. As in London in the 'eighties, so in Dresden in the 'forties. Callous indifference to the beauty of fine music and complete slovenliness in every detail of the rendering of it went hand in hand. If Europe to-day is stocked with competent conductors, that is a debt we owe to Wagner. Himself one of the greatest conductors who has lived, he almost created a new art, and by his immediate and direct example and through his pupils Buelow, Richter, Levi and Seidl, not to mention his influence on Liszt, he certainly created the school which has now ousted the older inartistic men. It was precisely this fact that maddened the older men and their friends.

Another discomforting circumstance was Wagner's intense Germanism. It was through his efforts that Weber's remains were brought from the Roman Church in Moorfields and re-interred in Dresden (December, 1844); for the ceremony he compiled some funeral music and delivered an oration. He was not content to claim Germany for the Germans: he claimed all Europe, or at least all European art, for the Germans. The Germans themselves were contentedly jogging on with the hybrid music of Spontini, Bellini, Donizetti, Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn; and Wagner never tired of telling them to create an art of their own, or really he would have to do it for them. He did as well as talked and wrote; he produced the nearest thing he could find to pure German opera—for instance, Marschner's Adolph von Nassau in 1845. Of course, he ceased not to press Weber upon his audiences; and Weber at that period appears to have gone temporarily out of favour. Wagner lived in an atmosphere of depreciation and disapprobation which must have got upon his nerves and hastened the catastrophe—that of his taking active part in the attempted revolution. Sneers from artistic enemies outside; whimpering and nagging inside because he would not conform to court rules, and seek popularity as a good livery-wearing conductor should—no wonder he gave a sigh of relief at quitting Dresden.

He had no option. The Prussian troops were ruthless; the judges were paid to "punish" those whose crime was fighting for their ordinary rights; and as the judges' billets would not have been worth twenty minutes' purchase if they had not obeyed orders, they cheerfully obeyed them. It is a fine thing to accept a handsome salary to do dirty work and to call the doing of it doing your "duty": duty is a fine word that has covered a million crimes since it was invented. Bakunin, who said Richard Wagner was "a visionary"—obviously meaning a harmless fool—and many others got long terms of imprisonment. Wagner had left the town without leave, and for that offence he was dismissed from his post at the opera. Next, the police issued a warrant for his arrest.

He had gone quietly to visit Liszt at Weimar, meaning to "lie low" till the storm had blown by. He was apparently quite unconscious of having broken any laws. Liszt was not so easy in his mind. He made inquiries: found that Wagner must bolt at once: it is supposed he somehow "squared" the local police official to defer executing the warrant; he got a passport in a false name, and six days after his arrival Richard set out again on his travels. What need be recorded about the journey to Zurich and the getting of Minna there, will best be described when I come to tell of his settling down in his new abode and the years he spent there.




Wagner alternated between what we may call the worldly—the sensual or animal, or love of outward show—and the magical, mystical or religious. After Die Feen, a story of magic, he went to Das Liebesverbot, a story of lust; then he went on to a drama of warring ambitions, with the outer brilliant show of armed men, gorgeous processions, conflagrations and what not in the way of spectacle. After that we have the Dutchman, strange and remote and mysterious, with some pages of passionless ecstasy as its culminating point. The reaction came, and he wrote Tannhaeuser, the opera we are now to examine. It is largely based on sheer animal passion, though another reaction takes place before the end is reached. That reaction proceeds further in Lohengrin, which is sheer mysticism. Tristan is pure human passion—Tristan's soul is the antithesis of Lohengrin's. The Ring is, from beginning to end, a gorgeous spectacle, a glorification of the grandeur and loveliness of the earth, the splendour and beauty and strength of human life. Not even Wotan's renunciation takes away a jot from its note of praise of humanity—one might even say praise of the joy of living. Parsifal is a denial of the value and richness and worthiness of human life: the world is pushed away; and the hero attains perfect peace by shutting himself up in a monastery with no women to disturb him. John Willett recommended his son, when he went to London, to climb to the top of the Monument—"there are no young women up there, sir"—and Wagner evidently agreed with John Willett. Parsifal is left to pass his days in walking, with the most preposterous steps ever seen on or off the stage, in idle processions from nowhere to nowhere without any object beyond walking, in making meals off invisible food, in impressing his fellow-monks with puerile chemical and electrical experiments, and perhaps, for a change, in going out to see trees and rocks taking a constitutional. If to say this is to be flippant, well then, I am flippant. The drama of Parsifal is the least intelligent, the most pretentious to intellectuality,-the most absurd and ridiculous and mirth-provoking drama ever set to music. Or, if we must needs oblige the Wagnerites by regarding it as a lofty contribution to ethics and a philosophy, no words are strong enough to describe its infamy. At the moment these lines are penned eager controversy is going on in every European capital as to whether Parsifal can or cannot be produced this year without the permission of the Bayreuth clique; and my devout hope is that it will be given everywhere as soon as possible. Once it is seen without the quasi-religious, or rather mock-religious, character of the Bayreuth performances, the hollowness, trumpery staginess and evil tendency of the work will be only too obvious, and if Bayreuth wants a monopoly of it no one will wish to say Bayreuth nay.

These oscillations of mood were very frequent, the changes often very abrupt, with Wagner; also he rarely worked at only one opera at a time. The Dutchman was conceived before Rienzi was finished; Tannhaeuser and Lohengrin were slowly shaping themselves in his imagination while he scored the Dutchman; the Mastersingers libretto, in its first form, was drafted immediately after Tannhaeuser was finished, and before Lohengrin was begun; the composition of the Ring, Tristan and the Mastersingers went on simultaneously. He did not totally exhaust one group of ideas and emotions before proceeding to another, and the result is twofold. First, the moods belonging of right to one opera often found their way for moments into another, so that the description I have given above of his various alternations is very rough, though it is in the main accurate; second, the true antipodes of one opera may not be that which stands next to it in chronological arrangement, but one which he did not complete till years afterwards. I have just digressed a little about Parsifal, because it, and not the Mastersingers, is the true contrary and complement to Tannhaeuser. Parsifal is pitilessly logical, Tannhaeuser wildly illogical; Parsifal preaches the gospel of renunciation, of the will to dwarf and stunt one's physical, mental and moral growth: Tannhaeuser preaches nothing at all, but is an affirmation of the necessity and moral loveliness of healthy relations between the two sexes, with a totally uncalled-for and incredible falling away or repentance at the end, on the part of one who has in no way sinned—to wit, Tannhaeuser; the music of Parsifal is sickly, tired, with mystical chants that make one's gorge rise in disgust; the music of Tannhaeuser is strong, healthy, full of manly passion—even at its saddest it is free of the nauseating whining of Parsifal.


Tannhaeuser, a knight and celebrated minstrel, led away by an exaggeration of healthy human desires, has left his friends and gone to live with Venus in the Hoerselberg. He soon tires of her; she tries to keep him; he calls on the Virgin; the hallucinatory dream is shattered, and he is in the free open spring air. A shepherd boy plays on his pipe and chants a song to spring; a procession of old pilgrims to Rome passes; Tannhaeuser, feeling his exaggeration of passions, sane enough in themselves, to be a sin, praises the Almighty for his deliverance from what seems now to him like an evil dream. Hunters' horns are presently heard from all sides; enter Tannhaeuser's former friends, Walther, Wolfram, Biterolf with the rest; they try to persuade him to return to his former life with them, but in vain, until Wolfram tells him that by his singing he had won the heart of the Landgrave's daughter Elisabeth, and she has pined ever since at his unaccountable disappearance. Tannhaeuser, at first incredulous, in the end joyfully agrees to go back to the Wartburg, where the Landgrave's castle can be seen, and the merry clatter of hunting horns is heard on all sides as the curtain falls. It will be seen that there is no vestige of the old stage trickery of the Dutchman here: all seems natural because all is inevitable; of songs and concerted pieces we get plenty, but they grow spontaneously out of the drama: the drama is not twisted and delayed for the sake of getting them in.

In the second act Elisabeth has heard of her knight's return; she enters the hall of song and pours forth her feelings of thankfulness; Tannhaeuser comes in and begs to be favoured; there is a long love-duet; and then preparations are made for a musical tournament. The popular march is played; the hall becomes crowded; the Landgrave makes a speech—satisfying to German audiences, no doubt, because it praises German valour and music—and in announcing the subject on which the minstrels shall enlarge, he hints that perhaps Tannhaeuser in his contribution will let them know in what mysterious lands he has sojourned during his long absence. The theme is, What is love, and how do we recognize it? The prize will be given by the Princess, and it shall be anything the successful singer chooses—that is, it shall be the Princess. Wolfram stands up first and praises a mild platonic attachment as being true love, and his sentiments win much applause. Tannhaeuser sings passionately of the joys of burning fleshly desire, though as yet his language is a little veiled. The audience, who are the judges, make no sign; Elisabeth alone shows that in her heart she goes with Tannhaeuser and not with Wolfram. Walther, in turn, tells Tannhaeuser that he knows nothing of sincere love; Tannhaeuser grows angry, and scoffingly tells him that if he wants cold perfection he had better worship the stars; but he, Tannhaeuser, wants warm, living flesh and blood and healthy desires in the woman he loves. Biterolf calls Tannhaeuser a shameless blasphemer, and challenges him to combat; Tannhaeuser replies bitterly; the surrounding nobles want to silence him; his anger becomes rage, and his rage madness; Wolfram tries to calm every one, but Tannhaeuser is now too far gone, and in "wildest exaltation" he chants the hymn he sang to Venus in the first act. "Only in the Venusberg can one experience the joys of true love," he shouts; the ladies rush out in terror, leaving only Elisabeth; the men attack Tannhaeuser. He would be killed, but Elisabeth suddenly interposes—all stand aghast at the bare notion of her interceding for so shameless a wretch; but in the end she gets her way. "Who would not yield who heard the heavenly maid?" they sing; during a momentary stillness the voices of young pilgrims following the elder to Rome are heard; Tannhaeuser is pardoned on condition of joining them and confessing to the pope and gaining his forgiveness; and, being a man of uncontrollable passions, with fits of abject depression as low as his ecstatic flights are high, he humbly acquiesces. The curtain comes down in the second act as he goes off.

The third act is, I say, quite illogical unless one accepts as a truism, as Wagner accepted it, the patent absurdity that by sacrificing him-or herself one being can save the soul of another being. But Wagner was not a German of the Romantic epoch for nothing. He believed the absurdity with a fervour now laughable, and was especially enthusiastic when the sacrificed person was a woman: woman, to his mind, was the redeemer of man: that was her metier. Senta redeems Vanderdecken; in his last work Kundry redeems Parsifal by thoughtfully dying so as to leave that unamiable idiot to lead the higher life of the monastery, as I have described it. And somehow Elisabeth is to redeem Tannhaeuser—also, it appears, by dying at an appropriate moment. In the fit of depression and degradation following his mad outburst the hero goes to Rome, interviews the pope, and confesses all to him. "If you have dwelt with Venus," says the Lord's vicar, "you are for ever cursed; God will not forgive you until my staff of dry wood blossoms." At this sentence of eternal doom Tannhaeuser, in the legend as Wagner found it, returned to the Hoerselberg: in the story, as Wagner shaped it, he gets as near as the Wartburg on his road back to Venus. By the roadside, as in the second scene of the first act, Elisabeth is praying before the shrine where Tannhaeuser had knelt to thank heaven for his deliverance; Wolfram watches near. Both await the pilgrims from Rome. These arrive—and Tannhaeuser is not amongst them. "He will return no more," says Elisabeth despairingly; and she prays to the Virgin to free her from all earth's griefs. Then she wends her way up to the castle while Wolfram remains to sing his song of renunciation. Ominous sounds are heard; Tannhaeuser, tattered and woe-begone, enters, tells his tale to Wolfram, and, working himself into a condition of madness as he did at the Tournament of Song—only now the madness is the madness of despair, not excessive exaltation—he calls on Venus. From the heart of the mountain she answers; the scene grows wilder and wilder; he sees Venus awaiting him; the air is filled with strange odours and stranger music. Wolfram struggles to prevent Tannhaeuser going to Venus; Venus calls him clearly and more clearly; suddenly Wolfram says, "A maiden is even now making intercession for you at God's throne—Elisabeth!" "Elisabeth!" echoes Tannhaeuser—stunned and astonished. The mists clear away; from behind the scenes a requiem for Elisabeth's soul is heard; Venus gives a final wail, "Woe! lost to me!" and sinks into the earth; slowly morning dawns, and a funeral train bearing Elisabeth on a bier slowly comes in. "Holy Elisabeth, pray for me," Tannhaeuser cries, and, sinking down, he dies. More pilgrims enter, bearing the pope's staff, which has miraculously blossomed in token that God's mercy is greater than man's, and that Tannhaeuser is pardoned; all sing a song of praise, and the opera terminates.

At the Dresden performances in 1845 this ending was cut, but that Wagner reckoned it of the utmost importance is shown by a letter written to Uhlig in 1851: "The reason for leaving out the announcement of the miracle, in the Dresden change, was quite a local one: the chorus was always bad, flat and uninteresting; also an imposing scenic effect—a splendid, gradual sunrise was wanting." Now, in the twentieth century, it is indeed hard to understand how an intellect so keen as our Richard's, a dramatic and poetic instinct almost infallible with regard to all other things, could have failed to see and feel the absurdity of Elisabeth's death being necessary to Tannhaeuser's salvation. Was it the only way to get rid of the lady—a pis aller?—a last remnant of the old-fashioned technique? In the original legend Tannhaeuser goes back to Venus: that would be ineffective and leave Elisabeth's future unprovided for. On the other hand, Wagner would never have selected the story for operatic treatment at all had it not instantly shaped itself in his mind as it now stands: he was, I say, obsessed by this notion of man's redemption by woman; it was part of his creed and not to be questioned. So I think that we must simply take it as it is, accepting Wagner's creed for the moment as a necessary convention. At the same time let us realize that it is an illogical development of the drama and not, as the Wagnerites comically insist, the symbol of an eternal verity. Allowing for the time occupied in mediaeval days by the journey from Rome to the heart of Germany, the pope's staff must have burst into leaf and flower long, long before Elisabeth's death. While she was waiting for Tannhaeuser to come in with the first band of pilgrims, the second band was already on its way with the token of his pardon. We need not be too inquisitive and wonder why Tannhaeuser should be expected back with the first band when he had set out with the second, and why Elisabeth could not at least exercise a little patience and wait for the second. The point is that she does not wait, but goes home to die, and, dying, is supposed—as Wolfram explicitly states—to redeem a sinner who is already redeemed. Her sacrifice is an act of suicidal insanity due to her lacking the common sense to reflect that Tannhaeuser might arrive with the second contingent; it is foolish and superfluous.

This is the sole flaw in a very fine opera book. Tannhaeuser is the noblest expression in music of the glory and worth of human life. An assertion of the glory and worth of human life is bound to be, as Tannhaeuser is, tragic; life and the value of life can only be realized when we see life in conflict with death and overcome by death. All the great tragedies are assertions of the joy of living, in the deepest sense of the phrase—in the sense in which Samson Agonistes or Handel's Samson are such assertions. Tannhaeuser suffers defeat and is glorious, like Samson in his overthrow. Even Elisabeth, a trifle mawkish though she may be, has loved life, and only at the finish, when fate (or, as she would say, heaven) decides against her, does she resign herself and renounce what cannot be hers. This is the first of Wagner's operas the plot of which is virtually all his own; for precisely the combination of the legend of Tannhaeuser with the Tournament of Song makes it what it is and was—Wagner's invention. All the stale old devices of explanatory asides are gone, as are the convenient goings-off and comings-on of the dramatis personae at the sweet will of the composer who wants here a duet and a trio there. The drama is self-explanatory—the librettist does not shove on a character to explain it for him; as it unfolds, the musician is given ample opportunities for all the songs or concerted pieces that the heart of composer could long for—he has not by main force and at all costs (in the way of unreasonableness) to drive opportunities into the drama.


In 1842 Wagner finished first Rienzi and then the Dutchman; in April of 1845, that is to say three years later, Tannhaeuser was complete, and in October of that year it was produced at Dresden. Its success or non-success with the public and those strange animals the critics does not greatly concern us to-day. Wagner's own account of the proceedings is not very trustworthy. The opera was cut and doctored to suit the singers—notably Tichatscheck; the first performance seems to have missed fire, and at the second the house was empty; at the third it was full; and, but for the intrigues of some of the musicians and scribblers, and the insanity of the management, it appears probable—one has a right to use so moderate a word—that before long it might have won in Dresden the success it presently won throughout Europe. That, I say, is not a matter for the twentieth century to worry about; but the twentieth century is bound to marvel over the obtuseness of the middle nineteenth in not recognizing the advent of the greatest power that had yet meddled with high and serious opera. (I do not mean that Wagner's was a greater musical power than Mozart's and Beethoven's. But Mozart never had a libretto to compare with Wagner's; and Fidelio, though serious enough in all conscience, is not an opera at all.) In three years, 1842-45, the growth of Wagner's strength was astounding, incredible. One sees at once how the old stage devices have departed from the libretto, and with them the fragmentary and jerky style of music; the intermittent inspiration of the Dutchman is replaced by an unchecked torrent of inspired music. All the little suggestions of Bellini and Donizetti are clean gone; the amorphous melody of the Dutchman is gone, or metamorphosed by being charged with energy, colour and meaning; every phrase has character, and communicates a very definite shade of feeling; in every phrase we feel how intense has been the inner thought and emotion, and with what terrible directness these are communicated to us. I say terrible directness because it is in Tannhaeuser that we first find the godlike Wagner hurling his thunderbolts. It was Spohr who spoke of the godlike or titanic energy of the music, and this energy finds expression, not as it did in Rienzi, in noisy orchestration, big ensembles and thumping rhythms, but, in a far greater degree than in the Dutchman, in the stuff of the music itself. We find no more lumpish harmonies and basses of leaden immovability: the basses stalk about with arrogant independence, and the harmonic progressions, even when most daring and perilous, are superbly poised. The old awkwardnesses, due to the endeavour to copy and to be original at the same time, have disappeared. Wagner wrote Tannhaeuser entirely to express and to please himself: he had given up the notion of being original; he was bent only on being himself.

He boasted that here, at last, was a sheer German opera. Well, that is not in itself very much. Personally, I would rather be an Englishman than a German; and few of us will be prepared to accept the view that because a work of art, or so-called work of art, happens to be by a German, it must therefore be a great work of art, or even a work of art at all. Richard never lived down the tendency, natural in one, I suppose, of a conquered tribe (the Saxons), to incorporate and identify himself with his conquerors, and he glorified everything Prussian as German, and everything German as perfect; but, even so late as 1852, I cannot imagine that he quite understood what he meant when he held forth on the subject of German art, its non-existence, and—of all things—its supremacy. He certainly felt very keenly what many members of every half-grown nation must feel—the necessity of acquiring a national conscience, artistic or other; he wanted to create an art-work which would appeal to the heart and understanding of every German, and would make the Germans feel themselves one race, an entity. Which, precisely, of the German races he would have accepted in the new brotherhood of man I cannot say. But the point is that Wagner longed to create, and in Tannhaeuser thought he had created, this universal work of art; and in declaring, as he did, that he had achieved the feat, he was revealing the truth about himself. He had thrown overboard Bellini, Donizetti, even Spontini and Marschner, and by going back to his first idols, Beethoven and Weber (especially Weber), he found his natural voice and mode of expression. Paradoxically, Tannhaeuser, while one of his least original compositions—owing as much to Weber as ever one composer had owed to another—is one of his most original. He spoke the matter that was in his own heart, but he freely, without self-consciousness, used the Weber idiom.

Before examining the means by which the varying atmospheres of the different scenes are got, I ask the reader to notice the way in which the rather pointless, inexpressive melody of the Dutchman appears now again, but so transformed as to be scarce recognizable. Compare the musical illustration (o) on page 119 with (a) at the end of this chapter. The type of tune is the same, but the first is commonplace and not quite worthy of the situation in which it occurs; the second has a glorious, though dignified, swing, and thoroughly expresses the words of welcome which Wolfram addresses to the errant Tannhaeuser. Compare Daland's song in the Dutchman with Wolfram's description of how Elisabeth has pined, or Senta's last passages in the final scene with Elisabeth's salute to the hall of song. We feel at once how, by dropping Italian, French and mediocre German models, and writing in the way that came natural to him, Wagner at once became a composer of the first rank, from whom great expressive melodies sprang spontaneously. The noble passages in the Dutchman were drawn out of him, despite his conscious or unconscious imitation of what were considered the best models of the day, by sheer force of feeling; and I pointed out how, when the situation gave him a chance, he took it. In Tannhaeuser he has become a splendid artist whose brain refused to shape the commonplace. Later on his style was to become more individual, more purely his own; but so far he had now got—and it was a very long way. The pilgrims' chorus melody, which first appears in the overture, is, to my mind, very Weberesque. It is not particularly strong—for Wagner—and hardly bears the weight of the brass with which it is afterwards thundered out; but think of it and of Rienzi's prayer! The second part, of course, is Wagner at a sublime height, but of that presently. What I wish is to give examples of how he has discarded all the involutions, convolutions, twiddles and twaddles of melody, and gone back to the simplicity and directness of Weber and Beethoven. His earlier manner and type of tune, the operatic manner of his day, had, I make no doubt, its origin in the advisability, not to say the necessity, of writing so as to please singers who could sing in the Italian style and no other. Wagner had now ceased to think of singers' whims. He had a matter to find utterance for, and he went to work in the most direct way, considering nothing but his artistic aim. We know he conceived Tannhaeuser at a white heat, and in a condition of white heat wrote the words; and though he afterwards cooled down and had, he said, to "warm up" to his work again, yet he warmed up so effectually that he composed at furious speed, haunted by a terror lest he should not live to complete the opera. This fervour alone might account for his artistic development in the Tannhaeuser period. It drove him to find the secret of the one true mode of expression—the law of simplicity, the unvarying rule that anything more than is needed for the expression of the thing to be expressed is bad art, and, in the long run, ineffective. With greater simplicity in the melody came the greatest possible simplicity in the harmony. There is a kind of awkwardness to be found in the music of all the pundits which almost defies analysis. The progressions are correct enough, are good enough grammar, yet the result is more disconcerting, even distressing, to the ear than a schoolboy's first efforts. Of this style of harmony the Italians were masters, and too often in his Rienzi days Wagner, thinking of his "melody" (for at that time by "melody" he meant Bellini melody), showed how little they could teach him in this respect. With the simpler "melody" went the harmony—complicated as you like when the occasion called, but never more complicated than the occasion warranted. Compare with the war-chorus and march in Rienzi the march in the second act of Tannhaeuser, and the difference will be seen. This march, by the way, ought to have been signed "after C.M. von Weber."


Tannhaeuser was written in an epoch of long or big works of every description. Think of the length of the novels of Thackeray and Dickens; think of the interminable Ring and the Book! Our immediate ancestors were a long-enduring, often long-suffering, generation. Perhaps they liked good value for their money. If so, Richard gave them what they wanted. He himself must have felt he had done so in Tannhaeuser, for fond though he was of his own music, he allowed it to be cut freely. Even as it stands, the finale of the second act is preposterous: the ripe and perfect artist who planned Tristan would never have done such a thing. But with regard to the finales—and they are all too long—it certainly appears that Wagner deliberately made use of crowds of people and masses of tone to carry through and emphasize his dramatic purpose. In the first act every one is rejoiced to have Tannhaeuser amongst them, and Tannhaeuser himself has much to say on finding himself free of the Hoerselberg nightmare, and in familiar, homely, human scenes once more. The anger of the nobles in the second, Elisabeth's grief and intercession for her lover, her self-abasement—it is part of the drama to make us feel these things and time is required. The finale of the last act I give up altogether. Nor can I understand why Elisabeth's prayer should be so long drawn out. Elisabeth has "nothing to do with the case." However, Wagner thought she had; so we can only be thankful when she finishes, and after Wolfram's song the action recommences with the entry of Tannhaeuser. The opera is planned on a huge scale, and in such works longueurs are apt to occur.

The overture foretells the drama that is to ensue, but not consecutively as in the Dutchman. We have the pilgrims' hymn, the second section of which is one of those things of which one can truly say that only Richard Wagner could have penned them. The accent of grief is intensely passionate, yet it remains solemn, sublime. Then the Bacchanal music and Tannhaeuser's chant in praise of Venus are heard; but all the tumult dies down, and the pilgrims end the piece not as it began, but triumphantly. We have here, as I have said, the great Wagner, working confidently and with ease on a vast scale. The curtain rises; and if we could not see the scene the music would tell us of the billows of hot rose mist, and the dancers working themselves up to frenzy. There is a hush, and the sweetest song ever sung by sirens is heard, full of languor and soft seductiveness. When Tannhaeuser starts up declaring he has heard the village chime in his dreams, it is as if a breath of cool air, laden with the fragrance of wild flowers, blew into that hot, steaming cavern. Music of unimaginable beauty and freshness sings of the pleasant earth—the green spring, the nightingale. When Venus coaxes him, he responds with one of the world's greatest songs—the hymn to Venus. Her "Geliebter, komm" is another piece of magic. The very essence of sensuality is in it, and never was sin made to seem so lovely. One great theme follows another. "Hin zu den kalten Menschen flieh'" is almost Schubertian in its spontaneity. The music never flags; there are scarcely any of the old formulas—not even, for example, to express Venus's anger; the fund of melody seems inexhaustible. Three main points may be observed. First, the dramatic propriety of every phrase is perfect—the music wanted for each successive situation fitly to express the emotion of the situation is infallibly forthcoming; the music invariably reveals the inwardness of the situation. Second, in spite of following the drama, move by move, so to speak, the continuity of the musical flow is absolute; phrase seems to grow out of phrase (the drama being true and the music always exactly expressive of the essence of the drama, this follows as night the day); and partly by reason of this, and partly owing to the simplicity of the themes and tunes, the total effect is one of stately breadth. Third, the wealth of invention, the constructive power, and the command of technical devices, place Wagner in the first rank of sheer musicians. True, he could not write a symphony such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven wrote; but neither could they have written a music-drama; the music-drama was his form, the symphony theirs.

In the next scene we have music of a different sort. A shepherd-boy pipes and sings one of those songs which, for freshness and purity, seem unapproachable—the watchman's song in the first act of the Dutchman is another example. The piping goes on while the elder pilgrims chant a sort of marching tune as they pass—part of it is the second section of the great hymn already described—the boy shouts "Good luck!" after them, and Tannhaeuser, in an ecstasy of relief and restfulness after the unceasing whirl of lust and fleshly delights from which he has found deliverance, pours forth his soul in a wonderful phrase. It is repeated afterwards when Tannhaeuser very guardedly tells Elisabeth of the wonder of his deliverance; and indeed it is expressive of a mood that became more and more characteristic of Wagner as he grew older, as though he got momentary glimpses of some blessed isle of rest where peace and relief from all earthly troubles could be found. A few years later we find him writing to Liszt of his longing for death as an escape; and though his appetite remained good, and he seemed bent on having the best of everything on his table, we can well believe that, overstrung by nature, in constant poor health, and making stupendous demands on his nervous energy (like his own Tannhaeuser), doing everything too much, he had moments—nay, days—of reaction and feelings which he expressed quite sincerely in his letters. This brief passage touches the sublime. The hunters enter, and from the moment Wolfram begins his really beautiful song about Elisabeth, it remains on Wagner's highest level. The finale is a set piece, of course, and is in free and joyous contrast to the lurid heat and sensual abandonment of the first scene. While the trees wave in the wind and the sun shines, the men shout merrily, and the huntsmen blow away at their horns—and Tannhaeuser has returned to his former healthy life.

In the second act we have Elisabeth's greeting to the hall of song, very charming; a duet with Tannhaeuser, very fine in parts, but not a true love-duet; the popular march; and then the tournament. Now, Wolfram's bid for favour seems to me both too literal and too long. He does what undoubtedly the minstrels of old did—freely declaims his verses, occasionally twanging his harp. He grows indeed almost fervent in his praise of the quiet life, of adoring your beloved at a safe distance and never disturbing her (nor yourself) with a word about human passion; but, for my humble part, I beg to say I always share Tannhaeuser's impatience and am glad when it is over. As soon as Tannhaeuser gets up the mighty spirit of Wagner begins to work. With a dramatic abruptness that startles one, a fragment of a Venusberg theme shoots up; then a few chords, and Tannhaeuser begins praise of the thing he understands by love. His strains are impassioned—too much so for another of the troubadours, Walther, who follows somewhat in Wolfram's manner, but with much more energy. Again there is, as it were, a glimpse of the Venusberg fire in the orchestra, and Tannhaeuser sings another song, more intense, again, in passion than his first, and ending with an aggressively fierce declaration of his creed. Biterolf challenges him; the Venusberg music boils up once more—we almost see the vision that is about to break on Tannhaeuser's inner sight; he sings more passionately still the joys of a human love; Wolfram again contends, giving us this time a really glorious song, and the storm breaks: the Venusberg is before Tannhaeuser's eyes; the violins sweep to their highest register, and remain there boiling and dancing in a kind of divine fury; and in mad exaltation he chants his hymn to Venus. Then the commotion occurs as I have described.

Let us consider this scene a moment. For theatrical effect, in the best sense, it is in most respects one of the greatest Wagner wrote. There is the pomp of the entry of the knights and ladies, and afterwards of the minstrels; the Landgrave's music is effective, which is more than can be said for that usually allotted to the heavy father in an opera; the business of arranging the order in which the competitors shall stand up is accompanied by fragments of the graceful march—or, rather, processional—to which the minstrels had entered, and these come as a welcome preparation of the ear for the essential part of the scene. Wolfram's first effort, I say, I can hardly tolerate, considered as a piece of composition; yet, shortened, it would be admirably in place. From the moment Tannhaeuser begins all is perfect. Tannhaeuser's music grows in intensity, and Wagner is careful not to give us a setback by allowing the other singers to throw Wolfram-ian cold douches over us; on the contrary, they get excited, too; and the orchestra is let loose with them by degrees, until in the last outburst it is blazing and crackling as though it had gone as completely mad as Tannhaeuser himself. The whole thing, with the reservation I have made, must be admitted to be consummately managed from the composer's as well as from the dramatist's point of view.

What follows needs little discussion. Wagner knew quite well how to represent a row on the stage without passing beyond the limits of what is music. Here we have ample energy, but nothing demanding closer notice until Elisabeth's interposition. Then at once we get stuff on a high level. The culmination is reached in a series of melodies hardly to be matched for pathetic beauty; the orchestra seems to throb with emotion—a device which Wagner often employed extensively in the Ring—the chorus join in, and a wondrous effect is obtained. The ensemble is the last piece of this description Wagner was destined to write. It is pure emotion, and not dramatic—that is, not theatrical—and its warrant is that the drama at the moment is nothing but a drama of emotions in conflict. The only musical-and-dramatic effect now occurs where the voices of the young pilgrims are heard: it is electrical.

Wagner gave a title to the prelude of Act III, "Tannhaeuser's Pilgrimage," and it differs only in that from his other preludes and overtures. To those who know what is to follow it tells a story more or less distinctly, while those who hear it for the first time must feel the atmosphere and emotion, and thus be prepared for the drama. It is built up of the pilgrims' marching song and one of Elisabeth's melodies and a most expressive theme which depicts Tannhaeuser painfully getting over the weary miles, with a sad heart, to seek the pope's pardon; then comes in the Dresden Amen—the significance of which will appear presently—then a crash followed by a mournful phrase (taken entire from Beethoven), and some recitative-like passages leading direct to the rising of the curtain. As music it is a splendid thing, and, as I have said, it tells its tale plainly, when one knows the tale. Almost immediately we hear the pilgrims' hymn of rejoicing, with which the overture begins—the hymn of those whose sins have been taken away. The pilgrims pass; Tannhaeuser is not amongst them, and Wagner there gives Elisabeth a phrase which makes one think that he had Schroeder-Devrient in his mind when he wrote the part. That gifted lady used—Berlioz said abused—the device of occasionally speaking, not singing, a few words; and here, where Elisabeth, in despair, says, "Er kehret nicht zurueck," Wagner gives her notes that can be either spoken or sung, and certainly are most effective when spoken. The part, by the way, was not "created" by the Schroeder-Devrient, but by Johanna Wagner, the daughter of that brother Albert who had given him his first post in a theatre. I have nothing further to say about the Prayer, nor about the "Star of Eve" song. As night gathers over the autumn scene and Tannhaeuser enters, the music at once leaps to life. Not that we have not heard some very lovely things, notably a quotation in the orchestra from one of Wolfram's competition songs; the star shines out, and Wolfram, his harp now silent, sits gazing dreamily up in the direction Elisabeth has taken homeward to die. But now we get a renewal of the furious energy of the tournament scene. As Tannhaeuser declares his intention of returning to Venus, the music crackles and roars for a moment; then it subsides to broken phrases of utter despair as he describes his journey to Rome. The Dresden Amen accompanies him at first with ethereal effect, and afterwards with the utmost grandeur, as he tells how he knelt before the Rood to pray—in a few bars every aspect of St. Peter's is brought to our minds, and the atmosphere and colour. Wagner himself never surpassed the declamatory passage of the pope's curse. Bach and Mozart knew how to write recitative, but they rarely attempted to fill it with anything approaching the intensity of meaning with which this terrible recitative is filled. Then, again, the music boils, and with unearthly effects the themes from the Hoerselberg scene sound out, now from behind the scenes, now from the orchestra; the thing grows madder and more mad, until suddenly Wolfram perceives the bier bearing Elisabeth being carried down. "Elisabeth!" he cries, and a requiem is heard from behind the scenes. As a stage effect I know only one thing to match it. In Hamlet the hero has been philosophizing to his heart's content, when a funeral procession approaches—

Hamlet: What, the fair Ophelia?

Queen: Sweets to the sweet, farewell....

Every one knows the magic of that stroke: the abrupt change of key, the instant disappearance of bitterness, and the introduction of pathos and pure beauty; so here the Venusberg music disappears like a flame that is blown out. "Elisabeth!" Tannhaeuser echoes, and the chorus chants solemnly "Der Seele Heil," etc. "Henry, thou art redeemed," cries Wolfram; and then we have the final scene, the entry of the young penitents with the pope's staff. The final chorus is effective enough, though it suggests the audience getting up and looking for their hats.

As a whole, the music of Tannhaeuser is characterized by intense energy, the greatest definiteness, and richness and gorgeousness of colouring. Inviting as must have been the opportunities offered in the opening scene of indulging in a riot of voluptuous colour, the definiteness is never lost. Through the whirling, dancing-mad accompaniment runs a fibre of strong, clean-cut, sinewy melody. The picture is drawn with firm strokes as well as painted with a full brush. Or perhaps the better analogy would be to describe each scene as an architecturally constructed fabric; and each is also so constructed as to lead inevitably into the next. Hence, as already pointed out, the artistic restraint and breadth in scenes where, with such heat of passion at work, we might fear spasmodic jerkiness.

When Tannhaeuser was published, Wagner sent the score to Schumann, and Mendelssohn also saw it. The comment of the latter was characteristic: he liked a canon entry in the finale of the second act; and indeed it was too much to hope that the successful purveyor of oratorios should like or in the least understand so mighty, fresh and passionate an opera. He did not understand Beethoven, and virtually admitted as much without realizing how completely he had committed himself. Moreover, opera was a form of art with which he had no real sympathy. It is true his friend Devrient tells us that he was anxious to write one, and would have done so had not his fastidious taste prevented him ever finding a libretto to his liking—which is equivalent to saying a man would have painted a fine picture could he only have secured a good subject. In some respects Schumann was even more antipathetic. Wagner, all who knew him declare, never ceased talking; Schumann was a silent man—sometimes in a cafe a friend might speak to him: Schumann would turn his back to the friend and his face to the wall, and continue to imbibe lager. Wagner would talk for an hour, and, getting no response, go away; he would afterwards declare Schumann an "impossible" man, out of whom not a word could be got; while Schumann would declare he could not tolerate Wagner, "his tongue never stops." Schumann had no dramatic instinct, and no comprehension for opera; in Genoveva—as, in fact, in his so-called dramatic cantatas—he failed utterly: he went straight through the words, setting them to music pur et simple, taking no thought for dramatic propriety. The score of Tannhaeuser simply puzzled him; he saw in it only the music pur et simple, considered as which it was, of course, very bad. It was not bad in all the ways he thought, however. His remark about the clumsy orchestration long ago returned to roost. For the rest, when he saw the opera performed he changed part of his mind, and wrote admitting that much which he did not like on paper seemed in place when the work was sung, and some of it "moved me much." Some time afterwards he played some of his music to Wagner, who found it muddled, as if the sustaining pedal was held down all the time—and I have no doubt it was. Another gentleman who saw the score was Hanslick, then a young man looking around for some one to attach himself to—a peripatetic barnacle. Later, he found Brahms, as all the world soon found out, and revised his early notions of the greater musician. But at first he was all enthusiasm and gush, and wrote articles "explaining" Tannhaeuser. However, his views are of no importance to-day. Liszt, generous soul, had the opera played at Weimar at the earliest possible moment.




Lohengrin was first drafted in 1845—for Wagner during this period allowed no grass to grow under his feet. He was a member of a coterie that met at Angell's restaurant, and there on November 17 he read the complete libretto to his friends and acquaintances. Schumann was amongst them, and he bluntly asserted that such a libretto could not be set. Others were more favourable, but many were doubtful. However, that made little difference to Richard. He knew his own strength and trusted his instinct; and however much he was urged to alter the denouement, he stuck to his guns and his libretto.

In point of structure the libretto of Lohengrin closely resembles that of its predecessor. There are even fewer set pieces, there are more fragmentary speeches. The drama is so contrived as to let in the set pieces naturally: of the old forced operatic business of sending out or bringing in characters as seems advisable there is not a sign. The story is on the whole simpler than that of Tannhaeuser. Lohengrin is son of Parsifal, head of the mystic Montsalvat monastery where the Holy Grail is kept; where the monks never seem precisely to die; and where, without marriage and even without women, children are somehow born to the favoured ones. He comes in a magic boat drawn by a swan to aid Elsa against Telramund and his wife, who falsely accuse her of having murdered her brother; he fights for her and overcomes the accusers, first exacting a promise that she will never ask him his name nor where he comes from. She promises, yielding herself unconditionally to him; and so ends Act One. Next Ortrud, wife of Telramund, gets Elsa's ear, begging for mercy, and contrives to poison the girl's mind with doubts regarding Lohengrin; and when later the wedding procession is nearing the church, Telramund himself accuses Lohengrin before the king and all the crowd of sorcery and witchcraft. Nothing happens at the moment; Telramund is pushed on one side, and the procession goes its way. But in the next act, when Lohengrin and Elsa are left alone she can no longer restrain her curiosity nor conceal her fears: in spite of his warnings she questions him. At the moment Telramund and other nobles rush in to assassinate him; he kills Telramund, orders the other nobles to bear the body into the judgment hall, and tells Elsa he must leave her. In the next scene he reveals himself, and the swan returns to take him away. Ortrud mocks him and tells how she, after all, has triumphed, for she changed Elsa's brother into a swan; Lohengrin kneels and prays; the swan disappears and the missing brother springs up; a dove descends and is attached by Lohengrin to the boat, and he goes back to Montsalvat.

Now I would ask the reader if this story is reasonable, if any "meaning" or moral can be read into it. On the face of it Lohengrin's conditions are preposterous. Yet he is bound by the laws of the magic domain he comes from; he trusts Elsa and does battle on her behalf without any proof of her innocence; and she has no patience to wait for him to explain matters. On the other hand, he hears her prayer in a magical way, and comes drawn in a magic boat; and she has a perfect right to assume that he would not have fought for her if he had not known by his arts that she was innocent. It was just over this denouement, this forsaking of Elsa because of her inquisitiveness, that many of Wagner's friends boggled; and nothing that he then or afterwards wrote in defence of it seems to me worth a moment's serious consideration. Mr. Ernest Newman suggests that perhaps Wagner was using the savage's notion that in giving up your name you are placing yourself in some one's power; but there is not a hint of that in the drama. The thing to me is simply a fairy story. We must accept Lohengrin and the conditions in which he lives, moves and has his being. He is not his own master: somewhere far away he has an all-powerful over-lord who, for no useful purpose to be comprehended by mortal, sent him to rescue Elsa under these conditions. And I say that, far from having a meaning, a "purpose," Lohengrin is pure romance, as innocent of moral ideas as any genuine mediaeval romance. Wagner's "explanations," like Bishop Berkeley's, take a great deal of explaining; and though Glasenapp, Wolzogen and the rest have covered many reams of paper in doing it, we are not an inch nearer to perceiving a grain of sense in the whole affair. There is only one part of it which can be, in one sense, explained—Wagner's intense acrimony in his treatment of the female puppet Elsa. Even in 1845 he had grown restive under the insults and stupidity of court officials and the Press, and doubtless he had threatened often enough to quit for ever the degraded German theatre. He never could see that the German theatre had never been any better than it then was, but on the contrary, a great deal worse; he never realized that it was on the up-grade, and that he was to be instrumental in elevating it. He was like a mechanic called in (by destiny) to repair a rickety machine, who because it won't go when he "wills" it, kicks it to pieces. The Reissigers and the rest were simply parts of the machine that were out of order: time and patience were required to eliminate them and put in sound working parts. Wagner could not understand this any more than he could understand why all German (or rather, Saxon) mankind should not at once be perfect, think alike and form the ideal State. So, as he could not kick the Dresden Court Opera to pieces, he long meditated quitting it—so much he explicitly affirmed afterwards—and he must have worried Minna sadly. She understood neither his qualities nor his defects, his ideals nor the short-sighted impatience which rendered it impossible for him ever to attain them: she saw only too clearly that at any moment he might kick over the traces, and that the starvation and misery of the Paris episode would have to be faced again. We can readily picture him coming in raging after a conflict at the theatre with official imbecility, and Minna, instead of sympathizing, counselling him to be wise and temporize. His exasperation grew, and only the events of 1849 prevented a rupture—so much seems certain—and he vented his spleen by making Elsa a stupid, shallow, faithless creature who feels no gratitude towards the hero who saved her from being burnt, but by maddening female pertinacity, wrong-headedness and wilfulness destroys her own and his happiness. As the reader will perceive later, I by no means defend Wagner in this domestic squabbling, but something must be said for him; I don't say, either, that he created Elsa to express his views about his wife, but I do say that his feelings account for the excess of his rancour against his own creation. So pitiable a specimen of feminine inquisitiveness, bad temper and ungenerosity has never been put on the stage as the heroine of a grand opera. Possibly Lohengrin saw this; and, neglecting his recent marriage-vow, he went back to Montsalvat, where, as we know, there were no women. All this would have to be said in the course of this book; and I say it now because it helps us to understand a defect in the art of a beautiful opera.

A beautiful opera Lohengrin certainly is—the most beautiful of all Wagner's operas. The story of it is a fairy story, as I have said, and superficially a very ordinary sort of fairy story. We have the distressed maiden in the hands of persecutors, the knightly hero who rescues her, the maiden's faithlessness, and the contemptuous departure of the hero. But Wagner has clothed the whole of this work-a-day mediaeval legend in a wondrous atmosphere of mystical beauty, and that beauty springs from the thought of the river.


It is necessary to discuss as briefly as may be the leitmotiv, because with Lohengrin Wagner first began to use it with serious purpose. In the Dutchman two themes may be rightly described as leitmotivs; in Tannhaeuser not one theme may be rightly so described. While in Lohengrin Wagner showed himself as much as ever the inspired musician, he made for the first time use of the leitmotiv for dramatic as well as musical ends. There we find three leitmotivs: one intended by the power of association of ideas to evoke on the instant the vision of Montsalvat and the Grail; a second to recall the thought and emotion of Lohengrin the man; the third to remind us of the conditions which Lohengrin imposes on Elsa before he is willing to fight for her. The first (a, p. 191) is perhaps the most lovely thing Wagner invented; the third (d)—not second—is a thing any one might have concocted, though not a thing that any one I ever heard of could use as Wagner uses it; the second (c) is by way of being a study for the best of the Parsifal themes. It must be remarked, in passing, that the study is much more finely used than when his powers, largely exhausted by a tedious struggle with the world, had got into a state of decrepitude.

The leitmotiv (a) is of a serene beauty. I must cut out of it a little bit (b) which colours the opera and gives it atmosphere from the beginning far more than the complete theme. It is this, more than anything else, which gives Lohengrin the vividness of reality combined with the vanishing loveliness of a sweet dream. The idea of the swan, symbolizing the broad, shining river flowing from afar-off mysterious lands to the eternal sea, is given us in this phrase, as delicate and as firm, as unmistakable, as ever painter drew with his brush. Here we have, not indeed Montsalvat the domain of monks, but the land of ever-enduring dawn—a land that other poets have dreamed of, a land where hope could be subsisted on. From beginning to end Lohengrin, the man on the stage, moves in the atmosphere of this strange, dreamy, fresh and silent land: if he did not, no one would tolerate for a moment his behaviour. It is the magic charm that reconciles him to us; it is this that makes us feel how he is conditioned, chained, cribbed, cabined and confined. In obedience to inexorable law he comes down the river, drawn by the swan; in obedience to the same inexorable law he is drawn away, as helplessly as a needle drawn by a magnet.

The prelude opens with a series of chords, ascending, all on A. Handel might have done this: none of the Viennese composers could, or perhaps I should rather say, would, have done it. Beethoven got as near to the naked truth as ever composer did in dealing with the emotions of humanity; Mozart, too, worked his miracles; Weber, non-Viennese though he was, gave us weird, fantastic pictures of fairy adventures in the darkness of grim woods, but nothing more. It was left for Wagner to give us in a few bars a picture, such as no painter could have painted, of the blue heavens on an almost unimaginably fine day. The blue sky, the thin, clear air, the sunlight, are all given us in the first few bars. It is far from my wish to intrude my personal history into these pages, but I wish to give a convincing example of an episode of a sort familiar to all those who have experimented with Wagner's music. A relative of mine, who had spent many of his earlier years in travelling the southern Atlantic and the Pacific in sailing vessels, heard me play on the piano, as an illustration of some argument I was foolish enough to advance, these opening bars of the Lohengrin prelude. He immediately said, "That takes me back into the Trades"—the sweet days of perfect peace in southern climes, where the sky was blue for day after day and week after week, where the wind sang cheerfully without change for weeks on end, where a delicious sun made all men (no matter what the feeling was on those foul old ships) feel good-natured and good-hearted. That is to say, my relative at once felt the magical truthfulness of Wagner's touch: the sweet, clear air, the sunlight; and that is the atmosphere Wagner wanted to establish at the beginning of this most magical of operas. Out of the blue sky comes the Montsalvat (not necessarily the Grail) motive; it descends with ever-gathering fulness, through key after key, until at last it culminates in a tremendous climax for the brass: then comes a wondrous cadence, falling slowly, as a mountain stream falls over slabs of smooth-worn mountain rock, until we get back to the original atmosphere. The Montsalvat vision has faded away into the blue whence it came. Wagner afterwards achieved some marvellous things, but none more marvellous than this.

The curtain rises: there is a rum-tum-tum by the orchestra. We are at once in the discord of a turbulent armed camp: the fury of Telramund against those who are not convinced of his evidently prejudiced view that Elsa holds the lands he wishes to hold, is made to resound in the orchestra as not the most expert Italian composer could make it resound by the voices. When Elsa enters to defend herself the music changes its character utterly; it is the embodiment of the sweetness of young feminine kindly nature; and it is odd that Wagner, when writing this music, which he fancied was the most German ever written, should have gone so far as, in some of its finest parts, to steal bits of the Austrian hymn, composed, as we may remember, by not even an Austrian, but a Croatian, pure Slav, composer. Elsa's account of her dream is not dramatic as Wagner, by the time he wrote his next work, would have understood the term—in shape it is an Italian aria, and everything is at a standstill until it is finished—yet it occurs fittingly, and prepares us by ethereal music for the music of a gentleman who is very unethereal. In form the whole scene is as near as may be a regular Italian opera scene. King Henry the Fowler and his nobles show mighty patience in sitting or standing it out to the end. The business of a champion for Elsa being called for, the moments of suspense, the prayers of Elsa and her attendant maidens, the fiery impatience of Telramund and the premature triumph of Ortrud are all done with Wagner's consummate skill in writing purely theatrical music; and when the swan and the hero are sighted the excitement is worked up with the same skill to a glorious triumph, and we hear the Lohengrin, "as hero," theme in its full splendour. Then comes the fighting music, which, like all fighting music, is mediocre stuff, and the gorgeous set piece, the finale. This last is quite old-fashioned opera, but it is not forced in: it happens inevitably. The themes are mainly new, but the Lohengrin heroic theme is worked in triumphantly. Technically there is no advance or change in Lohengrin: the counterpoint and interweaving of themes of Tristan and the Mastersingers were to come a few years later. Indeed, there is less of Wagner the contrapuntal virtuoso in Lohengrin than in Tannhaeuser.


In the music, as in the drama, the second act presents a total contrast to the first. The music of the first is throughout full of sunlight. At times it may be strident, violent, rather tumultuous; but sweetness is the prevailing note, and as soon as Elsa comes on we have the sheer loveliness of first her answers to the king, and then of her vision; then comes Lohengrin, bringing with him the breath of the land of eternal dawn, and of the shining river down which he was drawn by the swan; then after the (rather theatrical) prayer, a few moments of noise while the fighting is being arranged and carried out; then, so to speak, the glorious midday sunshine of the finale. The second act opens with two sinister phrases heard in the darkness (e and f)—Ortrud is planning vengeance, and the theme of Lohengrin's warning and threat to Elsa is presently heard; that warning gives her the hint as to the way of achieving vengeance. Ortrud and Telramund, outcast, crouch there in the night; Ortrud deeply scheming, Frederick, poor dupe, madly fuming, while the lights blaze at the palace windows, and the trumpets sound out as the feast proceeds within. He rages, and a theme (f) quoted is abruptly transformed into (g) as he bitterly casts upon Ortrud the blame for their downfall. The vocal parts are neither recitative nor true song; the orchestral tide is developed in much the same symphonic style as in Tannhaeuser. We are still no nearer to the perfect blending of the orchestral stream and the vocal parts that we get in Tristan and in the Mastersingers. The style is not homogeneous: the stream is broken by theatrical exclamations and snatches of recitative that not only break the flow, but differ in character from the rest. But the elasticity of motion is a great advance on Tannhaeuser: Wagner was coming to his own, and much of Tannhaeuser strikes one as cumbrous and heavy in comparison. That sinister atmosphere of mystery is never lost; the gloom and the wretched crouching figures, the fierce anger and Ortrud's alternate cajoling and threatening may be said, without exaggeration, to sound from the orchestra with as powerful an effect on the imagination as the sights and sounds on the stage. Most magnificent is the descending chromatic passage that accompanies Ortrud as she casts her spell again over Frederick. It resembles closely an Erda theme of the Ring—as is quite natural, for one chromatic scale cannot but resemble another. The significance of the resemblance is that the strange harmonies are also much alike, and the central idea is the same in the two cases: the idea of old Mother Earth, her everlasting stillness in strange places, her never-ceasing internal workings, her mysterious power. In the Ring there is nothing baneful in the conception: it is Nature at work in her sleep amongst the silent hills: mysterious, indeed, but doing no evil. Here it is the earth as conceived by the mediaeval mind, the earth to which the coming of the White Christ had banished all the gods of the older world, there to become the malevolent, malignant divinities of the new world, and believed in as such by the first adherents of the new religion. Frederick was a Christian, mediaeval style, and he implicitly believes that Ortrud can call up wicked spirits, and by their aid weave enchantments when the God of the East is not looking. The same may be said of the king, and indeed all the characters in Lohengrin: again I say the opera is a fairy drama in which these things must be assumed and accepted. That wondrous passage must have sounded doubly wonderful in the ears of two generations back; blent with that second sinister Ortrud theme, it accomplishes as much in a dozen or so bars as Weber could accomplish in as many pages. That Ortrud theme seems to wind round Frederick's soul until at last he is wholly in his wife's grip; and the scene ends with an invocation to "ye Powers that rule our earthly lot"—the malignant gods of the underworld. We, knowing the kind of music Wagner had in his mind when he wrote the libretto of Lohengrin, can easily understand Schumann's dismay when this scene was read to him: nothing of the sort had been composed before.

Suddenly Elsa appears on the balcony, and the character of the music changes at once: all now is sweetness and light. Her serenade (to herself) is a simple and very lovely thing, making full half of its effect through its contrast with the harshness, agitation and gloom of all that has gone before. There is a master-touch when Ortrud calls softly, "Elsa": by one stroke, an abrupt strange chord, the whole atmosphere is for the moment altered: the dreariness of the call is unforgetable. There are many hints of Ortrud's purpose given out more and more plainly till the climax is reached in her invocation to Wotan, chief of the malignant divinities. (It is strange to think that when he wrote this Wagner must already have had the other and more celebrated Wotan in his thoughts.) Much of Elsa's melody is of a very Weberesque quality—and is none the worse for it: far better that than the touches of Bellini, Marschner and Spontini that abound in the earlier operas. One or two other points may be noted. At the words "Rest thee with me" we get a tune which might have grown out of one previously heard and one in the bedroom scene—not only does the tune resemble the others closely, but the rhythm of the phrases Elsa addresses to Ortrud is the same as that of the phrases with which Lohengrin seems to caress Elsa. There is, of course, no "significance" in the sense in which the word is used by the Wagnerians. The short duet following contains a divine melody, but Ortrud's "aside" is a fairly lengthy one—forty bars—and is a bit of conventionalism which Wagner soon discarded. The melody is played again as Elsa leads her enemy into the house; Frederick returns to curse Ortrud and Lohengrin in the same breath; all the sweetness goes out of the music as Elsa disappears from view, and the scene closes as it opened, in gloom.

As daylight breaks Wagner indulges in one of the effects he was fond of at this period. The reveille is sounded from a turret, and an answering call comes from a distance; and the two parties trumpet it in alternation until every one is awakened. It is a quasi-musical effect only: there is no invention: the trumpet chords serve the purpose and nothing more. He never reverted to this rather bald method of filling up time while his people are being got on the stage: compare this passage with, for instance, Hagen's call in The Dusk of the Gods. The latter is rich and full of picturesque music: it means something and is, in fact, an effective piece in a concert-room. Or take the watchman with his cow-horn in the Mastersingers; the music is redolent of the old world; it impresses the imagination more than an entry in Pepys—"the watchman calling two of the morning and a thick snow falling." In the Lohengrin days his method still requires these longueurs, these dry patches: later his mastery over his material enabled him to deal his theatrical and his musical stroke at the same time. As knights and retainers flock in, a long and elaborate chorus is sung—a musical, not a dramatic, chorus, almost as much in the Rienzi manner as in the manner of Tannhaeuser. It is curious to observe how cautious and tentative Wagner was at this stage of his growth. He was still groping, seeing only very dimly the destination he would reach by the way he was taking. Lohengrin, had he followed the plan he would certainly have adopted ten years later, would have been terser, more closely dramatic, and would have made only a short opera; there would have been fewer set numbers and a much smaller quantity of the magnificent music. The whole idea, I have already said, is not a dramatic one, but a musical one; and the advance on the Dutchman lies in the skill with which the musical opportunities seem to grow out of the drama and are not pressed into it. In this respect it is hardly an advance on Tannhaeuser; indeed three of the great ensembles have not an adequate dramatic motive. That at the end of the first act, splendid music though it is, is a quite operatic finale, so conventional that only when rendered in the conventional operatic manner does it sound and appear impressive. It becomes, when done in this manner, a kind of dance, for towards the finish all the crowd should form in long lines and go twining about in a ballet figure. In this opening chorus of knights and retainers in the Second Act (scene ii) the musical inspiration is intense; but words are repeated as irrationally as in a Handel oratorio chorus; and the same is the case in the bridal procession music. Wagner still had a hankering after imposing spectacle and brilliant choral writing. That bridal procession and chorus are, of course, supremely beautiful music: music and spectacle were aimed at and achieved, not music and drama, in the later Wagnerian sense.

The scene of the interruption of the procession first by Ortrud and then by Frederick has always seemed to me superfluous as well as stagey. The whole thing is pure melodrama of the kind that used to be popular until a very few years ago; and the music is as melodramatic as the two incidents. The scene is far too long, and is thus rendered doubly nonsensical. Only a few minutes before, the Herald has announced the King's decree: any one harbouring either of the offenders "will share his [it ought to be their] doom with life and limb." Yet the offenders themselves are allowed to break up an orderly procession and to hurl angry diatribes at the very people they have been banned for seeking to injure. For many minutes Ortrud, encouraged by a furious orchestra, pours forth a stream of insult directed at Lohengrin and Elsa: she is not immediately seized and carried off to be tortured: the bystanders utter a few exclamations, and leave Elsa to reply for herself. When the king and Lohengrin enter they content themselves with gentle remonstrances: even Frederick draws from them only dignified if somewhat scornful protests. There has been some other rather futile business: a few conspirators planning to support Frederick in attacking not only Lohengrin, but the king. The flower of a loyal army look on at all this and go on their way, leaving Frederick free to make an attempt on Lohengrin's life in the third Act. Again I emphasise a point because it reveals exactly how far Wagner's art had got at this period. Well might he feel it necessary, before proceeding to other masterpieces, to discover where he stood, what was his ideal, and how he might attain it. For, observe, he wanted to depict in music an imperious, ambitious, unscrupulous and wicked woman with a temper that in the end is her own undoing; he felt the necessity of contrasting her with Elsa, sweet, gentle and lamentably weak—Elsa, who is strong, or, rather, pertinacious, only once, and at the wrong time; and, third, he felt that his act would terminate rather tamely with a mere wedding-march. The result is this noisy melodramatic scene, with its melodramatic music. It could not be otherwise. Music cannot express anger—at best it can only suggest. By anger I mean human anger—the god's wrath of a Wotan is a different matter. Bruennhilda knows Wotan to be angry by the raging storm that marks his path through the heavens, by the lightnings and thunders; and we have all enough of our primitive ancestors in us to feel in some degree as they felt—indeed, plenty of people to-day see in a storm a manifestation of the wrath of the Almighty. Human anger has never been put into music. Why, Ortrud alternates her rantings (mere recitative) with beautiful phrases of the same pattern as those sung by Elsa! The music for the orchestra is turbulent rather than forcible; it is incoherent in the old-fashioned way: essentially—in spite of a free use of discords—it is as old-fashioned as anything in Don Giovanni. Frederick and Lohengrin have hot words, and Telramund is supposed to be a hotheaded idiot and Lohengrin a spotless, handsome hero; and lo! with due regard for the respective ranges of their voices, they might sing each other's music and no harm done. When the chorus enters a very imposing piece of music is wrought, largely out of the Ortrud insinuating theme (f); but it is not dramatic music. The ending with the resumption of the procession is one of Wagner's noblest things. It is not in the customary sense of the phrase an operatic finale, but a perfectly satisfying piece of music that prepares us for a pause during which we can take breath before the action of the drama is taken up again in the third Act.


In that act we have the central idea of the opera—the poetic and the musical idea—clearly, definitely set forth—the idea of Montsalvat, far away up the rippling river on which the white swan floated—Montsalvat, the land of eternal dawn, where all things remained for ever young, and the flowers and the corn grew always and never faded nor fell to the sickle. It is the land Mignon aspired to—"Oh let me for ever then remain young"—the impossible dream of poets and millions of men and women who were not poets: Nirvana, with a difference; that realm in which, tired with the struggles and fights in the devious ways of this dark world, they should after death awake refreshed in a serene light and pure air, thereafter to dwell for ever in a state of untroubled blessedness, where all earth's puzzles solve themselves, and life is seen to be complete. As Senta's ballad is the germ of the Dutchman, so is Lohengrin's narrative, "In fernem Land," the germ of this more beautiful opera. It plays a more important part in Lohengrin than does the ballad in the Dutchman. Without exaggeration, the life, colour and emotion of the narrative wash backwards and forwards over the Lohengrin score, relieving scenes that might be tedious and worrying—like those Ortrud scenes I have just described—and making the beautiful pages still more beautiful. The land of dawn, fresh and pure, the limpid river: these, the essence of Lohengrin and the pervading atmosphere, proceed from the narrative.

But much has to be got through before this point is reached. First, we have the gorgeous prelude—the most brilliant Wagner wrote, and the last he was to write that has no thematic connection with any portion of the opera. Here we have no summary of the act, no hint of impending disaster and tragedy, but simply a joyous, rattling preliminary to the procession that escorts Lohengrin and Elsa to the bridal chamber. It starts off with immense spirit, the music leaping straight up, hesitating a moment on a cross-accent, then a noisy shake reaching its highest note, and after a clash of the cymbals sliding off into the more regular rhythm, broken slightly by occasional syncopations, in which the piece as a whole is conceived. The melody in the bass that follows, and the more tender strains of a middle section, are familiar to every one nowadays—in fact, so familiar that we are likely to overlook the intense originality of the whole thing. When we remember the course the drama has now to take, the tragic beauty of its close, we can perceive how exactly right Wagner's feeling was when he left the plan he adopted throughout the Dutchman and Tannhaeuser—the plan either of summing up or foreshadowing the ensuing scenes, or of making the prelude part of the first scene. Of course the music at the beginning of Act II is rather in the nature of an introduction than of a distinct prelude; but Act III is not prefaced by so much as that. Rather, it suggests that since Elsa and Lohengrin entered the church all has been rejoicing, and that we catch only the tail-end of the feast as the party comes on the stage.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7     Next Part
Home - Random Browse