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

The wedding chorus I pass over as rather trivial; and it contains between the middle section and the repetition the eight most trivial bars Wagner put to paper—I do not except the weakest portions of Rienzi. The opening of the great love scene—the most curious love scene in the world—is pure deliciousness. Nothing of the passion, flaming hot and terrible, of Tristan is here; only a sense of sheer delight and happiness. Melody after melody—of a very Weberesque pattern, of course, but sweet, voluptuous—is poured forth; and a graver tone comes into the music only when Elsa begins timidly to lead up to the questionings of Lohengrin which are her aim. She hints at what she wants, and Lohengrin gives her, to a very pretty tune, an answer that can merely be called sublimely fatuous. Drawing her to the window, he bids her breathe in the odours from the flowers in the moonlit garden beneath. "But," he blandly adds, "don't ask whence their sweet scent comes, or you will its wondrous charm destroy." The song is, I say, a pretty one; indeed, it is so pretty that but for the enchantment of each successive phrase no one could stand the monotony of so long a series of four-bar phrases. Of that fault in Lohengrin I shall have more to say presently. More dramatic, living, and less mechanical stuff follows at once: Elsa is not to be put off in that way, and in agitated strains to an agitated but not spasmodic accompaniment she presses on towards disaster. Lohengrin's warning sounds out, sinister; Lohengrin pleads, always stupidly, but to music of growing intensity and grip; the measures are no longer cut to a pattern, not incoherent as they are in the squabbles of the second Act; and at last a passage of Wagner at his theatrical best is reached when he solemnly warns her again—"Greatest of trusts, Elsa, I have shown thee." To another most lovely theme he tries again to soothe her: she will not listen, and the Ortrud theme begins to writhe in the orchestra, and we know that Elsa's soul is fast bound in the spell of suspicion which Ortrud put upon her. She gets nearer and nearer to the fatal question, and suddenly in the impotent rage of a fretful woman who cannot get her way—a woman driven mad by baseless jealousy—in fancy she sees the swan coming to lead Lohengrin away from her; with mournful and dreary effect a fragment of the swan theme sounds from the orchestra. This simple touch is weird to a degree never dreamed of by all the purveyors of operatic horrors; it is unearthly, uncanny, in its wild beauty. The climax is immensely powerful, but very simple, and, above all, sheer art of the theatre. There is a crash as Frederick rushes in to be instantly killed; a bass passage tears down the scale to the depths; and the horns sustain two pianissimo chords, two notes in each; then silence, broken only by soft drum-beats to make the silence felt. Elsa has fainted, and as she revives we hear a bit of the duet—Lohengrin's tenderness as he tends her, and a fleeting dream of Elsa's, perhaps, seem to blend in it. All is finished.

To compare this duet with that in Tristan would be profitless but for one reason. Wagner had not yet reached that perfect mastery of his art which enabled him, so to speak, to fuse the dramatic and the musical inspiration. We saw how in the Dutchman the music rose to its full height and splendour when the drama was sincere and true; in Tristan drama and music are inseparable. In Lohengrin, where the inspiration is, if not wholly, at any rate mainly, musical, the drama seems at times to be somewhat of a hindrance. I have mentioned the fine dramatic or stage touches; but the finest things occur when the pair, singly or together, are singing music that would be as effective on a concert platform as on the stage. The art, that is, is far away from the art of the Tristan duet. At many points the situation is saved by Wagner's stage dexterity: only when the music is almost as completely self-moulded as in a symphony, or any other form of "absolute" music, is it at its best. For practical purposes with Wagner the songs are "absolute" music: the words were his own, and he could alter them to suit the musical exigency.


The opening of the next scene is spectacular, and the music is not striking—for Wagner, though Marschner or Spontini might have owned it with pride. The entry of the nobles bringing Frederick's corpse, the entry also of Elsa, "like Niobe, all tears," are theatrically powerful. Elsa's entry is a particularly beautiful example of what I have previously called Wagner's dramatict use of the leitmotiv. There are twenty bars of accompaniment, and in that space we have three motives, so arranged that those who knew their significance, but had never seen the earlier portions of the opera, might easily read the whole of Elsa's sad history. As she is led in, stricken down and miserable, the warning theme is heard; then that winding, insidious theme associated with Ortrud; and last, four bars of the music heard in the first act when she stands helpless before the king and has nothing wherewith to answer her accusers: she is as miserable now as she was then, and the cause of it Lohengrin's edict and her defiance of it under Ortrud's influence. The device I have always maintained to be a naive one; but it may be used to a sublime end, as in the Dusk of the Gods funeral procession, or as here, to emphasize Elsa's situation, and to remind us at once of her being the authoress of her own destruction. This is followed by acclamations as Lohengrin enters, and nothing further of note occurs until he declares that, for reasons which he cannot give, he will not go forth to fight the foe with the Brabantians; and this declaration is set to the same passage, or part of it, in which he has lately warned Elsa not to question him (p. 175). The meaning of the words and the dramatic significance of this musical phrase are beyond my understanding. If Lohengrin did not mean to tell his secret the musical phrase might imply that he had no intention of letting them ask for it. But he has come there with no other intention than that of revealing everything—and, in a word, the whole business is incomprehensible because there is nothing to be comprehended—because it is sheer nonsense. How Wagner, even supposing he had originally some other idea for the ending of the work, could let so flat a contradiction of his final plan stand—this also is more than I can understand; for in later years he saw his opera performed. And at that I must leave the matter. Lohengrin presently proceeds to disclose his secret in that wondrous "In fernem Land"—surely the most superb thing of its sort ever written. The vocal part is—as I have already pointed out, this is often the case in Wagner—something between pure song and recitative; and here it is of a quality he himself rarely matched—not even in Tristan. Technically, it is a piece of descriptive music for instruments; but the words which give it significance and point are set to phrases themselves so beautiful, pathetic and inevitable that one feels that the vocal part and the orchestral were begotten simultaneously in that marvellous brain. In other chapters I will point to passages, especially in the Ring, where quite obviously the voice part has been laboriously worked in with instrumental music already conceived in its final form; but that was in Wagner's later years, when the free inspiration, enthusiasm and energy of his Tristan and Lohengrin and Mastersingers days had for ever departed. There is an accent of passionate grief in Lohengrin's words to Elsa, and of remorse in Elsa's wailings; but the most touching thing in this final scene is the song in which he hands her his sword, horn and ring, to be given to her brother should he return. The note of regret, especially in the poignant "leb' wohl," reminds one irresistibly of Wotan's farewell to Bruennhilda. The latter is broader, richer, vaster,—and yet the tender simplicity of this is inexpressibly touching. After that the opera proceeds to its conclusion in what one may call a normal manner: there is nothing, anyhow, in the music that requires analysis.


Lohengrin cannot be called Wagner's greatest achievement, but it is a "fine," if not a "first careless rapture" whose freshness he never quite recaptured. Yet, in a way, it is the most mannered of his works. I know of no opera where one phrase, one harmony or set of harmonies, or one violin figure is made to serve so many and such widely different purposes; and not since the early seventeen hundreds had the perfect cadence been so hard worked. Only two numbers are in other than four-four time—the prayer and the wedding song. The melodies on page upon page consist of regular four-bar lengths, commonly terminating in a full close. We can admit all this—indeed, we must admit it all—and then we are only bound the more to admire the vast amount of variety Wagner got in spite of all the obstacles self-placed in his way. His fondness for the diminished seventh, constantly exploited throughout, was perhaps a fondness for his own adopted child—for no one had ever properly employed it before: to him and to every one at the time his use of it was new. Many points in his prolonged passages which are simply arpeggios of the chord of the diminished seventh must have seemed novel in the eighteen-forties, though we hardly notice them now. The four-bar lengths send the music along with a swing very different from the jerkiness of contemporary opera music. The cadence is used only to attain, so to speak, a fresh jumping-off place: there is no moment of real rest: simultaneously with the attainment of a point of rest the new impulse is felt, and away the thing flies again. But what compensates for all these defects—and defects they are—is the perpetual presence of the Montsalvat music: we are never long without hearing some of it. The Montsalvat music is the source of the charm and fascination of the opera, and its purity and freshness seem likely for ever to keep the opera sweet.




The journey to Zurich was a risky one. Wagner, the composer of what is now the most popular of all operas, Lohengrin, might indeed pass unnoticed, for the work had not been heard; but the composer of the Dutchman and of Rienzi, and perhaps of Tannhaeuser, and above all the organizer and conductor of the largest musical festival ever held in Dresden, could not easily slip past unobserved. As a matter of fact, few or none of the officials seemed very anxious to catch him; still, thousands of innocent persons were being taken by the Prussians, "tried," and sent to long terms of penal servitude for having done nothing—it being argued, apparently, that any one against whom nothing could be proved must of necessity be guilty of some crime. Wagner's first idea was simply to keep out of the way until things had quieted down. It took things more than a couple of years to quiet down. Meantime a warrant was out for Richard's arrest. His movements between Dresden, Chemnitz and Freiberg are of no interest nowadays; but things became a little exciting from the day, May 13 (1849), when he arrived at Liszt's. I have related how for a week or so all seemed well, and Wagner thought himself safe, being out of Saxony. He even intended witnessing a representation of Tannhaeuser, but the day before, if not sooner, the warrant was circulated in the German fashion of those days, with a personal description which seems to have been made purposely vague by some friendly hand, though more naturally one would assume it to be due to official stupidity. Wagner heard Liszt rehearsing something of his and was overjoyed, and also he was so confident of his own security that he still wanted to stay to hear Tannhaeuser. Liszt would not hear of it; he packed his friend off under an assumed name to some other friends; they procured a passport, and he travelled to Zurich via Jena and Coburg. It should be put on record that in the meantime he ran the risk of being captured by lingering to have a last hour with his wife. Towards the end of the month he reached Zurich, and had no more fear of the Prussian police.

We have already seen how sick he had grown of Dresden, where he complained of being slowly stifled; but Liszt proposed—nay, insisted—on something worse than Dresden—Paris. Wagner was now a penniless, homeless wanderer, as he had been when he set out from Riga ten years before; and Liszt fondly believed that only by making a hit in Paris could he command any enduring success in Germany, and thus gain money to live on, wherever he might happen to be. Liszt was the good genie who found the funds, and Wagner, having nothing better to propose, was bound to obey. So he stayed three days in Zurich and set out; and a deal of good he did! He knew absolutely that such work as his could scarcely hope to get so much as a bare hearing, and the event proved him to be right. He submitted scenarios of several operas to a French poet, and there, for all practical purposes, the business ended. Here is a fragment from a letter to Theodor Uhlig, dated Zurich, August 9, '49—

"I am living here, helped in communistic fashion by Liszt, in good spirits, and I may say prosperously, according to my best nature; my only and great anxiety is about my poor wife, whom I am expecting here very shortly. To my very great astonishment, I find that I am a celebrity here; made so, indeed, by means of the piano scores of all my operas, out of which whole acts are repeatedly performed at concerts and at choral unions. At the beginning of the winter I shall go again to Paris to have something performed and to put my opera matter into order. You cannot imagine what joy one finds in frugality if one knows that thereby the noblest thing, freedom, is assured; you know how long I was brewing in my blood the Dresden catastrophe, only I had no presentiment of the exact hurricane which would drive me thence; but you are thoroughly convinced that all the annuities and restitutions in the world would not induce me to become again what, to my greatest sorrow, I was in Dresden. I have just a last remnant of curiosity, however, and you would give me much pleasure in letting me know how matters stand with you. My wife has never found leisure to give me news of Dresden, the theatre, and the band. Do relieve this last Dresden longing. Do you happen to know anything definite about the state of the police inquiry? The fate of Heubner, Roeckel and Bakunin troubles me much. Anyhow, these persons ought not to be imprisoned. But don't let me speak of it! In this matter one can only judge justly and adequately if one looks at the period from a lofty point of view. Woe to him who acts with sublime purpose, and then, for his deeds, is judged by the police! It is a grief and a shame which only our times can show."

He had no real intention of returning to Paris. Earlier in the same letter he speaks of ending the speculating by his proposed Jesus of Nazareth. Indeed, the slavery of working for the market in Paris was even more repugnant to him than the liveried bondage in Saxony. Previous to the writing of this letter Liszt had lent him twelve pounds, and by the end of July he was back in Zurich, and though, much against his will, he did go to Paris again, and, in fact, much farther, Zurich was thenceforth for some years his headquarters. His host at first was an honest musician Alexander Mueller, who, I believe, had known him in Wuerzburg long before; but he soon set up an establishment of his own.

His main purpose at this time was to try to clear in his brain the confused mass of theories and speculations concerning music, and especially opera, which had long been seething there. Lohengrin, the reader must have observed, was not a road leading anywhere, but an impasse; a step towards the attainment of his ideal it was not: it was, on the whole, a step backwards, although it is a much more beautiful work than Tannhaeuser. Wagner's mind, like Thoreau's, Carlyle's, Brahms', needed filtering—an operation that could only be performed in perfect peace and loneliness. Thoreau went to Walden; Carlyle to Craigenputtock; Brahms at any rate retired from public musical life. They worked out their own salvation. Wagner felt he must do the same; as we know, he did the same: hence many of those terrible volumes of prose-writings. His mental condition is indicated in another few sentences from the letter quoted above—

"Yet I must frankly confess that the freedom which I here inhale in fresh Alpine draughts is intensely pleasing to me. What is the ordinary care about the so-called future of citizen life compared with the feeling that we are not tyrannized over in our noblest aims? How few men care more for themselves than for their stomachs? Now I have made my choice, and am spared the trouble of choosing; so I feel free in my innermost soul, and can despise what torments me from without; no one can withdraw himself from the evil influences of the civilized barbarism of our time, but all can so manage that they do not rule over our better self."

We may as well note one point at once. When Thoreau, Carlyle and Brahms went into their respective wildernesses, they maintained themselves, as they thought merely proper. In this respect Wagner's views did not coincide with theirs. He exclaims scornfully, "How few men care more for themselves than for their stomachs!" What he meant was that he should care for himself while his friends cared for his stomach. As he cared a very great deal for his stomach, his demands upon his friends were exorbitant and continuous. True, he offered the fruits of his brain to the world at large, but all save the faithful liked not the security. The creator of Lohengrin and Tannhaeuser was quite justified in believing that he ought to be supported, and it may be that the respect we pay to the artists who starve it out is only a complacent way of saying how pleased we are that no one asks us to put our hands in our pockets. Nevertheless—!

We must remember, however, that he had no money and no prospects, and carried the burden of gigantic unfinished, un-begun projects; his worldly situation was even more desperate than it had been in 1839. The voyage from Pillau was a voyage into the unknown, undertaken in the hope of securing something tangible—a performance of Rienzi and fame and money; the voyage on which he had set out was into an even stranger unknown, a voyage into the world of ideas, without any prospects whatever in the worldly sense. He was groping his way confusedly towards something greater than he had hitherto accomplished; but he knew neither what subject to select nor how to treat it. Nature had laid this burden upon him: he took it up only because he must; and, luckily for us, the giver of the burden had granted him the arrogance, the courage, the imperviousness to the estimation in which he might be held by others—if the reader likes it better, the sheer cheek—to find the means of living while he carried the burden to the appointed place and so achieved his end. When John the Baptist went into the wilderness he found camel's hair to clothe himself and wild honey to feed himself. Even these primitive luxuries are not to be had for looking in modern Europe, and Wagner asked his friends to supply a substitute for them.

We find him suggesting to Liszt that a number of German princes might combine to support him, and in return accept his works as he turned them out; he suggested also that Liszt might himself guarantee him an annuity. Liszt was from the beginning, and continued until the appearance of King Ludwig in 1864, to be the most generous of helpers, but he had ceased to go concertizing through Europe, and had not too much money to spare. The Wesendoncks, Ritters, Wagner's own family, all contributed as they could; but verily the man seemed to be a bottomless abyss into which all the wealth of the world might be dropped and still it would gape for more. If all his admirers in 1850 had contributed a penny a month he might have been satisfied—if half the number of his admirers in 1913 could have contributed a penny a year he would have had more than even he could have spent. But no such plan seemed to be feasible; and on Liszt fell the brunt, whilst the others did what they could or thought fit to do. Wagner may reasonably be defended against the charge of greed or luxury. He was in chronic ill-health, and his stupendous exertions made it unlikely he would ever be better. We can believe even Praeger when he tells us that Wagner's skin was so sensitive that he could tolerate only the finest silk next to it; for we know that from babyhood he was tortured by eczema. Had he not coddled himself he would not have had the strength and nerve to achieve anything at all. He never knew one day where next day's food was to come from; he was a homeless exile. Happiness he never knew: such men as Wagner are not created to be happy. Publishers and opera-directors alike treated him scurvily. To show his state of mind I quote a portion of another letter to Uhlig, dated September, 1850, after the production of Lohengrin at Weimar—

"Liszt spoke to me previously about an honorarium of thirty louis d'or for Lohengrin—instead of which I had altogether only 130 thalers. Further, he announced to me that I should receive a commission to write Siegfried for Weimar, and be paid beforehand enough to keep me alive undisturbed until the work was finished. Until now they preserve there the most stubborn silence. Whether I should give Siegfried to Weimar, intending it to be produced there, is after all a question which, as matters now stand, I would probably only answer with an unqualified No! I need not begin to assure you that I really abandoned Lohengrin when I permitted its production at Weimar. I certainly received a letter yesterday from Zigesar, which informed me that the second performance—given, through somewhat energetic remonstrance on my part, only after most careful rehearsals, and without cuts—was a wonder of success and of effect on the public, and that it was perfectly clear that it was and would remain a "draw". Yet I need not give you my further reasons when I declare that I should wish to send Siegfried into the world in different fashion from that which would be possible to the good people there. With regard to this, I am busy with wishes and plans which, at first look, seem chimerical, yet these alone give me the heart to finish Siegfried. To realize the best, the most decisive, the most important work which, under the present circumstances, I can produce—in short, the accomplishment of the conscious mission of my life—needs a matter of perhaps 10,000 thalers. If I could ever command such a sum I would arrange thus:—here, where I happen to be, and where many a thing is far from bad—I would erect, after my own plans, in a beautiful field, near the town, a rough theatre of planks and beams, and merely furnish it with the decorations and machinery necessary for the production of Siegfried. Then I would select the best singers to be found anywhere, and invite them for six weeks to Zurich. I would try to form a chorus here, consisting, for the most part, of amateurs; there are splendid voices here, and strong, healthy people. I should invite in the same way my orchestra. At the new year announcements and invitations to all the friends of the musical drama would appear in all the German newspapers, with a call to visit the proposed dramatic musical festival. Any one giving notice, and travelling for this purpose to Zurich, would receive a certain entree—naturally, like all the entrees, gratis. Besides, I should invite to a performance the young people here, the university, the choral unions. When everything was in order I should arrange, under these circumstances, for three performances of Siegfried in one week. After the third the theatre would be pulled down, and my score burnt. To those persons who had been pleased with the thing I should then say, 'Now do likewise.' But if they wanted to hear something new from me, I should say, 'You get the money.' Well, do I seem quite mad to you? It may be so, but I assure you to attain this end is the hope of my life, the prospect which alone can tempt me to take in hand a work of art. So—get me 10,000 thalers—that's all!"

His friends, I say, did their best; but Liszt, though his generosity had no bounds, still clung to the odd idea that Wagner should do something for himself; also he could not get it out of his head that the something could only be done in Paris. So, in another of the Uhlig letters, dated more than six months anterior to the above, we find him writing, half wearily, half defiantly—

"I have never felt the consciousness of freedom so beneficent as now, nor have I ever been so convinced that only a loving communion with others procures freedom. If, through the assistance of X., I should be enabled to look firmly at the immediate future without any necessity to earn a living, those years would be the most decisive of my life, and especially of my artistic career; for now I could look at Paris with calmness and dignity; whereas, before, the fear of being compelled by outward necessity to make concessions, made every step which I took for Paris a false one. Now it would stand otherwise. Formerly it was thus: 'Disown thyself, become another, become Parisian in order to win for yourself Paris.' Now I would say: 'Remain just as thou art, show to the Parisians what thou art willing and able to produce from within, give them an idea of it, and in order that they may comprehend thee, speak to them so that they may understand thee; for thy aim is just this—to be understood by them as that which thou art,' I hope you agree with this.

"So on January 16, 1850, I go to Paris; a couple of overtures will at once be put into practice; and I shall take my completed opera scheme: it is Wiland der Schmied. First of all I attack the five-act opera form, then the statute according to which in every great opera there must be a special ballet. If I can only inspire Gustave Vaez, and impart to him the understanding of my intention, and the will to carry it through with me, well and good, if not, I'll seek till I find the right poet. For every difficulty standing in the way of the understanding I, and the subject connected with me, are attacked by the Press; if it is a question of clearing away without mercy the whole rubbish and cleansing with fresh water—in that matter I am in my right element, for my aim is to create revolution whithersoever I come. If I succumb—well the defeat is more honourable than a triumph in the opposite direction; even without personal victory I am, in any case, useful to the cause. In this matter victory will only be really assured by endurance; who holds out wins absolutely; and holding out with me means—for I am in no way in doubt about my force of will—to have enough money to strike hard and without intermission and not to worry about my own means of living. If I have enough money, I must at once see about getting my pamphlet on art translated and circulated. Well, that will be seen when I am on the spot, and I shall decide according to the means at my disposal. If my money comes to an end too soon, I confidently hope for help from another quarter—i.e. from the social republic, which sooner or later must inevitably be established in France. If it comes about—well, here I am ready for it, and, in the matter of art, I have solidly prepared the way for it. It will not happen exactly as my good-natured friends wish, according to their predilection for the evil present time, but quite otherwise, and, with good fortune, in a far better way—for, as they wish, I only serve myself—but as I wish to serve all."

The history of this third Paris episode is distressing enough; but we to-day, knowing what Paris was and what Wagner was, need not trouble much about it. I have passed over it quickly; but yet another excerpt from an Uhlig letter may be given to show how matters did not progress (dated Paris, March 13, 1850)—

"So, my Parisian art-wallowings are given up since I recognized their profane character. Heavens, how Fischer will rejoice when he hears I have become a man of order! Everything strengthened me in my ardent desire for renunciation. After endless waiting, I at last receive the orchestral parts of my Tannhaeuser overture, and pay with pleasure fifteen francs carriage for them. I then find that the parts have arrived much too soon, for the Union Musicale has time for everything except for the rehearsal of my overtures. I am, however, told that there may be rehearsals at the end of this month, and actually under a conductor who, in all the performances given under his direction, carries out the happy idea of indicating tempi, nuances, style in a manner quite different from that intended by the composer; and with passionate conscientiousness, insists on studying and conducting himself without ever allowing the composer to expound his confused views about his own work. Rocked in blissful dreams, I receive at last a letter of Heine's, with an enclosure from Wigand—namely, a money-order for ten louis d'or, which, from your letter, I had unfortunately expected would come to twenty louis d'or.

"In short, early to-morrow morning (at eight o'clock) I start off with the intention of being back here at the end of the month, for the possible rehearsals of my overture.

"I am sorry for Heine and Fischer. Poor fellows! they picture me floating along on a sea of Parisian hopes; they will be greatly and painfully undeceived. Salute and console them. When my cursed ill-humour of to-day has passed away, I will write to Heine. To his fidelity must I present an earnest face. A thousand greetings to my dear R——s, from whom I should so much have liked to receive a line. The merchant M——, of Dresden, will bring you something from me when he returns from his great Parisian business trip; a good daguerreotype copy from an excellent portrait which my friend Rietz has taken of me here.

"What more shall I write? I am all confusion about my hasty departure. I have now only to write the verses to my Wiland; otherwise the whole poem is finished—German, German! How my pen flew along! This Wiland will carry you all away on its wings; even your friendly Parisian hopes. If K—— does not write soon, I shall presume that he is raving too madly about Krebs. Krebs is clever—so is Michalesi—what more do you want? But K—— should restrain himself, and not give himself away so much as he does, as with me!

"Farewell! Another time you will receive a more sensible letter, with a list of misprints in my last book. If people do not comprehend me even after this work, if I am charged with improprieties, I clearly see the reason; one cannot understand my writings for the misprints. To my joy some one is playing the piano overhead; but no melody, only accompaniment, which has a charm for me, in that I can practice myself in the art of finding melodies"—

And, finally, these few bitter lines, sent after his return to Zurich—

"It is impossible for me to conduct my overture myself in Paris, for this reason, that it will not be performed there at all, as there was not proper time for rehearsal—perhaps "next year". I received this answer on the eve of my departure from Paris, and truly in a very pleasant quarter. I think I never laughed so loud and so from the bottom of my heart as on that evening and in that place."

It will be seen that Wagner never ceased to work during all this dreary time. He drafted his Wieland the Smith, made tentative shots at what at length grew into the Nibelung's Ring, and poured forth an enormous quantity of very prosy prose. Deferring a consideration of this last, let me tell briefly what his everyday life was. Through a little money from pamphlets, performing fees, etc., but mainly through the generosity of friends, he managed to live; though, as I have said, he never was quite sure about his next meal, a raven always flew in from somewhere just in the nick of time. Minna came, and her sister, and his home was made comfortable for him; he had many friends; he rapidly became recognized as many a cubit taller than any other musician in the parish. The opera and some orchestral concerts were placed under his direction; and Hans von Buelow came to serve his apprenticeship as conductor under him, very largely at the theatre. Wagner mentions a performance of the Flying Dutchman, which afforded him pleasure; for though, as he himself says somewhere, the band consisted of players more accustomed to play at dances than in grand opera, and not a singer of celebrity took part, yet all were painstaking, enthusiastic and sympathetic, and a fine representation was the result. This was the work he did outside his own house; his inside occupations I have mentioned. He lived with almost clockwork punctuality. Every afternoon he walked, accompanied by his dog, amongst the mountains, and to these walks may be attributed, I think, the atmosphere and colour of the Ring and its backgrounds. Wagner was as great a master as has lived of pictorial music, and the hills and ravines, the storms amongst the pines, were things he must have craved to translate into terms of his own art. After all, he found time also for a good deal of social intercourse, though the enormous quantity of work he turned out makes this difficult to believe. But Liszt visited him; Praeger undoubtedly did; Buelow, as said, was with him for some time; the Wesendoncks, his greatest pecuniary benefactors after a while, were there; Wille and his wife were there; Alexander Ritter, son of Frau Ritter, who made Wagner a regular allowance from 1851 to 1856, became his firm friend, and afterwards married one of his nieces; there were Baumgaertner and Sulzer—in fact, a bare list of names would fill a few pages. We must not take Wagner's plaints in his letters too seriously; he was an overworked, nervous man of moods; like Mr. Micawber, he seems to have come home of an evening weeping and declaring himself a ruined man, and in a few hours gone to bed calculating the cost of throwing out bow windows to his house. Throughout his life his resilience of spirit was one of his most amazing characteristics: I have no doubt that in the depth of despair he would write to Liszt swearing that he only wanted solitude; and in an hour's time he would think it might be pleasant to spend an hour with the Wesendoncks—and go. In the same way he longed earnestly for death while spending all his friends' money on baths and cures and doctors, and seeing to it that Minna provided the best of everything for his table. The pile of work remains to show his life was one of incredible industry. Between the end of 1848 and the end of 1854 he wrote at least a dozen long pamphlets, and as many more that are not so long; he wrote the words of the Ring and composed and scored the Rhinegold, and began the music of the Valkyrie. Further, he revised the overture to Gluck's Iphigenia in Aulis, and reconstructed his own Faust overture. How on earth he managed his interminable correspondence is more than I can guess. When we bear in mind the calls upon his time by his superintendence of opera and concerts, we cannot wonder that a man who did so much, and was born a weakling, was rarely quite well, and incessantly complains of his nerves. Yet these nerves, he wrote, gave him wonderful hours of insight.

There remains one thing to mention of these first Zurich years: his operas were gradually spreading through Germany, and, especially, Liszt had produced Lohengrin at Weimar in 1850. It quickly became so popular that before long Wagner could complain, or boast, that he was the only German who had not heard it. His movements during these years can easily be traced. Zurich remained his headquarters, but he went hither and thither, mainly in search of health. But the chief cause of his ill-health he carried with him—his irrepressible activity of mind. Could some intelligent doctor have given him a dose to stop him thinking for not less than one month, he would, I verily believe, have enjoyed ten years of unbroken freedom from sickness. These flittings are of no great interest in themselves; he never got far until his famous expedition to London in the summer of 1855. But now it is time to take a glance at the writings of the period.


In the introduction I announced my intention of dealing with Wagner's prose-writings only in so far as they reveal anything of value concerning the artist. His theories have been explained and elucidated to death; hundreds of books have been written about them; never was a man so much explained; never did a man suffer more from the explanations. The day when Wagner began, not to theorise, but to publish his theorisings, was an unlucky one for him. He began with the intention, and certainly in the hope, of making himself clear to himself; as I have already remarked, he wanted to find what it was he wanted to be at and how to get there; and if, having achieved his end, he had put all his pages of reasoning in the fire, he would have done himself no ill-service. But he needed money, and in the 'forties and 'fifties there were, strangely enough, numbers of people who would pay money for such stuff. Anything dull, "philosophic" in tone, anything full of long words, longer sentences, and meanings too profound to be understood by mortal—anything of this sort was sure of a paying audience, if small, in "philosophic" Germany, no matter how fallacious were the premises, how wrong the history, how perverse the inferences. Hundreds of people must have risen from reading Wagner's essays feeling themselves very deeply intellectual. In his first Paris days Wagner had at once flown to his prose-scribbling pen as an instrument to procure him bread; now, in Zurich, while writing and arguing mainly to free his own soul, he had an eye on the publisher and the public, for he needed bread as much as ever he had needed it; and he needed other things besides: all the luxuries he had grown accustomed to and could have done without ten years earlier. He persuaded himself of the validity of another reason why he should unload his prose-wares on the world. He had written much at times in various papers with a wholehearted wish to purify and advance art. Now he determined to be himself John the Baptist walking, in defiance of the laws of nature, miles in front of himself in the wilderness, crying out that he who was to redeem German music and the German folk was coming. He actually persuaded himself, I say, that by reading these lucubrations German audiences would prepare themselves to understand his works—as yet in process of incubation—at a first hearing! Fools we are, and slight; but surely no man was ever a bigger fool than our poor Richard when he thought that a great work of art could possibly or should be understood at the first glance, and that the feat would be easy if only one had read some theories of art beforehand. The contrary holds true: if you have seen and felt Wagner's operas, you may understand what he is talking about in his articles and pamphlets; but to read these first is merely to bewilder yourself utterly when you go to see the operas. I will dismiss, therefore, much of the prose with very brief notice, and some of it without any notice at all. It may be remarked that of all the commentaries I have waded through (and been well-nigh choked with), on the prose, there is, to my mind, only one worth reading, Mr. Ernest Newman's valuable Study of Wagner.

The French stories and articles are as good as anything Wagner wrote. He had not yet fallen into the villainous German philosophic style, or was restrained by the consciousness that he must write in a lingo that could be translated into French. These pieces were written for bread and bread alone in the terrible years of starvation, 1840-41. An End [of a German Musician] in Paris is full of autobiography, and intensely interesting on that account; it is interesting, too, because of its display of the naive arrogance which leads Germans to believe the whole world was made for Germans. This German musician, for instance, arrives in Paris, where scores of French musicians—Berlioz amongst them—are roughing it, if not actually starving in the streets; yet he expects the French to find him employment in preference to their own countrymen, their own flesh and blood. One can overlook that, however; and the story is pathetic and beautifully written. A Pilgrimage to Beethoven is, in its way, a masterpiece. It also is full of self-revelation; some of it conscious, some unconscious. A Happy Evening is another charming thing; the skit on how Rossini's Stabat Mater came to be composed is amusing, and is cruel with a cruelty that was justified. The other articles are of no particular value, save, perhaps, that on the overture; they are of an ephemeral character and were evidently concocted when the writer was fully aware he was writing for French readers, and if he hurt French feelings or vanity, a French editor wouldn't print, wouldn't publish, wouldn't pay.

The next production of any importance is his autobiographical sketch, and of this nothing need be said. So much of it as seemed to me needful has been utilized in this book. The account of the bringing home of Weber's remains to Dresden from London has a perennial interest. We know how Wagner idolized his mighty predecessor, and can imagine the ardour with which he threw himself into this work. Seemingly insuperable obstacles, most of them placed in the way through the native stupidity and perversity of German and English officialdom, had to be overridden, and Wagner triumphed. The speech delivered on the occasion of the re-interment is characteristic—exceptionally so even for Wagner of this period, 1844—in its assertion of the Germanity of Weber and Weber's music; and his deep joy that at last the German musician's bones should repose in German earth. This topic of Germanism haunted Wagner for years, and I may have a little to say about it later. The account of the 1846 rendering of the Choral Symphony is the most masterly exposition of the right and the wrong way of playing orchestral music to be found in any language. Wagner's method was, after all, very simple: the conductor had to understand and feel the music aright, and then pains, pains, never-ending pains must be expended on coaxing, persuading, bullying or in some other way getting the band to reproduce precisely what he felt.

We now reach the mass of theatrical and philosophical writings on opera, drama, and, indeed, art generally. I need do nothing more than give the fundamental basis of them all, the one point which he argues in a thousand ways through them all. Wagner would have it, then, that just about the time he came into the world, or a little later, all—nothing less than all—the arts had gone as far as they could separately, each alone. Art in ancient days, before there were arts, was a fusion of music, dancing, poetry, statuary and painting—the old drama. That each form of art might develop its full possibilities, they separated and each went its own way. Wagner was mainly concerned with music and with drama (poetic drama). Music reached its apogee with Beethoven. Regardless of the fact that after Beethoven had introduced words in the Choral Symphony, he went on composing music of unequalled depth and splendour without words, Wagner insisted that he felt the impossibility of doing more without words. We hear, said Wagner, all these sounds going on, this stream of melody, and it is very delightful to the ear; but unfortunately the highly organized brain of modern man steps in and insists on knowing what is the matter. What is the meaning of it all? asks the inquisitive intellect. Words are necessary to satisfy the intellect. On the other hand, poetic drama, in its endeavour to express pure feeling, could go no further than Goethe and Schiller without becoming mere gush—a sort of music that was not music. Wherefore music must be added. But this combination of music and poetry was insufficient; we must have the thing in visible form before the eye—the acted music-drama. Then the actors must understand statuesque poses and get into them; they must understand painting and contrive to form themselves, together with the scenic background and accessories, into pictures. So once again we should have the perfect fusion of all the arts, and live happily ever after.

To me there is almost more lunacy in this than in Wagner's political tenets. It is a pack of fallacies. Here is my answer—

(i) As to an Art which was a perfect fusion of all the arts, it was never done and never at any time attempted.

(ii) The finest music yet created has no words to it: the meaning is perfectly clear without words.

(iii) The highest poetic drama needs no music. Without verging on gush, it affords expression to the deepest and most intense feeling.

(iv) Fine poetry has been written in the dramatic form, though it will not bear acting and was not intended to be acted. But we may cheerfully concede that genuine drama ought to be acted.

(v) The function of scenery is to suggest atmosphere and nothing more. It cannot be a picture; it can only be an imitation of a picture.

(vi) An actor who tried to look like a statue going through a variety of poses would only make the audience laugh; or we should think he had been taken ill.

At every point Wagner's reasoning goes to the ground. His basic facts are no facts, and his reasoning is absurd. All the essays on music and on drama and on the music-drama are as much an expression of himself as his music-dramas. I have in earlier chapters gone so far as even to labour the point that he could not get on in music without the aid of drama; and as he could never look beyond himself nor imagine that what he could not do—i.e. compose pure music—some one else—e.g. Schumann or Brahms—could do, he went out with absolute confidence to persuade the world that he was right and all others were wrong. To those who may be interested in the study of Wagner, the mighty creative artist, as a cerebral curiosity, I commend Mr. Newman's book aforementioned. Mr. Newman points out that Wagner was so magnificently self-centred that he attributed all opposition to "misunderstanding." To him it was incomprehensible that any one should say, "Yes, I perfectly understand your argument; but I beg leave not to agree with you." Any one who said that at once aroused his suspicions; such an one, thought Wagner, cannot possibly be sincere. Hence the hot denunciations of all and sundry who differed from him; hence the nightmare phantom of an organized body of "persecutors." Had he not been blinded by his wrath, and looked a little closer, he might have seen that the persecutors, far from being an organized body or confederacy, were fighting angrily, bitterly, amongst themselves. Many of them had this in common: they could not understand and did not like Wagner's music. That is different from the "wilful misunderstanding" Wagner moaned about. These musicians could not help themselves; as Sancho Panza remarks, "Man is as God made him, and generally a good deal worse."

The essay which provoked the widest and fiercest hostility, especially amongst the Jews, was the Judaism in Music. Wagner started from two premises, (i) That the Jews, being alien in thought and feeling, could not express themselves in our (i.e. German) art; and (2) that had they thought and felt like Germans, they would have succeeded no better; for music—that is, song—is idealized speech, and the gurglings and bubblings which do duty for speech with the Jews cannot be idealized into anything beautiful. The answer is that very great music has been written by Jews; that music was an English, a Flemish and an Italian art before the Germans knew anything about it; that if music must be idealized German speech, with its guttural chokings, the less we have of it the better. The Jews paid little attention to Wagner's arguments, but objected to his "personalities." Now, the reader must have observed that of all people practical jokers are those who can least tolerate a practical joke played at their own expense, and that those whose staple of conversation is banter or "chaff" become irascible the moment they are flicked with their own whip. For years Wagner had been the victim of unprovoked personal attacks in the Jew-controlled press, and some of the worst of these can be traced to Jew scribblers. Yet on the publication of Judaism in Music in the Neue Zeitschrift fuer Musik, a wail went up from these journalistic descendants of Elijah; and several prominent Jew musicians signed and presented to the authorities of the Leipzig conservatoire of music a petition praying that Brendel (the editor who published the essay) might be dismissed from his post in the conservatoire. These underhand tactics put the Jews out of court. Nevertheless, Wagner's essay was a bad mistake. It is bad science, bad history, bad argument; it did no person, no cause, any good, and it worked a very great deal of harm.

Wagner was at his best when writing about music or about musicians he had known. A paper on Spontini, belonging to this period (Spontini died in 1851), has a pleasant, generous note; and the account of the pompous old gentleman's visit to Dresden a few years previous is amusingly lifelike. The Communication to my Friends, a trifle egotistical, is still full of interest. The article on musical criticism is not so good as it might have been. Wagner had the utmost contempt for the ordinary press criticism of the day: with that sort of thing, he wrote Uhlig, one could not tempt the cat from behind the stove. He knew what criticism should not be, but when he came to what it should be his view was warped by the obsession that pure music had reached its boundaries, and the future of music was involved with the future of the music-drama. When his prejudices were not aroused, he himself was the greatest critic who has lived: his programmes of the Choral and Eroica Symphonies are masterpieces in their kind; and his analysis of the Iphigenia in Aulis overture can never be surpassed. Stage-managers have found his directions for the performing of Tannhaeuser, Lohengrin and the Dutchman invaluable; they are also sometimes read by conductors, and should be read by singers. They show how in composing his operas Wagner meant every note he put to paper: the most minute fibres of the musical growth are alive, a living part of the organism.


"I shall probably never come back to Germany." So wrote Wagner from Paris on March 2, 1855, to his friend Wilhelm Fischer, stage-manager and chorus-master at the Dresden opera. Wagner was then on his way to London to direct a series of Philharmonic concerts. "It was a great piece of folly for me to come to London...." So wrote Wagner from London to Fischer a little—perhaps a month—later. It was, says Mr. J.S. Shedlock in his admirable translation of the Letters to Dresden Friends, "an unfortunate visit." But was it? and, if so, in what sense? "The public of the Philharmonic concerts is very favourably disposed towards me." "The orchestra has taken a great liking to me, and the public approves of me." And as a matter of fact Wagner had no reason to be dissatisfied with the visit, nor has Mr. Shedlock for calling it "unfortunate." The whole situation is summed up in another communication to Fischer, dated London, June 15, 1855—

"... The false reports about my quarrel with the directors of the Philharmonic Society here and my consequent departure from London are based upon the following incident—

"When I went into the cloak-room after the fourth concert, I there met several friends, whom I made acquainted with my extreme annoyance and ill-humour that I should ever have consented to conduct concerts of such a kind, as it was not at all in my line. These endless programmes, with their mass of instrumental and vocal pieces, wearied me and tormented my aesthetic sense; I was forced to see that the power of established custom rendered it impossible to bring about any reduction or change whatever; I therefore nourished a feeling of disquietude, which had more to do with the fact that I had again embarked on a thing of the sort—much less with the conditions here themselves, which I really knew beforehand—but least of all with my public, which always received me with friendliness and approbation, often indeed with great warmth.

"On the other hand, the abuse of the London critics was a matter of perfect indifference to me, for their hostility only proved to all the world that I had not bribed them, while it gave me, on the contrary, much satisfaction to watch how they always left the door open, so that had I made the least approach they would have turned to different pitch; but naturally I thought of nothing of the kind....

"On that evening I was really in a furious rage, that after the A minor Symphony I should have had to conduct a miserable vocal piece and a trivial overture of Onslow's; and, as is my way, in deepest dudgeon I told my friends aloud that I had that day conducted for the last time; that on the morrow I should send in my resignation, and journey home. By chance a concert-singer, R—— (a German-Jew youth) was present; he caught up my words and conveyed them all hot to a newspaper reporter. Ever since then rumours have been flying about in the German papers, which have misled even you. I need scarcely tell you that the representations of my friends, who escorted me home, succeeded in making me withdraw the hasty resolution conceived at a moment of despondency.

"Since then we have had the Tannhaeuser overture at the fifth concert; it was very well played, received by the public in a quite friendly manner, but not yet properly understood.

"All the more pleased was I, therefore, when the Queen, who had promised (which is a rare event, and does not happen every year) to attend the seventh concert, ordered a repetition of the overture. Now, if in itself it was extremely gratifying that the Queen should pay no regard to my highly compromised political position (which had been dragged to light with great malignity by the Times), and without hesitation assist at a public performance under my direction, then her further behaviour towards me afforded me at last an affecting compensation for all the contrarieties and vulgar animosities which I had here endured.

"She and Prince Albert, who both sat immediately facing the orchestra, applauded after the Tannhaeuser overture—with which the first part concluded—with graciousness, almost amounting to a challenge, so that the public broke out into lively and prolonged applause. During the interval the Queen summoned me to the salon, and received me before her court with the cordial words, 'I am delighted to make your acquaintance; your composition has enraptured me!'

"In a long conversation, in which Prince Albert also took part, she further inquired about my other works, and asked if it would not be possible to have my operas translated into Italian, so that she might be able to hear them, too, in London? I was naturally obliged to give a negative answer, and, moreover, to explain that my visit was only a flying one, as conducting for a concert society—the only thing open to me here—was not at all my affair. At the end of the concert the Queen and the Prince applauded me again most courteously.

"I relate this to you because it will afford you pleasure; and I willingly allow you to make further use of this information, as I see how much mistake and malice touching myself and my stay in London has to be set right or defeated.

"The last concert is on the 25th, and I leave on the 26th, so as to resume in my quiet retreat my sadly interrupted work."

Wagner was well paid for his work; he was well received in society; the band liked him and the audiences liked him—the one cause of all his grumbling was the character of the bulk of the music he had to conduct. One might expect even a Wagner to prefer conducting a few pieces of tedious stuff, even to put up with poor antediluvian Onslow, rather than to return to his daily task of writing begging letters to his friends from Zurich. Still, these are matters of taste, and each to his own.

To those who only know the Philharmonic to-day, in its more or less repentant and reformed state, it may not seem odd that Wagner should have conducted its concerts. But to those who remember it from, say, twenty-five years ago to quite recent times, a certain incongruity is apparent. Wagner, the sincere, fiery artist, the man devoted to, swallowed up by, his art; the man who journeyed, with his wife and a dog, all the way from Russia to Paris with his bare travelling expenses in his pocket; who had been through a bloody revolution, and was now a political refugee; who had written part of the Ring and had Tristan "already planned in his head"; a conductor whose ideal was nothing lower than perfection—this gentleman came from Zurich to conduct a society whose membership was compact of trim and prim mediocrity, and whose directors were mostly duffers. Can we wonder that both sides were disappointed? These amiable directors never quite recovered from the honour of having Mendelssohn to conduct for them; and they undoubtedly looked upon Wagner as scarcely a next-best. The days of oratorio had by no means finished yet; oratorio was the thing; an instrumental concert was very well for a change once in a while, provided there were plenty of Italian opera airs to sugar the nasty pill; Haydn was the last word in symphony, the homage paid to Beethoven being the merest lip-worship. The Philharmonic was certainly no place for Wagner; yet, it must be insisted, there was no real reason for grumbling on either side. Wagner got his money; the society had one of the best seasons on its record.

It is a pity that he who might have been the most valuable witness in the matter should prove at every point to be the least trustworthy. Ferdinand Praeger had known Wagner in his university days. They seem to have been barely acquainted; but the moment Praeger found Wagner was coming he scented advertisement for himself, as is usual with his kind—the kind being the foreign professor settled in London. He will have it that he arranged the whole business; but the terrible truth is that he seems to have done no more than make his compatriot comfortable in our dreary city. Certainly he did that, and Wagner repaid it by inviting him to stay in Zurich, and the visit came off duly. Sainton, who was by way of being a noted violinist, was head and front of the offending from the directors' point of view—perhaps in Wagner's view likewise. The directors were, to speak as the vulgar, in a mortal stew. There was a small audience for orchestral functions in those days, and Dr. Wylde, a worthy academic gentleman of no musical distinction whatever, had started a rival series of concerts, and had in this year, 1855, engaged no less a personage than Berlioz to conduct. A rival was looked for; and since the directors knew little or nothing of continental doings, as soon as Sainton told them one Richard Wagner was their man, they agreed that negotiations should be opened. Wagner came; and the visit ought to be interesting to English musicians, for at Portland Terrace he scored part of the Valkyrie. Moreover, he met Berlioz at dinner; but never those twain could meet in other than a formal way. Neither liked the other; neither liked the other's music; their rivalry in London mattered not two sous to the one or one pfennig to the other, but they were both disappointed men seeking appreciation and approbation on the continent. Wagner had tried in Paris and Berlioz had tried in Germany. Wagner worked stubbornly the whole time, and was mightily glad to get back to Zurich in July. The episode is of small importance in Wagner's life; but the attitude of the Press naturally filled him with disgust. He said if he had paid the critics he would have received "favourable notices," and when I reflect on the smallness of the critics' official salaries and the splendour in which some of them lived I cannot but think he was right: the money necessary to keep up big establishments had to be found somewhere—where?

During the next few years Wagner went many journeys, again mainly in search of "cures," but never got far. He worked unceasingly at the Ring, with the wildest plans in his head regarding performances. How wild some of these must have seemed at the time may be judged from the following paragraphs taken from a letter to Uhlig (Dec. 12, 1851). This is, of course, earlier than the period we are now dealing with; but he never departed from the idea, and it eventually took shape at Bayreuth, a quarter of a century later. Here is the letter—

"For the moment, I can only tell you a little about the intended completion of the great dramatic poem which I have now in hand. Just reflect that before I wrote the poem, Siegfried's Death, I sketched out the whole myth in all its gigantic sequence, and that poem was the attempt—which, with regard to our theatre, appeared possible to me—to give one chief catastrophe of the myth, together with an indication of that sequence.

"Now, when I set to work to write out the music in full, still keeping our modern theatre firmly in mind, I felt how incomplete the proposed undertaking would be; the vast train of events, which first gives to the characters their immense and striking significance, would be presented to the mind merely by means of epic narrative.

"So to make Siegfried's Death possible, I wrote Young Siegfried; but the more the whole took shape, the more did I perceive, while developing the scenes and music of Young Siegfried, that I had only increased the necessity for a clearer presentation of the whole story to the senses. I now see that, in order to become intelligible on the stage, I must work out the whole myth in plastic style. It was not this consideration alone which impelled me to my new plan, but especially the overpowering impressiveness of the subject-matter which I thus acquire for presentation, and which supplies me with a wealth of material for artistic fashioning which it would be a sin to leave unused. Think of the contents of the narrative of Bruennhilde, in the last scene of Young Siegfried; the fate of Siegmund and Sieglind; the struggle of Wotan with his desire and with custom (Fricka); the noble defiance of the Walkuere; the tragic anger of Wotan in punishing this defiance.

"Think of this from my point of view, with the extraordinary wealth of situations brought together in one coherent drama, and you have a tragedy of most moving effect; one which clearly presents to the senses all that my public needs to have taken in, in order easily to understand, in their widest meaning, Young Siegfried and the Death. These three dramas will be preceded by a grand introductory play, which will be produced by itself on a special opening festival day. It begins with Alberich, who pursues the three water-witches of the Rhine with his lust of love, is rejected with merry fooling by one after the other, and, mad with rage, at last steals the Rhine gold from them.

"This gold in itself is only a shining ornament in the depth of the waves (Siegfried's Death, Act III, Sc. i), but it possesses another power, which only he who renounces love can succeed in drawing from it. (Here you have the plasmic motive up to Siegfried's Death. Think of all its pregnant consequences.) The capture of Alberich; the dividing of the gold between the two giant brothers; the speedy fulfilment of Alberich's curse on these two, the one of whom immediately slays the other—all this is the theme of this introductory play.

"But I have already chattered too much, and even that is too little to give you a clear idea of the vast wealth of the subject-matter....

"But one other thing determined me to develop this plan; viz. the impossibility which I felt of producing Young Siegfried in anything like a suitable manner either at Weimar or anywhere else. I cannot and will not endure any more the martyrdom of things done by halves. With this my new conception I withdraw entirely from all connection with our theatre and public of to-day; I break decisively and for ever with the formal present.

"Do you now ask me what I propose to do with my scheme?—First of all to carry it out, so far as my poetical and musical powers will allow. This will occupy me at least three full years. And so I place my future quite in R——'s hands; God grant that they may remain unfalteringly true to me!

"I can only think of a performance under quite other conditions. I shall erect a theatre on the banks of the Rhine, and issue invitations to a great dramatic festival. After a year's preparation, I shall produce my complete work in a series of four days.

"However extravagant this plan may be, it is, nevertheless, the only one to which I can devote my life and labours. If I live to see it accomplished, I have lived gloriously; if not, I die for something grand. Only this can still give me any pleasure."

His creditors from Dresden were everlastingly at his heels; even in Dresden, with a substantial and regular salary, he could not keep out of debt—though it must be remembered that older debts pursued him from the Riga days, and even earlier. By April of 1856 the Valkyrie was scored and Siegfried begun; next year he finished the first act of the latter. His life, apparently, went on pretty much as before; but the financial situation was rapidly becoming intolerable—even to him. The famous invitation to write an opera for Rio de Janeiro arrived, and he promptly set to work on the subject he had mentioned in a letter to Liszt a few years before, Tristan and Isolda. His health grew worse than ever, and somehow he found the means to spend the winter in Venice. Then he settled for a while in Lucerne, and completed Tristan.

Afterwards he removed to Paris, where in 1860 he gave some concerts; in the same year the score of Tristan was issued; next year came the Tannhaeuser fiasco at the opera, and later he heard Lohengrin, in Vienna, for the first time; next he stayed for a while at Biebrich, and finally settled in Vienna.

This is all the biography of ten of the fullest years of his life that we need trouble about at present. His everyday existence is only diversified and variegated by little anecdotes not worth repetition. He was everywhere, of course, the musical lion. And, speaking of animals, he always had a few: it had been a real grief to him some years before when his parrot died when it had just mastered a passage of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

When he finished Tristan in August of 1859, his prospects were, so to speak, as bright as before. It may here be mentioned, by way of showing how bright that was, that when, four years later, an attempt was made to give Tristan at Vienna, the work was abandoned after at least fifty rehearsals.

His letters, first to his faithful servitor Uhlig, who died in 1853 at the age of thirty-one, and then to Fischer, are full of requests to get scores copied, to send them here, there and everywhere, and to collect honorariums. But, as I have said, for years he had hungry creditors snapping at his heels, and they devoured most of the fruits of his early genius. It is a fact to be faced that Wagner never in all his life earned his livelihood. He earned more than average men require to live comfortably upon; but he was unceasingly extravagant, and denied himself nothing. He had been hungry in his early Paris days; for the remainder of his life he bent himself to the task of making up for that spell of famine. The precariousness of his income, the insecurity of his position, fostered the habit of self-indulgence; by nature the reverse of miserly, if he had money to-day he spent it, reflecting that he might have none to-morrow. His debts, moreover, were not entirely for what we may call personal extravagances. So confident and sanguine was he that he had the full scores of his operas published at his own expense; and the charges had to be met out of what the operas brought him. And so when he had finished Tristan in 1859 the outlook was of the blackest.

It was not less than a disaster that, during this period, 1849-59, Wagner got to know the writings of Schopenhauer. In my first chapter I pointed out how from his youth Wagner was fond of dabbling in pseudo-philosophy, and this had strengthened rather than weakened its hold on him as he grew older. For some time Feuerbach was his mentor. It is idle to ask what he saw in Feuerbach. It has long been a commonplace that rightly to understand an author you must meet him half-way. Wagner did more than that: he went the whole way, and often a long way beyond. What he read was not Feuerbach, but the thousand ideas that the merest chance sentences of Feuerbach aroused in his seething brain. Feuerbach, however, was sent about his business as soon as Schopenhauer entered. Wagner immediately wrote enthusiastically to Liszt, telling how peace and light had come into his soul; and one might wonder what particular doctrine of the grumpy old pseudo-philosopher had this remarkable effect. (This is to assume it to have had the effect. As a bare matter of fact it hadn't. Wagner's soul knew no peace until he died.) It was the great gospel of Renunciation. After reading this, in his own way, Wagner realized, if you please, that both Tannhaeuser and Lohengrin preached the same doctrine; and one can only retort that, if they preach any doctrine at all—which they don't, thank heaven!—it is not that. But Schopenhauerism might easily have ruined Tristan—did not ruin it only because Wagner himself, when writing it, was consumed with a fervour of passion that is the negation of Schopenhauerism. It is responsible, however, for many of the longueurs of the Ring, as, for instance, in Act II of the Valkyrie, when Wotan stops the action to give Bruennhilde an elementary lesson in Schopenhauer-cum-Wagner metaphysics. The funny thing is that Wagner never renounced anything: to the end he was greedy, avid of life. He might have benefited by a careful study of Schopenhauer's pungent phrases; but instead of thus developing his own natural gift in that direction, his sentences afterwards grew longer and more complicated than ever. His Beethoven is a splendid essay; how much finer it might have been had he not wasted so many pages on what he took to be Schopenhauer's science!




For those who have ears, eyes and understanding Tristan and Isolda is Wagner's most perfect work, is the finest opera in the world. Unluckily there are in the world far too many persons who are not content to have a work of supreme art, but must needs read into it old, stale platitudes: when they have proved it to be an exposition of these platitudes they conceive that they have deserved the gratitude of the people for interpreting the artist and of the artist for having interpreted him, having made his meaning clear. As I have written elsewhere of Tristan, "Wagner's consummate dramatic art, stage-craft and knowledge of stage effect have combined to make all clear as the day"; but the commentators have rushed in with their comments between the stage and the audience only to obscure everything and bamboozle people who are at least as capable as themselves of understanding the drama. The platitudes read into Tristan are of two sorts, truisms and lying commonplaces. To take one of the latter kind, some one many long years ago got off the pretty phrase, "love and death are one"; and poetasters and fiftieth-rate dramatists have ever since continued to assert as a profound and original truth that love and death are one. What on earth they understand by it, if they mean anything at all, is much more than I can guess. But I know that love and death are not one, that love is life, and death is death. We have had it pointed out a thousand times that the "moral" of Tristan is that these two opposites are one; and in the latest books and articles about Wagner the same game is kept merrily going. I can extract no such moral. Perhaps some unfortunate essays and letters of Wagner gave the commentators their cue and lead; for Wagner, when he put away his music-paper and sat down to his writing-paper, often showed himself a willing victim of catch-phrases; also many sentences of the drama can be construed as paraphrases of this particular catch-phrase—for example, "Nun banne das Bangen, holder Tod, sehnend verlangter Liebestod." Such utterances as these, however, have a specific and different meaning altogether, as will presently be seen. I can by no means believe even Wagner capable of writing a three-act music-drama to prove the truth of a catch-phrase or that he would have dreamed of using such a catch-phrase as the motive of his music-drama. The commonplaces drawn from Tristan and gravely set forth as the "meanings" of the operas are as numberless as sands on the sea-shore and rather less valuable. That young women should not make a practice of marrying old men, that illicit passions and intrigues may bring on disaster, that it is madness to make love to another man's wife in a garden, observable by all, that it is greater madness still to keep on when a maidservant is screaming that some one is coming—these rules of conduct are very well in their way and might commend themselves to the denizens of Clapham; but, again, I hardly think Wagner would have constructed a great music-drama to enunciate them. Nor did he construct his music-drama to expound a philosophy. For a long time the air was thick with arguments pro and con with regard to the amount of Schopenhauer he had made use of in his libretto. Now, it is true that both Tristan and Isolda indulge at times in something approximating to the Schopenhauer terminology; but of Schopenhauer's or any other philosophy I cannot find a trace. For that we must turn to Parsifal. In Tristan there are no "meanings"—none save the very plain meaning of the drama and the meaning of the music, which is plainer still.

It seems to me desirable in this way to clear off misunderstandings and to indicate with precision my point of view. When Wagner wrote Tristan he wrote a tragic opera of passion and treachery and death, and only as a tragic opera can I regard it. Every sentence in it is accounted for by the course the drama takes; no further explanation is called for; and I shall certainly not waste my readers' time by picking out a few words here and there and trying to construe them into a metaphysical exposition: there is quite enough to digest without that. Even the longing for death which Tristan expresses as the only cure for the woes of an impossible life arises from the drama; Tristan no more preaches Schopenhauer than he preaches Buddhism when he exclaims "Nun banne das Bangen, holder Tod." Wagner chose the subject of Tristan not to expound anything, but for the prosaic reason that he wanted to raise money and the subject seemed the most promising for the purpose. This is put beyond a doubt by a letter to Liszt dated July 2, 1858. Everything seemed to work against him; Rienzi proved a failure when it was put on at Weimar, and nothing could be hoped for in that quarter; the pecuniary situation was desperate. He had received a commission from the Emperor Pedro I of Brazil for an opera, and thought Tristan a likely theme. As early as December of 1854 he had written to Liszt mentioning it as planned in his head; and in this letter of '58 he says, "... I saw no other way open to me but to negotiate with Haertel, and I chose for this subject Tristan, then scarcely begun, because I had nothing else. They offered to pay me half the honorarium (two hundred louis d'or)—that is, one hundred louis d'or—on receipt of the score of the first act, and I made all the haste I could to complete it. That is why this poor work was hurried on in such a business-like manner." It seems rather comical now that the world's most magnificent, and certainly most profound, musical tragedy should have been commenced to be sung by an Italian company in such an out-of-the-way spot as Rio de Janeiro and in the hope of pleasing semi-barbarian ears; and it is rather a pity it never found its way there. One thing is certain: the press criticisms could not have been more foolish than those that greeted the opera when it was produced in Munich.

Exactly where Wagner got the idea from I cannot say. Of course, in one shape or another the legend exists in every European literature; and probably he had been familiar with it for years. Praeger's story of Wagner getting hold of Gottfried von Strassburg's interminable version in the summer of 1855 and conceiving the thing in a flash might very well be true; only, unluckily for Praeger, the letter to Liszt in the previous year shows it to be in another sense a story. By September 1857 the poem was done, and Wagner at once set to work on the music. He had sketched the first act by the end of the same year, and in the early part of '59 the whole opera was complete. We have just seen one reason for pressing forward "this poor work ... in such a business-like manner"; but even without the pecuniary inducement I fancy he would have composed quickly. Tristan is one of those works, like Carlyle's French Revolution, which one feels had either to be written rapidly or not at all. The music seems to have welled forth in a red-hot torrent, and his pen could not choose but fly over the paper. None the less we are compelled to marvel at the industry, the concentrated and continuous and patient energy of the man; for the Tristan score is as complicated as any ever written, and the mere number of notes to be set down might well have appalled him. Handel could write a Messiah in three weeks and Mozart a Don Giovanni overture in a few hours; but their scores are mere skeletons compared with Tristan, a score which neither Handel nor Mozart could copy in a much longer time than three weeks. We may hope that Wagner received his remaining hundred louis d'or, for the Brazilian scheme came to nothing, and he had to wait seven long years before Tristan got its first performance. But for the "kingly friend," mad Ludwig II, it would not have been performed at all; and afterwards other theatres found it too difficult, or the directors, with true inborn official insolence, seemed to glory in not so much as looking at the score. We will now look at it.

Out of one or another of the various versions of the legend Wagner extracted the core—the plain, direct story of the passion of a pair of tragic lovers. Tristan and Isolda love one another with a devouring love, and circumstances will not allow them to be united; they find a refuge in death from an existence intolerable without love; and this is essentially the whole story. In its older form the tale consisted mainly of what to the modern mind are excrescences—the intrigues, fights, adventures and what not so dear to the mediaeval mind. Wagner sheared away this mass of overgrowth; or perhaps it would be truer to say he hewed his way to the statue within, from out of the old stuff picked out the elements that made just the drama as it had shaped itself in his brain. Here is the story. Tristan, nephew of King Mark of Cornwall, had gone a-warring in Ireland and had there slain Morold, the betrothed of Isolda; and to Isolda he sends as a present Morold's head. He is himself wounded, and by chance it is Isolda, "a skilful leech," who nurses him back to health. She has found in Morold's head a splinter of a sword-blade, and finds it was broken out of Tristan's weapon. Full of anger, she raises the sword to slay the sick man: he opens his eyes, and "the sword dropped from my fingers"—her doom is upon her: henceforth she loves the slayer of her lover. Though Tristan loves her he does not ask for her, but with many protestations of gratitude and friendship sails away to Cornwall. Next occurs one of those things at which most of us are apt to boggle: Tristan goes home, it would appear, only to suggest that his aged uncle should marry Isolda the peerless beauty; Mark consents, and sends Tristan to ask for her. Tristan afterwards confesses that ambition led him to do this; but in any case it was very close to a deed of downright treachery, unless the fact was that Tristan did not suspect Isolda's love for him, or thought his station too humble. Wagner's language is ambiguous, and probably he intended his meaning to be the same. Isolda has no two opinions about his conduct. It had been her duty to kill him in the first place, and her love, her destiny, Frau Minna—call it what you will—betrayed her; and now she is betrayed by the man whose life she saved. Had she spoken one word in her father's castle Tristan would not have returned to Cornwall: in all likelihood his head would have been sent as an acknowledgment of Morold's. Her fury knows no bounds; her grief and sense of ignominious humiliation almost defy expression; her contempt for Tristan, when she finds words for it, is scathing. All this we learn as the opera proceeds; but we should know the facts of the history before seeing the work the first time, else the first act is bewildering, for matters have arrived just at this point when the curtain rises.


The prelude is the only operatic prelude in the world which is an integral, organic part of the drama; it cannot be omitted without detriment to the drama. In several of Mozart's operas the overture, by means of a modulation, is made to lead without a break into the first scene; Gluck had done precisely the same thing; Wagner, in the Mastersingers of Nuremberg, did the same thing. But in the cases of Gluck and Mozart and of Wagner in the Mastersingers, if by chance the parts of the overture were missing, the opera could start away and go on merrily, and we should miss nothing but the preliminary pleasure of hearing the overture. In the case of Tristan, where Wagner's art of combining the music and drama in an indivisible whole was at its culminating point—a point from which it gradually receded—this is not conceivable. If the band parts of the Tristan prelude were mislaid it would be well to omit the first act altogether. What Wagner tried to do in the Flying Dutchman—to make the whole opera a solid thing from which not one bar might be subtracted without ruining the whole effect—he achieved once, and once only, in Tristan.

What may seem an irrelevancy turns on this very point. There is no necessity for reasoning about a work of art; yet there is both pleasure and mental profit in doing so in certain instances. If there is any necessity at all for understanding Wagner's mind and Wagner's art, we may as well do it as thoroughly as we can. Therefore the reader will perhaps bear with me patiently if I point out something he has doubtless discovered for himself, namely, that Tristan is Wagner's only opera in which music and drama had birth simultaneously in his brain. He himself, in several significant passages in his prose writings, indicated this. He said that when, after several years devoted to expounding his theories in essays,—mainly, he said, to make these theories clear to himself: mainly, I think, for the accruing cash—he began Tristan, he immediately found he had left the theories far behind. That is, he constructed his dramas, without thinking of theories or traditions, simply as a common-sense dramatist-musician should, building up the whole edifice with two hands at once, the dramatist's pen in one hand, the musician's in the other. He also said that when he set down the words the music was already (in an amorphous state—we must presume he meant) in his brain. It was to this effect he wrote in Opera and Drama the most skilful defence ever put together by a creative artist—or rather not so much a defence as a plea for his particular form of art, or perhaps an explanation of the form.

This is entirely different from his procedure with the Ring, or indeed any of his works, not even excepting the Dutchman. The Dutchman, he said, grew out of Senta's ballad; but I have already shown that this statement was a mere piece of self-deception: not the whole of the Dutchman, not one-tenth of it, grows out of Senta's ballad; Senta's ballad is not an oak-trunk with all the solos, duets, choruses and the rest growing out as branches with leaves grow from a trunk—it is a scaffold-pole upon which these things are tacked in an almost unparalleled fervour of imagination. That Wagner recognized this is plainly seen in the prose remarks he penned, in very cold blood, in his after years, when he looked at his first really fine work as though it had come from the hand of some other composer. Gluck had not one-thousandth part of Wagner's sheer genius, or, born into the nineteenth century, he might have done the thing as Wagner did it in Tristan; Mozart had not one-hundredth part of Wagner's intellectual power, or, born into the nineteenth century, he might have done it. Wagner alone did it. Tristan is a feat accomplished once and for all; at this moment it is impossible to imagine such a feat ever being done again. Those of us who live on for another five hundred years may see something like it; but even then Tristan will not be old-fashioned—not older-fashioned, at any rate, than Antigone or Hamlet, and perhaps less old-fashioned than Macbeth or Lear. The breath, the spirit, which is eternal life, is in it, and it can only perish when the human race perishes.

Far too much theorising has been done about Wagner, and I would not add my quota did I not hope that this small contribution would save complicated explanations, now that I come to deal with the concrete, so to say, with the very stuff of Tristan, the words and the music. We are to be prepared for a drama of human passion in sharpest conflict with a dispassionate, indifferent, even antagonistic world. The passion is the naked elemental thing, the love of a man for a woman and a woman for a man; and these twain, had they lived on an island by themselves, might have been happy or unhappy, and felt the passion fade away and no one a penny the worse. As it is, everything seems to oppose them; shock after shock comes upon them; until in the end they are content, feel themselves blest, to be allowed to pass out of life. We are shown them in four clearly defined phases: first, loving one another but the love unconfessed; second, the love admitted and the world opposing it; third, love at its height and the world breaking in upon it; last, love beaten in the fight and retreating to the realms of death. Throughout the drama there is no musical theme representing the idea of the antagonistic world. There are a dozen love-themes and two death-themes and a great number of what in a symphony would be called subsidiary themes. By far the most important theme in the whole opera is that with which the prelude opens, one made up of a couple of phrases (a, p. 274).

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