Richard Wagner - Composer of Operas
by John F. Runciman
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I shall not for the moment discuss the full significance of the themes as subsequently unfolded: it suffices now to note the use they are put to in this prelude. A continuation of this love subject presently is announced (b); then the poison motive (c); and finally yet another love theme. A tremendous climax is worked up: the very ecstasy and madness of love; it dies down, and the prelude ends with a sinister and tragic phrase (d), leading straight to a sea-song sung from the masthead of a vessel, on which the curtain rises.

No melody ever sang more clearly of the sea; no melody was ever less like a sailor's chanty. I have quoted words and tune in full (f). The words set the drama a-going; out of the phrase marked (g) the main body of the music of the first scene is spun. Isolda very naturally thinks an insult is aimed at herself: it is the spark that sets a light to the explosive material that has been accumulating in her heart for heaven knows how long. She curses the ship, Tristan, and every one concerned in the conspiracy that is to rob her of the man she loves and hand her over as a slave to the old man she has never seen. Brangaena, her maid, scared out of her wits, begs to know the truth; Isolda screams for air, which she assuredly seems to need; the curtains at the back of her pavilion are opened, and there, on the stern of the vessel, stands Tristan, the enemy whom she loves. From the masthead comes again the sailor's song. This time it does not immediately arouse Isolda to fury; for now her purpose is set—to kill Tristan: take her revenge and end her own life of misery. "Once beloved, now removed, brave and bright, coward knight. Death-devoted head, death-devoted heart," she sings, gazing at Tristan; and at the last words we hear the tremendous death-or murder-theme (h), a theme whose sinister meaning is afterwards unfolded. She sends Brangaena to order Tristan to come into her tent. He bitterly avoids understanding her meaning; Brangaena becomes more urgent; Kurvenal, Tristan's servant, a faithful watch-dog, asks to be allowed to reply; Tristan says he can. Kurvenal bellows out a song praising Tristan as the heroic slayer of Isolda's betrothed, Morold. Brangaena precipitately retreats and closes the curtains; Isolda and she face one another in the tent, the second nearly prostrate with dismay, the first boiling with wrath and shame at the insult hurled at her. She now tells Brangaena the whole of the preceding history—her nursing of Tristan and his monstrous treatment of her—and finishes with another curse. Brangaena tries to soothe her; Isolda, outwardly quietened, inwardly is planning how to carry out her purpose; Brangaena unknowingly suggests the means. "In that casket is a love potion: drink that, you will love your aged bridegroom and be happy once again." She opens the casket; "not that phial," says Isolda, "the other." The poison motive (c) sounds under the agitated upper strings: "the deadly draught," Brangaena shrieks: at this point the shouting of the sailors is heard as they begin to shorten sail; Kurvenal enters brusquely and bellows at Isolda the order to prepare to land. She refuses to move until Tristan has come in to ask her pardon "for trespass black and base." Here she begins to speak in terrible double-meanings: it is not Tristan's discourtesy on the voyage he must apologise for, but the more tragic occurrences leading up to his bearing her away to Cornwall. She orders Brangaena to prepare the draught, and awaits her victim.

She stands there outwardly composed while one of the finest passages in the whole of the world's music betrays her inward anxiety and suspense (i). It is useless to describe the scene in any detail: the words are simple and seemingly direct; the marvellous music alone reveals their fateful, fearful significance. Isolda asks Tristan to sink the ancient quarrel between them—caused by the slaying of Morold—and drink a cup together; he knows perfectly well a large part of her meaning—that she means to poison him. Whether she herself intends what presently occurs no one can tell: I doubt whether Wagner knew much or cared at all. Tristan knows how great is the crime he must make amends for: not merely Morold's death, but the winning of Isolda's heart, the desertion, the cruel coming to claim her as his uncle's bride; he says he will drink—only in oblivion can he find refuge from the toils in which he has involved himself; he lifts the cup to his lips, drinks, and as he drinks Isolda, crying "Betrayed, even here," snatches the cup from him and drains it.

Brangaena has betrayed her: the cup contains not the poison but the love-potion. In this stroke there is no fairy-tale or pantomime foolery. The course the drama now pursues is determined not by a magic draught, a harmless infusion of herbs, but by the belief of the lovers that they have taken poison and are both doomed. Whether Tristan had previously known Isolda to love him does not matter: he knows it now. It has been remarked that the language is ambiguous: or rather, Isolda in her rage may easily be supposed to go beyond the truth when she speaks of having exchanged love-vows with Tristan. She knows that he loves her. They have only a few minutes to live and to love: why not speak? They stand gazing at one another in a state of tremulous emotion, and at last rush into each other's arms. The hoarse voices of the sailors are heard outside hailing King Mark; the ship has reached land; Brangaena enters, and is horrified to find that both have taken the potion; the pair cling to one another; a stream of the most passionate music in existence sweeps on: Brangaena tries to attire Isolda in the royal cloak; Kurvenal shouts to Tristan that the king is coming; Tristan can understand nothing—"What king?" he asks; the deck is crowded with knights; and the curtain falls as the lovers embrace and the trumpets announce the arrival of King Mark.

Before dealing more fully with the music of this act let me quote a few words I wrote elsewhere on the dramatic course of the whole opera. "The end of each act sees the lovers in a situation which is at heart the same, though in externals different. Rapt in each other, they care nothing about the sailors, attendants, approaching crowds, and the rest, at the end of the first act; at the end of the second they scarcely understand Mark's passionate affection—they only know it is an enemy of their love; and, finally, they are glad when death frees them from life, which means an incessant trouble and interruption to them. The tragedy deepens and grows more intense with each successive scene; each separates them more widely from life and all that life means, until in the last act the divorce is complete. This is the purpose of the drama: this is the drama...." When Wagner conceived Tristan he was as fine a master of stage-craft as has ever lived; and certainly by very far the finest who ever wrote "words for music." The first scene prepares us to understand clearly and to grasp firmly the forces that are presently to be let loose and run the drama on to its tragic denouement; and after that, scene follows scene with absolute inevitability.


During Wagner's five years of theorising after quitting Dresden in 1849 he had thought of subjects and written parts of the Ring. Tristan is the greatest work he completed. A reservoir full of music must have accumulated in his brain; and he seems now to have opened the sluices. Never did a more fiery impetuous stream flow from any composer: never was there, in a word, more inspired music. The profusion of the material is wonderful, and even more wonderful is the concentrated quality of that material. In the Ring and Parsifal—as in Lohengrin and Tannhaeuser—there are longueurs; in Tristan there are none: not a bar can be cut; there is not a bar that does not hold us. In a paradoxical mood, or irritated, by being obstinately, wilfully, stupidly regarded as one of the trade setters of opera-texts, Wagner declared to Buelow that "one thing is certain, I am not a musician." This has been interpreted as meaning, "I am no musician," whereas, of course, he meant he was very much more than a musician: which, in a sense, he was. He was not a greater genius than Mozart and Beethoven, who had nothing of the dramatist in them, nor than Shakespeare, who was not, technically at least, a musician; but he was something different from both species of men—a dramatist who could not get the drama out of himself without the aid of music, and a musician who could not beat out his music without the aid of drama. Music and drama had simultaneous birth in the case of Tristan, and it is difficult to describe and criticise them separately. There is no other way of doing it, however, and as the drama is the structural foundation I have dealt with it first; but the music is of not less importance.

Many readers will remember how, not so very many years ago, a common criticism of Wagner's music was that it possessed no melody. Happily at this time of day there is no need to try to disprove this; for when we hear the first act of Tristan the first thing to strike us must surely be its richness in melody. It teems with tunes—it is an unbroken tune from the first note of the prelude to the last chord of the act. At times we feel the terrific energy as something that might easily grow wearying to the nerves, and then comes a long song, such as Brangaena's remonstrance to Isolda, which is a sheer delight to the ear and prepares us for the next dramatic outburst. That is the first thing to strike us; the next is the perfect skill with which the sound and feeling, the very breath, of the sea are kept ever present. The body of the music is made up of music growing out of the passage in the sailor-song (g); this goes through a hundred transformations, and is put to a hundred uses as the action progresses; and the swing and lilt of it never fail to conjure up a vision of smooth rollers and the sea-wind filling the sail and driving the ship fast towards Cornwall. It takes one shape when Brangaena tells Isolda that they will land before evening; and in nearly the same shape it returns when Brangaena goes to bid Tristan enter her mistress's presence; in the meantime lengthy passages have been woven from it during Isolda's first angry outburst; in one form or another it is worked again and again, always conveying just the feeling of the moment, yet never losing its original colour. Wagner's mastery of the art of pictorial suggestion, while faithfully and logically expressing, explaining and enforcing the actors' emotion, is here at its supremest height. In the Ring he often wrote purely pictorial music for a few pages with simple, almost speaking, parts for the singers, trusting, as he well could, to the stage situation explaining itself and making its own effect. But the burning passion with which Tristan is filled necessitated another mode of treatment, a mode which Wagner alone amongst musicians had the art and strength to employ. Other composers, notably Weber and Mendelssohn, had given the world grand scenic music; but where they left off Wagner began. Their picture is an end in itself: Wagner's are settings for the dramatic action.

There are not many leitmotivs in Tristan, and they are used for ideas and passions—never for personages. Tristan, Isolda, Mark, Brangaena and Kurvenal have none of them a representative theme. Each act has its own themes—a multitude of them—each carried through the act in which it appears, and nowhere else employed; only (a) and (h) appear throughout the opera. Some small use is made of (c), but once the poisoning episode is done with the subject ceases to have any significance. That marked (h) is of great importance. Its effect is terrible when Isolda is enticing, or compelling, Tristan to drink the cup. The sailors break in with their "Yo, heave ho!" and Tristan, bewildered, asks, "Where are we?" Isolda, with sinister purpose, replies, "Near to the end!" The intense originality, due to their being closely allied to the dramatic meaning, of all the themes should be noted: only one, the second part of the love-theme (a), suggests any other music. It is reminiscent of the introduction of Beethoven's Sonata "Pathetique," and, after all, the phrase was not new when Beethoven employed it.


We have seen in this first act, if not the birth of love, at any rate the avowal. The scene is laid on the sea, fresh, breezy, salt, bracing, suggestive of infinite energy and possibilities. We are now to witness it in its ripeness: not by any means a healthy ripeness, but ecstatic to the point of frenzy, burning to the point of madness, tumultuous, unbridled passion and lust; and, as these violent delights have violent ends, ending in tragedy. When the curtain rises the picture is in exquisite contrast with that presented in the first act. Well did Wagner know the value of the scenic environment; he always got it just and true and, from the artistic point of view, in sympathy with the prevailing emotion. The demands on the scene-painters and stage-machinists are nothing in Tristan compared with those made in the Ring and Parsifal; but when the directions are complied with, as I understand they occasionally are (I have seen them carried out once), nothing more gorgeously effective can be dreamed of. Instead of the morning air of Act I we have a warm summer night in a luxuriant garden; on the left is a castle with steps leading up to the door, and a burning torch makes the dark night darker; trees at the back and on the right are massed black against the dark sky; in the centre under a tree there is a seat for the convenience of the lovers. At the very first glance we are taken into the atmosphere for a great love-scene—the most magnificent love-scene ever conceived; and also we are carried ages back—back to a time that never existed. This old, world-old feeling, this sense of the past, is present to some degree in the first act; but here the music makes it of overwhelming power, and just as in the first act the sea is always present, so here the sense of a remote period is never allowed to leave us.

When the first chord of the brief, passionate introduction was first heard in a theatre nearly half a century ago, it sent a shudder through every professional class-room in every conservatoire in Europe, and the theme is perhaps the most important in the act (j); and the cutting, almost raucous chord lets us know at once that big doings are at hand. Another theme follows—one of impatience and sick anxiety: it is that which is played again when Isolda, hardly able to contain herself while waiting for Tristan, wildly waves her handkerchief, beckoning to him. Another and most lovely melody is heard (k); and then some of the love-music which is played when he does come and rushes to her arms. This leads straight to the rising of the curtain, and Brangaena is seen on the steps by the torch, keeping watch and listening to the horns of a hunting party; the sounds are growing fainter in the distance.

Isolda enters, and Brangaena vainly tries to dissuade her from meeting Tristan. This night hunt, she swears, is a scheme of Melot's for the betrayal of Tristan, his foe. Isolda laughs. Melot is Tristan's friend, and the night hunt was arranged that the lovers might meet. They dispute to some of Wagner's loveliest melodies. The theme (k) flows along as an accompaniment, and becomes more prominent when Isolda says she can no longer hear the horns; she hears the gentle plash of the brook running from the fountain—as "in still night alone it laughs on my ear"—the party of hunters must be many miles off. The signal for Tristan is the extinguishing of the torch, and the music associated with this deed now is used again in the last act in another form. Brangaena prays her mistress not to put it out: it means death, she says, and as a sort of subsidiary death-theme this melody is afterwards used. Isolda is too completely mastered by desire to listen. When Brangaena curses herself for having changed the magic drinks she is laughed at. To music filled with passion and of perfect beauty she says the whole business was arranged by Venus, goddess of love, and we hear yet another love-theme (l); then to the crash of what we must call the torch-theme, blent with the death-theme from Act I, she throws down the torch and frantic with impatience awaits her lover.

He enters, and after some delirious pages not to be described in words the pair fall to talk in Schopenhauerian terminology about the light and the dark. But the passion never goes out of the music. On the contrary, it grows in intensity, for the madness of the meeting is nothing to the white-hot passion we get later; and in spite of the terminology the meaning of both Tristan and Isolda is perfectly clear. Light has been, and is, the enemy of their love; in the garish light of day Tristan, filled with daylight dreams of ambition, first made over to Mark, so to speak, his rights in Isolda; "is there a pain or a woe that does not awaken with daylight?" he asks; and now, declared lovers, they may only meet in the dark: during the day they must be distant strangers. They know whither fate is driving them: Isolda has said as much to Brangaena: "she may end it ... whatsoe'er she make me, wheresoe'er take me, hers am I wholly, so let me obey her solely." They are embodiments of sheer passion; love is the most selfish of passions, and placed as they are, realising that they live only for and in that passion, they have no thought for any one else, regarding the outer world, the world of daylight, as their foe. Isolda does not hesitate to remind Tristan of his perfidy in the days of light; and he, far from defending himself, finds it quite sufficient to remark that he had not then come under the sway of night: that is, they have no ordinary human affection for each other. If they had, neither would lead the other into such danger. Shakespeare did not, could not, make his lovers live so entirely in their passion as this: he had no music to express himself by, and had to speak through human beings. So when Romeo says, "let me stay and die," Juliet instantly hurries him away. Tristan and Isolda know they are wending to death, and are content.

Their feelings subside into soft languor, and then they sing the sublime hymn to night. Brangaena's voice is heard from the watch-tower, warning them of approaching danger; and they heed her not. Again she sings to them that the danger is imminent—night is departing; Tristan, resting his head on the bosom of his mistress, simply says, "Let me die thus." The catastrophe is at hand. The duet reaches its glorious climax; Brangaena gives a shriek from her tower; Kurvenal rushes in yelling "Save yourselves," but it is too late—Mark, Melot and the other huntsmen come in quickly, and—the game is up. The red dawn slowly breaks; Tristan hides Isolda with his cloak; Melot turns to Mark and says, "Did I not tell you so?"—his ruse has succeeded quite well enough. And now follows a scene which has proved a stumbling-stock to many.

The ordinary dramatist or play-monger would drop the curtain on this denouement; and undeniably it would be what is called an effective "curtain." However, effective curtains were not Wagner's business in planning Tristan; he had long since passed through that stage. He could not after such a curtain—the sort of curtain that ends many an opera—have carried out the plan of Tristan—to show us the lovers realising their impossible situation in life and deliberately seeking death as the refuge. Tristan and Isolda care nothing for shame and disgrace: they care only for their love, and their love relentlessly drives them into their grave. Mark has a great affection for them both, and precisely on that account he is their enemy. He begins a long expostulation: "How is it that the two people dearer to him than all the world have so betrayed his trust?" It is lengthy, and must needs be so; each proof he gives them of his love only more clearly defines his real significance and relation to them. Tristan does not fear Melot: he dreads Mark's affection. He (Tristan) calls out, "Daylight phantoms! morning visions, empty and vain—away, begone!" but Mark continues, putting in a dozen ways the same question, "Why, why have they done this?" It is not the behaviour of a barbaric king; but we must remember that Wagner's Mark is not, and is not intended to be, the legendary Mark any more than Tristan and Isolda are the legendary Tristan and Isolda: he is the personification of human affection, a thing to which they, enthralled by elemental love, are indifferent—detest, indeed, as interfering with their love. When he ends Tristan knows he has no explanation to offer—none that Mark could possibly understand: human affection and elemental human passion are unintelligible to one another. He replies that he cannot answer Mark's "Why?" and turning to Isolda asks whether she will follow him whither he is now going—the land of eternal night. He, not Mark, plans his death. Isolda answers straightway that she will follow. Tristan and Melot fight, but Tristan allows his treacherous foe to run the sword through him, and he falls. Then we get the curtain; Tristan has done with this world and has started out for another, and the drama has taken a second step towards its goal.

This, held for long to be bad craftsmanship, is consummate, daring craftmanship. Tristan is a drama of spiritual conflicts; and those who do not like that sort had better try something by the trade playwrights of to-day.


The music of the first act is largely fierce, angry, turbulent, often bitter music, blent and merging into music expressive of fierce desire, the hunger of the man after the woman, of the woman after the man. There is one moment of sweet longing—the moment after Isolda and Tristan have drunk the fatal potion; but instantly the torrent breaks forth, and though it is in a way sweet, the sweetness is mixed with fire; the stream is as a stream of molten lava, scalding, consuming. The note of the music to the second act is utterly different; there is fire, indeed, a golden fire; there is greedy impatience and restlessness; but the fire does not scorch nor scald, the impatience is not despairing, the love is not—as it certainly is in the first act—that passion which is but one remove from deadly hate. Almost at the beginning of the first act Isolda, devoured by a longing for revenge, schemed to murder Tristan, and she does not falter in her purpose until he has taken the drink; the reaction has all the violence of a cataclysm; all is delirium; there is not a moment of happy lingering over the joy of a possible; new life; there is no time for that, no thought of it. All is burning wrath and hate and equally burning lust and greed for the possession of the beloved one's body. In the second act the anger has died out, and in the whirl of the music, though at its maddest, there is a fulness, an assured sense of coming satisfaction; and the excitement settles down into long, drawn-out, luscious, voluptuous strains as the lovers, held in each other's arms, exchange the sweet confidences usual (I suppose) on such occasions.

Musically the act may be regarded—conveniently, though roughly and crudely—as a kind of symphony, in four sections which to an extent overlap. We have section one from the first bar of the prelude to Tristan's entry; section two, the impassioned duet; three, from the hymn to night until the lovers are discovered; and four, from that point to the end. Many of the themes are worked right through, but the sections vary vastly in colour, atmosphere and feeling. The variety unified into a completely satisfying whole is astounding. Amongst the really great musicians only four possessed the organising brain in this degree—Wagner himself, Beethoven, Handel and Bach. This act is even more completely an organic whole than the first; every part performs its functions and retains its individuality, yet all the parts are co-ordinated. I have seen miraculous pieces of machinery in which each part seemed to be alive and doing its duty independent of the others; yet all working together to achieve one purpose. The score of Tristan is as marvellous—indeed, more so, for the purpose is not a mechanical one, but the expression, with rigid fidelity to truth, of the most subtle and exquisite feelings.

I have said earlier that in evolving his purely musical structures Wagner adopted one plan. He not only used the subjects of his operas for the overtures, or (as in the present case) of the preludes to the acts, but he makes them tell a story dramatically. Merely to use themes for an opera as conventional subjects to be treated in symphony form had been done; but Wagner never dreamed of adopting a form and imposing it on his material from outside; with him the form is determined by the material and the significance the material bore in his mind. This is very different from deliberately writing a symphonic poem—deliberately sitting down in cold blood and setting to work to illustrate a story. That method is antithetical to Wagner's; a symphonic poem writer is simply a setter of opera texts, one who follows with devout care the book of words put before him—with this difference, that the opera-writer must, to some extent at least, consider his words, his singers, his stage, while the composer of symphonic poems can do just as he pleases and consider no one's convenience, shortening this section or lengthening that as the musical exigencies demand, while making use of some tale or a poem as an excuse for writing in a form which in itself is unintelligible and illogical. So far as Wagner could he let music and drama grow up together; then to start with the right atmosphere he took certain themes and spun a piece of music from them, letting the themes, as I have said, unfold themselves logically and determine the form. The result is always a fine piece of music; and thousands of listeners have derived artistic enjoyment from the Mastersingers overture, the Lohengrin prelude and Tristan prelude without troubling to trace the story as it is plainly told. In the prelude to Act II here, for example, no one need seek a story, though it is obvious enough. First we have the daylight theme, peremptorily, harshly announced; then the impatience of Isolda, then her longing, then her thoughts of love and her hopes of fulfilment, and just before the curtain rises the crash which accompanies the extinction of the torch.

I have already alluded to the old-world atmosphere got at once by the horn calls and the lovely passage in which Isolda sings of the brook "laughing on" in the still night; but in this first scene, which is by comparison a mere introduction to the duet, we find a thousand beautiful things. At this period of his life Wagner was by no means so economical as he afterwards became; he squandered his pearls with prodigal hands. In a few pages are enough melodies and themes to set up a Puccini—or for that matter a Strauss or an Elgar—for life. The blending of the death-theme with one of the love-themes, when Isolda speaks of love's goddess, "the queen who grants unquailing hearts ... life and death she holds in her hands," is one of the miracles of music—stern beauty made up of defiance of fate and careless voluptuousness. In the very next melody to make its appearance, the second bar after the change to the key of A, we may note what I think is the first sign of one of the many mannerisms of Wagner's "third period," as we call it—the period extending from Tristan to the finishing of the Ring (Parsifal being as the tail to the dog, or perhaps the tin-kettle tied to the tail). It is the phrase quoted (l). Those five notes of the second bar were to be made to serve many purposes hereafter; and the Wagnerites will insist that this was done for a high artistic reason. Perhaps it was; but to me it seems that it is found so frequently sometimes because Wagner wanted to utter precisely the same emotion as he had employed it for earlier, and sometimes because, like all other composers, at times he found his invention flagging. In the second scene of this act of Tristan it plays a conspicuous part, and is indeed one of the most pregnant love motives of the drama—perhaps the most prolific of subsidiary themes and passages.

The big duet beats description, and its structure must only be discussed briefly. A figure which forms part of the music played while Isolda impatiently awaits Tristan is turned into the whirling accompaniment to impassioned and incoherent exclamations as they first embrace; then to the seething mass of tone is added (l), and gradually out of chaos and confusion emerges one clean-cut melody after another. The daylight-theme which begins the introduction is Protean in the shapes it assumes, and the emotions, now hot passion, now the gentlest tenderness, it is made to express. The ferment settles down, and we get the hymn to night and a series of melodies which are love's own voice speaking. The dreamy voluptuousness that pervades these duets comes from songs written by Wagner as studies. They were not over highly esteemed by his friends, but he had his revenge. This night in the garden—with the black night above and the black trees around, the flowers, the musical brooklet, and the voice of the caller heard at times from the roof—is the greatest thing of the kind in all music: in all the arts, I know only the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet which may be said to approach it. Melody upon melody, delicate and sweet to the ear as the perfume of night flowers and grasses to the nostrils, floats past; until at last the sheer delight of the thing seems to work up the lovers to a state of heavenly rapture, and in the final verse of the hymn to night they pray only to be removed from the dangers of returning day; and here the strains swell to an intensity of yearning for peace quite unprecedented in music. And, as we know, their prayer is immediately answered in a fashion they were hardly prepared for.

Mark's address is deeply touching; and it is odd that when attacked by Melot Tristan's accents are almost his. The sublime is again touched when Tristan asks Isolda to follow him and in her answer. Melot then stabs him, and the curtain drops to one of Mark's reproachful phrases thundering from the orchestra. This, then, is Tristan's answer to Mark's questioning—told in the music, not in the words.


Who first uttered that immortal piece of nonsense, Love and death are one, I cannot say. The Greek conception of Death as Eros with an inverted torch is quite different: it is a kind of Tod als Freund idea; we are called out of life by an irresistible force or god, which god must be love, else he would not want us. The inverted torch is the sign that shows whither he calls us. It had a mighty fascination for many fine minds of the second-rate sort last century; and judging from the phraseology of Tristan it seems to have captured Wagner. He was everlastingly bewildering himself with cheap catch-phrases which happened, through suggestion or otherwise, to stir his emotions. He took up one philosophical and political system after another, only to abandon them in turn; but they left a kind of sediment in his mind, and one never feels sure that the pellucid stream of his music-drama will not the next moment be gritty to the palate with some of this outworn stuff. The bits of Schopenhauer's broken brickbats embedded in the libretto of Tristan serve their turn, though a finer and more poetical way of saying the same things might have been found. But Wagner did not find that more poetical way, so let us rejoice that through this uncouth lingo Wagner managed to get into a sort of verse the idea that night was the friend of Tristan's love and day its enemy, and that in the end everlasting night is best of all. In his letters, however, we find him playing with the love and death notion, though he must have known that love is not death, but life; that if love and death are one, then death and love are also one, and to be in love is to be in death, to be dead—which is preposterous: corpses don't love. Presently we shall see that Isolda died in a state of exaltation akin to the state of being in love; but that does not establish the thesis. Blake, for hours before he died, shouted till the ceiling rang for joy to think that he was soon to be with God: does that prove that mysticism and death are one? Mr. Chamberlain, in his exegesis of Tristan, will have it that Wagner composed the opera to demonstrate the truth of a very trite and ridiculous lie. The fact is, Wagner's was far more a feeling, emotional, imaginative brain than a thinking one, and in the hazy, steamy, overheated thinking part he often let idle phrases play about without himself firmly grasping their meaning or want of it. Anyhow, if he had done what Mr. Chamberlain and many others say he did, we should have found it in the last act. Instead, there is not a word on the subject. Wagner's thinking might be misty: his dramatic instinct was supremely right and sure.

In the first act Isolda and Tristan enjoy their love only for a few minutes; the world, daylight, breaks in and separates them. In the second they revel in it for hours; the world, daylight, again separates them. In the last the world again breaks in; but Tristan has already found his refuge in death, and Isolda, obedient to her promise, follows him, and they are joined, safe from the annoyances of the "phantoms of the day," in "the impregnable fortress," the grave. The action, as in the preceding portions of the drama, is of the simplest. On his bed of pain and sorrow Tristan lies wounded and unconscious. Kurvenal has got him away from Mark's court in Cornwall to his own castle in Brittany; and now he has been brought out into the castle yard for coolness and air. It is hot, sultry, close; the sea in the distance seems to burn; the castle is dilapidated and overgrown with weeds. Kurvenal watches by his master; from outside the saddest melody ever conceived is heard on a shepherd's pipe. Presently the shepherd looks over the wall and asks how the master fares, does he still sleep? If he awakes it will only be to die, replies Kurvenal; unless the lady leech (Isolda) comes there is no hope. A moment after Tristan comes out of his coma, wanders in his mind a little, but at last understands where he is and that Isolda will come. At that news he works himself into a condition of unbounded excitement, fancies he sees the ship bringing Isolda, but at the sound of that sad, droning pipe melody, and when Kurvenal tells him it is a signal that no ship is yet in sight, he lapses into unconsciousness again. Then he wakes up, goes over the whole history of his love for Isolda, and faints once more; once more he half awakes and as in a dream sees the ship decked with flowers speeding over the summer sea. Suddenly the shepherd strikes in with a lively tune: "Isolda is at hand," cries Kurvenal. "Hasten to bring her," shouts Tristan, and Kurvenal does so. Tristan, left to himself, goes mad for sheer joy, staggers off his couch, tears his bandages off so that his wound bleeds afresh, and Isolda rushes in just in time to catch him in her arms, where he dies murmuring "Isolda." She laments over his body and sinks down beside it. Another alarm is given; Kurvenal barricades the gate; Mark, Melot and the rest break it down, and there is a terrible hand-to-hand fight; Kurvenal is run through with a spear, and creeps to his master's side, to die, groping for his hand. Brangaena enters, and she and Mark try to explain how she has told the whole story of the potion to Mark; how Mark has come, too late, to unite the lovers. Isolda does not listen; presently she rises to sing the matchless death-song; she sees Tristan before her, smiling, transfigured, his love envelopes her as in billows; she is his now, at last, for aye; and, exhausted, she again sinks down beside Tristan, and dies.

There is thus in Tristan next to no action—no more than serves to turn spiritual forces loose and helps to interpret various spiritual states. The spectator is interested, indeed, in the doings of the people on the stage only in the first act. Isolda's command to Tristan to come before her, Tristan's evasions, Kurvenal's rude answer, the rough gibing bit of sailor chorus, the episode of the two chalices —the love potion and the poison—the scene between Isolda and Tristan in which he offers her his sword and tells her to take her revenge by killing him forthwith, the drinking, the wild embraces and the arrival of the ship in port amidst the clatter of triumphant trumpets—such things might have been, and were, done by Wagner in his Tannhaeuser days. But consider how little is done in the second act and in the third. These two portions of the music-drama are more symphonic than operatic, and it is small wonder that in the days when good folk expected to see opera when they went into an opera-house, they thought they had been diddled when they were given Tristan for their money. If anything so new and unexpected were sprung upon us to-day we should raise the same cry as was raised when Tristan was given nearly half a century ago. The introduction opens with a phrase (m) of threefold meaning. It is clearly derived from the second phrase of the first love-theme (a, page 274); it is a realistic representation in music of Tristan's stertorous breathing; it expresses his delirious state of mind—chiefly, however, in the upward-drifting thirds and fourths with which it ends at each occurrence. Then comes the music associated with his suffering and the "lady leech." The whole passage is then repeated, and afterwards we get the shepherd's pipe (n). This forms the prelude, and the music of the short scene with the shepherd is practically the same. Some new matter is brought in, for dramatic rather than sheer musical purposes, as Tristan awakens; but the next subject that I need call attention to is the noble one which comes in when Kurvenal assures him he is safe in his own castle (o). The whole of Tristan's subsequent ravings are made up of reminiscences, more or less distorted, of various passages out of the first and second acts, as he goes over, as in a dream, his recent life—the sight of Isolda, the scene on the ship and that in the garden. Another new theme to be noted is blazed out by the orchestra when Kurvenal tells him Isolda has been sent for. When he sinks back exhausted and no ship is in sight the shepherd's pipe keeps wandering through his brain with strange, weird, terrible effect, mixing with fragments of other themes; he gathers strength, and his despair rises to frenzy as he curses himself—"'Twas I by whom [the draught] was brewed"—to a phrase overwhelming in its intensity of expression (p), and again collapses.

Presently follow a few pages of perhaps the divinest music to be found in Wagner's scores, Tristan's dream of Isolda crossing the summer sea. To an evenly pulsing gentle accompaniment we hear first the second part of a love-theme (q), then fragments of others, till the point of supernal, Mozartean beauty is touched at "full of grace and loving mildness." The pathos of it is almost intolerable: no one could stand the strain another second, when after the cry, "Ah, Isolda, how fair art thou," he rouses himself to anger because Kurvenal cannot see on the rolling waters what he with his inner vision sees so bright and clear. How any one could, even at a first hearing, fail to realize that the composer of this sublime passage was by far, infinitely far, the mightiest and tenderest composer of opera music who has lived—this is a phenomenon that passes our comprehension nowadays. The scene where the shepherd sounds his pipe to signal the coming of the boat, and Tristan, his delight wrought up until it grows into anguish, goes mad and tears off his bandages, baffles description. It is made up of the love music of the first and second acts, the melodies being metamorphosed in marvellous fashion. At the last he sees Isolda throwing down the torch as she did in Act II, and as darkness comes over his eyes we hear the same music combined with the love-themes. There is only one thing of the kind to match Isolda's lament—Donna Anna's grief over her father's body in Don Giovanni. The rest of the act is largely made up of music which has been heard before. The death-song is an extended and glorified version of the hymn to night; and the close is of sad, tragic sweetness. The lovers are joined together and at peace—but in the everlasting darkness of the grave.

Any one who has heard Tristan a few times will begin to notice that, despite the endless variety of the music, it possesses an odd homogeneity. After hearing it fifty or a hundred times one begins to feel it to be comparable—if such a comparison could be made—to an elaborate oration delivered in one breath. The whole thing, complete in every detail, must (one thinks) have come bodily into the composer's mind in one inconceivable moment of inspiration and insight. Of course we know it was not so. A god may think a world into being in that way: a mortal requires time and unflagging energy to produce a masterpiece. We know that Wagner incorporated his own studies in his masterpiece; we can see how theme is evolved from theme. But the unity is so complete that if some sketches were to come to light showing that the last form of some of the music was in existence before the portions from which it seems to be evolved, I should not be in the least surprised, so perfect is the unity, so inevitably does every note fall into its proper place to express the feeling of the occasion. I take it that when he drafted the words he had before him a prophetic shadow of what the music was to be; and when he came to compose, the uninterrupted white heat of inspiration and enormous cerebral energy and intellectual grip of his matter, and the boundless invention which provided that matter for him, so to speak, so that he had only to pick it up ready made, enabled him to make that more or less dim, prophetic shadow a living, concrete reality. Never, from the first bar to the last, does the inspiration fail him; there is not a phrase that says less, or says it less adequately than the situation demands, than he has led us to expect. Old Spohr, when he heard Tannhaeuser, though his ears rebelled against the unaccustomed discords, spoke about the Olympian inspiration and energy he felt in the work; and this criticism—and very just and fine criticism it was: as just and fine as it was unexpected from an old-world musician such as Spohr—is equally applicable to Tristan. In its power and perfection it seems the handiwork of one of the gods. The very truth of every phrase, and the fulness of utterance with which every phrase expresses the emotion of the moment, has given rise to a common delusion or absurdity: that in the Wagnerian opera every phrase is evolved or developed out of the previous one. If Wagner ever thought of adopting such an insane procedure he would have been puzzled to know how and where to start. He might, perhaps, have evolved the first from the last, and thus got a perfect rounded whole—a serpent with its tail in its mouth. As a matter of prosaic, or poetical, fact, Wagner, in all his work, incessantly introduces fresh matter, and dozens of themes appear, are worked out, and disappear entirely.

Now, when all this overgrowth of rubbishy comment is being swept away, and those who contemned Wagner are disappearing with those who battened on him and his memory, Tristan and Isolda remains, a world-masterpiece, the most powerful, beautiful, sweet and tender embodiment to be found in any art of elemental human love in all its splendour, loveliness, fearfulness, terror and utter selfishness. Thousands of years hence, when Europe has sunk under the waves and fresh continents have arisen, perhaps a stray copy by hazard preserved in the Fiji Islands will come to light, will be deciphered by pundits, and a new race will see in it a primitive but consummate work of art, and the pundits will argue themselves black in the face about the name of the composer, whether he was Wagner or another man of the same name. In the meantime millions of our epoch will have understood it, loved it, and seen in it a thousand times more than we see in it to-day, and many thousand times more than I could say in the preceding pages.


By way of a footnote to this chapter I may be allowed to add a few words about the smaller characters. All that Wagner took from the old legends was the suggestion for the two lovers who sinned and perished for their sin. Crudely or coarsely, gentlemanly (as in Tennyson), refined and spiritualized, that idea is the central idea of every form of the tale. To these two people Wagner added Brangaena and Kurvenal, and, taking only the name of King Mark, he created a new personage, unlike any of the older versions of the man, necessary for the exposition of his idea. Brangaena is the most difficult part to sing and act, and it is also the most grateful to the actress. She has not a phrase that is not beautiful, from her first dozen bars to her last recitative. Kurvenal has his song in the first act and scarcely appears again until the last, when all his music is of an unspeakable pathos. His phrase to Tristan, "The wounds from which you languish here all shall end their anguish," is as touching in its rough, uncouth way as a hound licking the hand of its dead master. That is all Kurvenal is—a faithful human dog done in artistic form; and it requires a very great artist to interpret it. David Bispham's impersonation remains in my memory as the greatest I have seen. Mark's reproaches in the second act, and his utter grief in the third, are also very hard to render. In fact, only fine opera singers can take any of these parts without coming to grief. The invisible sailor must be able to sing beautifully; the shepherd must both act and sing with no little skill.




The next period of Wagner's life, from the date of finishing Tristan, 1859, till King Ludwig sent for him, 1864, was stormy. The struggles and endless disappointments made of him the somewhat hard and embittered Wagner of later years. The constant battles, the few victories and the many disappointments must be related in my next chapter, as it is simpler and easier for the author, if not the reader, to consider the Mastersingers of Nuremberg immediately after Tristan. A few facts may be mentioned now to enable us to place the second opera in its true chronological order. The Nibelung's Ring was still in abeyance; Tristan finished, Wagner, in search of means of subsistence—the patience and indeed the means of his friends fast giving out—undertook a series of concert trips, going to Brussels, Paris, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Marienfeld, Leipzig and Vienna. In 1861 his last hopes of a Paris success with Tannhaeuser were extinguished; his concerts up till then had resulted only in an increasing burden of debt; his domestic existence was unendurable; things were as bad as bad could be. So he sat down and wrote his only comedy. It was not a simple case of "tasks in hours of insight willed can be through hours of gloom fulfilled." The Mastersingers had been sketched, as we know, in 1845; but the new work was a change, in that he created the character of Hans Sachs afresh, and the opera became an entirely different thing. He himself gave an account of the joy with which he worked at it, incidentally proving the truth of his assertion that he was a "wholly [creative] artist." He was not built to be happy in the outer world, but in his world of art he was content; in the outer world he might have an hour of felicity and months of misery, but given a chance of settling down for a while to his operas he at once became and remained cheerful. Fate did not will that in the case of the Mastersingers his contentment should endure any length of time. No sooner was his text written than he had to set out on his travels again, hunting his daily food from land to land. It was not until 1862 that he began the music; not until 1867 did he get it finished, and in the interval many things tragic and other, had occurred. These, I say, will occupy us presently.

In the sixteenth century there flourished in Nuremberg, as in many another city, a guild of minstrels—at once poets and musicians. The name of Hans Sachs is familiar to us all, but not his verse; and as for his music, it has gone down the winds. After composing Tannhaeuser, Wagner thought of doing what Germans call a comic pendant to that tragedy; though what there is in the Mastersingers that hangs from Tannhaeuser I beg the reader not to ask me. There is this similarity: the central scene of each is a minstrel-contest; there is this dissimilarity: one opera is tragic in spirit and the other comic in spirit. Beyond this there is no connection, whether of resemblance or of contrast, between the two. The plan was not developed in 1845, the obvious real reason being that Wagner felt the want of a great central figure, Sachs being originally not more than a benevolent heavy father. When he had created a soul for this Sachs he went ahead and wrote the poem.

All that it is necessary to know of the plot may be briefly told in a skeleton form. One of the mastersingers, Pogner, dissatisfied with the prizes usually given at the competitions, has decided to grant his daughter Eva in marriage to the winner of the next. There are cases on record where such an offer has had the effect of reducing the number of entries—as when in a later age Matheson and Handel would not compete for the position of organist because one of the conditions was that the successful man must marry the retiring organist's daughter. There is no cup of joy without its drop of bitterness, but Handel and Matheson evidently thought the bitter outdid the sweet. In the Mastersingers, however, the lady is all that is attractive, and goodly sport is expected. Hans Sachs himself, though past middle-age, loves her, and might well hope to win; Beckmesser, another master of the guild, means to do his best; and a young knight, Walther von Stolzing, has just become infatuated with her and she with him. He cannot strive in the contest, however, not being a master; and when he submits to a trial the guild rejects him with scorn. Things have arrived at this point at the end of the first Act. In the next, Walther and Eva, desperate, resolve to fly under cover of darkness; Sachs overhears them planning and sings a curious sort of warning-song, letting them know that he is on the look-out and will prevent the elopement; Beckmesser comes to serenade Eva, and David, an apprentice, thinks he has come after his (David's) sweetheart and falls to fisticuffs with him; there is a street row, amidst which Eva escapes into her father's house, while Sachs pulls Walther into his. In the third Act Eva, who has already told Sachs quite plainly enough that if only a master may win her, and Walther cannot become a master, she prefers him to any other, practically repeats her hint. But Walther has composed another song and Sachs has devised a scheme: if Walther sings his song he is certain to be the victor, and Sachs has determined that by hook or by crook he must sing it. Beckmesser grabs the song, under the impression it is by Sachs; Sachs, without committing himself, tells him to make use of it at the contest if he can. The people gather to watch and hear and judge; Beckmesser makes a muddle of the song and is laughed off the scene; then Sachs pleads Walther's case, and he is allowed, though not a master, to sing. He triumphs, and by one stroke is admitted to the guild and wins the prize. Virtually the play ends here. Sachs' winding-up address can only be dealt with in connection with the music.


The personality, the soul, of Sachs, its conflict with itself, its victory over itself and renunciation—undoubtedly Wagner felt this to be the centre of the action of the play, and undoubtedly without it he could never have gained the impulse to write the drama at all. It gives the note of seriousness, even sadness, without which all humour is the crackling of thorns under the pot, without which the play would be farce with a trite love adventure thrown in. We may grant that, and then ask ourselves whence came the impulse to work the thing up into one of the longest of Wagner's operas. The impulse was the vision of old Nuremberg—a vision as indissolubly blent with music as was the vision of the river and the swan with the music of Lohengrin. One may say truly that once the germ of the dramatic action was in Wagner's brain he needed the musico-pictorial inspiration of the scenic environment and atmosphere before the thing took final shape and he could compose the music. He says explicitly this was so in the case of the Dutchman; in Tannhaeuser it is perhaps a little less obviously the case. But even in that second of the great operas we need only read his directions for the right performing of it to see of what importance to him were the different scenes—the hot, steaming cave of Venus, the fresh spring morning by the roadside, the great hall of song—about which he was very particular—the autumn woods in the last act. In his letters to Uhlig this comes out very plainly: for instance, he gives as his reason for cutting down the finale of the last act that it was impossible at Dresden to get a glorious sunrise, with which the work should end. I have already laid sufficient stress on the true source of Lohengrin; in Tristan adequate and appropriate scenery is absolutely demanded to sustain the atmosphere; and here, in the Mastersingers, music and a series of pictures go together, and the pictures seem to inspire the music—or rather, music and pictures are parts of the first inner vision.

Mediaeval Nuremberg, with its thousand gable-ends, its fragrant lime-trees and gardens, its ancient customs, its processions of the guilds and crafts, its watchman with his horn and lantern, calling the hour, its freshness and quaint loveliness by day and its sweetness on soft summer nights—it is these Wagner employed all his superb musico-pictorial art to depict; they are the background to the purely human element of the play, and at the same time they help to express that element. If the Mastersingers was a little less successful as a work of art we should still have to regard it as an amazing tour de force. The opera is far too great for that term—one at once of praise and of reproach. The music is full of the spirit of a past world; but the feeling of that world is not got by the use of artificially archaic phrases or harmonies. Kothner's reading of the rules of correct minstrelsy is one of the exceptions, and the night-watchman's crying of the hour is another; but these, as Lamb said of Coleridge's philosophic preaching, are "only his fun." The melodies are often quite Weberesque in contour; the harmonies are either plain work-a-day ones or modern—so modern that no one had used them before. Nor it is by the sadness of the music alone that he gains his end: some of the merriest scenes belong, by reason of the music, to mediaeval times. By his art, the intensity of his feeling for those times, and the fidelity with which he could express every shade of feeling, he conjures up this vision out of the dead and dusty past, makes the dead and dusty past live again, takes us clean into it and keeps us there a whole evening without for a moment letting the spell be broken. It is significant that the very title he gave his work is a peremptory warning to us of what to expect: it is not Hans Sachs, nor Walther von Stolzing, nor even the Mastersinger, etc., but in the plural form, the Mastersingers of Nuremberg. This is not to cast doubt on Wagner's sincerity when he declared that he only got the creative impulse to go on with his work when he had conceived Sachs as Sachs now stands: it is only to say that his extraordinary sense of colour, atmosphere, and his historical sense, led him to do much more than he thought he was doing and perhaps realized he had done.

The overture as plainly as the title of the opera proclaims the composer's purpose: it sums up the solid and pompous old burghers, the impudent apprentices, the love of Walther and Eva, and says nothing about Sachs. As an afterthought, in fact, Sachs is left for the prelude to the third act. As a piece of music, detachable from the opera, and by no means an integral part of it as is the case with the Tristan prelude, the overture transcends every other work of Wagner's. As a contrapuntal feat it remains, with some of Bach's organ fugues and Bach's and Handel's choruses, a veritable miracle of musical art—not of ingenuity alone, for each separate fibre in the musical web has character and combines with the other fibres to produce an ensemble of overwhelming strength and beauty. The energy of the thing is almost superabundant; the gorgeous colouring is dazzling; and every minutest fibre of it lives. The first theme is another landmark in musical history. The harmonisation is extraordinary, not only for its gigantic strength, but for the free employment of chromatics that do not weaken it: in fact, chromatic harmony is so employed throughout the Mastersingers that it sounds diatonic. Throughout Tristan and in the Venusberg music of Tannhaeuser chromatic harmony is put into the service of passion; but here we have music that is as solid, equable, serene as a Handel eight-part chorus. With consummate skill the stream of music is, so to say, led on to the theme that always accompanies the mastersingers, as distinguished from the citizens, of Nuremberg; next Walther's song is extemporised upon (no other phrase serves) for a couple of minutes—the most passionate page in the opera—and after that come the apprentices. We shall presently observe that Wagner in this opera made light-hearted fun of the pundits, and as if to show them that he had a right to do so he played with the devices that to them were a very serious business indeed. What to them was an end—I mean all the tricks of counterpoint—was to him a means to expression: more expressive music was never dreamed of in a musician's imagination, and at the same time he accomplished with ease part-writing that the most skilful contrapuntists could only perform by labouring long at expressionless, stale old themes first contrived before the Flood to "work well," as the phrase goes. The apprentices' music, then, is an instance: Wagner takes the solid burghers' theme and writes it in notes one-quarter the length, so that it sounds four times as fast. The effect is unexpectedly droll, the music skips about in the most irresponsible way, and (when one knows what it is meant for) depicts the gambols of the herd of young rascals who come on the scene in the first act. This contrivance, called "diminution," is resorted to again presently when the mastersingers' theme, in notes of half the length, is used as an accompaniment to a combination of Walther's song and the burghers' music. There is a good deal of tour de force about this, but the result justifies the means: the superb melody swings over the ponderous bass, both melody and bass singing out clear and strong amidst an animated, bustling and whirling sea of merry tunes.

Composers generally left the composition of the overture till last—as it were doing the thing only because an overture had to be written—but Wagner knew the importance of his work and must have composed this one very early; for in 1862, five years earlier than the completion of the opera and six before the first representation, he directed a performance of it in the Gewandhaus at Leipzig. He never was a favourite in that stodgy city, the headquarters of musical Judea, and the audience is said to have been scanty. In fact, he himself said that, although he gave concerts only to gain money, he never made any profits until he went to Russia. The audience, if small, was enthusiastic. But, without entertaining any delusions about persecution and the deliberate ignoring of his work, it is easy to see that such music as this could not possibly be understood at once. Though this overture is clarity itself to our ears, it is terribly complicated, and the style was absolutely new. I doubt whether the players quite knew, as our players know now, what they were doing; for here was something quite alien from the patchwork of four-bar measures which constituted the ordinary symphonic novelty at that time. There was no "form"—no statement of first and second subject, no working-out section measured off with compass and ruler, no recapitulation and coda; and mid-nineteenth century ears and brains were utterly baffled. The thematic luxuriance, the richness of the part-weaving, the blazing brilliance of the colouring—these were a mere vexation; and the volcanic energy was quickly found exhausting. Worst of all, even in those days there were Wagnerites. Chief amongst them was Wagner. A Wagnerite is a person who devotes his days and his nights to raising a stone wall of misunderstanding between the composer's music and the ears of the audience; and at this game Wagner was an adept. The generation rising up to-day finds it hard to see what an earlier generation found to carp at in Wagner's music; in fifty years' time the war between Wagnerites and anti-Wagnerites will be inexplicable, and the story of it may not improbably be regarded as grossly exaggerated, if not a pure myth. Men of my generation know very well it was an ugly and stupid reality; we know also it was brought about by the Wagnerites. Not Wagner's "discords," his "lack of melody," his "formlessness" and so on hindered an almost instantaneous appreciation of his music, but the "explanations" of the music. Things easy to grasp, many things as old as the eternal hills, were "explained" as being terribly difficult, and the world was told of the "revolution" Wagner had brought about in music. No wonder many good folks were distrustful; no wonder many would not listen to it, believing the Wagnerites' claim that their master had rejected all the rules observed by previous composers. Wagner's own account of this overture is enough to turn a man's hair grey and to break a woman's heart. Had he only written a good deal less prose—or none at all!

The opera is entirely a praise of pure, true song, and is the longest song in existence. Nearly all the characters are supposed to be singers; in the first act are two beautiful pieces of song; in the second a fine song saves the young lovers from making fools of themselves and a bad song provokes a street riot; the opera winds up with the presentation of the prize to the composer of a song. If there must be a hero in the opera that song is the hero. We hear snatches of it from time to time, and at the last it comes out in all its glory with a choral accompaniment. There are interludes, of course—Wagner knew better than to cloy our ears with sweetness too long sustained; but the whole work must be regarded as one great song, of which the clear-cut songs interspersed are parts. Even in the 'sixties, when nothing later than Lohengrin was known, the charge was brought against the composer that his music was unvocal and could not be sung —the Mastersingers was his answer. The overture leads into the first piece of song, the chorale that forms a vital part of the musical texture as the opera proceeds. We see part of the inside of a church and Walther making signs to Eva, who is clearly not attending to her devotions. Most readers are aware that in Germany it was the custom for the organist to play short interludes between the lines of hymn-tunes—a preposterous trick, but one which Bach put to a splendid use; and here Wagner transfers these interludes to the orchestra and makes them serve as a voice for Walther's feelings on seeing Eva for a second time: on the first occasion, the day before, they had fallen in love with each other. The next real song-music begins to flow with the entry of the singers' guild; but meantime there has been some music of the sort we have noticed as forming a large part of Tristan. Recitative—often broken sentences and mere ejaculations—merges imperceptibly into passionate melody, and this in its turn gives way to recitative, the whole thing being held together by the fairly continuous flow of the orchestral accompaniment. The apparatus, in a word, is precisely the same as in Tristan. In this first scene Walther pleads his suit with Eva and her maidservant Magdalena; then we have the apprentices, amongst them Magdalena's sweetheart David, to some rollicking choruses and to their own music—the burghers' music played four times as fast; and next David instructs Walther in the rules to be observed if he wishes to compose a master-song and to be admitted to the guild. Here Wagner indulges in positively uproarious satire of the pseudo-classicism and the school harmony, counterpoint and "composition" of the nineteenth century; and the music is not less ludicrous than the words. It is a parody of the very kind of music Wagner wrote in his Rienzi days, with sneers at the Jewish composers of psalms. Walther, in wrath, disgust and despair, cries out that he wants to learn how to sing, not to cobble boots.

The entry of the masters is a scene that only Wagner could have executed. A stream of Mozartian melody ripples on as the men shake hands and go through the conventional business of the gathering of people on the stage: what in the operas of the day—a dozen instances might be mentioned—is wearisome stodge is here turned into a thing of surpassing beauty. These shifting shadows of the old world become for the moment alive; yet we see them as though across the centuries through the magical web of music. The steady swaying motion of the accompaniment—and, of course, the whole charm lies in the accompaniment—has a curious resemblance to the duet of the Don and Zerlina in the first act of Don Giovanni, though Mozart's score is simplicity itself compared with this. This use of a kind of rocking figure led many younger musicians astray; and I make a comparison between their use of it and Wagner's with no intention of being odious to any one, but to show exactly where Wagner's superiority lay. Take a composer of very fine genius, Anton Dvorak, and look at a beautiful number (beautiful in a primitive, almost savage way) in his Stabat Mater, the Eia, mater. The theme of this (a, page 318) is a descendant, with several of Wagner's subjects, and three or four at least of Sir Edward Elgar's, of the opening of Handel's "Ev'ry valley." Dvorak's form of it is quite original, but he never gets any further: he cannot develop his subject. He adds an echoing, antiphonal phrase; but even with this help he gets no further. At a first hearing of this really very sincere and for moments entrancing work one hopes for the best at the end of the first dozen bars; but better is not to be. The theme becomes an accompanying figure to some not very engaging choral passages: in the invention of the theme the whole force seems to have gone out of the man: he has no power of achieving a climax save by the addition of instruments: a growing climax to him means nothing more than growing noise, and the grand climax is only the noisiest passage of all. The one figure is repeated over and over again, always with more instruments, until at last the complete battery of the modern orchestra is hard at it, and Dvorak's resources are at an end. Now look at our mighty Wagner. He takes the simplest of figures (b), plays with it, with seeming carelessness, for a while, then adds what is, technically, a counterpoint to it; he develops that counterpoint, adds melody on melody—always keeping his figure going, that the thing may be held together—until, after a rich and ever broadening and deepening tide of music, he gets his climax at the predetermined dramatic moment; and the climax does not consist of noise, but is in the stuff of the music. Development, real development, is not mere juggling with musical subjects, but continuous invention of melodies, and the driving-force behind it is the ceaseless craving of the spirit to express itself fully.

Even more striking than this instance is the treatment of a figure heard first when Pogner announces to the assembled mastersingers his intention of giving his daughter Eva as the prize in next day's contest. "To-morrow is Midsummer Day," he sings, and this figure (c) sounds from the orchestra. It is made up of two distinct sections. That formed by the first two bars is used largely as an accompaniment, but it continually comes round to the third and fourth bars, and counterpoints are added until at last we are far away from the beginning, though, as in the example discussed above, the figure welds all together into a coherent whole for the intellect to grasp apart from the appeal the music makes to "the feeling." This "feeling" of Wagner's was absolutely right, it was infallible; and in consequence we find a curious state of affairs is promptly established. The rich, joyous strain of music, lull of the feeling of summer, immediately becomes what was, so to say, at the back of Wagner's mind—the sense of a spring not known to ordinary mortals, the everlasting spring of Montsalvat, a spring full of promise and just as full of regrets, the spring Tennyson sings of—

Is it regret for buried time That keenlier in sweet April wakes?

The enchanting flood of music wells up from the orchestra, and the vocal writing for Pogner is in Wagner's most lordly manner: there is not a hint of the mechanical "faking" which characterises similar passages in the Ring. If it was necessary to think that one part was written before another one would be apt to say the voice part was done first; yet when one pays attention to the orchestral part, with its intricate contrapuntal weaving and interweaving of themes, that seems impossible, and one realizes that the two must have been conceived simultaneously. The interweaving becomes ever more marvellous as the speech proceeds, the burgher theme in a varied form being added, until at last, with the acclamations of the masters, it culminates in a passage at once dramatically true, supremely beautiful and as elaborate in its texture as any Bach fugue. We used to hear much of the necessity for ambitious young composers to devote years to the study of text-book counterpoint—indeed, the failure of many youthful gentlemen to achieve anything on the grand scale has often been attributed to their lack of diligence, their want of patience with professorial instruction: yet here we have music which, from the scientific point of view, is as perfect as any in the world, composed by a daring soul who had no more than six months' teaching. It may be remarked in passing that Spohr, in his naive way a good enough fugue-writer, never received any instruction at all: in point of effectiveness his fugues beat anything coming from the Jadassohn and Hauptmann pupils.

With the re-entry of Walther and his proposal as a member of the guild by Pogner, we get another of these great phrases, half-theme, half-accompanying figure, and then Walther's spring song. He describes how, sitting by the hearth in winter, he first learnt the art of minstrelsy from reading "das alte Buch" of the greatest of minstrels, Walther von der Vogelweide; then when the winter had passed he heard the birds in the green trees singing the selfsame song. Thematically this is much richer than the spring-song in, for instance, the Valkyrie, and for the best of reasons—that in the Valkyrie is incidental, part of a long duet woven from quite other material, while that in the Mastersingers is itself the material of a large portion of the opera. The tune of the first stanza in the Valkyrie is only referred to once again throughout the work; and by far the most expressive part is made out of a love-theme previously heard. In the Mastersingers song there is subject-matter enough to make a whole opera. From this point it is impossible to quote themes—they are far too long. In this respect a writer on music is at a disadvantage with a writer on literature; the latter can cite long passages to establish a case or illustrate his meaning; the unfortunate musical writer must refer his readers to scores, and it is inconvenient to sit amidst a pile of these—and Wagner's are the longest and weightiest in existence—and dive now here, now there, to follow the author without danger of mistaking him. The most important passage in Walther's song begins at bar 13 (counting from the beginning of the nine-eight measure); and it is developed in as masterly a fashion as any of the earlier subjects, only now the style is symphonic, in the Viennese way, as the others were contrapuntal. The whole thing is full of the yearning spirit of spring; and, not at all strangely, bears a marked family likeness to Siegfried's song about his mother in the Ring. Throughout the deliberations of the masters the music remains at a high level: there are no longueurs; dry recitative and barren attempts to treat prose poetically alike are absent. Kothner's delivery of the rules of the art are good-natured fun; Wagner, with his parody of eighteenth-century mannerisms, laughing at the wiseacres who wished to tie down modern musicians to the procedure of their forbears. Walther's trial song, with its gorgeous instrumentation, and the rush of the winds of March through budding woods, is even finer than the first; and it contains passages which are employed with exquisite effect in the next Act. There occurs a deal of what can only be called musical horseplay as Beckmesser, the pedant type, hidden behind a curtain, marks Walther's "mistakes"; then comes the only phrase (d) in the opera which can be said to be definitely associated with Hans Sachs. It stands first for Sachs' honest longing for the new; and afterwards it is made to express the longing in his soul for other things. With the consummate craftsmanship Wagner possessed at this period he adds to the score the utterance of the masters' disapproval, of Sachs' approval, of Beckmesser's pedantic maliciousness, of the riotous fooling of the apprentices, until we have them all hard at work united in accompanying Walther's song in what is nothing more nor less than a grand operatic finale. The thing is justified theatrically, so to speak, rather than truly dramatically; for though the masters manifest dissatisfaction by their ejaculations, and the 'prentices, seeing the way the wind blows, get out of hand, and chant their scoffing song in the most uproarious fashion, Walther, inspired by a sense that he is right and a determination not to be put down, continues his song to the end. Then he proudly quits the room and the rest follow in confusion, leaving Sachs for a moment to show his vexation; then the curtain drops.


The music of this Act is of the highest order of beauty and never falls to the level of mere prettiness; from the first note to the last it is vigorous, sturdy. The combination of strength with delicacy and gentleness is extraordinary: one feels that the reserve of this strength behind it all must be unlimited. The orchestration is like the music: it is always exactly appropriate to the music. One characteristic of the themes should be noted: with the solitary exception of that expressive of the deep longing in the heart of Sachs (d) all are singable. Even the burgher motive can be sung and is sung. When we consider the other operas we perceive that this is by no means always the case. The Dutchman's motive is not so much sung as jodelled by Senta; the Montsalvat music is rather orchestral than vocal; all the motives in Tristan are either orchestral or declamatory. In saying this I do not at all underrate the other operas: simply I wish to point out the very marked difference in the quality of the music. The Mastersingers is a long song, and the first act the first verse of it. Such a profusion of melodies has never been scattered over one act of an opera—not songs simply pleasing to the ear, but constituting subjects surcharged with feeling and capable of unfolding, as the opera goes on, into fresh forms of the rarest beauty and splendour. We cannot lay our finger on a superfluous bar, not one that can be cut without badly injuring the whole work. This criticism applies to the other two acts. As new material is introduced it is all singable; though harmonious effects are freely used they are all there to enforce the melody. The swan, or river, phrase in Lohengrin is, of course, purely an effect of harmony; but in this glorification of song Wagner seemed determined to trust entirely to song and use his harmonic resources and devices—which were inexhaustible—another day. Only once does he resort to them: in the third act when Walther tells Sachs he has had a lovely dream, by a single unexpected chord he gets the dream atmosphere he wanted. At the same time the harmonies throughout are freer, more daring, than they are even in Tristan. They are managed with consummate mastery, the sharp collisions of the many winding voices of the orchestra occurring infallibly in precisely the right place. As I have said, not Bach himself managed a score of many parts with finer mastery, nor gives one a more satisfying sense of complete security; not Bach, nor Handel, nor Mozart was a greater contrapuntist; instructively, instinctively, he knew the way his stream of music was going, and so mighty a craftsman had he grown that to achieve new harmonies and harmonic progressions by the interweaving of many melodies, each individual and expressive, seems almost like child's-play to him. But the old saying, easy reading means hard writing, is true in the case of the Mastersingers. We have only to glance at Wagner's letters to see the labour all his later works cost him, and his incessant complaints about the state of his nerves are significant. The writing of the Mastersingers was spread over six years. It does not matter whether it was written easily or with difficulty—the marvel is that it was written at all.


The first act is the song of spring, the second one of a beauteous summer night. The night slowly falls, and lights are seen at the windows of the gabled houses. The apprentices put up the shutters of the shops and bar the doors. We have old Nuremberg before our eyes; by Sachs' door is the inevitable elder-tree, by Pogner's the just as inevitable lime; and as surely as Schumann caught the scent of flowers from a piece of Chopin's, do we catch the fragrance of those trees in Wagner's music. The 'prentices, hard at work, merrily chant "Midsummer's Eve" ("Johannestag"—not a precise translation), and banter David concerning that very serious matter, his courtship of Magdalena, the accompaniment being spun largely from the midsummer theme of the first act. The atmosphere, sweet, clear, redolent of the old world, and seeming to sparkle with excitement about the coming joys of the morrow, is first created by a prelude scarce thirty bars long. Through more than half of this section we get shakes and arpeggios on one (technical) discord (e), with snatches of the midsummer theme, and the exhilaration of the eve of a holiday given to us in this very simplest of ways shows the miracle worker in his happiest mood. Like the opening of the Rhinegold, this brief prelude is an exemplification of Wagner's advice to young composers—never travel out of the key you are in if you can say in it what you have to say. The instrumentation is delicate, almost ethereal—in fact, the whole thing would be ethereal, or, at least, fairy-like, but for the note of gaiety, jollity, struck in the apprentices' tunes. But presently played-out fugue subjects are heard, and we know it is Beckmesser or no one. Dramatically the scene is of the lightest, but Wagner seizes the opportunity to paint a musical picture of Nuremberg as Pogner holds forth on the festivities arranged for the morrow; never did he give us anything more delightful than this picture of a mediaeval city, anything more beautifully or more fully charged with the sense of the past. They go in, and shortly Sachs comes out; he tells David to arrange his tools and get away to bed, and sits down, intending to work outside. The hammering motive (f) sounds out vigorously for a couple of minutes; but Sachs is already dreaming of Walther's song, and presently we get a phrase of it in a shape of superb beauty—the fifty times distilled essence of spring is in it—then another bit of it is taken and used as an accompaniment with most enchanting effect: one feels the cool night breeze touching Sachs' cheek, and, as in the introduction, one scents the aroma of lime and elder—

"The elder scent floats round me; so mild, so rich it falls, Its sweetness weighs upon me; words from my heart it calls...."

With its gently rocking motion and the tremolando in the bass it is as beautiful in its way as the opening scene, already discussed, of the second Act of Tristan—the picture of the brook running through the darkness from the fountain in King Mark's castle garden. Sachs abruptly ceases, and sets to work; and the hammering phrase is heard again, now combined with the beginning of another subject, liker than ever to Siegfried's great song—the very harmonies as well as the general rhythm are the same—and this subject is developed before long into the Cobbler's song. But "and still that strain I hear"; and he stops and dreams again over Walther's song. "Springtime's behest, within his breast, on heart and voice there was laid," he sings; and to music compact of sheer loveliness he praises the song, terminating with a passage which I take to be nine bars of vocal writing as fine as can be found in the whole of music—"The bird who sang this morn."

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