The music of Donizetti (1798-1848) is now paying the price of a long career of popularity by enduring a season of neglect. His tragic operas, which were the delight of opera-goers in the fifties and sixties, sound cold and thin to modern ears. There is far more genuine life in his lighter works, many of which still delight us by their unaffected tunefulness and vivacity. Donizetti had little musical education, and his spirit rebelled so strongly against the rules of counterpoint that he preferred to go into the army rather than to devote himself to church music. His first opera, 'Enrico di Borgogna,' was produced in 1818, and for the next five-and-twenty years he worked assiduously, producing in all no fewer than sixty-five operas.
'Lucia di Lammermoor' (1835), which was for many years one of the most popular works in the Covent Garden repertory, has now sunk to the level of a mere prima donna's opera, to be revived once or twice a year in order to give a popular singer an opportunity for vocal display. Yet there are passages in it of considerable dramatic power, and many of the melodies are fresh and expressive. The plot is founded upon 'The Bride of Lammermoor,' but it is Scott's tragic romance seen through very Italian spectacles indeed. Henry Ashton has promised the hand of his sister Lucy to Lord Arthur Bucklaw, hoping by means of this marriage to recruit the fallen fortunes of his house. Lucy loves Edgar Ravenswood, the hereditary foe of her family, and vows to be true to him while he is away on an embassy in France. During his absence Ashton contrives to intercept Ravenswood's letters to his sister, and finally produces a forged paper, which Lucy accepts as the proof of her lover's infidelity. She yields to the pressure of her brother's entreaties, and consents to marry Lord Arthur. No sooner has she set her name to the contract than the door opens and Edgar appears. Confronted with the proof of Lucy's inconstancy, he curses the house of Lammermoor and rushes away. Ashton follows him, and, after a stormy interview, challenges him to mortal combat. Meanwhile, on her bridal night Lucy has lost her reason and in her frenzy stabbed her unfortunate bridegroom. On coming once more to her senses, she puts an end to her own life; while Edgar, on hearing of the tragedy, betakes himself to the tombs of his ancestors and there commits suicide. Much of the music suffers from the conventionality to which Donizetti was a slave, notably the ridiculous mad scene, a delightfully suave melody ending with an elaborate cadenza divided between the voice and flute; but there are passages of real power, such as the fine sextet in the contract scene, and the gloomy air in which the hero calls upon the spirits of his forefathers.
Less sombre than 'Lucia,' and quite as tuneful, is 'Lucrezia Borgia,' once a prime favourite at Covent Garden, but now rarely heard. Lucrezia Borgia, the wife of Alfonso of Ferrara, has recognised Gennaro, a young Venetian, as an illegitimate son of her own, and watches over him with tender interest, though she will not disclose the real relation in which they stand to one another. Gennaro, taunted by his friends with being a victim of Lucrezia's fascinations, publicly insults her, and is thereupon condemned to death by the Duke, who is glad of the opportunity of taking vengeance upon the man whom he believes to be his wife's paramour. Gennaro is poisoned in the presence of his mother, who, however, directly the Duke's back is turned, gives him an antidote which restores him to health. In the last act Lucrezia takes comprehensive vengeance upon the friends of Gennaro, whose taunts still rankle in her bosom, by poisoning all the wine at a supper party. Unfortunately Gennaro happens to be present, and as this time he refuses to take an antidote, even though Lucrezia reveals herself as his mother, he expires in her arms.
There is little attempt at dramatic significance in the music of 'Lucrezia Borgia,' but the score bubbles over with delicious and wholly inappropriate melodies. Occasionally, as in the final scene, there is a touch of pathos, and sometimes some rather effective concerted music; but, for the most part, Donizetti was content to write his charming tunes, and to leave all expression to the singers. The orchestration of his Italian operas is primitive in the extreme, and amply justifies Wagner's taunt about the 'big guitar.' In works written for foreign theatres Donizetti took more pains, and 'La Favorite,' produced in Paris in 1840, is in many ways the strongest of his tragic works. The story is more than usually repulsive. Fernando, a novice at the convent of St. James of Compostella, is about to take monastic vows, when he catches sight of a fair penitent, and bids farewell to the Church in order to follow her to court. She turns out to be Leonora, the mistress of the King, for whose beaux yeux the latter is prepared to repudiate the Queen and to brave all the terrors of Rome. Fernando finds Leonora ready to reciprocate his passion, and by her means he obtains a commission in the army. He returns covered with glory, and is rewarded by the King, who has discovered his connection with Leonora, with the hand of his cast-off mistress. After the marriage ceremony is over, Fernando hears for the first time of Leonora's past. He flies to the convent for consolation, followed by his unfortunate wife, who dies in his arms after she has obtained forgiveness. 'La Favorite' is more carefully written than was Donizetti's wont, and some of the concerted music is really dramatic. There is a tradition that the last act, which was an after-thought, was written in an incredibly short space of time, but it is significant that the beautiful romanza 'Spirto gentil,' to which the act and indeed the whole opera owes most of its popularity, was transferred from an earlier and unperformed work, 'Le Duc d'Albe.' It would be waste of time to describe the plots of any other serious works by this composer. Many of them, such as 'Betly,' 'Linda di Chamonix,' and 'Anna Bolena,' were successful when produced; but Donizetti aimed merely at satisfying the prevailing taste of the day, and when a new generation sprang up with different sympathies from that which had preceded it, the operas which had seemed the most secure of popularity were soon consigned to oblivion. It is a significant fact that Donizetti's lighter works have stood the test of time more successfully than his more serious efforts. Though the grandiose airs and sham tragedy of 'Lucia' have long since ceased to impress us, we can still take pleasure in the unaffected gaiety of 'La Fille du Regiment' and 'Don Pasquale.' These and many similar works were written currente calamo, and though their intrinsic musical interest is of course very slight, they are totally free from the ponderous affectations of the composer's serious operas. Here we see Donizetti at his best, because here he writes according to the natural dictates of his imagination, not in accordance with the foolish or depraved taste of fashionable connoisseurs.
The scene of 'La Fille du Regiment' is laid in the Tyrol, where Tonio, a peasant, has had the good fortune to save the life of Marie, the vivandiere of a French regiment. Many years before the opening of the story, Marie had been found upon the battle-field by Sergeant Sulpice, and adopted by the regiment whose name she bears. The regiment, as a body, has the right of disposing of her hand in marriage, and when Tonio presses his claim, which is not disallowed by the heroine, it is decided that he shall be allowed to marry her if he will consent to join the regiment. Everything goes well, when a local grandee in the shape of the Marchioness Berkenfeld suddenly appears, identifies Marie as her niece by means of a letter which was found upon her by the Sergeant, and carries her off to her castle hard by, leaving the unfortunate Tonio to the bitterest reflections. In the second act Marie is at the castle of Berkenfeld though by no means at ease in her unaccustomed surroundings. Her efforts to imbibe the principles of etiquette are pleasantly interrupted by the unexpected arrival of the regiment, with Tonio now as Colonel at its head. But even his promotion will not soften the Marchioness's heart. She discloses the fact that she is in reality Marie's mother, and adjures her by her filial respect to give up the thought of her low-born lover. Marie consents in an agony of grief. The lovers part with many tears, and at the psychological moment the Marchioness relents, and all ends happily.
Even slighter in scope is 'Don Pasquale,' a brilliant trifle, written for the Theatre des Italiens in Paris, and there sung for the first time in 1843, by Grisi, Mario, Tamburini, and Lablache. The story turns upon a trick played by Ernesto and Norina, two young lovers, upon the uncle and guardian of the former, Don Pasquale. Ernesto will not marry to please his uncle, so the old gentleman determines to marry himself. Norina is introduced to Don Pasquale as his sister by a certain Dr. Malatesta, a friend of Ernesto, and the amorous old gentleman at once succumbs to her charms. No sooner is the marriage contract signed than Norina, acting upon her instructions, launches forth upon a career of unexampled shrewishness, extravagance, and flirtation. Her poor old lover is distracted by her wild vagaries, and in the end is only too thankful to hand her over bag and baggage to his nephew, who generously consents to relieve his uncle of his unlucky bargain.
The music of 'L'Elisir d'Amore' is not inferior to that of 'Don Pasquale' in sparkle and brilliancy, but the plot is tame and childish compared to the bustle and intrigue of the latter work. It turns upon a sham love potion sold by a travelling quack to Nemorino, a country lout who is in love with Adina, the local beauty. Adina is divided between the attractions of Nemorino and those of the Sergeant Belcore, who is quartered in the village. In order to get money to pay for the potion Nemorino joins the army, and this proof of his devotion has so convincing an effect upon the affections of Adina that she discards the soldier and bestows her hand upon Nemorino. To this silly plot is allied some of the most delightful music Donizetti ever wrote. Fresh, graceful, and occasionally tender, it forms the happiest contrast to the grandiose nonsense which the composer was in the habit of turning out to suit the vitiated taste of the day, and is a convincing proof that if he had been permitted to exercise his talent in a congenial sphere, Donizetti would be entitled to rank with the most successful followers of Cimarosa and Paisiello, instead of being degraded to the rank of a mere purveyor to the manufacturers of barrel-organs.
Different as was the talent of Bellini (1802-1835) from that of Donizetti, his fate has been the same. After holding the ear of Europe for many years, he has fallen at the present time completely into the background, and outside the frontiers of Italy his works are rarely heard. Bellini had no pretensions to dramatic power. His genius was purely elegiac in tone, and he relied entirely for the effect which he intended to produce upon the luscious beauty of his melodies, into which, it must be admitted, the great singers of his time contrived to infuse a surprising amount of dramatic force.
The story of 'La Sonnambula' is rather foolish, but it suited Bellini's idyllic style, and the work is perhaps the happiest example of his naif charm. Amina, a rustic damsel, betrothed to Elvino, is a confirmed somnambulist, and her nocturnal peregrinations have given the village in which she dwells the reputation of being haunted by a spectre. One night, Amina, while walking in her sleep, enters the chamber in the inn where Rodolfo, the young lord of the village, happens to be located. There she is discovered by Lisa, the landlady, to the scandal of the neighbourhood and the shame of her lover Elvino, who casts her from him and at once makes over his affections to the landlady. Amina's sorrow and despair make her more restless than ever, and the following night she is seen walking out of a window of the mill in which she lives, and crossing the stream by a frail bridge which totters beneath her weight. Providence guards her steps, and she reaches solid earth in safety, where Elvino is waiting to receive her, fully convinced of her innocence. Bellini's music is quite the reverse of dramatic, but the melodies throughout 'La Sonnambula' are graceful and tender, and in the closing scene he rises to real pathos.
In 'Norma' Bellini had the advantage of treating a libretto of great power and beauty, the work of the poet Romani, a tragedy which, both in sentiment and diction, contrasts very strongly with the ungrammatical balderdash which composers are so often called upon to set to music. Norma, the high priestess of the Druids, forgetting her faith and the traditions of her race, has secretly wedded Pollio, a Roman general, and borne him two children. In spite of the sacrifices which she has made for his sake, he proves faithless, and seduces Adalgisa, one of the virgins of the temple, who has consented to abandon her people and her country and to fly with him to Rome. Before leaving her home, Adalgisa, ignorant of the connection between Norma and Pollio, reveals her secret to the priestess, and begs for absolution from her vows. At the news of her husband's faithlessness Norma's fury breaks forth, and her indignation is equalled by that of Adalgisa, who is furious at finding herself the mere plaything of a profligate. Pollio, maddened by passion, endeavours to tear Adalgisa from the altar of the temple, but is checked by Norma, who strikes the sacred shield and calls the Druids to arms. Pollio, now a prisoner, is brought before her for judgment, and she gives him a last choice, to renounce Adalgisa or to die. He refuses to give up his love, whereupon Norma, in a passion of self-sacrifice, tears the sacred wreath from her own brow and declares herself the guilty one. Pollio is touched by her magnanimity, and together they ascend the funeral pyre, in its flames to be cleansed from earthly sin.
It would be too much to assert that Bellini has risen to the level of this noble subject, but parts of his score have a fervour and a dignity which might scarcely have been expected from the composer of 'La Sonnambula.' We may smile now at the trio between Pollio and his two victims, in which the extremes of fury and indignation are expressed by a lilting tune in 9-8 time, but it is impossible to deny the truth and beauty of Norma's farewell to her children, and in several other scenes there are evidences of real dramatic feeling, if not of the power to express it. It is important to remember, in discussing the works of Bellini and the other composers of his school, that in their day the art of singing was cultivated to a far higher pitch of perfection than is now the case. Consequently the composer felt that he had done his duty if, even in situations of the most tragic import, he provided his executant with a broad, even melody. Into this the consummate art of the singer could infuse every gradation of feeling. The composer presented a blank canvas, upon which the artist painted the required picture.
Unlike that of 'Norma,' the libretto of 'I Puritani,' Bellini's last opera, is a dull and confused affair. The scene is laid in England, apparently at the time of the Civil War, but the history and chronology throughout are of the vaguest description. Queen Henrietta Maria is imprisoned in the fortress of Plymouth, under the guardianship of Lord Walton, the Parliamentary leader, whose daughter Elvira loves Lord Arthur Talbot, a young Cavalier, Elvira's tears and entreaties have so far softened her stern parent that Arthur is to be admitted into the castle in order that the nuptials may be celebrated. He takes advantage of the situation to effect the escape of the Queen, disguising her in Elvira's bridal veil. When his treachery is discovered Arthur is at once proscribed, and Elvira, believing him to be faithless, loses her reason. Later in the opera Arthur contrives to meet Elvira and explains his conduct satisfactorily, but their interview is cut short by a party of Puritans, who arrest him. He is condemned to be shot on the spot, but, before the sentence can be carried out, a messenger arrives with the news of the king's defeat and the pardon of Arthur. Elvira, whose insanity has throughout been of an eminently harmless description, at once recovers her reason, and everything ends happily.
'I Puritani' is in some respects Bellini's best work. Foolish as the libretto is, the bitterest opponent of Italian cantilena could scarcely refuse to acknowledge the pathetic beauty of many of the songs. It is a matter for regret, as well as for some surprise, that Bellini's works should now be entirely banished from the Covent Garden repertory, while so many inferior operas are still retained. In an age of fustian and balderdash, Bellini stood apart, a tender and pathetic figure, with no pretensions to science, but gifted with a command of melody as copious, unaffected, and sincere as has ever fallen to the lot of a composer for the stage.
The other Italian writers of this period may be briefly dismissed, since they did little but reproduce the salient features of their more famous contemporaries in a diluted form. Mercadante (1797-1870) lived to an advanced age, and wrote many operas, comic and serious, of which the most successful was 'Il Giuramento,' a gloomy story of love and revenge, treated with a certain power of the conventional order, and a good deal of facile melody. Pacini (1796-1867) is principally known by his 'Saffo,' an imitation of Rossini, which achieved a great success. Vaccai (1790-1848) also imitated Rossini, but his 'Giulietta e Romeo' has intrinsic merits, which are not to be despised.
After the days of Rossini, opera buffa fell upon evil days. Although the most famous musicians of the day did not disdain occasionally to follow in the footsteps of Cimarosa, for the most part the task of purveying light operas for the smaller theatres of Italy fell into the hands of second and third rate composers. Donizetti, as we have seen, enriched the repertory of opera buffa with several masterpieces of gay and brilliant vivacity, but few of the lighter works of his contemporaries deserve permanent record.
The brothers Ricci, Luigi (1805-1859) and Federico (1809-1877), wrote many operas, both singly and in collaboration, but 'Crispino e la Comare' is the only one of their works which won anything like a European reputation. The story is a happy combination of farce and feerie. Crispino, a half-starved cobbler, is about to throw himself into a well, when La Comare, a fairy, rises from it and bids him desist. She gives him a purse of gold, and orders him to set up as a doctor, telling him that when he goes to visit a patient he must look to see whether she is standing by the bedside. If she is not there, the sick man will recover. Crispino follows her directions, and speedily becomes famous, but success turns his head, and he is only brought back to his senses by a strange dream, in which the fairy takes him down to a subterranean cavern where the lamp of each man's life is burning and he sees his own on the point of expiring. After this uncomfortable vision he is thankful to find himself still in the bosom of his family, and the opera ends with his vows of amendment. The music is brilliant and sparkling, and altogether the little opera is one of the best specimens of opera buffa produced in Italy after the time of Rossini. The other men who devoted themselves to opera buffa during this period my be briefly dismissed. Carlo Pedrotti (1817-1893), whose comic opera 'Tutti in Maschera,' after a brilliant career in Italy, was successfully produced in Paris, and Antonio Cagnoni (1828-1896), were perhaps the best of them. A version of the latter's 'Papa Martin' was performed in London in 1875, under the name of 'The Porter of Havre.'
MEYERBEER AND FRENCH OPERA
The romantic movement was essentially German in its origin, but its influence was not bounded by the Rhine. As early as 1824 Weber's 'Freischuetz' was performed in Paris, followed a few years later by 'Oberon' and 'Euryanthe.' French musicians, always susceptible to external influences, could not but acknowledge the fascination of the romantic school, and the works of Herold (1791-1833) show how powerfully the new leaven had acted. But Weber was not the only foreigner at this time who helped to shape the destiny of French music. The spell of Rossini was too potent for the plastic Gauls to resist, and to his influence may be traced the most salient features of the school of opera comique which is best represented by Auber. Herold, though divided between the camps of Germany and Italy, had individuality enough to write music which was independent of either. Yet it is significant that his last two works—the only two, in fact, which have survived—represent with singular completeness the two influences which affected French music most potently during his day. 'Zampa' has been called a French 'Don Giovanni,' but the music owes far more to Weber than to Mozart, while the fantastic and absurd incidents of the plot have little of the supernatural terror of Mozart's opera. Zampa is a famous pirate, who, after having dissipated his fortune and made Italy, generally speaking, too hot to hold him, has taken to the high seas in self-defence. In his early days he had seduced a girl named Alice Manfredi, who after his desertion found a home in the house of a Sicilian merchant named Lugano. There she died, and there Lugano caused a statue to be set up in her honour. When the story of the opera begins, Lugano is a prisoner in the hands of the redoubtable Zampa. The pirate himself comes to Sicily to obtain his prisoner's ransom, bringing directions to Lugano's daughter Camilla to pay him whatever he may ask. Zampa at once falls a victim to the beaux yeux of Camilla, and demands her hand as the price of her father's safety. Camilla loves Alfonso, a Sicilian officer, but is prepared to sacrifice herself to save her father. At the marriage feast, Zampa, recognising the statue of the betrayed Alice, jokingly puts his ring upon her finger, which immediately closes upon it. The opera ends by the statue claiming Zampa as her own, snatching him from the arms of Camilla, and descending with him into the abyss.
It would be in vain to look in Herold's score for an echo of the passion and variety of Mozart, but much of the music of 'Zampa' is picturesque and effective. Herold's tunes sound very conventional after Weber, but there is a good deal of skill in the way they are presented. His orchestration is of course closely modelled on that of his German prototype, and if it is impossible to say much for his originality, we can at any rate admire his taste in choosing a model.
'Le Pre aux Clercs' is more popular at the present moment than 'Zampa,' though it is far inferior in musical interest. If 'Zampa' showed the influence of Weber, 'Le Pre aux Clercs' is redolent of Rossini. The overture, with its hollow ring of gaiety, strikes the note of Italianism which echoes throughout the opera. The plot is full of intrigues and conspiracies, and is decidedly confusing. Mergy, a young Bernese gentleman, aspires to the hand of Isabelle, who is one of the Queen of Navarre's maids of honour. The Queen favours their love, but the King wishes Isabelle to marry Comminges, a favourite of his own. The young couple gain their point, and are married secretly in the chapel of the Pre aux Clercs, but only at the expense of as much plotting and as many disguises as would furnish the stock-in-trade of half-a-dozen detective romances.
French music, as has often been pointed out, owes much to foreign influence, but very few of the strangers to whom the doors of Parisian opera-houses were opened left a deeper impression upon the music of their adopted country than Meyerbeer (1791-1864). Giacomo Meyerbeer, to give him the name by which he is now best known, underwent the same influence as Herold. As a youth he was intimate with Weber, and his first visit to Italy introduced him to Rossini, whose brilliant style he imitated successfully in a series of Italian works which are now completely forgotten. From Italy Meyerbeer came to Paris, and there identified himself with the French school so fully that he is now regarded with complete propriety as a French composer pure and simple. Meyerbeer's music is thoroughly eclectic in type. He was a careful student of contemporary music, and the various phases through which he passed during the different stages of his career left their impress upon his style. It says much for the power of his individuality that he was able to weld such different elements into something approaching an harmonious whole. Had he done more than he did, he would have been a genius; as it is, he remains a man of exceptional talent, whose influence on the history of modern music is still important, though his own compositions are now slightly superannuated. 'Robert le Diable,' the first work of his third or French period, was produced in 1831. The libretto, which, like those of all the composer's French operas, was by Eugene Scribe, is a strange tissue of absurdities, though from the merely scenic point of view it may be thought fairly effective. Robert, Duke of Normandy, the son of the Duchess Bertha by a fiend who donned the shape of man to prosecute his amour, arrives in Sicily to compete for the hand of the Princess Isabella, which is to be awarded as the prize at a magnificent tournament. Robert's daredevil gallantry and extravagance soon earn him the sobriquet of 'Le Diable,' and he puts the coping-stone to his folly by gambling away all his possessions at a single sitting, even to his horse and the armour on his back. Robert has an ame damnee in the shape of a knight named Bertram, to whose malign influence most of his crimes and follies are due. Bertram is in reality his demon-father, whose every effort is directed to making a thorough-paced villain of his son, so that he may have the pleasure of enjoying his society for all eternity. In strong contrast to the fiendish malevolence of Bertram stands the gentle figure of Alice, Robert's foster-sister, who has followed him from Normandy with a message from his dead mother. Isabella supplies Robert with a fresh horse and arms; nevertheless he is beguiled away from Palermo by some trickery of Bertram's, and fails to put in an appearance at the tournament. The only means, therefore, left to him of obtaining the hand of Isabella is to visit the tomb of his mother, and there to pluck a magic branch of cypress, which will enable him to defeat his rivals. The cypress grows in a deserted convent haunted by the spectres of profligate nuns, and there, amidst infernal orgies, Robert plucks the branch of power. By its aid he sends the guards of the Princess into a deep sleep, and is only prevented by her passionate entreaties from carrying her off by force. Yielding to her prayers, he breaks the branch, and his magic power at once deserts him. He seeks sanctuary from his enemies in the cathedral, and there the last and fiercest strife for the possession of his soul is waged between the powers of good and evil. On the one hand is Bertram, whose term of power on earth expires at midnight. He has now discovered himself as Robert's father, and produces an infernal compact of union which he entreats his son to sign. On the other is Alice, pleading and affectionate, bearing the last words of Robert's dead mother, warning him against the fiend who had seduced her. While Robert is hesitating between the two, midnight strikes, and Bertram sinks with thunder into the pit. The scene changes, and a glimpse is given of the interior of the cathedral, where the marriage of Robert and Isabella is being celebrated.
'Robert le Diable' was an immense success when first produced. The glitter and tinsel of the story suited Meyerbeer's showy style, and besides, even when the merely trivial and conventional had been put aside, there remains a fair proportion of the score which has claims to dramatic power. The triumph of 'Robert' militated against the success of 'Les Huguenots' (1836), which was at first rather coldly received. Before long, however, it rivalled the earlier work in popularity, and is now generally looked upon as Meyerbeer's masterpiece. The libretto certainly compares favourably with the fatuities of 'Robert le Diable.'
Marguerite de Valois, the beautiful Queen of Navarre, who is anxious to reconcile the bitterly hostile parties of Catholics and Huguenots, persuades the Comte de Saint Bris, a prominent Catholic, to allow his daughter Valentine to marry Raoul de Nangis, a young Huguenot noble. Valentine is already betrothed to the gallant and amorous Comte de Nevers, but she pays him a nocturnal visit in his own palace, and induces him to release her from her engagement. During her interview with Nevers she is perceived by Raoul, and recognised as a lady whom he lately rescued from insult and has loved passionately ever since. In his eyes there is only one possible construction to be put upon her presence in Nevers' palace, and he hastens to dismiss her from his mind. Immediately upon his decision comes a message from the Queen bidding him hasten to her palace in Touraine upon important affairs of state. When he arrives she unfolds her plan, and he, knowing Valentine only by sight, not by name, gladly consents. When, in the presence of the assembled nobles, he recognises in his destined bride the presumed mistress of Nevers, he casts her from him, and vows to prefer death to such intolerable disgrace.
The scene of the next act is in the Pre aux Clercs, in the outskirts of Paris. Valentine, who is to be married that night to Nevers, obtains leave to pass some hours in prayer in a chapel. While she is there she overhears the details of a plot devised by Saint Bris for the assassination of Raoul, in order to avenge the affront put upon himself and his daughter. Valentine contrives to warn Marcel, Raoul's old servant, of this, and he assembles his Huguenot comrades hard by, who rush in at the first clash of steel and join the combat. The fight is interrupted by the entrance of the Queen. When she finds out who are the principal combatants, she reproves them sharply and tells Raoul the real story of Valentine's visit to Nevers. The act ends with the marriage festivities, while Raoul is torn by an agony of love and remorse.
In the next act Raoul contrives to gain admittance to Nevers' house, and there has an interview with Valentine. They are interrupted by the entrance of Saint Bris and his followers, whereupon Valentine conceals Raoul behind the arras. From his place of concealment he hears Saint Bris unfold the plan of the massacre of Saint Bartholomew, which is to be carried out that night. The conspirators swear a solemn oath to exterminate the Huguenots, and their daggers are consecrated by attendant priests. Nevers alone refuses to take part in the butchery. When they all have left, Raoul comes out of his hiding-place, and in spite of the prayers and protestations of Valentine, leaps from the window at the sound of the fatal tocsin, and hastens to join his friends. In the last act, which is rarely performed in England, Raoul first warns Henry of Navarre and the Huguenot nobles, assembled at the Hotel de Sens, of the massacre, and then joins the melee in the streets. Valentine has followed him, and after vainly endeavouring to make him don the white scarf which is worn that night by all Catholics, she throws in her lot with his, and dies in his arms, after they have been solemnly joined in wedlock by the wounded and dying Marcel.
'Les Huguenots' shows Meyerbeer at his best Even Wagner, his bitterest enemy, admitted the dramatic power of the great duet in the fourth act, and several other scenes are scarcely inferior to it in sustained inspiration. The opera is marred as a whole by Meyerbeer's invincible self-consciousness. He seldom had the courage to give his genius full play. He never lost sight of his audience, and wrote what he thought would be effective rather than what he knew was right. Thus his finest moments are marred by lapses from sincerity into the commonplace conventionality of the day. Yet the dignity and power of 'Les Huguenots' are undeniable, and it is unfortunate that its excessive length should prevent it from ever being heard in its entirety.
In 'Le Prophete' Meyerbeer chose a subject which, if less rich in dramatic possibility than that of 'Les Huguenots,' has a far deeper psychological interest. Unfortunately, Scribe, with all his cleverness, was quite the worst man in the world to deal with the story of John of Leyden. In the libretto which he constructed for Meyerbeer's benefit the psychological interest is conspicuous only by its absence, and the character of the young leader of the Anabaptists is degraded to the level of the merest puppet. John, an innkeeper of Leyden, loves Bertha, a village maiden who dwells near Dordrecht. Unfortunately, her liege lord, the Count of Oberthal, has designs upon the girl himself, and refuses his consent to the marriage. Bertha escapes from his clutches and flies to the protection of her lover, but Oberthal secures the person of Fides, John's old mother, and by threats of putting her to death, compels him to give up Bertha. Wild with rage against the vice and lawlessness of the nobles, John joins the ranks of the Anabaptists, a revolutionary sect pledged to the destruction of the powers that be. Their leaders recognise him as a prophet promised by Heaven, and he is installed as their chief. The Anabaptists lay siege to Munster, which falls into their hands, and in the cathedral John is solemnly proclaimed the Son of God. During the ceremony he is recognised by Fides, who, believing him to have been slain by the false prophet, has followed the army to Munster in hopes of revenge. She rushes forward to claim her son, but John pretends not to know her. To admit an earthly relationship would be to prejudice his position with the populace, and he compels her to confess that she is mistaken. The coronation ends with John's triumph, while the hapless Fides is carried off to be immured in a dungeon. John visits her in her cell, and obtains her pardon by promising to renounce his deceitful splendour and to fly with her. Later he discovers that a plot against himself has been hatched by some of the Anabaptist leaders, and he destroys himself and them by blowing up the palace of Munster. Meyerbeer's music, fine as much of it is, suffers chiefly from the character of the libretto. The latter is merely a string of conventionally effective scenes, and the music could hardly fail to be disjointed and scrappy. Meyerbeer had little or no feeling for characterisation, so that the opportunities for really dramatic effect which lay in the character of John of Leyden have been almost entirely neglected. Once only, in the famous cantique 'Roi du Ciel,' did the composer catch an echo of the prophetic rapture which animated the youthful enthusiast. Meyerbeer's besetting sin, his constant search for the merely effective, is even more pronounced in 'Le Prophete' than in 'Les Huguenots.' The coronation scene has nothing of the large simplicity necessary for the proper manipulation of a mass of sound. The canvas is crowded with insignificant and confusing detail, and the general effect is finicking and invertebrate rather than solid and dignified.
Meyerbeer was constantly at work upon his last opera, 'L'Africaine,' from 1838 until 1864, and his death found him still engaged in retouching the score. It was produced in 1865. With a musician of Meyerbeer's known eclecticism, it might be supposed that a work of which the composition extended over so long a period would exhibit the strangest conglomeration of styles and influences. Curiously enough, 'L'Africaine' is the most consistent of Meyerbeer's works. This is probably due to the fact that in it the personal element is throughout outweighed by the picturesque, and the exotic fascination of the story goes far to cover its defects.
Vasco da Gama, the famous discoverer, is the betrothed lover of a maiden named Inez, the daughter of Don Diego, a Portuguese grandee. When the opera opens he is still at sea, and has not been heard of for years. Don Pedro, the President of the Council, takes advantage of his absence to press his own suit for the hand of Inez, and obtains the King's sanction to his marriage on the ground that Vasco must have been lost at sea. At this moment the long-lost hero returns, accompanied by two swarthy slaves, Selika and Nelusko, whom he has brought home from a distant isle in the Indian Ocean. He recounts the wonders of the place, and entreats the government to send out a pioneer expedition to win an empire across the sea. His suggestions are rejected, and he himself, through the machinations of Don Pedro, is cast into prison. There he is tended by Selika, who loves her gentle captor passionately, and has need of all her regal authority—for in the distant island she was a queen—to prevent the jealous Nelusko from slaying him in his sleep. Inez now comes to the prison to announce to Vasco that she has purchased his liberty at the price of giving her hand to Don Pedro. In the next act, Don Pedro, who has stolen a march on Vasco, is on his way to the African island, taking with him Inez and Selika. The steering of the vessel is entrusted to Nelusko. Vasco da Gama, who has fitted out a vessel at his own expense, overtakes Don Pedro in mid-ocean, and generously warns his rival of the treachery of Nelusko, who is steering the vessel upon the rocks of his native shore. Don Pedro's only reply is to order Vasco to be tied to the mast and shot, but before the sentence can be carried out the vessel strikes upon the rocks, and the aborigines swarm over the sides. Selika, once more a queen, saves the lives of Vasco and Inez from the angry natives. In the next act the nuptials of Selika and Vasco are on the point of being celebrated with great pomp, when the hero, who has throughout the opera wavered between the two women who love him, finally makes up his mind in favour of Inez. Selika thereupon magnanimously despatches them home in Vasco's ship, and poisons herself with the fragrance of the deadly manchineel tree. The characters of 'L'Africaine,' with the possible exception of Selika and Nelusko, are the merest shadows, but the music, though less popular as a rule than that of 'Les Huguenots,' or even 'Le Prophete,' is undoubtedly Meyerbeer's finest effort. In his old age Meyerbeer seems to have looked back to the days of his Italian period, and thus, though occasionally conventional in form, the melodies of 'L'Africaine' have a dignity and serenity which are rarely present in the scores of his French period. There is, too, a laudable absence of that ceaseless striving after effect which mars so much of Meyerbeer's best work.
Besides the great works already discussed, Meyerbeer wrote two works for the Opera Comique, 'L'Etoile du Nord' and 'Le Pardon de Ploermel.' Meyerbeer was far too clever a man to undertake anything he could not carry through successfully, and in these operas he caught the trick of French opera comique very happily.
'L'Etoile du Nord' deals with the fortunes of Peter the Great, who, when the opera opens, is working as a shipwright at a dockyard in Finland. He wins the heart of Catherine, a Cossack maiden, who has taken up her quarters there as a kind of vivandiere. Catherine is a girl of remarkable spirit, and after repulsing an incursion of Calmuck Tartars single-handed, goes off to the wars in the disguise of a recruit, in order to enable her brother to stay at home and marry Prascovia, the daughter of the innkeeper. The next act takes place in the Russian camp. Catherine, whose soldiering has turned out a great success, is told off to act as sentry outside the tent occupied by two distinguished officers who have just arrived. To her amazement she recognises them as Peter and his friend Danilowitz, a former pastry-cook, now raised by the Czar to the rank of General. Catherine's surprise and pleasure turn to indignation when she sees her lover consoling himself for her absence with the charms of a couple of pretty vivandieres, and when her senior officer reprimands her for eavesdropping, she bestows upon him a sound box on the ears. For this misdemeanour she is condemned to be shot, but she contrives to make her escape, first sending a letter to Peter blaming him for his inconstancy, and putting in his hand the details of a conspiracy against his person which she has been fortunate enough to discover. Peter's anguish at the loss of his loved one is accentuated by the nobility of her conduct. At first it is supposed that Catherine is dead, but by the exertions of Danilowitz she is at length discovered, though in a lamentable plight, for her troubles have cost her her reason. She is restored to sanity by the simple method of reconstructing the scene of the Finnish dockyard in which she first made Peter's acquaintance, and peopling it with the familiar forms of the workmen. Among the latter are Peter and Danilowitz, in their old dresses of labourer and pastry-cook, and, to crown all, two flutes are produced upon which Peter and her brother play a tune known to her from childhood. The last charm proves effectual, and all ends happily.
The lighter parts of 'L'Etoile du Nord' are delightfully arch and vivacious, and much of the concerted music is gay and brilliant. The weak point of the opera is to be found in the tendency from which Meyerbeer was never safe, to drop into mere pretentiousness when he meant to be most impressive. In some of the choruses in the camp scene there is a great pretence at elaboration, with very scanty results, and the closing scena, which is foolish and wearisome, is an unfortunate concession to the vanity of the prima donna. But on the whole 'L'Etoile du Nord' is one of Meyerbeer's most attractive works, besides being an extraordinary example of his inexhaustible versatility.
'Le Pardon de Ploermel,' known in Italy and England as 'Dinorah,' shows Meyerbeer in a pastoral and idyllic vein. The story is extremely silly in itself, and most of the incidents take place before the curtain rises. The overture is a long piece of programme music, which is supposed to depict the bridal procession of Hoel and Dinorah, two Breton peasants, to the church where they are to be married. Suddenly a thunderstorm breaks over their heads and disperses the procession, while a flash of lightning reduces Dinorah's homestead to ashes. Hoel, in despair at the ruin of his hopes, betakes himself to the village sorcerer, who promises to tell him the secret of the hidden treasure of the local gnomes or Korriganes if he will undergo a year of trial in a remote part of the country. On hearing that Hoel has abandoned her Dinorah becomes insane, and spends her time in roving through the woods with her pet goat in search of her lover. The overture is a picturesque piece of writing enough, though much of it would be entirely meaningless without its programme. When the opera opens, Hoel has returned from his probation in possession of the important secret. His first care is to find some one to do the dirty work of finding the treasure, for the oracle has declared that the first man who shall lay hands upon it will die. His choice falls upon Corentin, a country lout, whom he persuades to accompany him to the gorge where the treasure lies hidden. Corentin is not so stupid as he seems, and, suspecting something underhand, he persuades the mad Dinorah to go down into the ravine in his place. Dinorah consents, but while she is crossing a rustic bridge, preparatory to the descent, it is struck by lightning, and she tumbles into the abyss. She is saved by Hoel in some inexplicable way, and, still more inexplicably, regains her reason. The music is bright and tuneful, and the reaper's and hunter's songs (which are introduced for no apparent reason) are delightful; but the libretto is so impossibly foolish that the opera has fallen into disrepute, although the brilliant music of the heroine should make it a favourite role with competent singers.
Meyerbeer was extravagantly praised during his lifetime; he is now as bitterly decried. The truth seems to lie, as usual, between the two extremes. He was an unusually clever man, with a strong instinct for the theatre. He took immense pains with his operas, often rewriting the entire score; but his efforts were directed less towards ideal perfection than to what would be most effective, so that there is a hollowness and a superficiality about his best work which we cannot ignore, even while we admit the ingenuity of the means employed. His influence upon modern opera has been extensive. He was the real founder of the school of melodramatic opera which is now so popular. Violent contrasts with him do duty for the subtle characterisation of the older masters. His heroes rant and storm, and his heroines shriek and rave, but of real feeling, and even of real expression, there is little in his scores.
The career of Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) was in striking contrast to that Meyerbeer. While Meyerbeer was earning the plaudits of crowded theatres throughout the length and breadth of Europe, Berlioz sat alone, brooding over the vast conceptions to which it taxed even his gigantic genius to give musical shape. Even now the balance has scarcely been restored. Though Meyerbeer's popularity is on the wane, the operas of Berlioz are still known for the most part only to students. Before the Berlioz cycle at Carlsruhe in 1893, 'La Prise de Troie' had never been performed on any stage, and though the French master's symphonic works now enjoy considerable popularity, his dramatic works are still looked at askance by managers. There is a reason for this other than the hardness of our hearts. Berlioz was essentially a symphonic writer. He had little patience with the conventions of the stage, and his attempts to blend the dramatic and symphonic elements, as in 'Les Troyens,' can scarcely be termed a success. Yet much may be pardoned for the sake of the noble music which lies enshrined in his works. 'Benvenuto Cellini' and 'Beatrice et Benedict,' which were thought too advanced for the taste of their day, are now perhaps a trifle old-fashioned for our times. The first is a picturesque story of Rome in Carnival time. The interest centres in the casting of the sculptor's mighty Perseus, which wins him the hand of the fair Teresa. The Carnival scenes are gay and brilliant, but the form of the work belongs to a bygone age, and it is scarcely possible that a revival of it would meet with wide acceptance. 'Beatrice et Benedict' is a graceful setting of Shakespeare's 'Much Ado about Nothing.' It is a work of the utmost delicacy and refinement. Though humour is not absent from the score, the prevailing impression is one of romantic charm, passing even to melancholy. Very different is the double drama 'Les Troyens.' Here Berlioz drew his inspiration directly from Gluck, and the result is a work of large simplicity and austere grandeur, which it is not too much to hope will some day take its place in the world's repertory side by side with the masterpieces of Wagner. The first part, 'La Prise de Troie,' describes the manner in which the city of Priam fell into the hands of the Greeks. The drama is dominated by the form of the sad virgin Cassandra. In vain she warns her people of their doom. They persist in dragging up the wooden horse from the sea-beach, where it was left by the Greeks. The climax of the last act is terrific. AEneas, warned by the ghost of Hector of the approaching doom of Troy, escapes; but the rest of the Trojans fall victims to the swords of the Greeks in a scene of indescribable carnage and terror. Cassandra and the Trojan women, driven to take shelter in the temple of Cybele, slay themselves rather than fall into the hands of their captors. 'La Prise de Troie' is perhaps epic rather than dramatic, but as a whole it leaves an impression of severe and spacious grandeur, which can only be paralleled in the finest inspirations of Gluck. In the second division of the work, 'Les Troyens a Carthage,' human interest is paramount. Berlioz was an enthusiastic student of Virgil, and he follows the tragic tale of the AEneid closely. The appearance of AEneas at Carthage, the love of Dido, the summons of Mercury, AEneas' departure and the passion and death of Dido, are depicted in a series of scenes of such picturesqueness and power, such languor and pathos, as surely cannot be matched outside the finest pages of Wagner. A time will certainly come when this great work, informed throughout with a passionate yearning for the loftiest ideal of art, will receive the recognition which is its due. Of late indeed there have been signs of a revival of interest in Berlioz's mighty drama, and the recent performances of 'Les Troyens' in Paris and Brussels have opened the eyes of many musicians to its manifold beauties. Some years ago the experiment was made of adapting Berlioz's cantata, 'La Damnation de Faust,' for stage purposes. The work is of course hopelessly undramatic, but the beauty of the music and the opportunities that it affords for elaborate spectacular effects have combined to win the work a certain measure of success, especially in Italy where Gounod's 'Faust' has never won the popularity that it enjoys north of the Alps. 'La Damnation de Faust' is hardly more than a string of incidents, with only the most shadowy semblance of connection, but several of the scenes are effective enough on the stage, notably that in Faust's study with the march of Hungarian warriors in the distance, the exquisite dance of sylphs and the ride to the abyss. Nevertheless, when the success of curiosity is over, the work is hardly likely to retain its place in the repertory.
Unperformed as he was, Berlioz of course could not be expected to found a school; but Meyerbeer's success soon raised him up a host of imitators. Halevy (1799-1862) drew his inspiration in part from Herold and Weber; but 'La Juive,' the work by which he is best known, owes much to Meyerbeer, whose 'Robert le Diable' had taken the world of music in Paris by storm a few years before the production of Halevy's work. In turn Halevy reacted upon Meyerbeer. Many passages in 'Les Huguenots' reflect the sober dignity of 'La Juive'; indeed, it is too often forgotten that the production of Halevy's opera preceded its more famous contemporary by a full year.
The scene of 'La Juive' is laid in Constance, in the fifteenth century. Leopold, a Prince of the Empire, in the disguise of a young Israelite, has won the heart of Rachel, the daughter of the rich Jew Eleazar. When the latter discovers the true nationality of his prospective son-in-law he forbids him his house, but Rachel consents, like another Jessica, to fly with her lover. Later she discovers that Leopold is a Prince, and betrothed to the Princess Eudoxia. Her jealousy breaks forth, and she accuses him of having seduced her—a crime which in those days was punishable by death. Rachel, Leopold, and Eleazar are all thrown into prison. There Rachel relents, and retracts her accusation. Leopold is accordingly released, but the Jew and his daughter are condemned to be immersed in a cauldron of boiling oil. There is a rather meaningless underplot which results in a confession made by Eleazar on the scaffold, that Rachel is not a Jewess at all, but the daughter of a Cardinal who has taken a friendly interest in her fortunes throughout the drama.
Halevy's music is characterised by dignity and sobriety, but it rarely rises to passion. He represents to a certain extent a reaction towards the pre-Rossinian school of opera, but, to be frank, most of 'La Juive' is exceedingly long-winded and dull. Besides his serious operas, Halevy wrote works of a lighter cast, which enjoyed popularity in their time. But the prince of opera comique at this time was Auber (1782-1871). Auber began his career as a musician comparatively late in life, but en revanche age seemed powerless to check his unflagging industry. His last work, 'Le Reve d'Amour,' was produced in the composer's eighty-eighth year. Auber is a superficial Rossini. He borrowed from the Italian master his wit and gaiety; he could not catch an echo of his tenderness and passion. Auber has never been so popular in England as abroad, and the only two works of his which are now performed in this country—'Fra Diavolo' and 'Masaniello'—represent him, curiously enough, at his best and worst respectively. The scene of 'Fra Diavolo' is laid at a village inn in Italy. Lord and Lady Rocburg, the conventional travelling English couple, arrive in great perturbation, been stopped by brigands and plundered of some of their property. At the inn they fall in with a distinguished personage calling himself the Marquis di San Marco, who is none other than the famous brigand chief Fra Diavolo. He makes violent love to the silly Englishwoman, and soon obtains her confidence. Meanwhile Lorenzo, the captain of a body of carabineers, who loves the innkeeper's daughter Zerlina, has hurried off after the brigands. He comes up with them and kills twenty, besides getting back Lady Rocburg's stolen jewels. Fra Diavolo is furious at the loss of his comrades, and vows vengeance on Lorenzo. That night he conceals himself in Zerlina's room, and, when all is still, admits two of his followers into the house. Their nocturnal schemes are frustrated by the return of Lorenzo and his soldiers, who have been out in search of the brigand chief. Fra Diavolo is discovered, but pretends that Zerlina has given him an assignation. Lorenzo is furious at this accusation, and challenges the brigand to a duel. Before this comes off, however, Fra Diavolo's identity is discovered, and he is captured by Lorenzo and his band. 'Fra Diavolo' shows Auber in his happiest vein. The music is gay and tuneful, without dropping into commonplace; the rhythms are brilliant and varied, and the orchestration neat and appropriate.
'La Muette de Portici,' which is known in the Italian version as 'Masaniello,' was written for the Grand Opera. Here Auber vainly endeavoured to suit his style to its more august surroundings. The result is entirely unsatisfactory; the more serious parts of the work are pretentious and dull, and the pretty little tunes, which the composer could not keep out of his head, sound absurdly out of place in a serious drama. Fenella, the dumb girl of Portici, has been seduced by Alfonso, the son of the Spanish Viceroy of Naples. She escapes from the confinement to which she had been subjected, and denounces him on the day of his marriage to the Spanish princess Elvira. Masaniello, her brother, maddened by her wrongs, stirs up a revolt among the people, and overturns the Spanish rule. He contrives to save the lives of Elvira and Alfonso, but this generous act costs him his life, and in despair Fenella leaps into the stream of boiling lava from an eruption of Vesuvius. The part of Fenella gives an opportunity of distinction to a clever pantomimist, and has been associated with the names of many famous dancers; but the music of the opera throughout is one of the least favourable examples of Auber's skill. Auber had many imitators, among whom perhaps the most successful was Adolphe Adam (1803-1856), whose 'Chalet' and 'Postillon de Longjumeau' are still occasionally performed. They reproduce the style of Auber with tolerable fidelity, but have no value as original work. The only other composer of this period who deserves to be mentioned is Felicien David (1810-1876). His 'Lalla Rookh,' a setting of Moore's story, though vastly inferior to his symphonic poem 'Le Desert,' is a work of distinction and charm. To David belongs the credit of opening the eyes of musicians to the possibilities of Oriental colour. Operas upon Eastern subjects have never been very popular in England, but in France many of them have been successful. 'Le Desert' founded the school, of which 'Les Pecheurs de Perles,' 'Djamileh,' 'Le Roi de Lahore,' and 'Lakme' are well-known representatives. The career of the other musicians—many in number—of this facile and thoughtless epoch may be summed up in a few words. They were one and all imitators; Clapisson (1808-1866), Grisar (1808-1869), and Maillart (1817-1871), clung to the skirts of Auber; Niedermeyer (1802-1861), threw in his lot with Halevy. So far as they succeeded in reproducing the external and superficial features of the music of their prototypes, they enjoyed a brief day of popularity. But with the first change of public taste they lapsed into oblivion, and their works nowadays sound far more old-fashioned than those of the generation which preceded them.
WAGNER'S EARLY WORKS
Richard Wagner (1813-1883) is by far the most important figure in the history of modern opera. With regard to the intrinsic beauty of his works, and the artistic value of the theories upon which they are constructed, there have been, and still are, two opinions; but his most bigoted opponents can scarcely refuse to acknowledge the extent of the influence which he has had upon contemporary and subsequent music—an influence, in fact, which places him by the side of Monteverde and Gluck among the great revolutionists of musical history. As in their case, the importance of his work rests upon the fact that, although to a certain extent an assimilation and development of the methods of his predecessors, it embodied a deliberate revolt against existing musical conditions.
From one point of view Wagner's revolt is even more important than that of either of his forerunners, for they were men who, having failed to win success under the existing conditions of music, revolted—so to speak—in self-preservation, while he was an accomplished musician, and the author of a successful work written in strict accordance with the canons of art which then obtained. Had Wagner pleased, there was nothing to hinder his writing a succession of 'Rienzis,' and ending his days, like Spontini, rich and ennobled. To his eternal honour he rejected the prospect, and chose the strait and narrow way which led, through poverty and disgrace, to immortality. In spite of the acknowledged success of 'Rienzi,' Wagner's enemies were never tired of repeating that, like Monteverde, he had invented a new system because he could not manipulate the old. It seems hardly possible to us that musicians could ever have been found to deny that the composer of 'Die Meistersinger' was a consummate master of counterpoint. Fortunately the discovery of his Symphony in C finally put an end to all doubts relative to the thoroughness of Wagner's musical education. In this work, which was written at the age of eighteen, the composer showed a mastery of the symphonic form which many of his detractors might have envied. The fact is, that Wagner was a man of a singularly flexible habit of mind. He was a careful student of both ancient and modern music, and a study of his works shows us that, so far from despising what had been done by his predecessors, he greedily assimilated all that was best in their productions, only rejecting the narrow conventions in which so many of them had contentedly acquiesced. His music is the logical development of that of Gluck and Weber, purified by a closer study of the principles of declamation, and enriched by a command of orchestral resource of which they had never dreamed.
Wagner's first opera, 'Die Feen,' was written in 1833, when the composer was twenty years old. Wagner always wrote his own libretti, even in those days. The story of 'Die Feen' was taken from one of Gozzi's fairy-tales, 'La Donna Serpente.' Wagner himself, in his 'Communication to my Friends,' written in 1851, has given us a resume of the plot: 'A fairy, who renounces immortality for the sake of a human lover, can only become a mortal through the fulfilment of certain hard conditions, the non-compliance wherewith on the part of her earthly swain threatens her with the direst penalties; her lover fails in the test, which consists in this, that, however evil and repulsive she may appear to him (in the metamorphosis which she has to undergo), he shall not reject her in his unbelief. In Gozzi's tale the fairy is changed into a snake; the remorseful lover frees her from the spell by kissing the snake, and thus wins her for his wife. I altered this denouement by changing the fairy into a stone, and then releasing her from the spell by her lover's passionate song; while the lover, instead of being allowed to carry off his bride into his own country, is himself admitted by the fairy king to the immortal bliss of fairyland, together with his fairy wife.'
When Wagner wrote 'Die Feen' he was under the spell of Weber, whose influence is perceptible in every page of the score. Marschner, too, whose 'Vampyr' and 'Templer und Juedin' had been recently produced at Leipzig, which was then Wagner's headquarters, also appealed very strongly to the young musician's plastic temperament. 'Die Feen' consequently has little claim to originality, but the work is nevertheless interesting to those who desire to trace the master's development ab ovo. Both in the melodies and rhythms employed it is possible to trace the germs of what afterwards became strongely marked characteristics. Wagner himself never saw 'Die Feen' performed. In 1833 he could not persuade any German manager to produce it, and, in the changes which soon came over his musical sympathies, 'Die Feen' was laid upon the shelf and probably forgotten. It was not until 1888, five years after the composer's death, that the general enthusiasm for everything connected with Wagner induced the authorities at Munich to produce it. Since then it has been performed with comparative frequency, and formed a part of the cycles of Wagner's works which were given in 1894 and 1895. Wagner's next work was of a very different nature. 'Das Liebesverbot' was a frank imitation of the Italian school. He himself confesses that 'if any one should compare this score with that of "Die Feen" he would find it difficult to understand how such a complete change in my tendencies could have been brought about in so short a time.' The incident which turned his thoughts into this new channel was a performance of Bellini's 'Capuletti e Montecchi,' in which Madame Schroeder-Devrient sang the part of Romeo. This remarkable woman exercised in those days an almost hypnotic influence upon Wagner, and the beauty and force of this particular impersonation impressed him so vividly that he relinquished his admiration of Weber and the Teutonic school and plunged headlong into the meretricious sensuousness of Italy. The libretto of 'Das Liebesverbot' is founded upon Shakespeare's 'Measure for Measure,' It was performed for the first and only time at Magdeburg in 1836, and failed completely; but it is only just to say that its failure seems to have been due more to insufficient rehearsal than to the weakness of the score. After the success of 'Die Feen' at Munich, it naturally occurred to the authorities there to revive Wagner's one other juvenile opera. The score of 'Das Liebesverbot' was accordingly unearthed, and the parts were allotted. The first rehearsal, however, decided its fate. The opera was so ludicrous and unblushing an imitation of Donizetti and Bellini, that the artists could scarcely sing for laughter. Herr Vogl, the eminent tenor, and one or two others were still in favour of giving it as a curiosity, but in the end it was thought better to drop it altogether, less on account of the music than because of the licentious character of the libretto.
'Rienzi,' the next in order of Wagner's operas, was written on the lines of French opera. Wagner hoped to see it performed in Paris, and throughout the score he kept the methods of Meyerbeer and Spontini consistently in his mind's eye. There is very little attempt at characterisation, but the opportunities for spectacular display are many and various. In later years Meyerbeer paid Wagner the compliment of saying that the libretto of 'Rienzi' was the best he had ever read. 'Rienzi' was produced at Dresden in 1842.
The opera opens at night. The scene is laid in a street near the Lateran Church in Rome. Orsini, a Roman nobleman, and his friends are attempting to abduct Irene, the sister of Rienzi, a Papal notary. They are disturbed by the entrance of Colonna, another Roman noble, and his adherents. The two ruffians quarrel over the unfortunate girl; their followers eagerly join in the fray; and in a moment, as it seems, the quiet street is alive with the cliquetis of steel and the flash of sword-blades. Adriano, Colonna's son, loves Irene, and when he discovers who the trembling victim of patrician lust really is, he hastens to protect her. The tumult soon attracts a crowd to the spot. Last comes Rienzi, indignant at the insult offered to his sister, and bent upon revenge. Adriano, torn by conflicting emotions, decides to throw in his lot with Rienzi, and the act ends with the appointment of the latter to the post of Tribune—- he refuses the title of King—and the marshalling of the plebeians against the recreant aristocracy. The arms of the people carry the day, and in the second act the nobles appear at the Capitol to sue for pardon. Rienzi, though warned of their treachery by Adriano, accepts their promise of submission. During the festivities which celebrate the reconciliation Orsini attempts to assassinate Rienzi, who is only saved by the steel breastplate which he wears beneath his robes. For this outrage the nobles are condemned to death. Adriano begs for his father's life, and Rienzi weakly relents, and grants his prayer on condition of the nobles taking an oath of submission.
In the third act the struggle between the nobles and the people advances another stage. The nobles have once more broken their oath, and are drawn up in battle array at the gates of Rome. Rienzi marshals his forces and prepares to march forth against them. In vain Adriano pleads once more for pardon. The fortune of war goes in favour of the plebeians. The nobles are routed, Colonna is slain, and the scene closes as Adriano vows vengeance over his father's body upon his murderer.
In the fourth act the tide has turned against Rienzi. The citizens suspect him of treachery to their cause. Adriano joins the ranks of malcontents, and does all in his power to fire them to vengeance. Rienzi appears, and is at once surrounded by the conspirators, but in a speech of noble patriotism he convinces them of their mistakes, and wins them once more to allegiance. Suddenly the doors of the Lateran Church are thrown open; the Papal Legate appears, and reads aloud the Bull of Rienzi's excommunication. Horror-stricken at the awful sentence, the Tribune's friends forsake him and fly, all save Irene, who, deaf to the wild entreaties of Adriano, clings to her brother in passionate devotion.
In the fifth act, Rienzi, after a last vain attempt to arouse the patriotism of the people, seeks refuge in the Capitol, which is fired by the enraged mob. The Tribune and Irene perish in the flames, together with Adriano, whose love for Irene proves stronger than death.
Wagner himself has described the frame of mind in which he began to work at 'Rienzi': "To do something grand, to write an opera for whose production only the most exceptional means should suffice...this is what resolved me to resume, and carry out with all my might, my former plan of 'Rienzi.' In the preparation of this text I took no thought for anything but the writing of an effective operatic libretto." In the light of this confession, it is best to look upon 'Rienzi' merely as a brilliant exercise in the Grand Opera manner. Much of the music is showy and effective; there is a masculine vigour about the melodies, and the concerted pieces are skilfully treated, but, except to the student of Wagner's development, its intrinsic value is very small.
Appropriately enough, the idea of writing an opera upon the legend of the Flying Dutchman first occurred to Wagner during his passage from Riga to London in the year 1839. The voyage was long and stormy, and the tempestuous weather which he encountered, together with the fantastic tales which he heard from the lips of the sailors, made so deep an impression upon his mind, that he determined to make his experiences the groundwork of an opera dealing with the fortunes of the 'Wandering Jew of the Ocean.' When he was in Paris, the stress of poverty compelled him to treat the sketch, which he had made for a libretto, as a marketable asset. This he sold to a now forgotten composer named Dietsch, who wrote an opera upon the subject, which failed completely. The disappearance of this work left Wagner's hands free once more, and some years later he returned con amore to his original idea. 'Der Fliegende Hollaender' was produced at Dresden in 1843.
The legend of the Flying Dutchman is, of course, an old one. The idea of the world-wearied wanderer driven from shore to shore in the vain search for peace and rest dates from Homer. Heine was the first to introduce the motive of the sinner's redemption through the love of a faithful woman, which was still further elaborated by Wagner, and really forms the basis of his drama. The opera opens in storm and tempest. The ship of Daland, a Norwegian mariner, has just cast anchor at a wild and rugged spot upon the coast not far from his own home, where his daughter Senta is awaiting him. He can do nothing but wait for fair weather, and goes below, leaving his steersman to keep watch. The lad drops asleep, singing of his home, and through the darkness the gloomy vessel of the Dutchman is seen approaching with its blood-red sails. The Dutchman anchors his ship close to the Norwegian barque, and steps ashore. Seven years have passed since he last set foot upon earth, and he comes once more in search of a true woman who will sacrifice herself for his salvation, for this alone can free him from the curse under which he suffers. But hope of mortal aid is dead within his breast. In wild and broken accents he tells of his passionate longing for death, and calls upon the Judgment Day to put an end to his pilgrimage. 'Annihilation be my lot,' he cries in his madness, and from the depths of the black vessel the weird crew echoes his despairing cry. Daland issues from his own vessel and gives the stranger a hearty greeting. The name of Senta arrests the Dutchman's attention, and after a short colloquy and a glimpse of the untold wealth which crams the coffers of the Dutchman, the old miser consents to give his daughter to the stranger. The wind meanwhile has shifted, and the two captains hasten their departure for the port.
In the second act we are at Daland's house. Mary, the old housekeeper, and a bevy of chattering girls are spinning by the fireside, while Senta, lost in gloomy reverie, sits apart gazing at a mysterious picture on the wall, the portrait of a pale man clad in black, the hero of the mysterious legend of the Flying Dutchman. The girls rally Senta upon her abstraction, and as a reply to their idle prattle she sings them the ballad of the doomed mariner. Throughout the song her enthusiasm has been waxing, and at its close, like one inspired, she cries aloud that she will be the woman to save him, that through her the accursed wretch shall find eternal peace. Erik, her betrothed lover, who enters to announce the approach of Daland, hears her wild words, and in vain reminds her of vows and promises made long ago. When Daland brings the Dutchman in, and Senta sees before her the hero of her romance, the living embodiment of the mysterious picture, she gazes spell-bound at the weird stranger, and seems scarcely to hear her father's hasty recommendation of the new suitor's pretensions. Left alone with the Dutchman, Senta rapturously vows her life to his salvation, and the scene ends with the plighting of their troth.
In the last act we are once more on the seashore. The Dutch and Norwegian vessels are moored side by side, but while the crew of the latter is feasting and making merry, the former is gloomy and silent as the grave. A troop of damsels runs on with baskets of food and wine; they join with the Norwegian sailors in calling upon the Dutchmen to come out and share their festivities, but not a sound proceeds from the phantom vessel. Suddenly the weird mariners appear upon the deck, and while blue flames hover upon the spars and masts of their fated vessel, they sing an uncanny song taunting their captain with his failure as a lover. The Norwegian sailors in terror hurry below, the girls beat a hasty retreat, and silence descends once more upon the two vessels. Senta issues from Daland's house, followed by Erik. In spite of his importunity, her steadfast purpose remains unmoved; but the Dutchman overhears Erik's passionate appeal and, believing Senta to be untrue to himself, rushes on board his ship and hastily puts out to sea. Senta's courage rises to the occasion. Though the Dutchman has cast her off, she remains true to her vows. She hastens to the edge of the cliff hard by, and with a wild cry hurls herself into the sea. Her solemn act of renunciation fulfils the promise of her lips. The gloomy vessel of the Dutchman, its mission accomplished, sinks into the waves, while the forms of Senta and the Dutchman transfigured with unearthly light are seen rising from the bosom of the ocean.
The music of 'Der Fliegende Hollaender' may be looked at from two points of view. As a link in the chain of Wagner's artistic development, it is of the highest interest. In it we see the germs of those theories which were afterwards to effect so formidable a revolution in the world of opera. In 'Der Fliegende Hollaender' Wagner first puts to the proof the Leit-Motiv, or guiding theme, the use of which forms, as it were, the base upon which the entire structure of his later works rests. In those early days he employed it with timidity, it is true, and with but a half-hearted appreciation of the poetical effect which it commands; but from that day forth each of his works shows a more complete command of its resources, and a subtler instinct as to its employment. The intrinsic musical interest of 'Der Fliegende Hollaender' is unequal. Wagner had made great strides since the days of 'Rienzi,' but he had still a vast amount to unlearn. Side by side with passages of vital force and persuasive beauty there are dreary wastes of commonplace and the most arid conventionality. The strange mixture of styles which prevails in 'Der Fliegende Hollaender' makes it in some ways even less satisfactory as a work of art than 'Rienzi,' which at any rate has the merit of homogeneity. Wagner is most happily inspired by the sea. The overture, as fresh and picturesque a piece of tone-painting as anything he ever wrote, is familiar to all concert-goers, and the opening of the first act is no less original. But perhaps the most striking part of the opera, certainly the most characteristic, is the opening of the third act, with its chain of choruses between the girls and the sailors. A great deal of 'Der Fliegende Hollaender' might have been written by any operatic composer of the time, but this scene bears upon it the hall-mark of genius.
If 'Der Fliegende Hollaender' proved that the descriptive side of Wagner's genius had developed more rapidly than the psychological, the balance was promptly re-established in 'Tannhaeuser,' his next work. Much of the music is picturesque and effective, even in the lowest sense, but its strength lies in the extraordinary power which the composer displays of individualising his characters—a power of which in 'Der Fliegende Hollaender' there was scarcely a suggestion.
So far as mere form is concerned, 'Tannhaeuser' (1845) is far freer from the conventionalities of the Italian school than 'Der Fliegende Hollaender,' but this would not have availed much if Wagner's constructive powers had not matured in so remarkable a way. It would have been useless to sweep away the old conventions if he had had nothing to set in their place. Apart from the strictly musical side of the question, Wagner had in 'Tannhaeuser' a story of far deeper human interest than the weird legend of the Dutchman, the tale which never grows old of the struggle of good and evil for a human soul, the tale of a remorseful sinner won from the powers of hell by the might of a pure woman's love.
There is a legend which tells that when the gods and goddesses fled from their palace on Olympus before the advance of Christianity, Venus betook herself to the North, and established her court in the bowels of the earth, beneath the hill of Hoerselberg in Thuringia. There we find the minstrel Tannhaeuser at the opening of the opera. He has left the world above, its strifes and its duties, for the wicked delights of the grotto of Venus. There he lies in the embraces of the siren goddess, while life passes in a ceaseless orgy of sinful pleasure. But the poet wearies of his amorous captivity, and would fain return to the earth once more. In vain the goddess pleads, in vain she calls up new scenes of ravishing delight, he still prays to be gone. Finally he calls on the sainted name of Mary, and Venus with her nymphs, grotto, palace and all, sink into the earth with a thunder-clap, while Tannhaeuser, when he comes to his senses once more, finds himself kneeling upon the green grass on the slope of a sequestered valley, lulled by the tinkling bells of the flock and the piping of a shepherd from a rock hard by. The pious chant of pilgrims, passing on their way to Rome, wakens his slumbering conscience, and bids him expiate his guilt by a life of abstinence and humiliation. His meditations are interrupted by the appearance of the Landgrave of Thuringia, his liege lord, who is hunting with Wolfram von Eschinbach, Walther von der Vogelweide, and other minstrel-knights of the Wartburg; but his newly awakened sense of remorse forbids him to return with them to the castle, until Wolfram breathes the name of the Landgrave's niece Elisabeth, the saintly maiden who has drooped and pined since Tannhaeuser disappeared from the singing contests at the Wartburg. The thought of human love touches his heart with warm sympathy, and he gladly hastens to the castle with his newly found friends.
In the second act we are at the Wartburg, in the Hall of Song in which those tournaments of minstrelsy were held, for which the castle was celebrated in the middle ages. Elisabeth enters, bringing a greeting to the hall, whose threshold she has not crossed since Tannhaeuser's mysterious departure. Her joyous tones have scarcely ceased when Tannhaeuser, led by Wolfram, appears and falls at the feet of the youthful Princess. Her pure spirit cannot conceive aught of dishonour in his absence, and she welcomes him back to her heart with girlish trust. Now the guests assemble and, marshalled in order, take their places for the singers' tourney. The Landgrave announces the subject of the contest—the power Of love—and more than hints that the hand of Elisabeth is to be the victor's prize. The singers in turn take their harps and pour forth their improvisations; Wolfram sings of the chaste ideal which he worships from afar, Walther of the pure fount of virtue from which he draws his inspiration, and the warrior Biterolf praises the chivalrous passion of the soldier.
Each in turn is interrupted by Tannhaeuser, who, with ever-growing vehemence, scoffs at the pale raptures of his friends. A kind of madness possesses him, and as the hymns in praise of love recall to his memory the amorous orgies of the Venusberg, he gradually loses all self-control, and ends by bursting out with a wild hymn in praise of the goddess herself. The horror-stricken women rush from the hall, and the men, sword in hand, prepare to execute summary justice upon the self-convicted sinner; but Elisabeth dashes in before the points of their swords, and in broken accents begs pardon for her recreant lover in the name of the Saviour of them all. Touched by her agonised pleading the angry knights let fall their weapons, while Tannhaeuser, as his madness slips from him and he realises all that he has lost, falls repentant and prostrate upon the earth. The Landgrave bids him hasten to Rome, where alone he may find pardon for a sin so heinous. Far below in the valley a band of young pilgrims is passing, and the sound of their solemn hymn rises to the castle windows; the pious strains put new life into the despairing Tannhaeuser, and crying 'To Rome, to Rome,' he staggers from the hall.
The scene of the third act is the same as that of the first, a wooded valley beneath the towers of the Wartburg; but the fresh beauty of spring has given place to the tender melancholy of autumn. No tidings of the pilgrim have reached the castle, and Elisabeth waits on in patient hope, praying that her lost lover may be given back to her arms free and forgiven. While she pours forth her agony at the foot of a rustic cross, the faithful Wolfram watches silently hard by. Suddenly the distant chant of the pilgrims is heard. Elisabeth rises from her knees in an agony of suspense. As the pilgrims file past one by one, she eagerly scans their faces, but Tannhaeuser is not among them. With the failure of her hopes she feels that the last link which binds her to earth is broken. Committing her soul to the Virgin, she takes her way slowly back to the castle, the hand of death already heavy upon her, after bidding farewell to Wolfram in a passage which, though not a word is spoken, is perhaps more poignantly pathetic than anything Wagner ever wrote. Alone amid the gathering shades of evening, Wolfram sings the exquisite song to the evening star which is the most famous passage in the opera. The last strains have scarcely died away when a gloomy figure slowly enters upon the path lately trodden by the rejoicing pilgrims. It is Tannhaeuser returning from Rome, disappointed and despairing. His pilgrimage has availed him nothing. The Pope bade him hope for no pardon for his sin till the staff which he held in his hand should put forth leaves and blossom. With these awful words ringing in his ears, Tannhaeuser has retraced his weary steps. He has had enough of earth, and thinks only of returning to the embraces of Venus. In response to his cries Venus appears, in the midst of a wild whirl of nymphs and sirens. In vain Wolfram urges and appeals; Tannhaeuser will not yield his purpose. He breaks from his friend, and is rushing to meet the extended arms of the goddess, when Wolfram adjures him once more by the sainted memory of Elisabeth. At the sound of that sinless name Venus and her unhallowed crew sink with a wild shriek into the earth. The morning breaks, and the solemn hymn of the procession bearing the corpse of Elisabeth sounds sweetly through the forest. As the bier is carried forward Tannhaeuser sinks lifeless by the dead body of his departed saint, while a band of young pilgrims comes swiftly in, bearing the Pope's staff, which has put forth leaves and blossomed—the symbol of redemption and pardon for the repentant sinner.
It will generally be admitted that the story of 'Tannhaeuser' is better suited for dramatic purposes than that of 'Der Fliegende Hollaender,' apart from the lofty symbolism which gives it so deeply human an interest. This would go far to account for the manifest superiority of the later work, but throughout the score it is easy to note the enhanced power and certainty of the composer in dealing even with the less interesting parts of the story. Much of 'Tannhaeuser' is conventional, but it nevertheless shows a great advance on 'Der Fliegende Hollaender,' in the disposal of the scenes as much as in the mere treatment of the voices. But in the orchestra the advance is even more manifest. The guiding theme, which in 'Der Fliegende Hollaender' only makes fitful and timid appearances, is used with greater boldness, and with increased knowledge of its effect. Wagner had as yet, it is true, but little conception of the importance which this flexible instrument would assume in his later works; but such passages as the orchestral introduction to the third act, and Tannhaeuser's narration, give a foretaste of what the composer was afterwards to achieve by this means. So far as orchestral colour is concerned, too, the score of Tannhaeuser is deeply interesting to the student of Wagner's development. Here we find Wagner for the first time consistently associating a certain instrument or group of instruments with one of the characters, as, for instance, the trombones with the pilgrims, and the wood-wind with Elisabeth. This plan—which is in a certain sense the outcome of the guiding theme system—he was afterwards to develop elaborately. It had of course been employed before, notably by Gluck, but Wagner with characteristic boldness carried it at once to a point of which his predecessor can scarcely have dreamed. As an illustration, the opening of the third act may be quoted, in which Elisabeth is represented by the wood-wind—by the clarinets and bassoons in the hour of her deep affliction and abasement, and by the flutes and hautboys when her soul has finally cast off all the trammels of earth—and Wolfram by the violoncello. The feelings of the two are so exquisitely portrayed by the orchestra, that the scene would be easily comprehensible if it were carried on—as indeed much of it is—without any words at all.
'Lohengrin' (1850) was the first of Wagner's operas which won general acceptance, and still remains the most popular. The story lacks the deep human interest of 'Tannhaeuser,' but it has both power and picturesqueness, while the prominence of the love-interest, which in the earlier work is thrust into the background, is sufficient to explain the preference given to it. Elsa of Brabant is charged by Frederick of Telramund, at the instigation of his wife Ortrud, with the murder of her brother Godfrey, who has disappeared. King Henry the Fowler, who is judging the case, allows Elsa a champion; but the signal trumpets have sounded twice, and no one comes forward to do battle on her behalf. Suddenly there appears, in a distant bend of the river Scheldt, a boat drawn by a swan, in which is standing a knight clad in silver armour. Amidst the greatest excitement the knight gradually approaches, and finally disembarks beneath the shadow of the king's oak. He is accepted by Elsa as her champion and lover on the condition that she shall never attempt to ask his name. If she should violate her promise, Lohengrin—for it is he—must return at once to his father's kingdom. Telramund is worsted in the fight, having no power to fight against Lohengrin's sacred sword, and the act ends with rejoicings over the approaching marriage of Lohengrin and Elsa.
In the second act it is night; Telramund and Ortrud are crouching upon the steps of the Minster, opposite the palace, plotting revenge. Suddenly Elsa steps out upon the balcony of the Kemenate, or women's quarters, and breathes out the tale of her happiness to the breezes of night. Ortrud accosts her with affected humility, and soon succeeds in establishing herself once more in the good graces of the credulous damsel. She passes into the Kemenate with Elsa, first promising to use her magic powers so as to secure for ever for Elsa the love of her unknown lord. Elsa rejects the offer with scorn, but it is evident that the suggestion has sown the first seeds of doubt in her foolish heart. As the day dawns the nobles assemble at the Minster gate, and soon the long bridal procession begins to issue from the Kemenate. But before Elsa has had time to set foot upon the Minster steps, Ortrud dashes forward and claims precedence, taunting the hapless bride with ignorance of her bridegroom's name and rank. Elsa has scarcely time to reply in passionate vindication of her love, when the King and Lohengrin approach from the Pallas, the quarters of the knights. Lohengrin soothes the terror of his bride, and the procession starts once more. Once more it is interrupted. Telramund appears upon the threshold of the cathedral and publicly accuses Lohengrin of sorcery. The King, however, will not harbour a suspicion of his spotless knight. Telramund is thrust aside, though not before he has had time to whisper fresh doubts and suspicions to the shuddering Elsa, and the procession files slowly into the Minster.
A solemn bridal march opens the next act, while the maids of honour conduct Elsa and Lohengrin to the bridal chamber. There, after a love scene of enchanting beauty, her doubts break forth once more. 'How is she to know,' she cries, 'that the swan will not come some day as mysteriously as before and take her beloved from her arms?' In vain Lohengrin tries to soothe her; she will not be appeased, and in frenzied excitement puts to him the fatal question, 'Who art thou?' At that moment the door is burst open, and Telramund rushes in followed by four knights with swords drawn. Lohengrin lifts his sacred sword, and the false knight falls dead at his feet. The last scene takes us back to the banks of the Scheldt. Before the assembled army Lohengrin answers Elsa's question. He is the son of Parsifal, the lord of Monsalvat, the keeper of the Holy Grail. His mission is to succour the distressed, but his mystic power vanishes if the secret of its origin be known. Even as he speaks the swan appears once more, drawing the boat which is to bear him away. Lohengrin bids a last farewell to the weeping Elsa, and turns once more to the river. Now is the moment of Ortrud's triumph. She rushes forward and proclaims that the swan is none other than Godfrey, Elsa's brother, imprisoned in this shape by her magic arts. But Lohengrin's power is not exhausted; he kneels upon the river bank, and in answer to his prayer the white dove of the Grail wheels down from the sky, releases the swan, and, while Elsa clasps her restored brother to her breast, bears Lohengrin swiftly away over the waters of the Scheldt.
The interest of 'Lohengrin' lies rather in the subtle treatment of the characters than in the intrinsic beauty of the story itself. Lohengrin's love for Elsa, and his apparent intention of settling in Brabant for life, seem scarcely consistent with his duties as knight of the Grail, and, save for their mutual love, neither hero nor heroine have much claim upon our sympathies. But the grouping of the characters is admirable; the truculent witch Ortrud is a fine foil to the ingenuous Elsa, and Lohengrin's spotless knighthood is cast into brilliant relief by the dastardly treachery of Telramund. The story of 'Lohengrin' lacks the deep human interest of 'Tannhaeuser,' and the music never reaches the heights to which the earlier work sometimes soars. But in both respects 'Lohengrin' has the merit of homogeneity; the libretto is laid out by a master hand, and the music, though occasionally monotonous in rhythm, has none of those strange relapses into conventionality which mar the beauty of 'Tannhaeuser.' Musically 'Lohengrin' marks the culminating point of Wagner's earlier manner. All the links with the Italian school are broken save one, the concerted finale. Here alone he adheres to the old tradition of cavatina and cabaletta—the slow movement followed by the quick. The aria in set form has completely disappeared, while the orchestra, though still often used merely as an accompaniment, is never degraded, as occasionally happens in 'Tannhaeuser,' to the rank of a 'big guitar.'
The opening notes of 'Lohengrin' indeed prove incontestably the increased power and facility with which Wagner had learnt to wield his orchestra since the days of 'Tannhaeuser.' The prelude to 'Lohengrin'—a mighty web of sound woven of one single theme—is, besides being a miracle of contrapuntal ingenuity, one of the most poetical of Wagner's many exquisite conceptions. In it he depicts the bringing to earth by the hands of angels of the Holy Grail, the vessel in which Joseph of Arimathea caught the last drops of Christ's blood upon the cross. With the opening chords we seem to see the clear blue expanse of heaven spread before us in spotless radiance. As the Grail motive sounds for the first time pianissimo in the topmost register of the violins, a tiny white cloud, scarcely perceptible at first, but increasing every moment, forms in the zenith. Ever descending as the music gradually increases in volume, the cloud resolves itself into a choir of angels clad in white, the bearers of the sacred cup. Nearer and still nearer they come, until, as the Grail motive reaches a passionate fortissimo, they touch the earth, and deliver the Holy Grail to the band of faithful men who are consecrated to be its earthly champions. Their mission accomplished the angels swiftly return. As they soar up, the music grows fainter. Soon they appear once more only as a snowy cloud on the bosom of the blue. The Grail motive fades away into faint chords, and the heaven is left once more in cloudless radiance.
A noticeable point in the score of 'Lohengrin' is the further development of the beautiful idea which appears in 'Tannhaeuser,' of associating a certain instrument or group of instruments with one particular character. The idea itself, it may be noticed in passing, dates from the time of Bach, who used the strings of the orchestra to accompany the words of Christ in the Matthew Passion, much as the old Italian painters surrounded his head with a halo. In 'Lohengrin' Wagner used this beautiful idea more systematically than in 'Tannhaeuser'; Lohengrin's utterances are almost always accompanied by the strings of the orchestra, while the wood-wind is specially devoted to Elsa. This plan emphasises very happily the contrast, which is the root of the whole drama, between spiritual and earthly love, typified in the persons of Lohengrin and Elsa, which the poem symbolises in allegorical fashion.
WAGNER'S LATER WORKS
The attempt to divide the life and work of a composer into fixed periods is generally an elusive and unsatisfactory experiment, but to this rule the case of Wagner is an exception. His musical career falls naturally into two distinct divisions, and the works of these two periods differ so materially in scope and execution that the veriest tyro in musical matters cannot fail to grasp their divergencies. In the years which elapsed between the composition of 'Lohengrin' and 'Das Rheingold,' Wagner's theories upon the proper treatment of lyrical drama developed in a surprising manner. Throughout his earlier works the guiding theme is used with increasing frequency, it is true, so that in 'Lohengrin' its employment adds materially to the poetical interest of the score; but in 'Das Rheingold' we are in a different world. Here the guiding theme is the pivot upon which the entire work turns. The occasional use of some characteristic musical phrase to illustrate the recurrence of a special personality or phase of thought has given way to a deliberate system in which not only each of the characters in the drama, but also their thoughts, feelings, and aspirations are represented by a distinct musical equivalent. These guiding themes are by no means the mere labels that hostile critics of Wagner would have us believe. They are subject, as much as the characters and sentiments which they represent, to organic change and development. By this means every incident in the progress of the drama, the growth of each sentiment or passion, the play of thought and feeling, all find a close equivalent in the texture of the music, and the connection between music and drama is advanced to an intimacy which certainly could not be realised by any other means.