John Lord.

Beacon Lights of History, Volume 14 The New Era; A Supplementary Volume, by Recent Writers, as Set Forth in the Preface and Table of Contents online

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No, the roots of Wagner's music-dramas are not to be found in Beethoven,
but in Weber. His "Freischütz" and "Euryanthe" are the prototypes of
Wagner's operas. The "Freischütz" is the first masterwork, as Wagner's
operas are the last, up to date, of the romantic school; and it embodies
admirably two of the principal characteristics of that school: one, a
delight in the demoniac, the supernatural - what the Germans call
_gruseln_; the other, the use of certain instruments, alone or in
combination, for the sake of securing peculiar emotional effects. In
both these respects Wagner followed in Weber's footsteps. With the
exception of "Rienzi" and "Die Meistersinger," all of his operas, from
the "Flying Dutchman" to "Parsifal," embody supernatural, mythical,
romantic elements; and in the use of novel tone colors for special
emotional effects he opened a new wonder-world of sound, to which Weber,
however, had given him the key.

"Lohengrin," the last one of what are usually called Wagner's "operas,"
as distinguished from his "music-dramas" (comprising the last seven of
his works), betrays very strongly the influence of Weber's other
masterwork, "Euryanthe." This opera, indeed, may also be called the
direct precursor of Wagner's music-dramas. It contains eight "leading
motives," which recur thirty times in course of the opera; and the
dramatic recitatives are sometimes quite in the "Wagnerian" manner. But
the most remarkable thing is that Weber uses language which practically
sums up Wagner's idea of the music-drama. "'Euryanthe,'" he says, "is a
purely dramatic work, which depends for its success solely on the
co-operation of the united sister-arts, and is certain to lose its
effect if deprived of their assistance."

When Wagner wrote his essay on "The Music of the Future" for the
Parisians (1860) he remembered his obligations to the Dresden idol of
his boyhood by calling attention to "the still very noticeable
connection" of his early work, "Tannhäuser," with "the operas of my
predecessors, among whom I name especially Weber," He might have
mentioned others, - Gluck, for instance, who curbed the vanity of the
singers, and taught them that they were not "the whole show;" Marschner,
whose grewsome "Hans Heiling" Wagner had in mind when he wrote his
"Flying Dutchman;" Auber, whose "Masaniello," with its dumb heroine,
taught Wagner the importance and expressiveness of pantomimic music, of
which there are such eloquent examples in all his operas. During his
three and a half years' sojourn in Paris, just at the opening of his
career as an opera composer (1839-1842), he learned many things
regarding operatic scenery, machinery, processions, and details, which
he subsequently turned to good account. Even Meyerbeer, the ruler of the
musical world in Paris at that time, was not without influence on him,
though he had cause to disapprove of him because of his submission to
the demands of the fashionable taste of the day, which contrasted so
strongly with Wagner's own courageous defiance of everything
inconsistent with his ideals of art. The result to-day - Meyerbeer's fall
and Wagner's triumph - shows that courage, like honesty, is, in the long
run, the best policy, and, like virtue, its own reward.

It is important to bear in mind all these lessons that Wagner learned
from his predecessors, as it helps to explain the enormous influence he
exerted on his contemporaries. Wonderful as was the power and
originality of his genius, even he could not have achieved such results
had he not had truth on his side, - truth, as hinted at, in moments of
inspiration, by many of his predecessors.

Wagner was most shamefully misrepresented by his enemies during his
lifetime. A thousand times they wrote unblushingly that he despised and
abused the great masters, whereas in truth no one ever spoke of them
more enthusiastically than he, or was more eager to learn of them,
though, to be sure, he was honest and courageous enough also to call
attention to their shortcomings. In all his autobiographic writings
there is not a more luminous passage than the following, in which he
relates his experiences as conductor at the Riga Opera in 1838, when he
was at work on "Rienzi": -

"The peculiar gnawing melancholy which habitually overpowered me when I
conducted one of our ordinary operas was interrupted by an
inexpressible, enthusiastic delight, when, here and there, during the
performance of nobler works, I became conscious of the incomparable
effects that can be produced by musico-dramatic combinations on the
stage, - effects of a depth, sincerity, and direct realistic vivacity,
such as no other art can produce. I felt quite elated and ennobled
during the time that I was rehearsing Méhul's enchanting 'Joseph' with
my little opera company." "Such impressions," he continues, "like
flashes of lightning" revealed to him "unsuspected possibilities." It
was by utilizing these "possibilities" and hints, and at the same time
avoiding the errors and blemishes of his predecessors, that his
superlative genius was enabled to create such unapproachable masterworks
as "Siegfried" and "Tristan and Isolde."

The way up to those peaks was, however, slow and toilsome. For years he
groped in darkness, and light came but gradually. It has already been
intimated that his genius was slow in developing. A brief review of his
romantic career will bring out this and other interesting points.

At the time when Richard Wagner was born (May 22, 1813), Leipzig was in
such a state of commotion on account of the war to liberate Germany from
the Napoleonic yoke that the child's baptism was deferred several
months. To his schooldays reference has been made already, and we may
therefore pass on to the time when he tried to make his living as an
operatic conductor. Although he was then only twenty-one years old, he
showed remarkable aptitude for this kind of work from the beginning, and
it was through no fault of his that misfortune overtook every opera
company with which he had anything to do. The bankruptcy, in 1836, of
the manager of the Magdeburg Opera, affected him most disastrously, for
it came at the moment when he had arranged for the first performance of
an opera he had written, entitled, "Das Liebesverbot," or "The Novice of
Palermo," and which therefore was given only once. Many years later an
attempt was made to revive this juvenile work at Munich, but the project
was abandoned because, as the famous Wagnerian tenor, Heinrich Vogl,
informed the writer of this article, "Its arias and other numbers were
such ludicrous and undisguised imitations of Donizetti and other popular
composers of that time that we all burst out laughing, and kept up the
merriment throughout the rehearsal." This is of interest because it
shows that Wagner, like that other great reformer, Gluck, began his
career by writing fashionable operas in the Italian style. A still
earlier opera of his, "The Fairies," - the first one he completed, - was
not produced till 1888, fifty-five years after it had been written, and
five years after Wagner's death. This has been performed a number of
times in Munich, but it is so weak and uninteresting in itself that it
required a splendid stage setting, and the "historic" curiosity of
Wagner's admirers to make it palatable. It is significant that already
in these early works, Wagner wrote his own librettos, - a policy which he
pursued to the end.

Königsberg was the next city where the opera company with which he was
connected, failed. This was the more embarrassing to him, as he had in
the meantime been so unwise as to marry a pretty actress, Minna Planer,
who was destined, for a quarter of a century, to faithfully share his
experiences, - chiefly disappointments. The pittance he got as conductor
of these small German opera companies did not pay his expenses, all the
less as he was fond of luxurious living, and, like most artists, the
world over, foolishly squandered his money when he happened to have any.

At Riga, where Wagner next attempted to establish himself, the opera
company again got into trouble, and his financial straits became such
that, relying on his future ability to meet his obligations, he resolved
to leave that part of the world altogether and seek his fortune in
Paris. He knew that the Prussian Meyerbeer had won fame and fortune
there, - why should not he have the same good luck? He had unbounded
confidence in his own ability, and what increased his hopes of a
Parisian success, was that he had already completed two acts of a grand
historic opera, "Rienzi," based on Bulwer's novel, and written in the
sensational and spectacular style of Meyerbeer. He supposed that all he
had to do was to go to Paris, finish this opera, get it accepted through
the influence of his countryman and colleague, Meyerbeer, and - wake up
some morning famous and wealthy. He was not the first man who built
castles in Spain.

To-day a trip from Riga to Paris is a very simple affair. You get into a
train, and in about twenty-four hours are at your goal. In 1839 there
were no such conveniences. Wagner had to go to the Prussian seaport of
Pillau, and there board a sailing vessel which took him to London in
three weeks and a half. His journey, however, was a much more romantic
affair than a railway trip would have been. In the first place, it was a
real flight - from his creditors whom he had to evade. Next he had to
dodge the Russian sentries, whose boxes were placed on the boundary line
only a thousand yards apart. A friend discovered a way of accomplishing
this feat, and Wagner presently found himself on the ship, with his
wife and his enormous Newfoundland dog. In his trunk he had what he
hoped would help him to begin a brilliant career in Paris: one opera
completed, - "The Novice of Palermo;" two acts of another, - "Rienzi;" and
in his head he had the plot and some of the musical themes for a
third, - "The Flying Dutchman."

The sea voyage came just in time to give him local color for this weird
nautical opera. Three times the vessel was tossed by violent storms, and
once the captain was obliged to seek safety in a Norwegian harbor. The
sailors told Wagner their version of the "Flying Dutchman" legend, and
altogether these adventures were the very thing he wanted at the time,
and aided him in making his opera realistic, both in its text and its
music, which imitates the howling of the storm winds and "smells of the
salt breezes."

So for once our young musician had a streak of luck. But it did not last
long. He found Paris a very large city, and with very little use for
him. He made the most diverse efforts to support himself, nearly always
without success. Once it seemed as if his hopes were to be fulfilled.
The Théâtre de la Renaissance accepted his "Novice of Palermo;" but at
the last moment there was the usual bankruptcy of the management, - the
fourth that affected him! Then he wrote a Parisian Vaudeville, but it
had to be given up because the actors declared it could not be executed.
The Grand Opera, on which he had fixed his eye, was absolutely out of
the question. He was brought to such straits that he offered to sing in
the chorus of a small Boulevard theatre, but was rejected. His wife
pawned her jewels; on several occasions it is said that she even went
into the street to beg a few pennies for their supper. It was doubtless
during these years of starvation that Wagner acquired those gastric
troubles which in later years often prevented him from working more than
an hour or two a day.

A few German friends occasionally gave a little pecuniary aid, but the
only regular source of income was musical hackwork for the publisher
Schlesinger, who gladly availed himself of Wagner's skill in having him
make vocal scores of operas, or arrange popular melodies for the piano
and other instruments. Wagner also wrote stories and essays for musical
periodicals, for which he received fair remuneration; but his attempt to
compose romances and become a parlor favorite failed. Nobody wanted his
songs, and he finally offered them to the editor of a periodical in
Germany for two dollars and a half to four dollars apiece. This may seem
ludicrously pathetic; but then had not poor Schubert, a little more than
a decade before this, sold much better songs for twenty cents each!

Meyerbeer no doubt aided Wagner, but considering his very great
influence in Paris, he achieved surprisingly little for him. The score
of "Rienzi" had been completed in 1840, and in the spring of the next
year, Wagner went to Meudon, near Paris, and there composed the music of
"The Flying Dutchman," in seven weeks, but neither of these operas
seemed to have the least chance to appear on the boards of the Grand
Opera. The best their author could do was to sell the libretto of "The
Flying Dutchman" for one hundred dollars, reserving the right to set it
to music himself.

The outcome of all these disappointments was that he finally lost hope
so far as Paris was concerned, and sent his "Rienzi" to Dresden and his
"Flying Dutchman" to Berlin. The "Novice of Palermo" he had given up
entirely after the bankruptcy of the Renaissance Théâtre, because, as he
wrote, "I felt that I could no longer respect myself as its composer."
Meyerbeer had, at his request, kindly sent a note to the intendant of
the Dresden Opera, in which he said, among other things, that he had
found the selections from "Rienzi," which Wagner had played for him,
"highly imaginative and of great dramatic effect." Tichatschek, the
famous Dresden tenor, examined the score, and liked the title role; the
chorus director, Fischer, also pleaded for the acceptance of the opera;
and so at last Wagner got word in Paris that it would be produced in
Dresden. As Berlin, too, retained the manuscript of his other opera,
there was reason enough for him to end his Parisian sojourn and return
to his native country. He went overland this time, and, to cite his own
words, "For the first time I saw the Rhine; with tears in my eyes I, the
poor artist, swore eternal allegiance to my German fatherland."

It was fortunate in every way that he went to Dresden. His opera
required many alterations and improvements, which he alone could make.
He was permitted to superintend the rehearsals, which was, of course, a
great advantage to the opera. The singers grew more and more
enthusiastic over the music, and when the first public performance was
given, on October 20, 1842, the audience also was delighted and remained
to the very end, although the performance lasted six hours. The composer
immediately applied the pruning-knife and reduced the duration to four
hours and a half (from 6 to 10.30, - opera hours were early in those
days); but the tenor, Tichatschek, declared with tears in his eyes, "I
shall not permit any cuts in my part! It is too heavenly."

Those were proud and happy days for Wagner. "I, who had hitherto been
lonely, deserted, homeless," he wrote, "suddenly found myself loved,
admired, by many even regarded with wonderment." "Rienzi" was repeated a
number of times to overcrowded houses, though the prices had been put
up. It was regarded as "a fabulous success," and the management was
eager to follow it up with another. So the score of "The Flying
Dutchman" was demanded of Berlin (where they seemed in no hurry to use
it), and at once put into rehearsal. It was produced in Dresden on
January 2, 1843, only about ten weeks after "Rienzi," - an almost
unprecedented event in the life of an opera composer. Wagner conducted
the second opera himself (also "Rienzi," after the first few
performances), and gave so much satisfaction that he was shortly
afterwards appointed to the position of royal conductor (which he held
about six years).

So far, all seemed well. But disappointments soon began to overshadow
his seeming good luck. The first production of the "Flying Dutchman" can
hardly be called a success. Wagner himself characterized the performance
as being, in its main features, "a complete failure," and the stage
setting "incredibly awkward and wooden" (very different from what it is
in Dresden to-day). Mme. Schroeder-Devrient was an admirable "Senta,"
and received enthusiastic applause; but the opera itself puzzled the
audience rather than pleased it.

The music-lovers of Dresden had expected another opera _à la_ Meyerbeer,
like "Rienzi," with its arias and duos, its din and its dances, its
pomps and processions, its scenic and musical splendors. Instead of
that, they heard a work utterly unlike any opera ever before written; an
opera without arias, duets, and dances, without any of the glitter that
had theretofore entertained the public; an opera that simply related a
legend in one breath, as it were, - like a dramatic ballad; an opera that
indulged in weird chromatic scales, and harsh but expressive harmonies,
with an unprecedented license. Here was the real Wagner, but even in
this early and comparatively crude and simple phase, Wagner was too
novel and revolutionary to be appreciated by his contemporaries; hence
it is not to be wondered at that the "Flying Dutchman," after four
performances in Dresden, and a few in Cassel and Berlin, disappeared
from the stage for ten years.

Although Wagner was now royal conductor, he did not succeed in securing
a revival of this opera at Dresden. His next work, "Tannhäuser," was
nevertheless promptly accepted. The score was completed on April 13,
1845, and six, months later (October 19), the first performance was
given. Wagner had thrown himself with all his soul into the composition
of this score. To a friend in Berlin he wrote: "This opera must be good,
or else I never shall be able to do anything worth while." The public at
first seemed to agree with him. Seven performances were given before the
end of the season, and it was resumed the following year; yet Wagner
came to the conclusion that he had written the opera "for a few intimate
friends, but not for the public," to cite his own words. What the public
had expected and desired was shown by its enthusiastic reception of
"Rienzi," and its colder treatment of the "Dutchman." But "Tannhäuser"
was like the second opera; in fact, even "more so." Wagner had outlived
the time when he was willing to make concessions to current taste and
fashion; thenceforth he went his own way, eager, indeed, for approval,
but stubbornly refusing to win it by sacrificing his high art ideals.

Here was true heroism, genuine manliness! Had he been willing to write
more operas like "Rienzi," he might have revelled in wealth (he loved
wealth!) and basked in the sunshine of popularity, like Meyerbeer. But
not one inch of concession did he make for the sake of the much-coveted
riches and popular favor.

Yet was not his next work, "Lohengrin," of a popular character? Popular
to-day, yes; but in the days of his Dresden conductorship he could not
even get it accepted for performance at his own opera-house! It was
completed in August, 1847 (the last act having been written first and
the second last), but although he remained in Dresden two years longer,
all his efforts to get it staged failed, for various reasons. And when,
at last, Liszt gave it for the first time, on August 28, 1850, at
Weimar, whence it gradually made its way to other opera-houses, its
reception everywhere showed that it was very far from being considered a
"popular" work. The critics, especially, vied with one another in
abusing this same "Lohengrin," which at present is sung more frequently
than any other opera; and they continued to abuse it until about twenty
years ago. "An abyss of ennui," "void of all melody," "an insult to the
very essence of music," "a caricature of music," "algebraic harmonies,"
"no tangible ideas," "not a dozen bars of melody," "an opera without
music," "an incoherent mass of rubbish," - are a few of the "critical"
opinions passed on this opera, which is now regarded in all countries as
a very wonderland of beautiful melodies and expressive harmonies.

The non-acceptance in Dresden of this glorious opera, concerning which
Wagner wrote, "It is the best thing I have done so far," was only one of
many trials and disappointments which daily harassed him. He was over
head and ears in debt, because, in his confidence in the immediate
success of his operas, he had had them printed at once, at his own
expense. The opera-houses were very slow in accepting them, and this
left him in a sad predicament. There were, moreover, enemies
everywhere, - ignorant, old-fashioned professionals, who objected to his
way of interpreting the masters (though it was afterwards admitted that
he was epoch-making as an interpreter of their deepest thoughts). All
this galled him; and, furthermore, no attention whatever was paid to his
pet plans for reforming the Dresden Opera, and theatrical matters
in general.

In the state of mind brought about by this condition of affairs, it
needed but a firebrand to start an explosion. This firebrand was
supplied by the revolutionary uprising of 1849. Now, although Wagner had
never really cared much for politics (to his friend Fischer he once
wrote: "I do not consider true art possible until politics cease to
exist"), he was foolish enough to believe that a general overturning of
affairs would benefit art-matters, too, and facilitate his operatic
reforms; so he became, as he himself admits, "a revolutionist in behalf
of the theatre." He actively assisted the insurgents, and the
consequence was that, when the rebellion failed, he had to leave Dresden
and seek safety in flight.

Three of the leaders of the insurrection - Roeckel, Bakunin, and Heubner;
personal friends of Wagner - were captured and imprisoned; he himself was
so lucky as to escape to Weimar, where Franz Liszt took care of him. It
so happened that Liszt, who had given up his career as concert pianist
(though all the world was clamoring to hear him), and was conducting the
Weimar Opera, had been preparing a performance of "Tannhäuser," to which
Wagner would, under normal conditions, have been invited as a matter of
course. He was now there, but as a political fugitive, wherefore it was
not deemed advisable to have him attend the public performance; but he
did secretly witness a rehearsal, and was delighted to find that Liszt's
genius had enabled him to penetrate into the innermost recesses of this
music. It was impossible, however, for him to stay any longer. The
Dresden police had issued a warrant for the arrest of "the royal
Kapellmeister Richard Wagner," who was to be "placed on trial for active
participation in the riots which have taken place here." No time was,
therefore, to be lost. Late in the evening of May 18, Liszt's noble
patroness, the Princess Wittgenstein, received this note from him: "Can
you give the bearer sixty thalers? Wagner is obliged to fly, and I
cannot help him at this moment."

Early the next morning Wagner, provided with a false pass, left Weimar
and headed for Switzerland, which was to be his home for the greater
part of the following twelve years of his exile from Germany. Had he
been caught, like his friends, and, like them, imprisoned during these
years, it is not likely that the world would now possess those seven
monuments of his ripest genius, "Rheingold," "Die Walküre," "Siegfried,"
"Götterdämmerung," "Tristan and Isolde," "Die Meistersinger," and
"Parsifal." Even as it was, the world has undoubtedly lost an immortal
opera or two through his unfortunate participation in the rebellion. For
during the first four years of his exile, he did not compose any music.
He reasoned that he had written four good operas and nobody seemed to
want them; why, therefore, should he compose any more?

At the same time, he realized that there were natural reasons why his
operas were not understood. They were written in such a novel style,
both vocal and instrumental, that the singers, players, and conductors
found it difficult to perform them correctly, the consequence being that
they did not specially impress the audiences, which, moreover, were
bewildered by finding themselves listening to works so radically
different from what they had been accustomed to in the opera-houses. In
the hope of remedying this state of affairs Wagner devoted several years
to writing essays, in which he explained his aims and ideals for the
benefit both of performers and listeners. Little attention was, however,
paid to these essays, and although they are valuable aesthetic
treatises, most lovers of Wagner would gladly give them for the operas
he might have written in the same time, - operas uniting the

Online LibraryJohn LordBeacon Lights of History, Volume 14 The New Era; A Supplementary Volume, by Recent Writers, as Set Forth in the Preface and Table of Contents → online text (page 2 of 26)