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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characteristics of "Lohengrin" and "The Valkyrie."

Wagner's letters to Liszt and other friends show that he suffered
tortures, and was often brought to the verge of suicide by the thought
that, as a political refugee, he was unable to go to Germany to
superintend the production of his works. His one consolation was that,
as he put it, through the friendship of Liszt his art had found a home
at Weimar at the moment when he himself became homeless. Weimar became,
as it were, a sort of preliminary Bayreuth, to which pilgrimages were
made to hear Wagner's operas. Liszt not only produced the "Flying
Dutchman," "Tannhäuser," and "Lohengrin," but wrote eloquent essays on
them, and in every possible way advanced the good cause. It has been
justly said that by his efforts he accelerated the vogue of Wagner's
operas fully ten years. He also helped him pecuniarily, and induced
others to do the same. Never in the world's history has one artist done
so much for another as Liszt did for Wagner during all the years of his
exile in Switzerland.

Few persons would consider residence in Switzerland (the usual home in
those days of political refugees) a special hardship; nor would Wagner
have considered it in that light except for the solicitude he felt for
the children of his brain. Otherwise he greatly enjoyed life in that
glorious country, and the Alpine ozone nourished and stimulated his
brain. Moreover, from the creative point of view, it was an actual
advantage for him to be away from the opera-houses of the great
capitals. In Switzerland, except for a short time when he was connected
with the Zurich opera, he heard no operatic music except such as his own
brain created. Undoubtedly this helps to account for the astounding
originality of the music-dramas he wrote in Switzerland.

These music-dramas go as far beyond "Lohengrin" in certain directions as
"Lohengrin" goes beyond the operas of Wagner's predecessors. It was a
reckless thing to do, to make another such giant stride before the world
had caught up with his first, and he had to suffer the consequences;
but genius disregards prudence, and looks to the future alone. What he
was now writing was what his enemies tauntingly called "the music of the
future," because, as they said, nobody liked it at present; but what he
himself called the "art work of the future," in which all the fine arts
are inseparably united.

The biggest of his works, the "Nibelung Tetralogy," was conceived and
for the most part written in Switzerland. Before leaving Dresden he had
already written the poem of an opera which he called "Siegfried's
Death." Returning to this in his exile he came to the conclusion,
gradually, that the legend on which it is based, and which he had
sketched out in prose at the beginning, contained the material for two,
three, nay, four operas. Accordingly, he wrote the poems of these:
first, "Götterdämmerung," then "Siegfried," "Die Walküre," and
"Rheingold." The music to these four dramas was, however, composed in
the reverse order, in which they were to be performed.

Wagner indulged in no illusions regarding these music-dramas. He knew
that they were beyond the capacity of even the best royal opera-houses
of that time, and that they could be performed only under exceptional
conditions, such as he finally succeeded, after herculean efforts and
many disappointments, in securing at Bayreuth in 1876. It is of great
interest to note that the germs of a sort of "Bayreuth festival plan"
can be found in his letters as early as 1850, - the year when "Lohengrin"
had its first hearing. Thus a full quarter of a century elapsed between
the conception of this festival plan and its execution. But Wagner had
the patience of Job, as well as his capacity for suffering.

Amid privations of all sorts, he wrote the sublime music of these
dramas, beginning with "Rheingold," on Nov. 1, 1853, - the first time he
had put new operatic melodies on paper since the completion of
"Lohengrin," in August, 1847. In his head, to be sure, he had been
carrying much of the Nibelung music for some time, for he habitually
created his leading melodies at the same time as the verse; and the four
Nibelung poems were in print in 1853. On May 28, 1854, the score of
"Rheingold" was completed, and four weeks later he began the sketches of
"The Valkyrie," the completed score of which was in his desk by the end
of March, 1856.

In the meantime his poverty had compelled him, much against his wishes,
to accept an offer from the London Philharmonic Society to conduct their
concerts for a season (March to June, 1855). He had reason to bitterly
regret this action. With the limited number of rehearsals at his command
it was impossible for him to make the orchestra follow his intentions
and reveal his greatness as a conductor. He was not allowed to make the
programmes, and the directors, ignorant of the fact that they had
engaged the greatest musical genius of the century, gave no Wagner
concert, and put only a few short selections from his early operas on
the programs. Thus his hopes of creating a desire for the hearing of his
complete operas, which had been one of his motives in going to London,
were frustrated. He was, moreover, constantly abused for doing things
differently from Mendelssohn, and the leading critics referred to his
best music as "senseless discord," "inflated display of extravagance and
noise," and so on. Almost the only pleasant episode was the sympathy and
interest of Queen Victoria, who had a long talk with him, and informed
him that his music had enraptured her.

For all this trouble and loss of time (he found himself unable in London
to do any satisfactory work on the uncompleted "Valkyrie" score), he
received the munificent sum of $1,000, - considerably less than many
Wagner singers to-day get for one evening's work. Shortly before leaving
London he wrote to a friend that he would bring home about 200
francs, - $40! For this he had wasted four months of precious time and
endured endless "contrarieties and vulgar animosities," to use his
own words.

Equally unsuccessful were his efforts, a few years later, to better
himself financially by a series of concerts in Paris (1860). They
resulted in a large deficit. Nor was he benefited by the performances of
his "Tannhäuser," which were given at the grand opera in March, 1861, by
order of Napoleon, at the request of the influential Princess
Metternich. He had refused to interpolate a vulgar ballet in the second
act for the benefit of the members of the aristocratic Jockey Club, who
dined late and insisted on having a ballet on entering the opera-house.
They took their revenge by creating such a disturbance every evening
that after the third performance Wagner refused to allow any further
repetitions, although the house on the third night had been completely
sold out. He was to receive $50 for each performance. The result was
$150, or less than 50 cents a day, for a year's hard work and no end of
worry in connection with the rehearsals.

How many men are there in the annals of art who would have refused,
after all these disappointments and bitter lessons, to make _some_
concessions? Wagner was writing a gigantic work, the Nibelung Tetralogy,
which, he was convinced, would never yield a penny's profit during his
lifetime. Sometimes despair seized him. In one of his letters he
exclaims: "Why should I, poor devil, burden and torture myself with such
terrible tasks, if the present generation refuses to let me have even a
workshop?" Yet the only deviation he made from his plan was that when
he had reached the second act of the third of the Nibelung dramas, the
poetic "Siegfried," in June, 1857, he made up his mind to abandon the
Tetralogy for the time being, and compose an opera which might be
performed separately and once more bring him into contact with
the stage.

This opera was "Tristan and Isolde;" but instead of being a concession,
it turned out to be the most difficult and Wagnerian of all his
works, - an opera with much emotion but little action, no processions or
choruses such as "Lohengrin" still had, and, of course, no arias or
tunes whatever. "Tristan and Isolde" was completed in 1859, and Wagner
would have much preferred to have its performance in Paris commanded by
Napoleon in place of "Tannhäuser." What the Jockey Club would have done
in that case is inconceivable, for, compared with "Tristan,"
"Tannhäuser" is almost Meyerbeerian, if not Donizettian. No singers,
moreover, could have been found in Paris able to interpret this work,
with its new vocal style, - "speech-song," as the Germans call it. Even
Germany could do nothing, at first, with this opera. In Vienna, after
fifty-four rehearsals, it was abandoned, in 1863, as "impossible," and
that city did not produce it till after Wagner's death. Instead of
bringing him into immediate contact with the stage, it was not heard
_anywhere_ till seven years after its completion.

There was one more card for him to play. All his operas, so far, had
been tragedies. What if he were to write a comic opera? Would not that
be likely to get him access to the stage again, and help him
financially? He had the plan for a comic opera; indeed, he had sketched
it as early as 1845, at the same time as the plot of "Lohengrin."
Sixteen years it lay dormant in his brain. At last he wrote out the poem
in Paris, immediately after the "Tannhäuser" disaster there. Perhaps it
would be more accurate to call "Die Meistersinger" a humorous opera; for
while the story of the mediaeval knight who wins the goldsmith's
daughter has comic features, its chief characteristic is humor, with
that undercurrent of seriousness that belongs to all masterpieces of
humor. To a certain extent, it is a musical and poetic autobiography,
the victorious young Knight Walter, who sings as he pleases, without
regard to pedantic rules, representing Wagner himself and the "music of
the future," while the vain and malicious Beckmesser stands for the
critics, and Hans Sachs for enlightened public opinion.

It was during the time that he wrote the gloriously melodious and
spontaneous music to this poem that the most important event of his life
happened. Work on the score was repeatedly interrupted by the necessity
of making some money. Most of his concerts in German cities, undertaken
for this purpose, did not yield him any profits. In Russia, however, he
was very successful, and as he had the promise of a repetition of his
success, he rented a fine villa at Penzing, near Vienna, and proceeded
to enjoy life for a change. Who can blame him for this? As he said to a
friend not long after this, "I am differently organized from others,
have sensitive nerves, must have beauty, splendor, and light. Is it
really such an outrageous thing if I lay claim to the little bit of
luxury which I like, - I, who am preparing enjoyment for the world and
for thousands?"

Unfortunately the second Russian project failed, through no fault of his
own, and as he had borrowed money at usurious rates on his expected
profits, he found himself compelled to fly once more from his creditors.
After spending a short time in Switzerland, he went to Stuttgart, where
he persuaded his friend Weissheimer to go with him into the Suabian
Alps, where he intended to hide for half a year, until he could finish
his "Meistersinger," and with the score raise money for his creditors.
The wagon had already been ordered for the next morning, May 3, 1864,
and Wagner was packing his trunk, when a card was brought up to him with
the inscription: "von Pfistenmeister, Secrétaire aulique de S.M. le roi
de Bavière," and the message that the Baron came by order of the King of
Bavaria, and was very anxious to see him.

King Ludwig II. of Bavaria had declared, while he was still crown
prince, that as soon as he became king he would show the world how
highly he held the genius of Wagner in honor. He kept his word. One of
his first acts was to despatch Baron von Pfistenmeister to search for
Wagner, and not to return without him. He was to tell him that the king
was his most ardent admirer; that he wanted him to come at once to
Munich, to live there in comfort, at the king's expense, to complete his
Nibelung operas, and produce them forthwith. Was it a wonder that when
the Baron had left, Wagner, who was thus suddenly raised from the depth
of despair (he had even meditated suicide) to the height of happiness,
fell on Weissheimer's neck, and wept for joy.

Surely the brain of a Dumas could not have conceived a more romantic
event than this sudden transformation of one who was a fugitive from
debtor's prison into the favorite of a young and enthusiastic king. At
last Wagner had an opportunity to bring forward his music-dramas.
"Tristan and Isolde" was sung at the Munich Opera on June 10, 1865, with
an excellent cast, and Hans von Bülow as conductor. "Die Meistersinger"
followed on June 21,1868. Both these works were received with enthusiasm
by the ever-growing band of Wagner-lovers. His plan of building a
special theatre in Munich for the performance of his Nibelung operas
could not be carried out, however, even with the king's aid; for his
great influence with the king (he was rumored to be even his political
and religious adviser, though this was not true), aroused so much
hostile feeling that Wagner finally decided to have his Nibelung
festival at the old secluded town of Bayreuth.

At the suggestion of the eminent pianist, Carl Taussig, Wagner societies
were formed in the cities of Europe and America to raise funds for this
festival and give Wagner a chance to establish a tradition by showing
the world how his operas should be performed. With the aid of these and
liberal contributions by his ever-devoted king, Wagner was able, after
many trials, tribulations, and postponements, to bring out, at last, his
great Tetralogy, on August 13, 14,16, and 17, of the year 1876. It was
beyond comparison the most interesting and important event in the whole
history of music. Wagner had personally visited the opera-houses
throughout the land and selected the best singers. The audience included
the Emperors of Germany and Brazil, King Ludwig, the Grand Dukes of
Weimar and Baden, eminent composers like Liszt, Grieg, Saint-Saëns, and
many other notable persons. The impression made by the great work was
the deeper because of the unusual circumstances: the theatre specially
constructed after Wagner's novel plan; the amphitheatric seats; the
concealed orchestra; the stereoscopic clearness and nearness of the
stage scenes, etc.

The necessity of charging very high rates ($225 for the four dramas)
naturally prevented the audiences from being large, and the result was
that Wagner had a deficit of $37,000 on his hands as the reward for his
genius and years of business worries. When, however, his last work, the
sublime, semi-religious "Parsifal," was produced in 1882, there was a
balance in his favor. He was then in his sixty-ninth year, and the
exertion of producing this final masterpiece was too great for him. To
recuperate, he went to Venice, where he died on Feb. 13, 1882. King
Ludwig sent a special train to convey his body to Bayreuth, where it was
buried in the garden behind his villa Wahnfried.

Since Wagner's death the Bayreuth festivals have been kept up with
ever-increasing success, under the guidance of his widow Cosima, the
daughter of Liszt (whom he married in 1870, four years after the death
of his first wife), and their son, Siegfried, who has in recent years
also won some success as an opera composer. The performances at Bayreuth
are no longer what they were during Wagner's lifetime, - models for all
the world; but they are still of unique interest. In truth, headquarters
like Bayreuth are no longer needed, for all the German cities now vie
with one another in their efforts to interpret the Wagner operas
according to the composer's intentions; and his influence on other
musicians, which began with the performance of "Lohengrin" under Liszt,
in 1850, is to-day greater than ever, - more powerful, perhaps, than that
ever exerted by any other master.

But while an eminent German critic wrote not long ago that "the
music-drama of Wagner constitutes modern opera," it would be a huge
mistake to make Wagnerism synonymous with modern music in general. Apart
from the opera, there are several other very powerful currents, and
while most of them can be traced to the first half of the nineteenth
century, they are none the less modern. Their principal sources are
Beethoven, Schubert, and Chopin, to whom we must add, in the second half
of the century, Liszt.

The symphonies of Haydn and Mozart are like toy-houses compared with the
massive architecture of Beethoven's. He not only elaborated the forms,
but varied the rhythms, broadened the melody, and deepened the
expression of orchestral music. In his works, too, are to be found the
germs of romanticism, which others, notably Mendelssohn and Schumann,
developed so fascinatingly in their best works. Most of Mendelssohn's
compositions have had their day; but Schumann is still a force in modern
music and will long remain so.

Brahms, the musical Browning, is, musically speaking, a son of Schumann
and a grandson of Beethoven. While even Brahms did not escape the
influence of Wagner, nor that of the romanticists Schubert and Chopin,
still, in his essence, he represents reaction against modern romanticism
and an atavistic return to the spirit of Beethoven. He has been, for
decades, the idol of Wagner's enemies; yet, in truth, there was no
occasion for opposing these two men, since they worked in entirely
different fields. Brahms wrote no operas, while Wagner wrote little but
operas. The real antagonist of Brahms is Liszt, who also worked only for
the concert hall and who represents poetic or pictorial music (programme
music), while Brahms stands for absolute music, or music _per se_,
without any poetic affiliations.

While Schubert in his youth also came under the influence of his great
contemporary, Beethoven, he soon emancipated himself completely from
him, even in the symphony, in which, as Schumann pointed out, he opened
up "an entirely new world" of melody, color, and emotion. His
orchestration is more varied, euphonious, and enchanting than
Beethoven's, and in this direction he did for the symphony what Weber
did for the opera. By using the brass instruments pianissimo, for color
instead of for loudness, he opened a path in which later masters,
including Wagner, eagerly followed him. Schubert was also the first
composer who revealed the exquisite beauty and the great emotional power
of the freest modulation from key to key. His poetic impromptus for
piano became the model for Mendelssohn's "Songs without Words," and the
multitudinous forms of modern short pieces, while his melodious, dainty,
graceful valses were the forerunners of the exquisite dance-music which
subsequently made Vienna famous, and which reached its climax in Johann
Strauss the younger, universally known as "the waltz king."

In all these respects, Schubert was epoch-making; and if the beautiful
details he suggested to his successors up to the present day could be
taken out of their works there would be some surprising blanks.
Especially also is this true in the realm of lyric song, for, as
everybody knows, he practically created the art song as we know and love
it. The greatest of his immediate successors, Schumann and Franz,
cheerfully admitted that they could never have written such songs as
they gave the world but for Schubert, and the same confession might be
made by the latest of the great songwriters, Grieg, Richard Strauss, and
our American MacDowell. Schubert's best songs have never been equalled.
They belong in the realm of modern music quite as much as Wagner's
music-dramas and Liszt's symphonic poems.

Chopin is another composer who, although he died in 1849 (Schubert died
in 1828), is as modern as the masters just named. He was as boldly
original as Schubert, and as great a magician in the art of arousing
deep emotion by means of novel, unexpected modulations. As an originator
of new harmonic progressions he has had only three equals, - Bach,
Schubert, and Wagner. Harmonies as ultra-modern as those of Wagner's
"Parsifal" may be found in some of the mazurkas of Chopin. He was, as
Rubinstein called him, "the soul of the pianoforte." No one before or
after him knew how to make that instrument speak so eloquently. By
ingeniously scattering the notes of a chord over the keyboard while
holding down the pedal, he practically gave the player three or four
hands, and greatly enlarged the harmonic and coloristic possibilities of
the pianoforte. Liszt, Rubinstein, Paderewski, and others have gone
farther still in the same direction, but he showed the way, and most of
his pieces are as delightful and as modern now as they were on the day
when they were written. He wrote a few sonatas, but the majority of his
works are short pieces such as are characteristic of the modern
romantic school.

Before Chopin modernized pianoforte music the world's greatest composers
had been Italians, Germans, and Frenchmen. Chopin's father was a
Frenchman, but his mother was a native of Poland, and he was born in
that country. While his music has the French qualities of elegance and
clearness (which every one admires in the works of Gounod, Bizet,
Massenet, and other Parisian masters), in its essence it is Polish - a
fact of special significance, for from this time on other nations than
the three mentioned - especially the Slavic and Scandinavian - begin to
play a prominent role in music. In this brief sketch only the greatest
names can be considered, - such names as Rubinstein, Tschaikowsky,
Dvorák, Grieg.

Rubinstein was not only one of the greatest pianists, but one of the
most spontaneous and fertile melodists of all times. His frequently
careless workmanship and his foolish, savage hostility to the dominant
Wagner movement prevented him from enjoying the fruits of his rare
genius. He felt that, had it not been for the all-absorbing Wagner, he
himself might have been as popular as Mendelssohn. Although a Russian,
there is little local color in his music, for the enchanting exotic
melodic intervals in his "Persian" songs are Oriental in general, rather
than Russian in particular. Similar exotic intervals may be found in the
"Aïda" of Verdi, a pure Italian. Rubinstein, like Mendelssohn and
Meyerbeer, was a Hebrew. His day will yet come, for his Dramatic and
Ocean symphonies are among the grandest orchestral works in existence.

His countryman, Tschaikowsky, also was neglected during his lifetime;
but since his death he has become, especially in London, almost as
popular as Wagner; and deservedly so, for he was a genius of the
highest type, less in his songs and pianoforte works than in his
symphonies and symphonic poems, which include some of the most inspired
pages in modern music. In some of his compositions there is a barbaric
splendor which proclaims the Russian and delights those who like exotic
novelty in music. Like all the Russians, Tschaikowsky was strongly
influenced by Liszt; indeed, it may be said that in Russia Liszt was
more potent in shaping the course of modern music than even Wagner.

Another Slavic composer, the Bohemian Dvorák, is of special interest to
Americans not only because he is one of the greatest of modern
orchestral writers (a colorist of rare charm), but because he presided
for several years over Mrs. Thurber's National Conservatory of Music in
New York, and there wrote that truly melodious and deeply emotional
work, "From the New World," which has become almost as popular as
Tschaikowsky's "Pathétique." His Bohemian rhythms have a unique charm.

Among the Scandinavian composers the greatest, by far, is Grieg, one of
the most original melodists and harmonists of all times. His songs, in
particular, are destined to immortality; they are among the very best
written since Schubert. Of his pianoforte and chamber music, too, it can
be said that everything is new, free from commonplace, and ultra-modern.
He has written mostly short pieces, and for that reason has had to wait
(like Chopin in his day) a long time for full recognition of his genius,
the critics not having yet got over the foolish habit of measuring
art-works with a yardstick. Like Chopin, moreover, Grieg has had the
ill-fortune of having his most original and individual traits accredited
to his nation and described as "national peculiarities." His music does
contain such peculiarities; but it is necessary to distinguish between

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 3 of 26)