Arthur Symons.

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the beauty of convention. The scenery, for instance, with what an
enchanting leisure it merely walks along before one's eyes, when a
change is wanted! Convention, here as in all plastic art, is founded on
natural truth very closely studied. The rose is first learned, in every
wrinkle of its petals, petal by petal, before that reality is
elaborately departed from, in order that a new, abstract beauty may be
formed out of those outlines, all but those outlines being left out.
And "Parsifal," which is thus solemnly represented before us, has in it,
in its very essence, that hieratic character which it is the effort of
supreme art to attain. At times one is reminded of the most beautiful
drama in the world, the Indian drama "Sakuntala": in that litter of
leaves, brought in so touchingly for the swan's burial, in the old
hermit watering his flowers. There is something of the same universal
tenderness, the same religious linking together of all the world, in
some vague enough, but very beautiful, Pantheism. I think it is beside
the question to discuss how far Wagner's intentions were technically
religious: how far Parsifal himself is either Christ or Buddha, and how
far Kundry is a new Magdalen. Wagner's mind was the mind to which all
legend is sacred, every symbol of divine things to be held in reverence;
but symbol, with him, was after all a means to an end, and could never
have been accepted as really an end in itself. I should say that in
"Parsifal" he is profoundly religious, but not because he intended, or
did not intend, to shadow the Christian mysteries. His music, his
acting, are devout, because the music has a disembodied ecstasy, and the
acting a noble rhythm, which can but produce in us something of the
solemnity of sensation produced by the service of the Mass, and are in
themselves a kind of religious ceremonial.


In saying, as we may truly say, that Wagner made music pictorial, it
should be remembered that there is nothing new in the aim, only in the
continuity of its success. Haydn, in his "Creation," evoked landscapes,
giving them precision by an almost mechanical imitation of cuckoo and
nightingale. Trees had rustled and water flowed in the music of every
composer. But with Wagner it may be said that the landscape of his music
moves before our eyes as clearly as the moving scenery with which he
does but accentuate it; and it is always there, not a decor, but a
world, the natural world in the midst of which his people of the drama
live their passionate life, and a world in sympathy with all their
passion. And in his audible representation of natural sounds and natural
sights he does, consummately, what others have only tried, more or less
well, to do. When, in the past at least, the critics objected to the
realism of his imitative effects, they forgot that all other composers,
at one time or another, had tried to be just as imitative, but had not
succeeded so well in their imitations. Wagner, in his painting, is the
Turner of music. He brings us nature, heroically exalted, full of fiery
splendour, but nature as if caught in a mirror, not arranged, subdued,
composed, for the frame of a picture. He is afraid of no realism,
however mean, because he has confidence in nature as it is, apprehended
with all the clairvoyance of emotion.

Between the abyss of the music, out of which the world rises up with all
its voices, and the rocks and clouds, in which the scenery carries us
onward to the last horizon of the world, gods and men act out the brief
human tragedy, as if on a narrow island in the midst of a great sea. A
few steps this way or that will plunge them into darkness; the darkness
awaits them, however they succeed or fail, whether they live nobly or
ignobly, in the interval; but the interval absorbs them, as if it were
to be eternity, and we see them rejoicing and suffering with an
abandonment to the moment which intensifies the pathos of what we know
is futile. Love, in Wagner, is so ecstatic and so terrible, because it
must compass all its anguish and delight into an immortal moment, before
which there is only a great darkness, and only a great darkness
afterwards. Sorrow is so lofty and so consoling because it is no less
conscious of its passing hour.

And meanwhile action is not everything, as it is for other makers of
drama; is but one among many modes of the expression of life. Those long
narratives, which some find so tedious, so undramatic, are part of
Wagner's protest against the frequently false emphasis of action. In
Wagner anticipation and memory are seen to be often equally intense with
the instant of realisation. Siegfried is living with at least as
powerful and significant a life when he lies under the trees listening
to the song of the birds as when he is killing the dragon. And it is for
this that the "motives," which are after all only the materialising of
memory, were created by Wagner. These motives, by which the true action
of the drama expresses itself, are a symbol of the inner life, of its
preponderance over outward event, and, in their guidance of the music,
their indication of the real current of interest, have a spiritualising
effect upon both music and action, instead of, as was once thought,
materialising both.

Wagner's aim at expressing the soul of things is still further helped by
his system of continuous, unresolved melody. The melody which
circumscribes itself like Giotto's _O_ is almost as tangible a thing as
a statue; it has almost contour. But this melody afloat in the air,
flying like a bird, without alighting for more than a moment's swaying
poise, as the notes flit from strings to voice, and from voice to wood
and wind, is more than a mere heightening of speech: it partakes of the
nature of thought, but it is more than thought; it is the whole
expression of the subconscious life, saying more of himself than any
person of the drama has ever found in his own soul.

It is here that Wagner unites with the greatest dramatists, and
distinguishes himself from the contemporary heresy of Ibsen, whose only
too probable people speak a language exactly on the level of their desks
and their shop-counters. Except in the "Meistersinger," all Wagner's
personages are heroic, and for the most part those supreme sublimations
of humanity, the people of legend, Tannhauser, Tristan, Siegfried,
Parsifal, have at once all that is in humanity and more than is hi
humanity. Their place in a national legend permits them, without
disturbing our critical sense of the probability of things, a superhuman
passion; for they are ideals, this of chivalry, that of love, this of
the bravery, that of the purity, of youth. Yet Wagner employs infinite
devices to give them more and more of verisimilitude; modulating song,
for instance, into a kind of chant which we can almost take for actual
speech. It is thus the more interesting to note the point to which
realism conducts him, the limit at which it stops, his conception of a
spiritual reality which begins where realism leaves off.

And, in his treatment of scenery also, we have to observe the admirable
dexterity of his compromises. The supernatural is accepted frankly with
almost the childish popular belief in a dragon rolling a loathly bulk
painfully, and breathing smoke. But note that the dragon, when it is
thrown back into the pit, falls without sound; note that the combats are
without the ghastly and foolish modern tricks of blood and disfigurement;
note how the crowds pose as in a good picture, with slow gestures, and
without intrusive individual pantomime. As I have said in speaking of
"Parsifal," there is one rhythm throughout; music, action, speech, all
obey it. When Brünnhilde awakens after her long sleep, the music is an
immense thanksgiving for light, and all her being finds expression in a
great embracing movement towards the delight of day. Siegfried stands
silent for I know not what space of time; and it is in silence always,
with a wave-like or flame-like music surging about them, crying out of
the depths for them, that all the lovers in Wagner love at first sight.
Tristan, when he has drunk the potion; Siegmund, when Sieglinde gives
him to drink; Siegfried, when Brünnhilde awakens to the world and to
him: it is always in the silence of rapture that love is given and
returned. And the gesture, subdued into a gravity almost sorrowful (as
if love and the thought of death came always together, the thought of
the only ending of a mortal eternity), renders the inmost meaning of the
music as no Italian gesture, which is the vehemence of first thoughts
and the excitement of the senses, could ever render it. That slow
rhythm, which in Wagner is like the rhythm of the world flowing onwards
from its first breathing out of chaos, as we hear it in the opening
notes of the "Ring," seems to broaden outwards like ripples on an
infinite sea, throughout the whole work of Wagner.

And now turn from this elemental music, in which the sense of all human
things is expressed with the dignity of the elements themselves, to all
other operatic music, in which, however noble the music as music (think
of Gluck, of Mozart, of Beethoven!), it is for the most part fettered to
a little accidental comedy or tragedy, in which two lovers are jealous,
or someone is wrongly imprisoned, or a libertine seduces a few women.
Here music is like a god speaking the language of savages, and lowering
his supreme intellect to the level of their speech. The melodious voice
remains, but the divine meaning has gone out of the words. Only in
Wagner does God speak to men in his own language.



Is it not part of the pedantry of letters to limit the word art, a
little narrowly, to certain manifestations of the artistic spirit, or,
at all events, to set up a comparative estimate of the values of the
several arts, a little unnecessarily? Literature, painting, sculpture,
music, these we admit as art, and the persons who work in them as
artists; but dancing, for instance, in which the performer is at once
creator and interpreter, and those methods of interpretation, such as
the playing of musical instruments, or the conducting of an orchestra,
or acting, have we scrupulously considered the degree to which these
also are art, and their executants, in a strict sense, artists?

If we may be allowed to look upon art as something essentially
independent of its material, however dependent upon its own material
each art may be, in a secondary sense, it will scarcely be logical to
contend that the motionless and permanent creation of the sculptor in
marble is, as art, more perfect than the same sculptor's modelling in
snow, which, motionless one moment, melts the next, or than the dancer's
harmonious succession of movements which we have not even time to
realise individually before one is succeeded by another, and the whole
has vanished from before our eyes. Art is the creation of beauty in
form, visible or audible, and the artist is the creator of beauty in
visible or audible form. But beauty is infinitely various, and as truly
beauty in the voice of Sarah Bernhardt or the silence of Duse as in a
face painted by Leonardo or a poem written by Blake. A dance, performed
faultlessly and by a dancer of temperament, is as beautiful, in its own
way, as a performance on the violin by Ysaye or the effect of an
orchestra conducted by Richter. In each case the beauty is different,
but, once we have really attained beauty, there can be no question of
superiority. Beauty is always equally beautiful; the degrees exist only
when we have not yet attained beauty.

And thus the old prejudice against the artist to whom interpretation in
his own special form of creation is really based upon a
misunderstanding. Take the art of music. Bach writes a composition for
the violin: that composition exists, in the abstract, the moment it is
written down upon paper, but, even to those trained musicians who are
able to read it at sight, it exists in a state at best but half alive;
to all the rest of the world it is silent. Ysaye plays it on his violin,
and the thing begins to breathe, has found a voice perhaps more
exquisite than the sound which Bach heard in his brain when he wrote
down the notes. Take the instrument out of Ysaye's hands, and put it
into the hands of the first violin in the orchestra behind him; every
note will be the same, the same general scheme of expression may be
followed, but the thing that we shall hear will be another thing, just
as much Bach, perhaps, but, because Ysaye is wanting, not the work of
art, the creation, to which we have just listened.

That such art should be fragile, evanescent, leaving only a memory which
can never be realised again, is as pathetic and as natural as that a
beautiful woman should die young. To the actor, the dancer, the same
fate is reserved. They work for the instant, and for the memory of the
living, with a supremely prodigal magnanimity. Old people tell us that
they have seen Desclée, Taglioni; soon no one will be old enough to
remember those great artists. Then, if their renown becomes a matter of
charity, of credulity, if you will, it will be but equal with the renown
of all those poets and painters who are only names to us, or whose
masterpieces have perished.

Beauty is infinitely various, always equally beautiful, and can never be
repeated. Gautier, in a famous poem, has wisely praised the artist who
works in durable material:

Oui, l'oeuvre sort plus gelle
D'une forme au travail
Vers, marbre, onyx, émail.

No, not more beautiful; only more lasting.

Tout passe. L'art robuste
Seul à l'éternité.
Le buste
Survit à la cité.

Well, after all, is there not, to one who regards it curiously, a
certain selfishness, even, in this desire to perpetuate oneself or the
work of one's hands; as the most austere saints have found selfishness
at the root of the soul's too conscious, or too exclusive, longing after
eternal life? To have created beauty for an instant is to have achieved
an equal result in art with one who has created beauty which will last
many thousands of years. Art is concerned only with accomplishment, not
with duration. The rest is a question partly of vanity, partly of
business. An artist to whom posterity means anything very definite, and
to whom the admiration of those who will live after him can seem to
promise much warmth in the grave, may indeed refuse to waste his time,
as it seems to him, over temporary successes. Or he may shrink from the
continuing ardour of one to whom art has to be made over again with the
same energy, the same sureness, every time that he acts on the stage or
draws music out of his instrument. One may indeed be listless enough to
prefer to have finished one's work, and to be able to point to it, as it
stands on its pedestal, or comes to meet all the world, with the
democratic freedom of the book. All that is a natural feeling in the
artist, but it has nothing to do with art. Art has to do only with the
creation of beauty, whether it be in words, or sounds, or colour, or
outline, or rhythmical movement; and the man who writes music is no more
truly an artist than the man who plays that music, the poet who composes
rhythms in words no more truly an artist than the dancer who composes
rhythms with the body, and the one is no more to be preferred to the
other, than the painter is to be preferred to the sculptor, or the
musician to the poet, in those forms of art which we have agreed to
recognise as of equal value.


Poems (Collected Edition in two volumes), 1902.

An Introduction to the Study of Browning, 1886, 1906.

Aubrey Beardsley, 1898, 1905.

The Symbolist Movement in Literature, 1899, 1908.

Cities, 1903.

Studies in Prose and Verse, 1904.

A Book of Twenty Songs, 1905.

Spiritual Adventures, 1905.

The Fool of the World, and Other Poems, 1906.

Studies in Seven Arts, 1906.

William Blake, 1907.

Cities of Italy, 1907.

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Online LibraryArthur SymonsPlays, Acting and Music A Book Of Theory → online text (page 13 of 13)