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different men rolled into one. When he had exhausted
himself in the character of the most pugnacious, ag-
gressive, and sanguine of reformers, he rested himself
as a Pessimist and Nirvanist. In The Ring the quietism



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Wagner's own Explanation 107

of Brynhild's " Peace, peace, thou God " is sublime
in its deep conviction ; but you have only to turn back
the pages to find the irrepressible bustle of Siegfried
and the revelry of the clansmen expressed with equal
zest. Wagner was not a Schopenhaurite every day in
the week, nor even a Wagnerite. His mind changes as
often as his mood. On Monday nothing will ever in-
duce ¬їhim to return to quill-driving : on Tuesday he
begins a new pamphlet. On Wednesday he is im-
patient of the misapprehensions of people who cannot
see how impossible it is for him to preside as a conductor
over platform performances of fragments of his works,
which can only be understood when presented strictly
according to his intention on the stage : on Thursday
he gets up a concert of Wagnerian selections, and
when it is over writes to his friends describing how
profoundly both bandsmen and audience were im-
pressed. On Friday he exults in the self-assertion of
Siegfried's will against all moral ordinances, and is
full of a revolutionary sense of " the universal law of
change and renewal" : on Saturday he has an attack
of holiness, and asks, *' Can you conceive a moral
action of which the root idea is not renunciation ? '*
In short, Wagner can be quoted against himself al-
most without limit, much as Beethoven's adagios could
be quoted against his scherzos if a dispute arose be-
tween two fools as to whether he was a melancholy
man or a merry one.



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THE MUSIC OF THE RING

THE REPRESENTATIVE THEMES

To be able to follow the music of The Ring, all
that is necessary is to become familiar enough with
the brief musical phrases out of which it is built to
recognize them and attach a certain definite significance
to them, exactly as any ordinary Englishman re-
cognizes and attaches a definite significance to the
opening bars of God Save the Queen. There is no
difficulty here : every soldier is expected to learn and
distinguish between difl^erent bugle calls and trumpet
calls; and anyone who can do this can learn and
distinguish between the representative themes or "lead-
ing motives " (Leitmotifs) of The Ring. They are
the easier to learn because they are repeated again and
again; and the main ones are so emphatically im-
pressed on the ear whilst the spectator is looking for
the first time at the objects, or witnessing the first
strong dramatic expression of the ideas they denote,
that the requisite association is formed unconsciously.
The themes are neither long, nor complicated, nor
difficult. Whoever can pick up the flourish of a
coach-horn, the note of a bird, the rhythm of the post-



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The Music of the Ring 109

man's knock or of a horse's gallop, will be at no
loss in picking up the themes of The Ring. No
doubt, when it comes to forming the necessary mental
association with the theme, it may happen that the
spectator may find his ear conquering the tune more
easily than his mind conquers the thought. But for
the most part the themes do not denote thoughts at
all, but either emotions of a quite simple universal
kind, or the sights, sounds and fancies common enough
to be familiar to children. Indeed some of them are as
frankly childish as any of the funny little orchestral
interludes which, in Haydn's Creation, introduce the
horse, the deer, or the worm. We have both the horse
and the worm in The Ring, treated exactly in Haydn's
manner, and with an effect not a whit less ridicul-
ous to superior people who decline to take it good-
humoredly. Even the complaisance of good Wagner-
ites is occasionally rather overstrained by the way in
which Brynhild's allusions to her charger Grani elicit
from the band a little rum-ti-tum triplet which by
itself is in no way suggestive of a horse, although a
continuous rush of such triplets makes a very exciting
musical gallop.

Other themes denote objects which cannot be
imitatively suggested by music : for instance, music
cannot suggest a ring, and cannot suggest gold ; yet
each of these has a representative theme which pervades
the score in all directions. In the case of the gold the
association is established by the very salient way in
which the orchestra breaks into the pretty theme in
the first actlof The Rhine Gold at the moment when



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no The Perfect Wagnerite

the sunrays strike down through the water and light
up the glittering treasure, thitherto invisible. The
reference of the strange little theme of the wishing
cap is equally manifest from the first, since the
spectator's attention is wholly taken up with the
Tarnhelm and its magic when the theme is first
pointedly uttered by the orchestra. The sword theme
is introduced at the end of The Rhine Gold to express
Wotan's hero inspiration ; and I have already men-
tioned that Wagner, unable, when it came to practical
stage management, to forego the appeal to the eye as
well as to the thought, here made Wotan pick up a
sword and brandish it, though no such instruction
appears in the printed score. When this sacrifice to
Wagner's scepticism as to the reality of any appeal
to an audience that is not made through their bodily
sense is omitted, the association of the theme with the
sword is not formed until that point in the first act of
The Valkyries at which Siegmund is left alone by
Hunding's hearth, weaponless, with the assurance that
he will have to fight for his life at dawn with his host.
He recalls then how his father promised him a sword
for his hour of need ; and as he does so, a flicker from
the dying fire is caught by the golden hilt of the
sword in the tree, when the theme immediately begins
to gleam through the quiver of sound from the
orchestra, and only dies out as the fire sinks and
the sword is once more hidden by the darkness.
Later on, this theme, which is never silent whilst
Sieglinda is dwelling on the story of the sword, leaps
out into the most dazzling splendor the band can give



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The Music of the Ring 1 1 1

it when Slegmund triumphantly draws the weapon
from the tree. As it consists of seven notes only, with
a very marked measure, and a melody like a simple
flourish on a trumpet or post horn, nobody capable
of catching a tune can easily miss it.

The Valhalla theme, sounded with solemn grandeur
as the home of the gods first appears to us and to
Wotan at the beginning of the second scene of The
Rhine Gold, also cannot be mistaken. It, too, has a
memorable rhythm ; and its majestic harmonies, far from
presenting those novel or curious problems in poly-
phony of which Wagner still stands suspected by
superstitious people, are just those three simple chords
which festive students who vamp accompaniments to
comic songs " by ear " soon find sufficient for nearly
all the popular tunes in the world.

On the other hand, the ring theme, when it begins
to hurtle through the third scene of The Rhine Gold,
cannot possibly be referred to any special feature in
the general gloom and turmoil of the den of the
dwarfs. It is not a melody, but merely the displaced
metric accent which musicians call syncopation, rung on
the notes of the familiar chord formed by piling three
minor thirds on top of one another (technically, the
chord of the minor ninth, ci-devant diminished
seventh). One soon picks it up and identifies it ; but
it does not get introduced in the unequivocally clear
fashion of the themes described above, or of that
malignant monstrosity, the theme which denotes the
curse on the gold. Consequently it cannot be said that
the musical design of the work is perfectly clear at



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112 The Perfect Wagnerite

the first hearing as regards all the themes ; but it is so
as regards most of them, the main lines being laid
down as emphatically and intelligibly as the dramatic
motives in a Shakespearean play. As to the coyer
subtleties of the score, their discovery provides fresh
interest for repeated hearings, giving The Ring a
Beethovenian inexhaustibility and toughness of wear.
The themes associated with the individual charac-
ters get stamped on the memory easily by the simple
association of the sound of the theme with the appear-
ance of the person indicated. Its appropriateness is
generally pretty obvious. Thus, the entry of the
giants is made to a vigorous stumping, tramping
measure. Mimmy, being a quaint, weird old creature,
has a quaint, weird theme of two thin chords that
creep down eerily one to the other. Gutruna's theme
is pretty and caressing : Gunther's bold, rough, and
commonplace. It is a favorite trick of Wagner's, when
one of his characters is killed on the stage, to make
the theme attached to that character weaken, fail, and
fade away with a broken echo into silence.

THE CHARACTERIZATION

All this, however, is the mere child's play of theme
work. The more complex characters, instead of having
a simple musical label attached to them, have their
characteristic ideas and aspirations identified with
special representative themes as they come into play
in the drama ; and the chief merit of the thematic
structure of The Ring is the mastery with which the



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The Music of the Ring 113

dramatic play of the ideas is reflected in the contra-
puntal play of the themes. We do not find Wotan,
like the dragon or the horse, or, for the matter of
that, like the stage demon in Weber's Freischiitz or
Meyerbeer's Robert the Devil, with one fixed theme
attached to him like a name plate to an umbrella,
blaring unaltered from the orchestra whenever he steps
on the stage. Sometimes we have the Valhalla theme
used to express the greatness of the gods as an idea of
Wotan's. Again, we have his spear, the symbol of his
power, identified with another theme, on which Wagner
finally exercises his favorite device by making it break
and fail, cut through, as it were, by the tearing sound
of the theme identified with the sword, when Sieg-
fried shivers the spear with the stroke of Nothung.
Yet another theme connected with Wotan is the
Wanderer music which breaks with such a majestic
reassurance on the nightmare terror of Mimmy when
Wotan appears at the mouth of his cave in the scene
of the three riddles. Thus not only are there several
Wotan themes, but each varies in its inflexions and
shades of tone color according to its dramatic circum-
stances. So, too, the merry horn tune of the young
Siegfried changes its measure, loads itself with massive
harmonies, and becomes an exordium of the most im-
posing splendor when it heralds his entry as full-
fledged hero in the prologue to Night Falls on The
Gods. Even Mimmy has his two or three themes : the
weird one already described; the little one in triple
measure imitating the tap of his hammer, and fiercely
mocked in the savage laugh of Alberic at his death ;



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114 The Perfect Wagnerite

and finally the crooning tune in which he details all his
motherly kindnesses to the little foundling Siegfried.
Besides this there are all manner of little musical
Winkings and shamblings and whinings, the least hint
of which from the orchestra at any moment instantly
brings Mimmy to mind, whether he is on the stage at
the time or not.

In truth, dramatic characterization in music cannot
be carried very far by the use of representative themes.
Mozart, the greatest of all masters of this art, never
dreamt of employing them ; and, extensively as they
are used in The Ring, they do not enable Wagner to
dispense with the Mozartian method. Apart from the
themes, Siegfried and Mimmy are still as sharply dis-
tinguished from one another by the character of their
music as Don Giovanni and Leporello, Wotan from
Gutruna as Sarastro from Papagena. It is true that the
themes attached to the characters have the same musical
appropriateness as the rest of the music: for example,
neither the Valhalla nor the spear themes could, with-
out the most ludicrous incongruity, be used for the
forest bird or the unstable, delusive Loki ; but for all
that the musical characterization must be regarded as
independent of the specific themes, since the entire
elimination of the thematic system from the score
would leave the characters as well distinguished music-
ally as they are at present.

One more illustration of the way in which the the-
matic system is worked. There are two themes con-
nected with Loki. One is a rapid, sinuous, twisting,
shifty semiquaver figure suggested by the unsubstan-



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The Music of the Ring 115

tial, elusive logic-spinning of the clever one's brain-
craft. The other is the fire theme. In the first act of
Siegfried, Mimmy makes his unavailing attempt to
explain fear to Siegfi-ied. With the horror fresh upon
him of the sort of nightmare into which he has fallen
after the departure of the Wanderer, and which has
taken the form, at once fanciful and symbolic, of a
delirious dread of light, he asks Siegfried whether
he has never, whilst wandering in the forest, had his
heart set hammering in frantic dread by the mysteri-
ous lights of the gloaming. To this, Siegfried, greatly
astonished, replies that on such occasions his heart is
altogether heathy and his sensations perfectly normal.
Here Mimmy's question is accompanied by the tremu-
lous sounding of the fire theme with its harmonies
most oppressively disturbed and troubled; whereas
with Siegfried's reply they become quite clear and
straightforward, making the theme sound bold, bril-
liant, and serene. This is a typical instance of the way
in which the themes are used.

The thematic system gives symphonic interest,
reasonableness, and unity to the music, enabling the
composer to exhaust every aspect and quality of his
melodic material, and, in Beethoven's manner, to work
miracles of beauty, expression and significance with
the briefest phrases. As a set-ofF against this, it has
led Wagner to indulge in repetitions that would be
intolerable in a purely dramatic work. Almost the
first thing that a dramatist has to learn in constructing
a play is that the persons must not come on the stage
in the second act and tell one another at great length



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1 1 6 The Perfect Wagnerite

what the audience has already seen pass before its eyes
in the first act. The extent to which Wagner has been
seduced into violating this rule by his affection for his
themes is startling to a practised playwright. Siegfried
inherits from Wotan a mania for autobiography which
leads him to inflict on everyone he meets the story of
Minimy and the dragon, although the audience have
spent a whole evening witnessing the events he is
^ narrating. Hagen tells the story to Gunther ; and
that same night Alberic's ghost tells it over again to
Hagen, who knows it already as well as the audience.
Siegfried tells the Rhinemaidens as much of it as they
will listen to, and then keeps telling it to his hunting
companions until they kill him. Wotan's autobiography
on the second evening becomes his biography in the
mouths of the Norns on the fourth. The little that the
Norns add to it is repeated an hour later by Valtrauta.
How far all this repetition is tolerable is a matter of
individual taste. A good story will bear repetition;
and if it has woven into it such pretty tunes as the
Rhinemaidens' yodel, Mimmy's tinkling anvil beat,
the note of the forest bird, the call of Siegfried's horn,
and so on, it will bear a good deal of rehearing. Those
who have but newly learnt their way through The
Ring will not readily admit that there is a bar too
much repetition.

But how if you find some anti -Wagnerite raising the
question whether the thematic system does not enable
the composer to produce a music drama with much less
musical fertility than was required from his predecessors
for the composition of operas under the old system !



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The Music of the Ring 117

Such discussions are not within the scope of this
little book. But as the book is now finished (for really
nothing more need be said about The Ring), I am
quite willing to add a few pages of ordinary musical
criticism, partly to please the amateurs who enjoy
that sort of reading, and partly for the guidance of
those who wish to obtain some hints to help them
through such critical small talk about Wagner and
Bayreuth as may be forced upon them at the dinner
table or between the acts.



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THE OLD AND THE NEW MUSIC

In the old-fashioned opera every separate number
involved the composition of a fresh melody ; but it is
quite a mistake to suppose that this creative effort
extended continuously throughout the number from
the first to the last bar. When a musician composes
according to a set metrical pattern, the selection of the
pattern and the composition of the first stave (a stave
in music corresponds to a line in verse) generally
completes the creative effort. All the rest follows more
or less mechanically to fill up the pattern, an air being
very like a wall-paper design in this respect. Thus the
second stave is usually a perfectly obvious consequence
of the first ; and the third and fourth an exact or very
slightly varied repetition of the first and second. For
example, given the first line of Pop Goes the Weasel
or Yankee Doodle, any musical cobbler could supjdy
the remaining three. There is very little tune turning
of this kind in The Ring ; and it is noteworthy that
where it does occur, as in Siegmund's^spring song and
Mimmy's croon, " Ein zullendes Kind," the effect of
the symmetrical staves, recurring as a mere matter of



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The Old and the New Music 119

form, is perceptibly poor and platitudinous compared
with the free flow of melody which prevails else-
where.

The other and harder way of composing is to take a
straji of free melody, and ring every variety of change
of nood upon it as if it were a thought that some-
times brought hope, sometimes melancholy, sometimes
exultition, sometimes raging despair and so on. To
take several themes of this kind, and weave them to-
gethei into a rich musical fabric passing panoramically
before the ear with a continually varying flow of
sentiment, is the highest feat of the musician : it is in
this wiy that we get the fugue of Bach and the sym-
phony of Beethoven. The admittedly inferior musician
is the one who, like Auber and OflFenbach, not to
mention our purveyors of drawingroom ballads, can
produce an unlimited quantity of symmetrical tunes,
but cannot weave themes symphonically.

When this is taken into accoimt, it will be seen
that the fact that there is a great deal of repetition in
The Ring does not distinguish it from the old-fashioned
operas. The real diflFerence is that in them the repeti-
tioi was used for the mechanical completion of con-
ver.tional metric patterns, whereas in The Ring the re-
cun-ence of the theme is an intelligent and interesting
corsequence of the recurrence of the dramatic phen-
omenon which it denotes. It should be remembered
also that the substitution of symphonically treated
themes for tunes with symmetrical eight -bar staves
and the like, has always been the rule in the highest
forms of music. To describe it, or be affected by it.



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I20 The Perfect Wagnerite

as an abandonment of melody, is to confess oneself
an Ignoramus conversant only with dance tunes and
ballads.

The sort of stuff a purely dramatic musician pro-
duces when he hampers himself with metric patterns
in composition is not unlike what might have resdted
in literature if Carlyle (for example) had been com-
pelled by convention to write his historical stories in
rhymed stanzas. That is to say, it limits his fertility to
an occasional phrase, and three quarters of the time
exercises only his barren ingenuity in fitting rlymes
and measures to it. In literature the great masters of
the art have long emancipated themselves from metric
patterns. Nobody claims that the hierarchy of modern
impassioned prose writers, from Bunyan to Raskin,
should be placed below the writers of pretty lyrics,
from Herrick to Mr Austin Dobson. Only in drimatic
literature do we find the devastating tradition of blank
verse still lingering, giving factitious prestige to the
platitudes of dullards, and robbing the dramatic stjrle
of the genuine poet of its full natural endowment of
variety, force and simplicity.

This state of things, as we have seen, finds its pir-
allel in musical art, since music can be written in pr^se
themes or in versified tunes ; only here nobody dreans
of disputing the greater difficulty of the prose forms,
and the comparative triviality of versification. Yet in
dramatic music, as in dramatic literature, the traditbn
of versification clings with the same pernicious results ;
and the opera, like the tragedy, is conventionally made
like a wall paper. The theatre seems doomed to be in



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The Old and the New Music 121

all things the last refuge of the hankering after cheap
prettiness in art.

Unfortunately this confusion of the decorative with
the dramatic element in both literature and music is
maintained by the example of great masters in both
arts. Very touching dramatic expression can be com-
bined with decorative symmetry of versification when
the artist happens to possess both the decorative and
dramatic gifts, and to have cultivated both hand in
hand. Shakespear and Shelley, for instance, far from
being hampered by the conventional obligation to write
their dramas in verse, found it much the easiest and
cheapest way of producing them. But if Shakespear had
been compelled by custom to write entirely in prose,
all his ordinary dialogue might have been as good as
the first scene of As You Like It ; and all his lofty
passages as fine as " What a piece of work is Man ! ",
thus sparing us a great deal of blank verse in which
the thought is commonplace, and the expression, though
catchingly turned, absurdly pompous. The Cenci might
either have been a serious drama or might never have
been written at all if Shelley had not been allowed to carry
ofFits unreality by Elizabethan versification. Still, both
poets have achieved many passages in which the decora-
tive and dramatic qualities are not only reconciled, but
seem to enhance one another to a pitch otherwise un-
attainable.

Just so in music. When we find, as in the case of
Mozart, a prodigiously gifted and arduously trained
musician who is also, by a happy accident, a dramatist
comparable to Moliere, the obligation to compose



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122 The Perfect Wagnerite

operas in versified numbers not only does not embarrass
him, but actually saves him trouble and thought. No
matter what his dramatic mood may be, he expresses
it in exquisite musical verses more easily than a drama-
tist of ordinary singleness of talent can express it in
prose. Accordingly, he too, like Shakespear and Shelley,
leaves versified airs, like Dalla sua pace^ or Gluck's
Che faro senza EuridicCy or Weber's LeisCy leisCy which
are as dramatic from the first note to the last as the
untrammelled themes of The Ring. Accordingly, it
used to be professorially demanded that all dramatic
music should present the same double aspect. The de-
mand was unreasonable, since symmetrical versification
is no merit in dramatic music : one might as well stipu-
late that a dinner fork should be constructed so as to
serve also as a tablecloth. It was an ignorant de-
mand too, because it is not true that the composers of
these exceptional examples were always, or even often,
able to combine dramatic expression with symmetrical
versification. Side by side with Dalla sua pace we have
// mio tesoro and Non mi diVy in which exquisitely ex-
pressive opening phrases lead to decorative passages
which are as grotesque from the dramatic point of view
as the music which Alberic sings when he is slipping
and sneezing in the Rhine mud is from the decorative
point of view. Further, there is to be considered the
mass of shapeless " dry recitative " which separates these
symmetrical numbers, and which might have been raised
to considerable dramatic and musical importance had
it been incorporated into a continuous musical fabric by
thematic treatment. Finally, Mozart's most dramatic


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Online LibraryBraun Illustrating Company Phoenix Publishing CompanyPen and sunlight sketches of Omaha and environs: Handsomely illustrated → online text (page 8 of 10)