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The Old and the New Music 123

finales and concerted numbers are more or less in son-
ata form, like symphonic movements, and must there-
fore be classed as musical prose. And sonata form dic-
tates repetitions and recapitulations from which the
perfectly unconventional form adopted by Wagner is
free. On the whole, there is more scope for both repeti-
tion and convention in the old form than in the new ;
and the poorer a composer's musical gift is, the surer
he is to resort to the eighteenth century patterns to
eke out his invention.



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THE NINETEENTH CENTURY

When Wagner was born in 1813, music had newly
become the most astonishing, the most fascinating, the
most miraculous art in the world. Mozart's Don Gio-
vanni had made all musical Europe conscious of the
enchantments of the modern orchestra and of the per-
fect adaptability of music to the subtlest needs of the
dramatist. Beethoven had shown how those inarticulate
mood-poems which surge through men who have, like
himself, no exceptional command of words, can be
written down in music as symphonies. Not that Mozart
and Beethoven invented these applications of their art ;
but they were the first whose works made it clear that
the dramatic and subjective powers of sound were en-
thralling enough to stand by themselves quite apart
from the decorative musical structures of which they
had hitherto been a mere feature. After the finales in
Figaro and Don Giovanni, the possibility of the modern
music drama lay bare. After the symphonies of Beet-
hoven it was certain that the poetry that lies too deep
for words does not lie too deep for music, and that
the vicissitudes of the soul, from the roughest fun to
the loftiest aspiration, can make symphonies without



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The Nineteenth Century 125

the aid of dance tunes. As much, perhaps, will be claimed
for the preludes and fugues of Bach ; but Bach's method
was unattainable: his compositions were wonderful
webs of exquisitely beautiful Gothic traceries in sound,
quite beyond all ordinary human talent. Beethoven's
far blunter craft was thoroughly popular and practic-
able : not to save his soul could he have drawn one
long Gothic line in sound as Bach could, much less
have woven several of them together with so apt a
harmony that even when the composer is unmoved
its progressions saturate themselves with the emotion
which (as modern critics are a little apt to forget) springs
as warmly from our delicately touched admiration as
from our sympathies, and sometimes makes us give
a composer credit for pathetic intentions which he does
not entertain, just as aboy imagines atreasure of tender-
ness and noble wisdom in the beauty of a woman. Be-
sides, Bach set comic dialogue to music exactly as he
set the recitatives of the Passion, there being for him,
apparently, only one recitative possible, and that the
musically best. He reserved the expression of his merry
mood for the regular set numbers in which he could
make one of his wonderful contrapuntal traceries of
pure ornament with the requisite gaiety of line and
movement. Beethoven bowed to no ideal of beauty :
he only sought the expression for his feeling. To him
a joke was a joke ; and if it sounded funny in music
he was satisfied. Until the old habit of judging all music
by its decorative symmetry had worn out, musicians
were shocked by his symphonies, and, misunderstand-
ing his integrity, openly questioned his sanity. But to



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126 The Perfect Wagnerite

those who were not looking for pretty new sound
patterns, but were longing for the expression of their
moods in music, he achieved a revelation, because, being
single in his aim to express his own moods, he antici-
pated with revolutionary courage and frankness all the
moods of the rising generations of the nineteenth cen-
tury.

The result was inevitable. In the nineteenth century
it was no longer necessary to be a born pattern designer
in sound to be a composer. One had but to be a drama-
tist or a poet completely susceptible to the dramatic
and descriptive powers of sound. A race of literary
and theatrical musicians appeared ; and Meyerbeer,
the first of them, made an extraordinary impression.
The frankly delirious description of his Robert the
Devil in Balzac's short story entitled Gambara, and
Goethe's astonishingly mistaken notion that he could
have composed music for Faust, show how completely
the enchantments of the new dramatic music upset the
judgment of artists of eminent discernment. Meyer-
beer was, people said (old gentlemen still say so in
Paris), the successor of Beethoven : he was, if a less
perfect musician than Mozart, a profounder genius.
Above all, he was original and daring. Wagner him-
self raved about the duet in the fourth act of Les
Huguenots as wildly as anyone.

Yet all this effect of originality and profundity was
produced by a quite limited talent for turning striking
phrases, exploiting certain curious and rather catching
rhythms and modulations, and devising suggestive or
eccentric instrumentation. On its decorative side, it



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The Nineteenth Century 127

was the same phenomenon in music as the Baroque
school in architecture : an energetic struggle to en-
liven organic decay by mechanical oddities and
novelties. Meyerbeer was no symphonist. He could
not apply the thematic system to his striking phrases,
and so had to cobble them into metric patterns
in the old style; and as he was no "absolute
musician" either, he hardly got his metric patterns
beyond mere quadrille tunes, which were either wholly
undistinguished, or else made remarkable by certain
brusqueries which, in the true rococo manner, owed
their singularity to their senselessness. He could pro-
duce neither a thorough music drama nor a charming
opera. But with all this, and worse, Meyerbeer had some
genuine dramatic energy, and even passion ; and some-
times rose to the occasion in a manner which, whilst
the imagination of his contemporaries remained on fire
with the novelties of dramatic music, led them to over-
rate him with an extravagance which provoked Wagner
to conduct a long critical campaign against his leader-
ship. Thirty years ago this campaign was inevitably
ascribed to the professional jealousy of a disappointed
rival. Nowadays young people cannot understand how
anyone could ever have taken Meyerbeer's influence
seriously. Those who remember how his reputation
stood half a century ago, and who realize what a no-
thoroughfare the path he opened proved to be, even
to himself, know how inevitable and how impersonal
Wagner's attack was.

Wagner was the literary musician par excellence.
He could not, like Mozart and Beethoven, produce



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128 The Perfect Wagnerite

decorative tone structures independently of any dram-
atic or poetic subject matter, because, that craft being
no longer necessary for his purpose, he did not cultivate
it. As Shakespear, compared with Tennyson, appears
to have an exclusively dramatic talent, so exactly does
Wagner compared with Mendelssohn. On the other
hand, he had not to go to third rate literary hacks for
" librettos " to set to music : he produced his own
dramatic poems, thus giving dramatic integrity to opera,
and making symphony articulate. A Beethoven sym-
phony (except the articulate part of the ninth) expresses
noble feeling, but not thought : it has moods, but no
ideas. Wagner added thought and produced the music
drama. Mozart's loftiest opera, his Ring, so to speak.
The Magic Flute, has a libretto which, though none
the worse for seeming, like The Rhine Gold, the mer-
est Christmas tomfoolery to shallow spectators, is the
product of a talent immeasurably inferior to Mozart's
own. The libretto of Don Giovanni is coarse and tri-
vial : its transfiguration by Mozart's music may be a
marvel ; but nobody will venture to contend that such
transfigurations, however seductive, can be as satis-
factory as tone poetry or drama in which the musician
and the poet are at the same level. Here, then, we have
the simple secret of Wagner's pre-eminence as a dram-
atic musician. He wrote the poems as well as composed
the music of his " stage festival plays," as he called
them.

Up to a certain point in his career Wagner paid
the penalty of undertaking two arts instead of one.
Mozart had his trade as a musician at his fingers'



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The Nineteenth Century 129

ends when he was twenty, because he had served an
arduous apprenticeship to that trade and no other.
Wagner was very far from having attained equal
mastery at thirty-five : indeed he himself has told us
that not until he had passed the age at which Mozart
died did he compose with that complete spontaneity
of musical expression which can only be attained by
winning entire freedom from all preoccupation with
the difficulties of technical processes. But when that
time came, he was not only a consummate musician,
like Mozart, but a dramatic poet and a critical and
philosophical essayist, exercising a considerable influ-
ence on his century. The sign of this consummation
was his ability at last to play with his art, and thus to
add to his already famous achievements in sentimental
drama that lighthearted art of comedy of which the
greatest masters, like Moliere and Mozart, are so
much rarer than the tragedians and sentimentalists.
It was then that he composed the first two acts of Sieg-
fried, and later on The Mastersingers, a professedly
comedic work, and a quite Mozartian garden of
melody, hardly credible of the composer of the com-
paratively gawky Tannhauser. Only, as no man ever
learns to do one thing by doing something else, how-
ever closely allied the two things may be, Wagner
still produced no music independently of his poems.
The overture to The Mastersingers is delightful when
you know what it is all about; but only those to
whom it came as a concert piece without any such
clue, and who judged its reckless counterpoint by the
standard of Bach and of Mozart's Magic Flute over-



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130 The Perfect Wagnerite

ture, can realize how atrocious it used to sound to
musicians of the old school. When I first heard it,
with the clear march of the polyphony in Bach's B
minor Mass fresh in my memory, I confess I thought
that the parts had got dislocated, and that some of
the band were half a bar behind the others. Perhaps
they were ; but now that I am familiar with the work,
and with Wagner's harmony, I can still quite under-
stand certain passages producing that effect on an ad-
mirer of Bach even when performed with perfect
accuracy.



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THE MUSIC OF THE FUTURE

The success of Wagner has been, so prodigious
that to his dazzled disciples it seems that the age of
what he called " absolute " music must be at an end, and
the musical future destined to be an exclusively Wag-
nerian one inaugurated at Bayreuth. All great geniuses
produce this illusion. Wagner did not begin a move-
ment : he consummated it. He was the summit of the
nineteenth century school of dramatic music in the
same sense as Mozart was the summit (the word is
Gounod's) of the eighteenth century school. And
those who attempt to carry on his Bayreuth tradition
will assuredly share the fate of the forgotten purveyors
of second hand Mozart a hundred years ago. As to
the expected supersession of absolute music, it is suffi-
cient to point to the fact that Germany produced two
absolute musicians of the first class during Wagner's
lifetime: one, the greatly gifted Goetz, who died
young; the other, Brahms, whose absolute musical
endowment was as extraordinary as his thought
was commonplace. Wagner had for him the con-
tempt of the original thinker for the man of second
hand ideas, and of the strenuously dramatic mu-



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132 The Perfect Wagnerite

sician for mere brute musical faculty; but though
his contempt was perhaps deserved by the Triumph-
lieds, and Schicksdslieds, and Elegies and Requiems
in which Brahms took his brains so seriously, nobody
can listen to Brahms' natural utterance of the richest
absolute music, especially in his chamber compositions,
without rejoicing in his amazing gift. A reaction to
absolute music, starting partly from Brahms, and
partly from such revivals of medieval music as those
of De Lange in Holland and Mr Arnold Dolmetsch
in England, is both likely and promising ; whereas
there is no more hope in attempts to out- Wagner
Wagner in music drama than there was in the old
attempts — or for the matter of that, the new ones —
to make Handel the starting point of a great school
of oratorio.



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BAYREUTH

When the Bayreuth Festival Playhouse was at last
completed, and opened in 1876 with the first per-
formance of The Ring, European society was com-
pelled to admit that Wagner was "a success." Royal
personages, detesting his music, sat out the perform-
ances in the row of boxes set apart for princes. They
all complimented him on the astonishing "push" with
which, in the teeth of all obstacles, he had turned a
fabulous and visionary project into a concrete com-
mercial reality, patronized by the public at a pound a
head. It is as well to know that these congratulations
had no other effect upon Wagner than to open his
eyes to the fact that the Bayreuth experiment, as an
attempt to evade the ordinary social and commercial
conditions of theatrical enterprise, was a failure. His J
own account of it contrasts the reality with his inten-
tions in a vein which would be bitter if it were not so
humorous. The precautions taken to keep the seats
out of the hands of the frivolous public and in the
hands of earnest disciples, banded together in little
Wagner Societies throughout Europe, had ended in
their forestalling by ticket speculators and their sale



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134 The Perfect Wagnerite

to just the sort of idle globe-trotting tourists against
whom the temple was to have been strictly closed.
The money, supposed to be contributed by the faith-
ful, was begged by energetic subscription-hunting
ladies from people who must have had the most gro-
tesque misconceptions of the composer's aims — among
others, the Khedive of Egypt and the Sultan of Turkey !

The only change that has occurred since then is
that subscriptions are no longer needed; for the
Festival Playhouse apparently pays its own way now,
and is commercially on the same footing as any other
theatre. The only qualification required from the
visitor is money. A Londoner spends twenty pounds
on a visit : a native Bayreuther spends one pound. In
either case " the Folk," on whose behalf Wagner turned
out in 1 849, are effectually excluded ; and the Festival
Playhouse must therefore be classed as infinitely less
Wagnerian in its character than Hampton Court
Palace. Nobody knew this better than Wagner ; • and
nothing can be further off the mark than to chatter about
Bayreuth as if it had succeeded in escaping from the
conditions of our modern civilization any more than
the Grand Opera in Paris or London.

Within these conditions, however, it effected a new
departure in that excellent German institution, the
summer theatre. Unlike our opera houses, which are
constructed so that the audience may present a splen-
did pageant to the delighted manager, it is designed
to secure an uninterrupted view of the stage, and an
undisturbed hearing of the music, to the audience.
The dramatic purpose of the performances is taken



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Bayreuth 135

with entire and elabroate seriousness as the sole pur-
pose of them ; and the management is jealous of the
reputation of Wagner. The commercial success which
has followed this policy shows that the public wants
summer theatres of the highest class. There is no
reason why the experiment should not be tried in
England. If our enthusiasm for Handel can support
Handel Festivals, laughably dull, stupid and anti-
Handelian as these choral monstrosities are, as well as
annual provincial festivals on the same model, there is
no likelihood of a Wagner Festival failing. Suppose,
for instance, a Wagner theatre were built at Hampton
Court or on Richmond Hill, not to say Margate pier,
so that we could have a delightful summer evening
holiday, Bayreuth fashion, passing the hours between
the acts in the park or on the river before sunset, is it
seriously contended that there would be any lack of
visitors ? If a little of the money that is wasted on ^
grand stands, EifFel towers, and dismal Halls by the
Sea, all as much tied to brief annual seasons as Bay-
reuth, were applied in this way, the profit would be
far more certain and the social utility prodigiously
greater. Any English enthusiasm for Bayreuth that
does not take the form of clamor for a Festival play-
house in England may be set aside as mere pilgrimage
mania.

Those who go to Bayreuth never repent it, although
the performances there are often far from delect-
able. The singing is sometimes t6lerable, and sometimes
abominable. Some of the singers are mere animated beer
casks, too lazy and conceited to practise the self-con-



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136 The Perfect Wagnerite

trol and physical training that is expected as a matter
of course from an acrobat, a jockey or a pugilist. The
women's dresses are prudish and absurd. It is true
that Kundry no longer wears an early Victorian ball
dress with "ruchings," and that Freia has been pro-
vided with a quaintly modish copy of the flowered
gown of Spring in Botticelli's famous picture ; but the
mailclad Brynhild still climbs the moimtains with
her legs carefully hidden in a long white skirt, and
looks so exactly like Mrs Leo Hunter as Minerva
that it is quite impossible to feel a ray of illusion
whilst looking at her. The ideal of womanly beauty
aimed at reminds Englishmen of the barmaids of the
seventies, when the craze for golden hair was at its
worst. Further, whilst Wagner's stage directions are
sometimes disregarded as imintelligently as at Covent
Garden, an intolerably old-fashioned tradition of half
rhetorical, half historical-pictorial attitude and gesture
prevails. The most striking moments of the drama are
conceived as tableaux vivants with posed models,
instead of as passages of action, motion and life.

I need hardly add that the supernatural powers
of control attributed by credulous pilgrims to Ma-
dame Wagner do not exist. Prima donnas and tenors
are as unmanageable at Bayreuth as anywhere else.
Casts are capriciously changed ; stage business is in-
sufficiently rehearsed; the public are compelled to
listen to a Brynhild or Siegfried of fifty when they
have carefully arranged to see one of twenty-five,
much as in any ordinary opera house. Even the con-
ductors upset the arrangements occasionally. On the



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Bayreuth 137

other hand, if we leave the vagaries of the stars out
of account, we may safely expect always that in
thoroughness of preparation of the chief work of
the season, in strenuous artistic pretentiousness, in
pious conviction that the work is of such enormous
importance as to be worth doing well at all costs, the
Bayreuth performances will deserve their reputation.
The band is placed out of sight of the audience, with
the more formidable instruments beneath the stage, so
that the singers have not to sing through the brass.
The effect is quite perfect.

BAYREUTH IN ENGLAND

I purposely dwell on the faults of Bayreuth in
order to show that there is no reason in the world
why as good and better performances of The Ring
should not be given in England. Wagner's scores are
now before the world ; and neither his widow nor his
son can pretend to handle them with greater authority
than any artist who feels the impulse to interpret
them. Nobody will ever know what Wagner himself
thought of the artists who established the Bayreuth
tradition: he was obviously not in a position to
criticize them. For instance, had Rubini survived to
create Siegmund, it is quite certain that we should not
have had from Wagner's pen so amusing and vivid a
description as we have of his Ottavio in the old Paris
days. Wagner was under great obligations to the
heroes and heroines of 1876; and he naturally said
nothing to disparage their triumphs ; but there is no



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138 The Perfect Wagnerite

reason to believe that all or indeed any of them
satisfied him as Schnorr of Carolsfeld satisfied him
as Tristan, or Schr5der Devrient as Fidelio. It is just
as likely as not that the next Schnorr or Schr5der may
arise in England. If that shoxild actually happen,
neither of them will need any further authority than
their own genius and Wagner's scores for their
guidance. Certainly the less their spontaneous im-
pulses are sophisticated by the very stagey traditions
which Bayreuth is handing down from the age of
Crummies, the better.

WAGNERIAN SINGERS

No nation need have much difficulty in producing
a race of Wagnerian singers. With the single ex-
ception of Handel, no composer has written music
so well calculated to make its singers vocal athletes
as Wagner. Abominably as the Germans sing, it is
astonishing how they thrive physically on his leading
parts. His secret is the Handelian secret. Instead of
specializing his vocal parts after the manner of Verdi
and Gounod for high sopranos, screaming tenors, and
high baritones with an effective compass of about a
fifth at the extreme tiptop of their ranges, and for
contraltos with chest registers forced all over their
compass in the manner of music hall singers, he em-
ploys the entire range of the human voice freely,
demanding from everybody very nearly two effective
octaves, so that the voice is well developed aU over,
and one part of it relieves the other healthily and



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Bayreuth 139

continually. He uses extremely high notes very spar-
ingly, and is especially considerate in the matter of
instrumental accompaniment. Even when the singer
appears to have all the thunders of the full orchestra
raging against him, a glance at the score will show
that he is well heard, not because of any exceptionally
stentorian power in his voice, but because Wagner
meant him to be heard and took the greatest care not
to overwhelm him. Such brutal opacities of accompani-
ment as we find in Rossini's Stabat or Verdi's Trova-
tore, where the strings play a rum-tum accompani-
ment whilst the entire wind band blares away, fortis-
simo, in unison with the imfortunate singer, are never
to be found in Wagner's work. Even in an ordinary
opera house, with the orchestra ranged directly be-
tween the singers and the audience, his instrumentation
is more transparent to the human voice than that of
any other composer since Mozart. At the Bayreuth
Buhnenfestspiclhaus, with the brass under the stage,
it is perfectly so.

On every point, then, a Wagner theatre and
Wagner festivals are much more generally practic-
able than the older and more artificial forms of
dramatic music. A presentable performance of The
Ring is a big undertaking only in the sense in which
the construction of a railway is a big undertaking :
that is, it requires plenty of work and plenty of
professional skill; but it does not, like the old
operas and oratorios, require those extraordinary
vocal gifts which only a few individuals scattered here
and there throughout Europe are born with. Singers



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140 The Perfect Wagnerite

who could never execute the roulades of Semiramis,
Assur, and Arsaces in Rossini's Semiramide, could
sing the parts of Brynhild, Wotan and Erda without
missing a note. Any Englishman can understand
this if he considers for a moment the difference
between a Cathedral service and an Italian opera at
Covent Garden. The service is a much more serious
matter than the opera. Yet provincial talent is sufficient
for it, if the requisite industry and devotion are forth-
coming. Let us admit that geniuses of European
celebrity are indispensable at the Opera (though I
know better, having seen lusty troopers and porters,
without art or manners, accepted by fashion as prin-
cipal tenors at that institution during the long interval
between Mario and Jean de Reszke) ; but let us
remember that Bayreuth has recruited its Parsifals
from the peasantry, and that the artisans of a village
in the Bavarian Alps are capable of a famous and


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Online LibraryBraun Illustrating Company Phoenix Publishing CompanyPen and sunlight sketches of Omaha and environs: Handsomely illustrated → online text (page 9 of 10)