George P. (George Putnam) Upton.

The standard operas: their plots, their music, and their composers online

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one of extraordinary power, and calls for the highest vocal
and dramatic qualities in order to make it effective.
From this point on, the tragedy hastens. There is the
struggle once more with the sirens, and amid Wolfram's
touching appeals and Tannhauser's exclamations is heard
the enticement of the Venus music. But at the name
" Elizabeth " it dies away. The mists grow denser as the
magic crew disappears, and through them a light is seen
upon the Wartburg. The tolling of bells and the songs of
mourners are heard as the cortege approaches. As Tann-
hauser dies, the Pilgrims' Chorus again rises in ecstasy,
closing with a mighty shout of " Hallelujah ! " and the
curtain falls.


"Lohengrin," romantic opera in three acts, words by
the composer, was first produced at Weimar, August 28,
1850, the anniversary of Goethe's birthday, under the


direction of Franz Liszt, and with the following cast of the
leading parts :

Lohengrin Herr Beck.

Telramund Herr Milde.

Ring Herr Hofer.

Elsa Frau Agathe.

Ortmd . . . . Frl. Fastlinger.

" Lohengrin " was begun in Paris, and finished in
Switzerland during the period in which Wagner was direc-
tor of the musical society as well as of the orchestra at the
city theatre of Zurich, whither he had fled to escape the
penalties for taking part in the political agitations and
subsequent insurrection of 1849. Though it manifests a
still further advancement in the development of his sys-
tem, it was far from being composed according to the
abstract rules he had laid down. He says explicitly on
this point, in his " Music of the Future " : " The first
three of these poems — 'The Flying Dutchman,' 'Tann-
hauser,' and ' Lohengrin ' — were written by me, their
music composed, and all (with the exception of ' Lohen-
grin ') performed upon the stage, before the composition
of my theoretical writings."

The story of Lohengrin, the son of Parsifal, upon which
Wagner has based his drama, is taken from many sources,
the old Celtic legend of King Arthur, his knights, and the
Holy Grail being mixed with the distinctively German
legend of a knight who arrives in his boat drawn by a
swan. The version used by Wagner is supposed to be
told by Wolfram von Eschenbach, the Minnesinger, at one
of the Wartburg contests, and is in substance as follows :
Henry I., King of Germany, known as " the Fowler," ar-
rives at Antwerp for the purpose of raising a force to help
him expel the Hungarians, who are threatening his domin-
ions. He finds Brabant in a condition of anarchy. Gott-
fried, the young son of the late Duke, has mysteriously



































disappeared, and Telramund, the husband of Ortrud,
daughter of the Prince of Friesland, claims the dukedom.
The claimant openly charges Elsa, sister of Gottfried, with
having murdered him to obtain the sovereignty, and she
is summoned before the King to submit her cause to the
ordeal of battle between Telramund and any knight whom
she may name. She describes a champion whom she has
seen in a vision, and conjures him to appear in her behalf.
After a triple summons by the heralds, he is seen ap-
proaching on the Scheldt, in a boat drawn by a swan.
Before the combat Lohengrin and Elsa are betrothed, he
naming the condition that she shall never question him as
to his name or race. She assents, and the combat results
in Telramund's defeat and public disgrace.

In the second act the bridal ceremonies occur, prior to
which, moved by Ortrud's entreaties, Elsa promises to
obtain a reprieve for Telramund from the sentence which
has been pronounced against him. At the same time
Ortrud takes advantage of her success to instil doubts into
Elsa's mind as to her future happiness and the faithfulness
of Lohengrin. In the next scene, as the bridal cortege is
about to enter the minster, Ortrud claims the right of pre-
cedence by virtue of her rank, and Telramund publicly
accuses Lohengrin of sorcery. The faith of Elsa, how-
ever, is not shaken. The two conspirators are ordered to
stand aside, the train enters the church, and Elsa and
Lohengrin are united.

The third act opens in the bridal chamber. The seeds
of curiosity and distrust which Ortrud has sown in Elsa's
mind have ripened, and in spite of her conviction that it
will destroy her happiness, she questions Lohengrin with
increasing vehemence, at last openly demanding to know
his secret. At this juncture Telramund breaks into
the apartment with four followers, intending to take the
life of Lohengrin. A single blow of the knight's sword


stretches him lifeless. He then places Elsa in the charge
of her ladies and orders them to take her to the presence
of the King, whither he also repairs. Compelled by his
wife's unfortunate rashness, he discloses himself as the son
of Parsifal, Knight of the Holy Grail, and announces that
he must now return to its guardianship. His swan once
more appears, and as he steps into the boat he bids Elsa
an eternal farewell. Before he sails away, however, Ortrud
declares to the wondering crowd that the swan is Elsa's
brother, whom she has changed into this form, and
who would have been released but for Elsa's curiosity.
Lohengrin at once disenchants the swan, and Gottfried
appears and rushes into his sister's arms. A white dove
flies through the air and takes the place of the swan, and
Lohengrin sails away as Elsa dies in the embrace of her
newly found brother.

The Vorspiel, or prelude, to the opera takes for its sub-
ject the descent of the Holy Grail, the mysterious symbol
of the Christian faith, and the Grail motive is the key to
the whole work. The delicious harmonies which accom-
pany its descent increase in warmth and power until the
sacred mystery is revealed to human eyes, and then die
away to a pianissimo, and gradually disappear as the angels
bearing the holy vessel return to their celestial abode. The
curtain rises upon a meadow on the banks of the Scheldt,
showing King Henry surrounded by his vassals and retain-
ers. After their choral declaration of allegiance, Telra-
mund, in a long declamatory scena of great power (" Zum
Sterben kam der Herzog von Brabant"), tells the story
of the troubles in Brabant, and impeaches Elsa. At the
King's command, Elsa appears, and in a melodious utter-
ance of extreme simplicity and sweetness, which is called
the dream motive (" Einsam in triiben Tagen "), relates the
vision of the knight who is to come to her assistance.
The summons of the heralds preludes the climax of the

Schumann-Heink as Ortrzcd

Copyright, Ai?ne Dupont.


act. Amid natural outcries of popular wonderment Lo-
hengrin appears, and as he leaves his boat, bids farewell
to his swan in a strain of delicate beauty (" Nun sei
gedankt, mein lieber Schwan"). The preparations for
the combat are made, but before it begins, the motive of
warning is sounded by Lohengrin (" Nie sollst du mich
befragen"). The finale of the act takes the form of a
powerful ensemble, composed of sextet and chorus, and
beginning with the prayer of the King (" Mein Herr und
Gott, nun ruf ich Dich ").

The second act opens upon a night scene near the
palace, which is merry with the wedding festivities, while
the discomfited Telramund and Ortrud are plotting their
conspiracy without in a long duet (" Erhebe dich, Genos-
sin meiner Schmach "), which introduces new motives of
hatred and revenge, as opposed to the Grail motive. In
the second scene Elsa appears upon the balcony and sings
a love song (" Euch Luften, die mein Klagen"), whose
tenderness and confidence are in marked contrast with the
doubts sown in her mind by Ortrud before the scene closes.
The third scene is preluded with descriptive sunrise music
by the orchestra, followed by the herald's proclamations,
interspersed by choral responses, leading up to the bridal-
procession music as the train moves on from the palace to
the cathedral, accompanied by a stately march and choral
strains, and all the artistic surroundings of a beautiful stage
pageant. The progress is twice interrupted ; first by Or-
trud, who asserts her precedence, and second by Telramund,
who, in the scena (" Den dort im Glanz "), accuses Lohen-
grin of sorcery. When Elsa still expresses her faith, the
train moves on, and reaches its destination amid the accla-
mations of the chorus (" Heil, Elsa von Brabant ! ").

The third act opens in the bridal chamber with the
graceful bridal song by Elsa's ladies ("Treulich gefuhrt,
ziehet dahin "), whose melodious strains have accompanied


many unions, the world over, besides those of Elsa and
Lohengrin. The second scene is an exquisite picture
of the mutual outpouring of love, at first full of beauty
and tenderness, but gradually darkening as Ortrud's in-
sinuations produce their effect in Elsa's mind. Tenderly
Lohengrin appeals to her, but in vain; and at last the
motive of warning is heard. The fatal questions are asked,
the tragedy of Telramund follows, and all is over. The
last scene introduces us once more to the meadow on the
Scheldt, where Lohengrin appears before the King and his
vassals. In their presence he reveals himself as the son of
Parsifal, in a scena of consummate power (" In fernem
Land, unnahbar euren Schritten"), wherein the Grail
motive reaches its fullest development. It is followed
by his touching farewell (" O Elsa ! nur ein Jahr an
deiner Seite"), the melody of which can hardly be sur-
passed in dignity and impressiveness. The denouement
now hastens, and Lohengrin disappears, to the accom-
paniment of the Grail motive.

Tristan und Isolde

" Tristan und Isolde," opera in three acts, words by
the composer, was first produced at Munich, June 10,
1865, under the direction of Hans von Biilow, with the
following cast of characters :


. Herr Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld.

Herr Mitterwurzer.

Herr Zottmayer.

Mme. Schnorr von Carolsfeld.

Mile. Deinet.


King Mark
Isolde .

The opera was first produced in New York, December 1,
1887, with the following cast :

Tristan Herr Niemann.

Kurwenal Mr. Robinson.

King Mark Herr Fischer.

Isolde Frl. Lilli Lehmann.

Brangaena Frl. Mariann Brandt.


"Tristan und Isolde" was commenced in 1857 and
finished in 1859, during the period in which Wagner
was engaged upon his colossal work, " The Ring of the
Nibelung." As early as the middle of 1852 he had
finished the four dramatic poems which comprise the
cyclus of the latter, and during the next three years he
finished the music to " Das Rheingold " and " Die Wal-
kiire." In one of his letters he says : " In the Summer of
1857 I determined to interrupt the execution of my work
on the Nibelungen and begin something shorter, which
should renew my connection with the stage." The legend
of Tristan was selected. It is derived from the old Celtic
story of " Tristram and Iseult," the version adopted by
Wagner being that of Gottfried of Strasburg, a bard of
the thirteenth century, though it must be said he uses it
in his own manner, and at times widely departs both from
the original and the mediaeval poem.

In " Tristan and Isolde " W T agner broke completely
loose from all the conventional forms of opera. It has
nothing in common with the old style of lyric entertain-
ment. As Hueffer says, in his recent Life of Wagner :
" Here is heard for the first time the unimpaired language
of dramatic passion intensified by an uninterrupted flow of
expressive melody. Here also the orchestra obtains that
wide range of emotional expression which enables it, like
the chorus of the antique tragedy, to discharge the dialogue
of an overplus of lyrical elements without weakening the
intensity of the situation, which it accompanies like an
unceasing passionate undercurrent." In an opera like this,
which is intended to commingle dramatic action, intensity
of verse, and the power and charm of the music in one
homogeneous whole, the reader will at once observe the
difficulty of doing much more than the telling of its story,
leaving the musical declamation and effect to be inferred
from the text. Even Wagner himself in the original title


is careful to designate the work " Ein Handlung " (an

The vorspiel to the drama is based upon a single motive,
which is worked up with consummate skill into various
melodic forms, and frequently appears throughout the
work. It might well be termed the motive of restless,
irresistible passion. The drama opens on board a ship
in which the Cornish knight, Tristan, is bearing Isolde, the
unwilling Irish bride, to King Mark of Cornwall. As the
vessel is nearing the land, Isolde sends Brangaena to the
Knight, who is also in love with her, but holds himself
aloof by reason of a blood-feud, and orders him to appear
at her side. His refusal turns Isolde's affection to bitterness,
and she resolves that he shall die, and that she will share
death with him. She once more calls Tristan, and tells
him that the time has come for him to make atonement
for slaying her kinsman, Morold. She directs Brangaena
to mix a death-potion and invites him to drink with her,
but without her knowledge Brangaena has prepared a love-
potion, which inflames their passions beyond power of
restraint. Oblivious of the landing, the approach of the
royal train, and all that is going on about them, they
remain folded in mutual embrace.

The second act opens in Cornwall, in a garden which
leads to Isolde's chamber, she being already wedded to
King Mark. With Brangaena she is waiting for Tristan.
The King goes out upon a night hunt, and no sooner has
he disappeared than Isolde gives the signal for his approach,
while Brangaena goes to her station to watch. The sec-
ond scene is a most elaborate love-duet between the guilty
pair, the two voices at first joining (" Bist du mein? Hab'
ich dich wieder?"). A passionate dialogue ensues, and
then the two voices join again (" O sink' hernieder, Nacht
der Liebe "). After a brief dialogue Brangaena's warning
voice is heard. Absorbed in each other, they pay no heed,



























S* en
1 S






























and once more they join in the very ecstasy of passion, so
far as it can be given musical form, in the finale of the
duet (" O siisse Nacht ! Ew'ge Nacht ! Hehr erhabne
Liebes-Nacht "). The treachery of Sir Melot, Tristan's
pretended friend, betrays the lovers to the King. Tris-
tan offers no explanations, but touched by the King's bitter
reproaches provokes Sir Melot to combat and allows him-
self to be mortally wounded.

The third act opens in Brittany, whither Kurwenal,
Tristan's faithful henchman, has taken him. A shepherd
lad watches from a neighboring height to announce the
appearance of a vessel, for Kurwenal has sent for Isolde to
heal his master's wound. At last the stirring strains of
the shepherd's pipe signal her coming. In his delirious
joy Tristan tears the bandages from his wounds, and has
only strength enough left to call Isolde by name and die in
her arms. A second vessel is seen approaching, bearing
King Mark and his men. Thinking that his design is
hostile, Kurwenal attempts to defend the castle, but is
soon forced to yield, and dies at the feet of his master.
The King exclaims against his rashness, for since having
heard Brangaena's story of the love-potion he had come
to give his consent to the union of the lovers. Isolde,
transfixed with grief, sings her last farewell to her lover
("Mild und leise wie er lachelt"), and expires on his
body. The dying song is one of great beauty and pathos,
and sadly recalls the passion of the duet in the second
act, as Isolde's mournful strains are accompanied in the
orchestra by the sweetly melodious motives which had been
heard in it, the interweaving of the two also suggesting
that in death the lovers have been reunited.

The Mastersingers

" Die Meistersinger von Niirnberg," comic opera in
three acts, words by the composer, was first produced at



Munich, June 21, 1868, under the direction of Hans von
Biilow, with the following cast :

Hans Sachs Herr Betz.

Walter Herr Nachbauer.

Beckmesser ' . . Herr Holzel.

David Herr Schlosser.

Eva Mile. Mallinger.

Magdalejia Mme. Dietz.

The opera was first produced in New York, January 4,
1885, upon which occasion Emil Fischer was the Hans

The plan of "The Mastersingers " was conceived about
the same time as that of " Lohengrin," during the com-
poser's stay at Marienbad, and occupied his attention
at intervals for twenty years, for it was not finished until
1867. As is clearly apparent both from its music and
text, it was intended as a satire upon the composer's
critics, who had charged that he was incapable of writing
melody. It is easy to see that these critics are symbolized
by the old pedant Beckmesser, and that in Walter we
have Wagner himself. When he is first brought in con-
tact with the Mastersingers, and one of their number,
Kothner, asks him if he gained his knowledge in any
school, he replies, "The wood before the Vogelweid,
't was there I learnt my singing " ; and again he answers :

" What winter night,

What wood so bright,
What book and nature brought me,
"What poet songs of magic might
Mysteriously have taught me,

On horses' tramp,

On field and camp,

On knights arrayed

For war parade,
My mind its powers exerted."

The story is not only one of love as between Walter
and Eva, but of satirical protest as between Walter and

"§■ 3

at bo

























Beckmesser, and the two subjects are illustrated not only
with delicate fancy but with the liveliest of humor. The
work is replete with melody. It has chorales, marches,
folk-songs, duets, quintets, ensembles, and choruses, and
yet the composer does not lose sight of his theories ; for
here we observe as characteristic a use of motives and as
skilful a combination of them as can be found in any of his
works. Thoroughly to comprehend the story, it is neces-
sary to understand the conditions one had to fulful before
he could be a " mastersinger." First of all he must master
the "Tabulatur," which included the rules and prohibi-
tions. Then he must have the requisite acquaintance with
the various methods of rhyming verse, and with the manner
of fitting appropriate music to it. One who had partially
mastered the Tabulatur was termed a " scholar"; the
one who had thoroughly learned it, a "schoolman"; the
one who could improvise verses, a " poet " ; and the one
who could set music to his verses, a " mastersinger." In
the test there were thirty-three faults to be guarded
against ; and whenever the marker had chalked up seven
against the candidate, he was declared to have oversung
himself and lost the coveted honor.

The vorspiel is a vivid delineation of mediaeval German
life, full of festive pomp, stirring action, glowing passion,
and exuberant humor. The first act opens in the Church
of St. Katherine, at Nuremberg, with the singing of a
chorale to organ accompaniment. During the chorale
and its interludes a quiet love scene is being enacted be-
tween Eva, daughter of the wealthy goldsmith, Veit Pog-
ner, and Walter von Stolzing, a noble young knight. The
attraction is mutual. Eva is ready to become his bride,
but it is necessary that her husband should be a master-
singer. Rather than give up the hand of the fair Eva,
Walter* short as the time is, determines to master the pre-
cepts and enter the lists. As Eva and her attendant,


Magdalena, leave the church, the apprentices enter to ar-
range for the trial, among them David, the friskiest of
them all, who is in love with Magdalena. He volunteers
to give Walter some instructions, but they do not avail him
much in the end, for the lesson is sadly disturbed by the
gibes of the boys, in a scene full of musical humor. At
last Pogner and Beckmesser, the marker, who is also a
competitor for Eva's hand, enter from the sacristy. After
a long dialogue between them the other masters assemble,
Hans Sachs, the cobbler- bard, coming in last. After call-
ing the roll, the ceremonies open with a pompous address
by Pogner ("Das schone Fest, Johannis-Tag "), in which
he promises the hand of Eva, " with my gold and goods be-
side," to the successful singer on the morrow, which is John
the Baptist's Day. After a long parley among the gossiping
masters, Pogner introduces Walter as a candidate for elec-
tion. He sings a charming song ("So rief der Lenz in
den Wald"), and as he sings, the marker, concealed be-
hind a screen, is heard scoring down the faults. When he
displays the slate it is found to be covered with them.
The masters declare him outsung and rejected, but Hans
Sachs befriends him, and demands he shall have a chance
for the prize.

The second act discloses Pogner's house and Sachs's
shop. The apprentices are busy putting up the shutters,
and are singing as they work. Walter meets Eva and
plots an elopement with her, but Sachs prevents them
from carrying out their rash plan. Meanwhile Beckmesser
makes his appearance with his lute for the purpose of
serenading Eva and rehearsing the song he is to sing for
the prize on the morrow. As he is about to sing, Sachs
breaks out into a rollicking folk-song ("Jerum, jerum,
halla, halla, he ! "), in which he sings of Mother Eve and
the troubles she had after she left Paradise, for want of
shoes. At last he allows Beckmesser a hearing, provided

Winklemann as Walter


he will permit him to mark the faults with his hammer
upon the shoe he is making. The marker consents, and
sings his song ("Den Tag sen' ich erscheinen"), ac-
companied with excruciating roulades of the old-fashioned
conventional sort ; but Sachs knocks so often that his
shoe is finished long before Beckmesser's song. This
is his first humiliation. Before the act finishes he is
plunged into still further trouble, for David suspects
him of designs upon Magdalena, and a general quarrel

The third act opens upon a peaceful Sunday- morning
scene in the sleepy old town, and shows us Sachs sitting
in his armchair at the window reading his Bible, and now
and then expressing his hopes for Walter's success, as the
great contest is soon to take place. At last he leans back,
and after a brief meditation commences a characteristic
song ("Wahn! wahn ! Ueberall wahn!"). A long dia-
logue ensues between him and Walter, and then as Eva,
David, Magdalena, and Beckmesser successively enter, the
scene develops into a magnificent quintet, which is one of
the most charming numbers in the opera. The situation
then suddenly changes. The stage setting represents an
open meadow on the banks of the Pegnitz. The river is
crowded with boats. The plain is covered with tents full
of merrymakers. The different guilds are continually ar-
riving. A livelier or more stirring scene can hardly be
imagined than Wagner has here pictured, with its accom-
paniment of choruses by the various handicraftsmen, their
pompous marches, and the rural strains of town pipers.
At last the contest begins. Beckmesser attempts to get
through his song and dismally fails. Walter follows him
with the beautiful prize-song (" Morgenlich leuchtend in
rosigem Schein"). He wins the day and the hand of
Eva. Exultant Sachs trolls out a lusty lay ("Verachtet
mir der Meister nicht "), and the stirring scene ends with


the acclamations of the people (" Heil Sachs ! Hans
Sachs ! Heil Niirnberg's theurem Sachs ! ").

The Ring of the Nibelung

"Der Ring der Nibelungen," trilogy, the subject taken
from the Nibelungen Lied and freely adapted by the com-
poser, was first conceived by Wagner during the composition
of "Lohengrin." The four dramatic poems which consti-
tute the cyclus were written as early as 1852, which will

Online LibraryGeorge P. (George Putnam) UptonThe standard operas: their plots, their music, and their composers → online text (page 29 of 37)