George P. (George Putnam) Upton.

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

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correct the general impression that this colossal work was
projected during the closing years of his life. On the
contrary, it was the product of his prime. Hueffer, in his
biographical sketch of Wagner, says that he hesitated be-
tween the historical and mythical principles as the sub-
jects of his work, — Frederick the First representing the
former, and Siegfried, the hero of Teutonic mythology,
the latter. Siegfried was finally selected. "Wagner
began at once sketching the subject, but gradually the im-
mense breadth and grandeur of the old types began to
expand under his hands, and the result was a trilogy, or
rather tetralogy, of enormous dimensions, perhaps the
most colossal attempt upon which the dramatic muse has
ventured since the times of ^Eschylus." The trilogy is
really in four parts, — " Das Rheingold " (The Rhinegold) ;
" Die Walkiire " (The Valkyrie) ; " Siegfried " ; and " Die
Gotterdammerung " (The Twilight of the Gods), "The
Rhinegold " being in the nature of an introduction to the
trilogy proper, though occupying an evening for its per-
formance. Between the years 1852 and 1856 the com-
poser wrote the music of "The Rhinegold " and the whole
of "The Valkyrie " ; and then, as he says himself, wishing
to keep up his active connection with the stage, he inter-
rupted the progress of the main scheme, and wrote
"Tristan and Isolde," which occupied him from 1856
to 1859. During its composition, however, he did not


entirely neglect the trilogy. In the Autumn of 1856 he
began "Siegfried," the composition of which was not fin-
ished until 1869, owing to many other objects which
engaged his attention during this period, one of which
was the composition of "The Mastersingers," which he
wrote at intervals between 1861 and 1867. From the
latter year until 1876, when the trilogy was produced at
Baireuth, he gave himself wholly to the work of complet-
ing it and preparing it for the stage.

Prior to the production of the completed work, separate
parts of it were given, though Wagner strongly opposed it.
"The Rhinegold," or introduction, came to a public
dress rehearsal at Munich, August 25, 1869, and "The
Valkyrie " was performed in a similar manner in the same
city, June 24, 1870, with the following cast :

Wotan Herr Kindermann.

Siegmitnd Herr Vogl.

/funding Herr Bauserwein.

Brilnnhilde Frl. Stehle.

Sieglinde Frau Vogl.

Fricka Frl. Kauffmann.

The "Siegfried" and " Gotterdammerung," however,
were not given until the entire work was performed in
1876. Upon the completion of his colossal task Wagner
began to look about him for the locality, theatre, artists,
and materials suitable for a successful representation. In
the circular which he issued, narrating the circumstances
which led up to the building of the Baireuth opera house,
he says: "As early as the Spring of 187 1 I had, quietly
and unnoticed, had my eye upon Baireuth, the place I
had chosen for my purpose. The idea of using the Mar-
gravian Opera House was abandoned so soon as I saw its
interior construction. But yet the peculiar character of
that kindly town and its site so answered my require-
ments, that during the wintry latter part of the Autumn of


the same year I repeated my visit, — this time, however,
to treat with the city authorities. ... An unsurpassably
beautiful and eligible plat of ground at no great distance
from the town was given me on which to build the pro-
posed theatre. Having come to an understanding as to
its erection with a man of approved inventive genius, and
of rare experience in the interior arrangement of theatres,
we could then intrust to an architect of equal acquaint-
ance with theatrical building the further planning and the
erection of the provisional structure. And despite the
great difficulties which attended the arrangements for
putting under way so unusual an undertaking, we made
such progress that the laying of the corner-stone could be
announced to our patrons and friends for May 22, 1872."
The ceremony took place as announced, and was made
still further memorable by a magnificent performance of
Beethoven's Ninth or Choral Symphony, the chorus of
which, the " Ode to Joy," was sung by hundreds of lusty
German throats. In addition to the other contents of the
stone, Wagner deposited the following mystic verse of his

" I bury here a secret deep,

For centuries long to lie concealed ;
Yet while this stone its trust shall keep,
To all the secret stands revealed."

He also made an eloquent address, setting forth the de-
tails of the plans and the purposes of the new temple of
art. The undertaking was now fairly inaugurated. The
erratic King of Bavaria had from the first been Wagner's
steadfast friend and munificent patron; but not to him
alone belongs the credit of the colossal project and its re-
markable success. When Wagner first made known his
views, other friends, among them Tausig, the eminent
pianist, at once devoted themselves to his cause. In con-
nection with a lady of high rank, Baroness von Schleinitz,
he proposed to raise the sum of three hundred thousand


thalers by the sale of patronage shares at three hundred
thalers each, and had already entered upon the work
when his death for the time dashed Wagner's hopes.
Other friends, however, now came forward. An organiza-
tion for the promotion of the scheme, called the " Richard
Wagner Society," was started at Mannheim. Notwith-
standing the ridicule which it excited, another society was
formed at Vienna. Similar societies began to appear in
all the principal cities of Germany, and they found imi-
tators in Milan, Pesth, Brussels, London, and New York.
Shares were taken so rapidly that the success of the under-
taking was no longer doubtful. Meanwhile the theatre
itself was under construction. It combined several pecu-
liarities, one of the most novel of which was the conceal-
ment of the orchestra by the sinking of the floor, so that
the view of the audience could not be interrupted by the
musicians and their movements. Private boxes were done
away with, the arrangement of the seats being like that of
an ancient amphitheatre, all of them facing the stage.
Two prosceniums were constructed which gave an indefin-
able sense of distance to the stage-picture. To relieve
the bare side walls, a row of pillars was planned, gradu-
ally widening outward and forming the end of the rows of
seats, thus having the effect of a third proscenium. The
stage portion of the theatre was twice as high as the rest
of the building, for all the scenery was both raised and
lowered, the incongruity between the two parts being con-
cealed by a facade in front. " Whoever has rightly under-
stood me," says Wagner, "will readily perceive that
architecture itself had to acquire a new significance under
the inspiration of the genius of Music, and thus that the
myth of Amphion building the walls of Thebes by the
notes of his lyre has still a meaning."

The theatre was completed in 1876, and in the month
of August (13-16) Wagner saw the dream of his life take


the form of reality. He had everything at his command,
— a theatre specially constructed for his purpose ; a stage
which in size, scenery, mechanical arrangements, and
general equipment, had not then its equal in the world ;
an array of artists the best that Europe could produce ;
an orchestra almost literally composed of virtuosi. The
audience which gathered at these performances — com-
posed of princes, illustrious men in every department of
science and culture, and prominent musicians from all
parts of the world — was one of which any composer
might have been proud, while the representation itself
marked an epoch in musical history, and promulgated a
new system of laws which have more or less dominated
operatic composition ever since.

The casts of the various portions of the trilogy upon this
memorable occasion were as follows :

Das Rheingold (Prelude)

Wotan \ rHerr Betz.

Bonner [_ , I Herr Gura.

Froh i^ 0CiS "jHerrUNGER.

Loge J I Herr Vogl.

Fasolt ) j Herr Eilers.

Fafner \ Giants \ Herr von Reichenberg.

Alberich ) __.. , ( Herr Hill.

Mime fNibelungs } Herr Schlosser.

FrickaA (Trail VON Grun-Sadler.

Freia I Goddesses -j Frl. Haupt.

Erda J [Frau JAIDA.

Woglinde ~\ fFrl. LlLLl Lehmann.

Wellgunde \ Rhine-daughters . . . \ Frl. Marie Lehmann.

Flosshilde J I Frl. Lammert.

Die Walkure

Siegmund . . Herr Niemann.

Hunding Herr Niering.

Wotan Herr Betz.

Sieglinde Frl. Schefzky.

Brunnhilde . Frau Friedrich-Materna.j

Fricka ......... ° . Frau von Grun-Sadler.



Siegfried Herr Unger.

Mime Herr Schlosser.

Der Wanderer Herr Betz.

Alberich Herr Hill.

Fafner Herr von Reichenberg.

Erda Frau Jaida.

Briinnhilde Frau Friedrich-Materna.


Siegfried Herr Unger.

Gunther Herr Gura.

Hagen Herr von Reichenberg.

Alberich Herr Hill.

Bj'unnhilde Frau Friedrich-Materna.

Gutrune Frl. Weckerlin.

Waltraute Frau Jaida.

The motive of the drama turns upon the possession of
a ring of magic qualities, made of gold stolen from the
Rhine-daughters by Alberich, one of the Nibelungs, who
dwelt in Nebelheim, the place of mists. This ring, the
symbol of all earthly power, was at the same time to bring
a curse upon all who possessed it. Wotan, of the race of
the gods, covetous of power and heedless of the curse
which follows it, obtained the ring from Alberich by force
and cunning, and soon found himself involved in calamity
from which there was no apparent escape. He himself
could not expiate the wrong he had done, nor could he
avert the impending doom, the "twilight" of the gods,
which was slowly and surely approaching. Only a free
will, independent of the gods, and able to take upon itself
the fault, could make reparation for the deed. At last he
yields to despair. His will is broken, and instead of fear-
ing the inevitable doom he courts it. In this sore emer-
gency the hero appears. He belongs to an heroic race of
men, the Volsungs. The unnatural union of the twins,


Seigmund and Sieglinde, born of this race, produces the
real hero, Siegfried. The parents pay the penalty of incest
with their lives ; but Siegfried remains, and VVotan watches
his growth and magnificent development with eager inter-
est. Siegfried recovers the ring from the giants, to whom
Wotan had given it, by slaying a dragon which guarded
the fatal treasure. Brunnhilde, the Valkyrie, Wotan's
daughter, contrary to his instructions, had protected
Siegmund in a quarrel which resulted in his death, and
was condemned by the irate god to fall into a deep sleep
upon a rock surrounded by flames, where she was to
remain until a hero should appear bold enough to break
through the wall of fire and awaken her. Siegfried rescues
her. She wakens into the full consciousness of passionate
love, and yields herself to the hero, who presents her with
the ring, but not before it has worked its curse upon him,
so that he, faithless even in his faithfulness, wou'nds her
whom he deeply loves, and drives her from him. Mean-
while Gunther, Gutrune, and their half-brother Hagen
conspire to obtain the ring from Brunnhilde and to kill
Siegfried. Through the agency of a magic draught he is
induced to desert her, after once more getting the ring.
He then marries Gutrune. The curse soon reaches its con-
summation. One day, while traversing his favorite forests
on a hunting expedition, he is killed by Hagen, with
Gunther's connivance. The two murderers then quarrel
for the possession of the ring, and Gunther is slain. Hagen
attempts to wrest it from the dead hero's finger, but
shrinks back terrified as the hand is raised in warning.
Brunnhilde now appears, takes the ring, and proclaims
herself his true wife. She mounts her steed, and dashes
into the funeral pyre of Siegfried after returning the ring
to the Rhine-daughters. This supreme act of immolation
forever breaks the power of the gods, as is shown by the
blazing Walhalla in the sky ; but at the same time justice


has been satisfied, reparation has been made for the
original wrong, and the free will of man becomes estab-
lished as a human principle.

Such are the outlines of this great story, which will be
told more in detail when we come to examine the compo-
nent parts of the trilogy. Dr. Ludwig Nohl, in his admir-
able sketch of the Nibelungen poem, as Wagner adapted
it, gives us a hint of some of its inner meanings in the
following extract : " Temporal power is not the highest
destiny of a civilizing people. That our ancestors were
conscious of this is shown in the fact that the treasure, or
gold and its power, was transformed into the Holy Grail.
Worldly aims give place to spiritual desires. With this
interpretation of the Nibelungen myth, Wagner acknowl-
edged the grand and eternal truth that this life is tragic
throughout, and that the will which would mould a world
to accord with one's desires can finally lead to no greater
satisfaction than to break itself in a noble death. ... It
is this conquering of the world through the victory of self
which Wagner conveys as the highest interpretation of our
national myths. As Briinnhilde approaches the funeral
pyre to sacrifice her life, the only tie still uniting her with
the earth, to Siegfried, the beloved dead, she says :

' To the world I will give now my holiest wisdom ;
Not goods, nor gold nor godlike pomp,
Not house, nor lands, nor lordly state,
Not wicked plottings of crafty men,
Not base deceits of cunning law, —
But, blest in joy and sorrow, let only love remain.' "

We now proceed to the analysis of the four divisions of
the work, in which task, for obvious reasons, it will be
hardly possible to do more than sketch the progress of the
action, with allusions to its most striking musical features.
There are no set numbers, as in the Italian opera; and
merely to designate the leading motives and trace their


relation to each other, to the action of the dramatis
persona, and to the progress of the four movements, not
alone towards their own climaxes but towards the ultimate
denouement, would necessitate far more space than can
be had in a work of this kind.

Das Rheingold

The orchestral prelude to " The Rhinegold " is based
upon a single figure, the Rhine motive, which in its
changing developments pictures the calm at the bottom
of the Rhine and the undulating movement of the water.
The curtain rises and discloses the depths of the river,
from which rise rugged ridges of rock. Around one of
these, upon the summit of which glistens the Rhinegold,
Woglinde, a Rhine-daughter, is swimming. Two others,
Wellgunde and Flosshilde, join her; and as they play
about the gleaming gold, Alberich, a dwarf, suddenly ap-
pears from a dark recess and passionately watches them.
As they are making sport of him, his eye falls upon the
gold and he determines to possess it. They make light
of his threat, informing him that whoever shall forge a
ring of this gold will have secured universal power, but
before he can obtain that power he will have to renounce
love. The disclosure of the secret follows a most exult-
ant song of the Undines (" Rheingold ! leuchtende Lust !
wie lachst du so hell und hehr!"). In the announce-
ment made by them the motive of the ring also occurs.
The Rhine-daughters, who have fancied that Alberich will
never steal the gold because he is in love with them, are
soon undeceived, for he curses love, and snatches the gold
and makes off with it, pursued by the disconsolate maidens,
whose song changes into a sad minor, leading up to the
next scene. As they follow him into the dark depths the
stream sinks with them and gives place to an open district
with a mountain in the background, upon which is the

Mme. Amalie Friedrich-Materna

Copyright, Falk


glistening Walhalla, which the giants have just built for
the gods. Wotan and Fricka are discovered awakening
from sleep and joyfully contemplating it, the latter, how-
ever, with much apprehension lest the giants shall claim
Freia, the goddess of love, whom Wotan has promised to
them as the reward for their work. Loge, the god of fire,
however, has agreed to obtain a ransom for her. He has
searched the world over, but has been unable to find any-
thing that can excel in value or attraction the charm of love.
As the gods are contemplating their castle Loge appears,
and in a scene of great power, accompanied by music
which vividly describes the element he dominates (" Immer
ist Undank Loge's Lohn "), he narrates the tidings of his
failure. The giants, however, have heard the story of the
Rhinegold, and as they carry off the weeping Freia agree
to release her whenever the gods will give to them the
precious and all-powerful metal. As love departs, the
heavens become dark and sadness overcomes the gods.
They grow suddenly old and decrepit. Fricka totters and
Wotan yields to despair. Darkness and decay settle
down upon them. The divine wills are broken, and they
are about to surrender to what seems approaching dissolu-
tion, when Wotan suddenly arouses himself and deter-
mines to go in quest of the all-powerful gold. Loge
accompanies him, and the two enter the dark kingdom
of the gnomes, who are constantly at work forging the
metals. By virtue of his gold Alberich has already
made himself master of all the gnomes, but Wotan easily
overpowers him and carries him off to the mountain.
The Nibelung, however, clings to his precious gold, and a
struggle ensues for it. In spite of his strength and the
power the ring gives to him it is wrenched from him, and
the victorious Wotan leaves him free to return to his
gloomy kingdom. Infuriated with disappointment over
his loss and rage at his defeat, Alberich curses the ring


and invokes misfortune upon him who possesses it. " May
he who has it not, covet it with rage," cries the dwarf,
" and may he who has it, retain it with the anguish of
fear"; and with curse upon curse he disappears. Now
that he has the ring, Wotan is unwilling to give it up.
The other gods implore him to do so, and the giants de-
mand their ransom. He remains inflexible ; but at last
Erda, the ancient divinity, to whom all things are known,
past, present, and future, appears to Wotan and warns him
to surrender the ring. She declares that all which exists
will have an end, and that a night of gloom will come
upon the gods. So long as he retains the ring a curse will
follow it. Her sinister foreboding so alarms him that at
last he abandons the gold. Youth, pride, and strength
once more return to the gods.

The grand closing scene of the prelude now begins.
Wotan attempts to enter Walhalla, but it is veiled in op-
pressive mist and heavy clouds. The mighty Donner,
accompanied by Froh, climbs a high rock in the valley's
slope and brandishes his hammer, summoning the clouds
about him. From out their darkness its blows are heard
descending upon the rock. Lightning leaps from them,
and thunder-crashes follow each other with deafening
sounds. The rain falls in heavy drops. Then the clouds
part, and reveal the two in the midst of their storm-spell.
In the distance appears Walhalla bathed in the glow of the
setting sun. From their feet stretches a luminous rainbow
across the valley to the castle, while out from the disap-
pearing storm comes the sweet rainbow melody. Froh
sings, "Though built lightly it looks, fast and fit is the
Bridge." The gods are filled with delight, but Wotan
gloomily contemplates the castle as the curse of the ring
recurs to him. At last a new thought comes in his mind.
The hero who will make reparation is to come from the
new race of mortals of his own begetting. The thought

Louise Homer as Erda

Copyright, Aime Dupoiit


appears in the sword motive, and as its stately melody
dies away, Wotan rouses from his contemplation and hails
Walhalla with joy as "a shelter from shame and harm."
He takes Fricka by the hand, and leading the way, fol-
lowed by Froh, Freia, Donner, and Loge, the last some-
what reluctantly, the gods pass over the rainbow bridge
and enter Walhalla, bathed in the light of the setting sun
and accompanied by the strains of a majestic march.
During their passage the plaintive song of the Rhine-
daughters mourning their gold comes up from the depths.
Wotan pauses a moment and inquires the meaning of the
sounds, and bids Loge send a message to them that the
treasure shall " gleam no more for the maids." Then
they pass laughingly and mockingly on through the splen-
dor to Walhalla. The sad song still rises from the depths
of the Rhine, but it is overpowered by the strains of the
march, and pealing music from the castle. The curtain
falls upon their laments, and the triumphant entrance of
the gods into their new home.

Die Walkure

In " Die Walkure," the human drama begins. Strong
races of men have come into existence, and Wotan's
Valkyries watch over them, leading those who fall in battle
to Walhalla, where, in the gods' companionship, they are
to pass a glorious life. According to the original legend,
Wotan blessed an unfruitful marriage of this race by giving
the pair an apple of Hulda to eat, and the twins, Siegmund
and Sieglinde, were the result of the union. When the
first act opens, Siegmund has already taken a wife and
Sieglinde has married the savage warrior Hunding, but
neither marriage has been fruitful. It is introduced with
an orchestral prelude representing a storm. The pour-
ing of the rain is audible among the violins and the rum-
bling of the thunder in the deep basses. The curtain



rises, disclosing the interior of a rude hut, its roof sup-
ported by the branches of an ash -tree whose trunk rises
through the centre of the apartment. As the tempest
rages without, Siegmund rushes in and falls exhausted by
the fire. Attracted by the noise, Sieglinde appears, and
observing the fallen stranger bends compassionately over
him and offers him a horn of mead. As their eyes meet
they watch each other with strange interest and growing
emotion. While thus mutually fascinated, Hunding enters
and turns an inquiring look upon Sieglinde. She explains
that he is a guest worn out with fatigue and seeking shel-
ter. Hunding orders a repast and Siegmund tells his
story. Vanquished in combat by a neighboring tribe,
some of whose adherents he had slain, and stripped of his
arms, he fled through the storm for refuge. Hunding
promises him hospitality, but challenges him to combat
on the morrow, for the victims of Siegmund's wrath were
Hunding's friends. As Sieglinde retires at Hunding's
bidding, she casts a despairing, passionate look at Sieg-
mund, and tries to direct his attention to a sword sticking
in the ash-tree, but in vain. Hunding warns her away
with a significant look, and then taking his weapons from
the tree leaves Siegmund alone. The latter, sitting by
the fire, falls into dejection, but is soon roused by the
thought that his sire had promised he should find the
sword Nothung in his time of direst need. The dying
fire shoots out a sudden flame, and his eye lights upon its
handle, illuminated by the blaze. The magnificent sword-
melody is sounded, and in a scene of great power he hails
it and sings his love for Sieglinde, whom now he can res-
cue. As the fire and the song die away together, Sieg-
linde reappears. She has drugged Hunding into a deep
sleep, and in an exultant song tells Siegmund the story of
the sword. They can be saved if he is strong enough to
wrench it from the trunk of the ash. He recognizes his
















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sister and folds her passionately in his arms. The storm
has passed, and as the moonlight floods the room he
breaks out in one of the loveliest melodies Wagner has
ever written, the spring song (" Winterstiirme wichen
dem Wonnemond "), a song of love leading to the de-
lights of spring; and Sieglinde in passionate response
declares, "Thou art the spring for which I longed in
winter's frosty embrace." The recognition is mutual,
not alone of brother and sister but of lover and mis-
tress, — the union which is destined to beget Siegfried,

Online LibraryGeorge P. (George Putnam) UptonThe standard operas: their plots, their music, and their composers → online text (page 30 of 37)