John F. Runciman.

Old Scores and New Readings Discussions on Music & Certain Musicians online

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C natural of the basses in the "Sanctus." But the prevailing mood is
one of depressing sadness, which would become intolerable by reason of
its monotony were it possible to listen to the Requiem as a work of
art merely, and not as the tearful confessions of one of the most
beautiful spirits ever born into the world.




"FIDELIO"


As an enthusiastic lover of "Fidelio" I may perhaps be permitted to
put one or two questions to certain other of its lovers. Is it an
opera at all? - does it not consist of one wonderfully touching
situation, padded out before and behind, - before with some
particularly fatuous reminiscences of the old comedy of intrigue,
behind with some purely formal business and a pompous final chorus?
"Fidelio" exists by reason of that one tremendous scene: there is
nothing else dramatic in it: however fine the music is, one cannot
forget that the libretto is fustian and superfluous nonsense. Had
Beethoven possessed the slightest genius for opera, had he possessed
anything like Mozart's dramatic instinct (and of course his own
determination to touch nothing but fitting subjects), he would have
felt that no meaner story than the "Flying Dutchman" would serve as an
opportunity to say all that was aroused in his heart and in his mind
by the tale of Leonora. As he had no genius whatever for opera, no
sense of the dramatic in life, the tale of Leonora seemed to him good
enough; and, after all, in its essence it is the same as the tale of
Senta. The Dutchman himself happens to be more interesting than
Florestan because of his weird fate; but he is no more the principal
character in Wagner's opera than Florestan is the principal character
in Beethoven's opera. The principal character in each case is the
woman who takes her fate into her own hands and fearlessly chances
every risk for the sake of the man she loves. And just as Wagner wrote
the best passage in the "Dutchman" for the moment when Senta promises
to be faithful through life and death, so Beethoven in the prison
scene of "Fidelio" wrote as tremendous a passage as even he ever
conceived for the moment when Leonora makes up her mind at all costs
to save the life of the wretched prisoner whose grave she is helping
to dig. The tale is simple enough - there is scarcely enough of it to
call a tale. Leonora's husband, Florestan, has somehow fallen into the
power of his enemy Pizarro, who imprisons him and then says he is
dead. Leonora disbelieves this, and, disguising herself as a boy and
taking the name of Fidelio, hires herself as an assistant to Rocco,
the jailer of the fortress in which Florestan is confined. At that
time the news arrives that an envoy of the king is coming to see that
no injustice is being done by Pizarro. Pizarro has been hoping to
starve Florestan slowly to death; but now he sees the necessity of
more rapid action. He therefore tells Rocco to dig a grave in
Florestan's cell, and he himself will do the necessary murder. This
brings about the great prison scene. Florestan lies asleep in a
corner; Leonora is not sure whether she is helping to dig his grave or
the grave of some other unlucky wretch; but while she works she takes
her resolution - whoever he may be, she will risk all consequences and
save him. Pizarro arrives, and is about to kill Florestan, when
Leonora presents a pistol to his head; and, before he has quite had
time to recover, a trumpet call is heard, signalling the arrival of
the envoy. Pizarro knows the game is up, and Florestan that his wife
has saved him. This, I declare, is the only dramatic scene in the
play - here the thing ends: excepting it, there is no real incident.
The business at the beginning, about the jailer's daughter refusing to
have anything more to do with her former sweetheart, and falling in
love with the supposed Fidelio, is merely silly; Rocco's song,
elegantly translated in one edition, "Life is nothing without
money" - Heaven knows whether it was intended to be humorous - is
stupid; Pizarro's stage-villainous song of vengeance is unnecessary;
the arrangement of the crime is a worry. These, and in fact all that
comes before the great scene, are entirely superfluous, the purest
piffle, very tiresome. Most exasperating of all is the stupid
dialogue, which makes one hope that the man who wrote it died a
painful, lingering death. But, in spite of it all, Beethoven, by
writing some very beautiful music in the first act, and by rising to
an astonishing height in the prison scene and the succeeding duet, has
created one of the wonders of the music-world.

Being a glorification of woman - German woman, although Leonora was
presumably Spanish - "Fidelio" has inevitably become in Germany the
haus-frau's opera. Probably there is not a haus-frau who faithfully
cooks her husband's dinner, washes for him, blacks his boots, and
would even brush his clothes did he ever think that necessary, who
does not see herself reflected in Leonora; probably every German
householder either longs to possess her or believes that he does
possess her. Consequently, just as Mozart's "Don Giovanni" became the
playground of the Italian prima donna, so has "Fidelio" become the
playground of that terrible apparition, the Wifely Woman Artist, the
singer with no voice, nor beauty, nor manners, but with a high
character for correct morality, and a pressure of sentimentality that
would move a traction-engine. I remember seeing it played a few years
ago, and can never forget a Leonora of sixteen stones, steadily
singing out of tune, in the first act professing with profuse
perspiration her devotion to her husband (whose weight was rather less
than half hers), and in the second act nearly crushing the poor
gentleman by throwing herself on him to show him that she was for ever
his. A recent performance at Covent Garden, arranged specially, I
understand, for Ternina, was not nearly so bad as that; but still
Ternina scared me horribly with the enormous force of her Wifely
Ardour. It may be that German women are more demonstrative than
English women in public; but, for my poor part, too much public
affection between man and wife always strikes me as a little false.
Besides, the grand characteristic of Leonora is not that she loves her
husband - lots of women do that, and manage to love other people's
husbands also - but that, driven at first by affection and afterwards
by purely human compassion, she is capable of rising to the heroic
point of doing in life what she feels she must do. Of course she may
have been an abnormal combination of the Wifely Woman with the heroic
woman; but one cannot help thinking that probably she was not - that
however strong her affection for Florestan, she would no sooner get
him home than she would ask him how he came to be such a fool as to
get into Pizarro's clutches. Anyhow, Ternina's conception of Leonora
as a mixture of the contemptible will-less German haus-frau with the
strong-willed woman of action, was to me a mixture of contradictions.
Yet, despite all these things, the opera made the deep impression it
does and always will make.

That impression is due entirely to the music and not to the drama.
Dramatic music, in the sense that Mozart's music, and Wagner's, is
dramatic, it is not. There is not the slightest attempt at
characterisation - not even such small characterisation as Mozart
secured in his "La ci darem," with Zerlina's little fluttering,
agitated phrases. Nor, in the lighter portions, is there a trace of
Mozart's divine intoxicating laughter, of the sweet sad laugh with
which he met the griefs life brought him. There is none of Mozart's
sunlight, his delicious, fresh, early morning sunlight, in Beethoven's
music; when he wrote such a number as the first duet, intended to be
gracefully semi-humorous, he was merely heavy, clumsy, dull. But when
the worst has been said, when one has writhed under the recollection
of an adipose prima donna fooling with bear-like skittishness a German
tenor whose figure and face bewray the lager habit, when one has
shuddered to remember the long-winded idiotic dialogue, the fact
remains firmly set in one's mind that one has stood before a gigantic
work of art - a work whose every defect is redeemed by its overwhelming
power and beauty and pathos. There has never been, nor does it seem
possible there ever will be, a finer scene written than the dungeon
scene. It begins with the low, soft, throbbing of the strings, then
there is the sinister thunderous roll of the double basses; then the
old man quietly tells Leonora to hurry on with the digging of the
grave, and Leonora replies (against that wondrous phrase of the
oboes). After that, the old man continues to grumble; the dull
threatening thunder of the basses continues; and Leonora, half
terrified, tries to see whether the sleeping prisoner is her husband.
Then abruptly her courage rises; her short broken phrases are
abandoned; and to a great sweeping melody she declares that, whoever
the prisoner may be, she will free him. These twenty bars are as
great music as anything in the world: they even leave Senta's
declaration in the "Dutchman" far behind; they are at once triumphant
and charged with a pathos nearly unendurable in its intensity. The
scene ends with a strange hushed unison passage like some unearthly
chant: it is the lull before the breaking of the storm. The entry of
Pizarro and the pistol business are by no means done as Wagner or
Mozart would have done them. The music is always excellent and
sometimes great, but persistently symphonic and not dramatic in
character. However, it serves; and the strength of the situation
carries one on until the trumpet call is heard, and then we get a
wonderful tune such as neither Mozart nor Wagner could have written - a
tune that is sheer Beethoven. The finale of the scene is neither here
nor there; but in the duet between Leonora and Florestan we have again
pure Beethoven. There is one passage - it begins at bar 32 - which is
the expression of the very soul of the composer; one feels that if it
had not come his heart must have burst. I have neither space nor
inclination to rehearse all the splendours of the opera, but may
remind the reader of Florestan's song in the dungeon, Leonora's
address to Hope, and the hundred other fine things spread over it. It
is symphonic, not dramatic, music; but it is at times unspeakably
pathetic, at times full of radiant strength, and always an absolutely
truthful utterance of sheer human emotion. Wagner hit exactly the word
when he spoke of the _truthful_ Beethoven: here is no pose, no mere
tone-weaving, but the precise and most poignant expression of the
logical course taken by the human passions.




SCHUBERT


Excepting during his lifetime and for a period of some thirty years
after his death, Schubert cannot be said to have been neglected; and
last year there was quite an epidemic of concerts to celebrate the
hundredth anniversary of his birth. Centenary celebrations are often a
little disconcerting. They remind one that a composer has been dead
either a much shorter or a much longer time than one supposed; and one
gets down Riemann's "Musical Dictionary" and realises with a sigh that
the human memory is treacherous. Who, for instance, that is familiar
with Schubert's music can easily believe that it is a hundred years
since the composer was born and seventy since he died? It is as
startling to find him, as one might say, one of the ancients as it is
to remember that Spohr lived until comparatively recent times; for
whereas Spohr's music is already older than Beethoven's, older than
Mozart's, in many respects quite as old as Haydn's, much of Schubert's
is as modern as Wagner's, and more modern than a great deal that was
written yesterday. This modernity will, I fancy, be readily admitted
by everyone; and it is the only one quality of Schubert's music which
any two competent people will agree to admit. Liszt had the highest
admiration for everything he wrote; Wagner admired the songs, but
wondered at Liszt's acceptance of the chamber and orchestral music.
Sir George Grove outdoes Liszt in his Schubert worship; and an
astonishing genius lately rushed in, as his kind always does, where
Sir George would fear to tread, boldly, blatantly asserting that
Schubert is "the greatest musical genius that the Western world has
yet produced." On the other hand, Mr. G. Bernard Shaw out-Wagners
Wagner in denunciation, and declares the C symphony childish, inept,
mere Rossini badly done. Now, I can understand Sir George Grove's
enthusiasm; for Sir George to a large extent discovered Schubert; and
disinterested art-lovers always become unduly excited about any art
they have discovered: for example, see how excited Wagner became about
his own music, how rapt Mr. Dolmetsch is in much of the old music. But
I can understand Wagner's attitude no better than I can the attitude
of Mr. Shaw. I should like to have met Wagner and have said to him,
"My dear Richard, this disparaging tone is not good enough: where did
you get the introduction to 'The Valkyrie'? - didn't that long tremolo
D and the figure in the bass both come out of 'The Erl-king'? has your
Spear theme nothing in common with the last line but one of 'The
Wanderer'? or - if it is only the instrumental music you object to - did
you learn nothing for the third act of 'The Valkyrie' from the
working-out of the Unfinished Symphony? did you know that Schubert had
used your Mime theme in a quartet before you? do you know that I could
mention a hundred things you borrowed from Schubert? Go to, Richard:
be fair." Having extinguished Richard thus, and made his utter
discomfiture doubly certain by handing him a list of the hundred
instances, I should turn to Mr. Shaw and say, "My good G.B.S., you
understand a good deal about politics and political economy,
Socialism, and Fabians, painting and actors [and so on, with untrue
and ill-natured remarks _ad lib_.], but evidently you understand very
little about Schubert. That 'Rossini crescendo' is as tragic a piece
of music as ever was written." Yet, after dismissing the twain in this
friendly manner, I should have an uneasy feeling that there was some
good reason for their lack of enthusiasm for Schubert. The very fact
of there being such wide disagreement about the value of music that is
now so familiar to us all, points to some weakness in it which some of
us feel less than others; and I, poor unhappy mortal, who in my
unexcited moments neither place Schubert among the highest gods, like
Liszt and Sir George Grove, nor damn him cordially, like Wagner and
Mr. Shaw, cannot help perceiving that along with much that is
magnificently strong, distinguished, and beautiful in his music, there
is much that is pitiably weak, and worse than commonplace. The music
is like the man - the oddest combination of greatness and smallness
that the world has seen. Like Wagner and Beethoven, Schubert was
strong enough to refuse to earn an honest living; yet he yielded
miserably to publishers when discussing the number of halfpence he
should receive for a dozen songs. He had energy enough to go on
writing operas, but apparently not intelligence to see that his
librettos were worth setting, or to ensure that anything should come
of them when they were set. He thought, rightly or wrongly, that he
needed more counterpoint, yet continued to compose symphonies and
masses without it, vaguely intending to the very end to take lessons
from a sound teacher. He had spirit enough to fall in love (so far as
stories may be relied on), but not to make the lady promise to marry
him, nor yet resolutely to cure himself of his affliction. He had
courage to face the truth, as he saw it, and he found life bitter, and
not worth enduring; yet he could not renounce it, like Beethoven, nor
end it as others have done. As in actual life, so in his music; having
once started anything, he seemed quite unable to make up his mind to
fetch it to a conclusion. He was like a man who lets himself roll down
a hill because it is easier to keep on rolling than to stop. He
repeats his melodies interminably, and then draws a double bar and
sets down the two fatal dots which mean that all has to be played
again. If the repeat had not been a favourite resort of lazy composers
before his time he would have invented it, not because he was lazy,
but because he wanted to go on and could not afford infinite
music-paper. Hence his music at its worst is the merest drivel ever
set down by a great composer; hence at anything but its best it lacks
concentrated passion and dramatic intensity; more than any other
composer's it has one prevailing note, a note of deepest melancholy;
and therefore, when a few pieces are known, most of the rest seem
barren of what is wanted by those who seek chiefly in music the
expression of all the human passions.

Of his lengthiness, his discursiveness, Schubert might possibly have
been cured, but not of his melancholy: it is the very essence of his
music, as it was of his being. "The Wanderer" is his typical song: he
was himself the wanderer, straying disconsolately, helplessly,
hopelessly through a strange, chilly, unreal world, singing the
saddest and sometimes the sweetest songs that ever entered the ears of
men. That his home and his happiness lay close at hand counts for
nothing; for he did not and could not know that he was the voice of
the eighteenth century, worn out and keenly sensible of the futility
of the purely intellectual life. Even had he arrived at a
consciousness of the truth that the cure for his despair lay in
throwing over the antiquated forms, modes, and ideas of the eighteenth
century and living a nineteenth century life, free and conscienceless
in nature's way, he would have been little better off; for the
tendencies of many generations remained strong in him; and besides,
had he the physical energy for a free, buoyant, joyous existence, was
he not physiologically unfit for happiness? He lived with an
ever-present consciousness of his impotence to satisfy his deepest
needs. He was even destitute of that sense of the immeasurable good to
come which of old time found expression in the fiction of a personal
immortality, and in the nineteenth century in the complacent
acceptance of full and vigorous life, with death as a noble and
fitting close. Life and death alike were tragic, because hopeless, to
Schubert. His career, if career it can be called, is infinitely
touching. His helplessness moves one to pity, odd though it seems that
one in some ways so strong should also in so many ways be so weak; and
his death was as touching as his life. Of all the composers he met
death with least heroism. Mozart, it is true, shrieked hysterically;
but death to his diseased mind was merely an indescribable horror; and
the fact of his hysteria proves his revolt against fate. Beethoven,
during a surgical operation shortly before the end, saw the stream of
water and blood flowing from him, and found courage to say, "Better
from the belly than the pen;" and as he lay dying and a thunderstorm
broke above the house, he threatened it with his clenched fist.
Schubert learnt that he was to die, and turned his face to the wall
and did not speak again. It is hard to say whether his music was
sadder when he sang of death than when he sang of life. Even in his
rare moments of good spirits one catches stray echoes of his
prevailing note, and realises how completely his despair dominated
him. He could not sing of love or fighting or of the splendours of
nature without betraying his deep conviction of the futility of all
created things. It is characteristic that his major melodies should
often be as sad and wailing as his minor, and that his scherzos and
other movements, in which he has deliberately set out to be
light-hearted, should often be ponderous and without the nervous
energy he manifests when he gives his familiar feelings free play.

Despite its incessant plaintive accent, his music is saved by the
endless flow of melody, often lovely, generally characteristic, though
sometimes common, in which Schubert continually expressed anew his one
mood; and he was placed among the great ones by the miraculous
facility he possessed of extemporising frequent passages of
extraordinary power and bigness. At least half of his songs are
poor - for a composer capable of rising to such heights; but of the
remainder at least half are nearly equal to any songs in the world for
sweetness, strength, and accurate expressiveness, while a few approach
so close to Handel's and Mozart's that affection for the composer
presses one hard to put them on the same level. But, compared with
those high standards, Schubert, even at his best, is unmistakably felt
to be second-rate, while his average - always comparing it with the
highest - cannot truly be said to be more than fourth-rate. That he
stands far above Mendelssohn and Schumann, and perhaps a little above
Weber, almost goes without saying; for those composers have no more of
the great style, the style of Handel and Mozart, and Bach and
Beethoven at their finest, than Schubert, and they lack the lovely
irresistibly moving melody and the bigness. But it must be recognised
that Schubert never rose to a style of sustained grandeur and dignity;
he was always colloquial, paying in this the penalty for the extreme
facility with which he composed ("I compose every morning, and when I
have finished one thing I commence something fresh"). Compose is
scarcely the word to use: he never composed in the ordinary sense of
the word; he extemporised on paper. Even when he re-wrote a song, it
meant little more than that, dissatisfied with his treatment of a
theme, he tried again. He never built as, for instance, Bach and
Beethoven built, carefully working out this detail, lengthening this
portion, shearing away that, evolving part from part so that in the
end the whole composition became a complete organism. There is none of
the logic in his work that we find in the works of the tip-top men,
none of the perfect finish; but, on the contrary, a very considerable
degree of looseness, if not of actual incoherence, and many marks of
the tool and a good deal of the scaffolding. But, in spite of it all,
the greatness of many of his movements seems to me indisputable. In a
notice of "The Valkyrie," Mr. Hichens once very happily spoke of the
"earth-bigness" of some of the music, and this is the bigness I find
in Schubert at his best and strongest. When he depicts the workings of
nature - the wind roaring through the woods, the storm above the
convent roof, the flash of the lightning, the thunderbolt - he does not
accomplish it with the wonderful point and accuracy of Weber, nor with
the ethereal delicacy of Purcell, but with a breadth, a sympathy with
the passion of nature, that no other composer save Wagner has ever
attained to. He views natural phenomena through a human temperament,
and so infuses human emotion into natural phenomena, as Wagner does in
"The Valkyrie" and "Siegfried." The rapidly repeated note, now rising
to a roar and now falling to a subdued murmur, in "The Erl-king" was
an entirely new thing in music; and in "The Wanderer" piano fantasia,
the working-out of the Unfinished symphony, and even in some of the
chamber music, he invented things as fresh and as astounding. And when
he is simply expressing himself, as at the beginning of the
Unfinished, and in the first and last movements of the big C symphony,
he often does it on the same large scale. The second subject of the C
symphony finale, with its four thumps, seems to me to become in its
development, and especially in the coda, all but as stupendous an
expression of terror as the music in the last scene of "Don Giovanni,"
where Leporello describes the statue knocking at the door. In short,
when I remember Schubert's grandest passages, and the unspeakable
tenderness of so many of his melodies, it is hard to resist the
temptation to cancel all the criticism I have written and to follow
Sir George Grove in placing Schubert close to Beethoven.




WEBER AND WAGNER


There are critics, I suppose, prepared to insist that Weber, like
Mozart, is a little _passé_ now. And it is true that no composer, save
Mozart, is at once so widely accepted and so seldom heard; for even
Bach is more frequently played and less generally praised. At rare
intervals Richter, Levi, or Mottl play his overtures; the pieces for
piano and orchestra are occasionally dragged out to display the
prowess of a Paderewski or a Sauer; and one or another of the piano
sonatas sometimes finds its way into a Popular Concert programme. But


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Online LibraryJohn F. RuncimanOld Scores and New Readings Discussions on Music & Certain Musicians → online text (page 6 of 13)