May Clarissa Gillington Byron.

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" That tremendous love - duo, sustained at the
supreme altitude of emotion, where . . . the hero and
heroine ' lose themselves in the Nirvana of love . . .
dissolve into their common soul, which, vast and
unfathomable, seems to them the soul of the whole
universe.' "






In the same Series.
Tscha ikovsky,







'T is before six o'clock on a July
morning in 1873, when Richard
Wagner rises to devote several
hours to work : for he has an
incurable passion for hard work,
and is more than eager every
day to resume the labours of
yesterday. No one is allowed to enter the
room where he sits, with a glass of wine before
him on the table : his spare, agile form clothed
in garb of amazing colour and construction.
His sensitive skin, which shudders involuntarily
at the touch of cotton, is invariably clad in silk
attire, and he delights to indulge in the most
rococo combinations of design. His present
dressing-gown is of quilted pink satin with a
lighter satin lining, and stuffed with eiderdown,
with an extra padded ruching inserted all round.
If this is not warm enough for chilly mornings,



Wagner puts on a heavy lined fur cloak instead.
And he is utterly at a loss without three indis-
pensable articles — his velvet cap, his spectacles,
and his snuff box.

On dit that bright, not to say gaudy colours,
and flamboyant designs, exhilarate and inspire
Wagner, and moreover, that he changes his
dress and the upholstery of his surroundings to
suit the peculiar character of whatever opera
he is engaged upon. Be that as it may, many
of his greatest works have been composed
without these external stimulants ; in poverty,
discomfort, exile, and obloquy. If ever a man,
by strenuous toil and resolute persistence in the
face of all obstacles, earned the right to in-
dulge his fads and fancies, it is Richard Wagner.
By long and stormy ways in the pursuit of an
incalculable ideal, he has come to his own at
last : and some slight indulgence in the " eccen-
tricities of genius " may now be freely accorded

The room itself in which he works is
equally indicative of Wagner's own avowal
that he is "by nature luxurious, prodigal, and


extravagant, much more than Sardanapalus and
all the old Emperors put together .... better
qualified to squander sixty thousand francs in
six months than to earn it." This room
apparently represents his beau-ideal of a library,
work-room and reception - room combined.
Large and spacious, fitted so as to afford possi-
bilities of the most brilliant lighting, with wall-
lamps and chandeliers : filled with rich furniture,
with gorgeous curtains and hangings — silks,
satins, damasks, velvets : its shelves of musical
scores, and of books innumerable, testify to
Wagner's personal penchants as regards authors
and musicians. His literary library is unusually
well-stocked and well-chosen. Few visitors to
the villa have encountered its equal. Himself
a poet and dramatist, he has a fine collection of
poetical and dramatic works : many being trans-
lations, for Wagner is not a good linguist.
History, mythology, philosophy, occupy con-
siderable space : his own treatises and essays
on the philosophy and theory of music are
represented also. Volumes on various erudite
and recondite subjects, far beyond the ordinary
reader, evince the composer's wide scope and
eclectic tastes : and volumes of orchestral and


operatic works proclaim his special predilections
in the "tone-art" — notably, and paramount, his
worship of Beethoven, an admiration bordering
on fanaticism. " I do not recall clearly," he
has written, "what I was intended to become,
but I remember that one evening I heard a
Beethoven symphony for the first time, that I
had an attack of fever thereafter, and that,
when I had recovered, I had become a musician.
This may explain why, although in course of
time I became familiar with other beautiful
music, I still loved and worshipped Beethoven
above all. I ceased to know any other pleasure
but that of immersing myself in the depths of
his genius, until I came to imagine myself a part
of him." But, besides Beethoven, Wagner has
a profound admiration for that greatest master
of musical thought, that inexhaustible well of
beauty, Sebastian Bach. " How warm, how
healthy and natural is his music," says he,
"how full of feeling, — what strange cries in it
now and then ! " Mozart also occupies a lofty
pinnacle in his mind, " the glorious master with
his incomparable dramatic talent" . . . .
"I believe in God, Mozart, Beethoven," was
Wagner's early credo. Last, and by no means


least, his love of Weber is manifested in a
collection of various works by that insufficiently
appreciated genius. It has been remarked that
" the composer in whom Wagner's music really /
has its roots, is not Beethoven, but Weber."
He himself has acknowledged his indebtedness,
in his article on The Music of the Future,
11 Should I be granted the satisfaction of seeing
my Tannhauser well received by the Paris public
. . . . I should owe this success in a large
measure to the very noticeable connection of
this opera with those of my predecessors,
amongst whom I specially call attention to

It is, in quantity, therefore, not a very
extended repertoire, musically speaking, which
figures upon Wagner'j library shelves : it owes
all to quality. The conspicuous absence of
certain great names is due to his strongly-
marked idiosyncrasies. Richard Wagner has
never been one to follow the multitude in
obeisance to any artistic fame : he has chosen
either to lead popular opinion, or to ignore it.

Around him, as he sits so diligently tran-
scribing " thoughts that breathe and words that


burn," a score of friendly eyes look down. The
lofty walls are hung with portraits. Here his
mother, there his wife Cosima, — his patron
King Ludwig, his friend Liszt, his idol Beet-
hoven ; Schiller, and Goethe, and Schopenhauer,
and others endeared to him by intellect or friend-
ship. A splendid Steinway grand piano occupies
one corner of the room : and mention must not
be omitted of a magnificent dog which lies
stretched in sympathetic silence at his master's
feet : for Wagner, whether he walks, or writes,
or rests, is never unaccompanied by a dog, and
he insists that his beloved "Peps" helped him
to compose Tannhauser, by howling most voci-
ferously, with his eyes peering deep into his
master's, whenever the music went against the
grain with him. Whereupon Wagner would

reconstruct it The man has a perfect

passion for animals : he is contemplating writing
a "History of My Dogs." And it is note-
worthy that, wherever possible in his operas, he
introduces animals : as a matter of fact, the
Meister-singer, Tristan, and the Fliegende Hollander
are the only plots in which they do not occur.
Often they are associated with particularly
beautiful and significant music : as will be


" The violins, in high harmonic positions, in the
key of A, ' which is the purest for strings and the
most magic in effect,' always announce the approach
of Lohengrin, as the Swan glides up with the mys-
terious Knight.


remembered by those who are familiar with
the swans in Lohengrin and Parsifal, and the
bird and the Dragon in Siegfried — wherein a
bear also appears. In Rienzi and Tannhauser,
Walkure and G otter dammerung, there are horses :
and amongst other creatures in various operas,
may be enumerated a dove, a ram, a toad, a
snake, ravens, and hunting -dogs. In short,
Wagner's love of animals has been coupled with
his stubborn honesty and uncompromising pur-
pose, as the most prominent traits in his

In personal appearance there is nothing
about the great operatic composer to indicate
the immense resources of his intellect, and the
abundant love and happiness which he is
capable of feeling. A man of barely middle
height, and of no particular presence, his most
pronounced features are a massive — almost too
massive — forehead, and an obstinate chin. The
latter to some extent contradicts the expressive
serenity of his eyes, and the refinement of his
mouth. His hair and whiskers are but slightly
touched with grey ; but his face is lined with
past pains, for Wagner has suffered all his life.


Not only have repeated failures, perpetual
frustrations, troubles financial, artistic and
domestic, set their mark upon him : he has
been since childhood the victim of erysipelas,
heart-trouble, dyspepsia, and insomnia, — the
latter maladies probably produced by continual
sedentary work. Really good health he has
never known : nor, indeed, are his habits con-
ducive to it. He does not over-eat or over-
drink or over-smoke : but he is a veritable
slave to snuff: and, like many other men of
genius, he has to pay the penalty of inordinate
work at inordinate hours, in a ruined digestion
and an impaired temper.

In speaking of work, it must be remem-
bered that Wagner has imposed upon himself a
colossal task, — one which no previous composer
has attempted,— in combining the art of the
poet with that of the musician, — in regarding
an opera as a co-ordinate whole ; words, music,
orchestration all simultaneously conceived and
produced, inseparable. Wagner is wont to
compare poetry to a husband and music to a
wife, — thus, to a certain extent, subordinating
the feminine element to the masculine, — where-


as the reverse has hitherto always been the
case : the music has occupied the position of
the "predominant partner." And, in order
to accomplish his ends in this union, his method
of creating a "music-drama" is in the highest
degree systematic. He does not dog the heels
of a desultory inspiration, but maps out with
clear purpose and insight the progress and
culmination of his work. His usual plan is
this : first, to select a subject, and rough out
the plot in prose. This subject-matter is to
some extent pre-determined for him : for, as
he has declared, Love is the main subject of
all the dramas he has ever written, from the
Fliegende Hollander to Parsifal. Love, human
or divine — love, triumphant or despairing —
love, in selfishness or in self-sacrifice : love,
regarded, according to Schopenhauer's theory,
as "the highest of all moral and hygienic laws."
The solitary rival which he permits to this
all-powerful passion is gold, — and that only
as evidenced in the misshapen dwarf Alberich
of the Rheingold. Look back in memory upon
the Wagnerian stories ; you will perceive that
love is imminent and immanent from the very
outset. "All his heroes and heroines," it has


been said, "fall in love at their first meeting, — or
before." And it will also be evident that in
almost every case the woman is ready to sacri-
fice her life, if need be, for the lover. Hers is
the final and the noblest joy, the joy of self-
renunciation. Senta and Vanderdecken, Eliza-
beth and Tannhauser, Elsa and Lohengrin, —
Eva and Walter, Siegmund and Sieglinde,
Siegfried and Briinnhilde, — here, indeed, is a
glorious pageantry of true lovers such as you
shall not match in all the world : and, last and
greatest of them, Tristan and Isolde, lovers
par excellence, whose story is, in Wagner's
words, " the simplest of musical conceptions,
but full-blooded ; with the black flag waving at
the end :" or, as Liszt has put it, " something
to weep over and flare up in enthusiasm. What
ravishing magic ! What an incredible wealth of
beauty!" In Tristan und Isolde, " a poem for
poets, a score for musicians," love with all its
attributes, all its possibilities, its glory height-
ened to a more vivid glow against the lowering
shadow of inevitable doom, finds its ultimate
consummation of expression : above all in that
tremendous love-duo, sustained at the supreme
altitude of emotion, where "the orchestra


becomes a perfect Oriental garden of fresh and
fragrant melodies," and the hero and heroine
"lose themselves," to quote Gatulle Mendes,
11 in the Nirvana of Love . . . dissolve into
their common soul, which, vast and unfathom-
able, seems to them the soul of the whole

But we must return to the sedulous workman
at his table. About nine o'clock, breakfast is
brought in to him — separately from the rest of
the household — and he swallows it hurriedly
after his usual headlong fashion : his one idea is
to get on with work. Having made a sketch in
prose of the main lines of his plot, he proceeds
to put it into verse, not without the most
careful discrimination and selection, and having
first thoroughly assured himself that the idea
is full of latent success.

But he goes much further than this. "It
would be quite impossible for me," he has
stated, " to compose to an opera-' book ' writ-
ten by another person, and for this reason : it
is not my way to choose a certain subject,
elaborate it into verse, and then excogitate


music suitable to accompany it. Indeed, such a
method would put me under the disadvantage
of having to be inspired twice by the same
subject, which is impossible. My method is
different from that. In the first place, no sub-
jects attract me save such as present themselves
to me as of simultaneous poetic and musical
importance. Thus, before I begin to make a
verse, or even to project a scene, I am already
intoxicated by the musical fragrance of my task.
I have all the tones, all the characteristic
motives, in my hand, so that when the verses
are finished and the scenes arranged, the opera
is practically finished so far as I am concerned,
and the detailed execution of the work is little
more than a quiet after-labour, which has been
preceded by the real moments of creation."

Wagner has for many years adhered to this
conviction : he has expressed it with vehemence
and certainty in his essay on Beethoven, where
he demonstrates how even that mighty genius,
incapable of expressing his highest inspirations
in sound alone, invoked the aid of poetry for
his magnum opus in the Ninth Symphony. In
this, according to Wagner's theory, he returned


to the original tradition of all nations, in which
bard and singer, poet and minstrel, were one
and the same : an ideal and natural condition of
identity, which had suffered a temporary disloca-
tion and divorce for some two hundred years.

Owing to this plan of giving contemporaneous
evolution to both words and sounds, of regard-
ing both as the expression of the same emotion,
— the verses, twin-born with the music, are
almost finished before he commits them to
paper : and the music, chiefly conceived upon his
lonely walks, is also only waiting its final capture
in actual black-and-white notation. Wagner's
memory is of unparalleled power and magnitude :
he can conduct, from memory alone, whole sym-
phonies of his beloved Beethoven, every note in
the complex scores visible and audible to his
mind. And although he likes to have a piano
in his room, so that, if necessary, he may
re-mould and re-model to a certain extent, he
cannot attempt to transfer to the limitations of
the key-board the amazing architectonics of his
piled-up score. Wagner thinks entirely in
orchestral terms, and lives habitually in a region
of orchestral colours ; merely using the piano as


a very inadequate sketch-book to which he can
have recourse when necessary.

He is at present engaged in working out his
instrumental score from sketches on scraps of
music-paper, written in pencil and almost
illegible. It is a task detestable to his impatient
and impetuous soul : yet, with one of those
contradictions which are so characteristic of
great men, his completed scores are as neat,
clean, and presentable, as his rough jottings are
wild and almost incomprehensible. Not a blot,
not a blur, not an erasure, disfigures his
eminently legible pages : and his writing itself
is exceptionally good. " These scores," he has
told Liszt, "will be my most finished master-
works in caligraphy ! . . . Meyerbeer, in
former days, admired nothing in my scores
more than the neat writing. This tribute of
admiration has now become a curse to me : I
must write neat scores as long as I live ! " So
that Wagner's Reinschrift, or clean copy, is a
marvel of lucidity and elegance.

Yet what the compiling of this instrumental
score must mean, in severe manual labour no


less than in brain work, only he can realize
who himself is an orchestral writer. No one
else can possibly comprehend the innumerable
transpositions and super-positions and juxta-
positions, the questions of balance, and colour,
and combination, which go to the building-up of
an orchestral work : and above all, in such
scores as Wagner's. " Any one who does com-
prehend it," as the composer Heinrich Dorn
has exclaimed, " must be doubly astounded at
this exhausting and colossal activity."

In the full score of Die Walkure alone, it has
been calculated, there are at least a million
notes, — that is, taking them in sequence, — not
taking into account their incredible multitude of
recapitulations or combinations, in the con-
struction of the whole, bar by bar. Moreover,
the orchestra, as employed by Wagner, is no
longer the small select paint-box, so to speak,
with which Mozart and Beethoven produced
such noble effects. In Wagner's opinion, they
had but narrow and meagre means at their
disposal. He supplements, doubles, triples or
quadruples the existing instruments in their
various divisions : he adds new instruments,


hitherto rigorously excluded from classic or-
chestras ; he invents unheard-of concatenations
of sound, undreamed-of usages of tint and tone.
Wholly original, unorthodox, unconventional,
yet convinced of his own capacity, he bids the
orchestra assume a role and an importance,
which never in opera has been heretofore
acceded to it. It is no longer treated, in his
own phrase, as a big guitar to accompany arias.
" He entrusts to it the function of revealing the
soul, the passions, the feelings, even the most
transient emotions, of his characters ; the
orchestra becomes the echo, the transparent
veil, through which we hear all their heart-
beats : " whether, in the Feuer-zauber scene,
to use the language of Saint-Saens, " the violins
flame, the harps crackle, the drums scin-
tillate," around the wall of fire which hides
Briinnhilde, or the two sets of forest horns,
making answer to each other in different
keys, descend into dreamy silence before the
passionate embrace of Tristan and Isolde :
whether the violins, in high " harmonic "
positions, in the key of A, "which is the
purest for strings and the most magic in effect,"
always announce the approach of Lohengrin,


as the Swan glides up with the mysterious
Knight ; or, in the introduction to the first act of
Die Walkiire, the rainstorm pelts and pours upon
the roof of Hunding's hut, in the " agitated
tremolos and runs of the violins," while the
double-basses mutter growling thunder in the
distance, until at last, in that clashing cata-
clysm of sound with which the storm rides in
upon the full orchestra, appears that sinister
and terrible motive identified with the Storm-
God. Or again, when upon the chord of E-flat,
rising and falling in long waves from the highest
to the lowest octaves, the water-maidens of
Rheingold become visible in their graceful play,
and their song rocks like a cradle-song, in ex-
quisite modulations, half- nonsense -words such
as a cradle song might be, " Weia, waga, woge
du Welle" Nor is it only en masse, and in the
depicting of a whole scene, as it progresses,
that Wagner has led the way into a new tone-
world whither henceforth so many shall hope to
follow, whilst those " who come to scoff, remain
to pray." He uses certain instruments to certain
ends : and certain keys for certain purposes. In
Lohengrin, for instance, he breaks through the
monotonous " harp conventionality," which has


always been used for portraying celestial matters,
and takes, instead of harps — with infinitely thrill-
ing effect — violins and wood-wind, in prolonged
notes, in the highest positions. Ortrud is almost
invariably indicated by the English horn, the
bass-clarinet, and the key of F-sharp minor :
Elsa by the high wood-wind : the King by
the brass. All this, without mention being made
of what is perhaps Wagner's most salient musical
characteristic, or what strikes the lay mind as
such, — the association of his dramatis personce with
certain definite melodies or motives. For he is
the prophet, if not the inventor, of the leit-motiv
and all subsequent developments which follow
on it.

But now the morning has reached the hour of
twelve : and the composer's long isolation is
ended. His wife comes in, taking it for granted
that he has worked long enough, and sits down
to tell him the news of the day, to read his
letters aloud to him, to listen to his enthusiastic
projects, and write, at his dictation, some of the
enormous multiplicity of letters which must be
despatched. Gosima Wagner, the daughter of


Liszt, is a perfect wife for the eccentric musician,
whose first marriage was in all respects unhappy.
She almost worships her husband, and delights
to serve and wait upon his smallest wishes. She
is full of intelligent sympathy for his art, and
of loving indulgence to his weaknesses. He
may cram the drawing-room, like the study,
with irrelevant cascades of velvet, or unneces-
sary draperies of silk — for he has, as we have
indicated already, " a passionate love for
luminous stuffs that spread themselves like
sheets of flame or fall in splendid folds." He
may garb himself in bizarre and almost ludicrous
concoctions, such as a coat and trousers of golden
satin embroidered with pearl flowers. Gosima
Wagner knows the real honest heart at the back
of all these ebullitions, and is aware that in his
ideal German, Hans Sachs of Der Meister singer,
"the type of all that is noble and self-sacrific-
ing in human nature," her husband recognises
many of his own best traits. There is only one
thing which he will not sacrifice. All others if
need be, — but not his dreams, his aspirations
in art, for whose sake he has been content to
endure so many years of privation, derision
and disaster.


" Happy the genius," Wagner has declared,
11 on whom fortune has never smiled. Genius
is so much unto itself ! What more could fortune
add? . . . When I am alone, and the musical
fibres within me vibrate, and heterogeneous
sounds form themselves into chords whence at
last springs the melody which reveals to me my
inner self : if then the heart in loud beats marks
the impetuous rhythms, and rapture finds vent
in divine tears through the mortal, no-longer-
seeing eyes, — then do I often say to myself,
what a fool you are not to remain always by
yourself, to live only for these unique delights !
• . . What can this public, with its most brilliant
reception, offer you to equal in value even the
one hundredth part of that holy rapture which
comes from within?" But the vivid elation
which supports him during the hours of work,
sinks as suddenly as it rose ; leaving him weary
and flaccid as he lays down his pen after the
prolonged and eager effort. To-day, indeed, he
has not undergone the stress of emotion which
he suffers during the actual throes of the creative
impulse, — in which, as many great authors have
done, he identifies himself absolutely with the
characters of his story, and finds their joys and


"Elizabeth in her cruel and death-dealing dis-
appointment when she sees that Tannhauser is not
among the company of the pilgrims returning from

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Online LibraryMay Clarissa Gillington ByronA day with Richard Wagner → online text (page 1 of 2)