WAGNER'S "TRISTAN UND ISOLDE"
AN ESSAY ON THE WAGNERIAN DRAMA
BY GEORGE AINSLIE HIGHT
Passing the visions, passing the night, Passing, unloosing the hold of my comrade's hands, Passing the song of the hermit bird and the tallying song of my soul, Victorious song, death's outlet song, yet varying, ever-altering song, As low and wailing, yet clear the notes, rising and falling, flooding the night, Sadly sinking and fainting, as warning and warning, and yet again bursting with joy, Covering the earth and filling the spread of the heaven, As that powerful psalm in the night I heard from recesses.
The following pages contain little if anything that is new, or that would be likely to interest those who are already at home in Wagner's work. They are intended for those who are beginning the study of Wagner. In spite of many books, I know of no Wagner literature in English to which a beginner can turn who wishes to know what Wagner was aiming at, in what respect his works differ from those of the operatic composers who preceded him. Some sort of Introduction appears to me a necessary preliminary to the study of Wagner, not because his works are artificial or unnatural, but because our minds have become perverted by the highly artificial products of the Italian and French opera, so that a work of Wagner at first appears to us very much as Paradise Lost or a tragedy of Sophokles would appear to a person who had never read anything but light French novels. He must entirely change the attitude of his mind, and the change, although it be a return to nature and truth, is not easy to make.
Those who wish fully to understand Wagner's aims must read his own published works. I have not attempted to give his views in a condensed form, being convinced that any such attempt could only end in failure. Whenever it has been made, the result has been a caricature; you cannot separate a man's work from his personality. All that I could do was to endeavour to lay some of the problems involved, as I conceive them, before the reader in my own words.
SAMER, PAS DE CALAIS, May, 1912.
I. ON WAGNER CRITICISM
II. WAGNER AS MAN
III. WAGNER'S THEORETICAL WRITINGS
IV. THE ROOTS OF GERMAN MUSIC
V. THE WAGNERIAN DRAMA AND ITS ANTECEDENTS
VI. THE EARLIER VERSIONS OF THE TRISTAN MYTH
VII. WAGNER'S CONCEPTION OF THE TRISTAN MYTHOS
VIII. ON CERTAIN OBJECTIONS TO THE WAGNERIAN DRAMA
IX. MUSIC AS AN ART OF EXPRESSION
X. SOME REMARKS ON THE MUSICAL DICTION OF "TRISTAN UND ISOLDE"
XI. OBSERVATIONS ON THE TEXT AND MUSIC
XII. OBSERVATIONS ON THE TEXT AND MUSIC CONTINUED
XIII. OBSERVATIONS ON THE TEXT AND MUSIC CONTINUED
[Greek: Theohus d' ephame eleountas aemas sugchoreutas te kahi choraegohus aemin dedo-ke'nai to'n te Ap'ollo-a kahi Mousas kahi dhae kahi tri'ton ephamen, ei' memnaemetha, Dionuson.]
ON WAGNER CRITICISM
A new work on Wagner requires some justification. It might be urged that, since the Meister has been dead for some decades and the violence of party feeling may be assumed to have somewhat abated, we are now in a position to form a sober estimate of his work, to review his aims, and judge of his measure of success.
Such, however, is not my purpose in the following pages. I conceive that the endeavour to estimate an artist's work involves a misconception of the nature of art. We can estimate products of utility, things expressible in figures, the weight of evidence, a Bill for Parliament, a tradesman's profits. But a work of art is written for our pleasure, and all that we can attempt is to understand it. True, we must judge in a certain sense, we must weigh and estimate before we can arrive at understanding; but it is one thing to meditate in the privacy of one's own mind, quite another to publish these constructive processes as an end in themselves, to set up critical "laws" and expect that poets are going to conform to them.
Art, says Ruskin, is a language, a vehicle of thought, in itself nothing. Plato's teaching in the third book of his Republic is the same, and the idea of the secondary nature of art, of its value only as the expression of something else, of a human or moral purpose only fully expressible in the drama, is the nucleus of all Wagner's theoretical writing. In private conversation and in his letters he often spoke very emphatically. "I would joyfully sacrifice and destroy everything that I have produced if I could hope thereby to further freedom and justice."
[Footnote 1: The episode which gave rise to this remark is too long to relate in the text, but is highly characteristic and instructive for Wagner's attitude towards art. It will be found in the sixth volume of Glasenapp's biography, p. 309.]
Let us clearly keep in mind the distinction here involved between the two elements of every work of art: matter and form, substance and technique, [Greek: onta] and [Greek: gignomena], Brahm and Maya, Wille und Vorstellung, the emotional and the intellectual life of man, or, untechnically, what he feels and his communication of those feelings to others as a social being. With the first of these the critic has nothing to do; the matter is given; all he has to consider is whether it has found adequate expression—that is, to try to understand the language, that when he has mastered it he may help others to do so according to his ability. I do not say that the matter is one to which we are indifferent. On the contrary, it is far the more important of the two, since the thing expressed is prior to its expression. Only it is no concern of the critic, because we may fairly assume that if the technical expression is correct and intelligible the artist has already told us what he wishes to convey in the most perfect language of which that idea is susceptible, and that any attempt to put it into the lower and more prosy language of the critic would only weaken and distort the thought.
It does not seem to me that passions have abated very much, or judgments have become much more sober, since Wagner has left us. In England at least the ignorance and indifference which prevail among the ordinary public are still profound. In truth the seed which he sowed has fallen upon evil soil; his fate has been a cruel one. He, the most sincere and transparent of men, whose only wish was to be seen as he actually was, has perhaps more than any other great man been the victim of misrepresentation, alike from his senseless persecutors and from his equally senseless adulators. While he lived, every imaginable calumny, plausible and unplausible, was invented to besmirch his character and his art. Now it is, in Germany at least, no longer safe to revile him on the ground of his technical artistic style. The days are long past when the terms "charlatan," "amateur," "artistic anarchist" could be applied to him with impunity, and it is fully recognized by all who have any title to speak that Wagner, so far from being a revolutionary destroyer, was, like all true reformers—Luther, for example, or Jeremiah or Sokrates—an extreme conservative. Those who like Walt Whitman preach libertinism in the name of democracy do not want reform; they are satisfied with things as they are. Wagner battled, both in music and in literature, for der reine Satz—purity of diction as against the untidy licence which was then and still is fashionable among weak-kneed artists and a thoughtless public.
[Footnote 2: It is perhaps still necessary to produce some warrant for these statements. The deep-rooted conservatism of Wagner's character is a prominent feature of all his literary work, and especially noticeable in his educational schemes, as, for example; the report on a proposed Munich school of music, with its text: "The business of a Conservatory is to conserve." On his musical diction the testimony of Prof. S. Jadassohn will probably be considered sufficient by most people. He writes: "Wagner's harmonies are clear and pure; they are never arbitrary, nor coarse nor brutal, but throughout conscientious and clean according to the strict rules of pure diction (des reinen Satzes). Consequently the sequences and combinations of the chords and the course of the modulation are easily followed by those who know harmony. Similarly, his polyphonic style is easily intelligible to the trained contrapuntist"—and more to the same effect, Jadassohn is here only expressing what every competent musician knows. Before the first performance at Bayreuth in 1876 Wagner's last word to the artists was: Deutlichkeit—"clearness"—a word which sums up all his technical teaching throughout his life.]
Mr. Hadow has truly observed that we have not yet learned to treat genius frankly, and either starve it with censure or smother it with irrational excess of enthusiasm. If the malicious misrepresentations and persecutions which Wagner endured during his lifetime were the outcome of ignorance, assuredly the hysterical raving of our day is no less ignorant and contemptible. I hear it said that in England "Wagnerism" is an attitude, and can only reply that it is so in Germany too. Among the cosmopolitan audiences who crowd the theatres of Dresden and Munich on a Wagner night and greet his works with thundering applause, there is probably not one person in a hundred who really knows what he sees and hears. Not that these people are not perfectly sincere; something they have undoubtedly taken in; the marvellous euphony and balance of Wagner's orchestra under the conductors we now have, the exquisite grace of the melodic and harmonic structure, and the lyric beauty of so many scenes are apparent to all, and will always awaken the boundless enthusiasm of those who go only to be diverted. But these are only the ornaments of the drama; to understand the drama itself requires a serious effort on the part of the hearer which few are prepared to make, a moral sympathy with the composer and receptive understanding of his aims of which few are capable.
We in England seem content to remain in darkness. I am not, of course, referring to the many competent men who have given serious attention to the works of Wagner; I am speaking of the general public. The English people has plenty of poetry in its heart, but our attitude towards German literature and art is not creditable to us as a nation. We who possess the finest literature ever produced by any people, whose Chaucers and Shakespeares and Popes and Byrons are the models on which the poets of other nations endeavour to form their style, scarcely think their literature worthy of serious consideration. A German boy when he leaves school has generally a pretty close acquaintance with Shakespeare, and knows at least something of other English authors and poets. An English boy at the same stage of his education has perhaps heard of Goethe and Schiller, but has rarely read any of their works. At the Universities it is no better. I really believe that in England Gounod's Faust is better known than Goethe's! It would be impossible that such travesties of Faust as appear from time to time upon the English stage would be endured if our scholars and intellectuals were better informed. Towards ancient languages, except the two which are fashionable, we are just as indifferent. It was no less a person than Sir Richard Maine who asserted that, except the blind forces of nature, nothing exists in the world which is not Greek in its origin! Truly more things are dreamed of in our philosophy than are in heaven and earth! When great scholars make such statements as this it is scarcely surprising that ordinary people should care little for the origins of their own language. The parents of modern English are not Greek but Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian or Icelandic. Both these languages have a literature of the very highest rank, but are little studied in this country. The eighth-century English lyrics are amongst the finest in the language. As for Scandinavian, not every one in England is aware that the Icelanders are, and have been for a thousand years, the most literary people in the world; that in one important branch of literature, that of story-telling, they are absolutely without a rival, except in the Old Testament. From these Scandinavian sources we have received the heritage which has grown into our magnificent language and literature, but we trouble our heads little about them and leave them to foreigners to study. Ignorance may perhaps be excusable; what is wholly inexcusable is the habit of some Englishmen of criticising and censuring the work of foreigners which they dislike because they cannot understand it. There is a certain section of the English people who seem to think that it shows patriotism and a becoming national pride to belittle the work of other nations and speak of it in an insolent tone of contempt. They habitually misrepresent the achievements of foreigners in order to make them appear ridiculous. Over twenty years ago a writer in one of our high-class magazines informed an astonished world that "the Wagner-bubble has burst!" and the preposterous nonsense has been repeated again and again in one form or another ever since. Quite recently we read in one of our leading English dailies the following sentences: "... Among many of the best-known critics there is a general consensus of opinion that with the completion of Strauss' important work [Elektra], Wagnerism will diminish in popularity.... For years and years vain attempts have been made to get away from Richard Wagner. Creative musicians have long felt that Wagner's great and never-to-be-forgotten art no longer suited modern times"! One feels inclined to ask whether the writer looks upon musical composers as racehorses to be pitted against each other, or as religious creeds which must destroy their rivals in order to live.
[Footnote 3: Feeling some doubt as to whether this statement were not an exaggeration, I have submitted it before publication to my friend Mr. Eirikr Magnusson of Cambridge, whose profound knowledge of European literature, ancient and modern, needs no attestation from me. He replies that, except for the two centuries succeeding the Black Death in 1402-4, the statement in the text is quite correct. With that reservation therefore I allow it to stand.]
There is another and a graver charge to be brought against some writers whose works are popularly read in England, to which it will be my duty to return. I have said enough here to show the state of Wagner criticism in this country. Abroad it is little better. Wagner is indeed fashionable. His works are regularly performed in every capital in Europe, and he has probably saved the existence of the costly Hoftheater in Germany. But success, in the sense in which he understood it, he has not yet achieved. It is very questionable whether his influence has on the whole been for good, either upon musicians and dramatists, or upon the public. It is not his fault. Nothing would show more convincingly the utter inability of the modern public to appreciate the highest and best in art than the literature which has gathered round the great name of Wagner. In all the vast mass how much is there which was worth the writing, or can be read with any profit by reasonable people? I think that, putting aside purely technical works on music, stage-management, etc., the number of really good books could be counted on the fingers. The rest is feeble rhapsody on the one hand, malicious misrepresentation on the other. Of works of first-rate importance, works that really add anything solid to our knowledge, I only know one: Nietzsche's Geburt der Tragoedie. Of others the best are mostly in French. Lichtenberger's R. Wagner is admirable so far as it goes, but treats the subject exclusively from the literary standpoint. The small treatise of our marvellous countryman, Mr. H. S. Chamberlain, Le drame wagnerien (Paris, 1894), is thoughtful and suggestive, and quite worthy of close attention, as are also the works of Kufferath, Golther, etc. There may be a few more, mostly of small compass, but not many. Glasenapp's great biography, a work of astounding industry, and invaluable to the student, can scarcely be included among the good books because of its terrible literary style and its fulsome sentimentality. The magnificent work begun by the Hon. Mrs. Burrell, of which there is a copy in the British Museum, would have been a monumental biography had she lived to complete it, but it stops when Wagner is about twenty. Of the rest, the less said the better. Of works against Wagner I know of none that are even worth reading, except Hanslick, to whom I shall have occasion to return. It is much to be regretted that none of Wagner's opponents have ever stated their case fairly and soberly. There is much to be said, but assuredly it has not been said by men of the stamp of Nordau, who cites disgusting accounts from French medical journals in order to show his abhorrence of what he considers Wagner's immorality! Tolstoi is a writer of wide authority among his followers, and might be expected to feel some responsibility for his utterances; yet he thought it right to publish his verdict to the world after having witnessed one very inferior performance of a portion of Siegfried! He is often appealed to as if he were an authority by the opponents of Wagner, but his utterances have no more weight than the thoughtless expressions of a Ruskin or a William Morris, which their biographers have thought fit to drag from the privacy of private letters or conversation and publish as their deliberate judgments. From Nietzsche at least something better might have been expected, but I can find little in his anti-Wagnerian writings except coarse vituperation and low scandal. There is no anti-Wagnerian literature worthy of the name. There are plenty of highly musical and artistic natures who honestly dislike his art, and I am so far able to sympathize with them as to believe that an inestimable benefit would be conferred upon all of us if they would publish their objections in sober and reasoned form. But they do not; or if they do speak, they descend to the slums.
[Footnote 4: Not his Richard Wagner, which is a more popular work.]
Such has been the response of the public through its literature to the man who expressly did not wish to be worshipped, but only to be understood. Assuredly there is yet plenty of room for good work to be done! The purpose of the following pages is criticism, not as judging, but as selecting. In choosing certain characteristics to show them in a different perspective from an altered point of view the critic may hope to help others to a better understanding of the art. I have endeavoured to do this for English readers in respect of Wagner's dramatic works through one of the most characteristic and representative of them. The problem resolves itself into two. First there is the general technical one, so fully treated by Wagner himself in his theoretical writings, whether music is capable of being used as a means of dramatic expression; and secondly, how far the endeavour has been successful in the particular work selected for illustration. To treat these problems satisfactorily it will be necessary for me to go far beyond the limits of music and dramatic art, and to enter rather fully into questions of psychology and metaphysics, which I fear may discourage some readers, but which cannot be shirked by those who wish to form a judgment based upon a more solid foundation than their own personal taste. The mistake made by nearly all writers on Wagner hitherto has been to suppose that the mere assertion of an individual opinion has any value at all, however illustrious the person who holds it, however able his exposition. Of what use can be the assertion that a certain progression of chords is acceptable and pleasing to the healthy ear (even with the usual addition that all who do not think so are blockheads), when some other person equally competent asserts the contrary? Or how am I to persuade my readers that Tristan und Isolde is what I hold it to be, the loftiest paean of pure and holy love ever conceived by a poet, when others see in it only a "story of vulgar adultery," steeped in sensuality? The moral law is the same to all men, and differences of judgment upon moral acts are due to imperfect understanding. But I cannot hope to make my own position clear without descending to the foundations of all art, of all life, without asking: what is drama? what are its aims, and how does it express them? what is human life which it reflects? Wagner felt this very strongly, and soon realized that an ontological basis was required for his own theories; that to reform art he must reform human life. "Oh ye men," he exclaims passionately in a letter: "feel rightly, act as you feel! be free!—then we will have art."
We may learn the true principles of criticism from Wagner himself. Truthfulness in literature is what correctness is in Vortrag. They are objectivity, the art of seeing things as they really are, clearness of vision, right understanding. The truthful representation of an artist as he really is does not preclude, but rather stimulates, enthusiasm, for we may believe that the true artist and the true work of art as he intended it are superior to the flattering creations of our own fancy.
Lessing observes that of ten objections raised by the critic, nine will probably have occurred to the author; that he himself will read a passage twenty times rather than believe that the writer contradicted himself. Some of our critics seem to proceed upon an opposite principle and to reject a thought at once if it does not seem to agree with what they themselves have thought, and they observe little restraint in expressing their authoritative judgment. One critic speaks of Wagner meditating on problems "which any clear-headed schoolboy could quickly have settled for him"; we are not surprised to find the same critic sneering at Kant and Plato! Such writers there will always be, but a nation which tolerates them cannot expect to maintain an honourable place in the intellectual commonwealth.
WAGNER AS MAN
The distinction so often made with a genius between the "man" and the "artist" has been justly ridiculed by Wagner himself. For the truest individuality of an artist is in his art, not when he leaves his own proper sphere and enters one that is foreign to him. Beethoven is the writer of symphonies and sonatas, not the suspicious friend and unmannerly plebeian. The man is the same in both relations, i.e. his character remains the same, only it manifests itself differently under changed conditions, and the difference lies not in him, but in the point of view from which we regard him. Let us bear this in mind in considering Wagner as he appeared away from his art.
A genius has been aptly likened to an astronomical telescope, which is able to scan the heavens, but is useless for things close at hand. To some extent this is true of Wagner, but less so than with most, and not in the sense in which it has been often asserted. The attacks which have been made upon Wagner's private character show little discrimination, for it is a simple truth that the particular vices of which he has been accused are just those from which he was singularly free. No charge has been more audaciously or persistently brought by ignorant writers or believed by an ill-informed public in England and America than that of morbid sensuality. Just as Wagner's dramas have been called licentious, so his character has been described as sensual, in defiance of easily ascertainable facts. Not long ago the discovery was made that his health had been undermined by loose living when he was young. It is easy to invent such charges, for which there is not a particle of evidence, and unfortunately the reader is not always in a position to verify the authorities, and naturally thinks that the writer must have some ground for what he says. As a rule these statements have originated with Ferdinand Praeger's book Wagner as I knew him, a book which I am astonished to see still quoted in England, as if it were an authority. I have not seen it, and do not know what it contains. Its character was exposed by two Englishmen, Mr. H. S. Chamberlain and Mr. Ashton Ellis, soon after its publication in 1892, and it was consequently withdrawn from circulation in Germany by its publishers, Messrs. Breitkopf und Haertel. In England and America it still seems to be widely read, and is, more than any other single work, responsible for the false notions that are abroad about Wagner. Sensuality, that is in the morbidly sexual sense of the term, was no part of Wagner's character, nor could it be of the man who justly claimed that no poet had ever glorified women as he had done. His Sentas, Elsas, Bruennhildes, and I must add his Isoldes, rightly understood, afford the best answer to such accusations.
"But," it is said, "his music is unmistakably sensual." I must defer it to a future chapter to consider how far pure music, that is, music apart from words, is capable of expressing a specific human quality, but may here anticipate by saying that the nature of music is to assimilate the elements with which it is joined; the hearer may, within certain broad restrictions, put into it whatever he likes, and will therefore hear in it the reflection of himself. This is why different people hear such different things in the same music. If a man hears sensuality in the music of, let us say, the second act of Tristan und Isolde, it is his own interpretation. Another hears something very different, an anticipation of eternity, of that world beyond which the lovers are about to enter to be united with each other and with all nature in a higher love of which all earthly love, with its degrading garment of sensuality, is but the debased image. The music by itself will bear either interpretation; each hearer will find in it just that which he looks for and can understand. But when the words are added the meaning is clear. People are not "sensual" when death is right before them, as it is here. I do not wish to be understood as meaning that Wagner excluded sensuality from his works, or that he did not treat the most universal and most ungovernable of human impulses in accordance with its character. The drama must include everything human, and when passionate sexuality is a necessary part of the dramatic development, Wagner no more shirks it than did Shakespeare or any other great dramatist. But Wagner always treats it with such consummate grace and refinement that it ceases to be repulsive and appears in its own uncorrupted beauty, as in the Venus music and in the flower-maiden scene in Parsifal. Only to the impure are the senses impure.
An unbiassed consideration of all that is known about Wagner's life will acquit him of all the graver vices, unless a propensity for living beyond his income be reckoned as such. Whatever his faults there was nothing dishonourable or mean about them, and he is entitled to the treatment that is always accorded by one gentleman to another, whether friend or enemy, so long as he does not disgrace himself. Surely it ought not to be necessary to insist upon this before an English public, but it has not always been observed.
Similar is the charge of "ego-mania," that is, of overrating his own importance, so often heard. There cannot be any notion of his overrating his importance, for all are now agreed that his influence, whether for good or for bad, can scarcely be overrated. Only society requires, very rightly, that a man shall speak of himself and his achievements with a certain reticence, leaving it to others to judge of them. Nowhere that I know of has Wagner offended against this very proper rule. It has so long been the practice to represent Wagner as a man of overweening vanity, a man who tried to exalt himself at the expense of other artists, that some in England will not believe me when I say that there is no foundation whatever for such assertions. I only ask of those who think there is to read Wagner's own published writings, and to judge from them, not from what is said about him. I do not mean to say that he did not believe with the most intense conviction in his own idea of a new German dramatic art, uniting the separate arts in itself, and did not proclaim it as a thing of the first national importance; every serious reformer believes in himself in that sense. But that is not the same thing as asserting his own powers to realize it. With regard to these he speaks very modestly of himself as a beginner, a pioneer only. In fact the question of his own particular genius is, he says, irrelevant, and has nothing to do with the other one, adding rather cynically that genius is often given to the wrong people.
It is in this sense that I understand the famous words of his speech after the first performance of the Ring at Bayreuth, in 1876, which have been so often quoted in illustration of his arrogance: "You have seen what we can do; it is now for you to will. We now have an art if you will." Namely, thus: "Germany now has for the first time an indigenous drama, not imported from foreigners; if you accept it, try to develop and perfect it." Or shortly: "I and my friends have done what we can; the rest is for you to do." This seems to me the natural meaning of the words, and agrees with all his utterances at other times, namely, that the public must not leave it all to the artist, but must exert itself to cooperate with him. It has latterly become almost a fashion among some German authors to transgress all bounds of modesty in advertising themselves. Nietzsche, for example, leaves us in no doubt whatever as to what he requires us to think about him. But nothing of the kind will be found in Wagner.
The charge of "grapho-mania" is scarcely worth discussion, except to show what slender arguments have to be relied upon by those who try to prove Wagner insane. Ten, not bulky volumes, as Nordau calls them, but volumes of very moderate dimensions, some 30 per cent. of which are accounted for by his dramatic works, are not a very large allowance for a man who lived seventy years, and was often under the necessity of writing to eke out his income. They are scarcely sufficient to be regarded as an indication of insanity. The fact is, that Wagner, either as dramatist or as author, was not a voluminous producer. It is the quality, the intensity, of his work that is important, not its bulk. This is only another instance of the amazing indifference to the most easily ascertainable facts shown by Wagner's assailants, and of the truth that if you only assert a thing, however nonsensical, persistently enough, there will always be some who will believe it. I cannot be expected to go through in detail the whole string of aberrations which Nordau finds accumulated in Wagner. They are all of the same kind, and all equally fanciful.
The endeavours to prove Wagner a "degenerate" are professedly made in the name of science, so often a cloak for the most unscientific vagaries, by men who are disciples of the late Professor Lombroso of Florence. Lombroso was a serious man of science, and many of his investigations into the nature and indications of insanity have permanent value, but it is certain that he went much too far, and his views are only very partially accepted by those who are qualified to judge of them. When a theory of insanity is made to include such men as Newton, Goethe, Darwin, and others who are generally supposed to be the very types of sober sanity, a Richard Wagner may well be content to remain in such company. We are reminded of Lombroso's own story of the lunatic's reply to one who asked when he was coming out of the asylum: "When the people outside are sane." In fact the theories when pushed to their extreme consequences become absurd. There is nothing discreditable to a serious student of science who in the enthusiasm of discovery presses his inferences beyond their valid limits, since all theory must at first be more or less tentative. Very different is the case when these dubious theories are applied by men with very modest scientific acquirements, or with none at all, to injure the reputation of a man whom they dislike. We may then fairly ask, with Lichtenberger, on which side the degeneration is more likely to be. These are the men who bring science into discredit.
[Footnote 5: For a very fair estimate of his work, see an article in the Times, October 20, 1909.]
It would not have been worth my while to dwell at such length upon the calumnies of irresponsible writers did I not know that they represent the popular opinion among the less well-informed in England of to-day, as in Germany thirty or forty years ago. They begin with people who ought to know better, and in time find their way into the magazines and popular literature of the day, to be greedily read by a public which, next to a prurient divorce case, likes nothing so well as slander of a great man. We have heard much of late years about the decadence of the English Press, but editors know very well the public for whom they cater.
That Wagner's was one of those serene and universally lovable characters who live at peace with God and man it is far from me to wish to convey. Such men there are, and women, who seem lifted above the meaner elements of human existence, without envy, without reproach, untouched by its iniquities, unsullied by its vileness. Pure themselves and self-contained they see no guile in others, or if they see it they notice it not. Who has not met with such? who has not felt their power? When such innate purity of soul is united with high intellectual gifts we have the noblest creation of nature, and to have been called "friend" by one such is the highest honour that life has to offer.
But Wagner was not one of these. His was a stormy spirit—"The never-resting soul that ever seeks the new." He likens himself to a wild animal tearing at its cage and exhausting itself with fruitless struggles. He could not make terms with falsehood and sophistry, or leave them to perish naturally, but lived in ceaseless defiance of them. He was a man who inspired intense, devoted love, or intense hatred, according to the people with whom he was dealing. With his moral character in itself we have indeed no concern, but it seems necessary to explain why so many high-minded men who knew him intimately, and loved him passionately, at last fell away from him. The common theory of Wagnerites, that they were actuated by petty motives of jealousy, and the like, cannot be entertained for a moment. With Nietzsche it may well be that ill-health and drugs had begun their fatal work in 1876; they may account for the violence of his anti-Wagnerian writings, but surely the cause of his aversion lay deeper. Similarly with Joachim. Even the noble Liszt, who had stood by him and battled so bravely for him through the years of his deepest distress, though he never failed in his admiration of Wagner's art, seems to have cooled towards him personally when he was in prosperity. His staunch band of Zurich friends one and all became to some extent estranged after his exile was annulled. His acknowledged hasty temper will not account for it; hastiness wounds, but in a generous and ardently loving nature it does not estrange.
The cause is, in my belief, not far to seek. It lay in the domineering spirit which is so noticeable in every act of his life, every page of his writings. His life was his art. He was above all things a man of action, and all who belonged to him in any relation whatever had to serve him in his art or cease to be his. His power must be absolute; talents, energies, life itself if necessary, must be surrendered to the service of that one supreme purpose. Many were the men and women who did not flinch from the sacrifice. I need only mention musicians like Richter, Cornelius, Porges, literati like Glasenapp and Wolzogen. Many, especially women, were ready to fling to the winds all thought of personal wellbeing, and life itself. Cosima, to save him and his art, sacrificed every worldly consideration. Ludwig of Bavaria did the same, and brought his country to the verge of revolution. Singers, like Hedwig Reicher Kindermann, literally gave their lives for him. And no less than this did he exact from all who aspired to be his disciples and supporters.
But Nietzsche's was a different character. He was Wagner's peer, and, though thirty years his junior, had his own purposes to follow. Nietzsche was, as he afterwards realized, under a delusion from the first. His highly organized musical nature had been taken captive, intoxicated by Wagner's music. But Nietzsche was a thinker, and it is contrary to the natural order that the man of thought should serve the man of action. Nietzsche was incapable of serving Wagner's art and had to leave him.
Was this a fault in Wagner? Who shall say? If it was, it was a fault which he shared with every earnest reformer who is not content with preaching, but enforces his precepts with action. Reform is no plaything; it cannot be achieved by listening to the well-meant advice of friends who know no higher goal than personal success, who have no glimmering of the motives that impel a great soul, who would fain tell the thunderbolt where it shall strike. Every great man lives alone; he has no friends and no disciples. His equals follow their own ends; his inferiors cannot breathe in the regions where he dwells. He must rely upon himself. Without this full dominion Wagner would not have been himself; he would never have founded Bayreuth, never have had his greater works performed, never even have composed them. And this brings us to the most conspicuous feature of his character, the centre of everything, namely, his uncompromising sincerity and truthfulness, qualities so magnificent in him that I doubt whether they have ever been equalled in any other, qualities which show Wagner no less great "as man" than he is "as artist."
It is certain—and no one knew it better than himself—that Wagner might easily have been successful from the first if he had liked. He might have been wealthy, popular, petted by the great, have lived in the luxury that he loved, at peace with all the world, if he had only consented to traffic with his art and to produce what the public wanted. For assuredly his talent for writing operas on the old lines was not inferior to that of Meyerbeer or Rossini. His Rienzi was the greatest immediate success of his whole life when grand operas, of which it is the type, were fashionable, and a few more works of the kind would have raised him above all anxiety for his livelihood. This can scarcely be questioned now; it has been asserted again and again by those who most hated him, and who were in the habit of denouncing him as "past help" because he refused to listen to them. To do so he would have had to sacrifice all that he held sacred. He had "hitched his waggon to a star," and deliberately chose poverty, exile, public calumny and ridicule, domestic unrest, rather than allow the purity of his art to be sullied by departing for an instant from the ideals after which he strove. Witness the events of the fateful seventies, when his financial straits were perhaps at their worst, when all the powers of Germany, statesmen, theatrical Intendants, press, singers, seemed in league together to thwart the project of Bayreuth upon which his all depended; when even King Louis of Bavaria cooled for a time; when Buelow and Liszt had withdrawn their help, and Nietzsche had seceded in horror and despair; when the first effort of Bayreuth had left a ruinous debt, and the failure of the Patronat-Vereine shut off the last faint ray of hope. Well might the Meister, now advancing in age, have thought of accepting one of the dazzling offers which repeatedly reached him from Russia, from America, from Vienna, Berlin, Leipzig, and other places. But he only saw in them lures to tempt him into degrading his art by commercial speculation with all its paraphernalia of advertisement and other sordid abominations. Never once did his courage falter; no thought of any concession, however small, however seemingly reasonable, which he held to be dishonourable to his art ever found a place in his mind. The surrender of Die Walkuere alone would probably have turned the tide in his favour, and he was pressed for it by most of the great theatres, but in vain. To mutilate the Ring was in his opinion to dishonour it and prepare the way for its being misunderstood. So far from adopting any one of the many courses which could not fail to lead to success and popularity we find him occupied during this time in coaching singers personally, in building his theatre, and devising schemes for a school of technique where musicians, and especially singers, could learn the true methods of their art, naturally—though perhaps imprudently—believing that before his works could be understood as he meant them they must be rightly represented. Without funds! without patronage! with nothing but his own determined will! Can we wonder that the world's head was turned by such a gigantic personality?
Let those who call Wagner self-willed and perverse because he could not conform to their notions of what is right for an artist, who attempt to measure an infinite mind by the paltry canons of self-interest, reflect upon the harvest that we are now reaping from his unswerving loyalty to his art. To him alone, and to the conductors whom he trained, do we owe the almost perfect performances of our modern orchestras. It has been truly observed that Wagner's own immensely difficult works are better performed at the present day than were the far easier works of his predecessors before he came. The Richters and Mottls and Schuchs of our day are a very different race from the Reissigers and Lachners and Costas of a past generation. It was Richter who taught us in London how a symphony of Beethoven ought to sound; before he came, performances were approved which the present day would not tolerate. He, as well as his great compeers, was brought up in the school of Wagner, the essence of which lies in correctness, in rendering the work as the composer intended it, with conscientious attention to every detail, not only of notes, but of rhythm, tempo, phrasing, dynamics, instead of the slovenly muddling which then passed for breadth of style, and the substitution of the conductor's own subjectivity for that of the composer. It has been well expressed in a few incisive words by one of the greatest of the school: "The privilege of an interesting subjectivity is given to few, its expression will always give evidence of that instinctive logic which is a necessary condition of intelligibility." Call Wagner perverse, dislike his art, say that his dramas are chaos and his music discord—all this you have a right to do; but you cannot refuse your homage to his rectitude of purpose, his courageous and resolute struggle for the ideals which were before him.
[Footnote 6: I have translated rather freely so as to give the general sense, as von Buelow's German is not always very easy to follow. It will be found in his comments upon Beethoven's Fantasie, Op. 77.]
This is the secret of what is known as the modern German spirit—close attention to every detail, faithfulness to the work in hand, with the conviction that no part of the organism is so trifling as not to be vital. This it was, and not bookish education, that inspired the German army in its victories of 1870-71; this spirit it was that enabled the Meiningers in 1882 to fill our Drury Lane Theatre to overflowing with performances of our own Shakespeare in a foreign language. At the present day it still continues to actuate German trade and German handicrafts, while we English in our blindness think to dispose of it by cant phrases and sneers.
To the nearer friends of his home-circle Wagner's personality must have been singularly attractive, from the intelligent sympathy which he showed with everything human, and from the irrepressible gaiety which never forsook him for long. In times of stress it helped those around him to tide through the most crushing disasters.
Genius is not a thing apart by itself, severed from the rest of the world. Its one distinguishing mark is its intense humanity. If I may speak in paradox, the true poet is more truly ourselves than we are. The astronomical telescope is constructed upon the same principles as the terrestrial one, only it is more powerful and more perfectly made. Not only the lenses, but all the details of the mechanism are more highly finished; more thought and more labour are bestowed upon them; the parts are more skilfully co-ordinated together; it is a better instrument. We do wrong to genius in connecting it with mental aberration; it is more normal, more perfectly human, than we are; more human in its virtues, in its faults, in its follies, above all, in its consummate beauty; only with its greater perfection the organism becomes more delicate, and is more easily injured. For genius is exposed to heavier strains than we are, because it is in uncongenial surroundings. If one part happen to be imperfect, if, as we say, "a screw be loose," the injury is more serious than in ordinary natures, and the exquisite adjustments may suffer in the rude handling of a stupid and clumsy environment, wrecking the whole system. This, and not natural proclivity, is the reason why genius so often shows a tendency to eccentric and abnormal conduct. The fault is with society, which feels instinctively that those who rise too high in excellence must be crushed. And this is the theme of every real tragedy. Othello, Lear, Njal, Grettir, Clarissa Harlowe, the Maid of Orleans, Antigone, Prometheus, and, as I hope to show, Tristan and Isolde, these are but a few among those who must perish from no fault in themselves, but because they are too noble for their surroundings.
"The greater the man, the greater his love." We should not set the genius on a pedestal to be first gaped at and then ridiculed. He needs before all else our love and our sympathy; for his nature is essentially that of a child, and, childlike, he craves for human love as the first necessity of his life. To those who set up an idol of their own fancy and worship that as his image, he will be cold and repellent, but to those who know him as he really is he will return their love with all the warmth and purity of his childlike nature. Two things are intolerable to a healthy-minded child—rough brutality and mawkish caressing; Wagner was fated to endure a full share of both. It is touching to read of Wagner's simple affection for those who were around him in humble capacities. Every one who has read his life knows of his kindliness to his domestic servants. Now it is the village barber who is "gar zu theuer," now his gondola-man in Venice. His love for animals has been perhaps too much dwelt upon by his biographers, but it is very characteristic.
Mankind is not divided into Wagnerites and anti-Wagnerites; nor is it divided into Romanists and Protestants, nor into theologians and rationalists, nor into Tories and Radicals, nor into any other of our familiar party divisions. The true division is into great men and small, lovers of truth and sophists, honest men and thieves. Thieves and sophists wrangle, but the great and true "join hands through the centuries," and between them is eternal peace.
Wagner's Theoretical Writings
Nothing probably has more tended to discredit Wagner's art with thoughtful people than the statement sometimes made by his following that he has created a new art. Wagner himself never made any such claim. When he speaks of a new indigenous art of pure German growth, he is merely contrasting it with the foreign art—Italian operas and French plays—upon which Germans had lived hitherto. When an art, like music or the drama, begins to flourish on a new soil, it is certain to exhibit new features, to show new developments, so that with respect to its external physiognomy it may in a sense be called new; but far truer is the very opposite statement, that Wagner's art is as old as art itself; its greatness lies not in any novelty of invention, but in his having developed the old forms into something dreamed of by his predecessors but never achieved before.
We often hear about Wagner's "theories," as if he had composed his art-works in accordance with some theoretical scheme. After a fairly close study of Wagner's writings extending over a great many years I must confess my inability to say what his peculiar theories were. The employment of music as an element of the dramatic expression was no invention of Wagner. What he found out was how to maintain the different elements, words, acting, music, in a natural relation to one another in the drama. This is art, not theory; we learn it from his works, not from his writings. It is true that Wagner's writings contain many very interesting and valuable speculations on artistic problems. If these are his theories, he must have abjured them the moment that he set to work composing. In Oper und Drama, for example, he has a very interesting discussion on the value of consonants in the German language and on the characteristic difference between the expression of the consonant and that of the vowel, arriving at the conclusion that alliteration is better suited for the German musical drama than the imported rime. Further, he shows—rather convincingly, I think—that the true subject for the drama is mythical. But not long after this he wrote Tristan und Isolde, in which alliteration is generally discarded for rime or blank verse, and a little later Meistersinger, which is a comedy of domestic life, and has nothing to do with mythology. Then there are the Leitmotivs which are used so methodically in the Ring that it would seem there must have been some preconceived system. But Wagner never once mentions Leitmotivs in his writings, nor did he invent them. They have been dragged into the light by von Wolzogen, and whatever theories we have about them are due to him, not to Wagner.
There is indeed one doctrine which runs through all his writings, and may be taken as their general text, namely, that art is not an amusement but a serious undertaking, consequently that purity and truthfulness are just as necessary in art as in actual life. It is no excuse for the artist who deceives to say that his work is "only poetry," and has no serious significance. He carried this exalted notion of the mission of art almost to excess, if such a thing is possible with so noble an idea, when he insisted upon art being a matter of national concern. All the serious mistakes which he made in his life, those acts which the sober judgment of his most ardent admirers must condemn as ill-advised, sprang from his desire to identify art with national life, for example, his part in the Saxon revolution of 1849, his proceedings in Munich, in 1865, his attempts to influence Bismarck, etc.
[Footnote 7: See Note I. at the end of this chapter.]
Wagner's literary works are not easy reading; his German style, though grammatical and idiomatic, is generally very involved and obscure, often turgid. There is a want of self-discipline about the thought, and he is too hasty in committing ill-digested thoughts ill-arranged to print, while his style is full of tedious mannerisms, such as his constant use of futile superlatives for positives, the constant occurrence of certain words not always in their natural meaning, such as Bewusstsein, Erloesung, etc. It is in marked contrast to the lucid and finished workmanship of his dramatic and musical composition. His dislike for theoretical exposition, and the constraint under which he wrote are too manifest in his language. Nevertheless, the reader who perseveres will be rewarded. The fascination which Wagner's writings have for thinking minds is due to the importance of the problems involved. As Dannreuther has observed, wherever Wagner was brought to a stand a social problem lies buried; the problems which engage his attention are those which lie at the root of all art and all life. We may not always approve of the solutions which he offers, but we cannot fail to be interested. And as we travel on we gradually become aware of brilliant spots of verdure, passages here and there—sometimes sudden flashes, sometimes whole pages where the language and the thought are equally remarkable. What, for example, could be more admirable than this description of Mozart?
His artistic nature was as the unruffled surface of a clear watery mirror to which the lovely blossom of Italian music inclined to see, to know, to love itself therein. It was but the surface of a deep and infinite sea of longing and desire rising from fathomless depths to gain form and beauty from the gentle greeting of the lovely flower bending, as if thirsting to discover in him the secret of its own nature.
Could any words give more concisely the peculiar character of the much misunderstood Mozart, "the most delicate genius of light and love," "the most richly gifted of all musicians"? Does it not tell us more than all the outpourings of Oulibichef?
[Footnote 8: Ges. Schr. (1872), iii. p. 304.]
Or this, in speaking of the formation of the opera and the demand for better libretti after the period of Spontini?
The poet was ashamed to offer his master wooden hobbies when he was able to mount a real steed and knew quite well how to handle the bridle, to guide the steed hither and thither in the well-trodden riding-school of the opera. Without this musical bridle neither musician nor poet would have dared to mount him lest he should leap high over all the fences away into his own wild and beautiful home in nature itself.
I must apologize for these extracts to those of my readers who are able to follow the original, and I hope that others may yet feel something of the warmth of Wagner's language even in the feeble shadow of a very free paraphrase. Many more might be gathered from his works to show how vivid and forcible was Wagner's prose when he once threw off the restraint of cold logical reasoning. Other passages well worthy of perusal as specimens of his better style are the description of the theatrical sunset in le Prophete, and especially the admirably worked-out metaphor of the Volkslied as a wild flower in vol. iii. of his collected works, pp. 309 and 372 seq.
[Footnote 9: Ges. Schr., iii, p. 298.]
Very different views have been expressed about Wagner in his capacity of philosopher. To some he appears as a verbose dilettante totally unable to put two ideas logically together, while others look up to him as a teacher of the profoundest truths. I cannot say that either view is wrong. On the one hand he possessed the deep insight which is the first qualification for a philosopher, but is found in so few; on the other he lacked the patience to express himself logically, feeling that in his art he wielded a far more powerful means of persuasion than logic. Those who persevere in studying his writings until they master what he really was aiming at cannot fail at last to admit that as philosopher he is at least suggestive, as art-critic he is amongst the very first of all times, worthy of a place beside Plato, Lessing, Ruskin.
[Footnote 10: See Note II. at end of this chapter.]
A critical discussion of only the more important of the problems raised by Wagner would require not one volume but several. For the purpose of this book, which is only to help readers in understanding his works, I must confine myself to the one which directly bears upon his artistic production, namely, that of the organic union of all the arts into one supreme art, which as their crown and completion may be designated "art," as a universal, in distinction from the separate individual "arts." Such art, [Greek: kat' e'xochaen], can only be the drama, which already holds a position of its own above all the other arts from the fact that these only depict or describe while the drama represents; its characters actually enact the events to be expressed, whence the expression is marked by a directness and vividness not possible to the other arts. The natural tendency which different arts show to unite and support each other is evident in many familiar phenomena, as, for example, illustrated books. Lessing, in his luminous essay, has traced the limits of the arts of depicting (painting and sculpture) and of describing (poetry). Painting with him is the art of rest, poetry that of movement. Wagner's theory asserts that each art, when it reaches its natural limits, tends to call in the help of another art to express what lies beyond its own domain. If the two are able to coalesce so as to become organically one, it will be found that the expressive power of each has been enormously enhanced by the union, just as the union of a man with a woman in marriage enhances the value of each for the community.
With Lessing painting and sculpture are determined by the law of beauty (Schoenheit); poetry is the wider art, including all the elements of painting, but not bound by the same restrictions. Who can forget his fine contrast of the howling Philoktetes in Sophokles with the gently sighing Laokoon, both in mortal agony, but the latter unable to express his pain because, being in marble, he dared not distort his countenance? With Wagner the notion of beauty (Schoenheit) belongs by its very definition exclusively to the arts that address the sense of sight, painting and sculpture, and from them it has been transferred to music, but as a metaphor only. To speak literally of "beautiful music" would be a contradiction in terms.
[Footnote 11: It should be noted that the German and English words, having a totally different origin, differ somewhat in meaning. "Schoenheit" comes from "schauen," and has therefore reference to the sense of sight, while "beauty" is from the root of bene, bonus, and was originally a moral conception, not a sensual one at all. In modern language the meaning of the two words is practically identical, but the distinction is very important for the understanding of Wagner. Schoenheit with him means sensual beauty.]
The one aim of dramatic technique must always be to obtain the utmost clearness, truthfulness, and completeness of expression. I must confess that many years ago, when I first began the study of Wagner, filled with the enthusiastic Hellenism of Schiller, I was not a little startled at Wagner's apparent insistence upon truthful expression at the expense of beauty, and could not but feel that it was contradicted by every movement of his music. No doubt many others have felt the same hesitation; but there really is no cause for alarm. Wagner's is the true doctrine. Let us turn for a moment to another art, that of architecture, where the line of demarcation between decoration and construction is easy to recognize. Wagner's position, if applied to architecture, would be that the builder has only to consider how to construct in the best possible way to attain the purpose for which the building is intended, and elegance of external appearance must be subservient to that. If he do this skilfully, so that every part is seen to unite harmoniously with all the others to form an organic whole, there will emerge quite of itself a gracefulness, an artistic beauty, founded in truth, which are high above all intentionally constructed decoration. It is the beauty and truth of nature, that of adaptation to an end. There is no question of sacrificing euphony, melody, or anything at all; on the contrary, the doctrine declares that by right adaptation the expressive power and beauty of every part will be enhanced. The notion that Wagner's music is unmelodious had its origin in the bad musical ears of his early critics.
The arts of design, i.e. painting, sculpture, and the kindred arts, are in space alone, and movement is excluded from them. The arts of expression, gesture, poetry, and music are all arts of movement in time. The first named, therefore, must necessarily take external beauty (Schoenheit) as their sole guide and must confine their attention exclusively to the superficial appearance of the objects they imitate. They can only arrive at the inner character indirectly, through its external manifestation, and in the hands of an inferior artist the step is an easy one to pretence and falsehood. Defective construction can easily be hidden beneath an outer covering of graceful forms which distract the eye from noticing the weakness and falsehood beneath. We need only look around us at the decoration of any modern drawing-room to find gross examples of such perversion of art. This explains Wagner's mistrust—noticeable especially in his earlier writings—of the arts of design with their principle of beauty. An artist who possesses true poetic inspiration will be in no danger of falling into errors of this kind; with him external beauty is expression of inner goodness, as it is in nature, who never covers up defects by external ornament.
We have therefore to recognize two distinct kinds of beauty in art, two kinds of pleasure that we experience: external, with which painting and sculpture are alone directly concerned—beauty in the narrow sense; and inner or organic. Wagner has expressed it in a sentence which defies even a free translation. Speaking of the lovely melodies of the Italian opera he says: "Nicht das schlagende Herz der Nachtigall begriff man, sondern nur ihren Kehlschlag." Men cared only for the pleasing sound of the nightingale's voice, nothing for the beating heart from which it sprang.
We are now able to understand his famous doctrine that the drama is the end, music the means, and therefore secondary. In the Italian opera the relation was reversed; music was made the end, the drama being only a vehicle for the music. This is dramatically wrong, and has led to a false and unnatural form of art; in the drama music can only be a means of dramatic expression.
It is necessary here to enter a caution against a very serious misunderstanding into which many of Wagner's critics have fallen, a misunderstanding very natural to those who look upon the drama as a literary production. It has been supposed that Wagner intended to subordinate the music to the poetry, as if the function of music were to illustrate and vivify the more definite thought contained in the words. This view has been held by many critics, from Aristotle onwards. It was the view of Gluck, and will be found formulated in the epitre dedicatoire prefixed to his Alceste. Wagner's theory is essentially different and is peculiarly his own. With him the drama denotes, not the text-book, but the actual performance on the stage, in which there are three co-ordinate elements, acting, words, and music, not one of which is subordinate to the others, but all of equal value, expressing different sides of the dramatic subject-matter. Of the inability of words in themselves to inspire music, he is very emphatic: "No verses of a poet, not even of a Goethe or a Schiller, can determine the music. The drama alone can do this, i.e. not the dramatic poem, but the actual drama as it moves before our eyes as the visible counterpart of the music."
In order to be effective the union of the three elements must be organic, and I must now explain what is meant. When we speak of a work of art as an organism we mean that the different parts of which it is composed co-operate together towards the purpose of the whole in such a way that not one of them is superfluous or could be dispensed with. It resembles in this respect the products of nature, and life, which is only a complex form of organized activity. In the higher natural products, especially those we speak of as living, the single parts are not dead weights, but are themselves organisms, containing within them individual and complete systems of living forces, acting independently, and at the same time, as subordinate units contributing to the purpose of the whole, so that shortly we may say that, as each part is conditioned by the whole, so the whole is conditioned by the single parts. When a person loses a limb, and has it replaced by an artificial one, his first impression is of the enormous weight of the new limb, although it may only weigh about a quarter of the old one. This is explained by the fact that the new limb is a dead weight, whereas the former one was a living organism. That is to say, when he lifted it, the nervous impulses transmitted from the brain were sustained and enforced by forces within the limb itself; being alive it helped in the effort, whereas the mechanical limb, however perfect its adaptation, will always remain a piece of dead mechanism, a separate thing from the body to which it is attached and simply opposing its own inertia to the nervous effort.
In the mechanical joining together of parts, each remains isolated; if one be abstracted the others remain as they were, while in an organic union they combine to a whole, and if one be withdrawn the whole is destroyed, or at least vitally impaired. This furnishes us with a criterion for the technical construction of every work of art, whatever it be; each single part must contribute its share towards the whole; there must be nothing superfluous. The work has an idea to express; if we find (in a drama, for example) that no scene, no single speech even, or sentence, can be omitted without impairing the work as a whole, and weakening its expression, then the work is technically as perfect as it can possibly be made; its value will then depend only on that of the idea to be expressed.
Now let us turn to Wagner's criticism of the sunrise scene in le Prophete, which I mentioned a few pages back, in the first part of Oper und Drama. Here was a unique opportunity for a great dramatic artist. After the representation, not unskilfully contrived, of the victorious career of a young and aspiring hero, in the supreme moment of his destiny, the sun rises, adding its glory to his triumph, as if the very heavens were shedding their blessing upon the deeds of a noble man;—so it might have been. But Meyerbeer and Scribe care nothing for that; such is not the effect either felt by the audience or intended by the poet. The latter had nothing higher in his mind than a grand spectacular effect, which may be omitted without the rest of the drama being any the worse, and the result is in the worst sense theatrical, but not poetic—"effect without a cause."
[Footnote 12: _Ges. Schr., iii, p. 372.]
Compare with this the scene in the third act of Parsifal. The verdant landscape is here no mere theatrical decoration; if it were, we should scarcely go into a theatre to see what can be seen in far greater perfection in any green place on a spring morning. It is the dramatic representation of an idea perhaps suggested to Wagner by Goethe's Faust, but as old as Christianity itself. The task is achieved; the spear has been regained, and all nature smiling in its flowery robes rejoices in the redemption of that Easter morning; even the withered flower-maidens add their strains to the universal chorus. How is such a miracle possible? Only by music in organic union with the dramatic situation. Persuasive as a living person it is able to carry us into realms far beyond those of language and reason, to the realm of wonder. The decorations of the Grand Opera are as artificial and mechanical as modern dress; they are imposed by the fashion of the day, the caprice of the luxurious, and stand in no relation to the body to which they are fitted.
[Footnote 13: Those who are interested in the subject will find some admirable observations in Lessing's Hamburger Dramaturgie, 11tes. and 12tes. Stueck, where the critic compares the ghost of Ninus in Voltaire's Semiramis with the ghost in Hamlet. He condemns the former because it is nothing more than a poetical machine, while Shakespeare's is one of the persons of the drama. His position is essentially the same as Wagner's.]
The loose construction of the Italian opera has at least one advantage; it can be trimmed to suit the local exigencies of performance. With the new drama this was impossible. Wagner's insistent refusal to permit any mutilation of his work always appeared to Intendants and Impresarii who were anxious to meet him halfway like monstrous egotism. What Rossini and Meyerbeer had always consented to without the smallest hesitation might, they thought, content a Richard Wagner. The reports of the Intendants to their respective Governments, of Luettichau in the forties, of Royer in Paris in 1861, show how far the authorities were from understanding the nature either of the work which they were undertaking or of the man with whom they had to deal. Rossini and Meyerbeer had never had any other aim than their own personal success; with Wagner the integrity of his art was far above all personal considerations. On this point no concession on the composer's side was possible. You may take five shillings out of a sovereign and there still remain fifteen shillings, but if you take a wheel from a watch the whole mechanism is destroyed; it was just this that distinguished his productions from operas, and in conceding the principle that they might be trimmed he would have surrendered everything.
It might seem superfluous to have dwelt so long upon a point which, when clearly laid out, can scarcely be controverted, were it not that it has been continually misunderstood, not only by nearly everybody at the present day, but even by critics of the rank of Gluck, Goethe, and Grillparzer. To speak either of music as enforcing the words or of the words as forming a basis for musical expression is to place one of them—in the former case music, in the latter the words—in an inferior position towards the other, whereas they are organic parts of the whole, and co-equals. Wherever either principle is adopted it will result in that very looseness of construction which is the vital infirmity of the Italian opera. And the poetry will be of the kind fashionable with some literary people under the name "lines for music," the principle of which seems to be Voltaire's: Ce qui est trop sot pour etre dit, on le chante. Once the principle of organic unity is conceded as the first and most vital condition of a work of art, the rest of Wagner's doctrine follows directly. The governing whole is the drama, the thing to be enacted in its actual representation on the stage, and the different elements, gesture, music, words, are the instruments of its expression, to be so co-ordinated together that each shall express just that which it alone is able to express and no more. The first outcome of the union when rightly and skilfully effected is to impart the one quality which is the final and only aim of all artistic technique—clearness of expression. The new drama can represent not only higher ideas, but can express them more intelligibly than that which uses words alone.
It will now perhaps be asked why these three particular arts and no others have been selected for dramatic purposes. Because they are the three ways in which all living beings utter their thoughts. They have belonged together from the beginning, and still do so; they have parted company for a time, but have never been divorced.
Before considering this it will be well for me to explain some terms which I shall have to use in the following. Poetry has commonly been divided into "lyric", "epic," and "dramatic"; these terms answer to three different phases of expression. Lyric poetry is the purely subjective emotion of the poet uttering itself in words. Epic poetry on the other hand deals with things and people external to the poet. The drama is, as we have seen, not poetry at all; the actors perform the acts themselves, using words only to explain the reasons for their acts; dramatic poetry therefore involves both lyric and epic elements.
The most primitive, most natural, and simplest means by which a living being can utter itself is gesture—action. It is not necessary to speculate on prehistoric conditions. We need only observe the world around us, the behaviour of our friends and acquaintances, particularly those of South-European blood, to recognize how direct and eloquent is the expression of gesture. On the stage a simple series of dramatic actions can be fully represented by gesture and scenery alone with a very high intensity of emotional expression.
All movement in nature is rhythmic. I need not trouble my readers with the evidences of a fact which is well known in science, but will refer them to the lucid demonstration in Herbert Spencer's First Principles, Pt. II., ch. 10.
Rhythmic gesture then, or dancing, is the most primitive art, and it is purely lyric, i.e. subjective. It is very important to bear this fact of dancing, of which acting is only a species, as the primitive form of art before our minds. It is common to men and animals. I have often wondered whether the extraordinary development of Wagner's histrionic faculty did not stand in some mysterious relation to the close sympathy which existed between him and that most consummate of all actors—the dog.
The vital activity of the throat and vocal cords becomes sound; song may therefore be considered as a peculiarly specialized form of gesture, but with the radical difference that as a vehicle of expression it addresses the ear, not the eye. The fact that it enters the brain through a different channel gives the art of sound an entirely different character from that of gesture proper; moreover, from being in time only, not in space, it is apprehended more immediately by the inner sense, and the impression received is more intimate, more forcible. Still it retains the same lyric or subjective character.
It was, I believe, Lord Monboddo who first observed that inarticulate sound, music in its most primitive form, is the earliest form of utterance, and is prior to language. Lord Monboddo's researches into the origin and progress of language (1773) were valued so highly by Herder that they were at his instance translated into German. The conclusion at which he arrived, that the most primitive form of utterance is not language but music, that language grew out of song just as the art of writing grew out of picture-painting, is especially valuable from the fact that it was afterwards adopted by Charles Darwin.
[Footnote 14: Descent of Man, Pt. III., ch. 19. The whole of that part of the chapter may be read in this connection. Unfortunately, the speculations are somewhat vitiated by the idee fixe of modern science that everything must be referred to "courtship." i.e. sexuality.]
The "music" which Darwin and Lord Monboddo conceive as the vocal expression of primitive man is of course not the highly-wrought product which we now understand under that term; we may suppose it to have been rhythmic but not metric. It was nearer to the cries of wild animals, and to some it may seem at first absurd to describe such sounds as music at all. I do not think so; on the contrary I find in the cries of some animals and many birds all the essential qualities of music. They have tone, rhythm, cadence, in a very high degree, and also melody, though vague and rudimentary. The essential difference between melody and mere succession of sounds consists in its being intelligible, that is, in its conforming to a scale or musical scheme of some sort, but that scale is not necessarily the one recognized in modern music. Our ears are so accustomed to associate melody with a certain diatonic scale, and with accompanying harmony, actual or potential, that it is very difficult for us to comprehend as melody successions which do not conform to that scheme, as, for example, the melodies of Oriental nations, the scales of which are far more complex and difficult to understand than ours. It is a very remarkable fact that while the course of evolution is generally from simpler to more complex organisms, that of the musical scale is just the reverse. Primitive scales are highly complex, and involve intervals not appreciable by us as melody; with time they gradually become simpler; and in the diatonic scale, especially in its most modern developments, where the distinction between major and minor tends to become effaced, we seem to have reached the limit, and the scale is reduced to the simplest possible numerical relations. However this may be, I know that to a person who has lived in close converse with nature and possesses a musical ear the cries of wild animals and birds are full of melody in the strict sense, though it is rudimentary and different from that of our concert-rooms. And it is reasonable to suppose that man, when he first emerged with far more highly organized faculties than any beast, would gradually raise his musical expression into something higher, something more melodious, than that of other creatures. Particularly as his reason developed he would devise a scale; the rhythms would become more definite and at the same time more varied and complex. The result of these improvements would be to make his utterances more intelligible.
[Footnote 15: Such is the deduction which I draw from recent theories of harmony. See in this connection Neue musikatische Theorien und Phantasien (Stuttgart, 1906), sec. 40. Also Louis and Thuille, Harmonielehre (1908), especially Pt. I., ch. 6. The idea can be traced back to Hauptmann.]
Helmholtz has observed that there is much more in a musical sound than its mere timbre, and Wagner has noticed how every musical instrument has not only its vowel sound, or timbre, but also its peculiar consonant. We need not go so far as to connect the flute with an "f," the trumpet with a "t," etc., since the instrumental consonants need not conform exactly with those of the alphabet; it is enough that each instrument has its own characteristic way of attacking the tone. So we gain the idea of articulation; the point of its entry into the musical expression marks the beginning of language.
Hitherto the expression has been, as we have seen, purely lyric; the lower animals have no other. But as man rises out of his bestial condition and acquires reason his wants become more numerous and diverse. The mere expression of his inner feelings no longer suffices; he differentiates objects in the external world, and needs sounds—names—to express them. For this he utilizes the newly developed faculty of language. It is the most momentous crisis of his development, the point where he becomes a human being, severed by a wide gap from other animals, and incomparably above them. The mark of language has from the first rightly been made the crux of the theory of the evolution of man; it is the natural inevitable outcome of his developing the faculty of reason. Thus the need for communicating the perceptions of external objects calls forth epic expression.
[Footnote 16: "Auf das was vor mir steht zeige ich; was in mir vorgeht druecke ich durch Toene und Gebehrden aus; was aber abwesend oder einst geschah bedarf, wenn es vernehmlich werden soll einer zusammenhangend geordneten Rede. So ward das Epos."—Herder, Kalligone.]
We may now lay down a scheme of the three fundamental vehicles of human expression based on their historical development. We have
Emotional or subjective: Gesture—obvious and material. Music—warmer, deeper, and more spiritual. Rational or objective: Language.
But a warning must be added against pressing this classification unduly. All schemes of nature are only approximate; there are no such sharply divided compartments into which our notions may be pigeon-holed. Language may of course be intensely emotional, but we may notice that just in proportion as it becomes emotional it calls in the aid of music; the voice becomes melodious, it develops rhythm, accent, cadence, and ultimately becomes poetry, which is language united with a large element of music.
Students of economic science have of recent years given attention to ethnology, and their researches into the origin and primitive characteristics of labour have brought to light some facts which are very interesting to us. The familiar distinction between work and play has no root in nature. Animals do not look upon their labours as a painful task, only to be endured for a time and then to be rewarded by an interval of diversion; to the horse or the dog the day's work is the day's treat; and so with those men whom we contemptuously call "savages." It is the same with artists; no artist has mastered the technique of his work until it has become a pleasure and a plaything to him. There could not be a more significant comment on the unnaturalness of a civilization in which periods of leisure for the workman have to be wrung from the community by legislation. The true workman, like the true artist, is never happy unless he is at work; he needs no diversion.
Of the greatest interest to us are the results of the inquiries of economists into the relations between work, rhythm, and song amongst primitive people. Especially valuable is a treatise by Dr. Karl Bucher, professor of national economy in Leipzig, entitled Arbeit und Rhythmus, which ought to find many readers in England if it were translated. I know few modern books that are more fascinating, and it would be hard to say whether its charm lies more in its solid scientific method or in its admirable literary presentation and apt illustrations from the delicate verse-song of the most primitive peoples.
"Im Anfang war der Rhythmus." According to Dr. Buecher, all work, when efficient, tends to be rhythmic and each kind of work has its peculiar rhythm. This is especially the case when the labour is carried out in common by a number of people, and the rhythm is embodied in a song, or rhythmic word of command sung by the leader. Innumerable instances will at once occur to everybody—rowing, hauling, marching, sewing, mowing, etc. In primitive people the impulse to sing the rhythm is even more marked than it is among ourselves, with whom the pressure of civilization helps to suppress all natural expression of feeling, and the disturbance of so many cross rhythms tends to obliterate the primary pulsations. The rhythm is an essential part of the work, and not a mere ornamental adjunct; people sing, not to "keep their spirits up," but to help on the work; until the workman has acquired the rhythm he works imperfectly, and tires very quickly. Those forms of work which do not admit rhythm, such as adding figures, copying MSS., etc., are the most fatiguing. Still more so is labour where the natural rhythm is subject to frequent interruptions. Hence walking in the streets of a town is much more wearying than walking in the country; you have to break the rhythm at every few steps and never get the "swing." The constant interruptions of rhythm by goods in shop-windows, advertisements, etc., is, I am sure, largely the cause of nervous degeneracy in towns.
It cannot surprise us to find that amongst primitive people dancing is the most universal occupation. All dance, dance to frenzy. Originally the dance does not express joy or any other emotion; it is simply the human impulse to activity, work, the most fundamental thing in human nature. From the dance rhythm finds its way into music and poetry, both being in the beginning intended to accompany dancing. One thing is certain, that neither music nor the dance originated in sexuality. Eroticism scarcely ever occurs in the poetry of primitive peoples. It enters at a later stage.
It is not necessary to trace how, out of these primitive beginnings, there grew the ancient drama of the more civilized countries, always retaining the three elements from which it had sprung in closest union. Speaking of the Indian drama in the time of the semi-mythical Bharata, the Indian Thespis, Sir Monier Williams writes:
The drama of these early times was probably nothing more than the Indian Nautch of the present day. It was a species of rude pantomime, in which dancing and movements of the body were accompanied by mute gestures of the hands and face, or by singing and music. Subsequently dialogue was added....
In Greece the early lyric epoch is represented by the Paians, Dithyrambs, etc., at the festivals of Apollo and Dionysos, rhythmic dances to accompaniment of cithara or flute, with words generally improvised. Out of the Bacchic dithyrambs grew the tragedy. In the works of the great Attic tragedians the chorus, or dance-song, which had descended from earlier times still remained the principal feature of the representation. It was the drama that crystallized out of the music and dance, not the music that was called in to support or adorn the drama. Not until the time of Euripides did the chorus become a secondary element of the representation, and from this time on the drama begins to decline, becoming more and more a literary product.
It would be a worthy undertaking for a competent student to set himself the task of bringing order into the chaos of Wagner's theoretical writings. They are crowded with thoughts of the deepest import, which seem to point the way to further inquiry, but which remain suggestions only. The most tiresome quality in Wagner's literary style is that he scarcely ever comes to the point. Whenever he asserts a rule in clear and unmistakable language, it is either brought in almost parenthetically amidst a mass of rhetoric, or—as, for example, in the dictum of music being a means to the dramatic end—he treats it with scorn, as something too obvious to be stated. In either case its chances of gaining the reader's attention are seriously diminished by such wrong method. A student who should undertake the task of ordering his thought would need to possess, in addition to the highest musical and dramatic qualifications a metaphysical habit of mind such as is rare at the present day, and a sympathetic capacity for discerning the grains of golden truth amidst the dross. He must construct anew. Wagner's theoretical edifice will not stand as it is; it is too loosely jointed; but the materials are valuable. That there will ever be a real science of aesthetics I do not believe; art would cease to be art if it lost its mystery. For the present at least we must be content to remain in darkness as to the precise conditions of musical expression, and eschew theory. That music does reveal the nature of things in a way different from words can scarcely be questioned. So, too, does all nature through its silent music reveal more than meets the senses. But we cannot say exactly how or why. Enough that the divine reason whereby the world is fashioned is not the same as our human reason, and will not be forced into its forms.