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Title: Wagner
Author: Runciman, John F., 1866-1916
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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Bell's Miniature Series of Musicians

[Second Edition] 1913


  HIS YOUTH (1813-1834)
  MAGDEBURG, RIGA, PARIS (1834-1842)
  DRESDEN (1842-1849)
  ZURICH--PARIS (1849-1861)
  MUNICH--TRIEBSCHEN (1864-1871)


HIS YOUTH 1813-1834.

The old world is very remote from us now, but it is worth while making a
small attempt to realize how it stood to Wagner. When he was born, in
1813, Bach had been dead only a little over sixty years; Mozart had been
dead about twenty years, and Haydn about ten; Beethoven was in the full
splendour of his tremendous powers; Weber and Schubert had still their
finest work to do. To grasp all that this means, let us consider our
relation to Mendelssohn. He died nearly sixty years ago; yet, whatever
we may think of him as a composer, we can scarcely call him
old-fashioned: he remains indisputably one of the moderns. Now, Wagner
can never have looked upon Bach as a modern. He spoke of him and his old
periwig almost as one might allude to an extinct race of animals. The
history of an art cannot be measured off in years: in some periods it
moves slowly, in others with startling rapidity. Since Mendelssohn's day
composers have sought rather to develop old resources and forms than to
find and create new ones, whereas in the sixty years that lie between
Bach's death and Wagner's birth the whole form and content, the very
stuff, of music was changed. In 1750 he would have been a daring and
extraordinarily sapient being who prophesied that within forty years
Mozart's G minor Symphony would be written. Between Bach and Wagner is a
great gulf set, a gulf bridged by Emanuel Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and
Beethoven; between ourselves and Mendelssohn there is no such chasm and
certainly no such list of mighty names. It was in the period of swift
transition from Bach's fugues to Beethoven's Choral Symphony that Wagner
was born, a period when musical Germany was in a state of tumultuous
ebullition. Later we shall see for how much this counted in the growth
of Wagner's genius. In the meantime it may be observed that in externals
the world of 1813 was not so far removed from the world of 1750. All the
men on whose work Wagner was fed and brought up had their roots in a
past that is now dead and buried. Had he been born a few years earlier
he might have worn a wig; the stock was not to depart for many a year to
come. A man might still, without causing remark, wear coats, waistcoats
and trousers of many hues. The old world was going fast, but it had not
gone. The fires of the French Revolution had cast strange lights amongst
the peoples and struck a deadly chill into the hearts of kings and
governors. Napoleon had shown what the will, brain and energy of a man
could do, and all the forces of reaction were gathering together to
crush him at Waterloo; the heads of men were seething with new ideas,
destined to bring about the strangest results a few years afterwards;
but the old order still prevailed, had not yet yielded to the new. Let
us remember how short a time had passed since Haydn retired, after a
life spent at a pig-tail German Court in the service of a princeling
whose position was about as lofty as that of an English country squire,
though it must be admitted that his tastes were a little more elevated.
Railways had not defiled the landscapes of Europe, nor gas robbed her
cities of all romance by night. The watchman blew his horn and called
the hour, and told all those abed that it rained or snowed. Most of the
blessings of civilization, which were to do so much for humanity and
have done so little, had yet to come. Fair fields and forests, fresh,
unpolluted rivers, cities of great-gabled houses, old-world narrow
streets and beautiful gardens, and, excepting in England, few noisy
smoking factories and foul chemical works--this was the Europe into
which Richard Wagner was born on May 22, 1813.

He was born in Leipzig. His father, a police official of some vague
sort, died when he was a few months old, and his mother went to Dresden
and married Ludwig Geyer, an actor. Richard, however, had no great luck
in the matter of fathers, for six years later Geyer also died. Dresden
was, as things were in those days--ninety years ago--a fairly musical
city; it had Weber at the opera and musicians of various degrees of
celebrity, deserved or undeserved. This, however, cannot have much
affected Wagner as a child. Rather, it is worth while glancing for a
moment at the artistic life which went on at his home. Whatever else it
may have been, it was not specially musical. Geyer was an actor,
Wagner's sister became an actress, and the atmosphere of the theatre
must have pervaded the family circle. This accounts somewhat for
Wagner's earlier artistic attempts. He showed none of the preternatural
musical precocity of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, who in their very
cradles were steeped in music. While his musical powers lay a long time
latent, his thoughts and energies were from babyhood directed to the
theatre. At the age of ten he probably knew a great deal more about the
drama of the day than he did of its music; probably he knew better when
a play was well represented than when a symphony was well played. Yet,
while his theatrical tendencies were encouraged, he must have been far
from being indifferent to music. He realized that Weber was a very great
man, and used to watch him passing in the street. This is significant,
for Weber remained to him throughout his life as a demigod; from _Die
Feen_, his boyish opera, until after _Lohengrin_ he used freely the
Weber phraseology and melodic contours, and when Weber's remains were
transported from London to be reinterred in Germany it was Wagner who
pronounced the inevitable discourse.

Still, the theatre was his first love, a love rather intensified than
otherwise when his mother removed back again to Leipzig and Richard was
sent to Nicolai Lyceum. How the family lived at this time is hard to
say, but probably it was done through the help of his sister and other
relatives. Anyhow, it was not till later that Wagner learnt the meaning
of the word poverty, and then it entered like iron into his soul; and in
the meantime he got a good general education. Leipzig was then hardly
more musical than Dresden. Bach had worked and died there; Mozart, not
so long before Wagner's birth, had visited it and got to know some of
Bach's motets by the astounding process of memorizing the separate parts
and putting them together mentally. It was far from being the busy, if
somewhat philistine, musical centre we know to-day. It had its
Gewandhaus concerts, but their state may be inferred from a report
written by Mendelssohn long afterwards, in which he spoke of dismissing
the incompetents of the band, who went away as men who had lost their
bread. It had its opera, which was doubtless as good as the average
German opera of the time. But without a conservatoire, without musicians
of the first rank, with its middling orchestra, it cannot be compared
with, say, Vienna, where the very air breathed music and great musical
traditions and memories abounded. Bach, the poor organist and
schoolmaster, was little more than a name to all save his pupils and
their pupils. His _Matthew_ Passion lay there untouched, with the dust
thick on it, and there it remained until Mendelssohn had it sung a
century after its first and only previous performance.

Here Wagner took lessons on the pianoforte from Gottlieb Müller, and
never learnt to play. Later he worked at counterpoint with Weinlig. But
at first the drama and not music continued to hold his attention. He
studied Greek plays and Shakespeare, and his highest ambition was to
achieve a stupendous drama which in the matter of sensations and murders
should eclipse anything yet done. But it dawned upon him that without
music his play could not make its full and proper effect, so into music
he went, and was at once caught in the impetuous torrent of the time. He
could not play, but he could read scores, and soon all Beethoven was as
well known to him as his mother's face. Accounts, more or less
trustworthy, are given of his singing and whistling the chamber works;
and it is an undoubted fact that he made a pianoforte transcription--one
would much like to see it--of the Choral Symphony. He tried his hand at
composition, and wrote some things that are without value; he sketched
one opera which came to nothing, and in 1833 completed another, _The
Fairies (_Die Feen_), which was not produced till more than fifty years
afterwards. The following year he was appointed conductor of the
Magdeburg Theatre, and with this appointment may be said to end his
apprenticeship to the trade he was to follow for some years.


The trade he had chosen was that of operatic conductor. It was not until
eight years later that he made a serious début as an operatic composer.
_The Forbidden Love (Das Liebesverbot)_ is entirely unknown to me; but
it may be doubted whether Wagner, with his head full of confused ideas,
and as yet no definite and distinctive plan or method, could at this
time produce a great work of art. He had to pass through his _Rienzi_
period first. But two points may be remarked. Already he had determined
to make his own librettos; and his early association with the theatre
enabled him to judge much better than any of the libretto-makers of that
or any other time as to what would prove effective on the stage. In the
second place, in the music of _The Fairies_, we see to what an extent he
had assimilated Weber; the themes are Weberesque in outline, and the
whole colour--colour of harmony and orchestration--is also Weberesque.
He went on planning and writing operas, but his daily bread-earning work
was rehearsing his company and conducting. The experience must have been
invaluable to him; but there is nothing especially remarkable to record
of the period. He himself left an account of the failure of _The
Forbidden Love_, which was produced in 1836. The company went to pieces
immediately after, and he was glad to find a position at Königsberg.
This, however, came to nothing, or next to nothing, owing to the
director's failure, and again Wagner had to remove, this time to Riga.

The Riga period is one of the most important of his life. He had married
Minna Planer, who is said to have been a very pretty woman and quite
incapable of understanding her husband and his artistic aspirations; and
he began, slowly and tentatively, to shape a course through life for
himself. He continued to gain experience in the production of other
composers' operas; he studied incessantly, and at last he hit upon the
idea of writing a grand opera in the Meyerbeer style, and going to Paris
with it, in the hope of getting it produced at the opera there. He was
harassed by creditors; and with the daring and energy characteristic of
the man whom Fate had destined to build Bayreuth, he determined to try
by one bold stroke to retrieve his fortunes. He was still a young man
when he went to Riga in 1837, but he was in such a feverish hurry for
fame and glory, not to say money, that no obstacle was allowed to stand
in his way. During the last few years he had composed a number of
occasional things--which we need not stop to consider--but nothing on
the sumptuous scale of _Rienzi_. Heroic personages, dramatic or
melodramatic situations, opportunities for huge gaily-dressed crowds and
scenic display--these were what the young man was after; and in the
story of Rienzi he found plenty to fire an imagination always prone to
flame and flare at the slightest suggestion. The libretto was written;
the music was partly written; and in 1839 Wagner took one of the most
momentous steps in all his stormy career--he sailed from Riga,
accompanied by his wife and dog, with the intention of reaching Paris by
way of London.

The voyage itself bore noteworthy artistic fruit; for within three years
the roar and scream of the tempest, the smashing of heavy seas upon the
ship's sides and deck, and (I dare say) the captain's curses, were to be
translated into tone and take artistic shape in _The Flying Dutchman_.
London reached in safety, Wagner stayed first near the Tower and then in
Soho. He lost his dog, found it, and crossed the Channel to Boulogne.
Here he met Meyerbeer, who gave him an introduction to a bankrupt
theatre, the Renaissance, in Paris. In Paris he met many well-known
people, amongst them Heine, who clasped his hands and looked heavenwards
when he heard of a penniless German coming to such a city to seek his
fortune, with nothing save an unfinished opera and an introduction from
Meyerbeer. The late Sir Charles Hallé met him at this time, and left
some amusing reminiscences in his Autobiography. Heine's view of the
situation was speedily justified. Not by any efforts could _Rienzi_ be
unloaded upon an opera director, and Wagner began to experience the
bitterness of poverty. To earn a bare living, he thought himself lucky
to be entrusted with the making of transcriptions of popular airs and
the writing of articles for the press.

The three years' stay in Paris did Wagner no particular harm that I
have been able to trace beyond implanting in him that deadly fear of
being hard up which haunted him all his life thenceforward, and is an
offensive and yet pathetic feature of his letters to all his friends. On
the other hand, he heard opera performances on a scale outside and
beyond his past experience; he heard Habenek direct the Choral Symphony
at the Conservatoire, and learnt much, not only about that mighty
work--which he must already have known by heart--but also of the art of
conducting; he finished _Rienzi_ and sent it off to Dresden, where it
was accepted; and he planned and completed _The Flying Dutchman_, which
was accepted for production at Berlin. He had also written the _Faust_
Overture in its first form. And probably also he had acquired that
almost fatal fluency of the pen which was to make so many enemies for
him afterwards, and yet to lead to the realization of his life's dream
in Bayreuth. A bare list of the names of the friends and opponents he
gained at this time would take up more space than is available in so
brief a study as this, and I must pass over many interesting incidents.
The most important is that connected with _The Flying Dutchman_
libretto. Wagner submitted his sketches to the opera, where they were
placed at the disposal of another composer, and he was offered (I think)
£20 or nothing for them. He took the £20, and then, his artistic
conscience happily triumphing over his commercial conscience, he used
the money to live upon until he had completed his own opera on the same
subject. The French _Dutchman_ (music by Dietsch) was produced. It
failed and is forgotten. How Wagner's fared all the world knows.

_Rienzi_ was now getting ready at Dresden, and thither Wagner went in
April, 1842. The opera was produced in October, with enormous success,
and the name of Wagner became famous throughout Germany. Nowadays so
much of the music appears so very cheap and tawdry that it is only after
a severe mental struggle one can understand the enthusiasm the work
aroused. We must put away all thought of the later Wagner; we must
forget that when _Rienzi_ was produced the _Dutchman_ had already been
some time finished. We must remember the sort of music the Dresden
public had suffered under: dull, workmanlike operas, without an original
touch, without the breath of life in them--in a word, kapellmeister
music. The pomp and outward show of that remarkable heavy-weight
Spontini must have come as a relief after the Dresden opera-goer's
ordinary fare; but Spontini, though he lays on his colours with a
barbarian regal hand, never sparkles; he is altogether lacking in
vivacity, elasticity; he had no gift for gracious or piquant melody. Of
the operas of Marschner much the same must be said; in them we find the
tricks of the Romantics without the best Romantics' sense of beauty, all
the horrors of Weber without Weber's passion. Black woods, supernatural
fireworks by night, enchantments, vampires, guns that went off by
themselves--all this jugglery was fast being done to death, and what at
first had been a nerve-shaking novelty was becoming a mere tedium. In
opera _The Castle of Otranto_ was played out. Into this region of
inspissated gloom Richard burst with _Rienzi_, the brilliant, the
fearless, the tragic hero; all was blazing light and colour; it
sparkled; if the champagne of it was of an inferior quality--often,
indeed, poor goose-berry--yet it bubbled and frothed gaily. Besides,
there were great sweeping tunes--such as the hackneyed prayer--and
plenty of really dainty, if very Weberesque, melodies. All that
Meyerbeer had to teach was there, and the stolid Dresdener gazed with
delight on the brilliance of the latest Parisian musical fashions. So
Wagner gained his first success, and deserved it. It was not the Paris
success he had dreamed of a few years before, when fame, money and all
worldly things desirable were to be his. But it meant bread-and-butter
without drudging for the publishers or the press; it meant the means of
living while he wrote masterpieces which were to set half the world
against him and eventually make him immeasurably the greatest musical
figure of his time. He was appointed Court kapellmeister, and there he
remained until 1849. Before proceeding to this next period of seven
years we must consider _The Flying Dutchman_.

This is his first music drama. He called it a romantic opera; but here
for the first time the drama grows out of an idea and the music out of
the drama. The thing suggested itself to him during that stormy trip to
London: the roaring waves, the whistling of the salt winds, the
loneliness of the bitter North Sea--these set his imagination aworking
on the old legend of the mariner doomed to sail the ocean until the Day
of Judgment. In this there was colour and atmosphere enough, but no
drama. The dramatic idea he took from Heine's sentimental version. In
this the Dutchman's lot is softened and mitigated by a possibility of
salvation. He can go ashore once in seven years, and if he can find a
maiden who will love him and be faithful unto death he will be released
from the necessity to wander. That is to say, his chances of redemption
depend upon constancy of some unknown young lady. All the Dutchman has
to do is to find her, make himself agreeable, and trust to luck. A more
childish notion never occurred to an intellectual man, nor a more
selfish one. The lady might have done nothing wrong; she was to be
punished for loving not wisely but too well; and there is nothing in the
old legend or in the Wagner-Heine form of it to show the Dutchman to
have been a deserving person. Yet, on the other hand, Wagner, with still
vivid memories of the agonies he had endured during his voyage, may have
thought the punishment excessive for a momentary loss of temper in
trying circumstances and a passing swear-word; and the girl was to find
the fullest joy her nature was capable of in sacrificing herself. But
there is no fundamental verity inherent in the idea: the Dutchman's
salvation might as well depend on a throw of dice; and all this early
nineteenth-century romantic sentimentalism, with one of its main
notions--that a woman cannot be better occupied than in "saving" a
man--this, grafted on to the stern, relentless old story, makes a
compound that is always unreal and sometimes ludicrous. But it gave
Wagner three opportunities: of painting the stormy sea, of depicting the
hopeless misery of the Dutchman Vanderdecken, and of expressing in music
woman's most passionate and unselfish love.

No one need be afraid of "not understanding" the _Dutchman_. The story
is simplicity itself. Wagner knew the theatre and every stagey device by
heart, and in none of his dramas is there anything half so hard to
follow as the plots, say, of _Rigoletto_ and _Aïda_ and most Italian
operas. Nor, again, does the music present any difficulty. In spite of
the use of the _leit-motif_ which I shall discuss presently, the
separate numbers are as clean cut as those of any Mozart opera. He joins
his different items, it is true, but it is impossible to avoid knowing
where one leaves off and the next begins. The play opens with the raging
tempest on a rocky coast; the ship of one Daland is driven there, and
Daland goes ashore to see if there is any likelihood of the storm
ceasing--a proceeding at which any land-lubber, not to mention
experienced tars, might well laugh. Finding himself far from his port
and no probability of the wind and sea falling immediately, he goes on
board again to take a little rest, and descends to his cabin, leaving a
sailor as watchman, to see, I suppose, that the vessel does not batter
itself to pieces on the cliffs. The watchman sings himself to sleep with
a most beautiful ballad. The sky darkens, the sea boils more furiously
than ever, and the phantom ship arrives. With a prodigious uproar her
anchor takes ground--another evidence of Wagner's seamanship--and
Vanderdecken comes ashore in his turn. His seven years are up; now he
has another chance of finding the faithful maiden. The opening of this
scene is as fine as anything Wagner ever wrote; the later portions are
fine, too, but quite old-fashioned. The storm ceases, and Vanderdecken
having expressed his hopes and fears, Daland comes on deck, enters into
conversation with the stranger, and in a few minutes it is arranged that
the two shall go together, and if the Dutchman can win Senta's heart,
she shall be his.

Now, it will be noted here that the whole thing is ridiculously stagey
and artificial. In spite of the new ideas fermenting in Wagner's brain,
he had not yet got away from the stage-trickiness of Scribe. Unreality
and artificiality face you at every step. The music is a different
matter. No one, not even Mendelssohn in his _Hebrides_ overture, has
ever given us the sea, the noise and colour of it, its violence and
ruthlessness, as Wagner has here. It is the sea that pervades the whole
of the act; but imposed on its ceaseless sound there are very splendid
things--some worn a little threadbare by now, but many still fresh. In
the next act the prima donna has her opportunity. Senta, the heroine,
sits at her spinning-wheel amidst a number of maidens. After a
conventional spinning chorus, Senta sings the ballad of the Flying
Dutchman, whose picture hangs on the wall, and ends up with an ecstatic
appeal to Heaven, Fate--everyone in general and no one in particular--to
give her the chance of saving him. Daland and Vanderdecken enter, and
the drama begins to approach its climax. The spinning chorus is pretty;
but nothing in the act--nor, in fact, in the whole opera--matches the
glorious passage where Senta takes her fate in both hands and avows her
resolution to follow the Dutchman to death or whatever else may befall.

The essence of the last act may be given in a few words. It begins as if
Wagner had felt that he had not made sufficient use of the uncanny
effects to be got out of the phantom ship, and we get a long string of
choruses not necessary to the drama. At the last Vanderdecken, he, too,
rises to the full height of his character, and, determining that he will
not sacrifice Senta, renounces her and goes on board his boat to sail
off. But Senta throws herself into the water after him; the phantom
vessel falls to pieces, and the glorified forms of the two are seen
mounting towards the sky. But Vanderdecken's sudden resolve has the air
of an afterthought, and counts for little beside the fact that
throughout the drama the sacrifice of Senta has been insisted on as the
price of his redemption. It is the Senta theme, also, that is played as
the pair mount.

The _Dutchman_ must stand amongst Wagner's great works. More beautiful
music for the theatre had been written, but never had such energy been
put into it as we find in the Dutchman's damnation theme or the tumult
of the bitter, angry sea. Any lazy man can, in time, fill up a score
with sufficient notes for the trumpets, trombones and drums to produce a
deafening uproar, but it took all the native force of a Wagner to fill,
to inform, the thought itself with such energy that, looking at the
score, the passages seem almost to leap out from the page, and, played
on even a small piano, their effect is still overwhelming. When the
opera was produced the effect on the audience was certainly
overwhelming, almost stupefying. The _Dutchman_ had been accepted at
Berlin on Meyerbeer's recommendation, but that recommendation Wagner
probably thought of no great value, and after the success of _Rienzi_ he
determined to have it also played at Dresden, and the first performance
took place at the beginning of 1843. The noise of the storm rolled far
outside the theatre, and from that time forward Wagner and his music
were subjects of discussion throughout Europe. His originality was not
doubted; the din of his orchestra was no louder than that of Spontini's
or Marschner's, but the harmony seemed bold to those who had never known
Bach and had already forgotten Beethoven, and people were puzzled by the
lack of full-stops at the end of each number. Things that seem
old-fashioned to us now were then new, while Wagner's own genuine
inventions could at first hardly be grasped. However, Wagner had no
reason to be dissatisfied. He had already his admirers, he was secure in
an important post, and he could cheerfully set forth in search of fresh
woods and pastures new, or, to use a more appropriate figure, fresh seas
to cross in search of new continents.

DRESDEN, 1842-1849.

He was now thirty, and although he had written two long works, one of
them a great one, they constituted the merest prelude to the gigantic
achievements of the next forty years. He was busily engaged at the
opera, but set to work at once on an endless number and variety of
projects. _Tannhäuser_ was finished by 1845, _Lohengrin_ by 1847, and
his brain was occupied with _The Mastersingers of Nuremberg (Die
Meistersinger)_ and _The Nibelung's Ring_, both to be completed long
afterwards. During this period he also composed the _Love-feast of the
Apostles_, and did a bit of mending to Gluck's _Iphigenia in Aulis_.
But, though scheming many things, he seemed by no means sure of his road
at first. With Schröder-Devrient, the singer, and others, he discussed
lengthily the question of whether he should attempt another _Rienzi_ or
go on from the _Dutchman_. If to realize his artistic dreams was dear to
Wagner, so were immediate success, fame and money. Of the last he could
never have enough, for he spent it faster than he gained it--spent it on
himself, needy artists, on any object which suggested itself to him.
However, the creative artist in him had the victory. The notion of a
second _Rienzi_ was abandoned and _Tannhäuser_ commenced. He had come
across the legend of an illicit passion and its punishment somewhere,
and he set to work on the book of words. Of course he sentimentalized
the story--it was a trick he was always given to, especially during
these, his younger, years--and, of course, he made a woman sacrifice
herself for a man. In the older form of the tale Tannhäuser lived
goodness knows how long with Venus; then he forsook her, and she vowed
to take vengeance on him. He returned to his friends, and entered for a
competition in minstrelsy. While in the middle of his song, which would
have gained him the prize, Venus visited him with sudden madness, and
throwing away all cant about pure platonic love, he chanted the praise
of foul carnal lust and the joy of living with the Goddess of Love in
the heart of the hills. Coming to himself, he went on a pilgrimage to
Rome, and asked and was refused the Pope's forgiveness. Then he returned
to Venus, and so the story ends with the eternal damnation of
Tannhäuser, just as the ancient legend of the Flying Dutchman ends with
the eternal damnation of Vanderdecken.

It need hardly be said that this did not satisfy Wagner. He did not like
to see people eternally damned; drab, hopeless tragedy was not for him.
In nearly every opera we find peace and hope at the close, or even
ecstasy in death, as in the _Dusk of the Gods (Götterdämmerung)_ and
_Tristan_. So he promptly made use of Elisabeth in _TANNHÄUSER_,
though, as we shall see, the redeeming act is not so sharply defined as
in the _Dutchman_. In the first scene Tannhäuser is sleeping in the arms
of Venus, while bacchanals indulge in riotous dances. Tannhäuser
suddenly starts from sleep: he has dreamed of his home as it was before
his fall--of the village chime, the birds, the flowers, the sweet air;
and he asks permission to return from this hot, steaming cave of vice to
the fair clean earth. Venus in vain plays upon him with all her arts and
wiles; he sings his magnificent song in praise of her and her beauty,
but insists that he must go, and ends with a frenzied appeal to the
Virgin. In a moment the illusion is broken: Venus, her luxurious cavern,
her nymphs and satyrs, all disappear. There is a minute's blackness,
then the light returns, and Tannhäuser is lying in the roadside before a
cross. The sky is blue and the trees and grass are green, and a
shepherd-boy is carolling a fresh, merry spring song. Tannhäuser remains
with his face to earth while a band of pilgrims passes on its way to
Rome. Then his old companions come up, recognise him, tell him Elisabeth
has patiently awaited his return, and so induce him to go with them.

The second act opens on the Hall of Song. Elisabeth thinks over her
grief and longing during Tannhäuser's absence, and sings her delight now
that he has come back to her. He comes in, and there follows a most
beautiful and touching scene, Elisabeth expressing her love and joy and
recounting her past sorrow, while in Tannhäuser's utterances are
mingled joy, regret, gratitude, and a sense of rapturous repose on
finding himself at peace once again, after being so long tossed on seas
of stormy passion. The tournament of song commences. Various minstrels
sing the pure pleasures of a love in which the flesh has no part;
Tannhäuser, Elisabeth approving, praises an honest, natural love. The
others oppose him, until, goaded to madness, he loses all self-control.
He hears the voice of Venus and calls upon her; in confusion the women
rush from the hall, the men draw their swords, and in a moment the hero
would be stabbed did not Elisabeth dash between him and the infuriated
knights. She pleads for him, and at last, the voice of pilgrims being
heard in the distance, Tannhäuser's life is spared on condition that he
joins them and goes to Rome to ask forgiveness. The curtain in the last
act rises on the scene of the first, but where all was young and fresh,
now the leaves are withered and the tints of autumn are everywhere.
Elisabeth watches the pilgrims pass on their return from
Rome--Tannhäuser is not amongst them. She sings her prayer to the Virgin
and goes home, as it proves, to die. Wolfram, Tannhäuser's friend, who
also loves Elisabeth, sings his song of resignation; and then Tannhäuser
enters, to the sinister theme of the Pope's curse. He tells Wolfram how
he has been to Rome, how he has suffered, how he asked the Pope's
pardon, and how the Pope declared that he should never be forgiven until
the staff in his hand blossomed. So now he is on his way back to Venus.
Venus calls him; he struggles with Wolfram, and is about to break away
when the body of Elisabeth is carried by. Tannhäuser falls by the side
of the bier; the Pope's staff, which has burgeoned, is brought on; and
so the opera ends, Tannhäuser being redeemed.

It is necessary to rehearse in this way the dramatic bases of
_Tannhäuser_ and Wagner's succeeding operas for two reasons. First, the
drama, which played a big enough part in the _Dutchman_, now becomes
more important, more essential, than ever. Many an old Italian opera may
be heard without the hearer knowing in the least what it is about;
indeed, in many cases the less one knows of the plot, the more one
enjoys the music. But the reverse is true of Wagner. Certain portions of
_Tannhäuser_, for example, can be listened to with pleasure simply as
noble or beautiful music: the overture, Tannhäuser's Song to Venus, the
Pilgrims' Marching Chorus, Wolfram's "O Star of Eve," Elisabeth's
Prayer, and so on. On the other hand, without an acquaintance with the
story, and each stage of the story as it progresses, much of Venus's
music in the first act loses its significance; the duet of Elisabeth and
Tannhäuser in the second act loses its pathos, and the huge finale is
meaningless, even as music; and the greater portion of the third act is
simply bewildering. When we know what is being sung or done, the music
is as clear as the day. Wagner knew this better than anyone, and, as I
pointed out in commenting on the _Dutchman_, he brought his whole
theatrical experience and training to help him to make the drama as
simple and comprehensible as possible. When the Wagner battle was raging
in the seventies and eighties, the sages pointed to the necessity of
understanding the drama for the purpose of understanding the music as a
defect of the Wagner music-drama, and a proof of Wagner's inferiority as
a composer. But one would like to ask the sages how many songs are there
which do not afford a finer artistic enjoyment when the words are

A second reason for thoroughly knowing the drama of the later Wagner
operas is that without that knowledge the _leit-motif_, which now
becomes a formidable element, is likely to be wholly misunderstood and
its artistic value missed. Nine-tenths of the absurdities written and
talked about the _leit-motif_ are due to ignorance of the nature of the
dramatic situations in which it is used, and in consequence the purposes
for which it is used. The _leit-motif_ (leading theme) had very humble
beginnings. Who was the first to employ it I really don't know. It was
simply a theme which made its first appearance with one of the
personages of the opera, and afterwards was used whenever that personage
came on again or was referred to. Or it was connected with some thought,
someone's destiny, someone's plans, and either because it expressed
truly the right emotion, or because it acted by association of ideas,
whenever it sounded from the orchestra the thing desired was recalled
to one's mind. So used it was a useful father than a highly artistic
device. Wagner constantly used it so for matters which did not demand
lengthy treatment, such as Lohengrin's warning to Elsa or the curse on
the gold in the _Ring_. But while continuing to make this elementary
application of it, rather for dramatic than for musical purposes, he at
the same time developed it until it ceased to be merely a leading
motive, but became the very stuff of the music itself. Much of the music
of the later operas is spun out of what appear at first nothing more
than the old leading motives. The process by which this is done will be
discussed later; for the present let us see how far Wagner goes with it
in _Tannhäuser_.

In the _Dutchman_ there are two principal themes, the first--

[Illustration: Some bars of music]

standing for Vanderdecken, the curse laid on him, and the whole idea of
the phantom ship; the second--

[Illustration: Some bars of music]

for Senta. They are short and clean-cut; they recur when wanted, and are
subjected to little modification. There is not a single theme of this
description in _Tannhäuser_. The first act is perfectly easy to follow.
There are no _leit-motifs_. The Venus and bacchantic music will be heard
again in the second and third acts; but the rest consists of numbers
almost as completely detached as those that make up the _Dutchman_,
though the joinings are not only more skilful, but are real music and
not mere padding. Wagner had not by any means yet arrived at the
continuous music of his later work; in spite of his desire to sweep on
from the beginning to the end of each scene, he was still forced to take
frequent breath and disguise the stoppage as cleverly as he could. The
first scene contains many of Wagner's most inspired melodies, notably
the despairing song of Venus towards the end, a tune that might have
come from Schubert. The old Weber influence is to be seen in the
contours of many of the themes, as well as their orchestral colour; and
the steadfast four-bar rhythm reminds one, in spite of the difference of
subject, irresistibly of _Euryanthe_. It was not until the _Tristan_
period that Wagner got rid of this. In the second scene of the first act
we find all the musical machinery of old-fashioned opera, but used with
a mastery that leaves the _Dutchman_ far behind. There is first the
shepherd's delightfully fresh song, in wonderful contrast to the scents
and stifling heat of the Venus cave music; then comes the Pilgrims'
Chorus; then come Tannhäuser's friends with at least one number,
Wolfram's appeal, which is distinct and separate from the rest of the
music as a goldfish is from the water it swims in. The act ends with a
regular set finale, altogether on the old models.

The second act opens with Elisabeth's _scena;_ then follow her duet with
Tannhäuser, the march and chorus as the company troop in to hear the
contest of minstrels, the various songs, Tannhäuser's fatal mistake,
Elisabeth's intercession for him, the voices of the pilgrims setting out
for Rome, and Tannhäuser's rush to overtake them. No use is made of the
_leit-motif;_ only when Tannhäuser loses his wits and sings in praise of
Venus do we get reminiscences of the Venusberg music. In the third act
the structure is the same. Number flows into number, it is true, without
full-closes--without full-stops, so to speak; but those who have never
before heard a note of Wagner can follow as easily as they could a Gluck
or Mozart opera. The Pilgrims' Chorus occurs again, and again we have
the Venus music, when Tannhäuser, demented, sees her in the heart of the
mountain and hears her calling him.

In 1845 _Tannhäuser_ was produced. When the score was published--those
quaint lithographed scores: I believe some of them still exist in the
British Museum--Schumann got it, and seemed to like it, since he showed
it as a treasure to Hanslick, a musical critic of Vienna. Mendelssohn
also liked a canon in the second act--Mendelssohn, who ought to have
understood and loved the picturesque in it better than anyone. All
fantastic dreams of another _Rienzi_ and a huge popular success had long
since melted away: the creative instinct in Wagner was master of the
situation; never again did he plan anything to please the public, save,
comical to relate, when he began on the story of _Tristan_.

In _The Flying Dutchman_ Wagner had exploited the uncanny, the terror
and mystery of gray winter seas; in _Tannhäuser_ he turned to the
conflict between the gross, lurid passions of man and the sane, pure
side of his nature; and now, in _Lohengrin_, he was to give us an opera
which for sheer sustained loveliness has only one parallel in his
works--the _Mastersingers_. It is the most delicately beautiful thing he
wrote; its freshness is the freshness that seems unlikely to fade with
the passage of time. Curiously, too, while full of the spirit of
Weber--it is the most Weberesque of all his operas--of Weber who loved
darksome woods, haunted ruins and all the machinery of the romantics, it
is full of sweet sunlight and cool morning winds: the atmosphere of
Montsalvat, the land where it is always dawn, pervades it. As a painter
in music of landscape, seascape, of storm, rain amongst the leaves,
spring mornings, and calm sunny woodland scenes, Wagner has no equal.
There is nothing theatrical on this side of his art: the footlights and
back-cloths disappear, and the very thing itself is before us.

In or about 1847 _Lohengrin_ was finished. The tale is of the simplest.
Elsa is in distress. She is the daughter of the late Duke, and her
brother, the heir to the title and lands, has been changed into a swan
by the enchantments of Ortruda, wife of Frederick, who says that Elsa
has murdered him. Ortruda's tale is believed and Elsa is charged with
the crime before the King, Henry the Fowler. Frederick brings the charge
and claims the possessions and everything as the rightful heir. Henry
asks whether she is willing that some champion should fight on her
behalf. She consents. The herald calls for the champion; no one appears,
and the case is about to be decided against her when a knight is seen in
a magic boat on the river drawn by a swan. He offers to fight for her on
one condition: that she will never ask his name or whence he comes. She
promises, and in a few minutes Frederick is overcome and, with his wife,
disgraced, and the act ends with a regular opera finale. Next, Ortruda
comes as a suppliant in the night to Elsa, gains admittance, and poisons
her mind with doubts about Lohengrin. However, the wedding arrangements
go forward, and at the very church door Frederick interrupts the
procession, and accuses Lohengrin of witchcraft and what not. He is put
aside; but in the next act we see the poison at work in Elsa's mind. She
and her unknown husband are left alone, and, as Nietzsche observed, they
sit up too late. Elsa, with all the exasperating pertinacity of an
illogical, curious woman, persists in questioning Lohengrin, getting
nearer and nearer to the vital matter, until at last she can restrain
herself no longer. In fancy she sees the swan returning to carry off her
lover; and, wholly terrified, she asks, "Who are you and where do you
come from?" At the moment Frederick rushes in with some confederates,
only to be slain by Lohengrin. Sadly Lohengrin says that all now is
ended; his hopes are shattered because his bride could not subdue her
inquisitiveness for a year. In the next act he appears before the King
and nobles; he relates what has happened, says that he comes from
Montsalvat, where his father, Parcival, is King, and now he must return.
Ortruda breaks through the crowd, and in malicious triumph confesses her
crime. Lohengrin prays to Heaven; the swan is changed back to Elsa's
brother, a dove descends and is attached to the boat, and Lohengrin
sails away up the shining river, while all give a cry of distress.

We have here a simple fairy story. It is the only opera in which
character, a personal idiosyncrasy as distinct from an overwhelming
passion, produces the dramatic action. It has been urged that
Lohengrin's stipulation is monstrous; but seeing that he is bound--we do
not know how--and that if Elsa had not agreed her fate had been quickly
settled, it seems to me that (accepting the magical and supernatural
elements on which the whole thing rests) it was perfectly reasonable. I
fancy that Wagner, after some years with his very stupid wife, Minna,
was getting thoroughly angry with the irrational curiosity of women and
the idiotic demands which they make on their life-mates. Anyhow, though
he gives Elsa some very beautiful music to sing, he does not spare her
in drawing her character. It is one of the few characters he did attempt
to draw, and by far the most important of them. In the _Mastersingers_
Walther and Eva are sketched, and Hans Sachs is worked out in some
detail; but nothing in their nature especially affects the drama. In
_Lohengrin_ the tragedy is directly produced by Elsa's weakness and
curiosity. The characterization is by no means profound or microscopic.
It is, indeed, a question whether music is capable of anything of the
sort, whether it can render anything save bold, simple outlines. In
_Figaro_ and _Don Giovanni_ Mozart was content with this, and yet his
characterization appears subtle in comparison with that of every other
composer, with the exception of Wagner with his Elsa. Music can express
things that lie outside the range of literature; and perhaps fine and
delicate portrait and character painting are things that lie outside the
range of music.

In the _Dutchman_, I have said, we have the North Sea for a background,
in _Tannhäuser_ the sultry, scented cave of Venus. In _Lohengrin_ it is
the broad, shining river, flowing ceaselessly from far-away lands to the
distant sea, and on it the swan floats--the swan which throughout is
used as the symbol of the river. In the first act it gives the pervading
atmosphere and colour; in the third it recurs with amazing effect in the
midst of one of Elsa's paroxysms. Here is the simple phrase by which
such magic is wrought:

[Illustration: Some bars of music]

No changes are made in this theme. It occurs again and again, without
wearying the ear; it keeps the atmosphere charged with mystery and
suggestions of that far-away land where it is always dawn. It is the
calm, refreshing, gently-rippling river; the cool, placid water sliding
through many countries, with the swan as symbol and token of all that is
strange and beautiful where it has its source. It is less a theme
capable of purely musical development to form pattern after pattern of
entrancing beauty, like the Grail or Montsalvat theme, than the
equivalent in music of tender colour. It never sings out from the
orchestra without carrying the imagination for a moment from the scene
before one's eyes to the _fernem Land_. It blends the actual with the
dream, and imbues all the drama with a delicious romantic mysticism. I
dwell on it because without this prevailing colour and atmosphere the
story of _Lohengrin_ is a plain prosaic fairy-tale to amuse children.
Further, in the most important musical theme in the opera it is there
also--the Montsalvat theme:

[Illustration: Some bars of music]

The characteristic chords in the second bar cannot escape notice. This
motive, one of the sweetest Wagner invented, is long, and less of the
nature of a _leit-motif_--as I have explained the _leit-motif_--than a
passage like the Venus music in _Tannhäuser_. Just as Senta's ballad of
the Flying Dutchman is the germ of that opera, so this is the germ of
_Lohengrin_. It is worked out at great length when Lohengrin's narrative
arrives, and he declares his name, parentage, and country. The Swan or
River theme can scarcely be called a _leit-motif_ in the elementary
meaning of the phrase. For a fair example of this we must go to the
passage used by Lohengrin when he warns Elsa that she must ask no

[Illustration: Some bars of music]

This is never developed at all. It recurs only when Elsa's pertinacious
inquisitiveness threatens to rupture their somewhat hastily arranged
alliance. Then it sounds out sinister, menacing, and the effect, both
dramatic and musical, is overwhelming. Another example is the phrase
representing Lohengrin simply as a heroic knight. Save in the finale of
the first act, no great use is made of it.

It is unnecessary for me to describe in further detail an opera which is
so well known, and can be followed at a first hearing very much more
easily than _Tannhäuser_. While there is a great deal of recitative,
there are also many numbers merely joined together in the _Tannhäuser_
manner. Such numbers as the Prayer and Finale of the first act, Elsa's
Song and the Processional March in the second, the Wedding Chorus in the
last, are simply placed there; they do not grow out of themes, as they
would have grown had the opera been written when Wagner was ten years
older. The love duet which takes place after the marriage is a series of
his most generously inspired melodies. There are enough beautiful and
passionate tunes there to make the fortune of half a dozen Italian

After _Lohengrin_ the composer wrote nothing more for some years, though
we may be sure he was eternally planning. He was intensely interested in
politics. Revolution was in the air, and Wagner had to have his say on
that as on every other topic. He made speeches and published pamphlets;
and just as his musical schemes seemed wild to such contemporaries as
the late Charles Hallé, so his ideas of social regeneration must have
seemed Utopian to the point of sheer lunacy to the very comrades with
whom he was acting. The explosion came; barricades were thrown up in the
Dresden streets, and Wagner sought to bring about a quiet ending to the
crisis by appealing to the Imperial soldiers to join with, and not to
fight against, their own countrymen. Whether he actually shouldered a
musket or not it is hard to say. This much is certain, however: that
Wagner did take part in the rising, and that a warrant was issued for
his arrest. The fiasco resulted in a great gain to music, and, as far as
Wagner was concerned, there was no political loss. Had the insurgents by
some unthinkable chance succeeded, he would soon have been on worse
terms with them than ever he was with Kings and Imperial personages.
They tried revolt because they wished to alter all the conditions under
which men lived. Wagner, too, wanted to alter the conditions of life,
but mainly with a view of carrying out his operatic reforms. Look where
we will in his writings, we see that to be the secret of all his
incursions into practical politics. Passionate--a bursting volcano of
elemental energy--he was always a man of one idea at a time, and that
idea always involved Richard Wagner playing an important rôle, for he
was one of the most splendid egoists to be met in history.

ZURICH--PARIS (1849-1861).

He was now, indeed, in a pretty pickle. At Dresden he had an assured
livelihood and time to write operas; and, despite his former experience
of hunger and want, he threw away his position for the sake of an idea.
He afterwards was wont to complain that he only wished to be kept alive
in reasonable comfort, and he would in return present the world with
masterpieces. Yet he was not content when he was, for a comparatively
slight return in daily labour, kept comfortably alive. But, after all,
what appears at first to have been an act of madness turned out anything
but disastrous in the long-run. It is true that without the generous
help of Liszt, Wesendonek and others he could not have lived as he did
in Zurich, and, as it was, constant apprehensions of approaching
poverty harassed him. The old fear of an empty belly which got into his
very blood and bones in the Riga--Paris period now began to show itself
in those appealing letters written to his friends when there appears to
have been no necessity whatever. He had exaggerated hopes and
exaggerated fears. The hopes were realized--as well as anything can be
realized in this imperfect world--at Bayreuth; the fears found
expression in the begging letters of which advantage was taken by every
mean and cowardly spirit without the intelligence to understand his real
greatness. Mendelssohn, we are reminded, wrote no such letters; but
Mendelssohn, it may be remarked, was always rich, and has no such record
of charitable deeds as stands to Wagner's credit. The nearest parallel
to the case of Wagner is that of Beethoven in his old age. He, although
perfectly well off, scared himself almost to death with his dread of
poverty. Wagner's letters written about this time are well worth
reading. There is no need to discuss them; they should be read and
carefully weighed. Nor do I propose to spend any great space on the
prose writings of the period. They are full of theories which were no
sooner formulated than they had to be discarded in practice. At a time
when Wagner was quite thoroughly misunderstood, the notion--perhaps
naturally--became prevalent that he was simply completing a work
commenced by Gluck. Now, no two men ever had more widely different aims
than Wagner and Gluck. True, both wrote for the theatre, both employed
singers and orchestra; and there the likenesses terminate. Gluck never
sought to change the musical forms in use in opera. He retained the old
recitatives, airs, concerted numbers, and choruses; not Handel himself
clung more firmly to the old forms and formalities than Gluck did in
_Orpheus_ and _Iphigenia_. He sought, in the first place, to substitute
worthy and dignified subjects for the ancient frivolities which had
inspired composers since opera became popular; he wanted those subjects
treated in a sufficiently dignified way, and, above all, in a reasonable
way; he resolved that his music should be worthy of the drama. No
concessions were to be made to the prima donna or vain tenor: the music
had to be dramatically appropriate. He got magnificent results; and when
the leaven of Wagnerism has ceased to work and froth and bubble in the
public brain--in a word, when Wagner's music is no longer mere exciting
new wine, and we are as accustomed to it as we are to the music of
Beethoven--then we shall turn back to Gluck (and also to Mozart) and
find them as young and fresh as ever.

Wagner's aim was totally different. First, music, he held, was played
out: one must have the spoken word with it. He went to the myth for
subjects, and gave plentiful reasons, which need not detain us, for the
choice. Then--and here the effect of his early association with the
theatre shows itself--the music was in nowise to hinder the actor;
therefore all formal set numbers must be discarded and replaced by his
"speech-singing" expressive recitative which should be beautiful as
sheer music, and not hinder the actors from playing their parts as well
as singing them. And, finally, he came to the conclusion that in his
music-drama he could effect a synthesis of all the arts. Music and
acting were the basis; there had to be scenery, and the scenery must
form pictures, with the figures always properly placed, according to
what I suppose painters would call, or refuse to call, the laws of
composition. But each of the figures, or groups of figures, on the stage
had also to be regarded as an entity, and as sculpture had not to be
excluded from the synthesis, the poses must always be sculpturesque.

Here was a programme indeed! Very fine it seemed to his young followers;
when new it seemed wholly admirable. Unfortunately, as Wagner found, the
moment it was tried it proved impracticable and useless. Take sculpture,
for example. Sculpture, I take it, has reached a fairly high point when
the marble figure gives one the sense of life and of motion. Wagner,
with his sculpturesque poses, instead of letting the living figure give
us directly the impression of life and of motion, sought (always
theoretically) to attain the end by an imitation of an imitation.
Moreover, no moving figure ever did or can suggest sculpture--even if we
wanted such a suggestion, which we don't. Even the Commandatore in _Don
Giovanni_, with the aid of stiff gestures and plentiful whitewash,
ceases to look like a statue as soon as he opens his mouth to sing.
Consider, too, the notion of making, so to speak, set pictures--of
dealing, that is, with his puppets and scenery in exactly the opposite
spirit to that in which he wished to deal with vocal music. A realistic
picture suggests Nature, and if the figures are well done they suggest
human figures; a well-arranged scene does the same. There was no reason
for getting indirectly, again by an imitation of an imitation, an effect
that can be got directly. As for producing a series of "composed"
pictures, it was practically impossible and highly undesirable. A
carefully-composed picture needs time for its appreciation, and no one
could, or would, try to judge or be affected by an ever-changing series
of pictures. Besides, if one did try, the attention would be hopelessly
withdrawn from the main things--the drama that is going forward and the
music. The picture plan is still tried at Bayreuth, with disastrous
results. With the most beautiful scenery it would fail; and the Wagner
family appear to be colour-blind, the magic garden, for instance, in
_Parsifal_ looking like a cheap bed-hanging.

Then take, again, the set forms. Wagner eliminated the double bars and
full stops, even as Beethoven had done, to an extent, in the "Heroic"
Symphony, where theme leads into theme without a break; but his music is
full of form, and also of forms, and the more he wrote the more careless
he became about keeping up an appearance of continuity when vital
continuity there was none. Wagner's forms were vaster than those of his
predecessors; but for all that they are there.

Wagner's essays are worth reading by those who have the time and the
physical and mental strength, if only because they reveal a man thinking
on wrong lines while he is doing on right ones; but they are terribly
long-winded, and many weary pages are devoted to demonstrations of the
obvious or the actually fallacious. Mr. W. Ashton Ellis has given many
years of a valuable life to translating them into something which is not
English and not German. For the ordinary music-lover I believe the above
summary will be sufficient to enable him to understand Wagner's aims at
this period, and we shall presently see how far he was able to attain
them, and to what extent they refused to be, and could not be, attained.
The most valuable of his writings are those on conducting and on
Beethoven. The latter has some bumptious and comical allusions to "world
conquerors," the Germans suffering badly at the time from an attack of
swelled head, subsequent to their defeat of the unhappy, unprepared

At Zurich Wagner was occupied with a multiplicity of other pamphlets,
with conducting concerts, with his librettos, and so on. Hans von Bülow
came to him as a pupil, and proved a devoted friend, afterwards letting
him take his wife, Cosima, of whom he, Bülow, it is true, stood in no
particular need. Wagner had sent the score of _Lohengrin_ to Liszt, and
it was produced at Weimar in 1850. It presently went from opera-house to
opera-house, and everywhere triumphed, so that a few years later Wagner
could complain that he was probably the only German who had not heard
it. In 1853 he published the words of _The Nibelung's Ring_, which
aroused the premature ire of those who did not know how he intended to
treat it musically.

I may here say that my ear is not sufficiently attuned nor my mind
accustomed to the subtleties of German for me to offer any judgment on
the prosody of Wagner's librettos. So far as I can understand them, they
are uncouth enough. On the other hand, dramatically they are admirably
constructed; and when we compare the words with the completed musical
setting we can see how the drama was, so to speak, always latent; the
words are as an invisible writing, on which the music is poured like a
liquid, and out starts the drama, unmistakable and irresistible.

In 1855 Wagner went to London to conduct a season of the Philharmonic
Society. That body invited him on the recommendation of Sainton, the
violinist, and the season was one of its most successful. The feuds that
arose, and the newspaper and other squabblings, have small interest for
us now; but it is certain that the finer spirits appreciated, or partly
appreciated, him, and Royalty flattered him. Into this period comes the
Paris performance of _Tannhäuser_, which was a disgraceful failure--I
mean disgraceful to the Parisians, and especially to their Jockey Club,
which resolutely went to work to prevent the music being heard by
cat-calls and shoutings. The event was not of any great artistic
importance--indeed, it is hardly worth calling an event; it was only
one more sin on the soul of a musically benighted people.

Wagner's prospects were still of the poorest; he was still living mainly
on charity; but in 1859 he had finished _Tristan_, and much of the
_Ring_ was sketched or actually written. He was amnestied and free to
return to Germany, and he could do little good there. _Tristan_ was
accepted at Vienna, but the production was put off. He was busy on the
_Mastersingers_--busy with all manner of impracticable dreams, and could
not earn a livelihood. His concert tours brought him little or no
profit; in Paris a series of concerts cost him 10,000 francs, and where
on earth he found the money I do not pretend to know. He was fifty-one
years of age; his fortunes seemed at their very worst, the outlook was
of the blackest, when of a sudden all was changed. King Ludwig of
Bavaria sent for him, and promised to help him in every possible way. He
had many rebuffs to face, but from this time (1864) his ultimate victory
was assured.


From the outset squabbles and intrigues made Wagner's life bitter. He
did not do things by halves, and when he had succeeded in getting the
music school of Munich re-organized to suit his wishes, with Bülow as
chief director, the local musicians felt they had little cause to love
him. Bülow was appointed kapellmeister of the Court Theatre; reforms,
peculiarly disagreeable to those reformed, were set on foot; and
singers, players, _régisseurs_, who had anticipated sleeping away their
existence in the good old fashion, were violently awakened by this
reckless adventurer, charlatan, and what not, who had won the King's
ear. The invertebrate flunkeys attached to every Court were jealous of
his influence over the King, and did what they could to hinder the
execution of his plans. But Wagner was not the man to be hindered, and
if these backboneless crawling things made life at Munich so loathsome
to him that he sought peace to complete his work at Triebschen, near
Lucerne, nevertheless his plans were carried out. _Tristan and Isolda_
was produced in 1865 and _The Mastersingers of Nuremberg_ three years
later. If I had space, it would be amusing to quote the contemporary
criticisms passed on the first. _Tristan_ was hopelessly misunderstood
at the time, and even now it is misunderstood by many professed
Wagnerites. It created an uproar in Germany; in England our sires were
too busy singing the oratorios of Handel, Haydn and Mendelssohn to pay
any attention.

_Tristan_ was the first opera to be finished after Wagner had published
his many theories, and it was their completest refutation. He himself
wrote afterwards that in composing it he found how far he had gone ahead
of his doctrines; but, as a matter of fact, he had not gone ahead of
them at all: he simply forgot all about them, and composed as if they
had no existence. In no opera in the world is there such an entire
absence of the calculation that working to a theory would have
involved. It is the most intense and, to use Wordsworth's word, the most
inevitable opera ever written. Words, music and action seem to have
originated simultaneously in the creator's brain. Writing to Liszt,
Wagner said he meant to express a love such as he had never experienced.
It was as well that he never experienced it: no human creature could
endure the strain for twenty-four hours. Here we have the elemental
passion of man for woman and woman for man in a degree of intensity that
is nothing less than delirium. The action is simple, the story is
simple. Isolda has nursed Tristan when he was picked up wounded; she has
loved him and he has loved her. He has killed her betrothed, Morold, and
she conceives it to be her duty to kill him, but she cannot. Tristan
dare not aspire to win her, and when she is claimed by his uncle, King
Mark of Cornwall, he is sent to bring her. At this point the opera

The prelude begins with one of the love themes; other themes are worked
in; the parts weave and interweave with each other, swelling and
mounting until a shattering climax is reached; then all subsides, and an
effect of terrible suspense is produced by the last subdued phrase in
the bass as the curtain rises, and we feel that something tragic is to
come. Here we have Wagner the full and ripe musician. As a technical
achievement this prelude is marvellous; the polyphony is as intricate
and yet as sure as anything in Bach or Mozart, part winding round part,
and each going its way steadily to the climax; and the white-hot passion
expressed by this means makes the thing a miracle. There is nothing like
it in _Tannhäuser_ and _Lohengrin_. Here we are entirely free of the
Weberesque four-bar phrases; the rhythms are subtle and complex, though
to the ear they sound clear and simple enough. When the curtain goes up
we see a sort of tent arranged on the deck of a ship. From aloft a
sailor chants a wild sea-song, unlike any sea-song ever chanted off the
stage and yet redolent of the sea and salt winds.

[Illustration: Some bars of music]

Isolda is lying on a couch, her face buried in her hands; Brangaena
stands by. In the sailor's song she has fancied some gibe at herself,
for she is being carried off against her will by the man she loves to
wed an old man she has never seen. She starts up in rage, and then,
realizing her position, asks Brangaena where they are. Now, Wagner, if
he scarcely considered the prima donna, took great pains with the lesser
characters, and Brangaena never opens her mouth without giving us
something of magical beauty and tenderness. Quite unconscious of the
impending tragedy, she remarks that they are drawing near Cornwall, and
that before evening they will land there. The gently-rolling sea is kept
before us by an accompaniment made out of a phrase of the sailor's
song. "They will land"--that means to Isolda that she will become the
property of the old man she has never seen, and lose for ever the man
she has no hope of gaining, the man whom she has every good reason to
hate and despise. This is a drama of passion pitted against
reason--against everything excepting passion, and Wagner loses no chance
of making the situation clear. Here, as in every other opera, he is, if
not first a dramatist, yet always a dramatist. "Never!" screams Isolda,
and curses the vessel and all that it holds. Astounded, Brangaena tries
to comfort her; but Isolda is a woman, and means to have her way. There
must be plenty of air in such a deck-tent, but Wagner, with a spite that
is itself somewhat feminine, makes her, in feminine fashion, complain of
a want of it; so one of the curtains is drawn aside, and she can see
what she wants to see: Tristan standing on what seems to be the prow,
but is really the stern, of the vessel. There he stands, the man she
hates and loves, and shows no sign of discomposure, although the
helmsman invariably holds the tiller at such an angle that the ship must
be gyrating like a teetotum, thus offering a simple, if coarse,
explanation of Isolda's qualms. The music up till now has been made up
of the fragment last quoted of the sailor's song, and one of the love
themes--a simple phrase of four notes, out of which lengthy passages are
woven. When the curtain is drawn a fragment of the sea-song is again
heard, and then this love phrase is taken up by the orchestra and
filled with sinister, smouldering passion. Isolda's anger gathers and
mounts against Tristan, and when this theme arrives

[Illustration: Some bars of music]

it is the announcement of her determination that death for both of them
shall end an impossible situation. This, however, we do not learn until
later; for the moment the theme conveys little special meaning to us. It
is when we hear the drama a second time that its appalling tragic force
is felt. Isolda tells Brangaena to command Tristan to come to the
pavilion. Kurvenal, his servant, sings a scoffing song, in which all the
sailors join, in spite of Tristan's endeavour to stop them. Brangaena
rushes back and hurriedly closes the curtains. Isolda, half-crazed,
tells the whole story as it occurred previous to the rising of the
curtain--how she nursed the wounded Tristan, found him to be the slayer
of her betrothed, took his sword and was about to kill him, when he
opened his eyes, and the sword dropped from her listless fingers.
Brangaena is sufficiently astonished; Isolda works herself up into a
paroxysm of fury; and now the drama is indeed on foot. Brangaena has a
long, lovely, soothing passage to sing, and in her over-anxiety to serve
her mistress she accidentally suggests to Isolda the very means of
revenging herself on Tristan, and terminating at the same time her own
misery. "You remember your mother's art," says Brangaena: "do you think
she would have sent me over-seas with you without a means of helping
you?" Isolda knows it is the love-potion she means. She has only to
drink the contents of a small flask, and old King Mark will become at
least tolerable to her. The flask is in a casket, and another is there,
as Isolda knows, full of a deadly poison. She commands Brangaena to pour
out the poison. Brangaena, terrified, beseeches, implores; but Isolda
insists; and in the midst of the dispute the sailors suddenly roar out
their "Yo-heave-ho!" The sea had ceased, as it will in moments of
preoccupation or intense emotion, to haunt our ears for a time; now it
breaks in again, and we feel as if it had really never ceased. Kurvenal
enters, and tells them to get ready to land. Isolda tells him
point-blank that she will not stir until Tristan has come to demand her
pardon for a sin he has committed. Brusquely, Kurvenal says he will
convey the message; Brangaena again prays to her mistress to spare her.
"Wilt thou be true?" replies Isolda; and the voice of Kurvenal is heard:
"Sir Tristan!"

[Illustration: Some bars of music]

A minute of frightful suspense occurs while Isolda is waiting for
Tristan; and, as the situation is to be one of the most poignant in the
drama, it is only fitting that Wagner should prelude it with one of his
most tremendous passages. Isolda tells Tristan what is his crime, and
how she had meant to slay him. He offers her his sword to carry out her
old purpose, and she laughs at him. "A pretty thing," she says, "it
would be for me to go to King Mark as his bride with his nephew's blood
on my hands. We must drink together to our friendship, that all may be
forgotten." Brangaena has been tremblingly preparing the potion, and,
not knowing what to do--not daring to give the poison, not daring to
disobey her mistress--she has poured out the elixir of love. Isolda
hands it to Tristan, who fully understands Isolda's meaning and half of
her intention--if, indeed, there is another half, for Wagner has given
Isolda a true touch of womanly character in leaving it uncertain whether
or not she really means to poison herself. He takes the cup and drinks;
she, with a cry of "Betrayed, even here!" snatches it from him and
drinks also.

Here we have got many leagues away from _Lohengrin_, with its scene
between a man and a jealous, ungenerous, querulous woman, and
_TANNHÄUSER_, with its contest between an impossible platonic affection
and piggish lust. There is not a touch of staginess about Isolda; she
was not born in the green-room. In her we have two elemental passions in
conflict--her love for a man, and her hatred for the same man after he
has shown manly gratitude by preparing her a lot that is loathsome to
her. The character of Tristan is not so transparent or simple. He had
loved Isolda--so much is certain; but whether he gave her up to curry
favour with the King (he himself says as much afterwards), whether he
dares not ask for her for himself, whether he does not know that Isolda
loves him--about all this we know nothing.

What we do know is that standing there on the deck of the ship are two
very tragic figures. They have drunk poison; they are consumed with
passion one for the other; death is close at hand, and there is nothing
to prevent them confessing their love and dying in each other's arms. If
Wagner meant us to accept the love elixir as the genuine spring of the
immediate drama, he might have saved himself the trouble. It is the
imminent presence of death that brings their love to light, as it is
their love that takes them to death. They gaze upon one another, and
rush into each other's arms. Brangaena, turning round, is horrified to
see what her officiousness has accomplished. The music rolls on in a
torrent of almost unendurable sweetness; the ship reaches land, and the
curtain drops as Tristan and Isolda, oblivious of all but themselves and
their passion, stagger in one another's arms, and the trumpets sound
without as the King approaches to claim his bride.

I hope I have succeeded in setting forth clearly the forces at work and
the nature of the two people on whom they are working. Writers have
indulged in grotesque pages of explanation and speculation, from which
they might have been saved by a careful reading of the libretto,
supplemented by a slight acquaintance with the music. The subject might
easily have become intricate--in fact, hopelessly involved and
entangled--but Wagner's consummate dramatic art, stage-craft, and
knowledge of stage effect have combined to make all as clear as the day.
The end of each act sees the lovers in a situation which is at heart the
same, though in externals different. Rapt in each other, they care
nothing about the sailors, attendants, approaching crowds, and the rest,
at the end of the first act; at the end of the second they scarcely
understand Mark's passionate affection--they only know it is an enemy of
their love; and, finally, they are glad when death frees them from life,
which means an incessant trouble and interruption to them. The tragedy
deepens and grows more intense with each successive scene; each
separates them more widely from life and all that life means, until in
the last act the divorce is complete. This is the purpose of the drama;
this _is_ the drama, and those who do not like it must turn to another

If the drama is clear, so is the music. Wagner's powers were now at
their fullest and ripest; in invention, technical skill, mastery of the
colours of the orchestra, he towers far above every composer born in the
nineteenth century. Nietzsche, in one of his many quarrelsome diatribes,
says Wagner _determined_ to be a musician and made himself one by sheer
will-power. But not by taking much thought, nor by determination, nor by
exercise of will-power, does any man become an artistic inventor, as
Nietzsche would have perceived had he himself been capable of more than
spasmodic, fragmentary thought. _Tristan_ is full of great melodies:
gigantic themes, like that which is played while Isolda awaits Tristan's
entrance; tender ones, like the music given to Brangaena; passionate and
intolerably sweet, like the duet of the pair after the drinking of the
philtre. The other acts contain even more amazing things, and to them we
shall come in due time. First let us note how Wagner sustains his
background and atmosphere throughout the first act. At times, when our
attention has to be concentrated on the personages on the opening stage,
the sea song theme, with its smell of the pungent, salt sea air,
disappears; then, as I have remarked, it gradually creeps in again, so
that we do not realize that it has ever been absent; or, again, as
during the conversation between Isolda and Brangaena, it breaks in
abruptly, with the roar of the seamen's voices and Kurvenal's savage
orders. It is managed with the most consummate skill. Though the tent
blots out a view of the ocean, yet the mast and bellying sail (which
ought to be visible), and the miraculous music, preserve an ever-present
sense of the sea, and in that atmosphere of keen freshness and ozone the
characters begin to work out their destiny. To understand Wagner's real
greatness and the personal quality that differentiates his art from the
art of all other musicians, let us try to realize what this means. Weber
and Mendelssohn had written picturesque music; they gave us landscapes,
the rolling sea, black woods, moaning winds; and having done that, they
were satisfied. But where they left off Wagner began; their completed
picture was for him nothing more than a background. Against it he placed
his characters, with their different thoughts and emotions fully
expressed. Now, in music you cannot express two or more conflicting
emotions, even if you have two themes, each of which shows its own
emotion when played separately, and set them going together. However
many parts a piece of music may be written in, it is the mass of tone
reaching our ears, it is the _ensemble_, that makes the effect. It is
obvious, then, that when Wagner puts a shrieking female on the deck of a
ship which is shouldering its way through a gently-rolling sea, the same
music must serve for the lady and the sea: it must suggest the sea and
express the lady's emotions. He could not give picturesque music to the
orchestra and let the female indulge in real screams, or even musical
imitations of real screams. That would be to step beyond the boundaries
of art; for neither real screams nor their imitations are beautiful,
and--if a truism may be pardoned to complete a nice sentence--without
beauty there can be no art. In spite of much nonsense that has been
written and talked, Wagner never sacrificed beauty. Those foolish tales
which I used to read in my youth--of how Wagner appropriately, if
daringly, sustained discords through long discordant situations--what
are they but the blatherskite of long-tongued persons who could talk
faster than they could think? Wagner would not sacrifice beauty. He
made the characters say, in notes as well as words, what they had to
say; he always got the colour and atmosphere of the scenic surroundings
into the music. By inspiration and marvellous workmanship he made each
phrase serve a double purpose: it expresses the emotion of the person
who sings, it gives the atmosphere in which the person is singing. More
than anything else, it is this that gives his music its individual
character. Such music is bound to remain for ever fresh. So long as
trees and grass, rain and sunshine, running waters and flying cloud-scud
are things sweet to man's thought, so long will the music of Wagner's
operas remain green, always new and refreshing, full and satisfying. He
often achieved the task, or helped himself to achieve it, by showing us
Nature in sympathy with the human mood of the moment (see the second
scene in _Tannhäuser_, the last act of _Tristan_, the whole of the last
act of _The Valkyrie_); but he succeeds equally well without these
touches of his unrivalled stage-craft.

Further back I referred to Wagner's earlier and later use of the
_leit-motif._ In its naive, primitive simplicity the device is certainly
not highly artistic. When our academic gentry use it in their festival
oratorios, they are supposed to show themselves very advanced. But what
purpose, musical or other, is subserved by arbitrarily allying a musical
phrase to a personage or an idea and blaring it out whenever that
personage or idea comes to the front? Wagner early realized the
uselessness of the proceeding, and, as I pointed out, in _Tannhäuser_
there are no _leit-motifs_, though passages and parts of passages are
repeated. In _Lohengrin_ it is used rather for a dramatic than a musical
purpose. By the time he wrote _Tristan_ he had learnt the splendid
artistic uses to which a rather commonplace device could be put. The
differences between the _leit-motif_ in _Lohengrin_ and the _leit-motif_
in _Tristan_ are two: in _Tristan_ they are more significant--indeed,
they are pregnant to bursting--and more fully charged with energy and
colour; also they are not stated and restated in their elementary form
as in _Lohengrin_, but continually subjected to a process of
metamorphosis. This last mode of developing a theme he probably learnt
from Liszt, and without it both _Tristan_ and the _Ring_ would be very
different. But while these are the most striking characteristics of
Wagner's later leading themes and mode of using them, it must be
remembered that he was now absolute master of every device of operatic
art previously known, and of many he invented as he went along. The same
theme in _Tristan_ has a dozen functions to fulfil; it may be changed
almost out of recognition to suit a particular occasion, and a few
minutes later, for a dramatic purpose, it may be stated in all its
original plainness. I advise all who wish to understand _Tristan_ not to
fret themselves with those rascally and stupid guide books which merely
addle the brain with their interminable lists of motives. Throughout the
opera new matter is continually introduced, with old themes, changed or
unchanged, woven into the tissue; and to go hunting for these old
themes, to try to recognise them whenever they crop up, is not only to
lose one's enjoyment of the music, but to run a fair risk of
misapprehending it altogether, and the drama as well. This jack-fool
twaddle about there being not a single phrase in an opera which has not
grown out of another is manifestly absurd--for out of what does the
first one grow?--and utterly untrue. In every scene of _Tristan_ an
enormous amount of new material is added; it is the richest thematically
of all the operas. But this labelling of nearly every phrase as the
This, That, or the Other motive has confused thousands of people; they
fatigue themselves by incessantly trying to remember the significance of
a phrase which resembles one that has been heard before; and instead of
letting the music make its natural and proper effect, they grow
bewildered, and blame Wagner for what is in reality the fault of the
analysis-makers. To follow _Tristan_, one need not know more than the
few fragments I have quoted above; in fact, without any knowledge
whatever it can be followed. The themes have no arbitrary significance
attached to them; they are expressive music and tell their own tale.
But, of course, when one has heard the opera many times--and twenty
performances, supplemented by a study of Von Bülow's incomparable piano
arrangement of the score, are hardly enough to enable us to begin to
comprehend the real richness and vastness of _Tristan_--then gradually
new features are found, new lights are thrown by the use of
_leit-motifs_, and slowly the music yields us that multiplicity of
complex delights--delights intellectual, emotional, or purely
sensuous--that only the greatest works of art can give. Take, for
example, the theme which Isolda sings when she perceives death to be the
only cure for her woes. Later, when she is compelling Tristan to drink
the poison-cup, the sailors break out into "Yo-heave-ho!" and he says,
"Where are we?" "Near to the end!" she says, to the accompaniment of
this same theme. To one who barely remembers the phrase the effect is
marked enough, but to one who knows every phrase and its associations
the double meaning is almost horrifying. It is idle to search out such
points as this with the aid of a guide, for while you are waiting for
them you lose the music in which they are set; the prevailing mood
eludes you, and the points themselves fail to make their effect. There
is another danger. People easily go _leit-motif_ mad, and their insane
imagination creates a _leit-motif_ out of any two phrases that have a
superficial and accidental resemblance. _Tristan_ and the _Ring_ are not
musical puzzles. The themes are quite able to look after themselves, and
to assert themselves at the proper moment. Many of them are not
_leit-motifs_ at all. The passage out of the sea-song, which is heard
constantly through the first act, is not a _leit-motif_, nor are many of
the other subjects. They receive symphonic development; but, after all,
the opening four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony do not form a
_leit-motif_. I have dwelt at length upon this, for misguided people
have blinded both themselves and others as to Wagner's true aims and
methods and the splendour of the accomplished thing by trying to read
into his music a host of trifling and pettifogging allusions which he
never intended. There is enough to break our minds upon without
troubling about these.

In the second act we are left in the dark as to what has happened since
we left Isolda in Tristan's arms on the deck of the ship. Some years ago
an excited discussion took place on a very momentous question--"Did
Isolda marry King Mark or not?" If not, it was strange that she should
have been left free enough apparently to see Tristan whenever she
wished, and Mark's expostulations at the end of the act seem rather
unwarranted in the mouth of a man whose honour, in the Divorce Court
sense, has not been smirched; yet, on the other hand, it is unlikely
that a legendary King, with the bride in his palace, would wait so long
for the marriage as to allow the many pretty incidents mentioned by
Brangaena to happen. Yet again, if they were married, Mark, in the third
act, shows a more than heroic willingness and less than cuckold
readiness to let Isolda go free. Probably Wagner never gave the problem
a moment's consideration, which is hardly surprising when we consider
his own multitudinous love affairs. He was not writing a Sunday-school
tract, but a drama of passion so intense that purity, prudence and all
such considerations were thrown to the winds.

The act opens with a very Proteus of a theme. Its entrance is like a
thunder-clap in a cloudless sky. The conductor lifts his stick, and

[Illustration: Some bars of music]

--an unprepared discord which must have pained the ears and grieved the
hearts of the ordinary opera-goers and pedants when the opera was first
given. This subject is used in connection with the notion of daylight as
a nuisance to lovers in the subsequent conversation of Tristan and
Isolda--a notion which we shall examine presently. Presently another
subject is heard, one of which extensive use is made in the first

[Illustration: Some bars of music]

The curtain rises. It is a sultry summer night; the black woods stand
round a garden; on the left is the castle of Mark, with a torch blazing
at the doorway, making the surrounding night blacker. Sounds of
hunting-horns are dying away in the distance. Brangaena and Isolda are
there listening, and Brangaena, to music of enchanting beauty, is
warning Isolda that the hunters can be no great way off. "Listen to the
brook," says Isolda. "How could I hear that if the horns were near?"
Then comes one of Wagner's matchless bits of painting--the brook
rippling through the silent night. Isolda is now going to extinguish the
torch, as a signal to Tristan that he may approach. Brangaena protests,
and warns Isolda against Melot, who has arranged this night hunt as a
trap to catch Tristan; and she bewails the officiousness which led her
to substitute the love-philtre for the poison. The rest of the scene may
be passed over. The music is woven out of themes just quoted, and
another which will play a big part in the love-duet:

[Illustration: Some bars of music]

Of course, Isolda prevails. Brangaena is sent to keep watch, and Isolda
throws down the torch to the Death motive. Tristan rushes in, and the
most passionate love-duet ever written begins.

After the first ecstasies have subsided the lovers converse. They must
talk about something--what should it be? As Wagner's thoughts were
occupied with Schopenhauer at the time, he makes them talk a sort of
pseudo-Schopenhauer. Light is their enemy; only in
night--extinction--can perfect joy be found. It was the deceitful
phantoms of daylight--worldly ambitions--that betrayed Tristan into
acting so basely towards Isolda (before the drama opens); it was the
light of the torch that kept him so long from her this night; and now in
the darkness they find rapturous peace. This is the substance of what is
said. Twice Brangaena warns them that the dawn is at hand, but they do
not heed her. Her songs are exquisite enough, surely, but the lovers,
steeped in their bliss, have no ears for them. Their own music is far
more beautiful:

[Illustration: Some bars of music]

And again:

[Illustration: Some bars of music]

The lovers are presently awakened. At the very climax of a mad,
tumultuous passage Brangaena gives a scream; Kurvenal rushes in, and
then--enter Mark, Melot and the other hunters. Melot's trap has worked

The cold red dawn slowly breaks. The phantoms of the daylight have
broken in upon the dream of night, which alone is true. It is here that
many would have the act terminate. Such an ending would leave the idea
of the act half expressed, and shatter the noble architectonical scheme
of the whole drama. The idea of the act--that the light is the lovers'
enemy, the dark their friend and refuge--has to be worked out to prepare
for the last act; the idea of the drama--that the lovers must be seen
gradually thrust away from life (which is light) to death (which is
eternal night)--must be carried one step further. Mark, in an agony of
grief, asks them why they, the two he loves best in the world, dishonour
him in so frightful a fashion. He presses home to them their sin and his
suffering, his affection and their indifference to it; and he ends up
with the question, "Why?" Tristan cannot answer; he perceives only that
Mark's love is a more terrible menace for them than any trap laid by
Melot. Without their passion they cannot live, and it is not Melot and
the general outside world that threaten to sunder them, but their
protector and dearest friend. The passion is irresistible, and Tristan
faces the inevitable. He asks Isolda if she will follow him where he is
now going: she replies that she will; and he, after taunting Melot with
his treachery, lets him thrust him through with his sword. The drama has
moved a stage further on, and there remains now only the logical
completion. Anyone who thinks all this is to read into the opera a
meaning that is not there merely accuses me of being greater than
Wagner; without this we have only a commonplace Divorce Court episode.

The next act takes place in the courtyard of Tristan's castle in
Brittany. It is in a state of decay. In the hot afternoon sun the sea
shines like burnished metal, and Tristan, who has been brought there by
Kurvenal, lies delirious. Presently one of the saddest songs ever
written sounds from a shepherd's pipe without. It half awakens Tristan,
and he talks of it--how it has haunted him since his childhood. Kurvenal
tells him Isolda has been sent for. He becomes more and more delirious,
and at last, after an outburst, he faints; then awakens and sings the
sublime passage in which he sees Isolda coming over-seas, the ship
covered with sweet-smelling flowers. The accompaniment to this piece of
magic is a figure taken from the fourth theme I have quoted in this
chapter. It is given at first to the horns, and over it sways a lovely
melody, leading to Tristan's cry of "Oh, Isolda!" which occurs again and
again until Isolda does come.

[Illustration: Some bars of music]

There are few tender and beautiful and pathetic things in music to
match it. Presently the horn of the shepherd is heard again; but this
time it plays a lively tune, as a signal that the ship is in sight.
Tristan goes mad for joy, and tears the bandages from his wounds. As
Isolda rushes in he staggers into her arms, and dies there to the
phrases in which they had first spoken after drinking the love-philtre.
Isolda's plaints are as touching and profound as those of Donna Anna in
_Don Giovanni_ after her father has been murdered. There is again
tumult; even at the last the lovers cannot be left alone; another ship
comes in sight, and Melot and Mark's warriors rush in. Kurvenal fights
and kills Melot, and is himself stabbed. He receives the wound, and
feels his way to his master's side, and dies groping for his hand. Mark
and Brangaena come in. She has confessed to the mistake she made in
giving the wrong potion, and he has come to make all well. Isolda pays
no attention, but, after a beautiful phrase from Brangaena, rises and
sings the wonderful Death song. The drama is now ended; the lovers'
passion has led them whither they knew it was leading them from the
beginning. Night has come on, and Isolda falls on Tristan's body and
dies, fulfilling the promise she had made--that where he went she would
follow. And so ends the greatest music-drama ever written, and the
greatest likely to be written for centuries to come.

We must pass on now to _The Mastersingers_, an old idea of Wagner's. The
music was completed at Triebschen. Here is nothing of the tension,
burning passion, and unfathomable depth of _Tristan_, but a pretty
love-story, with some comedy and more than a little of very broad farce.
In it Wagner determined to satirize the musical pedants, and he did so
with considerable acerbity. But it is not to see his enemies roughly
handled that we go to _The Mastersingers_: it is to hear one of Wagner's
two most beautiful operas. There is no need to go through it closely, as
in the case of _Tristan_. The methods are those of _Tristan_; we have
the themes used as _leit-motifs_, and also long passages woven out of
them and new matter; we have the harmonic freedom of _Tristan_, the same
gorgeous orchestration, and even more than the same marvellous
polyphonic writing. But, broadly speaking, the drama counts for
comparatively little, and the opera consists of a series of enchanting
songs and scenes. The very title tells us that we are not simply to
follow the destinies of a hero and heroine. The person mostly in
evidence is Hans Sachs, a sort of heavy father, who has some of the most
glorious music. The young lover comes along--Walther--and tries to win
Eva by gaining the prize in a contest of minstrels; Beckmesser, a
pedant, opposes him. Sachs supports him, and he wins. Every note of the
music can readily be understood. There are regular set numbers provided
for in the structure of the libretto, so as to come in naturally; there
is even a sextet--which I have often heard encored--and the opera winds
up with a chorus. It disproves Wagner's theory that in the Ninth
Symphony Beethoven had said the last word in pure music, and that
henceforth words would always be necessary; for here the text is often a
mere excuse for using the human voice, and little of the music would be
unintelligible without it.


The establishment of a festival theatre where, humanly speaking, ideal
performances of all the great operas could be given--this was long a
dream of Wagner's. He knew what could be done and how to do it; he knew
also that it was not done because managers, conductors, bandsmen and
singers had formed careless and slovenly habits, and were blinded by
prejudices and traditions surviving from the days of old Italian opera.
King Ludwig helped him as far as he could, the good burghers of Bayreuth
were ready to give him a site, societies were formed to rake in money;
and after apparently interminable preliminary difficulties had been
overcome, the business of building the house was begun. It stands high
on a hill, away from the centre of Bayreuth--a great structure of red
brick and timber, not an imposing piece of architecture by any means,
yet not unpleasing to the eye. Inside every seat is arranged so to
afford a perfect view of the stage, and the orchestra is in a pit, so as
to be unseen, although the singers, wherever they may be placed, can see
the conductor. The improvements Wagner made on the stage have
themselves been improved on, and in this respect Bayreuth is no better
than many other theatres. At the beginning Wagner secured every possible
appliance, and then set to work to teach his men how to use them. And it
was just in this that he reformed the opera-house: he insisted on
everything being done artistically and with the utmost care. Nothing had
to be slurred over; every detail had to be carried out as
conscientiously as if the fate of empires depended on it. The idea was
novel in operatic circles. It aroused opposition; but in the end Wagner
got his way, and what was at first declared impossible, then difficult,
is now done as a matter of course in all the serious opera-houses. It is
in this very matter that Bayreuth has now fallen far behind other German
towns, and can no longer be regarded as a serious art centre. In another
respect it has departed from the original intention. That was to give
model representations of all the fine operas, with the best artists
obtainable. But, under the rule of the Wagner family, only Wagner's
works are played; while as for the artists, Mr. Siegfried
Wagner--Richard's son--often directs, although he is an inferior
conductor, and petty intrigues are allowed to prevent some of the
greatest singers singing there. Wagner's idea was magnificent, but it
needs a Wagner to execute it. However, Bayreuth has done a great
service, and now what becomes of it matters to no one.

Bayreuth was opened with performances of the _Ring_, that enormous
music-drama which consists of three huge music-dramas and a shorter one.
Now, it was the _Ring_ more than any other of Wagner's works which led
to him being misunderstood, and afforded opportunities for
misrepresentation. When the libretto was published, long before the
music was written, it was called a monstrosity, and one professor
implored Wagner not to set it. At first sight it seems so hopelessly
involved and intricate, the main dramatic idea works its way so
sinuously through such a maze of subsidiary ideas, that intellectually
honest and intelligent people can hardly be blamed if they are unable to
see at a glance what it is all about. Yet the plot is not more
complicated than that of many a novel, and the real trouble is that we
won't take the pains over it that we do over a novel, or, perhaps, do
not apply our intelligence in the best way. At this time of day no one,
I hope, will condemn a work of art because it cannot be grasped in a

There are four music-dramas, or operas (I use the terms
indiscriminately, now that there is no danger of the Wagnerian opera
being confused with the older forms). Wagner made each self-contained,
complete and comprehensible by itself, and yet he carried the main
action on from one to the next until the final catastrophe; but he did
this at the cost of much repetition, whence another charge brought
against the work--that of its interminable tedium. I will therefore
first disentangle the main idea, which is simple. Let it be granted that
Wotan is ruler of the world--not a first cause, but a god, limited in
his powers, conditioned, ruling only so long as he obeys the laws
inscribed in Runic characters on his spear. How he arrived in this
position we do not know, any more than we know the origin of the Greek
gods; indeed, in this respect and others there are parallels between the
Greek and the Northern mythology. Wotan goes in fear lest the powers of
the nether world usurp his domination, which he wants to make absolute.
He makes a pact with the giants--the Titan forces of the earth--that be
will give them Freia if they build him a castle, Valhalla, which he
intends to fill with slain warriors in sufficient numbers to keep down
his foes. This is his primary, essential, fatal blunder; for unless the
gods eat of Freia's apples every day they must wither and their powers
decay. But Wotan means to cheat the giants, and Loge, the deceitful god
of fire, who is ultimately to destroy the whole of the present régime,
has been sent off to find a means of doing it. It is when so much has
been accomplished that Wagner raises the curtain on the first scene of
the first drama. _The Rhinegold_ is entirely devoted to an exposition of
the main drama.

The gold lies in the Rhine. The Rhine maidens play about it. It is only
a pretty plaything for them. The Nibelung comes and steals it.
Meanwhile, far above, Wotan and his wife Fricka awake and find Valhalla
built, and now Wotan has to pay the giants. They arrive; Loge has not
arrived. Loge does arrive and makes his excuses--no man will give up a
beautiful woman, for no matter what sum. But he tells of the Rhinegold,
and the giants agree to accept it in lieu of Freia. Wotan and Loge go
off and get it by a trick. But Alberick has shaped part of it into a
magic ring, which gives its possessor absolute power over the whole
world. When they come back to conclude the bargain with the giants, it
is found necessary that Wotan should give up the ring also. He does so,
after resolving on his grand idea, which will appear presently; and the
gods enter Valhalla while the Rhine maidens below are heard bewailing
the loss of their plaything.

The ring is cursed, and no sooner do the giants begin to share their
treasure than they fall to disputing about it. Fafner kills his brother,
and making off with all, buries it in a cave--"Hate Hole"--and changing
himself into a dragon, by virtue of the Tarnhelm which is amongst the
treasure, he settles down to guard it. At any moment now Wotan's empire
may be taken from him; the ring he must gain somehow, but by the laws
written on his staff he may not perpetrate such an act of injustice as
taking it himself. His position is more tragic than he knows. His
brilliant idea is the sword, and here is its theme, one of the most
important in the work:

[Illustration: Some bars of music]

He will raise up a breed of heroes, let them fend for themselves in the
world--even heap pains and trials upon them; and in the end a fearless
hero will arise, find this sword, and of his own absolute free-will slay
the dragon and take the ring. He is trying to jump out of his own
shadow, as we see immediately in _The Valkyrie_. Siegmund, his son, the
hero, takes the sword, and then commits adultery and incest with
Sieglinda, his sister, the wife of Hunding. Fricka, the punisher of
matrimonial crimes, compels Wotan to let Hunding slay Siegmund. This is
done, though Brunnhilde, the incarnation of love, tries to save the
hero. She has to be punished--the laws that bind Wotan are
inexorable--and he has to put away love; in order to rule, love must
have no place in his thoughts nor influence his actions. Brunnhilde is
put to sleep, and a hedge of fire set blazing round her. There she must
sleep until a hero arrives who has no fear of Wotan or his spear, and
will pass through the fire and take her for bride.

The hero is the son of Sieglinda and Siegmund; he kills the dragon,
takes the ring, shatters Wotan's spear, passes the fiery hedge, and weds
Brunnhilde. The details we shall examine when we deal with the drama of
_Siegfried_. Wotan's part is now ended; he retires to Valhalla to await
the inevitable dénouement. He willingly abdicates, and wills his own
destruction and the destruction of Valhalla and all that existed under
his rule. If power involves the compulsion to renounce himself, to
destroy all that he loves and all that makes life sweet, then he rather
renounces life. So he awaits during the _Dusk of the Gods_, until
Siegfried has been slain and the ring restored to the Rhine. His own
power being broken, and the power that lay in the ring being again in
the hands of the innocent Rhine-maidens, there is nothing to control
Loge, who blazes up in sheets of fire, and Valhalla is consumed, while
the Rhine maidens swim joyfully about in the bubbling, roaring Rhine.

I have tried to trace as clearly as possible this main story as it
pursues its course through the tangle of subsidiary stories. In dealing
with a drama so richly stored with material, where every rift is loaded
with ore, much has necessarily to be left untouched; in such a sketch as
this one cannot do more than indicate the broad masses. There is no
philosophic idea, no exposition of a philosophy. Wagner was no
philosopher, though he found in Schopenhauer's Will to Live, and its
Renunciation, material which he could use for poetic and dramatic
purposes. The "lessons" which many ingenious persons find here are not
lessons at all, but the ground-facts on which the drama is based. That
the power of gold--signified by the ring--carries with it the curse of
gold is not a thing to be inferred from the drama; it is assumed as the
starting-point of the drama. That a man cannot by many subterfuges hold
power in this world without incidentally committing acts which revolt
the better part of his nature--this, again, is no lesson, but a fact
taken for granted. I will not waste space on the thousand odd
"meanings," "lessons" and so on found by the enthusiastic in Wagner. His
ideas were at once the substance and the inspiration of his
music-dramas; but he never dreamed of writing copybook headings. He had
in language to make his characters talk about these ideas for two
reasons, each sufficient in itself. First, excepting in melodrama and
rough-and-tumble farces, the audience must know the motives actuating
the personages of the drama--their situation, their emotions, ambitions,
fears and what not. Without that all drama would be an incomprehensible
jabbering and gesticulating of mummers, fit only to be put on the London
stage at the present moment. Second, if Wagner spread himself in the
expression of certain things where an ordinary dramatist would have
dealt with them more briefly, it must be remembered that he was writing
words to set to music. An animadversion on the length of the speeches
would be perfectly just if the drama were meant to be spoken; as the
drama is meant to be sung, it is irrelevant and silly. Now, it is idle
to say, in answer to all this, that Wagner proves the truth of his
premisses by the deductions he draws in the drama, as in Euclid a
proposition is stated to be a truth and then proved to be a truth. In
Wagner nothing is proved. Accept his premisses, and you understand the
subsequent drama; wait for the premisses to be proved true, and there is
no drama for you to understand--no drama, but a series of incoherent,
unrelated and inconsequent incidents. Finally, we all know that when a
man tumbles over a high precipice he is killed. Suppose that in a
melodrama the villain tumbled and is killed. Would some wise
commentator write, "The master here proves the wickedness of villainy,
and shows conclusively how it always meets with its just punishment, for
the villain tumbles over a precipice and is, if we mistake not, killed.
It is true the same fate unfortunately overtakes the hero, but the
circumstances and the moral are different. The villain met his just
reward; an unlucky accident befell the hero. Underlying this is the
profounder truth that when men--and we will even say women--fall off
high places, they get killed or seriously hurt"? This is on a par with
the "truths" and "morals" found in the _Ring_.

Throughout the _Ring_ Wagner fairly let himself go in the matter of
gorgeous, riotous colour in depicting Nature--the earth, the waters,
clouds, and the working of the elements. He had ampler opportunities
than any of his previous works afforded. He had not, as before, to place
his characters in a scene, to arrange a background for them. Many of the
characters are the elements typified--the water-nymphs, the giants,
Donner, Loge, Erda. Wotan himself rides on the tempest, surrounded with
fearful lightnings; the Valkyrie maidens ride through the air on
supernatural horses amidst thunder and wind and rain. The whole action
takes place in the open air, or in the bowels of the earth, or the
depths of the Rhine; mountain and storm-lashed woods, dismal caverns and
chasms, the broad river, are always before us. Two scenes take place
under a man-made roof: in the first act of _The Valkyrie_ we have
Hunding's rough hut, built round an ash-tree, which penetrates the top,
and its branches sway and dash together above the actors' heads; in the
_Dusk of the Gods_ there is Gunther's hall, completely open on one side.
Undefiled Nature, healthy and wild and sweet, is always present, and
always in sympathy with the character of every scene. Besides being
magically picturesque, the music is also continuously in a high degree
dramatic, and it has yet another quality: it is charged with a sense of
a strange, remote past--a past that never existed. No archaic chords or
progressions occur, but by a series of miraculous touches the atmosphere
of a far-away past is kept before us. To save coming back to this again,
I will mention such instances as the Rhine-maidens' wail, heard far down
in the valley as the gods march triumphantly to Valhalla; the passage in
which Siegmund recounts how on coming home one day he found the house in
ashes, his sister and father gone, and only a wolf-skin lying on the
ground; the Fate theme, and the haunting song of the Rhine-maidens in
the last act of the _Dusk of the Gods_.

Now, though one would regret the loss of some of the music I have
mentioned, the _Rhinegold_ is tedious, long in proportion to the
significance--musical and dramatic--of its content, and on the whole a
bore. I never go to see it. The Fricka music in the second scene is as
effective on the piano as in the theatre, and the last scene is as
effective on a concert orchestra as in the theatre; in fact, in the
theatre the device of a pasteboard rainbow, coloured to suit German
taste, detracts from the effect. Only a fool would dare to say that
Wagner should have done this, that or the other; but I venture to say
that if he had not suffered from that very German malady, a desire to
work back to the beginning of things, and to embody the result in his
art, Wagner would have found a better means than a two-hour long
"fore-evening" to prepare for the real drama of the _Ring_.

That drama opens in earnest with _The Valkyrie_--the story of how, in
pursuing his ambitious plan, Wotan is forced to sacrifice first his own
son, then his daughter Brunnhilde, who is the incarnation of all that is
sweet and beautiful in his own nature. She shares, it is true, his
curiously limited immortality--an immortality that may be, and finally
is, curtailed--but she can suffer a punishment worse to her than
extinction. The prelude opens with the roar and hoarse scream of the
storm as it dashes through the forest--- the plash of the rain, the
flashing of lightning and the roll of the thunder. The musical idea was
obviously suggested by Schubert's "Erl-king." In each we have the same
rapidly-reiterated notes in the upper part, and Wagner's bars are simply
a variant of Schubert's. The curtain rises on Hunding's hut; the door is
burst open, and Siegmund tumbles in exhausted, and falls before the
fire. Sieglinda gives him mead, and one sees it is a case of love at
first sight. Hunding enters, and, finding Siegmund to be an enemy of
his, gives him until morning, and tells him that then he must fight.
Sieglinda drugs her husband's night-draught, and, while he is sleeping,
tells Siegmund of how, when she was abducted, and compelled against her
will to marry Hunding, a gray-bearded stranger came in, with his hat
drawn over one eye--Wotan had but one eye--and wearing a dark-blue cloak
marked with stars, suggested by the deep-blue star-pierced sky by night.
He drove a sword into the ash trunk, and, declaring that only a man
strong enough to draw it out should wield it, went his way. Many have
tried, and none succeeded. Siegmund at once draws it, and the pair fly.
There has been some of Wagner's finest and freshest love-music, and one
entrancing effect is got when a puff of wind suddenly blows the door
open. The storm has ceased, and there we see the forest bathed in a
spring moonlight, the raindrops on the young leaves dancing and
gleaming. It is at this moment Siegmund sings the wonderful spring song.

In the next act Wotan tells Brunnhilda she must protect Siegmund in the
coming fight; but Fricka seeks him out in this rocky place amongst the
hills, and compels him to promise on oath that Siegmund shall die to
atone for his violation of the sacred rite of marriage. Brunnhilda
reenters, and then occurs a scene which has caused much debate. At
enormous length Wotan recounts to her practically all we have already
seen and heard before. It may be, as I have said, that Wagner wanted to
make each opera comprehensible in itself, without reference to the
others; it may be that his artistic sense forced him to make it clearer
and ever clearer that each tragedy as it happens is Wotan's tragedy;
but, in any case, I, for one, never regret when the scene is somewhat
shorn. Wotan is defeated in this attempt to observe the word of the law,
but break the spirit. He cannot wield the sword himself, but he made it
and placed it where and so that the hero alone could take it. The hero
is of the seed of his loins, and the fact that Wotan has made life
bitter for him counts for nothing against that fact; and, finally,
though he could not himself aid Siegmund, he ordered his daughter to do
so. He wished Siegmund to act of his own free-will, and yet to do what
he, Wotan, wanted. Checked by Fricka, he revokes his command to
Brunnhilda, and goes off cursing fate. Siegmund and Sieglinda enter,
flying before Hunding; Sieglinda faints, and at last sleeps; and then
Brunnhilda steps forward from among the rocks in the gloomy
half-light--a stern, imposing, indeed an awful, figure, the herald of
death, seen only by warriors about to die. The Fate theme sounds from
the orchestra, and another melody, out of which nearly the whole scene
is woven, is heard, and then, to a simple chord--supernatural, ghostly
in its effect--she calls Siegmund. She tells him he is to die and go
with her to Valhalla. He pleads in vain; she (simply, be it remembered,
a part of her father's will) cannot understand why he should refuse to
go where his father and so many famous warriors have already gone. "So
young and fair, and yet so cold and stern!" Siegmund exclaims; and at
last he asks whether Sieglinda will also be there. "Siegmund will see
Sieglinda no more," she replies to a quiet phrase of unspeakable pathos.
Then Siegmund refuses to go with her, and he draws his sword to slay
first Sieglinda, then himself. Brunnhilda is overwhelmed by the
revelation of a love so devoted, and at last promises to help him. It is
her own nature as is revealed to her. Night and storm come on; Hunding's
horn is heard as he comes nearer and nearer; Siegmund mounts amongst the
rocks to meet him; a flash of lightning reveals them in the act of
fighting; Brunnhilda hovers above to strike for him, when Wotan appears
in a fiery glare and smashes Siegmund's sword, so that Hunding's spear
passes through him. Sieglinda has awakened to see this and collapses;
Brunnhilda rapidly descends, and, gathering the fragments of the
shattered sword, hurries Sieglinda off to seek shelter from Wotan's
wrath. Wotan kills Hunding with a contemptuous gesture, telling him to
say to Fricka that her will has been accomplished. He rests there for a
moment, then goes off in flaming wrath. The tragedy has gone a step
onward; he has killed his son, and now must punish Brunnhilda--put away
love from himself to the end that he may enjoy a loveless empire.

The music throughout the act is amongst Wagner's noblest and most
beautiful and dramatic. Every phrase given to Fricka proclaims her
queenly and overbearing, with right and power on her side, and
relentless determination to use them. Then there is the Valkyries'
war-whoop--well known from its use in the Valkyries' Ride. Sieglinda has
tender, piteous cries. In the scene of pleading and counter-pleading
between Siegmund and Brunnhilda we have Wagner at the zenith of his
powers: the pleading of the man, the calm, cold majesty of the Valkyrie,
awe and pathos and heroic defiance, are all there. From the technical
point of view, the scene is equal to _Tristan_: the continuous sweep of
the music, with its ever-changing colours and emotions, is almost
supermasterly. The tragedy at the end is a stage rather than a musical
effect, and it is made the more powerful by being delayed so long and
then arriving with such terrific swiftness.

The last act opens on a high hill, where stands the Valkyries' rock, and
amidst thunder, lightning, and rain we get the Ride. Brunnhilda rushes
in to her sisters with Sieglinda, tells what she has done, and begs for
help. All are aghast and refuse. Sieglinda herself asks no aid; Siegmund
is dead, and she has nothing to live for. Brunnhilda tells her she
carries within her the seed of the world's mightiest hero, and in a
moment her mood changes, and she begs to be sheltered. Her ecstatic
outburst is due to a mother's instinctive joy and to the hope of having
someone or something to care for, and no more to be utterly forsaken and
purposeless. The maidens tell her of the dark wood where the dragon
hides, and Brunnhilda, chanting her hymn in praise of the love for which
one surrenders all, gives her the fragments of the sword and bids her
fly, awaiting with undaunted courage her own punishment. The god comes
in bursting with rage, and declares that Brunnhilda shall be left on the
mountain to wed the first man who finds her. The other maidens fly in
horror; she alone remains to make an appeal to Wotan, as Siegmund had
appealed to her. At first he is obdurate, but she begs him to spare her
that frightful disgrace, and to surround her with a wall of fire through
which only a great hero will dare to pass. He yields, taking her
godhood, her limited immortality, away from her, putting her to sleep,
calling up the fire, and swearing that only a hero who has no fear of
his spear shall pass through, and so the drama ends. Wotan has
definitely renounced love. The moment at which he can renounce life
rather than endure life without love has not yet come. The old Adam, the
biological bias, the will to live, is strong in us all.

When Liszt read the score of _The Valkyrie_, he wrote to Wagner that he
wanted to cry, like the chorus on the miraculous arrival of Lohengrin,
"Wunderschön! wunderschön!" No man can cry otherwise to-day when he
hears the last act. The summit of artistic achievement seemed to be
reached in the second act, but we are now carried still higher. After
the Ride, with its unequalled painting of tempest amongst the rocks and
pines, there comes Brunnhilda's glorious chant as she sends off
Sieglinda, then her long supplication to Wotan, and finally the sleep
and fire-music and Wotan's Farewell. The black storm gradually subsides,
the deep-blue night comes on, and against it we see the swirling,
crackling flames as the fire mounts, forming an impassable barrier that
cuts off Brunnhilda from the everyday, busy world. All Brunnhilda's
plaint is magnificent in its sweetness and pathos; and the sleep-music,
with its caressing, lulling figure, is a thing by which a man's memory
might well live for ever.

This, the tragedy of Siegmund and Sieglinda and the punishment of
Brunnhilda, is the first of the subsidiary dramas; the second, the
finding of Brunnhilda by Siegfried, must now be considered. We hear the
clinking of Mime's hammer, and the curtain rises on his home in a cave.
All is dark within save for the smouldering smithy fire; but facing it
is the hole in the rock which is the entrance, and through it we see the
green summer forest. Mime is a malignant dwarf, in whose care Sieglinda,
dying in childbirth, has left Siegfried. Years have passed, springs and
summers and winters have come and gone; but Nature goes on in her
imperturbable way, and Brunnhilda still lies wrapt in slumber on the
mountain heights, the subject of awe-struck whispers amongst passing
tribes. Mime tries in vain to piece the sherds of the sword together;
Siegfried always smashes the new-made weapon at a single blow. The
Wanderer, in his blue cloak, enters: it is Wotan, the heart-broken god,
going wearily about the world awaiting what may happen. Again we hear
the whole history of the _Ring_, but this time it is wrought into, and
becomes an essential part of, the drama. Mime wagers his head that he
will answer three questions put to him by the Wanderer, and having
triumphed twice, is posed by the third: "Who will make a useful sword of
these bits?" The Wanderer laughs at him, tells him it will be he who
knows not fear; and he leaves Mime's head to this hero. He goes off,
while fantastic lights dance without through the forest, until Mime is
in an agony of fear. But on this scene depends the whole subsequent
action. Mime tries to frighten Siegfried, and finds it impossible. He
wants the Nibelung's ring to rule the world: Siegfried is the only man
to get it; and after he has got it, Mime will avert the Wanderer's
prophesied disaster by poisoning him. He tells the history of Sieglinda
also, and Siegfried knows he is the hero. He will have no patching of
the sword: that sword was Wotan's and subject to his will; he grinds it
to powder, and makes one of his own, with which he will face either man
or god. In the making of it he sings the glorious Sword-song; and when
it is made he tests it by splitting the anvil with it. Here the first
act ends. There are two Siegfried themes to notice; the first, the Hero,
has been heard before:

[Illustration: Some bars of music]

In case I have too much insisted on the storm, passion, and fire in
_The Valkyrie_, it may be pointed out that these play little part in
_Siegfried_. Here we have first the calm summer morning, and if the
scene with the Wanderer is filled with that sense of the remote past,
and the Wanderer's exit uncanny, spectral--a very nightmare--much of the
other music, such as the bit where Siegfried describes himself looking
into the brook, and all the tale of Sieglinda, is tender and delicate;
the fresh morning wind blows continuously. The same is true of the
second act. After the beginning at Hate Hole, the slaying of the
dragon--which is always comic--and the squabble of Alberich and Mime, we
have scarcely anything but sustained beauty to the end. Having
accidentally tasted the dragon's blood, Siegfried knows exactly what
Mime means when he comes coaxingly to persuade him to drink the cup of
poison; so he passes the sword through him. Then follows the scene where
Siegfried lies in the sun and hears the wind murmuring in the trees, and
then listens to the bird as it sings of Brunnhilda asleep far away on
the mountains, and goes off to find her--all admirably painted in the
freshest tints. The last act opens in the mountains. It is dawn, and
gray scud is flying; the Wanderer summons Erda and learning nothing from
her, tells her, virtually, his determination to struggle no more, but to
await the end. Siegfried arrives; the Wanderer bars his way to try him;
but Siegfried has no fear of the spear, and the sword was made by his
own hands; so the spear is shattered, and he goes on his way. He passes
through the fire, which immediately subsides.

The scenery changes to that of the last of _The Valkyrie_, save that
(generally) someone has erected a wall behind Brunnhilda. It is a calm
summer afternoon; far away other hills are seen sleeping in the sun;
Grani, Brunnhilda's horse, grazes quietly at one side; Brunnhilda,
covered by her shield, her spear by her side, slumbers on. Siegfried
enters, and after many doubts, wakes her with a kiss. At first she
fiercely revolts against the new tyranny, the most terrible consequence
of her crime; but she yields in the end, and the drama ends with a
love-duet of a curious kind--not so much loving and passionate as heroic
and triumphant, with a most elaborate cadenza, as if Wagner had said to
himself, "Here's an end to all theories!"

In the prologue of the _Dusk of the Gods_ we find the Norns spinning in
the dark near Brunnhilda's cave; the rope they are at work on breaks,
and they learn that the end is near. They disappear; day breaks, and
Siegfried and Brunnhilda enter. She is sending him to do heroic deeds,
quite in the spirit of medieval chivalry; he presents her with the ring
and goes, wearing her armour and taking her horse. He arrives at the
hall of Gibichungs, where he finds Gunther, his sister Gutruna and
Hagen, a son of Alberich. They give Siegfried a draught which takes away
his memory; he falls in love with Gutruna, and when they propose that he
should take Gunther's shape and win Brunnhilda for him, he agrees at
once. In the meantime, Waltraute, a Valkyrie, knowing Wotan's need of
the ring, has come and tried in vain to get it; Brunnhilda refuses to
part with it. Presently Siegfried, wearing the tarnhelm, comes and
claims her, and compels her to share his couch, placing his sword
between them to keep faith with Gunther. The ring, however, he tears
from her. She is overcome with dismay and grief. When, at the end of
_The Valkyrie,_ Wotan had pronounced her doom, it had seemed bad enough;
but this is a thousand times worse, and she cannot understand the god's
cruelty. Arrived at Gunther's home, she of course recognises Siegfried
in his own shape, and knows by the ring that it was he, changed by the
tarnhelm, and not Gunther, who had broken through the fire a second
time. Her sorrow changes to fierce anger; she denounces him, and says he
has not kept faith with Gunther; he does not remember anything that
occurred previous to drinking the potion, knows he has been true to
Gunther, and goes joyfully off with his new bride. Gunther thinks he has
been dishonoured; Brunnhilda is furious at her betrayal; Hagen wants to
get the ring; and the three decide that Siegfried must die. There can be
no explaining away the draught. In _Tristan_ it is not essential that
the philtre is a true love-philtre, but here the case is different. If
it symbolizes, as has been suggested, a sudden passion for Gutruna, then
Siegfried is an out-and-out blackguard, and not the hero Wagner
intended. Besides, if the loss of his memory leads to the sacrifice of
Brunnhilda, afterwards its sudden return, due to another potion, leads
immediately to his own death. We must accept these potions as part of
the machinery. If we do not grumble at talking dragons, tarnhelms,
flying horses and fires and magic swords, we need not boggle at a couple
of glasses of magical liquid.

In the last act Siegfried, out hunting with the Gibichung tribe, finds
himself alone by the riverside. The Rhine-maidens beg the ring from him;
he refuses, and they tell him that this day he must die. The other
hunters arrive, and Siegfried, drinking the second philtre, tells the
story of how he first won Brunnhilda. That is Hagen's opportunity: to
avenge Gunther he stabs Siegfried in the back. To the tremendous funeral
march the body is carried over the hills. It is brought into the hall of
the Gibichungs. Gunther has pangs of remorse, but Hagen, only
half-human, has none; the pair fall out, and Gunther is killed. Gutruna
wails, as a woman will when she loses her husband and brother within a
quarter of an hour; Hagen goes to take the ring from Siegfried's finger,
but the corpse raises its hand menacingly and all draw back aghast.
Brunnhilda enters; all now has become clear to her, and she resolves
that she, like Wotan, will renounce a loveless life--a life based on
fraud and tyranny. She tells Gutruna that Siegfried has never belonged
to her--is hers, Brunnhilda's; and on receiving this crushing blow,
Gutruna creeps to her brother's side and lies there, miserable and
hopeless. He is dead; but he was the list of her kin and only friend,
and, robbed of even the memory of Siegfried, to be near his dead body
seems better than nothing. Then Brunnhilda commands the funeral pyre to
be built and the body of Siegfried placed on it; she chants her song in
praise of love, mounts her horse Grani, and rides through the fire into
the Rhine. Shouting "The ring!" Hagen dashes after her; the ring has
returned to the maidens, and Loge, unchained, mounts up and Walhalla is
consumed. So ends the third subsidiary drama of the _Ring_.

The music is the last Wagner wrote in his ripe period; when we get to
_Parsifal_ his powers were waning. In point of structure it is the same
as that of _Siegfried_. It has less of springtime freshness than the
_Valkyrie_, and the prevailing colour is sombre and tragic; but there
are magnificent things. The Norns scene, the Journey of the Rhine, the
Waltrante scene, the funeral march, and Brunnhilda's final speech, are
Wagner in the full glory of his strength.

The complete _Ring_ was given for the first time at the opening of the
Bayreuth (Wagner) Theatre in 1876. The performance did not pay, and the
expenses had to be covered by selling the dresses and scenery. Bayreuth
was by no means in those days the fashionable summer resort it has since
become. Nevertheless, the immediate effect felt throughout Europe was
electric, stupendous. As a mere advertisement, it proved more effective
than anything devised for pills and patent soaps. Hundreds who went to
Bayreuth to pass the time, or at most in a spirit of intelligent
curiosity, came away converted to the new faith; many who went to sponge
remained to pay; and all preached the doctrine of Wagnerism wherever
they went. Well they might. As I was an infant at the time, my
recollections of the first performances and of Wagner's speech are not
so vivid as those of some of my younger colleagues, who, like myself,
were not there; but, according to all creditable accounts, the
representations must have been a nearer approach to perfection in all
respects, save the singing, than anything seen before. In one sense
Wagner had attempted no revolution in stage-craft; but in another sense
it was, perhaps, the best sort of revolution to secure the ablest men,
and make them take care, pains, with their work. Anyhow, if tolerable
operatic representations can now be seen in every country of Europe save
Italy, the credit must go to Wagner, who first taught the impresarios
what to aim at and how to achieve their aim, and gave the accursed star
system a blow from which it is slowly dying. Carefully nursed though it
is in New York and at Covent Garden, its convulsive shudders announce
impending death, and already one hears the wail of those who mourn a
departing order of things.

"PARSIFAL" (1882).

This disastrous and evil opera was written in Wagner's old age, under
the influence of such a set of disagreeably immoral persons as has
seldom if ever been gathered together in so small a town as Bayreuth.
The whole drama consists in this: At Montsalvat there was a monastery,
and the head became seriously ill because he had been seen with a lady.
In the long-run he is saved by a young man--rightly called a "fool"--who
cannot tolerate the sight of a woman. What it all means--the grotesque
parody of the Last Supper, the death of the last woman in the world, the
spear which has caused the Abbot's wound and then cures it--these are
not matters to be entered into here. Some of the music is fine.


Wagner died suddenly at Venice February 13, 1883, and a few days later
was buried in the garden of Villa Wahnfried, Bayreuth. For a really
great composer he had quite a long life, and he lived it out
strenuously; and if he struggled and suffered during a great portion of
it, at any rate his last years brought him peace, undisturbed by the old
nightmare dread of poverty.

His activity manifested itself in three forms: the reforms he effected
in the theatre and the concert-room, his own music dramas, and the prose
writings, in which he both advocated the reforms and argued for his
theories. The prose, I have said, is of very small account now, and,
with the exception of the essays mentioned earlier, his essays and
articles have only a curious interest. His theatrical reforms consisted
in making the artistes sing intelligently and with care, and in
demanding realistic scenery. Intelligence and pains--these are the two
new elements he introduced into the theatre; and if most operatic
performances to-day are not absolutely ridiculous, we owe this
miraculous change to Wagner alone. The notion that anything, however
slovenly and stupid, is good enough for opera was dissipated by him
alone. A book of an interesting gossipy sort might be compiled to show
the difference between opera representations before Bayreuth and those
of a post-Bayreuth date, but there is no space for any such excursions
here. At the risk of turning this sketch into something like an
analytical programme, I have concentrated my attention on his operas,
and have tried to show how the later Wagner--the Wagner of the _Ring_,
the _Mastersingers_, and of _Tristan_--grew out of the earlier Wagner,
who composed as everyone else did at the time. He created a new form of
art, and no serious composer will ever dream of going back to the
ancient form of Gluck, Mozart and Weber. From the historical point of
view, it is the creation of this new form that gives him his importance.
He did for opera what George Stevenson did for vehicular traffic. The
music drama has driven out Italian opera as completely and irrevocably
as the steam-engine drove out the stage-coach. As far as his choice of
subjects, there is no reason on earth why he should be followed. The
myth suited him because he happened to be the Wagner he was, but there
are a hundred reasons why present-day composers should leave the myth
alone. The myth gave him opportunities to display his passion, keen
sympathy with picturesque nature, tremendous sense of a remote past that
never existed; but other composers have other mental and artistic
qualities, and for them there are fresh fields to be explored. No one
need trouble about the myth unless he is prepared to show us something
finer than anything in Wagner.

I have been compelled to leave out much interesting matter--Wagner's
trips to London, his difficulties in getting his theatre built, the
financial failure of Bayreuth at first, its success afterwards. Nor can
I say much about the man. He was certainly an overwhelming personality.
In his train followed such really great musicians as Liszt, von Bülow,
Tansig, and others. Richter was his copyist and disciple. He crushed all
originality out of Jensen, and, doubtless, others. Kings and Princes
were his very humble servants. And at Bayreuth he had round him a pack
of fools to do his bidding, as well as a number of intelligent
mediocrities, who wrote books and printed newspapers about him, inspired
by the mediocrity's ordinary ambition to become known through attaching
one's self to a famous man.

The fighting is over and done; there remain to us the glorious music
dramas. After more than twenty years Wagner's fame is still growing, and
it seems impossible that it will ever wane or that he will not, in
far-off times, be numbered with the greatest of the great. "He sleeps,
or wakes, with the enduring dead."



The Fairies (Die Feen).
Das Siebererbot.
The Flying Dutchman.
The Mastersingers.
The Nibelung's Ring, which includes:
    The Rhinegold,
    The Valkyrie,
    The Dusk of the Gods.


A large number of prose essays.
Some concert overtures, including the "Faust."
The Love-feast of the Apostles.
Several songs.
Huldigung's march.


_Pott 8vo. Cloth, 1s. net; or in Limp Leather, with
Photogravure Frontispiece, 2s. net_.

BACH.         By E.H. THORNE. Second Edition.
BEETHOVEN.    By J.S. SHEDLOCK. Fourth Edition.
BRAHMS.       By HERBERT ANTCLIFFE. Second Edition.
CHOPIN.       By E.J. OLDMEADOW. Second Edition.
GOUNOD.       By HENRY TOLHURST. Second Edition.
GRIEG.        By E. MARKHAM LEE, M.A., Mus.D.
                Principal of the Guildhall School of Music.
                Third Edition.
MOZART.       By EBENEZER PROUT, Professor of Music
                Dublin University, B.A., Mus.D.
                Third Edition.
SCHUMANN.     By E.J. OLDMEADOW. Second Edition.
SULLIVAN.     By H. SAXE-WYNDHAM, Secretary of the
                Guildhall School of Music. Second Edition.
VERDI.        By A. VISETTI.
WAGNER.       By JOHN F. RUNCIMAN, Second Edition.


[Transcriber's Note: the following words are possibly misprints
but have been faithfully reproduced from the original 1913 edition:

"Wesendonek"  ("Wesendonck"?)

"Waltrante"   ("Waltraute"?)

"Tansig"      ("Tausig"?)

"Siebererbot" ("Liebesverbot"?)


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