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Title: Aspects of Modern Opera - Estimates and Inquiries
Author: Gilman, Lawrence, 1878-1939
Language: English
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_Estimates and Inquiries_




"The Music of To-morrow," "Phases of Modern Music," "Stories of
Symphonic Music," "Edward MacDowell: A Study," "Strauss' 'Salome': A
Guide to the Opera," "Debussy's 'Pelléas et Mélisande': A Guide to the
Opera," etc.


  COPYRIGHT, 1908,











  A VIEW OF PUCCINI                                         31

  STRAUSS' "SALOME": ITS ART AND ITS MORALS                 65

  A PERFECT MUSIC-DRAMA                                    107



Since that day when, a quarter of a century ago, Richard Wagner ceased
to be a dynamic figure in the life of the world, the history of
operatic art has been, save for a few conspicuous exceptions, a barren
and unprofitable page; and it has been so, in a considerable degree,
because of him. When Mr. William F. Apthorp, in his admirable history
of the opera--a book written with unflagging gusto and vividness--observed
that Wagner's style has been, since his death, little imitated, he
made an astonishing assertion. "If by Wagner's influence," he went on,
"is meant the influence of his individuality, it may fairly be said to
have been null. In this respect Wagner has had no more followers than
Mozart or Beethoven; he has founded no school." Again one must
exclaim: An astonishing affirmation! and it is not the first time that
it has been made, nor will it be the last. Yet how it can have seemed
a reasonable thing to say is one of the insoluble mysteries. The
influence of Wagner--the influence of his individuality as well as of
his principles--upon the musical art of the past twenty-five years has
been simply incalculable. It has tinged, when it has not dyed and
saturated, every phase and form of creative music, from the opera to
the sonata and string quartet.

It is not easy to understand how anyone who is at all familiar with
the products of musical art in Europe and America since the death of
the tyrant of Bayreuth can be disposed to question the fact. No
composer who ever lived influenced so deeply the music that came
after him as did Wagner. It is an influence that is, of course,
waning; and to the definite good of creative art, for it has been in a
large degree pernicious and oppressive in its effect. The shadow of
the most pervasive of modern masters has laid a sinister and
paralysing magic upon almost all of his successors. They have sought
to exert his spells, they have muttered what they imagined were his
incantations; yet the thing which they had hoped to raise up in glory
and in strength has stubbornly refused to breathe with any save an
artificial and feeble life. None has escaped the contagion of his
genius, though some, whom we shall later discuss, have opposed against
it a genius and a creative passion of their own. Yet in the domain of
the opera, wherewith we are here especially concerned, it is an
exceedingly curious and interesting fact that out of the soil which he
enriched with his own genius have sprung, paradoxically, the only
living and independent forces in the lyrico-dramatic art of our time.

Let us consider, first, those aspects of the operatic situation which,
by reason of the paucity of creative vitality that they connote, are,
to-day, most striking; and here we shall be obliged to turn at once to
Germany. The more one hears of the new music that is being put forth
by Teutonic composers, the stronger grows one's conviction of the
lack, with a single exception, of any genuine creative impulse in that
country to-day. It is doubtless a little unreasonable to expect to be
able to agree in this matter with the amiable lady who told Matthew
Arnold that she liked to think that æsthetic excellence was "common
and abundant." As the sagacious Arnold pointed out, it is not in the
nature of æsthetic excellence that it should be "common and
abundant"; on the contrary, he observed, excellence dwells among rocks
hardly accessible, and a man must almost wear out his heart before he
can reach her. All of this is quite unanswerable; yet, so far as
musical Germany is concerned, is not the situation rather singular?
Germany--the Germany which yielded the royal line founded by Bach and
continued by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Wagner, and
Brahms--can show us to-day, save for that exception which we shall
later discuss, only a strenuous flock of Lilliputians (whom it would
be fatuous to discuss with particularity), each one of whom is
confidently aware that the majestic mantle of the author of "Tristan"
has descended upon himself. They write music in which one grows weary
of finding the same delinquency--the invariable fault of emptiness, of
poverty of idea, allied with an extreme elaboration in the manner of
presentation. And it is most deliberate and determined in address. One
would think that the message about to be delivered were of the utmost
consequence, the deepest moment: the pose and the manner of the bearer
of great tidings are admirably simulated. Yet the actual deliverance
is futile and dull, pathetically meagre, causing us to wonder how
often we must remind ourselves that it is as impossible to achieve
salient or distinguished or noble music without salient,
distinguished, and noble ideas as it is to create fire without flame.

In France there are--again with an exception to which we shall later
advert--Saint-Saëns, d'Indy, Massenet, Charpentier, and--_les autres_.

Now Saint-Saëns is very far from being a Wagnerian. He is, indeed,
nothing very definite and determinable. He is M. Saint-Saëns, an
abstraction, a brain without a personality. It is almost forty years
since Hector Berlioz called him "one of the greatest musicians of our
epoch," and since then the lustre of his fame has waxed steadily,
until to-day one must recognise him as one of the three or four most
distinguished living composers. Venerable and urbane, M. Saint-Saëns,
at the New York opening of the American tour which he made in his
seventy-second year, sat at the piano before the audience whom he had
travelled three thousand miles to meet, and played a virtuoso piece
with orchestral accompaniment, and two shorter pieces for piano and
orchestra: a valse-caprice called "Wedding Cake," and an "Allegro
Appassionato." That is to say, M. Camille Saint-Saëns, the bearer of
an internationally famous and most dignified name, braved the tragic
perils of the deep to exhibit himself before a representative American
audience as the composer of the "Wedding Cake" valse-caprice, an
entertaining fantasy on exotic folk-themes, and a _jeu d'esprit_ with
a pleasant tune and some pretty orchestral embroidery.

No one could have it in his heart to chide M. Saint-Saëns for these
things, for he is very venerable and very famous. Yet is not the
occurrence indicative, in a way, of M. Saint-Saëns's own attitude
toward his art?--that facile, brilliant, admirably competent,
chameleon-like art of his, so adroit in its external fashioning, yet
so thin and worn in its inner substance! One wonders if, in the entire
history of music, there is the record of a composer more completely
accomplished in his art, so exquisite a master of the difficult trick
of spinning a musical web, so superb a mechanician, who has less to
say to the world: whose discourse is so meagre and so negligible. One
remembers that unfortunate encomium of Gounod's, which has been so
often turned into a justified reproach: "Saint-Saëns," said the
composer of "Faust," "will write at will a work in the style of
Rossini, of Verdi, of Schumann, of Wagner." The pity of his case is
that, when he writes pure Saint-Saëns, one does not greatly care to
listen. He has spoken no musical thought, in all his long and
scintillant career, that the world will long remember. His dozen
operas, his symphonic poems, his symphonies, his concertos, the best
of his chamber works--is there in them an accent which one can
soberly call either eloquent or deeply beautiful? Do they not excel
solely by reason of their symmetry and solidity of structure, their
deft and ingenious delivery of ideas which at their worst are banal
and at their best mediocre or derivative? "A name always to be
remembered with respect!" cries one of his most sane and just
admirers: since "in the face of practical difficulties,
discouragements, misunderstandings, sneers, he has worked constantly
to the best of his unusual ability for musical righteousness in its
pure form." "A name to be remembered with respect," beyond dispute:
with the respect that is due the man of supereminent intelligence, the
fastidious artisan, the tireless and honourable workman--with respect,
yes; but scarcely with enthusiasm. He never, as has been truly said,
bores one; it is just as true that he never stimulates, moves,
transports, or delights one, in the deeper sense of the term. At its
best, it is a hard and dry light that shines out of his music: a
radiance without magic and without warmth. His work is an impressive
monument to the futility of art without impulse: to the immeasurable
distance that separates the most exquisite talent from the merest
genius. For all its brilliancy of investiture, his thought, as the
most liberal of his appreciators has said, "can never wander through
eternity"--a truth which scarcely needed the invocation of the
Miltonic line to enforce. It may be true, as Mr. Philip Hale has
asserted, that "the success of d'Indy, Fauré, Debussy, was made
possible by the labor and the talent of Saint-Saëns"; yet it is one of
the pities of his case that when Saint-Saëns's name shall have become
faint and fugitive in the corridors of time, the chief glories of
French art in our day will be held to be, one may venture, the
legacies of the composers of "Pelléas et Mélisande" and the "Jour
d'été à la montagne," rather than of the author of "Samson et Dalila"
and "Le Rouet d'Omphale." Which brings one to M. Vincent d'Indy.

Now M. d'Indy offers a curious spectacle to the inquisitive observer,
in that he is, in one regard, the very symbol of independence, of
artistic emancipation, whereas, in another phase of his activity, he
is a mere echo and simulacrum. As a writer for the concert room, as a
composer of imaginative orchestral works and of chamber music, he is
one of the most inflexibly original and self-guided composers known to
the contemporary world of music. With his aloofness and astringency of
style, his persistent austerity of temper, his invincible hatred of
the sensuous, his detestation of the kind of "felicity" which is a
goal for lesser men, this remarkable musician--who, far more
deservingly than the incontinent Chopin, deserves the title of "the
proudest poetic spirit of our time"--this remarkable musician, one
must repeat, is the sort of creative artist who is writing, not for
his day, but for a surprised and apprehending futurity. He is at once
a man of singularly devout and simple nature, and an entire mystic.
For him the spectacle of the living earth, in lovely or forbidding
guise, evokes reverend and exalted moods. His approach to its wonders
is Wordsworthian in its deep and awe-struck reverence and its
fundamental sincerity. He does not, like his younger artistic kinsman,
Debussy, see in it all manner of fantastic and mist-enwrapped visions;
it is not for him a pageant of delicate and shining dreams.
Mallarmé's lazy and indulgent Faun in amorous woodland reverie would
not have suggested to him, as to Debussy, music whose sensuousness is
as exquisitely concealed as it is marvellously transfigured. The
mysticism of d'Indy is pre-eminently religious; it has no tinge of
sensuousness; it is large and benign rather than intimate and intense.

He is absolutely himself, absolutely characteristic, for example, in
his tripartite tone-poem, "Jour d'été à la montagne." This music is a
hymn the grave ecstasy and the utter sincerity of which are as
evident as they are impressive. In its art it is remarkable--not so
monumental in plan, so astoundingly complex in detail, as his superb
B-minor symphony, yet a work that is full of his peculiar traits.

Now it would seem as if so fastidious and individual a musician as
this might do something of very uncommon quality if he once turned his
hand to opera-making. Yet in his "L'Étranger," completed only a year
before he began work on his astonishing B-minor symphony, and in his
"Fervaal" (1889-95), we have the melancholy spectacle of M. d'Indy
concealing his own admirable and expressive countenance behind an
ill-fitting mask modelled imperfectly after the lineaments of Richard
Wagner. In these operas (d'Indy calls them, by the way, an _action
dramatique_ and an _action musicale_: evident derivations from the
"Tristan"-esque _Handlung_)--in these operas, the speech, from first
to last, is the speech of Wagner. The themes, the harmonic structure,
the use of the voice, the plots (d'Indy, like Wagner, is his own
librettist)--all is uncommuted Wagnerism, with some of the Teutonic
cumbrousness deleted and some of the Gallic balance and measure
infused. These scores have occasional beauty, but it is seldom the
beauty that is peculiar to d'Indy's own genius: it is an imported and
alien beauty, a beauty that has in it an element of betrayal.

We find ourselves confronting a situation that is equally dispiriting
to the seeker after valuable achievements in contemporary French opera
when we view the performances of such minor personages as Massenet,
Bruneau, Reyer, Erlanger, and Charpentier. They are all tarred, in a
great or small degree, with the Wagnerian stick. When they speak out
of their own hearts and understandings they are far from commanding:
they are vulgarly sentimental or prettily lascivious, like the amiable
Massenet, or pretentious and banal, like Bruneau, or incredibly dull,
like Reyer, or picturesquely superficial, like Charpentier--though the
author of "Louise" disports himself with a beguiling grace and verve
which almost causes one to forgive his essential emptiness.

Modern Italy discloses a single dominant and vivid figure. In none of
his compatriots is there any distinction of speech, of character. In
that country the memory of Wagner is less imperious in its control;
yet not one of its living music-makers, with the exception that I have
made, has that atmosphere and quality of his own which there is no

       *       *       *       *       *

I have referred by implication and reservation to three personalities
in the art of the modern lyric-drama who stand out as salient figures
from the confused and amorphous background against which they are to
be observed: who seem to me to represent the only significant and
important manifestations of the creative spirit which have thus far
come to the surface in the post-Wagnerian music-drama. They are, it
need scarcely be said, Puccini in Italy, Richard Strauss in Germany,
and Debussy in France. Yet these men built upon the foundations laid
by Wagner; they took many leaves from his vast book of instructions,
in some cases stopping short of the full reach of his plans as
imagined by himself, in other cases carrying his schemes to a point of
development far beyond any result of which he dreamed. But they have
not attempted to say the things which they had to say in the way that
he would have said them. They have been content with their own
eloquence; and it has not betrayed them. No one is writing music for
the stage which has the profile, the saliency, the vitality, the
personal flavour, which distinguish the productions of these men. So
far as it is possible to discern from the present vantage-ground, the
future--at least the immediate future--of the lyric stage is theirs.
In no other quarters may one observe any manifestations that are not
either negligible by reason of their own quality, or mere dilutions,
with or without adulterous admixtures, of the Wagnerian brew.


A plain-spoken and not too reverent observer of contemporary musical
manners, discussing the melodic style of the Young Italian
opera-makers, has observed that it is fortunate in that it "gives the
singers opportunity to pour out their voices in that lavish volume and
intensity which provoke applause as infallibly as horseradish provokes
tears." The comment has a good deal of what Sir Willoughby Patterne
would have called "rough truth." It is fairly obvious that there is
nothing in the entire range of opera so inevitably calculated to
produce an instant effect as a certain kind of frank and sweeping
lyricism allied with swiftness of dramatic emotion; and it is because
the young lions of modern Italy--Puccini and his lesser brethren--have
profoundly appreciated this elemental truth, that they address their
generation with so immediate an effect.

In those days when the impetus of a pristine enthusiasm drove the more
intelligent order of opera-goers to performances of Wagner, it was a
labour of love to learn to know and understand the texts of his
obscure and laboured dramas; and even the guide-books, which were as
leaves in Vallombrosa, were prayerfully studied. But to-day there are
no Wagnerites. We are no longer impelled by an apostolic fervour to
delve curiously into the complex genealogy and elaborate ethics of the
"Ring," and it is no longer quite clear to many slothful intelligences
just what Tristan and Isolde are talking about in the dusk of King
Mark's garden. There will always be a small group of the faithful who,
through invincible and loving study, will have learned by heart every
secret of these dramas. But for the casual opera-goer, granting him
all possible intelligence and intellectual curiosity, they cannot but
seem the reverse of crystal-clear, logical, and compact. A score of
years ago those who cared at all for the dramatic element in opera,
and the measure of whose delight was not filled up by the vocal
pyrotechny which was the mainstay of the operas of the older
répertoire, found in these music-dramas their chief solace and
satisfaction. Wagner reigned then virtually alone over his kingdom.
The dignity, the imaginative power, and the impressive emotional sweep
of his dramas, as dramas, offset their obscurity and their inordinate
bulk; and always their splendid investiture of music exerted, in and
of itself, an enthralling fascination. And that condition of affairs
might have continued for much longer had not certain impetuous young
men of modern Italy demonstrated the possibility of writing operas
which were both engrossing on their purely dramatic side and, in their
music, eloquent with the eloquence that had come to be expected of the
modern opera-maker. Moreover, these music-dramas had the incalculable
merit, for our time and environment, of being both swift in movement
and unimpeachably obvious in meaning. Thereupon began the reign of
young Italy in contemporary opera. It was inaugurated with the
"Cavalleria Rusticana" of Mascagni and the "I Pagliacci" of
Leoncavallo; and it is continued to-day, with immense vigour and
persistence, by Puccini with all his later works. The sway of the
composer of "Tosca," "Bohème," and "Madame Butterfly" is triumphant
and wellnigh absolute; and the reasons for it are not elusive. He has
selected for musical treatment dramas that are terse and rapid in
action and intelligible in detail, and he has underscored them with
music that is impassioned, incisive, highly spiced, rhetorical,
sometimes poetic and ingenious, and pervadingly sentimental. Moreover,
he possesses, as his most prosperous attribute, that facility in
writing fervid and often banal melodies to the immediate and unfailing
effect of which, in the words of Mr. Henry T. Finck, I have alluded.
As a sensitive English critic, Mr. Vernon Blackburn, once very
happily observed, Puccini is "essentially a man of his own generation
... the one who has caught up the spirit of his time, and has made his
compact with that time, in order that he should not lose anything
which a contemporary generation might give him."

It is a curious and striking truth that the chief trouble with the
representative musical dramatists who have built, from the standpoint
of system, upon the foundational stones that Wagner laid, is not, as
the enemies and opponents of Bayreuth used to charge, an excess of
drama at the expense of the music, but--as was the case with Wagner
himself (a fact which I have elsewhere in this volume attempted to
demonstrate)--an excess of music at the expense of the drama: in
short, the precise defect against which reformers of the opera have
inveighed since the days of Gluck. With Richard Strauss this musical
excess is orchestral; with the modern Italians it implicates the
voice-parts, and is manifested in a lingering devotion to full-blown
melodic expression achieved at the expense of dramatic truth, logic,
and consistency. In this, Puccini has simply, in the candid phrase of
Mr. Blackburn, "caught up the spirit of his time, and made his compact
with that time." That is to say, he has, with undoubted artistic
sincerity, played upon the insatiable desire of the modern ear for an
ardent and elemental kind of melodic effect, and upon the acquired
desire of the modern intelligence for a terse and dynamic substratum
of drama. His fault, from what I hold to be the ideal standpoint in
these matters, is that he has not perfectly fused his music and his
drama. There is a sufficiently concrete example of what I mean--an
example which points both his strength and his weakness--in the second
act of "Tosca," where he halts the cumulative movement of the scene
between _Scarpia_ and _Tosca_, which he has up to that point developed
with superb dramatic logic, in order to placate those who may not
over-long be debarred from their lyrical sweetmeats; but also--for it
would be absurd to charge him with insincerity or time-serving in this
matter--in order that he may satisfy his own ineluctable tendency
toward a periodical effusion of lyric energy, which he must yield to
even when dramatic consistency and logic go by the board in the
process; when, in short, lyrical expression is supererogatory and
impertinent. So he writes the sentimental and facilely pathetic
prayer, "Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore," _dolcissimo con grande
sentimento_: a perfectly superfluous, not to say intrusive, thing
dramatically, and a piece of arrant musical vulgarity; after which the
current of the drama is resumed. We have here, in fact, nothing more
nor less respectable than the old-fashioned Italian aria of unsavoury
fame: it is merely couched in more modern terms.

The offence is aggravated by the fact that Puccini, in common with the
rest of the Neo-Italians, is at his best in the expression of dramatic
emotion and movement, and at his worst in his voicing of purely lyric
emotion, meditative or passionate. In its lyric portions his music is
almost invariably banal, without distinction, without beauty or
restraint--when the modern Italian music-maker dons his singing-robes
he becomes clothed with commonness and vulgarity. Thus in its scenes
of amorous exaltation the music of "Tosca," of "Madame Butterfly"
(recall, in the latter work, the flamboyant commonness of the exultant
duet which closes the first act), is blatant and rhetorical, rather
than searching and poignant. Puccini's strength lies in the truly
impressive manner in which he is able to intensify and underscore the
more dramatic moments in the action. At such times his music possesses
an uncommon sureness, swiftness, and incisiveness; especially in
passages of tragic foreboding, of mounting excitement, it is gripping
and intense in a quite irresistible degree. Often, at such moments,
it has an electric quality of vigour, a curious nervous strength. That
is its cardinal merit: its spare, lithe, closely-knit, clean-cut,
immensely energetic orchestral enforcement of those portions of the
drama where the action is swift, tense, cumulative, rather than of
sentimental or amorous connotation. Puccini has, indeed, an almost
unparalleled capacity for a kind of orchestral commentary which is
both forceful and succinct. He wastes no words, he makes no
superfluous gestures: he is masterfully direct, pregnant, expeditious,
compact. Could anything be more admirable, in what it attempts and
brilliantly contrives to do, than almost the entire second act of
"Tosca," with the exception of the sentimental and obstructive Prayer?
How closely, with what unswerving fidelity, the music clings to the
contours of the play; and with what an economy of effort its effects
are made! Puccini is thus, at his best, a Wagnerian in the truest
sense--a far more consistent Wagnerian than was Wagner himself.

It is in "Tosca" that he should be studied. He is not elsewhere so
sincere, direct, pungent, telling. And it is in "Tosca," also, that
his melodic vein, which is generally broad and copious rather than
fine and deep, yields some of the true and individual beauty which is
its occasional, its very rare, possession--for example, to name it at
its best, the poetic and exceedingly personal music which accompanies
the advancing of dawn over the house-tops of Rome, at the beginning of
the last act: a passage the melancholy beauty and sincere emotion of
which it would be difficult to overpraise.

In Puccini's later and much more elaborate and meticulous "Madame
Butterfly," there is less that one can unreservedly delight in or
definitely deplore, so far as the music itself is concerned. It is
from a somewhat different angle that one is moved to consider the

In choosing the subject for this music-drama, Puccini set himself a
task to which even his extraordinary competency as a lyric-dramatist
has not quite been equal. As every one knows, the story for which
Puccini has here sought a lyrico-dramatic expression is that of an
American naval officer who marries little "Madame Butterfly" in
Japan, deserts her, and cheerfully calls upon her three years later
with the "real" wife whom he has married in America. The name of this
amiable gentleman is Pinkerton--B.F. Pinkerton--or, in full, Benjamin
Franklin Pinkerton. Now it would scarcely seem to require elaborate
argument to demonstrate that the presence in a highly emotional
lyric-drama of a gentleman named Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton--a
gentleman who is, moreover, the hero of the piece--is, to put it
briefly, a little inharmonious. The matter is not helped by the fact
that the action is of to-day, and that one bears away from the
performance the recollection of Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton asking his
friend, the United States consul at Nagasaki, if he will have some
whiskys-and-soda. There lingers also a vaguer memory of the consul
declaring, in a more or less lyrical phrase, that he "is not a student
of ornithology."

Let no one find in these remarks a disposition to cast a doubt upon
the seriousness with which Puccini has completed his work, or to
ignore those features of "Madame Butterfly" which compel sincere
admiration. But recognition and acknowledgment of these things must be
conditioned by an insistence upon the fact that such a task as Puccini
has attempted here, and as others have attempted, is foredoomed to a
greater or less degree of artistic futility. One refers, of course, to
the attempt to transfer bodily to the lyric stage, for purposes of
serious expression, a contemporary subject, with all its inevitable
dross of prosaic and trivially familiar detail. To put it concretely,
the sense of humour and the emotional sympathies will tolerate the
spectacle of a _Tristan_ or a _Tannhäuser_ or a _Don Giovanni_ or a
_Pelléas_ or a _Faust_ uttering his longings and his woes in opera;
but they will not tolerate the spectacle of a _Benjamin Franklin
Pinkerton_ of our own time and day telling us, in song, that he is not
a student of ornithology. The thing simply cannot be done--Wagner
himself could not impress us in such circumstances. The chief glory of
Wagner's texts--no matter what one may think of them as viable and
effective dramas--is their ideal suitability for musical translation.
Take, for example, the text of "Tristan und Isolde": there is not a
sentence, scarcely a word, in it, which is not fit for musical
utterance--nothing that is incongruous, pedestrian, inept. All that is
foreign to the essential emotions of the play has been eliminated. So
unsparingly has it been subjected to the alembic of the
poet-dramatist's imagination that it has been wholly purged of all
that is superfluous and distracting, all that cannot be gratefully
assimilated by the music. That is the especial excellence of his
texts. Opera, though it rests, like the other arts, heavily upon
convention, yet offers at bottom a reasonable and defensible vehicle
for the communication of human experience and emotion. But it is not a
convincing form, and no genius, living or potential, can make it a
convincing form, save when it deals with matters removed from our
quotidian life and environment: save when it presents a heightened and
alembicated image of human experience. Thus we accept, with sympathy
and approval, "Siegfried," "Lohengrin," "Die Meistersinger," "Don
Giovanni"--even, at a pinch, "Tosca"; but we cannot, if we allow our
understanding and our sense of humour free play, accept "Madame
Butterfly," with its naval lieutenant of to-day, its American consul
in his tan-coloured "spats," and its whiskys-and-soda.

This, then, was the prime disadvantage under which Puccini laboured.
He was, as a necessary incident of his task, confronted with the
problem of setting to music a great deal of prosaic and altogether
unlovely dialogue, essential to the unfolding of the action, no doubt,
but quite fatal to lyric inspiration. Under these circumstances, the
music is often surprisingly successful; but it is significant that the
most poetic and moving passages in the score are those which enforce
emotions and occasions which have no necessary connection with time or
place; which are, from their nature, fit subjects for musical
treatment,--for example, such a passage as that at the end of the
second act, where _Madame Butterfly_ and her child wait through the
long night for the coming of the faithless _Pinkerton_; for here the
moment and the mood to be expressed have a dignity and a pathos
entirely outside of date or circumstance.

The score, as a whole, compares unfavourably with that of "Tosca,"
which still, as it seems to me, represents Puccini at his most
effective and sincere. In "Madame Butterfly" one misses the salient
characterisation, the gripping intensity, the sharpness and boldness
of outline that make "Tosca" so notable an accomplishment. "Tosca,"
for all its occasional commonness, its melodic banality, is a work of
immense vigour and unquestionable individuality. In it Puccini has
saturated almost every page of the music with his own extremely vivid
personality: a personality that is exceedingly impressive in its crude
strength and directness; he has, in this score, exploded the strange
critical legend that his style is little more than a blended echo of
the later Verdi, Ponchielli, and Massenet. The music of "Tosca" is not
often distinguished, but it is singularly striking, potent, and
original; no one save Puccini could possibly have written it. But
since then this composer has, artistically speaking, visited Paris. He
has appreciated the value of certain harmonic experiments which such
adventurous Frenchmen as Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and others,
are making; he has appreciated them so sincerely that certain pages in
"Madame Butterfly," as, for instance, the lovely interlude between the
second and third acts, sound almost as if they had been contrived by
Debussy himself--a Latinised Debussy, of course. Puccini, in short,
has become intellectually sophisticated, and he has learned gentler
artistic manners, in the interval between the composition of "Tosca"
and of "Madame Butterfly." The music of the latter work is far more
delicately structured and subtle than anything he had previously given
us, and it has moments of conquering beauty, of great tenderness, of
superlative sweetness. It is, beyond question, a charming and
brilliant score, exceedingly adroit in workmanship and almost
invariably effective. Yet, after such excellences have been gladly
acknowledged, one is disturbingly conscious that the real, the
essential, Puccini has, for the most part, evaporated. There are other
voices speaking through this music, voices that, for all their charm
and distinction of accent, seem alien and a little insincere. Has the
vital, if crude, imagination which gave issue to the music of "Tosca"
acquired finesse and delicacy at a cost of independent impulse?


That Richard Strauss the opera-maker is, for the present, summed up in
Richard Strauss the composer of "Salome," would scarcely, I think, be
disputed by any one who is sympathetically cognisant of his
achievements in that rôle. Neither in "Guntram" nor in the later and
far more characteristic "Feuersnot" is his essential quality as a
musical dramatist so fully and clearly revealed as in his setting of
the play of Wilde to which he has given a fugacious immortality. Yet
in discussing this astonishing work, I prefer to consider it in and
for itself rather than as a touchstone whereby to form a general
estimate of Strauss the dramatical tone-poet; for I believe that, if
he lives and produces for another decade, it will be seen that
"Salome" does not furnish a just or adequate measure of Strauss'
indisputable genius as a writer of music for the stage. I believe that
he has not given us here a valid or completely representative account
of himself in that capacity. So remarkable, though, is the work in
itself, so assertive in its challenge to contemporary criticism, that
it imperatively compels some attempt at appraisement in any deliberate
survey of modern operatic art.

For any one who is not convinced that those ancient though
occasionally reconciled adversaries, Art and Ethics, are necessarily
antipodal, such a task, it must be confessed, is not one to be
approached in a jaunty or easeful spirit, for it means that one must
be willing, apparently, to enter the lists ranged with the
hypocrites, the prudes, the short-sighted and the unwise; with
frenzied and myopic champions of respectability; with all those who
are as inflexible in their allegiance to the moralities as they are
resourceful and tireless in their pursuit of impudicity in art. Yet
that there are two standpoints from which this extraordinary work must
be regarded by any candid observer I do not think is open to question:
it has its purely æsthetic aspect, and its--I shall not say moral, but
social--aspect. To separate them in any conscientious discussion is

Let us, to begin with, consider, in and by itself, the quality of the
music which the incomparable Strauss--Strauss, the most conquering
musical personality since Wagner--has conceived as a fit embodiment in
tones of the tragic and maleficent and haunting tale of the Dancing
Daughter of Herodias and her part in the career of the prophet John,
as recounted--with non-Scriptural variations--by Oscar Wilde. We may
consider, first, whether or not it achieves the prime requisite of
music in its organic relation to a dramatic subject: an enforcement
and heightening of the effect of the play; setting aside, for the
present, those other aspects of it which have so absorbed critical
attention, and of which we have heard overmuch: its remorseless
complexity, its unflagging ingenuity, its superb and miraculous
orchestration. These are matters of importance, but of secondary
importance. The point at issue is, has Strauss, through his music,
intensified and italicised the moods and situations of the drama; and,
secondly, has he achieved this end through music which is in itself
notable and important?

Never was music so avid in its search for the eloquent word as is the
music of Strauss in this work. We are amazed at the audacity, the
resourcefulness, of the expressional apparatus that is cumulatively
reared in this unprecedented score. The alphabet of music is ransacked
for new and undreamt-of combinations of tone: never were effects so
elaborate, so cunning, so fertilely contrived, offered to the ears of
men since the voice of music was heard in its pristine estate. This
score challenges the music of the days that shall follow after it.

For the most part, the atmosphere of horror, of ominous suspense, of
oppressive and bodeful gloom, in which the tragedy of Wilde is
enwrapped, is wonderfully rendered in the music. There are beyond
question overmastering pages in the score--music which has the kind of
superb audacity and power of effect that Dr. Johnson discerned in the
style of Sir Thomas Browne: "forcible expressions which he would never
have used but by venturing to the utmost verge of propriety; and
flights which would never have been reached but by one who had very
little fear of the shame of falling." Of such quality is the passage
which portrays the agonised suspense of _Salome_ during the beheading
of _John_; the passage, titanic in its expression of malignly exultant
triumph, which accentuates the delivery of the head to the insensate
princess; the few measures before _Herod's_ patibulary order at the
close: these things are products of genius, of the same order of
genius which impelled the music of "Don Quixote," of "Ein
Heldenleben," of "Zarathustra"; they are true and vital in
imagination, marvellous in intensity of vision, of great and subduing
potency as dramatic enforcement and as sheer music.

But when one has said that much, one comes face to face with the chief
weakness of the score--its failure in the expression of the governing
motive of the play: the consuming and inappeasable lust of _Salome_
for the white body and scarlet lips of _John_.

     "Neither the floods nor the great waters can quench my
     passion. I was a princess, and thou didst scorn me. I was a
     virgin, and thou didst take my virginity from me. I was
     chaste and thou didst fill my veins with fire.... Ah! ah!
     wherefore didst thou not look at me, Jokanaan?..."

That is the note which is sounded from beginning to end of the
play--that is its focal emotion. And Strauss has not made it sound, as
it should sound, in his music. When it should be wildly, barbarically,
ungovernably erotic, as for the enforcement of _Salome's_ fervid
supplications in her first interview with _John_, the music is merely
conventional in its sensuousness. It should here be febrile,
vertiginous. But what, actually, do we get? We get a scene built upon
a phrase in which is crystallised the desire of _Salome_ for the lips
of the Prophet; and this theme is saccharinely ardent and sentimental,
rather than feverish and unbridled; a phrase which might have been a
product of the amiably voluptuous inspiration of the composer of
"Faust." The "Tannhäuser" Bacchanale, even in its original form, is
more truly expressive of venereous abandon than is this strangely
sentimentalised music. It has, no doubt, a certain effectiveness, a
certain expressiveness; but the effect that is produced, and the
emotion that is expressed, are far removed from the field of sensation
inhabited by Wilde's remarkable Princess. Yet it would seem to be a
point needing but the lightest emphasis that if the passion of
_Salome_ is not fitly and eloquently rendered by the music, the
cardinal impulse, the very heart of Wilde's drama, is left

So it is in the music of the final scene, _Salome's_ mad apostrophe to
the severed head. Here we get, not the note of lustful abandonment
which would alone remove _Salome's_ horrible appetite from the region
of the perverted and the incredible, but a kind of musical utterance
which simulates the noble rapture of Wagner's dying _Isolde_. The
discrepancy of the music in this regard has been recognised by those
who praise most warmly Strauss' score. It has been said in
extenuation, on the one hand, that music is incapable of expressing
what are called "base" emotions, and, on the other hand, that Strauss
wished to exalt, to idealise and transfigure, this scene. To the first
objection it may be said simply that it is based upon an argument that
is at least open to serious question. It is by no means an evident or
settled truth that music is incapable of uttering anything but worthy
emotions, ideas, concepts. There is music by Berlioz, by Liszt, by
Wagner, by Rimsky-Korsakoff, by Strauss himself, which is, in its
emotional substance, sinister, demonic, even pornographic in
suggestion; and not simply by reason of a key furnished by text,
motto, or dramatic subject, but in itself--in its quality and
character as music. But the claim need not be elaborated, or even
demonstrated, since it is beside the point. One quarrels with the
music of the final scene of "Salome" on the broad ground of its
inappropriateness: because the emotional note which it strikes and
sustains is one of nobility, whereas the plain requirement of the
scene, of the psychological moment, demands music that should be
anything but noble. And here we encounter the objections of those who
hold that _Salome_ herself, at the moment of her apostrophe to the
dead head, becomes transfigured, uplifted through the power of a great
and purifying love. But to argue in this manner is to indulge in a
particularly egregious kind of fatuity. To conceive Wilde's lubricious
princess as a kind of Oriental _Isolde_ is grotesquely to distort the
vivid and wholly consistent woman of his imagining; and it is to
renounce at once all possibility of justifying her culminating
actions. For the only ground upon which it might be remotely possible
to account for _Salome's_ remarkable behaviour, except by regarding
her as a necrophilistic maniac, is that supplied by the conditions and
the environment of a lustful, decadent, and bloodshot age. Only when
one conceives her as frankly and spontaneously a barbarian, nourished
on blood and lechery, does she become at all comprehensible to others
than pathologists, even if she does not cease to impress us as
noisome, monstrous, and horrible.

The music of "Salome," then, judging it in its entirety, is deficient
as an exposition, as a translation into tone, of the drama upon which
it is based; for it is inadequate in its expression of the play's
central and informing emotion. One listens to this music, it must be
granted, with the nerves in an excessive state of tension--it is
enormously exciting; but so is, under certain conditions, a determined
beating upon a drum. An assault upon the nerve-centres is a vastly
different thing from an emotional persuasion; yet there are many who,
in listening to "Salome," will need to be convinced of it.

It would be absurd to deny, of course, that "Salome" is in many ways
a noteworthy and brilliant--and, for the curious student of musical
evolution--a fascinating work. Its musicianship--the sheer technical
artistry which contrived it--is stupefying in its enormous and
inerrant mastery. The quality of its inspiration and its success as a
musico-dramatic commentary, which have been the prime considerations
in this discussion, have been measured, of course, by the most
exacting standards--by the standards set in other and greater works of
Strauss, in comparison with which it is lamentably inferior in
vitality, sincerity, and importance. In at least one respect,
however, it compels the most unreserved praise; and that is in the
case of its superlative orchestration. Strauss has written here for a
huge and complicated body of instruments, and he has set them an
appalling task. Never in the history of music has such instrumentation
found its way onto the printed page. Yet, though he requires his
performers to do impossible things, they never fail to contribute to
the effect of the music as a whole; for the dominant and wonderful
distinction of the scoring lies precisely in the splendour of its
total effect, and the almost uncanny art with which it is
accomplished. One finds upon every page not only new and superlative
achievements in colouring, unimagined sonorities, but a keenly poetic
feeling for the timbre which will most intensify the dramatic moment.
The instrumentation, from beginning to end, is a gorgeous fabric of
strange and novel and obsessing colours--for in such orchestral
writing as this, sound becomes colour, and colour sound: it is not a
single sense which is engaged, but a subtle and indescribable complex
of all the senses; one not only hears, one also imagines that one
sees and feels these tones, and is even fantastically aware of their
possessing exotic and curious odours, vague and singular perfumes. It
is when one turns from the bewildering magnificence of its orchestral
surfaces to a consideration of the actual substance of the music, the
fundamental ideas which lie within the dazzling instrumental envelope,
that it is possible to realise why, for many of his most determined
admirers, this work marks a pathetic decline from the standard set by
Strauss in his former achievements. The indisputable splendour of this
music, its marvellous witchery, are incurably external. It is a
gorgeous and many-hued garment, but that which it clothes and
glorifies is a poor and unnurtured thing. There is little vitality,
little true substance, within this dazzling instrumental envelope; and
for any one who is not content with its brave exterior panoply, and
who seeks a more permanent and living beauty within, the thing seems
but a vast and empty husk. It is not that the music is at times
cacophonous in the extreme, that its ugliness ranges from that which
is merely harsh and unlovely to that which is brutally and
deliberately hideous; for we have not to learn anew, in these days of
post-Wagnerian emancipation, that a dramatic exigency justifies any
possible musical means that will appropriately express it: to-day we
cheerfully concede that, when a character in music-drama tells another
character that his body is "like the body of a leper, like a plastered
wall where vipers crawl ... like a whitened sepulchre, full of
loathsome things," the sentiment may not be uttered in music of
Mendelssohnian sweetness and placidity. It is because the music is so
often vulgarly sentimental, when it should be terrible and unbridled
in its passion, that it seems to some a defective performance. For
sheer commonness, allied with a kind of emotionalism that is the worse
for being inflated in expression, it would be hard to find, in any
score of the rank of "Salome," the equal of the two themes which
Strauss uses so extensively that they stand almost as the dominant
motives in the score: the theme which is associated with _Salome's_
desire to kiss the lips of _John_, and that other theme--it has been
called that of "Ecstasy"--which begins like the _cantabile_ subject in
the first movement of Tschaikowsky's "Pathetic" Symphony, and
ends--well, like Strauss at his worst.

An astounding score!--music that is by turns gorgeous, banal,
delicate, cataclysmic, vulgar, sentimental, insinuating, tornadic:
music which is as inexplicable in its shortcomings as it is
overwhelming in its occasional triumphs.

We may now consider that other aspect from which, I have said, the
candid observer is compelled to regard this remarkable work.

Those over-zealous friends of Strauss who have sought to justify the
offensiveness of "Salome" by alleging the case of Wagner's "Die
Walküre," and the relationship that is there shown to exist between
the ill-starred Volsungs, are worse than misguided; for however
unhallowed that relationship may be, it conveys no hint of sexual
malaise. _Siegmund_ and _Sieglinde_ are superbly healthful and
untainted animals: to name their exuberant passion in the same breath
with the horrible lust of _Salome_ is stupid and absurd.

Let us not confuse the issue: The spectacle of a woman fondling
passionately a severed and reeking head and puling over its dead
lips, is not necessarily deleterious to morals, nor is it necessarily
an act of impudicity; it is merely, for those whose calling does not
happen to induce familiarity with mortuary things, horrible and
revolting. No matter how, in practice on the stage, the thing may be
ameliorated, the fact,--the situation as conceived and ordered by the
dramatist,--is inescapable. It has been said that this scene is not
really so sickening as it is alleged to be, since the stage directions
require that _Salome's_ kisses be bestowed in the obscurity of a
darkened stage. But to that it may be replied, in the first place,
that darkness does little to mitigate the horror of the scene as
conveyed by the words of _Salome_--so little, in fact, that _Herod_,
who was anything but a person of fastidious sensibilities, is overcome
with loathing and commands her despatch; and, secondly, that the stage
directions expressly declare for an illumination of the scene by a
"moonbeam" ... which "covers her with light," just before the end,
while she is at the climax of her ghastly _libido_.

Mr. Ernest Newman, a thoroughly sane and extremely able champion of
all that is best in Strauss, has said, in considering this aspect of
"Salome," that "the whole outcry against it comes from a number of too
excitable people who are not artists, and who therefore cannot
understand the attitude of the artist towards work of this kind. Human
nature," he goes on, "breaks out into a variety of forms of energy
that are not at all nice from the moral point of view--murder, for
example, or forgery, or the struggle of the ambitious politician for
power, or the desire to get rich quickly at other people's expense.
But because these things are objectionable in themselves and
dangerous to social well-being there is no reason why the artist
should not interest us in them by the genius with which he describes
them. Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde was a dangerous person whom, in
real life, we should want the police to lay by the heels; but sensible
people who read the story do not bristle with indignation at Stevenson
for creating such a character; they simply enjoy the art of it. The
writing of the story did not turn Stevenson into a monster of
deception and cruelty, nor does the reading of it have that effect on
us. Things are different in art from what the same things would be in
real life, and an artist's joy in the depiction of some dreadful phase
of human nature does not necessarily mean that, as a private
individual, he is depraved, or that the spectacle of his art will make
for depravity in the audience. Now Wilde and Strauss have simply drawn
an erotic and half-deranged Oriental woman as they imagine she may
have been. They do not recommend her; they simply present her, as a
specimen of what human nature can be like in certain circumstances....
The hysterical moralists who cry out against 'Salome' ... have a
terrified, if rather incoherent, feeling that if women in general were
suddenly to become abnormally morbid, conceive perverse passions for
bishops, have these holy men decapitated when their advances were
rejected, and then start kissing the severed heads in a blind fury of
love and revenge in the middle of the drawing-room, the respectable
£40 a year householder would feel the earth rocking beneath his feet.
But women are not going to do these spicy things simply because they
saw _Salome_ on the stage do something like them, any more than men
are going to walk over the bodies of little children because they read
that Mr. Hyde did so, or murder their brothers because Hamlet's uncle
murdered his."

Now that, of course, is irresistible. But Mr. Newman's gift of
vivacious and telling statement, and his natural impatience with the
cant of those who hold briefs for a facile morality, have here led
him, as it seems to me, astray. To deny that an intimate and vital
relationship exists between the subject chosen by an artist and its
probable effect upon the public is to yield the whole case to those
who hold that this relationship, in the case of the theatre (and, of
course, the opera house), is merely casual and inconsequential: it is
to yield it to the upholder of the stage as an agent of "relaxation,"
an agent either of mere entertainment or mere sensation. It is not
unlikely that Mr. Newman would be the first to admit that, if the
prime function of art can be postulated at all, it might be conceived
to be that of enlarging the sense of life: as an agency for liberating
and mellowing the spirit: as an instrument primarily quickening and
emancipative. "The sadness of life is the joy of art," said Mr.
George Moore. The sadness of life, yes; and the evil and tragedy, the
terror and violence, of life: for the contemplation of these may,
through the evoking of pity, nourish and enlarge the spirit of the
beholder. But are we very greatly nourished by the contemplation of
that which must inevitably arouse disgust rather than compassion? I do
not speak of "morality" or "immorality," since there is nothing stable
in the use or understanding of these terms. But those aspects of life
which sicken the sense, which are loathsome rather than terrible--are
they fit matter for the artist?

It is a much mauled and much tortured point, and I, for one, am not
unwilling to leave the matter in the condition in which Dr. Johnson
left the subject of a future state, concerning which a certain lady
was interrogating him. "She seemed", recounts the admirable Boswell,
"desirous of knowing more, but he left the matter in obscurity."

To return, in conclusion, to Strauss the musician: Where, one ends by
wondering, is the earlier, the greater, Strauss?--the unparalleled
maker of music, the indisputable genius who gave us a sheaf of
masterpieces: who gave us "Don Quixote," "Ein Heldenleben,"
"Zarathustra," "Tod und Verklärung." Has he passed into that desolate
region occupied in his day by Hector Berlioz, for whom a sense of the
tragic futility of talent without genius did not exist--the futility
of application, of ingenuity, of constructive resource, without that
ultimate and unpredictable flame? Is not Strauss, in such a work as
"Salome," but another Berlioz (though a Berlioz with a gleaming past)?
Is he not here as one disdainfully indifferent to the ministrations
of that "Eternal Spirit" which, in Milton's wonderful phrase, "sends
out his Seraphim with the hallowed fire of his altar, to touch and
purify the lips of whom he pleases"?



Somewhat less than a century ago William Hazlitt, whose contempt for
opera as a form of art was genuine and profound, observed amiably that
the "Opera Muse" was "not a beautiful virgin, who can hope to charm by
simplicity and sensibility, but a tawdry courtesan, who, when her
paint and patches, her rings and jewels are stripped off, can excite
only disgust and ridicule." It may be conceded that matters have
improved somewhat since that receding day when Hazlitt, whose critical
forte was not urbanity, uttered this acrimonious opinion. The opera is
doubtless still, as it was in his day, ideally and exquisitely
contrived "to amuse or stimulate the intellectual languor of those
classes of society on whose support it immediately depends." Yet the
shade of Hazlitt might have been made sufficiently uncomfortable by
being confronted, half a century after his death, by the indignant and
voluble apparition of Richard Wagner. To tell the truth, though,
Wagner is scarcely the opera-maker with whose example one might
to-day most effectually rebuke the contempt of Hazlitt. While the Muse
which presided at the birth of the Wagnerian music-drama can certainly
not be conceived as "a tawdry courtesan," neither can she be conceived
as precisely virginal, persuasive by reason of her "simplicity" and
"sensibility." Wagner, for all his dramatic instinct, was, as we are
growing to see, as avid of musical effect, achieved by whatever
defiance of dramatic consistency, as was any one of the other facile
and conscienceless opera-wrights whom his doctrines contemned. The
ultimate difference between him and them, aside from any questions of
motive, principle, or method, is simply that he was a transcendent
genius who wrote music of superlative beauty and power, whereas they
were, comparatively speaking, Lilliputians.

Mr. William F. Apthorp, speaking of the condition of the Opera before
Wagner's reforms were exerted upon it, observes that it "remained
(despite the efforts of Gluck) virtually what Cesti had made it--not a
drama with auxiliary music, but a _dramma per musica_--a drama for
(the sake of) music." Now it was, of course, the passionate aim of
Wagner to write music-dramas which should be dramas with auxiliary
music, rather than dramas for the sake of music; yet it is becoming
more and more obvious that what he actually succeeded in producing,
despite himself, were dramas which we tolerate to-day only because of
their transfiguring and paramount music. In view of recent
developments in the modern lyric-drama which have resulted from both
his theories and his practice, it may not be without avail to review
certain aspects of his art in the perspective afforded by the
quarter-century which now stretches lengtheningly between ourselves
and him.


It is, of course, a truism to say that the corner-stone of Wagner's
doctrinal arch was that music in the opera had usurped a position of
pre-eminence to which it was not entitled, and which was not to be
tolerated in what he conceived to be the ideal music-drama. He
conceived the true function of music in its alliance with drama to be
strictly auxiliary--an aid, and nothing more than an aid, to the
enforcement, the driving home, of the play. As Mr. Apthorp has
excellently stated it, his basic principle was that "the text (what in
old-fashioned dialect was called the libretto) once written by the
poet, all other persons who have to do with the work--composer,
stage-architect, scene-painter, costumer, stage-manager, conductor and
singing actors--should aim at one thing only: the most exact, perfect,
and lifelike embodiment of the poet's thought." Wagner's chief quarrel
with the opera as he found it was with the preponderance of the
musical element in its constitution. If there is one principle that
is definite, positive, and unmistakable in his theoretical position it
is that, in the evolution of a true music-drama, the dramatist should
be the controlling, the composer an accessory, factor--like the
scene-painter and the costumer, ancillary and contributive. If it can
be shown that in the actual result of his practice this relationship
between the drama and the music is inverted--that in his music-dramas
the music is supreme, both in its artistic quality and in its effect,
while the drama is a mere framework for its splendours--it becomes
obvious that he failed (gloriously, no doubt, but still definitively)
in what he set out to achieve. It was his dearest principle that, in
Mr. Apthorp's words, "in any sort of drama, musical or otherwise, the
play's the thing." Yet what becomes of "Tristan und Isolde," of
"Meistersinger," of "Götterdämmerung," when this principle is tested
by their quality and effect? Would even the most incorruptible among
the Wagnerites of a quarter of a century ago, in the most exalted hour
of martyrdom, have ventured to say that in "Tristan," for example, the
play's the thing? Imagine what the second act, say, divorced from the
music, would be like; and then remember that the music of this act,
with the voice-parts given to various instruments, might, with a
little adjustment and condensation, be performed as a somewhat
raggedly constructed symphonic poem. The test is a rough and partial
one, no doubt, and it is subject to many modifications and
reservations. It is not to be disputed, of course, that here is music
which is always and everywhere transfused with dramatic emotion, and
that its form is dramatic form and not musical form; but is there
to-day a doubt in the mind of any candid student of Wagner as to the
element in this musico-dramatic compound which is paramount and

It should be remembered that what Wagner thought he was accomplishing,
or imagined he had accomplished, is not in question. He conceived
himself to be primarily a dramatist, a dramatist using music solely
and frankly as an auxiliary, as a means of intensifying the action and
the moods of the play; and this end he pathetically imagined that he
had achieved. Yet it is becoming more and more generally recognised
and admitted, by the sincerest appreciators of his art, that as a
dramatist he was insignificant and inferior. Had any temerarious soul
assured him that his dramas would survive and endure by virtue of
their music alone, it is easy to fancy his mingled incredulity and
anger. He was not, judged by an ideal even less uncompromising than
his own, a musical dramatist at all. It is merely asserting a truth
which has already found recognition to insist that he was essentially
a dramatic symphonist, a writer of programme-music who used the drama
and its appurtenances, for the most part, as a mere stalking-horse
for his huge orchestral tone-poems. He was seduced and overwhelmed by
his own marvellous art, his irrepressible eloquence: his drama is
distorted, exaggerated, or spread to an arid thinness, to accommodate
his imperious musical imagination; he ruthlessly interrupts or
suspends the action of his plays or the dialogue of his personages in
order that he may meditate or philosophise orchestrally. He called his
operas by the proud title of "music-dramas"; yet often it is
impossible to find the drama because of the music.

It was not, as has been said before, that he fell short, but that he
went too far; he should have stopped at eloquent and pointed
intensification. Instead, he smothered his none too lucid dramas in a
welter of magnificent and inspired music--obscured them, stretched
them to intolerable lengths, filled up every possible space in them
with his wonderful tonal commentary, by which they are not, as he
thought, upborne, but grievously overweighted. Mr. James Huneker has
remarked that Wagner was the first and only Wagnerite. As a matter of
sober fact, he was one of the most formidable antagonists that
Wagnerism ever had.

It appears likely that his lyric-dramas will endure on the stage both
in spite of and because of their music. The validity and
persuasiveness of "Tristan" and the "Ring" as music-dramas, as
consistent and symmetrical embodiments of Wagner's ideals, seems less
certain than of old. But the music, _qua_ music, is of undiminished
potency--it is still, regarded as an independent entity, of almost
unlimited scope in its voicing of the moods and emotions of men and
the varied pageant of the visible world; and it will always float and
sustain his dramas and make them viable. Gorgeous and exquisite,
epical and tender, sublimely noble, and earthly as passion and
despair, it is still, at its best, unparalleled and unapproached; and,
as Pater prophesied of the poetry of Rossetti, more torches will be
lit from its flame than even enthusiasts imagine. Nothing can ever dim
the glory of Wagner the conjurer of tones. His place is securely among
the Olympians, where he sits, one likes to fancy, apart--a little
lonely and disdainful. In his music he is almost always, as Arnold
said of the greatest of the Elizabethans, "divinely strong, rich, and
attractive"; and at his finest he is incomparable. No one but a
master of transcendent genius, and the most amazingly varied powers of
expression, could have conceived and shaped such perfect yet diverse
things as those three matchless passages in which he is revealed to us
as the riant and tender humanist, the impassioned lyrist, and the
apocalyptic seer: the exquisite close of the second act of "Die
Meistersinger," where is achieved a blend of magically poetic
tenderness and comedy for which there are analogies only in certain
supreme moments in Shakespeare; the tonal celebration of the ecstatic
swoon of _Tristan_ and _Isolde_ in the midst of which the warning
voice of the watcher on the tower is borne across an orchestral flood
of ineffable and miraculous beauty; and that last passage to which
this wonderful man set his hand, the culminating moment in the
adoration of the Grail by the transfigured Parsifal--music that is as
the chanting of seraphs: in which censers are swung before celestial
altars. Of the genius who could contrive such things as these, one can
say no less than that, regarded from any æsthetic standpoint at all,
he is, as the subtle appreciator whom I have quoted said of a great
though wayward poet, "a superb god of art, so proudly heedless or
reckless that he never notices the loss of his winged sandals, and
that he is stumbling clumsily when he might well lightly be lifting
his steps against the sun-way where his eyes are set."


As music-dramas, then, appraised by his own standard, the deficiency
of Wagner's representative works must be held to be the subordination
of the dramatic element in them to a constituent part--their
music--which should be accessory and contributive rather than
essential and predominant. This tyranny is exercised chiefly--and, let
it be cheerfully owned, to the glory of musical art--through Wagner's
orchestra: that magnificent vehicle of a tone-poet who was at once its
master and its slave. Yet Wagner sinned scarcely less flagrantly
against his most dearly held principles in his treatment of the voice.
He conceived it to be of vital importance that in the construction of
the voice-parts no merely musical consideration of any kind should be
permitted to interfere with the lucid utterance of the text. His
singers were to employ a kind of heightened and intensified speech,
necessarily musical in its intervals, but never musical at the expense
of truthfully expressive declamation. Yet in some of the vocal writing
in his later works he is false to this principle, for he not
infrequently permits himself to be ravishingly lyrical at moments
where lyricism is superfluous and distracting when it is not
impertinent. Again he is too much the musician; too little the musical

And herewith I come to a curious and interesting point. Mr. E.A.
Baughan, an English critic of authority, who has written with both
courage and wisdom concerning Wagnerian theories and practices,
entertains singular views concerning the nature of music-drama as an
art form. "There must be no false ideas of music-drama being drama,"
he has asserted: "it is primarily music. The drama of it is merely,"
he goes on, "the motive force of the whole, and technically takes the
place of form in absolute music"--a sentence which, one may be
permitted to observe, would contain an admirably concise statement of
the truth if the word "merely" were left out. Mr. Baughan is led by
this belief to take the position that whereas, in one respect Wagner
was, to put it briefly, too musical, in another respect he was not
musical enough. He acknowledges the fact that in Wagner's combination
of music and drama, the music, so far as the orchestra is concerned,
assumes an oppressive and obstructive prominence; it indulges for the
most part, he holds, in a "superheated commentary" which leaves little
to suggestion, which is persistently excessive and overbearing; yet at
the same time Mr. Baughan holds that Wagner, in his treatment of the
voice-parts, did not, as he says, "make use of the full resources of
music and of the beautiful human singing-voice in duets, concerted
numbers, and choruses." It is the second of these objections which, as
it seems to me, contains matter for discussion. So far from being
deficient in melodious effectiveness, Wagner's writing for the voice,
I would hold, errs upon the other side. It would be possible to name
page after page in the "Ring" and "Tristan" which is marred, from a
musico-dramatic standpoint, by an excess of lyricism. It is a little
difficult to understand, for example, how Wagner would have justified
his admission of the duet into his carefully reasoned scheme; for if
the ensemble piece--the quartette in "Rigoletto," for example--is
inherently absurd from a dramatic point of view, as it incontrovertibly
is, so also is the duet. Even the most liberal attitude toward the
conventions of the operatic stage makes it difficult to tolerate what
Mr. W.P. James describes as the spectacle of two persons inside a
house and two outside, supposed to be unconscious of each other's
presence, making their remarks in rhythmic and harmonic consonance.
Yet is Wagner much less distant from the dramatic verities when, in
the third act of "Die Meistersinger," he ranges five people in the
centre of a room and causes them to soliloquise in concert, to the end
of producing a quintette of ravishing musical beauty? Had he wholly
freed himself from what he regarded as the musical bondage of his
predecessors when he could tolerate such obvious anachronisms as the
duet, the ensemble piece, and the chorus? The truth of the matter
seems to be that if Wagner's music, in itself, were less wonderful
and enthralling than it is, those who would fain insist upon a decent
regard for dramatic consistency in the lyric-drama would not tolerate
many things in the vocal writing in "Tristan," "Meistersinger," the
"Ring" and "Parsifal" which are not a whit more dramatically
reasonable than the absurdities which Wagner contemptuously derided in
the operas of the old school. His vocal writing, far from being
deficient in melodic quality, far from ignoring "the full resources of
music and of the beautiful singing voice," is saturated and
overflowing with musical beauty, and with almost every variety of
melodic effectiveness except that which is possible to purely formal
song. Mr. Baughan complains that the voice-parts have "no independent
life" of their own. "In many cases," he says, "the vocal parts, if
detached from the score [from the orchestral support] are without
emotional meaning of any kind--the expression is absolutely
incomplete." An astonishing complaint! For the same thing is
necessarily true of any writing for the voice allied with modern
harmony in the accompaniment. How many songs written since composers
began to discover the modulatory capacities of harmony, one might ask
Mr. Baughan, would have "emotional meaning," or any kind of expression
or effect, if the voice part were sung without its harmonic support?

No; Wagner cannot justly be convicted of a paucity of melodic effect
in his writing for the voice. He would, one must venture to believe,
have come closer to realising his ideal of what a music-drama should
be if, in the first place, he had been able and willing to restrain
the overwhelming tide of his orchestral eloquence; and if, in the
second place, he had been content to let his _dramatis personæ_
employ, not (in accordance with Mr. Baughan's wish) a form of lyric
speech richer in purely musical elements of effect, but one of more
naturalistic contour, simpler, more direct, less ornately and
intrusively melodic in its utterance of the text.

It would be fatuous, of course, to deny that there are passages in
Wagner's later music-dramas to which one can point, by reason of their
continent and transparent expression of the dramatic situation, as
examples of a perfect kind of music-drama: which satisfy, not only
every conceivable demand for fullness of musical utterance (for that
Wagner almost always does), but those intellectual convictions as to
what an ideal music-drama should be which he himself was pre-eminently
instrumental in diffusing. In such passages his direct and pointedly
dramatic use of the voice, and his discreet and sparing, yet deeply
suggestive, treatment of the orchestral background, are of
irresistible effect. How admirable, then, is his restraint! As in, for
example, _Waltraute's_ narrative in "Götterdämmerung"; the early
scenes between _Siegmund_ and _Sieglinde_, and _Brunnhilde's_
announcement of the decree of death to the Volsung, in "Walküre"; and
in "Tristan" the passage wherein the knight proffers to _Isolde_ his
sword; the opening of the third act; and the first sixteen measures
that follow the meeting of the lovers in the second act--where the
breathless, almost inarticulate ecstasy of the moment is uttered with
extraordinary fidelity, only to lead into a passage wherein the pair
suddenly recover their breath in time to respond to the need of
battling against one of the most glorious but dramatically inflated
outpourings of erotic rapture ever given to an orchestra.

But scenes of such perfect musico-dramatic adjustment are rare in
Wagner. It is not likely, in view of his insuperable propensity toward
musical rhetoric and his amazingly fecund eloquence, that, even if he
had kept a more sternly repressive hand upon his impulse toward
musical elaboration, he could have accomplished the union of drama and
music in that exquisite and scrupulously balanced relationship which
produces the ideal music-drama. That achievement had to wait until the
materials of musical expression had attained a greater ductility and
variety, and until the intellectual and æsthetic seed which Wagner
sowed had ripened into a maturer harvest than was possible in his own
time--it had to wait, in short, until to-day. For there are those of
us who believe that the feat has at last been actually achieved--that
the principles of musico-dramatic structure inimitably stated by Gluck
in his preface to "Alceste" have been, for the first time, carried out
with absolute fidelity to their spirit; and, moreover, with that
cohesion of organism which Gluck signally failed to achieve, and with
that fineness of dramatic instinct the lack of which is Wagner's prime


It is not every generation that can witness the emergence of a
masterpiece which may truly be called epoch-making; yet when
France--not the Italy of Peri and Monteverdi; nor the Germany of Gluck
and Wagner--produced, doubtless to the stupefaction of the shades of
Meyerbeer, Bizet, and Gounod, the "Pelléas et Mélisande" of Claude
Debussy, it produced a work which is as commanding in quality as it
is unique in conception and design.

It has been left for Debussy to write an absolutely new page in the
eventful history of the opera. This remarkable composer is to-day
regarded with suspicion by the vigilant conservators of our musical
integrity--those who are vigorous and unconquerable champions of
æsthetic progress so long as it involves no change in established
methods and no reversal of traditions; for he has shown a perverse
disinclination to conform to those rules of procedure which, in music
as in the other arts, are held to be inviolable until they are set
aside by the practice of successive generations of inspired
innovators. He has, in brief, affronted the orthodox by creating a
form and method of his own, and one which stubbornly refuses to square
with any of the recognised laws of the game. He is nowhere so
significant a phenomenon to the curious student of musical development
as in his setting of Maeterlinck's drama. For the first time in the
history of opera we are confronted here with the spectacle of a
lyric-drama in which, while the drama itself holds without compromise
the paramount place in the structural scheme, the musical envelope
with which it is surrounded is not only transparent and intensifying,
but, as music, beautiful and remarkable in an extraordinary degree.
The point to be emphasised is this: that the postulate of Count
Bardi's sixteenth century "reformers," formulated by Gluck almost two
hundred years later in the principle that the true function of music
in the opera is "to second poetry in expressing the emotions and
situations of the plot," has its first consistent and effective
application in Debussy's "Pelléas et Mélisande." What the _Camerata_,
and their successors, could not accomplish for lack of adequate
musical means, what Gluck fell short of compassing for want of
boldness and reach of vision, what Wagner might have effected but for
too great a preoccupation with one phase of the problem, a Frenchman
of to-day has quietly and (I say it deliberately) perfectly achieved.

His success is as much a result of time and circumstance and the slow
growth of the art as of a preeminent natural fitness for the task. The
Florentines, for all their eagerness and sincerity, were helpless
before the problem of putting their principles into concrete and
effective form, for they were hopelessly blocked by reason of the
desperate poverty of the musical means at their disposal. Spurning the
elaborate and lovely art of the contrapuntists, they found themselves
in the sufficiently hopeless situation of artists filled with
passionate convictions but without tools--in other words, they aspired
to write dramatic music for single voices and instruments with nothing
to aid them save a rudimentary harmonic system and an almost
non-existent orchestra, and with virtually no perception of the
possibilities of melodic effect. Their failure was due, not to any
infirmity of purpose, but to a simple lack of materials. Of Gluck it
is to be said that, ardent and admirable reformer as he was, and clear
as was his perception of the rightful demands of the drama in any
serious association with music, he failed, as Mr. Henry T. Finck
justly says, to effect a "real amalgamation of music and drama,"
failed to strike out "a form organically connecting each part of the
opera with every other." His unconnected "numbers," his indulgence in
vocal embroidery, his retention of many of the encumbrances of the
operatic machinery, are all testimony to a not very rigorous or
far-seeing reformatory impulse. If, as Mr. Finck pointedly observes,
he "insisted on the claims of the composer as against the singer, he
did not, on the other hand, alter the relations of poet and composer.
Such a thing as allowing the drama to condition the form of the music
never occurred to him." A spontaneous master of musico-dramatic
speech, he stopped far short of striking out a form of lyric-drama in
which the music was really made to exercise, continuously and
undeviatingly, what he stated to be "its true function." It would be
absurd to dispute the fact that his sense of dramatic expression was
both keen and rich; but it was an instinct which manifested itself in
isolated and particular instances, and it was not strong enough or
exigent enough to compel him to devise a new and more intelligent
manner of treating his dramatic text as a whole.

Of the degree in which Wagner fell short of embodying his
principles--which were of course in essence the principles of the
Florentines and of Gluck--and the evident reason for his failure,
enough has already been said. So we come again to Debussy. For it is a
singular fact--and this is the point to insist upon--that this French
mystic of to-day is the first opera-maker in the records of musical
art who has exhibited the courage, and who has possessed the means, to
carry the principles of the _Camerata_, of Gluck, and of Wagner to
their ultimate conclusion. In "Pelléas et Mélisande" he has made his
music serve his dramatic subject, in all its parts, with absolute
fidelity and consistency, and with a rigorous and unswerving logic
that is without parallel in the history of operatic art; we are here
as far from the method of Richard Strauss, with its translation of the
entire dramatic material into the terms of the symphonic poem, and
with the singing actors contending against a Gargantuan and merciless
orchestra (which is nothing, after all, but an exaggeration of the
method of Wagner), as we are from the futile experimentings of the


One cannot but wonder what Hazlitt, who could not think of beauty,
simplicity, or sensibility as qualities having any possible
association with opera, would have said of a manner of writing for the
lyric stage which ignores even those opportunities for musical effect
which composers of unimpeachable artistic integrity have always held
to be desirable and legitimate. There is an even richer invitation to
the Spirit of Comedy in trying to imagine what Richard Wagner would
have said to the suggestion of a lyric-drama in which the orchestra is
not employed at its full strength more than three times in the course
of a score almost as long as that of "Tristan und Isolde," and in
which the singers scarcely ever raise their voices above a
_mezzo-forte_. Debussy's orchestra is unrivalled in musico-dramatic
art for the exquisite justness with which it enforces the moods and
action of the play. It never seduces the attention of the auditor from
the essential concerns of the drama itself: never, as with Wagner,
tyrannically absorbs the mind. Always in this unexampled music-drama
there is maintained, as to emphasis and intensity, a scrupulous
balance between the movement of the drama and the tonal undercurrent
which is its complement: the music is absolutely merged in the play,
suffusing it, colouring it, but never dominating or transcending it.
It is for this reason that it deserves, as an exemplification of the
ideal manner of constructing a music-drama, the hazardous epithet
"perfect"; for it is, one cannot too often repeat, a work far more
faithful to Wagner's avowed principles than are his own magnificently
inconsistent scores. In this music there is no excess of gesture,
there is none of Wagner's gorgeously expansive rhetoric: the "Je
t'aime," "Je t'aime aussi" of Debussy's lovers are expressed with a
simplicity and a stark sincerity which could not well go further; and
it is a curious and significant fact that the moment of their
profoundest ecstasy, though it is artfully and eloquently prepared, is
represented in the orchestra by a blank measure, a moment of complete
silence. This, indeed, is almost the supreme distinction of Debussy's
music-drama: that it should be at once so eloquent and so discreet:
that it should be, in the exposition of its subject-matter, so rich
and intense yet so delicately and heedfully reticent. After the grave
speech and simple gestures of these naïve yet subtle and passionate
tragedians, as Debussy has translated them into fluid tone, the
posturings and the rhetoric of Wagner's splendid personages seem, for
a time, violently extravagant, excessive, and overwrought. To attempt
to resist the imperious sway which the most superb of musical
romantics must always exert over his kingdom would be a futile
endeavour; yet it cannot be denied that for some the method of Debussy
as a musical dramatist will seem the more viable and the more sound,
as it is grateful to the mind a little wearied by the drums and
tramplings of Wagnerian conquests.

His use of the orchestra differs from Wagner's in degree rather than
in kind. As he employs it, it is a veracious and pointed commentary on
the text and the action of the play, underlining the significance of
the former and colouring and intensifying the latter; but its comments
are infinitely less copious and voluble than are Wagner's--indeed,
their reticence and discretion are, as it has been said, extreme.
Debussy's choric orchestra is often as remarkable for what it does
not say as for what it does. Can one, for example, imagine Wagner
being able to resist the temptation to indulge in some graphic and
detailed tone-painting, at the cost of delaying the action and
overloading the score, at the passage wherein _Golaud_, coming upon
the errant and weeping _Mélisande_ in the forest, and seeing her crown
at the bottom of the spring where she has thrown it, asks her what it
is that shines in the water? Yet observe the curiously insinuating
effect which results from Debussy's deft and reticent treatment of
this episode--the _pianissimo_ chords on the muted horns, followed by
a measure in which the voices declaim alone. And would not Wagner have
wrung the last drop of emotion out of the death scene of
_Mélisande_?--a scene for which Debussy has written music of almost
insupportable poignancy, yet of a quality so reserved and unforced
that it enters the consciousness almost unperceived as music.

The discursive and exegetical tendencies of Wagner are forgotten; nor
are we reminded of the manner in which Strauss, in his "Salome,"
overlays the speech and action of the characters with a dense,
oppressive, and many-stranded web of tone. Yet always Debussy's
musical comment is intimately and truthfully reflective of what passes
visibly upon the stage and in the hearts of his dramatic personages;
though often it transmits not so much the actual speech and apparent
emotions of the characters, as that dim and pseudonymous
reality,--"the thing behind the thing," as the Celts have named
it,--which hovers, unspoken and undeclared, in the background of
Maeterlinck's wonderful play. We are reminded at times, in listening
to this lucent and fluid current of orchestral tone, of Villiers de
L'Isle-Adam's description of the voice of his _Elen_: "... it was
taciturn, subdued, like the murmur of the river Lethe, flowing through
the region of shadows." This orchestra, seldom elaborate in thematic
exfoliation, and still less frequently polyphonic in texture, is, for
the most part, a voice that speaks in hints and through allusions. The
huge and imperious eloquence of Wagner is not to be sought for here.
Taine once spoke of the "violent sorcery" of Victor Hugo's style, and
it is a phrase that comes often to the mind in thinking of the music
of the titanic German. Debussy in his "Pelléas" has written music
that is rich in sorcery; but it is not violent. In it inheres a
capacity for expression, and a quality of enchantment in the result,
that music had not before exerted--an enchantment that invades the
mind by stealth yet holds it with enchaining power. In a curious
degree the music is both contemplative and impassioned; its pervading
note is that of still flame, of emotional quietude--the sweeping and
cosmic winds of "Tristan und Isolde" are absent. Yet the dramatic
fibre of the score is strong and rich; for all its fineness and
delicacy of texture and its economy of accent, it is neither
amorphous nor inert.


_Tristan_ and _Isolde_, in moments of exalted emotion, utter that
emotion with the frankest lyricism; _Pelléas_ and _Mélisande_, in
moments of like fervour, still adhere to the unformed and
unsymmetrical declamation in which their language is elsewhere
couched. It is the orchestra which sings--which, passionately or
meditatively, colours the dramatic moment. Wherein we come to what is
perhaps the most extraordinary feature of this extraordinary score:
the treatment of the voice-parts. Debussy's accomplishment in this
respect, justly summarised, is this: He has released the orchestra
from its thraldom to the methods of the symphonic poem (to which
Wagner committed it) by making it a background, a support, rather than
a thing of procrustean dominance, thus restoring liberty and
transparency of dramatic utterance to the singing actors. He himself
has succinctly stated the principles which guided him in his manner of
writing for the voices in "Pelléas." "I have been reproached," he has
said, "because in my score the melodic phrase is always found in the
orchestra, never in the voice. I wished--intended, in fact,--that the
action should never be arrested; that it should be continuous,
uninterrupted. I wanted to dispense with parasitic musical phrases.
When listening to a [musico-dramatic] work, the spectator is wont to
experience two kinds of emotion: the musical emotion on the one hand;
and the emotion of the character [in the drama], on the other.
Generally these are felt successively. I have tried to blend these two
emotions, and make them simultaneous. Melody is, if I may say so,
almost anti-lyric, and powerless to express the constant change of
emotion or life. Melody is suitable only for the song [_chanson_],
which confirms a fixed sentiment. I have never been willing that my
music should hinder ... the changes of sentiment and passion felt by
my characters. Its demands are ignored as soon as it is necessary that
these should have perfect liberty in their gestures as in their cries,
in their joys as in their sorrow."

Now Debussy in his public excursions as a critic is not always to be
taken seriously; indeed, it is altogether unlikely that he has
refrained from demonstrations of exquisite delight over the startled
or contemptuous comment which some of his vivacious heresies
concerning certain of the gods of music have evoked. These published
appraisements of his are, of course, nothing more than impertinent,
though at times apt and sagacious, _jeux d'esprit_. But when he speaks
seriously, as in the defence of his practice which I have just quoted,
of the menace of "parasitic" musical phrases in the voice-parts, and
when he observes that melody, when it occurs in the speech of
characters in music-drama, is "almost anti-lyric," he speaks with
penetration and truth. His practice, which illustrates it, amounts to
this: He employs in "Pelléas" a continuous declamation, uncadenced,
entirely unmelodic (in the sense in which melodious declamation has
been understood). Save for a brief and particular instance, there is
no melodic form whatsoever, from beginning to end of the score. There
is not a hint of the Wagnerian arioso. The declamation is founded
throughout upon the natural inflections of the voice in speaking--it
is, indeed, virtually an electrified and heightened form of speech.
It is never musical, for the sake of sheer musical beauty, when the
emotion within the text or situation does not lift it to the plane
where the quality of utterance tends naturally and inevitably toward
lyricism of accent. He does not, for example, commit the kind of
indiscretion that Wagner commits when he makes _Isolde_ sing the
highly unlyrical line, "Der 'Tantris' mit sorgender List sich nannte,"
to a phrase that has the double demerit of being "parasitically" and
intrusively melodic and wholly conventional in pattern--one of those
musical platitudes which have no excuse for existence in any sincere
and vital score. Nor in "Pelléas" do the singers ever sing, it need
hardly be said, anything remotely approaching a duet, a concerted
number, or a chorus (the snatches of distant song heard from the
sailors on the departing ship is a mere touch of atmospheric
suggestion). The dialogue is everywhere and always clearly
individualised, as in the spoken drama. Yet this surprising fact is to
be noted: undeviatingly naturalistic as are the voice-parts in their
structure and inflection, and despite their haughty and stoic
intolerance of melodic effect, they yet are so contrived that they
often yield--incidentally, as it were--effects of musical beauty; and
in so doing, they demonstrate the unfamiliar truth that there is
possible in music-drama a use of the voice which permits of an
expressiveness that is both telling and beautiful, though it yields
nothing that accepted canons would warrant us in describing as either
melody or melodious declamation. Now Mr. Baughan, whose views
concerning Wagner and his habits have been discussed, craves in the
music-dramas of Wagner a frankness of melody in the vocal writing
whose absence he deplores; and he seems to think that when this
melodiousness of utterance is denied to the voices in modern opera,
all that is left them is something "that an orchestral instrument
could do as well"--something that, inferentially, is anti-vocal, or at
least unidiomatic. It would seem that Mr. Baughan, and those who think
as he does, fail to realise, as I have remarked before, the immensely
important part which it is possible for modern harmony to play in the
combination of a voice and accompanying instruments. It would not be
difficult to demonstrate that a large part of what we are in the
habit of regarding as a purely melodic form of vocal expression in the
modern lyric-drama owes a large and unsuspected measure of its potency
of effect to the modulatory character of its harmonic support. Take a
passage that we are apt to think of as one of the most ravishingly and
purely melodious in the whole of that fathomless well of lyric beauty,
"Tristan und Isolde"--the passage in the duet in the second act
beginning, "Bricht mein Blick sich wonn' erblindet." As one hears it
sung by the two voices above the orchestra, it seems a perfect
example of pure melodic inspiration; yet play the voice-parts, alone
or together, without their harmonic undercurrent, and all the beauty,
all the meaning, vanish at once: without the kaleidoscopic harmonic
color the melodic phrases are without point, coherence, or design. But
this is aside from the point that I would make--that the
potentialities of modern harmony make possible a use of the voice in
music-drama which, while it is remote from the character of formal
melody, may yet be productive of a kind of emotional eloquence that is
exceedingly puissant and beautiful, and that may even possess a
seemingly lyric quality. We find a foreshadowing of this kind of
effect in such a passage as _Tristan's_ "Bin ich in Kornwall?" where
all of the haunting effect of the phrase is due to the modulation in
the harmony into the G-major chord at the first syllable of
"Kornwall." And one might point out to Mr. Baughan that this effect is
subtly dependent upon the co-operation of the voice and the
instruments. The phrase in the voice-part is not one "that an
orchestral instrument could do as well", as Mr. Baughan would at once
recognise if he were to play the accompanying chords on a piano and
give the progression in the voice to a 'cello or a violin.

But while Wagner foreshadowed this manner of making his harmonic
support confer a special character upon the effect of the voice-part,
he did not begin to sound its possibilities. That was left for Debussy
to do; and for the task he was obviously equipped in a surpassing
degree by his unprecedentedly flexible, plastic, and resourceful
harmonic vocabulary--the richest harmonic instrument, beyond
comparison, that music has yet known. The score of "Pelléas"
overflows with instances of this--one may paradoxically call it
harmonic--use of the voice: things that Wagner, with his comparatively
limited harmonic range, could not have accomplished. As instances
where the voice-part, without being inherently melodic, borrows a
semblance of almost lyrical beauty from its harmonic associations,
consider the passage in the grotto scene beginning at _Pelléas'_
words, "Elle est très grande et très belle", and continuing to
"Donnez-moi la main"; or the astonishing passage in the final love
scene beginning at _Pelléas'_ words, "On a brisé la glace avec des
fers rougis!" or, in the last act, the expression that is given to
_Mélisande's_ phrase, "la grande fenêtre...." Yet note that in such
passages the voice-part does not, in Mr. Baughan's phrase, merely
"weave up" with the orchestra, as he protests that it does in Wagner's
practice; in other words, it is not simply an incidental strand in the
general harmonic texture; it has character and individuality of its
own, though these are absolutely dependent for their full effect upon
their harmonic background. Nor is it, on the other hand, so assertive
and conspicuous that it comes within the class of that which Debussy
repudiates as "parasitic." Here, then, is a method of uttering the
text that not only permits of a just and veracious rendering of every
possible dramatic _nuance_, but which, by virtue of the means of
musical enforcement that are applied to it, takes on a character and
quality, as music, which are as influential as they are unparalleled.


It has been affirmed that in "Pelléas et Mélisande" Debussy has
produced a work as commanding in quality as it is unique in
conception and design. Let us consider what grounds there may be for
the assertion.

To begin with, its spiritual and emotional flavour are without analogy
in the previous history, not merely of opera, but of music. Debussy is
a man of unhampered and clairvoyant imagination, a dreamer with a
far-wandering vision. He views the spectacle of the world through the
magic casements of the mystic who is also a poet and visionary. One
can easily conceive him as taking the more tranquil part in that
provocative dialogue put by Mr. Yeats into the mouths of two of his
dramatic characters:

     "And what in the living world can happen to a man that is
     asleep on his bed? Work must go on and coach-building must
     go on, and they will not go on the time there is too much
     attention given to dreams. A dream is a sort of a shadow, no
     profit in it to anyone at all."

     "There are some would answer you that it is to those who are
     awake that nothing happens, and it is they who know nothing.
     He that is asleep on his bed is gone where all have gone for
     supreme truth."

In Maeterlinck's "Pelléas et Mélisande," Debussy has, through a
fortunate conjunction of circumstances, found a perfect vehicle for
his impulses and preoccupations. There will always be, naturally
enough, persons who must inevitably regard such a work as that for
which he and Maeterlinck are now responsible as, for the most part,
vain, inutile, even preposterous. They are sincere in their dislike,
these forthright and excellent people, and they are to be
commiserated, for they are, in such a region of the imagination as
this drama builds up about them, aliens in a world whose ways and
whose wonders must be forever hidden from their most determined
scrutiny. Such robust and worldly spirits, writes a thoughtful
contemporary essayist, "that swim so vigorously on the surface of
things," have always "a suspicion, a jealousy, a contempt, for one who
dives deeper and brings back tidings of the strange secrets that the
depth holds": they will not even grant that the depths are anything
save murky, that the tidings have validity or importance. They take
comfort in their detachment, and are apt to speak of themselves, with
mock humility, as "plain, blunt persons," for whom the alleged
vacuities of such an order of art are comfortably negligible. Well,
it is, after all, as Maeterlinck's _Pelléas_ himself observes, a
matter not so much for mirth as for lament; yet even more is it a
matter for resignation. There will always be, as has been observed, an
immense and confident majority for whom that territory of the creative
imagination which lies over the boundaries of the palpable world will
seem worse than delusive: who will always and sincerely pin their
faith to that which is definite and concrete, patent and direct, and
who must in all honesty reject that which is undeclared, allusive,
crepuscular: which communicates itself through echoes and in
glimpses; by means of intimations, signs, and tokens. For them it
would be of no avail to point to the dictum of one who, like
Maeterlinck, is aware of remote voices and strange dreams: "Dramatic
art," he has wisely said, "is a method of expression, and neither a
hair-breadth escape nor a love affair more befits it than the
passionate exposition of the most delicate and strange intuitions; and
the dramatist is as free as the painter of good pictures and the
writer of good books. All art is passionate, but a flame is not the
less flame because we change the candle for a lamp or the lamp for a
fire; and all flame is beautiful."

It is a dictum that is scarcely calculated to persuade a very general
acceptance: a "passionate exposition of the most delicate and strange
intuitions" is not precisely the kind of æsthetic fare which the
"plain, blunt man," glorying in his plainness and his bluntness, is
apt to relish. It is a point upon which it is perhaps needless to
dwell; but its recognition serves as explanation of the fact that the
music-drama into which Debussy has transformed Maeterlinck's play
should not everywhere and always be either accepted or understood.
For in the musical setting of Debussy, Maeterlinck's drama has found
its perfect equivalent: the qualities of the music are the qualities
of the play, completely and exactly; and, sharing its qualities, it
has evoked and will always evoke the more or less contemptuous
antagonism of those for whom it has little or nothing to say.

Of the quality of its style, perhaps the most obvious trait to note is
its divergence from the kind of music-making which we are accustomed
to regard as typically French. We have come to regard as inevitable
the clear-cut precision, the finesse, the instinctive grace of French
music; but we are not at all accustomed to discovering this fineness
of texture allied with marked emotional richness, with depth and
substance of thought--we do not look for such an alliance, nor find
it, in any French music from Rameau to Saint-Saëns, Gounod, and
Massenet. Yet Debussy has the typical French clarity and fineness of
surface without the French hardness of edge and thinness of substance.
The contours of his music are as melting and elastic as its emotional
substance is rich; and it is phantasmal rather than definite and
clear-cut; evasive rather than direct. His art, as a matter of fact,
has its roots in the literature rather than in the music of his
country. His true forebears are not Rameau, Couperin, Boieldieu,
Bizet, Saint-Saëns, but Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarmé; and, beyond
his own frontier, Rossetti and Maeterlinck. There is scarcely a trace
of French musical influence in the score of "Pelléas," save for its
limpidity of expression and its delicate logic of structure. The truth
is that Debussy, with d'Indy, Ravel, and others, has made it
impossible to speak any longer, without qualification, of "French"
quality, or "French" style, in music; for to-day there is the French
of Saint-Saëns and Massenet, and the French of Debussy, d'Indy,
Duparc, Fauré, Ravel: and the two orders are as inassociable under a
generic yoke as are the poetry of Hugo and the poetry of Verlaine.

But the essential thing to observe and to praise in this music is its
astonishing, its almost incredible, affluence of substance: its
richness in ideas that are both extraordinarily beautiful and wholly
new. The score, in this respect alone, is epoch-making. Debussy is the
first music-maker since Wagner to evolve a kind of style of which the
substance is, so to say, newly-minted. Strauss is not to be compared
with him in this regard; for the basis of the German master's style,
upon which he has reared no matter how wonderful a superstructure, is
compounded of materials which he got straight from Richard Wagner and
his great forerunner, Franz Liszt; whereas the basis, the
starting-point, of Debussy's style--its harmonic and melodic
stuff--existed nowhere, in any artistic shape or condition, before
him. To speak of it as in any vital sense a reversion, because it
makes use of certain principles of plain-song, is mere trifling.
Debussy is a true innovator, if ever there was one. He has added fresh
materials to the matter out of which music is evolved; and no composer
of whom this may be said, from Beethoven to Chopin, has failed to find
himself eventually ranked as the originator of a new order of things
in the development of the art.


Those who feel the beauty and recognise the important novelty of the
music of "Pelléas et Mélisande" will for some time to come find it
difficult to speak of it appreciatively without an appearance of
extravagance. One owns, in trying to appraise it, to a compunction
similar to that expressed by one of the wisest of modern critics,
when, after applauding some notable poetry, he whimsically reminded
himself that he "must guard against too great appreciation," and "must
mix in a little depreciation," to show that he had "read attentively,
critically, authoritatively." Well, there is no doubt a very definite
risk in praising too warmly a masterpiece which has the effrontery to
intrude itself upon contemporary observation, and upon a critical
function which has but just compassed the abundantly painful task of
adjusting its views to the masterpieces of the immediate past. I am
quite aware that such praise of Debussy's lyric-drama as is spoken
here will seem to many preposterous, or at best excessive. I am also
aware that the mistaking of geese for swans is a delusion which
afflicts generation after generation of over-confident critics, to the
entertainment of subsequent generations and the inextinguishable
delight of the Comic Muse--which, as Mr. Meredith has pointed out,
watches not more vigilantly over sentimentalism than over every kind
of excess. Yet I am willing to assert deliberately, and with a
perfectly clear sense of all that the words denote and imply, that the
score of "Pelléas" is richer in inner musical substance, in ideas that
are at once new and valuable, than anything that has come out of
modern music since Wagner wrote his final page a quarter of a century
ago. The orchestral score is almost as long as that of "Tristan und
Isolde"; yet in the course of its 409 pages there are scarcely half a
dozen measures in which one cannot point out some touch of genius.
The music is studded with felicities. One carries away from a survey
of it a conviction of its almost continuous inspiration, of its
profound originality. The score overflows with ideas, ideas that
possess character and nobility, and that are often of deep and
ravishing beauty--a beauty that takes captive both the spirit and the
sense. It is difficult to think of more than a few scores in which the
inspiration is so persistent and so fresh--in which there is so little
that is _cliché_, perfunctory, derivative. Certainly, if one is
thinking of music written for the stage, one has to go to the author
of "Tristan" for anything comparable to it. It has been said that in
this music Debussy is not always at his best, and the comment is
justified. There are passages, most of them to be found in the
interludes connecting the earlier scenes (which, it is well known,
were extended to meet a mechanical exigency), wherein the fine and
rare gold of his thought is intermixed with the dross of alien ideas.
And it is equally true that the vast and wellnigh inescapable shadow
of Wagner's genius impinges at moments upon the score: thus we hear
"Parsifal" in the first interlude, "Parsifal" and "Siegfried" in the
interlude following the scene at the fountain--the scene wherein
_Mélisande's_ ring is lost. But the fact is mentioned here only that
it may be dismissed. The voice of Debussy speaks constantly out of
this music, even when it momentarily takes the timbre of another; and
none other, since the superlative voice of Wagner himself was stilled,
has spoken with so potent and magical a blend of tenderness and
passion, with so rare yet limpid a beauty, with an accent so touching
and so underived.

The nature of Debussy's harmony, and the emphasis which is laid upon
its remarkable quality by his appreciators, have provoked the
assertion that the score of "Pelléas" is devoid of melody, or at least
that it is weak in melodic invention. Of course the whole matter rests
upon what one means by "melody." The comment is a perfect
exemplification of that critical method which consists in measuring
new forms of expression by the standards of the past, instead of
seeking to learn whether they do not themselves establish new
standards by which alone they are to be appraised. The method has
been applied to every innovator in the records of art, and it is
probably futile to cry out against it, or to assert its stupidity. The
music of "Pelléas" is rich in melody. It does not, as we have seen,
reside in the voice-parts, for there Debussy, for reasons which have
already been discussed, has deliberately and wisely avoided formal
melodic contours. It is to be found in the orchestra--an orchestra
which, while it depends in an unexampled degree upon a predominantly
harmonic mode of expression, is at the same time very far from being
devoid of melodic effect. But the melody is Debussy's melody--it is
fatuous to expect to find in this score the melodic forms which have
been made familiar to us by the practice of his predecessors,--men who
themselves were made to bear the primeval accusation of melodic
barrenness. Debussy's melodic idiom is his own, and it often baffles
impatient or inhospitable ears by reason of its seeming
indefiniteness, its apparently wayward movement, and because of the
shifting and mercurial basis of harmony upon which it is imposed. It
would be easy to instance page after page in the score where the
melodic expression is, for those who are open to its address, of
instant and irresistible effect: as the greater part of the scene by
the fountain, in the second act; the whole of the tower scene--an
outpouring of rapturous lyric beauty which, again, sends one to the
loveliest pages of "Tristan" for a comparison; the affecting interview
between _Mélisande_ and the benign and infinitely wise _Arkël_, in the
fourth act; the calamitous love scene in the park; and almost the
whole of the last act. If Debussy had written nothing else than the
entrancing music to which he has set the ecstatic apostrophe of
_Pelléas_ to his beloved's hair, he would have established an
indisputable claim to a melodic gift of an exquisite and original
kind. It has been said that he is "incapable of writing sustained
melody"; and though just how extended a melodic line must be in order
to merit the epithet "sustained" is not quite clear, it would seem
that in this particular scene, at all events, Debussy may be said to
have compassed even "sustained" melody; for the melodic line--varied,
sensitive, and plastic though it is--is here of almost unbroken

In its total aspect as a dramatic commentary the score provokes wonder
at its precision and flexibility. The manner in which each scene is
individualised, differentiated and set apart from every other scene,
is of a vividness and fidelity beyond praise. For every changing
aspect of the play, for its every emotional phase, the composer has
discovered the exact and illuminating equivalent. The eloquence of
this music is seldom abated; it is as pervasive as it is extreme. One
would not be far wrong, probably, in finding this music-drama's chief
and final claim to the highest excellence in its triumphant character
as an expressional achievement; in this it ranks with the supreme
things in music. There are in the score innumerable passages which one
is tempted to adduce as particular instances of ideally fit and
beautiful expression. It is probably unnecessary to allege the quality
of such examples as the scene by the fountain, the perilous encounter
at the tower window, the final tryst in the park, or the interlude
which accompanies the change of scene from the castle vaults to the
sunlit terrace above the sea--music that has an entrancing radiance
and perfume, through which blows "all the air of all the sea"--these
things will be rightly valued by every observer of liberal
comprehension and sensitive discernment: to name them is to praise
them. But there are other triumphs of expression in the score whose
quality is not so immediately to be perceived. I do not speak of the
countless felicities of structural and external detail: felicities
which will repay close and protracted study. I am thinking of remoter,
less obvious felicities: of the grave beauty of the passage in which
_Geneviève_ reads to the King the letter of _Golaud_ to his brother
_Pelléas_[1]; of the extraordinary final measures of the first act,
after _Mélisande's_ question: "Oh! ... pourquoi partez-vous?"; of the
delicious effect which is heard in the orchestra at _Pelléas'_ words,
in the scene at the fountain, "... le soleil n'entre jamais"; of the
exquisite setting of _Golaud's_ exclamation of delight over the beauty
of _Mélisande's_ hands; of the entire grotto scene,--a passage of
superb imaginative fervour,--with its indescribably poetic ending (the
fragment of a descending scale given out in imitation by two flutes
and a harp); of the passage in the tower scene where the two solo
violins in octaves sing the ravishing phrase that accompanies the
"Regarde, regarde, j'embrasse tes cheveux ..." of the enraptured
_Pelléas_; of the piercing effect of the _Mélisande_ theme where it is
combined with that of _Pelléas_ in the interlude which follows the
scene at the tower window; of the passage preceding the entrance of
_Mélisande_ and _Arkël_ in the fourth act, where _Mélisande's_ theme
is heard in augmentation; of the passage in the transitional music
following the misusing of _Mélisande_ by _Golaud_ where her theme is
played by the oboe above an interchanging phrase in the horns--a
_diminuendo_ of inexpressible poignancy; of the impassioned soliloquy
of _Pelléas_ preparatory to the nocturnal meeting in the park; of the
theme which is played by the horns and 'cellos as he invites
_Mélisande_ to come out of the moonlight into the shadow of the trees;
of the exquisite phrase given out by the strings and a solo horn as he
asks her if she knows why he wished her to meet him; of the interplay
of "ninth" chords which is heard, in the final act, when _Arkël_ asks
_Mélisande_ if she is cold, and the mysterious majesty of the passage
which immediately follows, as _Mélisande_ says that she wishes the
window to remain open until the sun has sunk into the sea; of, indeed,
the whole of the incomparable music of _Mélisande's_ death; and
finally, of that scene wherein the genius of the musician and musical
dramatist is, as I think, most characteristically exerted: the
curiously potent and haunting scene in which _Pelléas_ and
_Mélisande_, with _Geneviève_, watch the departure of the ship from
the port and speak of the approaching storm. Here Debussy, in setting
the simple yet elliptical speeches of the two tragedians, has written
music which is of marvellously subtle eloquence in its suggestion of
the atmosphere of impending disaster, of vague foreboding and
oppressive mystery, which rests upon the scene. The penetrating "On
s'embarquerait sans le savoir et l'on ne reviendrait plus" of
_Pelléas_, sung over a lingering series of descending chords of the
ninth; the strange, receding song of the departing sailors; the
passage in triplets which is heard when _Pelléas_ speaks of the
beacon light shining dimly through the mist; the veiled and sinister
phrase in thirds on the muted horns which follows the dying-away of
the sailors' call: these are salient moments in a masterly piece of
psychological and (there is no other word for it) subliminal

[Footnote 1: As one out of many instances of similarly striking
detail, observe the remarkable and moving progression in the
voice-part from the D in the ninth chord on B-flat to the B-natural in
the chord of G-sharp minor, at _Geneviève's_ words "... tour qui
regarde la mer."]

Whatever Debussy may in the future accomplish--and it is not unlikely
that he may transcend this score in adventurousness and novelty of
style--will not imperil the unique distinction, the unique value, of
"Pelléas et Mélisande." It has had, it has been truly said, no
predecessor, no forerunner; and there is nothing in the musical art
that is now contemporary with it which in the remotest degree
resembles it in impulse or character. That, as an example of the ideal
welding of drama and music, it will exert a formative or suggestive
influence, it is not now possible to say; but that its extraordinary
importance as a work of art will compel an ever-widening appreciation,
seems, to many, certain and indisputable. Thinking of this score,
Debussy might justly say, with Coventry Patmore: "I have respected


Some of the material contained in the foregoing studies appeared
originally in articles published in _Harper's Weekly_, _The North
American Review_, and _The Musician_. But for the most part the essays
are new; and such passages of earlier origin as are retained have been
considerably altered and amplified.

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