It is quite proper to devote a chapter to Richard Wagner, for his
later works are not only examples of the most skillful and purposeful
employment of the contrapuntal and instrumental resources which he, in
common with his contemporaries, inherited from the past, but they show
how audacious genius may safely pursue its purposes out beyond beaten
paths into unexplored regions of tonal expression.
Why may genius do this, which is so uniformly fatal to the less gifted?
It is because of its comprehensive grasp of logical sequence and its
intuitive choice of adaptable means.
Ripe genius is a definite talent which has been subjected to
exhaustive discipline, which is familiar with traditions, and takes
full cognizance of pedantic forms, but is guided by an art feeling
engendered by this knowledge, and not by the knowledge itself.
It is a law unto itself. It conceives a picture, a poem, or a musical
sentiment, and communicates it to us through means that are often as
unfamiliar as is the effect of the whole original; for it usually
avoids the ruts of travelled ways, its clear view of the objective goal
enabling it to follow the less frequented stream-side or mountain-top
Wagner was, in the last thirty years of his life, a ripe genius. He was
the sixth of our musical high-priests, and he filled the art temple
with a characteristic song incense which will pervade its atmosphere as
long as human passions continue to furnish art impulse.
There is a class of pedants who still take satisfaction in calling
Wagner’s music artificial; but these short-sighted critics cannot or
will not properly survey the field of his activity and its fruits. No
human mind could, unless impelled by natural, sequential feeling and
virile imagination, write even one of his later dramas without manifold
exhibitions of weakness in redundancies and lapses in significance.
The fact that Wagner’s works, from the “Meistersinger” on, show few,
if any, such barren moments, adequately evidences their natural growth
from musical germs.
A great creator always incites a large number of lesser lights to
imitate his methods, but few of them do so successfully. Wagner is not,
however, answerable for the vague effects of his dramatic means, when
they are transplanted into Wagnerish overtures and symphonic poems. He
evolved situations that made these means legitimate and significant;
isolated, they fall into bizarre artificiality. Although we cannot fail
to be influenced by the elements which Wagner added to tonal resources,
they, like all other elements, must be applied because most adaptable
to the development of the musical scheme in hand, and not because of
“A prophet is not without honor save in his own country.” This was
strikingly exemplified by the attitude of professional Leipzig towards
Wagner during the earlier stages of his career. Leipzig was at that
time regarded by the outlying world as the musical centre of the
universe, a Mecca with a magic balm, dispensed by a priesthood whose
Mahomet was Mendelssohn.
The town had been a prominent seat of learning since the first part
of the fifteenth century, had possessed Bach as cantor of its
“St. Thomas’ school,” had for a long series of years maintained
its “Gewandhaus” concerts, and was the greatest of all book- and
These circumstances combined to make Leipzig stand out in bold relief
on the world’s map, but it required Mendelssohn’s magnetism to make its
The Conservatory faculty of those days included all the most prominent
musicians domiciled in Leipzig, for the town was too small to furnish
adherents for such contra-minded parties or factions as exist in
larger cities. Mendelssohn had enlisted his forces with well-directed
regard for harmony, but their creed, although properly placing Bach
as the corner-stone of musical faith, was too narrow in its tenets
to admit those to communion whose fancy led them outside the pale of
traditional forms. They were even lukewarm towards Schumann, who
had lived among them, had created a period,[A] and had contributed
treasures to musical literature so luminous with genius that, as
the mists of prejudice clear away, they will eclipse forever all
contemporaneous productions in the various forms which they followed.
The rugged boldness of originality was in the esteem of the Leipzig
pedagogue but an exhibition of crude ignorance. Those who could not or
would not recognize Schumann’s great throbbing heart in his writings,
because he, in expressing his individuality, did not always follow
prescribed formulæ, would naturally have rejected Wagner, for his
earlier works were not cast in classic moulds.
[A] Composers who originate forms or methods that recommend themselves
to the musical world because they voice recognizable advance in art
expression, create periods. Mendelssohn was in his more earnest moods a
modernized Bach. He did not originate forms, but adapted those of his
great ideal to our nineteenth century habits of thought and feeling. He
did this inimitably, but he was more finished than forceful or bold,
and his impress on art was consequently not deep, although extremely
Those of Wagner’s creations which had been before the public previous
to 1860 were characterized by few departures from Weber and Meyerbeer
in scheme. Wagnerian harmonies were, however, too strong for the
Leipzig critic, but the public flocked to hear them, and was pleased.
Original ideas often find first recognition among the non-professional,
because musical leaders are so saturated with pedantry that sparks of
genius cannot quickly kindle them to enthusiasm.
In 1862 the Gewandhaus directors made a great concession; they invited
Richard Wagner to conduct his “Tannhäuser Overture” at one of their
concerts. This was a fatal mistake, for his triumph was complete,
and their influence as opponents of the “music of the future” was
correspondingly weakened. I have discussed Leipzig at such length,
not because it was Wagner’s birthplace, but because from this town,
with all its intolerance and smallness, started the only short road to
success. Leipzig’s endorsement was a universally accepted voucher.
Wagner had found this direct path barred, and his wanderings in
surmounting or circumventing obstacles lasted for a long series of
years, but his faith remained steadfast, and he reached the goal of
his ambition a far stronger man because of the difficulties he had
overcome. His appearance at the Gewandhaus was only a station on his
course to already assured success, and not his starting-point.
Wagner found opera a succession of solo, ensemble, and chorus pieces,
strung upon plots often too slender to give them coherence.
Texts had been made subservient to music, and that, in turn, to the
singer’s convenience and ambition for display. Operas were written as
early as the thirteenth century, but Cherubini was the first Italian,
and Gluck the first German, to produce works that have survived.
Cherubini was followed by Rossini, a man of genius, but too indolent
to fully develop his gifts. Had his beautiful sensuous melodies been
put into richer settings, had more earnest thought been added to his
spontaneity, his operas would have taken their places among the undying
Flashes of genius ultimately tire. It is the steady light of genius,
fed by knowledge and earnestness (as in Beethoven, Schubert, and
Schumann), that can hold the world’s attention restfully, which means
Bellini, with “Norma” and “Sonnambula,” and Donizetti, with “Lucia di
Lammermoor” and “Lucretia Borgia,” still hold a place on the operatic
stage, but their grasp is weakening. Verdi was the best equipped of all
Italian opera composers, and his “Trovatore,” with it rare gems, will
crown his memory to the end of musical time. His later works, “Aida,”
“Othello,” and “Falstaff,” written under the influence of the Wagner
period, are quite different from his earlier operas in instrumentation
and in treatment of themes. In them he is more logical and stronger,
but less sensuous. They furnish the first instances of Italian music
dressed in foreign garb; of Italian music written under pressure from
without. It has until recently been Italy’s province to shed influence
over the musical world. I construe Verdi’s concessions to Wagner as
the strongest possible endorsement of the latter’s ideas. No other
composer was in position to pay such tribute to Wagner’s forceful and
far-reaching art sense.
The Italian composers of the new school are musical brigands, who for a
brief space succeeded in taking tribute from the musical world. Their
leader, Mascagni, made such a sensational raid with his “Cavalleria
Rusticana” that young Italy jumped into the breach he made, and
evidently thought to take possession of our temple, regardless of their
lack of equipment and discipline. Although but few years have elapsed
since this assault on art, its episodes have already been relegated to
the realm of disturbing memories.
“Cavalleria Rusticana,” the first and best of its class, has some
merits; it is short, melodious, and dramatic, but its melodies are
often sentimental, and its dramatic points are usually made through the
audacious employment of crude means. The direct influence of this work
and its reception, conspired for harm to art.
Gluck was a Teuton, and although educated in Italy and adopted by
France, can with propriety be called the father of German opera.
His “Iphigenia in Tauris” and “Orpheus and Eurydice” will always
be regarded as classic models of lyric writing. Gluck’s schemes
differed little from those of the Italian school, but his harmonic and
instrumental methods were German.
Mozart was a phenomenal combination of inconsistencies. His routine and
creative genius were of the highest order, his spontaneity and finish
make his music delightful alike to amateurs and musicians, but he
seldom seems to take matters seriously. “Don Juan,” the “Requiem,” and
his string quartets are exceptions, for in these he is earnest and does
his genius full justice.
Beethoven gave us “Fidelio.” He was equally endowed with Mozart, but
was actuated in what he did by earnest, deep feeling. “Fidelio,”
although built on the old and now discarded lines, will only take
second place (musically) when some genius arises capable of writing
symphonies to supersede Beethoven’s nine. In “Fidelio” we still have
the string of well-defined pieces, but they are rich in harmonization
Weber made a great impression on opera. His audacious use of the
orchestra and of modulation, opened up new fields of possibility, and
there is a doubt as to whether modern German opera would have become
what it is, had Weber not lived. He was gifted with an inexhaustible
store of melody, was equal to all dramatic situations, however
exacting, and could court popular favor without belittling his art,–a
very rare quality. Weber was at first Wagner’s model, and “Rienzi” and
“Der Fliegende Holländer” bear a distinct Weber impress.
Meyerbeer was a German, but early adopted Italian methods. He was an
excellent business man, possessed ample means, and therefore secured
deserved recognition early in his career, instead of having lived
almost a life of deferred hopes, as is usually the good musician’s
lot. Meyerbeer is melodious, and is often dramatic, but unlike Weber,
sometimes belittles his art in catering to public tastes. His pageant
and ballet music are the most characteristic and impressive features of
Wagner expressed contempt for Meyerbeer, but evidently recognized the
grandeur of the operatic pageantry of which he was the creator. We see
evidences of this phase of Meyerbeer’s influence until we pass the
Many other good operas were produced during the first half of this
century, but as they were not potential factors in operatic evolution,
I shall mention them only in passing.
Adam wrote “Postillion;” Auber, “Fra Diavolo,” “Die Stumme von
Portici,” etc.; Flotow, “Martha” and “Alessandro Stradella;”
Hérold, “Zampa;” Kreutzer, “Nachtlager von Granada;” Lortzing, “Der
Waffenschmied,” “Der Czar und Zimmermann,” etc; Marschner, “Hans
Heiling,” “Der Templer und die Jüdin,” and “Der Vampyre;” Nicolai, “The
Merry Wives;” Spohr, “Jessonda” and “Faust,” and Schumann, “Genoveva.”
All of these operas are still given at least occasionally, and most of
them are excellent musical compositions.
The situation at the time when Wagner first manifested a defined
tendency towards the music drama was as follows: Gluck had given the
world his two great works, and they, together with “Fidelio,” “Don
Juan,” “The Magic Flute,” “The Marriage of Figaro,” “Der Freischutz,”
and “Oberon” of the German, and “Trovatore,” “William Tell,” “Norma,”
“Lucia di Lammermoor,” “La Sonnambula,” “Robert le Diable,” “Der
Prophet,” and “Die Hugenotten” of the Italian, were the most prominent
and best examples of operatic writing.
Although the first steps towards the emancipation of opera from
inconsistencies were the result of conditions rather than of
premeditation, Wagner had sufficient genius to appreciate the power
inherent in logical sequence: a power which, when compared with that
resulting from eccentric modes, is as the progress of the ages to
that of a leaf borne by the wind. Logical sequence moves onward with
irresistible momentum, whereas fragmentary diction is blown about by
every wind of caprice.
The condition which most influenced Wagner’s conceptions was his
relation as poet to his musical undertakings. He was in each instance
first poet and then composer, and nothing could have been more natural
than his early evinced disposition to guard his texts from distorted,
disconnected renderings. This disposition grew, as through experience
his grasp became more and more comprehensive. There were no backward
steps in his career. It was like his schemes,–consequent,–advancing
unwaveringly from inception to full realization in “Parsifal” and
“Tristan und Isolde.”
Wagner had courage adequate to sustain him in following his
conceptions through ridicule, want, and almost utter friendlessness.
No discouragement could divert him from the even tenor of his chosen
course. His early operas, although their texts were treated with
unwonted respect, gave little intimation of the revolution which was
to be accomplished by their author, and it is extremely doubtful
whether Wagner at this period had a shadowy conception even of that
later ideal, which time and experience developed, in which music and
the pictorial element were not only to collaborate with, but were to
reproduce the situations and sentiments of his poems.
This kind of tone painting, in which the composer endeavors to endow
his musical phrases with definite significance, is justifiable and
effective when they are so closely associated in performance with the
motive text as to derive directness from its more tangible character.
Such efforts must not be classed with so-called program music.
“Der Fliegende Holländer”, “Rienzi,” and “Tannhäuser” might have
been produced through the co-operation of Weber and Meyerbeer, with
Wagner’s individuality as a flavor. In them the voices are given
melodies in clear-cut form, and they contain pompous Meyerbeerisms
almost approaching the bizarre. This Wagner flavor, which consisted
largely of a disregard of harmonic laws and key relationships, as
dictated by the pedantic school, caught the public, but it aroused the
violent opposition of older musicians. They denounced Wagner as a crazy
ignoramus and his operas as abominations.
Viewed from a theoretical stand-point, there was that in Wagner’s
earlier works which in a measure justified his critics. He was not a
good contrapuntist, and he consequently violated tenets of musical
structure when conformity would have been more adequate.
The relations borne by plastic musical diction to the elementary rules
of tonal science are so little understood, and a clear understanding of
these relations is so important, that I feel justified in reiterating
in different form what was said in a former chapter,–viz., that
musical theory as a whole is but the codification of nature’s
adjustments. Extraordinary requirements license exceptional means and
modes, but when composers abandon the letter of musical tenets and
substitute therefor the higher law of compensation, they enter upon
a field in which pitfalls abound, and through which nothing but keen
judgment, founded upon experienced erudition, can safely guide them.
This law of compensation allows us to disregard elementary laws, when
the nature of the situation in hand is such as to warrant and reconcile
our musical sense to combinations or successions, which would without
this justification sound crude and faulty. The habit of what is called
free writing is most pernicious, for compensation must legitimize each
irregularity or we lapse into incoherency.
Wagner was a firm, but an equally thoughtful man, and while apparently
undisturbed by the cyclone of criticism evoked by his compositions,
saw his vulnerable points, and at once set about fortifying them.
He studied counterpoint exhaustively, taking Bach as his model, and
memorizing many of that master’s most characteristic works. He then
gave the world “Die Meistersinger” as the fruit of his labor, and
therewith forever silenced honest cavillers who had based their adverse
criticisms on his ignorance, for that work is a sublime example of
contrapuntal virtuosity, and it marks the beginning of a new era in
Wagner’s development as a musician. His orchestral settings having
kept pace with his musical growth, had ripened, had become tempered,
consequently “Die Meistersinger” is one of the most beautiful
compositions of any time, and in it we have the clear announcement of
the new dispensation.
There have been tons of literature printed, having as subjects “The
Music of the Future,” “Wagner,” and “The Music-drama,” some of the
authors of which have been properly equipped (good musicians and
liberally educated men), but more have been literary scavengers. The
former class, having been on a war footing ever since Wagner became
a bone of contention, are only just now beginning to discuss his
creations dispassionately. Most of them were quite naturally arrayed
against Wagner, for the most pungent flavor of the educated critic’s
writing is pedantry. He prefers traditions without originality to
originality which does nor conform to traditions.
Wagner’s first works almost paralyzed these gentlemen, and they were
a long time forgetting and forgiving the shock. Their criticisms were
terribly acrid, but, as I have before mentioned, were instrumental in
creating the music-drama, inasmuch as through pointing out veritable
faults and weaknesses they led Wagner to broaden his scholarship. These
critics find it hard to lay down their arms, although the battle is
over, and Wagner died in full possession of the field. The few who were
from the outset in sympathy with Wagner were quite as intemperate in
their laudations as were his opponents in their strictures. They were
blind idolaters, and Wagner was their musical “golden calf.”
The essence of the creed upon which the new dispensation is based
is logical consistency. Poetry, music, and “stage business” are by
it required to co-operate in expressing sentiments and in carrying
the threads of dramatic schemes. Each of these arts is entirely
essential to Wagner’s creations. His texts are statues, which music,
stage-setting, and action imbue with life. For this reason no one can
hope to follow Wagner intelligently who starts without having made
himself conversant with his poems. His later texts are heroic epics
of no mean order. Their adaptability and musical suggestiveness are
phenomenal. They could have been produced only by a musician-poet who
had his completed pictures in view while writing them.
They contain a vast amount of a species of word-painting,–viz., the
use of words the very sounds of which are expressive. I remember well
the hilarity caused among the anti-Wagnerites by the “Nibelungen” text,
which was published some years before the operas were performed.
Satires and parodies were written; Wagner was described wooing his muse
arrayed in fanciful vestments suiting the character of the subject
under treatment. That was a happy time for his opponents. Opera texts
that were not sentimental lyrics were incomprehensible. The “Call of
the Walküre” was to them the climax of inanity; but those who have
heard its musical setting will readily understand how its performance
hushed these scoffers into respectful silence. I mention this “call”
because most musical persons have heard it, and wondered at its
Wagner bestowed the utmost care upon each and every task which
he undertook; his effects are, therefore, less accidental than
those of any other composer. He was in the habit of making three
manuscripts,–viz., a sketch in which the outlines of form and
character were defined, then a score in which contrapuntal and
instrumental material were developed, and, lastly, a manuscript in
which, after ample weighing and filing, each detail of dynamic marking,
etc., was not approximately but precisely indicated. A Wagnerian
crescendo or decrescendo must begin and end with the notes and dynamic
force prescribed by the master, or we miss the full realization of
his pictures. In securing instrumental color he was liable to mark
the various parts played together differently, ranging from forte
to pianissimo, according to the combination and registers of the
Wagner left little or nothing to the conductor’s discretion.
Nevertheless, there are few who have the keen, delicate perception
requisite to understanding his aims, and still fewer who have it in
their power to so control their forces as to secure their fulfilment.
We will now look at some of Wagner’s methods of musical treatment.
In the first place, we find the Overture replaced by the Vorspiel
(prelude or introduction). The former, in its independent completeness,
complying more or less with the exactions of the sonate form, was
quite in place when operas consisted of detached pieces; whereas
the “Vorspiel,” which is analogous to the dramatic prologue, is
better adapted to the newer form. It is composed of, or at least it
introduces, the pivotal themes of the drama which it precedes. In the
prelude to “Parsifal,” which begins with the _communion_ theme, Wagner
has accorded to it, and to the _grail_ and _faith_ motives, places of
honor. They are, indeed, the foundation upon which the whole drama
rests, and are the keys to its situations. We find the traditional
closing form (Coda) conspicuous by absence, the prelude leading up to
and closing in the opening tones of the first act. This omission is
grateful, for all careful musical listeners must have been disturbed
time and again by the long-drawn, fanfare effects that custom has
placed at the end of musical pieces. They are relics of barbarism to
which even Beethoven’s genius could not impart logical significance.
The composer who, having finished the development of his themes, having
said what he had to say, appends a closing form composed of either new
material or of old inconsequently presented, sacrifices symmetry and
If custom required poets to attach Hallelujah-Hosanna verses to their
finished poems, the result would not be intrinsically more incongruous
than that produced by the average musical coda. A piece of music should
end roundly, with a peroration, but this peroration must be adapted
to the character and length of that which has preceded it, must grow
out of the themes from which the piece has been developed, and form an
integral part of the whole. The oft-mentioned intangibility of our art
seems to induce timidity among her devotees, and unfortunately this
timidity is often greatest among those who are best fitted to introduce
We will next consider the vocal treatments of Wagner’s texts. Following
his course from the beginning, we find the singer’s parts grow less
and less melodic, but the listener, if not the singer, has more than
adequate compensation for this loss of lyric quality in the dramatic
power gained. Reverting to our simile of the statue, the stage setting
and orchestra provide an atmosphere, and the singer breathes into the
text the breath which launches it into life.
In his later dramas Wagner makes the vocal parts purely musical
declamation. He endeavors to, and usually succeeds in intensifying
the elocutionary effects through changes of pitch and expressive
rhythm, but gives the singer’s convenience and voice limitations
little attention. The singer’s parts are, therefore, very difficult to
learn and exhausting to sing, and they afford so little opportunity
for display that only a love of art, strongly flavored with
self-abnegation, could induce singers to attempt them.
My study of Wagner’s works has greatly increased my respect for
the intellects of Wagnerian singers. Any man or woman who can sing
a leading part in one of the music-dramas acceptably, must have
been endowed with strong throat and lungs, and must have acquired a
faultless vocal method.
It is almost needless to say that the texts are set without any of
those old-time illogical repetitions in which composers indulged, in
order that happy thoughts–good musical episodes–might be amplified.
Wagner never lost sight of his central idea, and made everything bend
to its fullest realization.
His orchestra does not accompany, in the common acceptation of that
term, but sings into its many-voiced melody the sentiments and moods
suggested by the text. The principal means used in the attainment of
this end is the “Leit Motif.” Its auxiliaries are the countless shades
of harmonic and instrumental color which Wagner commanded.
These “Leit Motifs” (leading and characteristic themes) constituted
Wagner’s vocabulary. They expressed to him personalities, moods, or
sentiments, as the case required, and they were consequently chosen
to impersonate these in his schemes. They sometimes consist of a
few tones, and again of phrases. They appear in varied forms to suit
changing conditions, but their impersonations are only made clearer
through their elastic adaptability. These themes seldom appear in
the vocal parts, but Wagner makes them, through adaptation and
instrumentation, express each shade, from sunlight to storm, from love,
trust, and worship, to wrath, fear, and hate, and in this way follows
his text on parallel lines,–music by the side of and reinforcing
Wagner’s demands on the stage-carpenter and scene-painter are so great
that none but large theatres with ample means can properly realize his
ideas of pictorial illustration. He possessed remarkable talent for
inventing scenic effects, and disregarded cost.
Wagner originated the idea of having the stage overshoot the space
allotted to the orchestra, the effect of which has been good in
most instances where applied. It has two advantages over the common
placing,–viz., it brings the singer nearer his audience, which
facilitates his task of making himself understood, and it has a
grateful tendency to suppress obstreperous brass, who have a way, when
placed in front of the stage, of making singers forgotten. I have seen
singers struggle with tense muscles and swelling veins to make a vocal
climax with no other result than an heroic spectacle.
When a conductor allows his brass to bury the more modest elements
of his orchestra under their clangor, he shows incapacity,–either a
lack of control or a coarse conception of their mission,–and as this
incapacity is quite common, any mechanical device which will insure
moderation on the part of our assertive friends who play the trumpets
and trombones is worthy of commendation.
Now let us see what can be done towards putting ourselves still more
closely in sympathy with the master, and to better prepare ourselves to
follow his creations intelligently. Following intelligently does not
imply merely the recognition of episodes of especial significance or
beauty, but much more: it implies the loss of no contributive detail
and an easy grasp of the combined means.
Exhaustive study alone can make this possible. Its importance must
serve to excuse my reverting to the subject of texts. One should
never take a book into an opera-house, but should make it superfluous
through earnest and repeated readings at home. We should at least so
familiarize ourselves with the text of works worthy of hearing, that
we can anticipate situations and keep in touch with each and every
detail of action and shade of meaning. This having been accomplished,
and having made ourselves acquainted with the more important Leit
Motifs, we shall be intellectually equipped to follow the master in the
development of his music-drama on the lines and through the methods we
I do not wish to claim that the most favorable conditions would enable
us to fully understand intentions, or to discover all points of beauty
and strength in one hearing; our study should, however, have placed
us quite inside the cold curiosity line. We would be entitled to a
creative sense akin to that felt by a co-worker: our natures would have
been made acoustically receptive and responsive.