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History Of Music:
George Frederic Handel
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Ludwig Van Beethoven
The Romantic Composers
Development Of The Piano
Famous Operas And Their Composers
Wagner And His Music Dramas
Tristan And Isolde
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The study of Richard Wagner-his purposes, his conceptions as poet, dramatist and musician-is the most difficult in all the history of music. His productions are complex in the extreme and involve problems of ethics, history, sociology and philosophy. His purpose was to make the opera a serious form of art, instead of a means of diversion; to allow it to treat of moral and intellectual subjects, and to weld music, poetry, scenery and action into a perfect and composite whole.
He was born at Leipzig, May 22, 1813. His father died when Richard was a mere child, leaving six other children. Soon afterward his mother married Ludwig Geyer, a well known actor and writer of comedies. Thus from his earliest recollections Richard was surrounded by the influence of the theatre; several of the other children became actors and concert singers. His instincts were for the drama and when eleven he resolved to become a poet, laboring far two years on a tragedy in which he killed all his characters, forty-two in number, at the outset and had to bring them back as ghosts in order to finish the remaining acts! With the exception of this amusing outburst, Wagner displayed no signs of genius in his early childhood; he was fond of play and fairy tales, like any other boy. Not until he was fifteen did his musical ability assert itself, but from that time on it developed with startling rapidity. With the exception of a few months spent under the direction of Weinlig, the greater part of his musical knowledge was gained by his own study of the older masters. In Leipzig and Dresden he heard Weber's operas performed and they set him aflame with new ideas.
In 1833 he secured his first salaried position, that of chorus master in a local theatre. Soon afterward he married an actress, Wilhelmine Planer, and in 1839 located in Paris. His first marriage was not a happy one; the woman he had chosen was utterly incapable of comprehending his genius, but she was always a faithful and loving wife, which is more than can be said of him as a husband. He was at first unable to secure a hearing for his operas and was obliged to spend many years in unhappiness and privation. Of strong socialistic tendencies, Wagner was supposed to have aided in a revolt waged in Saxony for the purpose of gaining more constitutional liberties, and barely escaped arrest. The exact facts of the matter are not fully known, but to avoid further trouble with the authorities he took refuge in Switzerland, where he was obliged to remain thirteen years. This period of exile was made less miserable by the encouragement and financial help sent him from Franz Liszt, who was always a great aid and inspiration to Wagner. During this time he wrote "Tristan and Isolde" and the greater part of "The Ring of the Nibelung."
In 1861 he was allowed to return to Germany and was saved from further distress by King Ludwig II. of Bavaria, who summoned him to Munich. Under his royal patronage Wagner was able to produce several of his works, but a coterie of rival musicians prevented the founding of a theatre, which should be a home for his music dramas and a training school for dramatic singers. In 1873, however, such a building was erected in Bayreuth, where today it is the scene of the annual Wagner Festival. It was the intention of the composer that this should be the centre of the opera world, but none save his own works have as yet been produced there.
Wagner married Cosima von Bulow, daughter of Liszt, in 1870. His last opera, "Parsifal," was presented in 1882, and the following year the great master passed away, his life work completed.
It is not the purpose of this sketch to attempt an explanation of Wagner's philosophy, as displayed either in his literary writings or the texts of his music dramas. Whether, indeed, he really contributed anything to the solutions of the great problems of life is still a disputed question. The moral influence of his work has a direct bearing upon the study of Wagner the man, but has little to do with the appreciation of his dramas as. creations of musical art. He was first of all a reformer of the opera, the creator of a new drama. He conceived that the musical element of an opera should be merely the means, the dramatic element the end. To accomplish this he made use of "endless melody;" that is, his music is continuous-not divided into arias, duets and the like, and reflects the slightest movement or change of situation on the stage.
"What was this wonderful new method? Merely that the characters on the stage, instead of prancing to the footlights and pouring out roulades at the audience, should move, act and sing in a way that suited the situation, according to the laws of ordinary common sense. On the dramatic stage, how absurd it would seem for the actors to ignore one another, and recite their lines at the audience as if the occasion were merely an exhibition of declamation instead of a play. Yet that would be an exact analogy to the Italian singing-opera, and even today there are many who will sit through just such a vocal concert without recognizing the fact that the melodies which afford them so much pleasure might just as well be given in a song recital, and that the great possibilities of stage action in union with appropriate music are often utterly wasted in such plays."
He never permitted a pause in the action that a singer might deliver a vocal "number;" each actor was but one of the many elements which combine to form a perfect whole. Wagner was himself the author of his texts and so was not obliged to make his music conform to another's ideas; he used a poetical, not a musical, form. It is in the portrayal of feeling that he displayed his greatest powers. Wagner sought to express general passions rather than individual feeling, and gave the leading melodies to the orchestra instead of the voices.
To bring the music, text and action into unity he employed "leading motives."' In his dramas each person or object on whom the development of the plot depends is associated with a certain melody, which is heard whenever it is desirable to suggest that person or object to the hearer's mind. These motives are altered to meet the needs of the situation, but their frequent recurrence gives cohesiveness to the otherwise formless music.
"It must not be supposed that Wagner uses leading-motives merely to tell the audience what to see with their mental eyes, as though the orchestral score were a sort of picture book. The Wagner analysis books are largely responsible for this defective notion-they give names to the leading-motives which are in most cases merely fanciful, not thought of by Wagner. His especial aim was to give his music, otherwise vague and formless, a cohesion and organic plan, as a symphony writer builds up his work upon the development of leading themes. There is a close analogy here, Wagner simply using his motives in such a way that the music is tied to the words and action instead of bringing in the motives at random."
No other composer has ever shown such marvelous creative development, for between his earlier works and his later masterpieces lies a wide abyss. His compositions grew steadily in breadth, until they became most bewildering in their complexity. He produced wonderful stage effects, than which there have been displayed none more beautiful. The Grail castle scene (Parsifal) and the forest scenes in "Der Ring," are unparalleled in the history of the stage. But, as is the case with all the other elements, scenic brilliancy with Wagner was but a means, not an end.
As conductor he was one of the foremost of the modern school. He himself personally directed the rehearsals of his works and no detail of costume nor action escaped him. "Sud denly something goes wrong with the scenery," writes a spectator; "he springs up from his chair, darts to the back of the scenes; you hear the stamping of feet, the sound of sharp words; but the man who returns to the front of the scene has a face calm and unruffled as before. Then a singer has to be corrected. A line or passage is not interpreted aright, and the composer walks quietly across the stage, takes Siegfried's shield and spear, and silently shows Herr Unger the proper dramatic gesture. The composer will frequently sing and act a passage as he wishes it given, and it is an infinite pleasure to see how cheerfully such great artists as Betz, Niemann, Gura, Hill, and the rest carry out the Meister's suggestions and instructions. Nothing can escape Wagner's eye or ear. The orchestra is repeatedly stopped, and the good-natured Hans Richter looks up interrogatively from his `mystic abyss,' otherwise called the `conductor's grave,' where he conducts in his shirt-sleeves and open vest. `Mein lieber Richter, just repeat that passage; but the bass more subdued!' . . . So! Gut! Gut! that is better!' and the Meister settles down again in his chair at the corner of the stage, and the rehearsal proceeds."
Wagner would never allow the dramatic effect to be destroyed by permitting an actor to be called before the curtain, and his wish in this regard is still respected in his opera house at Bayreuth.
Rienzi, the first of the operas, is rarely heard today. The Flying Dutchman was the next published work and, while but a rough sketch in comparison with Wagner's later works, it forecasted something of the composer's genius. With Tannhauser began a new era in operatic history. It is frequently heard today and its plot is too well known to need repetition. Lohengrin, produced in 1850, is derived from the old legend of the Knight of the Holy Grail. Tristan and Isolde is a beautiful love story and contains some of Wagner's most impassioned music. The Master-Singers of Nuremberg is the composer's one comic opera. It is a satire on the artificial rules of the old German Guild of Meistersinger and is most original in its treatment.
Die Tetralogie der Ring des Nibelungen is the most complex and pretentious of Wagner's works. It is composed of four parts, each requiring several hours for performance. "Das Rheingold" may be regarded as the prologue, followed by "Die Walkure," "Siegfried" and "Gotterdammerung" (Twilight of the Gods). Parsifal, although the last to be written, had long been taking shape in the composer's mind. It is entirely allegorical and is supposed to represent the final triumph of good over evil and the pilgrimage of the soul to heights of spiritual glory.
Wagner was a master of the first order and his work cannot be overestimated. He set at defiance all the conventional operatic rules; indeed he so entirely disregarded the form that his works are not properly operas at all, but, as he himself named them, "music dramas." His purpose was to unite music, poetry, action and scenery into perfect productions for the lyric stage, and in this respect his dramas will always be the model for future opera composers. There is no Wagnerian school of music and it is safe to say that imitation of this master could only result in failure. His was an exceptional intellect and probably no other could have carried his problems to so happy a solution.