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Richard Wagner 1813-1883

( Originally Published 1935 )



It is more than half a century since the death of Richard Wagner, one of the most significant, complex and fascinating figures in the history of music. More has been written of Wagner than of any other musician, which is inevitable, for no other musician so permeated his art with the stuff of thought as well as life. The amount of critical and biographical mat-ter concerned with him is said to compare with the bibliographies of Shakespeare and Napoleon.

A balanced estimate of Wagner, either as man or musician, is still out of the question. Facts are accumulating, but the data are incomplete and we are too much in his shadow. Brilliant investigations have been. and are being conducted and almost every year adds to the sum of Wagneriana. It will be years yet before the returns are all in. But even if all material were classified and available, we should still be far from a just perspective of the artist Wagner. The reason for this is that thus far in the history of music Wagner has only background. There is no foreground to indicate his position relative to the present and future. There can be no scales in which to weigh him until another composer, as great as Wagner and with an equal sweep of vision, comes before us. This may not occur for centuries.

In the meantime we remain in the- shadow of the colossus. As no other person in the world of music, Wagner bestrode his age and he dominates ours. There have been reactions against him, such as the impressionistic movement represented by the genius of Debussy. Since Debussy there have been smaller reactions. But how small they are in proportion, and how undeterminative, is shown by the very vehemence with which the disciples of new movements proclaim the passing of Wagner. They are little,, people, who picnic and chatter under ,the shadow of the mountain. They have forgotten the mountain, or think they have. Actually it conditions their whole existence. And it is so . with Wagner and the relatively puny musical period which has followed him.

Between Bach and Beethoven in their epochs and Wagner in his is a profound fissure, not to be explained by a few years passing. The reason for this is the consciousness that animates Wagner's music. It represents more completely than the music of any other composer the coming of age of the intellectual musician and his meeting on equal terms with the modern man of experience and sensibility.

And how independently, with what complete originality, did Wagner express himself! He was a master of Bach counterpoint, but he escaped completely the 'formal consequences of the Bach procedure. Wagner's is the most flexible, expressive and magically eloquent counterpoint ever conceived. He realized that Beethoven, in his symphonies, had reached a consurnmation of the form. He heard Beethoven's passionate cry for liberty. He sensed new horizons for which Beethoven groped and toward which he fought.

Wagner did not attempt to follow in the steps of the master whom he so reverently studied—this in spite of the fact that the scores of the "Faust" overture and overtures and preludes to the operas make us regret keenly that Wagner in his mature years did not attempt a symphony. What he did was to incorporate the symphony in the music drama, thus giving the drama musical structure and intensity, and by union with drama and the projective power of poetic text enormously enrich and extend the boundaries of music.

It is music of higher nervous gear than had before been known; music astonishingly free, unchained, in-candescent; of flaming depths and a myriad colors, yet, in spite of the frequent suggestion of the magician's cave, music of rugged force, masculinity and a fundamental kinship with nature. It is curious. Wagner, himself a Klingsor of his later years; Wagner, the unslakable sensualist—this' same Wagner was a child of Nature, at home and at one with her in all her moods and aspects. He heard and he echoed the wind shrilling over the wild gray waste; the laughter and anger of the storm, in the midst of which men and gods contended on the mountain-top; or the flowing of the Rhine or whispering of the forest. Everything in the natural universe he knew and transfigured in his music, a blend of primitiveness and unprecedented subtlety and nervous tension; and lyrical intensity; theatricalism and sensuality; and the loftiest idealism and humanity and vision.

All this was in Wagner, whose life and character do so much to explain his music. In the past even the most subjective composers had lived somewhat apart from their artistic creations. Beethoven, in deepest sorrow, composed the Eighth symphony and many other works as detached as that one from actual occurrences. Bach, whatever the melancholy and need of his great and lonely soul, turned out compositions of an everlasting beauty and symmetry, and did so as systematically, to all appearance, as the carpenter worked at his bench or the shoemaker at his last. In-deed, it may be said that of all composers Bach was the one whose art most greatly and immeasurably transcended him and his deepest conscious thinking.

But every word and note of Wagner's art-work emanates directly and unmistakably from his personality. Everything he thought or participated in be-came material for his creations. In fact, the interplay of experience and creation is one of the most significant things that the life of Wagner illuminates for us. Sometimes, indeed more often than not, experience, with Wagner, followed instead of preceded the thought, the creative conception. Always the stuff of living was undergoing transformation in terms of art, and always the art was being given its impulse and' color by living. This process lay at the bottom of Wagner's amazing capacity for development.



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