( Originally Published 1907 )
MADAME EAMES is the only prima donna whom America has heard in " Werther"—a work which in Paris ranks as Massenet's best. But she does not sing it often, be-cause, as she says, " It all lies in such a low key; and to sing always in one place is hard on the voice." Then she adds, " But the love-music of Werther is beautiful."
Goethe's love-stories find favor with French composers. Massenet has accomplished with " Werther " what his predecessors have done with " Mignon " and " Faust." His work is very recent and altogether unique. The story is not dramatic, and there are no regulation operatic characters, —no gods, no kings, no peasants, gypsies, fairies, demons, villains, slaves, soldiers, and not even a chorus. The scenery is also unconventional; not a palace, nor a mountain, nor a dungeon in the whole play.
The dramatis personæ of " Werther " are taken from " ye lower middle classes," and they are graced with such names as Schmidt, Johann, Sophia, and Katie. We find it agreeable and gratifying to see our own common selves and everyday emotions elevated to the regions of classic music.
It is easy to understand why Massenet was attracted by the story, in spite of its dramatic weakness and lack of stage effects. It offers unbounded opportunities for love-music. Most opera composers must content themselves with one rousing duet and perhaps a solo or two ; but in this story the hero sings of love from first to last.
The prelude to this homely opera is like the blessing before a meal. It is peaceful and soothing, and might be called a pastorale.
As the curtain rises we are greeted with the chatter and laughter of childish voices : two innovations at one stroke, for real children and real laughter have never before held a place in grand opera. This first scene of " Werther " forms a pleasing summer picture. We see the garden and terrace of a simple country house, whose owner, the town bailiff, is seated upon the veranda surrounded by his six children, to whom he is teaching a Christmas carol. He seems to be teaching them, but in point of fact he is teaching the audience this charming melody, which must be kept in mind, for it recurs at various intervals during the opera. So the children sing at first very loud and badly. The good-natured bailiff shakes his head and stops his ears. After a second attempt the song goes smoothly, and during this performance Schmidt and Johann enter the garden. These are some tavern friends of the bailiff, who lend variety to the music by giving occasion for the inevitable drinking-song. They compliment the children and inquire after Charlotte. " She is dressing for a ball," answers Sophia, the bailiff's second daughter.
We might tire of this plain conversation and the buffoon manners of Schmidt and Johann, but the accompanying music is of absorbing interest. Massenet makes much use of counterpoint, which has been broadly defined as the art of combining melodies. A crude but familiar example is that wonder-inspiring piano performance of "Yankee Doodle " in one hand with " Fisher's Horn-pipe " in the other. It is interesting to follow the various themes in Massenet's orchestra. Sometimes a bit of the Christmas carol combines with the gruff, reeling song of Bacchus, which, in turn, is blended with a broad and noble theme that always appears in connection with the name of Charlotte. Another theme, that might be characterized as severely intellectual, asserts itself when-ever the conversation turns upon Albert, her absent fiancé.
Schmidt and Johann go off arm in arm, lustily singing, " Vivat Bacchus."
Sophia enters the house, while the bailiff retires with the children to an alcove on the veranda, where we see him patiently rehearsing that Christmas carol, word for word.
The music now undergoes a transition, like a dreamer turning in his sleep. There are harp-chords, arpeggios, and trills written soft and "dim."
A richly clad traveler enters the garden, looking about him with evident emotion. It is Werther, returned after years of absence to his native village.
" I know not if I dream or wake," are his first words, while the instruments recall that pastoral motif of the prelude. Birds and trees and the limpid brook are all apostrophized in word and tone, until, with a sunburst of rising chords, there is introduced a new and radiant theme, eulogizing ----
"All nature, full of grace,
while under the spell of his emotions—for Werther is a poet and a dreamer-there comes to him, like the song of angels, that blessed Christmas carol which the children are singing softly and with perfect rhythm.
The already familiar Charlotte-theme announces the heroine's entrance. The girlish costumes of this bourgeoise character are unusually becoming to Madame Eames ; they present her in quite a new light, and her first entrance gives a pleasing surprise to the audience.
She is embraced by the children, who love Charlotte dearly, for she is to them both a sister and a mother. Regardless of her best gown, she now goes to a buffet on the veranda and distributes slices of bread and butter. This scene has prompted the epithet, " bread-and-butter opera. "
In the mean time Werther is welcomed by the bailiff and introduced. to Charlotte. Sounds of gay music accompany the arrival of guests who will take Charlotte to the ball. This festive music is unique. The bass presents a defiant repetition of one chord that is stubbornly out of harmony with the bright melody above, like old age shaking his head at youthful gaiety.
It is decided that Werther shall go along to the ball. The dance-theme is resumed, and the merry party go out. Sophia takes the children into the house, and the bailiff goes off to the tavern, humming on the way that comical drinking-song.
The stage grows darker, the music softer, and we hear a fragment of the Albert-theme. It is like seeing the shadow before the person, for Albert soon enters. He has re-turned unexpectedly. Sophia rushes out to greet him, and she regrets that Charlotte is absent.
Before going into the house Albert sings to the night winds of his love, and hopes that Charlotte on entering the garden will discover the thoughts that he leaves.
The orchestra toys with this melody for a time, but then is diverted by memories of the ball music. Snatches of the bewitching strain flit by in different keys, like belated guests in vari-colored dominoes. They are faint as phantoms—a gentle swaying of the violins, a touch of the harp, and then they vanish. There is a pause. The moon has appeared, and the humble garden seems transformed into a fairy bower.
Like the spirit of a dream is the melody now arising. Ethereal in its beauty but supreme in power, it rules over the entire opera. This is the love-theme. We are not surprised to see Werther and Charlotte enter arm in arm. It is a familiar situation : he is "seeing her home from the ball. And arrived at their destination, they linger at the gate as couples have done before and since.
Charlotte is of a serious nature, and their talk is never light. She tells of her mother and the terrible experience of losing one so dear. " I believe that she watches over me and knows when I do her bidding." Charlotte's tones are full of pathos, and she becomes abstracted in her memories, while Werther, enraptured by her goodness and beauty, gives utterance to the feelings that enthrall him. The music grows stronger and higher, until it breaks forth in a re-sounding reality of the love-theme. Over an accompaniment of throbbing chords this superb melody sweeps by like a meteor passing the earth ; and during this luminous transition we hear the voice of Werther, " Charlotte, I love thee ! " There follows a hush, and then a chilling, awful discord. Some one is calling from the house, "Albert has come home ! " Charlotte staggers at this news. She explains that Albert is her betrothed—it was her mother's wish. "May she forgive me, that for one moment at your side I forgot my vow." Charlotte goes up the steps; she turns once, but then hastens inside. Werther buries his face in anguish at the thought of her wedding another.
Several months have elapsed since the events of the first act. The elm-tree foliage is denser and the situations of the drama have changed, but love and music remain the same.
Schmidt and Johann are discovered sitting before the tavern "of a Sunday afternoon." Their good-natured song of Bacchus greets us like an old friend. The church and parsonage are in plain view, and a solemn choral from within alternates with the drinking-song without. The village is today en fête, in honor of the pastor's golden wedding.
The serious and thoughtful Albert-theme marks the entrance of Charlotte and Albert, who are married. They loiter on their way to church and sit down on a bench under the trees. Very calm and tender is the music of this little scene between husband and wife. The organ resounds the chords of a beautiful hymn, at which summons Charlotte and Albert join the other worshipers.
Werther has been observing the pair from a distance. When they are gone he comes forward, exclaiming with grief and bitterness, " Wedded to another !! " The tempestuous,chords of the orchestra clash into the holy harmonies of the organ. Jagged fragments of Werther's, first song of admiration depict his shattered joy. As one holds together the pieces of a broken vase, sadly recalling its lost loveliness, so does the orchestra again build up that old theme in all its beauty while Werther sings of what might have been. Rebellious at fate, he cries out : " It is I—I alone whom she could have loved ! " The succeeding aria. is reckless as a steed galloping to his death. It plunges from high tones to a sob, and the singer, flinging himself upon a bench, buries his face in his arms.
Albert discovers Werther thus despondent, and, suspecting the cause, he questions him ; but Werther desperately disclaims his love for Charlotte. This interview is musically serious and sad. But suddenly the orchestra gives us a new key, a new melody, a sprinkling of lithesome staccatos falling like a shower of apple-blossoms. With a smile on her lips and flowers in her hands, Sophia enters, unconscious of the surrounding turbulent emotions. She gaily announces that they intend to dance, and that Werther must join her in the minuet. Observing his somber expression, she bids him cheer up, for to-day ---
"All the world is gay !
This song is the most popular one of the opera. It is bright and light, and full of fluttering phrases — a veritable song of spring.
When Albert and Sophia are gone, Werther cries out with explosive candor, " I told a falsehood ! " He is wretched beyond compare. He can not cease loving, and he dare not cease lying.
Charlotte comes from the church, and, greeting him kindly, asks if he, too, is going to the parsonage. They speak lightly but feel deeply, as is evidenced by the music. That wondrous love-theme softly surrounds them like the magic fire of the Walkure. The harmonies mount up from the instruments like flames from living embers. A spell is upon them. Charlotte stands mute, while Werther sings of that evening when he touched her hand and looked into her eyes for the first time. Softly and slowly the beautiful melody disappears, giving place to a different chord and motif : "Albert loves me—and I am his wife ! " Charlotte has recovered herself. She entreats Werther to turn his heart else-where : "Why do you love me?" This hero seems to understand himself, for he answers : " Ask a madman why he has lost his reason ! " Then Charlotte urges him to go away for a time, say until Christmas. " Yes, until Christmas—good-by, my friend! " She leaves before he has time to refuse.
Now follows a musical adaptation of Goethe's very poetical and ingenious plea for suicide.
"Do we offend Heaven in ceasing to suffer? When a son returns from his journey before the expected time, far from feeling resentment, the father hastens to greet him; and can it be that our heavenly Father is less clement? "
During this soliloquy we encounter strange chords in the orchestra. Strains of a gay minuet play upon these tragic tones like rainbow colors on the angles of a glacier.
The dance has begun, and Sophia, appearing at the parsonage door, tells Werther that she is waiting. He walks away.
" You are leaving ! But you will come back? " cries the disappointed Sophia.
" No—never ! Good-by ! " and Werther turns down the road out of sight. Either for the lost dance or the lost partner, Sophia bursts into tears. Albert and Charlotte find her thus, and between sobs she tells them how Monsieur Werther has gone away for-ever. Charlotte stands rigid, while Albert exclaims to himself : " He loves my wife ! " The gay assemblage within the parsonage has no knowledge of this brewing tragedy, so the minuet continues till the curtain descends.
The prelude to Act III is somber and depressing. It clings to the harmonies of that last scene between Charlotte and Werther-the exile motif.
The curtain's rising reveals Charlotte sitting at her work-table, lost in thought while her needle plies.
The soft light of the lamp illumines a petit salon; the hour hand of the clock points to the figure five, and the libretto tells us it is the 24th of December. The subject of her thoughts is Werther—always Werther! Why can she not banish him from her mind as she did from her presence? The question is not hard to answer, for we learn that he has been writing to her. As tho drawn by a magnet, Charlotte goes to the desk and reads again the letters she fain would forget. Moaning minors like a winter wind accompany the perusal of these sad and poetic epistles. Werther writes : " If I never return, blame me not, but weep in-stead, for I shall be dead."
Terrifying tremolos accompany the tragic theme that is now let loose in the orchestra like a strange, wild animal in the arena. It preys upon the emotions, gnawing at the heart of every listener. Massenet delights in startling contrasts.
While Charlotte is grieving over these missives, a happy voice greets her, " Good day, sweet sister! " It is Sophia, come with an armful of toys and a heart full of melody. She is accompanied by the gay staccatos of her "Spring Song." Charlotte hastily conceals the letters; but tears are not so easily disposed of. Perceiving the reddened eyes, Sophia tries to cheer her sister by singing of " Laughter, the light of the heart." The gaiety of this music, with its sparkling scales and tripping tempo, is infectious. But tears again gather in Charlotte's eyes when Sophia mentions the name of Werther. The little sister is very sorry ; but Charlotte says never mind, weeping does one good. " The tears we do not shed fall back upon the heart, which, altho it is big, is very frail and can break with the weight of a tear."
The music to this sentiment is a tone-poem well worthy of the text. It is written in a low key. Joy mounts upward on the scale, but grief weighs down.
Sophia goes out, and all the bright music with her. Falling upon her knees, Charlotte prays for strength. This supplication is truly grand, with superb crescendos and plaintive diminuendos.
The music now swells out with sudden impetus and the parlor door is brusquely opened. Charlotte turns around and ex-claims with startled tones, "Werther ! "
He is leaning against the door as tho wearied in mind and body. " I tried not to come—mais me voici ! "
With forced calm Charlotte bids him welcome. He looks with fond memory upon the old piano and familiar books. They talk of casual things, and incidentally Charlotte calls his attention to the poems he was translating when he left.
The music of this scene has been unnaturally tranquil; the gentle Charlotte-theme and another phrase, graceful and simple as a nursery rhyme, are used with touching effect. But with the mention of these poems sudden emotion breaks through the constraint. Werther turns to the unfinished verse and reads aloud.
The ensuing scene is dramatically not a new one. In "Francesca da Rimini " the heroine is wooed and won by the reading of a poem; but added to the charm of verse we here have the enthralling power of music. In both instances the reading ends with—a kiss.
The succeeding aria is a song of soaring ecstasy about " ce premier baiser." Werther proclaims that " only love is real ! " But Charlotte suddenly recoils at her weakness, and rushing to a side door, exclaims : " We must never meet again ! Good-by—for the last time ! " and disappears.
The music has assumed a dolorous strain that vividly portrays the pathos of her last words. Werther calls for her to come back. He knocks at the door, but is only answered by the tragic chords of the orchestra. They are furious and fearful, but, strange to say, they adequately express an awful silence. " So be it ! " at last exclaims the sorrowful Werther. Crashing chords whirl riot in the orchestra as the hero hastens away.
The stage is vacated, but the music tells us whom next to expect. The Albert-theme, easily recognizable tho a trifle harsher than before, comes forward to preside over the finale of this act.
Albert steps into the room, surprised and preoccupied. He has met the distracted Werther at the front door, and here finds Charlotte locked in her room. In answer to his authoritative call she comes forward looking pale and frightened. He questions her, but she answers evasively. At this moment a message is handed to Albert by a servant. It is from Werther: " I go on a long journey. Kindly lend me your pistols. Farewell." Charlotte knows the import of these words, but dare not speak. Perhaps Albert also knows. He coldly bids her hand the weapons to the servant. Mutely and slowly she goes to the case and delivers the contents as she was bid. That theme in the orchestra continues quietly to move back and forth like a person keeping the death-watch. When the servant has gone. Albert strides angrily out of the room. Charlotte stands for a moment immobile. The music also seems to stand still; then a sudden impetuous outburst of the instruments coincides with her decision. From highest B to lowest F octaves and chords are hurled together, as Charlotte, seizing a mantle, rushes to the door. " Pray Heaven I may not be too late ! "
We follow Charlotte in her flight. The scene changes to a view of the village. It is Christmas eve, nearing midnight. The snow is falling in wild gusts, but through a rift in the clouds the moon looks down upon the peaceful town. Roofs and trees are covered with snow, while from some of the windows household lights are gleaming. The church, too, is lighted, but the moonlight and the snow are most prominent. Even these however are not so important as the music. More chilling than hail or snow are those sudden blasts of chords and octaves falling one on top of the other, down, down until they join and melt into the steady tremolo of the bass. Finally, like Death seated on a tombstone, the terrifying tragic theme again looms up.
During this introduction the winter scene on the stage remains the same. The snow continues to fall, and we hear it in the orchestra—a steady movement of double thirds over which play varying melodies like Christmas lights. The musicians turn their leaves once, twice, three times, but still that slowly palpitating accompaniment goes on. There is something appalling in this persistency. What was at first delightful be-comes oppressive, for we are somehow reminded that falling snow can bury the living and hide the dead.
A distant bell sounds the hour of twelve. Fierce winds arise, and we see the muffled figure of a woman struggling her way against the gale. The tempest is again heard in the orchestra. Breathlessly we watch the heroine's slow progress, and wonder if she will be too late.
The scene changes to a little room strewn with books and papers. A lamp on the wooden table casts sickly rays upon the surroundings, but we can plainly see a figure reclining on a chair near the open window. It is Werther, pale and unconscious. Charlotte rushes in, and at sight of the dying man is beside herself with grief. She calls him by name, and the sound of her voice revives him. He asks her faintly to stay near him, to pardon him and love him. While he speaks there arises from the orchestra, like the dim visions of a dying man, that first love-theme so full of summer gladness. Charlotte sings to him the words he has longed to hear. This last love-song ends in a whisper. The instruments, too, seem hushed with that mysterious silence of Christmas night. We can see through the window the bright moonlight, for the storm has abated.
Suddenly the dying man looks up as sweet music greets his ear ---
"Noël ! Noël ! Noël !
It is the happy children's voices singing their Christmas song in the church. A merry carillon of the instruments accompanies the familiar tones of Sophia's high, bright voice in the distance ---
"All the world is gay !
This startling contrast of life and death has never been more beautifully portrayed.
Werther sadly smiles, murmuring that it is his song of deliverance. He dies in Charlotte's arms. She cries out, despairing, inconsolable, " It is finished ! " Death is in the orchestra, in the darkness, in the ensuing silence. But suddenly, like " the morning in the bright light," those far-away voices again sing
"Noël! Noël! Noël!,"