Popular Music History:
German Opera; Weber, Meyerbeer And Wagner
Virtuosity In The Nineteenth Century; Paganini; Berlioz; Chopin; Liszt
Mendelssohn And Schumann
Italian Opera During The Nineteenth Century
French Operatic Composers Of The Nineteenth Century
Later Composers And Performers
Music In Germany
Music In Russia
Music In Bohemia
Music In Scandinavia
Read More Articles About: Popular Music History
German Opera; Weber, Meyerbeer And Wagner
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
GERMAN opera reached an extraordinary development during the nineteenth century, the distinguishing characteristics being an extremely full and dramatically conceived treatment of the orchestra, and a mode of delivering the text partaking of the character of melody and recitative in about equal proportions, the entire object being to present the action to the inner consciousness of the beholder in the most impressive manner possible. In Italian opera, as we have seen, there was a large development of arias and vocal pieces, whose value lay in their beauty as melodies and as concerted effect, the action of the drama being meanwhile delayed sometimes for an entire half hour, while these pieces were going on. In Germany the effort to improve the delivery of the text and to bring it into closer union with the orchestra, and to develop the music from a dramatic standpoint exclusively, led to the vocal form known as arioso, or, to use Wagner's term, "endless melody," in which the successive periods follow each other to the end of the paragraph, or the end of the piece, without a full stop at any point until the end of the sense is reached. The great master of this form of composition was Richard Wagner, who may be regarded as the exponent of the extreme development yet reached by German opera. Wagner's endless melody proposed to itself the same ideal as that of Gluck, but it is only at rare moments that one will find in the music of the later master the symmetrical periods of the Gluck and Mozart epoch. Italian opera, as we have already seen, carried forward the dialogue mostly in recitativo secco, that is to say, in a recitative following more or less successfully the modulations of speech, and accompanied only by detached chords marking the emphatic moments. This form of vocal delivery has the slightest possible musical interest, and the Germans almost immediately endeavored to improve it, as also did some of the Italian masters, the first result being recitativo-stromentato, or instrumented recitative, viz., .recitative in which the text is accompanied by a flowing and more or less descriptive orchestral accompaniment. This differs essentially from the descriptive recitative in the works of the Mozart or Gluck period, or even in those of Haydn's later time. In the " Creation," for example, the descriptive recitative consists of vocal phrases with instrumental phrases interspersed, in dialogue form. The voice announces a certain fact and the orchestra immediately answers with a musical phrase corresponding to it, as, for example, in the recitative describing the creation of the world, where the phrase relating to the horse is immediately answered by an orchestral gallop ; that of the tiger by certain slides and leaps in the melody remotely answering it ; while the roar of the lion is immediately answered by a vigorous snort of the bass trombone. This is by no means of the same nature as the dramatic ariosa of German opera during the nineteenth century. Händel came nearer to this type of musical formation, for example, in the " Messiah," at the recitative describing the appearance of the angels to the shepherds, where, after a phrase of unaccompanied recitative, the appearance of the angels is signified by an accompanied and measured strain, " And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them."
This development of opera in the nineteenth century has been carried forward by the successive efforts of a considerable number of masters, among whom the three most important are Weber, Meyerbeer and Wagner, each of whom created a type of opera peculiar to him-self, and left something as an addition to the permanent stock of musical dramatic ideas.
Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) was the son of a very musical family. He was born at Eutin, and fulfilled his father's desire, which had always been to have a child who should correspond to the youthful promise of Mozart. The father was an actor, and the director of a traveling troupe, largely composed of his own children by a former marriage. This mode of life continued for a number of years, while the future master was quite small. In 1794 Carl Maria's mother was engaged as a singer at the theater at Weimar, under Goethe's direction. Presently, however, the boy became a pupil of Heuschkel, an eminent oboeist, a solid pianist and organist, and a good composer. Under his careful direction Weber developed a technique which very soon passed far beyond anything that had previously been seen. Still later he became a pupil of Michael Haydn, a brother of Joseph. As early as 1800 the boy gave concerts in Leipsic and other towns in central Germany. At this time an opera book was given him, " Das Wald Mädchen," and the opera was composed and produced in November. Five years later it was highly appreciated at Vienna, and was per-formed also at Prague and St. Petersburg. Young Weber was of a most active mind, and interested himself in all questions of art. In 1803 he made the acquaintance of the famous Abbé Vogler, and became his pupil. Vogler commissioned him to prepare the piano score of a new opera of his. He still continued his practice as pianist, but when he lacked some months of being eighteen years of age he was made director of the music of the theater at Breslau. This was his first acquaintance with practical life as a musician. He showed great talent for direction and organization, and here he composed his first serious opera "Rubezahl" (1806). His next position was at Stuttgart, where he became musical director in 1807. After composing several short pieces, he led a somewhat irregular life for several years, concerting as a pianist, writing articles for the papers, at which he was very talented, begining a musical novel, and at length, in 1810, producing his opera "Abou Hassan." Then followed about three years of roving life as a concert player ' and occasionally as composer, until 1813, when he was appointed musical director at Prague. The opera here was in very bad condition, and the company incapable, but Weber engaged new singers in Vienna, and entirely reorganized the affair, and conducted himself so prudently that he gained the good will of nearly every one. As an example of his quickness it may be mentioned that upon discovering that certain musicians in the orchestra, who were not disposed to yield to his strict ideas of discipline, were conversing with each other in Bohemian, while the music was going on, he learned the language himself sufficiently to rebuke them in their own tongue. His next position was at Dresden in 1816, and here he remained nine years until his death. His position at first was somewhat ambiguous. There were two troupes of singers in the opera — an Italian and the German. The grand operas were given in Italian by the Italian company, and the light operas in German by the German company. It was Weber's task to change this, by producing new works of a distinctly higher character than the foreign works of the Italian company. The second year he was able to produce a few good operas of other schools in German versions, but it was not until 1821, when his " Preciosa" was produced at Berlin, and 1822, when "Der Freischütz " was produced in the same theater, that the reputation of the young master was established beyond question. It is impossible at the present time to describe the enthusiasm which the latter work created. It was a new departure in opera. It united two strains very dear to the German heart the simple peasant life and the people's song are represented in the choruses, and in the arias of the less important people. Agatha, the heroine, has a prayer of exquisite beauty, which still is often heard as a church tune. And in contrast with these elements was the weird and uncanny music of Zamiel, the Satanic spirit of the wood, and the strange incantation scene in the Wolf's Glen at midnight, where the magic balls are cast. The story was thoroughly German, and the music not only German. and well suited to the story, but distinctly original and charming of itself. In this work, perhaps first of any opera, Weber made use of what has since been known as "leading motives " characteristic melodic phrases appropriate to Zamiel and Agatha. The instrumentation was very graphic, and as Weber had been brought up upon the stage, there were many novelties Of a scenic kind. In fact, the work marked as distinct an epoch as Wagner's " Nibelungen Ring," and what is more to the point, it was one of the operative influences affecting the young Wagner, as he tells with considerable care in his autobiography. His, next effort was a comic opera, the " Three Pintos," which was never finished. Then came "Euryanthe" performed at Vienna in 1823 with the most extraordinary success. This work is said to have been the model upon which Wagner created his "Lohengrin." When it was produced in Berlin in 1825, the enthusiasm was yet greater and more remarkable than in Vienna. In 1825 he composed " Oberon," the first of the operas in which the fairy principle has prominent exemplification. This was produced in London early in 1826. But by this time Webers health had become completely broken, and he died there of over-work and fatigue. He was laid to his rest, to the music of Mozart's Requiem, in the chapel at Moorsfields in London.
Weber was the first of the romantic composers — the first, at least, to gain the ear of the public. These operas, with their beautifully descriptive music, in which voices and orchestra co-operate with the action and scene as one, were composed at the same time that the young Franz Schubert was improvising his beautiful songs in Vienna. From one end of Germany to the other, and in all Europe, these operas made their way. "Der Frei-schütz" has lasted fifty years, and is still presented with success. More than that, as already noticed, Weber furnished the model, or point of departure, for a multitude of smaller composers, who developed the opera in various side directions ; and last, but not least, for Richard Wagner himself.
Moreover, in the department of piano playing Weber was no less epoch-marking than in that of opera. In 1812 his sonata in C, Opus 24, was produced, a work which is distinctly in advance of those of Clementi or any other writer before that time. The finale of this work is the well known rondo " Perpetual Motion," which, indeed, contains no new principle of piano playing, but is an elegant example of melodiousness and real musicianly qualities displayed at the highest possible speed. His next sonata, Opus 39, in A flat (1816), is still more remarkable. The piano playing here is of an extremely brilliant and picturesque description. Here also, in the Andante we have the tricks which he afterward made so effective in the Concertstuck, of the legato melody accompanied by chords pizzicati. Equally significant in this way is the sonata in D minor, Opus 49, published in the same year as the preceding. Here we have very strong contrast and an enormous fire and vigor. The romantic impulse, however, had been displayed yet earlier in his "Momento Capriccioso," Opus 12, in B flat (1808). This extremely rapid piece of changing chords pianissimo is like a reminiscence from. fairy land, and the second subject contrasts with it to a degree which would have satisfied Schumann. It is a choral-like movement with intervening interludes in the bass, upon which Rubinstein must have modeled his "Kamennoi Ostrow," No. 22. But the most decided token of the romantic movement is seen in the " Invitation to the Dance," and the "Polacca Brilliant," both of which were published in 1819. Two years later came the concert piece, which for seventy years has remained a standard selection for brilliant pianists, and for fifteen years was Liszt's great concert solo. It marks a transition from Moscheles, Dussek and Clementi to Thalberg and Liszt. The "Invitation to the Dance," moreover, was the first salon piece idealized from a popular dance form.
Yet another distinguished name might well have been enrolled among those of the great virtuosi of the first part of the nineteenth century. Jacob Lieb-mann Beer, better known as Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864), was born at Berlin, the son of a rich Jewish banker. The name Meyer was prefixed to his own later, as a condition of inheriting certain property from a distant relative. As the boy showed talent for music at a very early age, he was put to the study of the piano-forte, and it was his ambition to distinguish himself as a virtuoso, which his talent undoubtedly permitted, if he had not been diverted from it by the success of his early attempts at opera. He was taught by a pupil of Clementi, and for a while by Clementi himself, as well as by other distinguished teachers, and if reports are to be believed concerning his playing, he must have become by the time he was twenty years old one of the very first virtuosi in Europe. His studies in theory were carried on under Abbé Vogler, at Darmstadt, where he was a schoolmate with C. M. von Weber and Gansbacher, and later with Salieri at Vienna. At Darmstadt he wrote an oratorio " God and Nature," which was per-formed by the Singakademie, of Berlin, in 1811 ; and an opera, "Alimelek" ("The Two Caliphs"), which also was successfully given at Munich in the Grand Opera House in the same year, 1811. Both works were anonymous. The opera made considerable reputation, and was played in several other cities. Upon Salieri's direction he went to Venice, where he arrived in 1815, to find Rossini's star in the ascendant, and all Venice, and Italy as well, wild over the bewitching melodies of Tancredi. " Meyerbeer, having that vein of cleverness and adaptability so characteristic of his race, immediately became a composer of Italian operas, and produced in Venice, "Romilda e Constanza" (Padua, 1815), "Semiramide Riconoscinta" (Turin, 1819), "Emma di Resburgo" (Venice, 182o), the latter also making a certain amount of reputation in Germany as " Emma von Leicester." Then followed " Margherita d' Anjou " (Milan, La Scala, 182o), "L'Esule di Granata" (Milan, 1822) and "Il Crociato in Egitto" (Venice, 1824). All of these were Italian operas, with melody in quite the Rossini vein, with the same attention as Rossini to the light, the pleasing and the vocal, but with a certain added element of German cleverness of harmony and thematic treatment.
He now returned to Berlin, but his opera, "Das Brandenburger Thor," which he had written for Berlin, was not performed, owing to opposing intrigues. Nevertheless, for about six years Meyerbeer remained in his native city, married, and presently lost two infant children. In 183o he took up his abode in Paris, where already his "Il Crociato" had been performed, in 1826, and in that city, as the leading composer for grand opera, he lived six years, and finally died there. For the Paris stage he produced a succession of large and sensational operas, following to some extent the footsteps of Spontini, in respect to the heroic, the spectacular and the theatrical. Up to the time of his going to Paris, Meyer-beer had figured as an Italian composer in grace of melody, German in his harmony, and now he became a French composer in refinements of rhythm. His first work in Paris was " Robert le Diable," 1831, and it made his reputation, and at the same time made an epoch in operatic construction. It was followed by " Les Huguenots," 1836, which when played in Berlin, in 1842, so pleased the king, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, that he created Meyerbeer " General Musical Director " for Prussia, and Meyerbeer came to Berlin to reside. Here in 1842 he wrote his " Das Feldlager in Schlesien" in which Jenny Lind made a great success. Later, however, he made over a great part of this music for his opera of "L'Étoile du Nord," 1854, for the Opera Comique in Paris. His remaining works were "L'Africaine," performed after his death, in 1865 ; " Le Prophet," 1843, and "Dinorah," 1859. He died in Paris while superintending the production of his "L'Africaine." In his will he left a fund of 10,000 thalers, the interest of which to be used as a prize for the support of a young German composer during eighteen months' study in Italy, Germany and France, six months in each. Besides the operas above mentioned Meyerbeer wrote a quantity of other music for orchestra, cantatas, and occasional pieces for festival purposes, of which the "Schiller March" is an example.
The music of Meyerbeer is extremely sensational. His instrumentation is rich, at times bizarre, and strongly contrasted. His knowledge of stage effect, such that he knew by intuition what would do, and what not. He was to some extent created by circumstances, a striking instance of which is told in connection with the opera of the " Huguenots," where the parting with Valentine at the end of the fourth act was originally without important music. But the tenor declined to take the part unless suitable music could be furnished him at this point. Whereupon Meyerbeer wrote the impassioned duet, since so celebrated, and which in fact is generally recognized as one of the most suitable, not to say most effective, incidents of the whole opera. Meyerbeer's operas follow the lead of Spontini in, their fondness for military glory and spectacle. They partake of the virtuoso spirit of the other great geniuses mentioned in a later chapter all of whom wrote for the sake of an effect to be arrived at, rather than from any inner necessity of carrying out their tone-poems in such and such a way. Meyerbeer's influence, about 183o to 1840, was supreme upon the stage. It was to consult him that young Wagner under-took his journey to Paris, bringing with him his splendid spectacular opera "Rienzi," quite in the Meyerbeer vein. This feature in the work, most likely, was the one chiefly concerned in preventing its acceptance at Paris under Meyerbeer's direction. Wagner was very much influenced by Meyerbeer in all his earlier works, particularly in the matter of splendid appointments for the stage. With all the splendid brilliancy of Meyerbeer's music, there is something insincere about it. It rarely touches the deeper springs of feeling. This is true of the greatest of his pieces, no less than of the smaller numbers.
The most interesting story in the history of opera, and one so resplendent that it is impossible not to regard the others as merely in some degree preparatory to it, is that of Richard Wagner (1813-1883). This remarkable man was born in Leipsic in 1813, the son of a superintendent of police. His mother was a woman of refined and spiritual nature. After the death of his father, his mother married again an actor named Geyer a circumstance having an important bearing on the future of the composer. His brother Albert and his sister Rosalie became actors, and Wagner himself was familiar with the stage from earliest childhood. He studied music while a boy, but his ambition was to become a poet. He translated the twelve books of the Odyssey. He made the acquaintance of Shakespeare's plays, first in German, afterward in English. He made a translation of Romeo's soliloquy, and began to compose music for it. At the age of eighteen he copied Beethoven's ninth symphony in score, for the purpose of knowing it more thoroughly. His musical progress was such that at the age of twenty-one he was able to accept a position as the conductor of the opera at Madgeburg. In 1836 this failed, and he accepted a place at Königsberg. He had then written one opera, called " The Love Veto, " In 1837 he was much interested in Bulwer's " Rienzi," and immediately made a libretto from it. He was now musical director at Riga, and his wife had leading feminine rôles in opera. His favorite composer in opera just then was Meyerbeer. For some reason he lost his place at Riga, and resolved to visit London, taking ship across the Black sea. It was a sailing vessel of small burden, and they encountered a very violent storm. He heard the legend of the Flying Dutchman, and the next year made a poem of it and commenced to write the opera. He spent some time in Paris, where he hoped to get his " Rienzi " accepted at the Grand Opera. This opera he had written on a large scale in the hope of pleasing Meyerbeer, whose influence at Paris was very strong at this time. This, however, he failed to do, veri' possibly because his opera was too good. He was reduced to great straits, and had to write potpourri for the cornet and piano at a beggarly price, in order to gain a living. In 1842 his " Rienzi " was accepted at Dresden, through the influence of Meyerbeer. It was performed with great success, and Wagner «was called there as conductor. Here he had an important position, having to produce the best operas of all schools. He brought out his own " Flying Dutchman " and had already finished "Tannhäuser." He read the Arthur legends, and conceived the idea of an opera upon a subject connected with the Holy Grail. This was "Lohengrin," completed in March, 1848. It was in a fair way to have been produced under his own direction if he had had the good sense to let politics alone; but in some way he mixed him-self up in the revolutionary attempt of that year, and was obliged to flee the country. He went to Zurich, where he lived in great poverty at first, but afterward with a certain moderate income, for nearly ten years. This circumstance was evidently providential, as will appear in the sequel.
Franz Liszt was now conductor at Weimar, and he brought out "Lohengrin" in 185o. From this moment a friendship was established between these two remark-able men. Liszt sent Wagner a handsome honorarium, and from this time on was his financial guardian. By this time Wagner's art theories had become pretty well defined. From his standpoint the three great arts of music, poetry and drama had been independently explored to their limit --- music by Beethoven, poetry and the drama by Shakespeare and Goethe and the only remaining thing of importance to do was to unite them all in one homogeneous mass, and by their combined operation accomplish a more profound and overwhelming effect than had been made before, or indeed would have been possible to them separately. In his autobiography, speaking of his early experiences as conductor, he says:
" The peculiar, gnawing feeling that oppressed me in conducting our ordinary opera, was often interrupted by an indescribable enthusiastic feeling of happiness, when here and there, in the performance of nobler works, I became thoroughly conscious, in the midst of the representation, of the incomparable influence of dramatic-musical combinations an influence of such depth, fervor and life, as no other art is capable of producing.
That such impressions, which, with the rapidity of lightning, made clear to me undreamed-of possibilities, could constantly renew themselves for me — this was the thing which bound me to the theater, much as the typical spirit of our operatic performances filled me with disgust. Among especially strong impressions of this character, I remember the hearing of an opera, by Spontini, in Berlin, under that master's own direction; and I felt myself, too, thoroughly elevated and ennobled for a time, when I was teaching a small opera company Méhul's noble ' Joseph.' And when, twenty years ago, I spent some time in Paris, the performances at the Grand Opera could not fail by the perfection of their musical and dramatic mise en scène to exercise a most dazzling and exciting influence upon 'me. But greatest of all was the effect produced upon me in early youth by the artistic efforts of a dramatic singer of (in my eyes) entirely unsurpassed merit Schröder Devrient. The incomparable dramatic talent of this woman, the inimitable harmony and strong individuality of her representations, which I studied with eyes and ears, filled me with a fascination that had a decisive influence on my whole artistic career. The possibilities of such a performance were revealed to me, and with her in view, there grew up in my mind a legitimate demand, not for musical-dramatic representation alone, but for the poetic-musical conception of a work of art, to which I could hardly continue to give the name of ' opera.' "
Soon after his removal to Zurich, he commenced to compose the libretto of the "Nieblung's Ring." This work was founded on the famous old German poem, "Die Niebelungen Lied," but with. very important modifications of Wagner's own. It is divided into four works.
In the first, "Das Rheingold," the gold of the Rhine, is stolen, and a curse is laid upon it. The second opera of the series is "Die Walküre." In this work the remarkable character of Brunhilde is the central figure. She is one of the Wish-maidens of Odin, whose duty it was to conduct the souls of slain heroes to Walhalla, the dwelling place of the gods The entire conception of this character is unique, and still more unique in the musical way in which it is worked out. We find in this work also the mother and father of Siegfried, and the opera closes when Brunhilde is thrown into the magic slumber with the fire around her. The third opera of the series is that of Siegfried, the half-divine, half-human hero, who knows no fear who slays the dragon that captures the gold of the Rhine — awakens Brunhilde from her magic sleep, etc. The fourth opera is called " The Twilight of the Gods," or " The Death of Siegfried." I will not consume space by describing this poem in detail, since this material is easily accessible in every enclyclopedia. I have already treated it at considerable length in the second volume of my " How to Understand Music." These works are especially remarkable upon a musical side. The opera of the "Rhinegold" is a little monotonous, but the orchestral score contains many points of beauty, and " The Valkyrie" is beautiful throughout, conceived in a very masterly and poetic vein; the instrumentation, also, is extremely noble and beautiful. In the whole of these two works there is scarcely a single piece which can be played apart from the rest as a concert number. The drama moves straight on from one thing to another. There are no melodies of the conventional type, and the music is closely woven together, like the effects of an April day, with storms, sunshine and shadows following each other without any perceptible break. So great has been the advance in musical taste since these were first composed, that " The Ride of the Valkyries," a famous descriptive piece for orchestra, forming the prelude of the-second act, has been played in all parts of the world, as also the "Magic Fire Scene," which closes the opera. These are given over and over again by Thomas, and arrangements of them are often played at the piano. Directly he had finished " Die Walküre," Wagner sent it to Liszt, and a letter with it, in which he modestly admitted that he thought it was very fine, or words to that effect. Liszt, on his part, was delighted with it. He wrote a most beautiful and noble letter to Wagner about it, and a little later he speaks of Hans von Billow having been with him, when he could not refrain from giving him "a sight of Walhalla." So he brought out the score, and he said that. Hans pounded at the piano, and he himself hummed and howled as well as he could, and they had a great time over it.
Wagner then set to work on the opera of "Siegfried," which interested him very much indeed. This character also is a genuine conception of Wagner's. The wild forest boy who knows no fear, who has the most marvelous strength, is described in music as wild and powerful as himself. When Sieglinde, Siegfried's mother, was married, an old man appeared at the wedding with an ashen staff, his hat brim drooping over one eye, and in the midst of the festivities he drew a mighty sword and with a great blow thrust it into the stem of the ash tree which grew in the center of the house, saying that it was the sword of a hero, and that whoever was strong enough to draw it should wield it in the service of gods. All the strong men tugged at this weapon, but none were able to draw it. When Siegmund, Siegfried's father, comes there, he draws the weapon amid a splendid burst of music. This sword is broken on Wotan's spear, but the pieces are saved for Siegfried, and one of the great scenes in the opera of "Siegfried" is where he welds anew the broken sword, and at the end cleaves the anvil with one mighty stroke. The opera of " Siegfried" closes with the awakening of Brunhilde, and a splendid duet with Siegfried.
The composition of this work was interrupted at the end of the second act, and here we come to one of the most curious circumstances in Wagner's career. He says that he felt it necessary to stop now and write a practical opera for the stage as it then was, in order to re-establish his connection with the German theater, for he did not believe that the Ring would ever become practicable upon the German operatic stage. He therefore took up the story of Tristan and Isolde, which had attracted him long before, and completed the poem in 1857 and the music in 1859. Contrary to his intention of composing a practicable opera, he gave himself loose rein and produced music of unexampled dramatic intensity, in which harmony and melody were so novel as to make the work for a long time more impracticable than any before it.
The money advanced by the publishers for the score of this work enabled Wagner to visit Paris, where he produced "Tannhaueser" in French, March, 1861, with a fiasco; after which he departed to Vienna, where his early operas were by this time popular. Here they accepted "Tristan and Isolde" for performance, but gave it up after seventy-seven rehearsals, owing to the in-capacity of the tenor Anders for the role of Tristan.
In 1864 the young king of Bavaria, Ludwig II, who had conceived a great admiration for Wagner, called him to Munich as the head of the court music school and opera. Here for a while Wagner's troubles seemed to be at an end ; but before long his enemies stirred up a terrible confusion, and he departed for villa Triebschen, at Lucerne, where in restful quiet he composed the music to the "Mastersingers of Nuremburg," the poem of which had been published in 1862 The story is a delightful comedy of pedantry, prejudice, sincere love and true art. The music is of unexampled beauty, freshness and technical vitality. It was produced in 1865 ( June 21) at Munich, under the direction of Hans von Buelow, with great success, owing to the remark-able excellence of the cast.
After composing these two enormous works, Wagner went on to finish "Siegfried," and then completed the work by writing "Die Götterdämmerung" (" The Twilight of the Gods"), or, "The Death of Siegfried," as he had originally intended to call it. This work contains one number which is stupendous in its pathos, " The Funeral March of Siegfried." Nothing like it exists elsewhere. These four operas have a very remarkable peculiarity, that throughout the four there are certain leading motives, which repeatedly occur. There is the motive of "the magic fire," which cuts a great figure in the first opera of the series, where Loki, the fire god, appears and is ushered in by this motive. It occurs again in the magic fire scene, at the close of " Die Walküre," where Wotan surrounds Brunhilde with shrieking flames, in order that their terrors may deter cowards from waking her. There is the "sword motive," which is heard in the first opera, when this sword is first spoken of; it is finely developed where the sword is drawn, and again in the opera of "Siegfried," where it is freshly welded. There is the "Walhalla motive," the "Siegfried motive," the " Valkyrie motive," and many others, to the number of nearly one hundred. These are woven together, especially in the last opera of the series, in a most astonishing and wonderful way, yet without impairing the musical flow of the work. The scores are also extremely elaborate, from an orchestral point of view, requiring a large number of instruments, most of them having a great deal to do. This great trilogy, as Wagner called it, which was at first supposed to be beyond the ability of the public to appreciate, has now been given in all parts of Germany with great success, and it is no longer beyond the ability of an audience to enjoy.
By the time he had completed this work, Wagner had conceived the idea of a national theater, to be completed regardless of cost, and with appointments permitting it to produce great works in a faultless manner. At first he thought of building it at Munich, but the Munich public proving fickle, he resolved to build it in an inland town, where all his audience would be in the attitude of pilgrims, who would have come from a distance to hear a great work with proper surroundings The sum required to complete this was about $500,000. It is sufficient compliment to Wagner's ability to say that he secured it, King Louis, of Bavaria, having contributed more than $100,000. Large sums also were sent in by Wagner societies all over the world. The house was completed at Bayreuth. It was a little theater holding about 1,500 people, with a magnificent stage, which at that time was far in advance of any other, but has since been surpassed by many, notably by that of the Auditorium, in Chicago. Here he proposed to have what he called a stage festival — the singers to contribute their services gratuitously, the honor of being selected for this place, and the advantage of the experience, being regarded as ample compensation. The orchestra, likewise, in great part was to be composed of virtuosi also to play without pay. All these expectations were realized. Leading the violins for several years was the famous virtuoso, Wilhelmj, and the singers of the Bayreuth festival were the best that the German stage possessed. The festival is now carried out upon a more rational basis, the singers receiving something for their services. Wagner completed his achievements by the opera of "Parsifal" a work nearly related to " Lohengrin" — in some respects more beautiful. This is entirely like church music, and the whole effect of the performance at Bayreuth is noble, beautiful and very serious. In 1904 and 1905 "Parsifal" was produced in New York, and the large cities, with enormous success.
The peculiarities of Wagner's operas are many. The plays, from a poetic side, are in the vein of magic; irresistible causes work together for irresistible ends. They are somber and primeval, like the voice of the forest. The music fits the poem exactly, without making any attempt at being beautiful on its own account. It is extremely elaborate, and richly scored for orchestra, and full of beautiful science — not intended to be recognized as such by the average hearer. From a dramatic point of view the works are very consistent, and the stage effects are of a remarkable kind. Wagner was fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of a mechanic able to carry out some of his most impracticable suggestions.
Wagner left a large number of pamphlets and treatises, which are likely to remain among the classics of musical literature. The most important is his "Opera and Drama," written in 1851. This is a full discussion, in singularly vigorous and clear language, of the entire nature of opera as poetically conceived and as practically carried out by the previous masters, and as proposed to be carried out by Wagner himself. Many of Wagner's writings have now been translated into English.
His opera texts are highly esteemed by his admirers, and respected by all. As a poet the general opinion seems to be that he was given to magnificent phraseology rather than to delicacy of fancy or humor. He is most at home with the grand, the gigantic, the superhuman; and in nearly all that he writes the primeval undertone of the minor makes itself felt.
It is entirely uncertain whether opera will continue to follow the lines he laid down, with the same severity, but there can be no question that his influence upon the course of art will be very great. In musical discourse, especially in the harmonic side of it, Wagner has made very great variations from the practices of his predecessors, even the most free of the instrumental writers Schumann. His modulations are carred into more remote keys, and the tempered scale is taken as a finality of our tonal system. All the keys are brought near, as he treats them, and in any key any chord whatever can be introduced without effecting a modulation, provided it be so managed that the sense of tonality is not unsettled.
Personally Wagner was rather small, very fastidious in his attire and surroundings. In 1869 Mme. Cosima, daughter of Liszt, and wife of Von Bülow, left him and became the wife of Wagner. During the last ten years of his life they had an elegant residence at Bayreuth, where Mme. Wagner still has her home. Wagner died in Venice, whither he had gone for the mild climate. No musician in the entire history of art has occupied the attention of the whole contemporaneous world to any-thing like the same degree as did Richard Wagner, from the performance of "Lohengrin," in 185o, until his death in 1883.