THE latter half of the nineteenth century is conspicuous in the history of musical art by the rise and exploitation of nationalism, and the efforts of the greatest musical revolutionary of all times, Richard Wagner.
A brief consideration of the status of operatic art and the conditions existing in the first part of the nineteenth century is necessary for a proper understanding of what is to follow.
In Italy Rossini had ceased operatic writing in 1830, but Donizetti was still in the field. Mercadante had produced his masterwork, Il Giuramento, in 1837, although he did not die until 1870. The works of Donizetti and Bellini were at the height of their popularity. The one great Italian operatic composer of the time was Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), of whom we have already spoken. He, however, had not then arrived at mature musicianship, and therefore, in company with many other operatic writers of his country, aimed only to please the public, which demanded the old familiar style of opera, full of delicious music, semi-serious or humoristic as might be, and with exquisite theatrical thrills but little real dramatic treatment. The love of beauty of tone and of virtuosity in singing was still dominant in the opera-going public, and composers, desiring success, bowed to the general demand. The Italians, proud of their glorious record of previous accomplishments in musical art, had but little knowledge of, and consequently little respect for, what had been done in other countries. While the lighter form of piano literature, as expressed in “salon. music,” was in great demand, chamber and orchestral music languished among them for lack of appreciation. Except in isolated instances, even church music was appreciated only when written in the prevalent operatic style, the polyphony of Palestrina and his successors having apparently lost its charm for the people. Italian political conditions, following the general demand for release from Austrian control and for national unity, no doubt helped to create a desire for relaxation in the pleasures afforded by the prevalent operatic style with its moderate demands upon intellectual exertion. Verdi not only surpassed all his predecessors in his gift of charming melody and in dramatic enthusiasm, but, being also an earnest student of his art, appreciated the best in the works of his contemporaries in other lands, and kept his mind continually open to musical suggestions. This is proved especially in his later works, in which his treatment of the orchestra as a complex dramatic voice compares favorably with that of any other composer.
In France, where the composers of grand opera after Rameau had all been foreigners, the general national spirit and operatic taste found its gratification in the opéra comique (comedy-opera), which, especially in its refinement, was a decided improvement over its Italian parent, the opéra bouffe.
This comedy-opera was at first full of Gallic wit and gayety combined with brilliant flashes of poetic imagination. The light operatic farces of Offenbach and Lecocq, though at first received with great acclaim, were later found to appeal to a class of people wholly different from those who had been the devotees 0f opéra comique. As a result the latter took a more romantic turn, and it has retained this characteristic to the present day.
Many composers contributed some of their best efforts to the gratification of the national operatic taste, among whom we have already mentioned, Boiëldieu, Auber, and Adam.
Even Meyerbeer contributed his Etoile du Nord and Dinorah to the prevailing demand, and thus helped materially in the artistic progress and development of opéra comique. Among others whose works were then very popular we may mention Fromental Halévy (1799-1862), whose grand opera, “La Juive” was appreciated as much as his lighter “l’Eclair.” In these and many of his other works he gives evidence of a decided vein of poetry and real musical and dramatic gifts, although occasionally he loses his individuality by imitating the theatrical methods of Meyerbeer. Another shining light among French operatic composers of the time was Ambroise Thomas (1811-1896), whose Mignon, Hamlet and Francoise de Rimini, written during the second half of the nineteenth century, still adorn the French stage. Victor Massé with his charming Les Noces de Jeannette, and Flotow, with his Viennese success, Martha, were also conspicuous figures in the field of French opera.
Opera in Russia was in its infancy, but in Austria it was in a comparatively flourishing condition. Vienna, its musical center, still revelled in the prevailing styles of Italy and France, with but an occasional hearing of German romantic opera as represented by Weber and Marschner. In Germany the jealousy existing between the many small principalities prevented the rise of any musical figure of national importance. Various artistic circles which included the best musicians of neighboring states exerted individual efforts for the realization and adoption of their musical and operatic ideals.
These circles had their centers in various places, extending even into Scandinavia, Poland and Russia, but the most conspicuous and active were those of Leipzig, Berlin, Weimar and Dresden.
While Italian opera was still in great popular demand, these circles exerted themselves in promoting romantic opera and the Singspiel, the national musical comedy, which endeavored to emulate and excel the French style. Native composers of more or less musical ability, most of whose names are now wellnigh forgotten, labored in this field. Among those who assisted in the upbuilding of romantic opera we must mention Conradin Kreutzer, with his Nachtlager von Granada, Albert Lortzing with Czar and Zimmermann and various other excellent works, Franz Lachner, the symphonist, with Benvenuto Cellini, and Nicolai with the Merry Wives of Windsor.
The operatic efforts of Gluck in the direction of dramatic sincerity, during the latter part of the eighteenth century, had borne an excellent, though not abundant, harvest in the field of tragic opera, but he was still to a large extent academic in his dramatic treatment, remaining almost uninfluenced by the tide of romanticism then just beginning to flow.
Weber’s operatic subjects were characterized more by picturesqueness than grandeur, and by a light romantic touch rather than profound imagination. Most of the works of other contemporary German operatic composers were in a measure modeled after the Italian form of what might be called concert-opera, a succession of beautiful musical numbers having slight dramatic or musical connection.
The time was therefore ripe for the arrival of an operatic Joshua who would heroically lead his forces, were they many or few, against the mighty hosts of tradition and custom, and against the laissez-faire sentiment of the mentally and musically indolent.
Such a mighty leader was found in the person of Richard Wagner, concerning whose works, theories, aims and wide-spread influence volumes have been written and are still being written, though his autobiography and collected letters give us a fairly clear insight into the man and his ideals. A few biographical data must suffice here.
He was born at Leipzig on May 22, 1813, the ninth and youngest child in a family whose father held a small civil office, and who died a few years after Richard’s birth. His mother’s subsequent marriage with Ludwig Geyer brought the boy under the powerful influence of a man of .wide cultivation and excellent abilities as an actor, playwright and portrait-painter, whose home was in Dresden. While at school in that city, Richard was an ardent student of German poetry and the tragic drama. After the death of his step-father, who desired the boy to become a painter in spite of his apparent lack of talent for drawing, his mother informed him of her last conversation with Geyer, who had finally ex-pressed his belief that the boy might, after all, have a gift for music. In 1827 the family moved back to Leipzig, where Richard attended the gymnasium and later the University, delving much in medieval lore and becoming deeply interested in the orchestral works of Beethoven. With the exception of a dramatic libretto which was a mixture of Hamlet and King Lear, all his youthful endeavors were in the direction of instrumental music; a sonata, a polonaise and a symphony in classical style all being written before he was 16. Of the first performance of this symphony he says some delicious things in his autobiography. At the theater he was much impressed with Beethoven’s music to Egmont, and determined to write similar dramatic music for his own tragedy. In his eighteenth year he had an intimate acquaintance with Beethoven’s works, “having copied the scores, slept with the quartets, and even whistled the concertos.”
From early manhood his leaning toward the drama, combined with physical circumstances, seem to have united in preparation for his great operatic career, for at the age of 20 he became chorus-director at the opera-house in Würzburg, where his elder brother was stage-manager; there he wrote his first opera, Die Feen, an ‘outburst of youthful, romantic bombast. There followed a number of brief engagements in various cities, as conductor of persistently unsuccessful theatrical companies, and consequent periods of professional idleness, during one of which he wrote the opera Das Liebesverbot. In 1836 he married the actress Wilhelmine Planer, and in the following year obtained the more lucrative opera directorship at Riga. After two years’ stay, during which he worked upon his Rienzi, he decided to go to Paris, whose serious style of historic opera appealed to him. On his way by sea to Boulogne his vessel encountered violent storms, and as a result the legend of the Flying Dutchman, incorporated by him into a dramatic libretto, clamored within him for musical expression. At Boulogne he met Meyerbeer, who gave him letters of introduction to the manager of the Grand Opéra in Paris, which, however, failed to secure him a musical hearing. During his stay in the French capital he managed to eke out a precarious living by all kinds of clerical hackwork, arrangements of popular melodies for various instruments with piano accompaniment, and some newspaper essay-writing, which afforded him opportunity to formulate and publish his own musical ideas and theories in a manner that attracted considerable attention. Although he mingled a little in musical and literary society, thus meeting Berlioz, his restless mind and active genius were constantly occupied with Rienzi, and with the serious study of German mediaeval legends. Driven to desperation by poverty and the apparent impossibility of securing a hearing, he finally sold his libretto of Der fliegende Hollander to the French Opéra, which produced it two years later with a musical setting by Dietsch. As soon as his Rienzi was finished it was sent to Dresden, where it was produced with such brilliant success, in 1842, that it secured him a court appointment. The next year Der fliegende Hollander was produced successfully in Berlin, making a deep impression because of its seriousness, but not achieving popularity because it was generally deemed too gloomy in character and not brilliant enough when compared with the kind of opera then in vogue. Nevertheless, people listened to this new and strange voice in the operatic world, which upset so many previous conceptions and usages. Demands for performances in other cities followed and helped him financially to his feet. While in Dresden he was active in many directions, all tending toward the setting of higher standards at the opera, and at orchestral and choral concerts, his interpretation of Beethoven’s ninth symphony securing him general artistic recognition. This activity, while gaining him some friends and admirers, also raised against him an army of cavillers and revilers, composed of those whose musical equilibrium he constantly disturbed. His impetuosity, his unsparing criticism of existing conditions, his ardent idealism, his uncompromising attitude, and his unconventional musical utterance, as exhibited in Tannhauser and Lohengrin, all combined to make him a continual annoyance to those who revelled in musical conventionality and felt satisfied with things as they were.
His friends among the musicians of the day were very few. Some, like Schumann, who evidently but partly understood him, at first acknowledged his originality, his orchestral technique and instrumentation, but later deplored his “lack of knowledge of musical structure and his triviality.” Others, like Spohr, acknowledged that much in his works was new and beautiful, but contended that much was disagreeable, too, and therefore like “an attack upon the ear;” above all they complained of the “absence of rhythm” in his works, and his “ignorance of musical periods,” which were “evidences of his lack of musicianship, and proved him to be but a talented amateur.” Still others hated him because they were jealous of him and feared his future influence. Liszt at Weimar, with a few conductors, operatic singers and a number of personal followers, warmly defended him against the assaults of even the powerful critics. His antagonism to conventionality, and his sympathy with revolutionary ideas in general, finally involved him in the political disturbances of the day. In order to avoid arrest he fled, in 1849, to Switzerland, where he labored for several years on his greatest works.
In the meantime Tannhauser and Lohengrin slowly made their way into the hearts of the people, in spite of severe and general abuse on the part of the critics. Tannhauser was termed “odd stuff,” even by some who admired his genius; the great narrative in the third act of that opera was called “empty” and “pointless,” and Wagner was strenuously urged to change the plot so that the story would end in a happy marriage between the hero and Elizabeth. In spite of all sorts of friendly and unfriendly pressure, intended to drive him back to conventional ideas, he would not yield his principles, and uncompromisingly remained steadfast to his ideal of opera as a serious art-work, a music-drama.
His life at his quiet villa in Zurich, Switzerland, was very sad and musically very lonely. His letters to Liszt are mostly full of complaints of poverty and distress, and of extravagantly expressed thanks for the receipt of money obtained from concerts at which excerpts of his operas were given. If ever man had a good angel, Wagner had his in the person of Liszt, whose untiring efforts in his behalf were responsible for that rise and extension of the Wagner cult which had such a tremendous influence in securing a proper understanding of his ideals. We cannot refrain from quoting from a letter he wrote to Liszt during his early stay in Zurich, while at work on Siegfried. In this letter he begs Liszt to secure for him in some way “the wages of a middling mechanic.” He says, “I must do genuine work, or perish. I am fit only to write operas, and should only deceive people if I accepted a position. My friends must get me some small yearly allowance. . . . Let some one buy my Lohengrin, skin and bones. Let some one commission my Siegfried. I will do it cheaply, for I must have firewood and a warm cloak for my wife, her old one being too shabby.”
Although a fugitive from Dresden, he kept himself constantly in the public mind by his literary work, by means of essays and books, among which “Judaism in Music,” and “Opera and Drama,” created a great deal of discussion, the latter also making considerable propaganda for a better understanding of his operatic intentions.
His life during his stay in Switzerland was an endless succession of periods of suffering through poverty, and a similar succession of periods of the highest creative exaltation. The first was alleviated now and then by the financial assistance that came through Liszt’s efforts, and the other by the joy of writing, and the occasional news of successful performances of his works. The great trilogy Der Ring des Nibelungen (consisting of the introductory Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Gotterdammerung), and Tristan and Isolde, were conceived and almost entirely written during his absence from his native land.
His reputation as a conductor and able musician of advanced ideas, however, was gradually extending during this time and caused his being called to London in 1855 to conduct a series of Philharmonic Concerts. Because of his success, he yielded to the temptation of giving concerts in Paris and Brussels, which proved a financial failure. In 1861 his political banishment was revoked and he was at once invited to Vienna to superintend the rehearsals of Lohengrin, which he had never heard.
Several concert-tours as “visiting conductor,” which took him to the most important continental cities, followed, at all of which he had great success; however, this did not eliminate his financial difficulties, and therefore did not enable him to finish the operas under way. But all such troubles came to an end in 1864, when he was called to Munich, by Ludwig II of Bavaria, with the promise of the financial support necessary for carrying out his operatic projects. The artist, who had been so unwaveringly faithful to his ideals, there at last received his triumphal reward. Most of the critics who had derided him for many years, in season and out of season, now began to realize his lofty seriousness of purpose in erecting a new style of opera upon the foundations of the Greek drama and the ideals of Monteverde. They now began to acknowledge that his artistic nature had justly revolted against the prevalent Italian operatic practices, in plot and action as well as music, and had selected the moral symbolism of the vague myth as the ideal for his inspiration because it would also enable him to use the complex, suggestive voice of the orchestra for the creation of the proper musical and dramatic atmosphere in which his characters were to move and have their being.
Every method of musical utterance from the polyphony of Bach to the grandiose style of Berlioz, though expressed in modern orchestral terms, was used by him with consummate skill for the expression of his limitless fancy, and his apparently most daring harmonic and vocal innovations are but extensions of previous practices, made necessary by his demands. As he regarded the singers, both principals and chorus, simply as elements requisite to the development of his complete dramatic ideal, their prominence became decidedly limited, and the conventional operatic aria, with a subordinate orchestral accompaniment, is therefore wholly absent from his works.
Wagner’s style has affected all those who have come after him, both in the operatic and the orchestral world, with one notable exception, that of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), whose powerful artistic personality and strict adherence to the classical forms presented a veritable bulwark for the conservatives, against which the most violent assaults of the ultra-moderns have been made in vain. Schumann’s extravagantly complimentary opinion of his first compositions as those of a “modern musical Messiah,” proved at first a rather serious handicap. His works are rich in their content and difficult of performance, but because of their limited adaptability for display are not heard as often as they deserve. In the midst of the rushing romantic, operatic, and orchestral waves which surrounded him, he refused to consider the clamor for either dramatic expression or sensuous beauty. Nevertheless, he had great creative gifts and a deep imagination, and his close alliance to Bach and Beethoven, but lightly touched by external influences, made him a unique figure in the world of art.
The death of Wagner in Venice in 1883, laden with honors and with the satisfaction of a great work accomplished, created an artistic void difficult to fill. His mighty genius at first dwarfed the efforts of all composers with operatic tendencies to such a degree that an outlet was necessary in a different direction, and it came in the expression of “nationalism.”
This in itself was of course not a new thing, and had always existed to a degree in folk-songs. Several causes, however, contributed during the last 50 years to the development of distinctly national musical characteristics. Some of these are political; others result from the exploitation of national pride in certain racial or local traits of musical utterance, in rhythm, peculiar scale-formation, or style.
French music, for instance, is distinguished in general more by its style, which is graceful and elegant in both melody and harmony, and brilliant in effect, than for peculiar rhythm or tonal successions, but it is nevertheless expressive of much that is new in musical structure, in all its departments. Among its modern exponents of the art we need but mention Saint-Saëns, Guilmant, and Widor, the organists, Massenet, Chabrier, Godard, d’Indy, Charpentier, whose opera Louise is continually gaining in favor, and Debussy, whose works are at present attracting much notice because of their charming peculiarities.
The Italians have for more than three centuries used the opera as their favorite means of musical expression. They were therefore very prompt in recognizing the lofty ideals of Wagner, based upon those of their own Monteverde, and rapidly assimilated his style without, however, abandoning their own distinctive national traits. This is evident from the later works of Verdi and those of our contemporaries which have been previously mentioned. In spite of their love for expression in the operatic field, they did not wholly forsake the realm of orchestral and chamber music, nor that of the . concerto for a solo instrument. As evidence of this we need but mention Sgambati, with symphonies and a piano con certo, Martucci, with one symphony, a piano concerto and chamber music, and Floridia, with a very acceptable symphony.
Although England produced no great creative composers since the days of Purcell, nevertheless a number of most excellent musicians who, however, show few distinct national traits or style, have endeavored to reestablish the former musical glory of their country. Among these we may mention Sir Arthur Sullivan, whose light operas, in his own in-imitable style, have delighted the world; Mackenzie, Parry, Cowen, Stanford, Goring Thomas, and Sir Edward Elgar.
That the nations just mentioned have no very distinctive musical traits is undoubtedly due to the fact that they have for centuries practised and absorbed each other’s best forms of expression, and have thus become almost equally cosmopolitan in their methods of musical utterance. This can-not be said, however, of the nations or peoples whom we will next consider, and who, either through musical isolation, religion, or racial inheritance have retained marked characteristics.
While the earlier Scandinavian composers were musically the children of Germany, in the last half century they have begun to come into their own. Their music is now distinctive because of its frequent use of the minor mode combined with fantastic rhythms, and a dreamy but serious emotion which extends even to their dance-music. Among the composers exhibiting these national traits we must mention Johan Hartmann, with symphonies and concertos; Asger Hamerik, also with symphonies and other large works; Sinding, with a symphony and many smaller works, especially for the piano; and above all Edvard Grieg, with a wealth of compositions in almost every form.
The Bohemians and Hungarians present a musical dialect quite different from all others, especially in its scale-structure and peculiar rhythmic and dynamic expression, and in its abrupt changes of tempo. At times it is quite barbaric in its grandiose splendor, but with an underlying poetic vein that is easily recognizable.
Among Bohemians stand in the front rank Smetana, their first great opera-composer, and Dvorâk, with a wealth of extremely fanciful characteristic literature to his credit; after these Naprawnik, a fine pianist and conductor, who labored in every field of musical art.
The greatest composer of the Hungarians, who, though at times cosmopolitan, nevertheless retained many of his national traits, was Franz Liszt. His fame and influence as composer and pianist, and as the teacher of the leading pianists of to-day, and also as the foremost apostle of Wagner, is undoubtedly the brightest jewel in the musical crown of his native land. A partial list of contemporary pianists will prove how far-reaching this influence has been. Rubinstein and von Bulow were both powerfully affected by his delineation of the functions of piano-playing. Tausig, excelling even his teacher in technique, Klindworth of Berlin, Raff, Cornelius, von Bronsart, are but a few of his pupils who achieved distinction and formed the Weimar circle, whose artistic impulsion has been felt around the world.
Russia, with its millions of inhabitants of many widely dissimilar tendencies, and therefore presenting distinctive traits in folk-music, has been, is, and will probably continue to be a veritable mine of varied national musical characteristics, which nevertheless have much in common. In listening to the works of genuinely Russian composers, based upon the folk-song and its spirit, we are at once impressed by their peculiar type of melodic beauty which alternates constantly between the major and minor modes, expressed in similarly temperamental rhythms and supported by almost barbarously glittering or deeply melancholy harmonies. These very contradictions furnish distinctive colors for the musical pallette of their tone-painters, who have been quick to make use of them in all art-forms from the song to the opera and the symphony. Their style, technically speaking, is not yet fully established, owing largely to the comparative youth of their national musical expression, which began less than a hundred years ago and had to force its way through the established conventionality of foreign composers who flourished among them. The names of Tschaikowski, who is considered but mildly Russian by his countrymen, Borodin, the friend of Liszt, Moussorgsky, a very prolific writer, Rimsky-Korsakoff. Arensky, Glazounoff, Scriabine and Rachmaninoff, added to the Polish ones of the Scharwenkas, Moszkowski and Paderewski and that of the Finnish composer, Sibelius, may be found on many programs throughout the world, proving that Russian national music is everywhere appreciated and in demand.
In addition to the expression of nationalism in musical art there has now arisen what might be called the “personal” expression. This is shown in the almost individual musical dialect of some of our most modern composers, enunciated in the structurally elastic forms with which we have become familiar. The emotional basis of their works is usually found in some literary phrase or romantic poem.
The foremost of present-day composers who present such an individual musical dialect are Debussy and that restlessly creative genius, Richard Strauss. Whether their methods of expression will survive through the coming years is a question for the future historian.