IN the beginning there was ” Guntram,” of which we in America heard only fragmentary echoes in our concert-rooms. Then came “Feuersnot,” which reached us in the same way, but between which and the subject which is to occupy me in this chapter there is a kinship through a single instrumental number, the meaning of which no commentator has dared more than hint at. It is the music which accompanies the episode, politely termed a “love scene,” which occurs at the climax of the earlier opera, but is supposed to take place before the opening of the curtain in the later. Perhaps I shall recur to them again if I have the courage.
These were the operas of Richard Strauss which no manager deemed it necessary or advisable to pro-duce in New York. Now came “Salome.” Popular neurasthenia was growing. Oscar Wilde thought France might accept a glorification of necrophilism and wrote his delectable book in French. France would have none of it, but when it was done into German, and Richard Strauss accentuated its sexual perversity by his hysterical music, lo ! Berlin accepted it with avidity. The theatres of the Prussian capital were keeping pace with the pathological spirit of the day, and were far ahead of those of Paris, where, it had long been the habit to think, moral obliquity made its residence. If Berlin, then why not New York? So thought Mr. Conried, saturated with German theatricalism, and seeing no likely difference in the appeal of a “Parsifal,” which he had successfully produced, and a “Salome,” he prepared to put the works of Wagner and Strauss on the same footing at the Metropolitan Opera House. An influence which has not yet been clearly defined, but which did not spring from the director of the opera nor the gentlemen who were his financial backers, silenced the maunderings of the lust-crazed Herod and paralyzed the contortions of the lascivious dancer to whom he was willing to give one-half his kingdom.’
Now Mr. Hammerstein came to continue the artistic education which the owners of the Metropolitan Opera House had so strangely and unaccountably checked. Salome lived out her mad life in a short time, dying, not by the command of Herod, but . crushed under the shield of popular opinion. The operation, though effective, was not as swift as it might have been had operatic conditions been different than they are in New York, and before it was accomplished a newer phase of Strauss’s pathological art had offered itself as a nervous excitation. It was “Elektra,” and under the guise of an ancient religious ideal, awful but pathetic, the people were asked to find artistic delight in the contemplation of a woman’s maniacal thirst for a mother’s blood. It is not necessary to recall the history of the opera at the Manhattan Opera House to show that the artistic sanity of New York was proof against the new poison.
Hugo von Hoffmannsthal had aided Strauss in this brew and collaborated with him in the next, which, it was hoped, probably because of the difference in its concoction and ingredients, would make his rein even more taut than it had ever been on theatrical managers and their public. From the Greek classics he turned to the comedy of the Beaumarchais period. Putting their heads together, the two wrote “Der Rosenkavalier.” It was perhaps shrewd on their part that they avoided all allusion to the opera buffa of the period and called their work a “comedy for music.” It enabled them, in the presence of the ignorant, to assume a virtue which they did not possess ; but it is questionable if that circumstance will help them any. It is only the curious critic nowadays who takes the trouble to look at the definition, or epithet, on a title page. It is the work which puts the hallmark on itself ; not the whim of the composer. It would have been wise, very wise indeed, had Hoffmannsthal avoided everything which might call up a comparison between himself and Beaumarchais. It was simply fatal to Strauss that he tried to avoid all comparison between his treatment of an eighteenth century comedy and Mozart’s. One of his devices was to make use of the system of musical symbols which are irrevocably associated with Wagner’s method of composition. Mozart knew nothing of this system, but he had a better one in his Beaumarchaisian comedy, which “Der Rosenkavalier” recalls ; it was that of thematic expression for each new turn in the dramatic situation a system which is carried out so brilliantly in “Le Nozze di Figaro” that there is nothing, even in “Die Meistersinger,” which can hold a candle to it. An-other was to build up the vocal part of his comedy on orchestral waltzes. Evidently it was his notion that at the time of Maria Theresa (in whose early reign the opera is supposed to take place) the Viennese world was given over to the dance. It was so given over a generation later, so completely, indeed, that at the meetings in the ridotto, for which Mozart, Haydn, Gyrowetz, Beethoven, and others wrote music, retiring rooms had to be provided for ladies who were as unprepared for possible accidents as was one of those described by Pepys as figuring in a court ball in his time ; but to put scarcely any-thing but waltz tunes under the dialogue of “Der Rosenkavalier” is an anachronism which is just as disturbing to the judicious as the fact that Herr Strauss, though he starts his half-dozen or more of waltzes most insinuatingly, never lets them run the natural course which Lanner and the Viennese Strauss, who suggested their tunes, would have made them do. Always, the path which sets out so prettily becomes a byway beset with dissonant thorns and thistles and clogged with rocks.
All of this is by way of saying that “Der Rosenkavalier” reached New York on December 9, 1913, after having endured two years or so in Europe, under the management of Mr. Gatti-Casazza, and was treated with the distinction which Mr. Conried gave “Parsifal” and had planned for “Salome.” It was set apart for a performance outside the subscription, special prices were demanded, and the novelty dressed as sumptuously and prepared with as lavish an expenditure of money and care as if it were a work of the very highest importance. Is it that ? The question is not answered by the fact that its music was composed by Richard Strauss, even though one be willing to admit that Strauss is the greatest living master of technique in musical composition, the one concerning whose doings the greatest curiosity is felt and certainly the one whose doings are the best advertised. “Der Rosenkavalier,” in spite of all these things, must stand on its merits as a comedy with music. The author of its book has invited a comparison which has already been suggested by making it a comedy of intrigue merely and placing its time of action in Vienna and the middle of the eighteenth century. He has gone further ; he has invoked the spirit of Beaumarchais to animate his people and his incidents. The one thing which he could not do, or did not do, was to supply the satirical scourge which justified the Figaro comedies of his great French prototype and which, while it made their acceptance tardy, because of royal and courtly opposition, made their popular triumph the more emphatic. “Le Nozze di Figaro” gave us more than one figure and more than one scene in the representation, and “Le Nozze di Figaro” is to those who understand its text one of the most questionable operas on the current list. But there is a moral purpose underlying the comedy which to some extent justifies its frank salaciousness. It is to prevent the Count from exercising an ancient seigniorial right over the heroine which he had voluntarily resigned, that all the characters in the play unite in the intrigue which makes up the comedy. Moreover, there are glimpses over and over again of honest and virtuous love between the characters and beautiful expressions of it in the music which makes the play delightful, despite its salaciousness. Even Cherubino, who seems to have come to life again in Octavian, is a lovable youth if for no other reason than that he represents youth in its amorousness toward all womankind, with thought of special mischief toward none.
“Der Rosenkavalier” is a comedy of lubricity merely, with what little satirical scourge it has applied only to an old roué who is no more deserving of it than most of the other people in the play. So much of its story as will bear telling can be told very briefly. It begins, assuming its instrumental introduction (played with the scene discreetly hidden) to be a part of it, with a young nobleman locked in the embraces of the middle-aged wife of a field marshal, who is conveniently absent on a hunting expedition. The music is of a passionate order, and the composer, seeking a little the odor of virtue, but with an oracular wink in his eye, says in a descriptive note that it is to be played in the spirit of parody (parodistisch). Unfortunately the audience cannot see the printed direction, and there is no parody in music except extravagance and ineptitude in the utterance of simple things (like the faulty notes of the horns in Mozart’s joke on the village musicians, the cadenza for violin solo in the same musical joke, or the twangling of Beckmesser’s lute) ; so the introduction is an honest musical description of things which the composer is not willing to confess, and least of all the stage manager, for when the curtain opens there is not presented even the picture called for by the German libretto. Nevertheless, morn is dawning, birds are twittering, and the young lover, kneeling before his mistress on a divan, is bemoaning the fact that day is come and that he cannot publish his happiness to the world. The tête-à-tête is interrupted by a rude boor of a nobleman, who comes to consult his cousin (the princess) about a messenger to send with the conventional offering of a silver rose to the daughter of a vulgar plebeian just elevated to the nobility because of his wealth. The conversation between the two touches on little more than old amours, and after the lady has held her levee designed to introduce a variety of comedy effects in music as well as action, the princess recommends her lover for the office of rosebearer. Mean-while the lover has donned the garments of a waiting maid and been overwhelmed with the wicked attentions of the roué, Lerchenau. When the lovers are again alone there is a confession of renunciation on the part of the princess, based on the philosophical reflection that, after all, her Octavian being so young would bring about the inevitable parting sooner or later.
In the second act what the princess in her prescient abnegation had foreseen takes place. Her lover carries the rose to the young woman whom the roué had picked out for his bride and promptly falls in love with her. She with equal promptness, following the example of Wagner’s heroines, bowls herself at his head. The noble vulgarian complicates matters by insisting that he receive a dowry instead of paying one. The young hot-blood adds to the difficulties by pinking him in the arm with his sword, but restores order at the last by sending him a letter of assignation in his first act guise of a maid servant of the princess.
This assignation is the background of the third act, which is farce of the wildest and most vulgar order. Much of it is too silly for description. Always, however, there is allusion to the purpose of the meeting on the part of Lerchenau, whose plans are spoiled by apparitions in all parts of the room, the entrance of the police, his presumptive bride and her father, a woman who claims him as her husband, four children who raise bedlam (and memories of the contentious Jews in “Salome”), by shouting “Papa ! papa !” until his mind is in a whirl and he rushes out in despair. The princess leaves the new-found lovers alone.
They hymn their happiness in Mozartian strains (the melody copied from the second part of the music with which Papageno sets the blackamoors to dancing in “Die Zauberflote “), the orchestra talks of the matronly renunciation of the princess, enthusiastic Straussians of a musical parallel with the quintet from Wagner’s “Meistersinger,” and the opera comes to an end after three and one-half hours of more or less unintelligible dialogue poised on waltz melodies.
I have said unintelligible dialogue. For this unintelligibility there are two reasons the chief one musical, the other literary. Though Strauss treats his voices with more consideration in “Der Rosenkavalier” than in his tragedies, he still so over-burdens them that the words are distinguishable only at intervals. Only too frequently he crushes them with orchestral voices, which in themselves are not overwhelming the voices of his horns, for in-stance, for which he shows a particular partiality. His style of declamation is melodic, though it is only at the end of the opera that he rises to real vocal melody ; but it seems to be put over an orchestral part, and not the orchestral part put under it. There is no moment in which he can say, as Wagner truthfully and admiringly said of the wonderful orchestral music of the third act of “Tristan and Isolde,” that all this swelling instrumental song existed only for the sake of what the dying Tristan was saying upon his couch. All of Strauss’s waltzes seem to exist for their own sake, which makes the disappointment greater that they are not carried through in the spirit in which they are begun ; that is, the spirit of the naïve Viennese dance tune.
A second reason for the too frequent unintelligibility of the text is its archaic character. Its idioms are eighteenth century as well as Viennese, and its persistent use of the third person even among individuals of quality, though it gives a tang to the libretto when read in the study, is not welcome when heard with difficulty. Besides this, there is use of dialect vulgar when assumed by Octavian, mixed when called for by such characters as Valzacchi and his partner in scandal mongery, Annina. To be compelled to forego a knowledge of half of what such a master of diction as Mr. Reiss was saying was a new sensation to his admirers who understand German. Yet the fault was as little his as it was Mr. Goritz’s that so much of what he said went for nothing; it was all his misfortune, including the fact that much of the music is not adapted to his voice.
The music offers a pleasanter topic than the action and dialogue. It is a relief to those listeners who go to the opera oppressed with memories of “Salome” and “Elektra.” It is not only that their ears are not so often assaulted by rude sounds, they are frequently moved by phrases of great and genuine beauty. Unfortunately the Straussian system of composition demands that beauty be looked for in fragments. Continuity of melodic flow is impossible to Strauss a confession of his inability either to continue Wagner’s method, to improve on it, or in-vent anything new in its place. The best that has been done in the Wagnerian line belongs to Humperdinck.