THERE IS nothing so thrilling as first impressions. I remember when, as a child, I heard fragments of Wagner’s music for the first time at one of old Pasdeloup’s concerts in the Cirque d’Hiver. I was taken there one dull and foggy Sunday afternoon; and as we left the yellow fog outside and entered the hall we were met by an overpowering warmth, a dazzling blaze of light, and the murmuring voice of the crowd. My eyes were blinded, I breathed with difficulty, and my limbs soon became cramped; for we sat on wooden benches, crushed in a narrow space between solid walls of human beings. But with the first note of the music all was forgotten, and one fell into a state of painful yet delicious torpor. Perhaps one’s very discomfort made the pleasure keener. Those who know the intoxication of climbing a mountain know also how closely it is associated with the discomforts of the climbwith fatigue and the blinding light of the sun, with out-of-breathness and all the other sensations that rouse and stimulate life and make the body tingle, so that the remembrance of it all is carved indelibly on the mind. The comfort of a playhouse adds nothing to the illusion of a play; and it may even be due to the entire inconvenience of the old concert rooms that I owe my vivid recollection of my first meeting with Wagner’s work.
How mysterious it was, and with what a strange agitation it filled me! There were new effects of orchestration, new timbres, new rhythms, and new subjects; it held the wild poetry of the faraway Middle Ages and old legends, it throbbed with the fever of our hidden sorrows and desires. I did not understand it very well. How should I? The music was taken from works quite unknown to me. It was almost impossible to seize the connection of the ideas on account of the poor acoustics of the room, the bad arrangement of the orchestra, and the unskilled playersall of which served to break up the musical design and spoil the harmony of its coloring. Passages that should have been made prominent were slurred over, and others were distorted by faulty time or want of precision. But what did it matter? I used to feel myself stirred with passions that were not human: some magnetic influence seemed to thrill me with both pleasure and pain, and I felt invigorated and happy, for it brought me strength. It seemed is if my child’s heart were torn from me and the heart of a hero put in its place.
Nor was I alone in the experience. On the faces of the people round me I saw the reflection of my own emotions. What was the meaning of it? The audience consisted chiefly of poor and commonplace people, whose faces were lined with the wear and tear of a life without interest or ideals; their minds were dull and heavy, and yet here they responded to the divine spirit of the music. There is no more impressive sight than that of thousands of people held spellbound by a melody; it is by turns sublime, grotesque, and touching.
What a place in my life those Sunday concerts held! All the week I lived for those two hours; and when they were over I thought about them until the following Sunday. The fascination of Wagner’s music for youth has often troubled people; they think it poisons the thoughts and dulls the activities. But the generation that was then intoxicated by Wagner does not seem to have shown signs of demoralization since. Why do not people understand that if we had need of that music it was not because it was death to us, but life. Cramped by the artificiality of a town, far from action, or nature, or any strong or real life, we expanded under the influence of this noble musicmusic which flowed from a heart filled with understanding of the world and the breath of Nature. In Die Meistersinger, in Tristan, and in Siegfried, we went to find the joy, the love, and the vigor that we so lacked.
At the time when I was feeling Wagner’s seductiveness so strongly, there were always some carping people among my elders ready to quench my admiration and say with a superior smile: “That is nothing. One can’t judge Wagner at a concert. You must hear him in the opera house at Bayreuth.” Since then I have been several times to Bayreuth; I have seen Wagner’s works performed in Berlin, in Dresden, in Munich, and in other German towns, but I have never again felt the old intoxication. People are wrong to pretend that closer acquaintance with a fine work adds to one’s enjoyment of it. It may throw light upon it, but it nips one’s imagination and dispels the mystery. The puzzling fragments one hears at concerts will take on splendid proportions on account of all the mind adds to them. That epic poem of the Niebelungen was once like a forest in our dreams, where strange and awful beings flashed before our vision and then vanished. Later on, when we had explored all its paths, we discovered that order and reason reigned in the midst of this apparent jungle; and when we came to know the least wrinkle on the faces of its inhabitants, the confusion and emotion of other days no longer filled us.
But this may be the result of growing older; and if I do not recognize the Wagner of other days, it is perhaps because I do not recognize my former self. A work of art, and above all a work of musical art, changes with ourselves. Siegfried, for ex-ample, is for me no longer full of mystery. The qualities in it that strike me today are its cheerful vigor, its clearness of form, its virile force and freedom, and the extraordinary healthiness of the hero, and, indeed, of the whole work.
I sometimes think of poor Nietzsche and his passion for destroying the things he loved, and how he sought in others the decadence that was really in himself. He tried to embody this decadence in Wagner, and, led away by his flights of fancy and his mania for paradox (which would be laughable if one did not remember that his whims were not hatched in hours of happiness), he denied Wagner his most obvious qualitieshis vigor, his determination, his unity, his logic, and his power of progress. He amused himself by comparing Wagner’s style with that of Goncourt, by making himwith amusing irony–a great miniaturist painter, a poet of half-tones, a musician of affectations and melancholy, so delicate and effeminate in style that “after him all other musicians seemed too robust.” He has painted Wagner and his time delightfully. We all enjoy these little pictures of the Tetralogy, delicately drawn and worked up by the aid of a magnifying glasspictures of Wagner, languishing and beautiful in a mournful salon, and pictures of the athletic meetings of the other musicians who were “too robust”! The amusing part is that this piece of wit has been taken seriously by certain arbiters of elegance, who are only too happy to be able to run counter to any current opinion, whatever it may be.
I do not say that there may not be a decadent side in Wagner revealing supersensitiveness or even hysteria and other modern nervous affections. If this side were lacking, he would not be representative of his time, and that is what every great artist ought to be. But there is certainly something more in him than decadence; and if women and young men cannot see anything beyond it, it only proves their inability to get outside them-selves. A long time ago Wagner himself complained to Liszt that neither the public nor artists knew how to listen to or understand any side of his music but the effeminate side; “They do not grasp its strength,” he said. “My supposed successes,” he also tells us, “are founded on misunderstanding. My public reputation isn’t worth a walnut shell.” And it is true he has been applauded, patronized, and monopolized for a quarter of a century by all the decadents of art and literature. Scarcely any-one saw in him a vigorous musician and a classic writer, or recognized him as Beethoven’s direct successor, the inheritor of his heroic and pastoral genius, of his Napoleonic phrases and atmosphere of stirring trumpet calls.
Nowhere is Wagner nearer to Beethoven than in Siegfried. In Die Walkure certain characters, certain phrases of Wotan, of Briinnhilde, and especially of Siegmund, bear a close relationship to Beethoven’s symphonies and sonatas. I can never play the recitative con espressione e semplice of the seventeenth sonata for the piano (Op. 31, No. 2) without being re-minded of the forests of Die Walküre and the fugitive hero. But in Siegfried I find not only a likeness to Beethoven in details but the same spirit running through the workboth the poem and the music. I cannot help thinking that Beethoven would perhaps have disliked Tristan but would have loved Siegfried; for the latter is a perfect incarnation of the spirit of old Germany, virginal and gross, sincere and malicious, full of humor and sentiment, of deep feeling, of dreams of bloody and joyous battles, of the shade of great oak trees and the song of birds.
In my opinion, Siegfried, in spirit and in form, stands alone in Wagner’s work. It breathes perfect health and happiness, and it overflows with gladness. Only Die Meistersinger rivals it in merriment though even there one does not find such a nice balance of poetry and music.
And Siegfried rouses one’s admiration the more when one thinks that it was the offspring of sickness and suffering. The time at which Wagner wrote it was one of the saddest in his life. It often happens so in art. One goes astray in trying to interpret an artist’s life by his work, for it is exceptional to find one a counterpart of the other. It is more likely that an artist’s work will express the opposite of his lifethe things that he did not experience. The object of art is to fill up what is missing in the artist’s experience: “Art begins where life leaves off,” said Wagner. A man of action is rarely pleased with stimulating works of art. Borgia and Sforza patronized Leonardo. The strong, full-blooded men of the seventeenth century, the apoplectic court at Versailles (where Fagon’s lancet played so necessary a part), the generals and ministers who harassed the Protestants and burned the Palatinateall these loved pastorales. Napoleon wept at a reading of Paul et Virginie and de-lighted in the pallid music of Paisiello. A man wearied by an overactive life seeks repose in art; a man who lives a narrow, commonplace life seeks energy in art. A great artist writes a gay work when he is sad, and a sad work when he is gay, almost in spite of himself. Beethoven’s symphony to joy is the offspring of his misery; and Wagner’s Meistersinger was composed immediately after the failure of Tannhäuser in Paris. People try to find in Tristan the trace of some love story of Wagner’s, but Wagner himself says: “As in all my life I have never truly tasted the happiness of love, I will raise a monument to a beautiful dream of it: I have the idea of Tristan and Isolde in my head.” And so it was with his creation of the happy and heedless Siegfried.
The first ideas of Siegfried were contemporary with the Revolution of 1848, in which Wagner took part with the same enthusiasm he put into everything else. On June 14, 1848, in a famous speech to the National Democratic Association, Wagner violently attacked the organization of society itself and demanded both the abolition of money and the extinction of what was left of the aristocracy. In Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft (1849) he showed that beyond the “local nationalism” were signs of a “supernational universalism.” And all this was not merely talk, for he risked his life for his ideas. One of his biographers quotes the account of a witness who saw him, in May 1849, distributing revolutionary pamphlets to the troops who were besieging Dresden. It was a miracle that he was not arrested and shot. We know that after Dresden was taken, a warrant was out against him, and he fled to Switzerland with a passport on which was a borrowed name. If it be true that Wagner later declared that he had been “involved in error and led away by his feelings,” it matters little to the history of that time. Errors and enthusiasms are an integral part of life, and one must not ignore them in a man’s biography under the pretext that he regretted them twenty or thirty years later, for they have, nevertheless, helped to guide his actions and impress his imagination. It was out of the Revolution itself that Siegfried directly sprang.
In 1848 Wagner was not yet thinking of a Tetralogy but of an heroic opera in three acts called Siegfried’s Tod in which the fatal power of gold was to be symbolized in the treasure of the Niebelungen; and Siegfried was to represent “a socialist redeemer come down to earth to abolish the reign of Capital.” As the rough draft developed, Wagner went up the stream of his hero’s life. He dreamed of his childhood, of his conquest of the treasure, of the awakening of Brunnhilde; and in 1851 he wrote the poem of Der lunge Siegfried. Siegfried and Brunnhilde rep-resent the humanity of the future, the new era that should be realized when the earth was set free from the yoke of gold. Then Wagner went further back still, to the sources of the legend itself, and Wotan appeared, the symbol of our time, a man such as you or I-in contrast to Siegfried, man as he ought to be and one day will be. On this subject Wagner says in a let-ter to Roeckel: “Look well at Wotan; he is the unmistakable likeness of ourselves, and the sum of the present-day spirit while Siegfried is the man we wait and wish forthe future man whom we cannot create but who will create himself by our annihilationthe most perfect man I can imagine.” Finally Wagner conceived the Twilight of the Gods, the fall of Valhalla our present system of society and the birth of a regenerated humanity. Wagner wrote to Uhlig in 1851 that the complete work was to be played after the great Revolution.
The opera public would probably be very astonished to learn that in Siegfried they applaud a revolutionary work expressly directed by Wagner against this detested Capital, whose downfall would have been so dear to him. And he never doubted that he was expressing grief in all these pages of shining joy.
Wagner went to Zurich after a stay in Paris, where he felt “so much distrust for the artistic world and horror for the restraint that he was forced to put upon himself” that he was seized with a nervous malady which nearly killed him. He returned to work at Der lunge Siegfried, and he says it brought him great joy.
`But I am unhappy in not being able to apply myself to any-thing but music. I know I am feeding on an illusion, and that reality is the only thing worth having. My health is not good, and my nerves are in a state of increasing weakness. My life, lived entirely in the imagination and without sufficient action, tires me so that I can only work with frequent breaks and long intervals of rest; otherwise I pay the, penalty with long and painful suffering. . . . I am very lonely. I often wish for death.
“While I work I forget my troubles; but the moment I rest they come flocking about me, and I am very miserable. What a splendid life is an artist’s! Look at it! How willingly would ‘I part with it for a week of real life.
“I can’t understand how a really happy man could think of serving art. If we enjoyed life, we should have no need of art. When the present has nothing more to offer us we cry out our needs by means of art. To have my youth again and my health, to enjoy nature, to have a wife who would love me devotedly, and fine children for this I would give up all my art. Now I have said itgive me what is left.”
Thus the poem of the Tetralogy was written with doubts, as he said, as to whether he should abandon art and all belonging to it and become a healthy, normal mana son of nature. He began to compose the music of the poem while in a state of suffering, which every day became more acute.
“My nights are often sleepless; I get out of bed wretched and exhausted, with the thought of a long day before me which will not bring me a single joy. The society of others tortures me, and I avoid it only to torture myself. Everything I do fills me with disgust. It can’t go on forever. I can’t stand such a life any longer. I will kill myself rather than live like this…. I don’t believe in anything, and I have only one desireto sleep so soundly that human misery will exist no more for me. I ought to be able to get such a sleep somehow; it should not be really difficult.”
For distraction he went to Italy: Turin, Genoa, Spezia, and Nice. But there, in a strange world, his loneliness seemed so frightful that he became very depressed and made all haste back to Zurich. It was there he wrote the happy music of Das Rheingold. He began the score of Die Walküre at a time when his normal condition was one of suffering. Then he discovered Schopenhauer, whose philosophy only helped to confirm and crystallize his instinctive pessimism. In the spring of 1855 he went to London to give concerts, but he was ill there, and this fresh contact with the world only served to annoy him further. He had some difficulty in again taking up Die Walküre, but he finished it at last in spite of frequent attacks of facial erysipelas, for which he afterward had to undergo a hydropathic cure at Geneva. He began the score of Siegfried toward the end of 1856 while the thought of Tristan was stirring within him. In Tristan he wished to depict love as “a dreadful anguish”; and this idea obsessed him so completely that he could not finish Siegfried. He seemed to be consumed by a burning fever; and, abandoning Siegfried in the middle of the second act, he threw himself madly into Tristan. “I want to gratify my desire for love,” he says, “until it is completely satiated; and in the folds of the black flag that floats over its consummation I wish to wrap myself and die.” Siegfried was not finished until February 5, 1871, at the end of the Franco-Prussian warthat is fourteen years later, after several interruptions.
Such is, in a few words, the history of this heroic idyl. It is perhaps as well to remind the public now and then that the hours of distraction they enjoy by means of art may represent years of suffering for the artist.
Do you know the amusing account Tolstoy gave of a performance of Siegfried? I will quote it from his book, What Is Art?
“When I arrived an actor in tight-fitting breeches was seated before an object that was meant to represent an anvil. He wore a wig and false beard; his white and manicured hands had nothing of the workman about them; and his easy air, prominent belly, and flabby muscles readily betrayed the actor. With an absurd hammer he struckas no one else would ever strikea fantastic-looking sword blade. One guessed he was a dwarf because when he walked he bent his legs at the knees. He cried out a great deal and opened his mouth in a queer fashion. The orchestra also emitted peculiar noises like several beginnings that had nothing to do with one another. Then another actor appeared with a horn in his belt, leading a man dressed up as a bear, who walked on all fours. He let loose the bear on the dwarf, who ran away but forgot to bend his knees this time. The actor with the human face represented the hero, Siegfried. He cried out for a long time, and the dwarf replied in the same way. Then a traveler arrivedthe god Wotan. He had a wig, too; and, settling himself down with his spear, in a silly attitude, he told Mimi all about things he already knew but of which the audience was ignorant. Then Siegfried seized some bits that were supposed to represent pieces of a sword and sang: `Heaho, heaho, hohol Hoho, hoho, hoho, hoho! Hoheo, haho, haheo, hoho!’ And that was the end of the first act. It was all so artificial and stupid that I had great difficulty in sitting it out. But my friends begged me to stay and assured me that the second act would be better.
“The next scene represented a forest. Wotan was waking up the dragon. At first the dragon said, `I want to go to sleep’; but eventually he came out of his grotto. The dragon was represented by two men clothed in a green skin with some scales stuck about it. At one end of the skin they wagged a tail, and at the other end they opened a crocodile’s mouth, out of which came fire. The dragon, which ought to have been a frightful beastand perhaps he would have frightened children about five years oldsaid a few words in a bass voice. It was so childish and feeble that one was astonished to see grown-up people present; even thousands of so-called cultured people looked on and listened attentively and went into raptures. Then Siegfried arrived with his horn. He lay down during a pause, which is reputed to be very beautiful; and sometimes he was quite silent. He wanted to imitate the song of the birds, and cut a rush with his horn and made a flute out of it. But he played the flute badly, so he began to blow his horn. The scene is intolerable, and there is not the least trace of music in it. I was annoyed to see three thousand people round about me listening submissively to this absurdity and dutifully admiring it.
“With some courage I managed to wait for the next sceneSiegfried’s fight with the dragon. There were roarings and flames of fire and brandishings of the sword. But I could not stand it any longer, and I fled out of the theater with a feeling of disgust that I have not yet forgotten.”
I admit I cannot read this delightful criticism without laughing; and it does not affect me painfully like Nietzsche’s pernicious and morbid irony. It used to be a grief to me that two men whom I loved with an equal affection and whom I reverenced as the finest spirits in Europe, remained strangers and hostile to each other. I could not bear the thought that a genius, hopelessly misunderstood by the crowd, should be bent on making his solitude more bitter and narrow by refusing, with a sort of jealous waywardness, to be reconciled to his equals, or to offer them the hand of friendship. But now I think that perhaps it was better so. The first virtue of genius is sincerity. If Nietzsche had to go out of his way not to understand Wagner, it is natural, on the other hand, that Wagner should be a closed book to Tolstoy; it would be almost surprising if it were otherwise. Each one has his own part to play and has no need to change it. Wagner’s wonderful dreams and magic intuition of the inner life are not less valuable to us than Tolstoy’s pitiless truth, in which he exposes modern society and tears away the veil of hypocrisy with which she covers herself. So I admire Siegfried and at the same time enjoy Tolstoy’s satire; for I like the latter’s sturdy humor, which is one of the most striking features of his realism, and which, as he himself noticed, makes him closely resemble Rousseau. Both men show us an ultra-refined civilization, and both are uncompromising apostles of a return to nature.
Tolstoy’s rough banter recalls Rousseau’s sarcasm about an opera of Rameau’s. In the Nouvelle Heloise he rails in a similar fashion against the sadly fantastic performances at the theater. It was even then a question of monsters, “of dragons animated by a blockhead of a Savoyard, who had not enough spirit for the beast.”
“They assured me that they had a tremendous lot of machinery to make all this movement, and they offered several times to show it to me; but I felt no curiosity about little effects achieved by great efforts. The sky is represented by some blue rags suspended from sticks and cords like a laundry display. . The chariots of the gods and goddesses are made of four joints in a frame suspended by a thick rope, as a swing might be. Then a plank is stuck across the joists, and on this is seated a god. In front of him hangs a piece of daubed cloth, which serves as a cloud upon which his splendid chariot may rest. The theater is furnished with little square trap-doors which, opening as occasion requires, show that the demons can be let loose from the cellars. When the demons have to fly in the air, dummies of brown cloth are substituted, or sometimes real chimney sweeps, who swing in the air, suspended by cords, until they are gloriously lost in the rag sky.
“But you can have no idea of the dreadful cries and roarings with which the theater resounds…. What is so extraordinary is that these howlings are almost the only things that the audience applauds. By the way they clap their hands one would take them to be a lot of deaf creatures who were so delighted to catch a few piercing sounds now and then that they wanted the actors to do them all over again; I am quite sure that people applaud the bawling of an actress at the opera as they would a mountebank’s feats of skill at a fairone suffers while they are going on, but one is so delighted to see them finish without an accident that one willingly demonstrates one’s pleasure. . . With these beautiful sounds, as true as they are sweet, those of the orchestra blend very worthily. Imagine an unending clatter of instruments without any melody, a lingering and endless groaning among the brass parts, and the whole the most mournful and boring thing that I ever heard in my life. I could not put up with it for half an hour without getting a violent headache.
“All this forms a sort of psalmody, possessing neither tune nor time. But if by any chance a lively air is played, there is a general stamping; the audience is set in motion and follows, with a great deal of trouble and noise, some performer in the orchestra. Delighted to feel for a few moments the rhythm that is so lacking, they torment the ear, the voice, the arms, the legs, and all the body, to chase after a tune that is ever ready to escape them….”
I have quoted this rather long passage to show how the impression made by one of Rameau’s operas on his contemporaries resembled that made by Wagner on his enemies. It was not without reason that Rameau was said to be Wagner’s forerunner, as Rousseau was Tolstoy’s forerunner.
In reality, it was not against Siegfried itself that Tolstoy’s criticism was directed; and Tolstoy was closer than he thought to the spirit of this drama. Is not Siegfried the heroic incarnation of a free and healthy man, sprung directly from Nature? In a sketch of Siegfried, written in 1848, Wagner says:
“To follow the impulses of my heart is my supreme law; what I can accomplish by obeying my instincts is what I ought to do. Is that voice of instinct cursed or blessed? I do not know, but I yield to it and never force myself to run counter to my inclination.”
Wagner fought against civilization by quite other methods than those employed by Tolstoy; and if the efforts of the two were equally great, the practical result isone must really say itas poor on one side as on the other.
What Tolstoy’s raillery is really aimed at is not Wagner’s work but the way in which his work was represented. The splendors of the setting do not hide the childishness of the ideas behind them; the dragon Fafne, Fricka’s rams, the bear, the serpent, and all the Valhalla menagerie have always been ridiculous. [ shall only add that the dragon’s failure to be terrifying was not Wagner’s fault, for he never attempted to depict a terrifying dragon. He gave it quite clearly, and of his own choice, a comic character. Both the text and the music make Fafner a sort of ogre, a simple creature, but, above all, a grotesque one.
Besides, I cannot help feeling that scenic reality takes away rather than adds to the effect of these great philosophical fairylands. Malwida von Meysenbug told me that at the Bayreuth festival of 1876, while she was following one of the Ring scenes very attentively with her opera glasses, two hands were laid over her eyes, and she heard Wagner’s voice say impatiently: “Don’t look so much at what is going on. Listen!” It was good counsel. There are dilettanti who pretend that at a concert the best way to enjoy Beethoven’s last works-where the sonority is defectiveis to stop the ears and read the score. One might say with less of a paradox that the best way to follow a performance of Wagner’s operas is to listen with the eyes shut. So perfect is the music, so powerful its hold on the imagination, that it leaves nothing to be desired; what it suggests to the mind is infinitely finer than what the eyes may see. I have never shared the opinion that Wagner’s works may be best appreciated in the theater. His works are epic symphonies. As a frame for them I should like temples; as scenery, the illimitable land of thought; as actors, our dreams.
The first act of Siegfried is one of the most dramatic in the Tetralogy. Nothing satisfied me more completely at Bayreuth, both as regards the actors and the dramatic effects. Fantastic creatures like Alberich and Mimi, who seem to be out of their element in France, are rooted deep down in German imaginations. The Bayreuth actors surpassed themselves in making them startlingly lifelike, with a trembling and grimacing real-ism. Burgstaller, who was then making his debut in Siegfried, acted with an impetuous awkwardness which accorded well with the part. I remember with what zestwhich seemed in no way affected-he played the hero smith, laboring like a true workman, blowing the fire and making the blade glow, dipping it in the steaming water and working it on the anvil; and then, in a burst of Homeric gaiety, singing that fine hymn at the end of the first act which sounds like an air by Bach or Handel.
But in spite of all this, I felt how much better it was to dream, or to hear this poem of a youthful soul at a concert. It is then that the magic murmurs of the forest in the second act speak more directly to the heart. However beautiful the scenery of glades and woods, however cleverly the light is made to change and dance among the treesand it is manipulated now like a set of organ stopsit still seems almost wrong to listen with open eyes to music that, unaided, can show us a glorious summer’s day and make us see the swaying of the treetops and hear the brush of the wind against the leaves. Through the music alone the hum and murmur of a thousand little voices are about us, the glorious song of the birds floats into the depths of a blue sky; or comes a silence, vibrating with invisible life, when Nature with her mysterious smile opens her arms and hushes all things in a divine sleep.
Wagner left Siegfried asleep in the forest in order to embark on the funereal vessel of Tristan and Isolde. But he left Siegfried with some anguish of heart. When writing to Liszt in 1857, he says:
“I have taken young Siegfried into the depths of a lonely forest; there I have left him under a lime tree, and said goodbye to him with tears in my eyes. It has torn my heart to bury him alive, and I had a hard and painful fight with myself before I could do it. . . . Shall I ever go back to him? No, it is all finished. Don’t let us speak of it again.”
Wagner had reason to be sad. He knew well that he would never find his young Siegfried again. He roused him up ten years later. But all was changed. That splendid third act has not the freshness of the first two. Wotan has become an important figure and has brought reason and pessimism with him into the drama. Wagner’s later conceptions were perhaps loftier, and his genius was more master of itself ( think of the classic dignity in the awakening of Briinnhilde); but the ardor and happy expression of youth is gone. I know that this is not the opinion of most of Wagner’s admirers; but, with the exception of a few pages of sublime beauty, I have never altogether liked the love scenes at the end of Siegfried and at the beginning of Götterdammerung. I find their style rather pompous and declamatory, and their almost excessive refinement makes them border upon dullness. The form of the duet, too, seems cut and dried, and there are signs of weariness in it. The heaviness of the last pages of Siegfried recalls Die Meistersinger, which is also of that period. It is no longer the same joy nor the same quality of joy that is found in the earlier acts.
Yet it does not really matter, for joy is there, nevertheless; and so splendid was the first inspiration of the work that the years have not dimmed its brilliancy. One would like to end with Siegfried and escape the gloomy Götterdammerung. For those who have sensitive feelings the fourth day of the Tetralogy has a depressing effect. I remember the tears I have seen shed at the end of the Ring and the words of a friend as we left the theater at Bayreuth and descended the hill at night: “I feel as though I were coming away from the burial of someone I dearly loved.” It was truly a time of mourning. Perhaps there was something incongruous in building such a structure when it had universal death for its conclusionor at least in making the whole an object of show and instruction. Tristan achieves the same end with much more power, as the action is swifter. Besides that, the end of Tristan is not without comfort, for life there is terrible. But it is not the same in Götterdämmerung; for in spite of the absurdity of the spell which is set upon the love of Siegfried and Briinnhilde, life with them is happy and desirable since they are beings capable of love, and death appears to be a splendid but awful catastrophe. And one cannot say the Ring breathes a spirit of renunciation and sacrifice like Parsifal; renunciation and sacrifice are only talked about in the Ring; and, in spite of the last transports which impel Brunnhilde to the funeral pyre, they are neither an inspiration nor a delight. One has the impression of a great gulf yawning at one’s feet, and the anguish of seeing those one loves fall into it.
I have often regretted that Wagner’s first conception of Siegfried changed in the course of years; and in spite of the magnificent denouement of Götterddmmerung (which is really more effective in a concert room, for the real tragedy ends with Siegfried’s death), I cannot help thinking with regret how fine a more optimistic poem from this revolutionary of ’48 might have been. People tell me that it would then have been less true to life. But why should it be truthful to depict life only as a bad thing? Life is neither good nor bad; it is just what we make it, and the result of the way in which we look at it. Joy is as real as sorrow, and a very fertile source of action. What inspiration there is in the laugh of a great man. Let us welcome, therefore, the sparkling if transient gaiety of Siegfried.
Wagner wrote to Maiwida von Meysenbug: “I have, by chance, just been reading Plutarch’s life of Timoleon. That life ended very happilya rare and unheard-of thing, especially in history. It does one good to think that such a thing is possible. It moved me profoundly.”
I feel the same when I hear Siegfried. We are rarely allowed to contemplate happiness in great tragic art; but when we may, how splendid it is, and how good for one!
Tristan towers like a mountain above all other love poems, as Wagner above all other artists of his century. It is the outcome of a sublime conception though the work as a whole is far from perfect. Of perfect works there is none where Wagner is concerned. The effort necessary for the creation of them was too great to be long sustained; for a single work might mean years of toil. And the tense emotions of a whole drama cannot be ex-pressed by a series of sudden inspirations put into form the moment they are conceived. Long and arduous labor is necessary. These giants, fashioned like Michelangelo’s, these concentrated tempests of heroic force and decadent complexity, are not arrested, like the work of a sculptor or painter, in one moment of their action; they live and go on living in endless detail of sensation. To expect sustained inspiration is to expect what is not human. Genius may reveal what is divine; it may call up and catch a glimpse of die Mutter but it cannot always breathe in the exhausted air of this world. So will must some-times take the place of inspiration, though the will is uncertain and often stumbles in its task. That is why we encounter things that jar and jolt in the greatest worksthey are the marks of human weakness. Well, perhaps there is less weakness in Tristan than in Wagner’s other dramasGötterdämmerung, for instancefor nowhere else is the effort of his genius more strenuous or its flight more dizzy. Wagner himself knew it well. His letters show the despair of a soul wrestling with its familiar spirit, which it clutches and holds, only to lose again. And we seem to hear cries of pain and feel his anger and despair.
“I can never tell you what a really wretched musician I am. In my inmost heart I know I am a bungler and an absolute failure. You should see me when I say to myself, It ought to go now,’ and sit down to the piano and put together some miser-able rubbish which I fling away again like an idiot. I know quite well the kind of musical trash I produce. . . . Believe me, it is no good expecting me to do anything decent. Sometimes I really think it was Reissiger who inspired me to write Tannhäuser and Lohengrin.”
This is how Wagner wrote to Liszt when he was finishing this amazing work of art. In the same way Michelangelo wrote to his father in 1509: “I am in agony. I have not dared to ask the Pope for anything because my work does net make sufficient progress to merit any remuneration. The work is too difficult, and indeed it is not my profession. I am wasting my time to no purpose. Heaven help me!” For a year he had been working at the ceiling of the Sistine chapel.
This is something more than a burst of modesty. No one had more pride than Michelangelo or Wagner, but both felt the defects of their work like a sharp wound. And although those defects do not prevent their works from being the glory of the human spirit, they are there just the same.
I do not want to dwell upon the inherent imperfections of Wagner’s dramas; they are really dramatic or epic symphonies, impossible to act, and gaining nothing from representation. This is especially true of Tristan, where the disparity between the storm of sentiment depicted and the cold convention and enforced timidity of action on the stage is such that at certain momentsin the second act, for erampleit pains and shocks one and seems almost grotesque.
But while admitting that Tristan is a symphony that is not suitable for representation, one also recognizes its blemishes and, above all, its unevenness. The orchestration in the first act is often rather thin, and the plot lacks solidity. There are gaps and unaccountable holes and melodious lines left suspended in space. From beginning to end, lyrical bursts of melody are broken by declamations, or, what is worse, by dissertations. Frenzied whirlwinds of passion stop suddenly to give place to recitatives of explanation or argument. And although these recitatives are nearly always a great relief, although these meta-physical reveries have a character of barbarous cunning that one relishes, yet the superior beauty of the movements of pure poetry, emotion, and music is so evident that this musical and philosophical drama serves to give one a distaste for philosophy and drama and everything else that cramps and confines music.
But the musical part of Tristan is not free either from the faults of the work as a whole, for it, too, lacks unity. Wagner’s music is made up of very diverse styles: one finds in it Italian-isms and Germanisms and even Gallicisms of every kind; there are some that are sublime, some that are commonplace; and at times one feels the awkwardness of their union and the imperfections of their form. Then again, perhaps two ideas of equal originality come together and spoil each other by making too strong a contrast. The fine lamentation of King Markthat personification of a knight of the Grailis treated with such moderation and with so noble a scorn for outward show that its pure, cold light is entirely lost after the glowing fire of the duet.
The work suffers everywhere from a lack of balance. It is an almost inevitable defect, arising from its very grandeur. A mediocre work may quite easily be perfect of its kind; but it is rarely that a work of lofty aim attains perfection. A landscape of little dells and smiling meadows is brought more readily into pleasing harmony than a landscape of dazzling Alps, torrents, glaciers, and tempests; for the heights may sometimes overwhelm the picture and spoil the effect. And so it is with certain great pages of Tristan. We may take for example the verses which tell of excruciating expectationin the second act, Isolde’s expectation on the night filled with desire; and, in the third act, Tristan’s expectation, as he lies wounded and delirious, waiting for the vessel that brings Isolde and deathor we may take the Prelude, that expression of eternal desire that is like a restless sea forever moaning and beating itself upon the shore.
The quality that touches me most deeply in Tristan is the evidence of honesty and sincerity in a man who was treated by his enemies as a charlatan that used superficial and grossly material means to arrest and amaze the public eye. What drama is more sober or more disdainful of exterior effect than Tristan? Its restraint is almost carried to excess. Wagner rejected any picturesque episode in it that was irrelevant to his subject. The man who carried all Nature in his imagination, who at his will made the storms of the Walküre rage, or the soft light of Good Friday shine, would not even depict a bit of the sea round the vessel in the first act. Believe me, that must. have been a sacrifice, though he wished it so. It pleased him to enclose this terrible drama within the four walls of a chamber of tragedy. There are hardly any choruses; there is nothing to distract one’s attention from the mystery of human souls; there are only two real partsthose of the lovers; and if there is a third, it belongs to Destiny, into whose hands the victims are delivered. What a fine seriousness there is in this love play. Its passion remains somber and stern; there is no laughter in it, only a belief which is almost religious, more religious perhaps in its sincerity than that of Parsi f al.
It is a lesson for dramatists to see a man suppressing all frivolous, trifling, and empty episodes in order to concentrate his subject entirely on the inner life of two living souls. In that Wagner is our master, a better, stronger, and more profitable master to follow, in spite of his mistakes, than all the other literary and dramatic authors of his time.
I see that criticism has filled a larger place in these notes than I meant it to do. But in spite of that, I love Tristan; for me and for others of my time it has long been an intoxicating draught. And it has never lost anything of its grandeur; the years have left its beauty untouched, and it is for me the highest point of art reached by anyone since Beethoven’s death.
But as I was listening to it the other evening I could not help thinking: Ah, Wagner, you will one day go too, and join Gluck and Bach and Monteverdi and Palestrina and all the great souls whose names still live among men but whose thoughts are felt only by a handful of the initiated who try in vain to revive the past. You, also, are already of the past, though you were the steady light of our youth, the strong source of life and death, of desire and renouncement, whence we drew our moral force and our power of resistance against the world. And the world, ever greedy for new sensations, goes on its way amid the unceasing ebb and flow of its desires. Already its thoughts have changed, and new musicians are making new songs for the future. But it is the voice of a century of tempest that passes with you.