Somewhat less than a century ago William Hazlitt, whose contempt for opera as a form of art was genuine and profound, observed amiably that the Opera Muse was not a beautiful virgin, who can hope to charm by simplicity and sensibility, but a tawdry courtesan, who, when her paint and patches, her rings and jewels are stripped off, can excite only disgust and ridicule. It may be conceded that matters have improved somewhat since that receding day when Hazlitt, whose critical forte was not urbanity, uttered this acrimonious opinion. The opera is doubtless still, as it was in his day, ideally and exquisitely contrived to amuse or stimulate the intellectual languor of those classes of society on whose sup-port it immediately depends. Yet the shade of Hazlitt might have been made sufficiently uncomfortable by being confronted, half a century after his death, by the indignant and voluble apparition of Richard Wagner. To tell the truth, though, Wagner is scarcely the opera-maker with whose example one might today most effectually rebuke the contempt of Hazlitt. While the Muse which presided at the birth of the Wagnerian music-drama can certainly not be conceived as “a tawdry courtesan,” neither can she be conceived as precisely virginal, persuasive by reason of her “simplicity ” and ” sensibility.” Wagner, for all his dramatic instinct, was, as we are growing to see, as avid of musical effect, achieved by whatever defiance of dramatic consistency, as was any one of the other facile and conscienceless opera wrights whom his doctrines contemned. The ultimate difference between him and them, aside from any questions of motive, principle, or method, is simply that he was a transcendent. genius who wrote music of superlative beauty and power, whereas they were, comparatively speaking, Lilliputians.
Mr. William F. Apthorp, speaking of the condition of the Opera before Wagner’s reforms were exerted upon it, observes that it ” remained (despite the efforts of Gluck) virtually what Cesti had made it not a drama with auxiliary music,, but a dramma per musica a drama for (the sake of) music.” Now it was, of course, the passionate aim of Wagner to write music-dramas which should be dramas with auxiliary music, rather than dramas for the. sake of music; yet it is becoming more and more obvious that what he actually succeeded in producing, despite himself, were dramas which we tolerate to-day only because of their transfiguring and paramount music. In view of recent developments in the modern lyric-drama which have resulted from both his theories and his practice, it may not be without avail to review certain aspects of his art in the perspective afforded by the quarter-century which now stretches lengtheningly between ourselves and him.
It is, of course, a truism to say that the corner-stone of Wagner’s doctrinal arch was that music in the opera had usurped a position of pre-eminence to which it was not entitled, and which was not to be tolerated in what he conceived to be the ideal music-drama. He conceived the: true function of music in its alliance with drama to be strictly auxiliaryan aid, and nothing more than an aid, to the enforcement, the driving home, of the play. As Mr. Apthorp has excellently stated it, his basic principle was that the text (what in old-fashioned dialect was called the libretto) once written by the poet, all other persons who have to do with the work composer, stage-architect, scene-painter, costumer, stage-manager, conductor and singing actorsshould aim at one thing only: the most exact, perfect, and lifelike embodiment of the poet’s thought.” Wagner’s chief quarrel with the opera as he found it was with the preponderance of the musical element in its constitution. If there is one principle that is definite, positive, and unmistakable in his theoretical position it is that, in the evolution of a true music-drama, the dramatist should be the controlling, the composer an accessory, factorlike the scene-painter and the costumer, ancillary and contributive. If it can be shown that in the actual result of his practice this relationship between the drama and the .music is inverted that in his music-dramas the music is supreme, both in its artistic quality and, in its effect, while the drama is a mere framework for its splendoursit becomes obvious that he failed (gloriously, no doubt, but still definitively) in what he set out to achieve. It was his dearest principle that, in Mr. Apthorp’s words, “in any sort of drama, musical or otherwise, the play ‘s the thing.” Yet what be-comes of ” Tristan and Isolde,” of “Meistersinger,” of Gotterdammerung,” when this principle is tested by their quality and effect? Would even the most incorruptible among the Wagnerites of a quarter of a century ago, in the most exalted hour of martyrdom, have ventured to say that in Tristan,” for example, the play’s the thing? Imagine what the second act, say, divorced from the music, would be like; and then remember that the music of this act, with the voice-parts given to various instruments, might, with a little adjustment and condensation, be performed as a somewhat raggedly constructed symphonic poem. The test is a rough and partial one, no doubt, and it is subject to many modifications and reservations. It is not to be disputed, of course, that here is music which is always and every-where transfused with dramatic emotion, and ‘that its form is dramatic form and not musical form but is there today a doubt in the mind of any candid student of Wagner as to the element in this musicodramatic compound which is paramount and controlling?
It should be remembered that what Wagner thought he was accomplishing, or imagined he had accomplished, is not in question. He conceived himself to be primarily a dramatist, a dramatist using music solely and frankly as an auxiliary, as a means of intensifying the action and the moods of the play; and this end he pathetically imagined that he had achieved. Yet it is becoming more and more generally recognised and admitted, by the sincerest appreciators of his art, that as a dramatist he was insignificant and inferior. Had any temerarious soul assured him that his dramas would survive and endure by virtue of their music alone, it is easy to fancy his mingled increduilty and anger. He was not, judged by an ideal even less uncompromising than his own, a musical dramatist at all. It is merely asserting a truth which has already found recognition to insist that he was essentially a dramatic symphonist, a writer of programme-music who used the drama and its appurtenances, for the most part, as a mere stalking-horse for his huge orchestral tone-poems. He was seduced and overwhelmed by his own marvellous art, his irrepressible eloquence: his drama is distorted, exaggerated, or spread to an arid thinness, to accommodate his imperious musical imagination; he ruthlessly interrupts or suspends the action of his plays or the dialogue of his personages in order that he may meditate or philosophise orchestrally. He called his operas by the proud title of ” music-dramas”; yet often it is impossible to find the drama because of the music.
It was not, as has been said before, that he fell short, but that he went too far; he should have stopped at eloquent and pointed intensification. Instead,, he smothered his none too lucid dramas in a welter of magnificent and inspired music obscured them, stretched them to intolerable lengths, filled up every possible space in them with his wonderful tonal commentary, by which they are not, as he thought, unborn, but grievously overweighed. Mr. James Hunker has remarked that Wagner was the first and only Wagnerism. As a matter of sober fact, he was one of the most formidable antagonists that Wagner ever had.
It appears likely that his lyric-dramas will endure on the stage both in spite of and because of their music. The validity and persuasiveness of ” Tristan ” and the Ring ” as music-dramas, as consistent and symmetrical embodiments of Wagner’s ideals, seems less certain than of old. But the music, qua music, is of undiminished potency it is still, regarded as an independent entity, of almost unlimited scope in its .voicing of the moods and emotions of men and the varied pageant of the visible world; and it will always float and sustain his dramas and make them viable. Gorgeous and exquisite, epical and tender, sublimely noble, and earthly as passion and despair, it is still, at its best, unparalleled and unapproached, and, as Pater prophesied of the poetry of Rossetti, more torches will be lit from its flame than even enthusiasts imagine. Nothing can ever dim the glory of Wagner the conjurer of tones. His place is securely among the Olympians, where he sits, one likes to fancy, apart a little lonely and disdainful. In his music he is almost always, as Arnold said of the greatest of the Elizabethans, divinely strong, rich, and attractive”; and at his finest he is incomparable. No one but a master of transcendent genius, and the most amazingly varied powers of expression, could have conceived and shaped such perfect yet diverse things as those three matchless passages in which he is revealed to us as the riant and ten-der humanist, the impassioned lyrist, and the apocalyptic seer: the exquisite close of the second act of “Die Meistersinger,” where is achieved a blend of magically poetic tenderness and comedy for which there are analogies only in certain supreme moments in Shakespeare; the tonal celebration of the ecstatic swoon of Tristan and Isolde in the midst of which the warning voice of the watcher on the tower is borne across an orchestral flood of ineffable and miraculous beauty; and that last passage to which this wonderful man set his hand, the culminating moment in the adoration of the Grail by the transfigured Parsifal music that is as the chanting of seraphs: in which censers are swung before celestial altars. Of the genius who could contrive such things as these, one can say no less than that, regarded from any aesthetic standpoint at all, he is, as the subtle appreciator whom I have quoted said of a great though way-ward poet, ” a superb god of art, so proudly heedless or reckless that he never notices the loss of his winged sandals, and that he is stumbling clumsily when he might well lightly be lifting his steps against the sun-way where his eyes are set.”
As music-dramas, then, appraised by his own standard, the deficiency of Wagner’s representative works must be held to be the subordination of the dramatic element in them to a constituent part their music which should be accessory and contributive rather than essential and predominant. This tyranny is exercised chieflyand, let it be cheerfully owned, to the glory of musical art through Wagner’s orchestra: that magnificent vehicle of a tone-poet who was at once its master and its slave. Yet Wagner sinned scarcely less flagrantly against his most dearly’ held principles in his treatment of the voice. He conceived it to be of vital importance that in the construction of the voice-parts no merely musical consideration of any kind should be permitted to interfere with the lucid utterance of the text.
His singers were to employ a kind of heightened and intensified speech, necessarily musical in its intervals, but never musical at the expense of truthfully expressive declamation. Yet in some of the vocal writing in his later works he is false to this principle, for he not infrequently permits himself to be ravishingly lyrical at moments where lyricism is superfluous and distracting when it is not impertinent. Again he is too much the musician; too little the musical dramatist.
And herewith I come to a curious and interesting point. Mr. E. A. Baughan, an English critic of authority, who has written with both courage and wisdom concerning Wagnerian theories and practices, entertains singular views con-cerning the nature of music-drama as an art form. “There must be no false ideas of music-drama being drama,” he has asserted: it is primarily music. The drama of it is merely,” he goes on, the motive force of the whole, and technically takes the place of form in absolute music “ a sentence which, one may be permitted to observe, would contain an admirably concise statement of the truth if the word merely ” were left out. Mr. Baughan is led by this belief to take the position that whereas, in one respect Wagner was, to put it briefly, too musical, in another respect he was not musical enough. He acknowledges the fact that in Wagner’s combination of music and drama, the music, so far as the orchestra is concerned, assumes an oppressive and obstructive prominence; it indulges for the most part, he holds, in a “superheated commentary ” which leaves little to suggestion, which is persistently excessive and overbearing; yet at the same time Mr. Baughan holds that Wagner, in his treatment of the voice-parts, did not, as he says, ” make use of the full resources of music and of the beautiful human singing-voice in duets, concerted numbers, and choruses.” It is the second of these objections which, as it seems to me, contains matter for discussion. So far from being deficient in melodious effectiveness, Wagner’s writing for the voice, I would hold, errs upon the other side. It would be possible to name page after page in the ” Ring” and ” Tristan ” which is marred, from a musico-dramatic standpoint, by an excess of lyricism. It is a little difficult to understand, for example, how Wagner would have justified his admission of the duet into his care-fully reasoned scheme; for if the ensemble piecethe quartette in Rigoletto,” for example is inherently absurd from a dramatic point of view, as it incontrovertibly is, so also is the duet. Even the most liberal attitude toward the conventions of the operatic stage makes it difficult to tolerate what Mr. W. P. James describes as the spectacle” of two persons inside a house and two outside, supposed to be unconscious of each other’s presence, making their remarks in rhythmic and harmonic consonance. Yet is Wagner much less distant from the dramatic verities when, in the third act of ” Die Meistersinger,” he ranges five people in the centre of a room and causes them to soliloquise in concert; to the end of producing a quintette of ravishing musical beauty? Had he wholly freed himself from what he regarded as the musical bondage of his predecessors when he could tolerate such obvious anachronisms as the duet, the ensemble piece, and the chorus? The truth of the mat-ter seems to be that if Wagner’s music, in itself, were less wonderful and enthralling than it is, those who would. fain insist upon a decent regard for dramatic consistency in the lyric-drama would not tolerate many things in the vocal writing in Tristan,” ” Meistersinger,” the Ring ” and Parsifal ” which are not a whit more dramatically reason-able than the absurdities which Wagner contemptuously derided in the operas of the old school. His vocal writing, far from being deficient in melodic quality, far from ignoring the full resources of music and of the beautiful singing voice,” is saturated and overflowing with musical beauty, and with al-most every variety of melodic effectiveness except that which is possible to purely formal song. Mr. Baughan complains that the voice-parts have ” no independent life ” of their own. In many cases,” he says, the vocal parts, if detached from the score’ [from the orchestral support] are without emotional meaning of any kind the expression .is absolutely incomplete.” An astonishing complaint ! For the same thing is necessarily true of any writing for the voice allied with modern harmony in the accompaniment. How many songs written since composers began to discover the modulatory capacities of harmony, one might ask Mr. Baughan, would have emotional meaning,” or any kind of expression or effect, if the voice part were sung without its harmonic support?
No; Wagner cannot justly be convicted of a paucity of melodic effect in his writing for the voice. He would, one must venture to believe, have come closer to realising his ideal of what a music-drama should be if, in the first place, he had been able and willing to restrain the overwhelming tide of his orchestral eloquence; and if, in the second place, he had been content to let his dramatis personae employ, not (in accordance with Mr. Baughan’s wish) a form , of lyric speech richer in purely musical elements of effect, but one of more naturalistic contour, simpler, more direct, less ornately and intrusively melodic in its utterance of the text.
It would be fatuous, of course, to deny that there are passages in Wagner’s later music-dramas to which one can point, by reason of their continent and transparent expression of the dramatic situation, as examples of a perfect kind of music-drama: which satisfy, not only every conceivable demand for fullness of musical utterance (for that Wagner almost always does), but those intellectual convictions as to what an ideal music-drama should be which he himself was pre-eminently instrumental in diffusing. In such passages his direct and pointedly dramatic use of the voice, and his discreet and sparing, yet deeply suggestive, treatment of the orchestral background, are of irresistible effect. How admirable, then, is his restraint ! As in, for example, Waltraute’s narrative in Gotterdammerung”; the early scenes between Siegmund and Sieglinde, and Brurnhilde’s announcement of the decree of death to the Volsung, in Walkure”; and in Tristan ” the passage wherein the knight proffers to Isolde his sword; the opening of the third act; and the first sixteen measures that follow the meeting of the lovers in the second act where the breathless, almost inarticulate ecstasy of the moment is uttered with extraordinary fidelity, only to lead into a passage wherein the pair suddenly recover their breath in time to respond to the need of battling against one of the most glorious but dramatically inflated outpourings of erotic rapture ever given to an orchestra.
But scenes of such perfect musico-dramatic adjustment are rare in Wagner. It is not likely, in view of his insuperable propensity toward musical rhetoric and his amazingly fecund eloquence, that, even if he had kept a more sternly repressive hand upon his impulse toward musical elaboration, he could have accomplished the union of drama and music in . that exquisite and scrupulously balanced relationship which produces the ideal music-drama. That achievement had to wait until the materials of musical expression had attained a greater ductility and variety, and until the intellectual and aesthetic seed which Wagner sowed had ripened into a maturer harvest than was possible in his own time it had to wait, in short, until to-day. For there are those of us who believe that the feat has at last been actually achieved that the principles of musico-dramatic structure inimitably stated by Gluck in his preface to Alceste ” have been, for the first time, carried out with absolute fidelity to their spirit; and, more-over, with that cohesion of organism which Gluck signally failed to achieve, and with that fineness of dramatic instinct the lack of which is Wagner’s prime deficiency.
It is not every generation that can witness the emergence of a masterpiece which may truly be called epoch-making; yet when Francenot the Italy of Peri and Monteverdi; nor the Germany of Gluck and Wagner produced, doubtless to the stupefaction of the shades of Meyerbeer, Bizet, and Gounod, the Pelleas et Melisande ” of Claude Debussy, it produced a work which is as commanding in quality as it is unique in conception and design.
It has been left for Debussy to write an absolutely new page in the eventful history of the opera. This remarkable composer is to-day regarded with suspicion by the vigilant conservators of our musical integrity those who are vigorous and unconquerable champions of aesthetic progress so long as it involves no change in established methods and no reversal of traditions; for he has shown a per-verse disinclination to conform to those rules of procedure which, in music as in the other arts, are held to be inviolable until they are set aside by the practice of successive generations of inspired innovators. He has, in brief, affronted the orthodox by creating a form and method of his own, and one which stubbornly refuses to square with any of the recognised laws of the game. He is nowhere so significant a phenomenon to the curious student of musical development as in his setting of Maeterlinck’s drama. For the first time in the history of opera we are confronted here with the spectacle of a lyric-drama in which, while the drama itself holds without compromise the paramount place in the structural scheme, the musical envelope with which it is, surrounded is not only transparent and intensifying, but, as music, beautiful and remarkable in an extraordinary degree. The point to be emphasised is this: that the postulate of Count Bardi’s sixteenth century ” reformers,” formulated by Gluck almost two hundred years later in the principle that the true function of music in the opera is “to second poetry in expressing the emotions and situations of the plot,” has its first consistent and effective application in Debussy’s ” Pelléas et Melisande.” What the Camerata, and their successors, could not accomplish for lack of adequate musical means, what Gluck fell short of compassing for want of boldness and reach of vision, what Wagner might have effected but for too great a preoccupation with one phase of the problem, a French-man of today has quietly and (I say it deliberately) perfectly achieved.
His success is as much a result of time and circumstance and the slow growth of the art as of a pre-eminent natural fitness for the task. The Florentines, for all their eagerness and sincerity, were helpless before the problem of putting their principles into concrete and effective form, for they were hopelessly blocked by reason of the desperate poverty of the musical means at their disposal. Spurning the elaborate and lovely art of the contrapuntists, they found themselves in the sufficiently hopeless situation of artists filled with passionate convictions but without tools in other words, they aspired to write dramatic music for single voices and. instruments with nothing to aid them save a rudimentary harmonic system and an almost non-existent orchestra, and with virtually no perception of the possibilities of melodic effect. Their failure was due, not to any infirmity of purpose, but to a simple lack of materials. Of Gluck it is to be said that, ardent and admirable reformer as he was, and clear as was his perception of the rightful demands of the drama in any serious association with music, he failed, as Mr. Henry T. Finck justly says, to effect a ” real amalgamation of music and drama,” failed to strike out a form organically connecting each part of the opera with every other.” His unconnected ” numbers,” his indulgence in vocal embroidery, his retention of many of the encumbrances of the operatic machinery, are all testimony to a not very rigorous or far-seeing reformatory impulse. If, as Mr. Finck pointedly observes, he “insisted on the claims of the composer as against the singer, he did not, on the other hand, alter the relations of poet and , composer. Such a thing as allowing the drama to condition the form of the music never occurred to him.” A spontaneous master of musico-dramatic speech, he stopped far short of striking out a form of lyric-drama in which the music was really made to exercise, continuously and undeviatingly, what he stated to be ” its true function.” It would be absurd to dispute the fact that his sense of dramatic expression was both keen and rich; but it was an instinct which manifested itself in isolated and particular instances, and it was not strong enough or exigent enough to compel him to devise a new and more intelligent manner of treating his dramatic text as a whole.
Of the degree in which Wagner fell short of embodying his principles which were .of course in essence the principles of the Florentines and of Gluck and the evident reason for his failure, enough has already been said. So we come again to Debussy. For it is a singular fact — and this is the point to insist. upon that this French mystic of to-day is the first opera-maker in the records of musical art who has exhibited the courage, and who has possessed the means, to carry the principles of the Camerata, of Gluck, and of Wagner to their ultimate conclusion. In Pelleas et Melisande ” he has made his music serve his dramatic subject, in all its parts, with absolute, fidelity and consistency, and with a rigorous and unswerving logic that is without parallel in the history of operatic art; we are here as far from the method of Richard Strauss, with its translation of the entire dramatic material into the terms of the symphonic poem, and with the singing actors contending against a Gargantuan and merciless orchestra (which is nothing, after all, but an exaggeration of the method of Wagner, as we are from the futile experimentings of the Camerata.
One cannot but wonder what Hazlitt, who could not think of beauty, simplicity, or sensibility as qualities having any possible association with opera, would have said of a manner of writing for the lyric stage which ignores even those opportunities for musical effect which composers of unimpeachable artistic integrity have always held to be desirable and legitimate. There is an even richer invitation to the Spirit of Comedy in trying to imagine what Richard Wagner would have said to the suggestion of a lyric-drama in which the orchestra is not employed at its full strength more than three times in the course of a score almost as long as that of Tristan and Isolde,” and in which the singers scarcely ever raise their voices above a mezzo forte. Debussy’s orchestra is unrivalled in musico-dramatic art for the exquisite justness with which it en-forces the moods and action of the play. It never seduces the attention of the auditor from the essential concerns of the drama itself: never, as with Wagner, tyrannically absorbs the mind. Always in this unexampled music-drama there is maintained, as to emphasis and in-tensity, a scrupulous balance between the movement of the drama and the tonal undercurrent which is its complement: the music is absolutely merged in the play, suffusing it, colouring it, but never dominating or transcending it. It is for this reason that it deserves, as an exemplification of the ideal manner of constructing a music-drama, the hazardous epithet perfect ” for it is, one cannot too often repeat, a work far more faithful to Wagner’s avowed principles than are his own magnificently in-consistent scores. In this music there is no excess of gesture, there is none of Wagner’s gorgeously expansive rhetoric: the Je t’aime,” “Je t’aime aussi” of Debussy’s lovers are expressed with a simplicity and a stark sincerity which could not well go further; and it is a curious and significant fact that the moment of their profoundest ecstasy, though it is artfully and eloquently prepared, is represented in the orchestra by a blank measure, a moment of complete silence. This, indeed, is almost the supreme distinction of Debussy’s music-drama: that it should be at once so eloquent and so’ discreet: that it should be, in the exposition of its subject-matter, so rich and intense yet so delicately and heedfully reticent. After the grave speech and simple gestures of these naive yet subtle and passionate tragedians, as Debussy has translated them into fluid tone, the posturings and the rhetoric of Wagner’s splendid personages seem, for a time, violently extravagant, excessive, and over-wrought. To attempt to resist the imperious sway which the most superb of musical romantics must always exert over his kingdom would be a futile endeavour; yet it cannot be denied that for some the method of Debussy as a musical dramatist will seem the more viable and the more sound, as it is grateful to the mind a little wearied by the drums and tramplings of Wagnerian conquests.
His use of the orchestra differs from Wagner’s in degree rather than in kind. As he employs it, it is a veracious and pointed commentary on the text and the action of the play, underlining the significance of the former and colouring and intensifying the latter; but its comments are infinitely less copious and voluble than are Wagner’sindeed, their reticence and discretion are, as it has been said, extreme. Debussy’s choric orchestra is often as remarkable for what it does not say as for what it does. Can one, for example, imagine Wagner being able to resist the temptation to indulge in some graphic and detailed tone-painting, at the cost of delaying the action and overloadimg the score, at the passage wherein Golaud, coming upon the errant and weeping Melisande in the forest, and seeing her crown at the bottom of the spring where she has thrown it, asks her what it is that shines in the water? Yet observe the curiously insinuating effect which results from Debussy’s deft and reticent treatment of this episode the pianissimo chords on the muted horns, followed by a measure in which the voices declaim alone. And would not Wagner have wrung the last drop of emotion out of the death scene of Melisande? a scene for which Debussy has written music of almost insupportable poignancy, yet of a quality so reserved and unforced that it enters the consciousness al-most unperceived as music.
The discursive and exegetical tendencies of Wagner are forgotten; nor are we reminded of the manner in ‘ which Strauss, in his “Salome,” overlays the speech and action of the characters with a dense, oppressive, and many-stranded web of tone. Yet always Debussy’s musical comment is intimately and truthfully reflective of what passes visibly upon the stage and in the hearts of his dramatic personages; though often it transmits not so much the actual speech and apparent emotions of the: characters, as that dim and pseudonymous reality,
the thing behind the thing,” as the Celts have named it, which hovers, unspoken and undeclared, in the background of Maeterlinck’s wonderful play. We are reminded at times, in listening to this lucent and fluid current of orchestral tone, of Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s description of the voice of his Elen: . . . it was taciturn, subdued, like the murmur of the river Lethe, flowing through the region of shadows.” This orchestra, seldom elaborate in thematic exfoliation, and still less frequently polyphonic in texture, is, for the most part, a voice that speaks in hints and through allusions. The huge and imperious eloquence of Wagner is not to be sought for here. Taine once spoke of the violent sorcery ” of Victor Hugo’s style, and it is a phrase that comes often to the mind in thinking of the music of the titanic German. Debussy in his ” Pelleas ” has written music that is rich in sorcery; but it is not violent. In it inheres a capacity for expression, and a quality of enchantment in the result, that music had not before exerted an enchantment that invades the mind by stealth yet holds it with en-chaining power. In a curious degree the music is both contemplative and impassioned; its pervading note is that of still flame, of emotional quietude the sweeping and cosmic winds of Tristan and Isolde” are absent. Yet the dramatic fibre of the score is strong and rich; for all its fineness and delicacy of texture’ and its economy of accent, it is neither amorphous nor inert.
Tristan and Isolde, in moments of exalted emotion, utter that emotion with the frankest lyricism; Pelleas and Melisande, in moments of like fervour, still adhere to the unformed and unsymmetrical declamation in which their language is elsewhere couched. It is the orchestra which singswhich, passionately or meditatively, colours the dramatic moment. Wherein we come to what is perhaps the most extraordinary feature of this extraordinary score: the treatment of the voice-parts. Debussy’s accomplishment in this respect, justly summarised, is this: He has released the orchestra from its thraldom to the methods of the symphonic poem (to which Wagner committed it) by making it a background, a support, rather than a thing of procrustean dominance, thus restoring liberty and transparency of dramatic utterance to the singing actors. He himself has succintly stated the principles which guided him in his manner of writing for the voices in Pelleas.”
I have been reproached,” he has said, “because in my score the melodic phrase is always found in the orchestra, never in the voice. I wishedintended, in fact, that the action should never be arrested; that it should be continuous, uninterrupted. I wanted to dispense with parasitic musical phrases. When listening to a [musico-dramatic] work, the spectator is wont to experience two kinds of emotion: the musical emotion on the one hand; and the emotion of the character [in the drama], on the other. Generally these are felt successively. I have tried to blend these two emotions, and make them simultaneous.
Melody is, if I may say so, almost anti-lyric, and powerless to express the constant change of emotion or life. Melody is suitable only for the song [chanson], which confirms a fixed sentiment. I have never been willing that my music should hinder . . . the changes of sentiment and passion felt by my characters. Its demands are ignored as soon as it is necessary that these should have perfect liberty in their gestures as in their cries, in their joys as in their sorrow.”
Now Debussy in his public excursions as a critic is not always to be taken seriously; indeed, it is. altogether unlikely that he has refrained from demonstrations of exquisite delight over the startled or contemptuous comment which some of his vivacious heresies concerning certain of the gods of music have evoked. These published appraisements of his are, of course, nothing more than impertinent,, though at times apt and sagacious, jeux d’esprit.’ But when he speaks seriously, as in the defence of his practice which I have just quoted, of the menace of ” parasitic ” musical phrases in the voice-parts, and when he observes that melody, when it occurs in the speech of characters in music-drama, is “almost anti-lyric,” he speaks with penetration and truth. His practice, which illustrates it, amounts to this: He employs in ” Pelleas ” a continuous declamation, uncadenced, entirely unmelodic (in the sense in which melodious declamation has been understood). Save for a brief and particular instance, there is no melodic form whatsoever, from beginning to end of the score. There is not a hint of the Wagnerian arioso. The declamation is founded throughout upon the natural inflections of the voice in speakingit is, indeed, virtually an electrified and heightened form of speech. It is .never musical, for the sake of sheer musical beauty, when the emotion within the text or situation does not lift it to the plane where the quality of utterance tends naturally and inevitably toward lyricism of accent. He does not, for example, commit the kind of indiscretion that Wagner commits when he makes Isolde sing the highly unlyrical line,
Der ‘ Tantris’ mit sorgender List sich nannte,” to a phrase that has the double demerit of being ” parasitically ” and intrusively melodic and wholly conventional in pattern one of those musical platitudes which have no excuse for existence in any sincere and vital score. Nor in ” Pelleas ” do the singers ever sing, it need hardly be said, anything remotely approaching a duet, a concerted number, or a chorus (the snatches of distant song heard from the sailors on the departing ship is a mere touch of atmospheric suggestion). The dialogue is every-where and always clearly individualised, as in the spoken drama. Yet this surprising fact is to be noted: undeviatingly naturalistic as are the voice-parts in their structure and inflection, and despite their haughty and stoic intolerance of melodic effect, they yet are so contrived that they often yieldincidentally, as it were effects of musical beauty; and in so doing, they demonstrate the unfamiliar truth that there is possible in music-drama a use of the voice which permits of an expressiveness that is both telling and beautiful, though it yields nothing that accepted canons would warrant us in describing as either melody or melodious declamation. Now Mr. Baughan, whose views concerning Wagner and his habits have been discussed, craves in the music-dramas of Wagner a frankness of melody in the vocal writing whose absence he deplores; and he seems to think that when this melodiousness of utterance is denied to the voices in modern opera, all that is left them is something “that an orchestral instrument could do as well “– something that, inferenentially, is anti-vocal, or at least unidiomatic. It would seem that Mr. Baughan, and those who think as he does, fail to realise, as I have remarked before, the immensely important part which it is possible for modern harmony to play in the combination of a voice and accompanying instruments. It would not be difficult to demonstrate that a large part of what we are . in the habit of regarding as a purely melodic form of vocal expression in the modern lyric-drama owes a large and unsuspected measure of its potency of effect to the modulatory character of its harmonic support. Take a passage that we are apt to think of as one of the most ravishingly and purely melodious in the whole of that fathomless well of lyric beauty, ” Tristan and Isolde “ the passage in the duet in the second act beginning, Bricht mein Blick sich wonn’ erblindet.” As one hears it sung by the two voices above the orchestra, it seems a perfect example of pure melodic inspiration; yet play the voice-parts, alone or together, without their harmonic undercurrent, and all the beauty, all the meaning, vanish at once: with-out the kaleidescopic harmonic color the melodic phrases are without point, coherence, or design. But this is aside from the point that I would make that the potentialities of modern harmony make possible a use of the voice in music-drama which, while it is remote from the character of formal melody, may yet be productive of a kind of emotional eloquence that is exceedingly puissant and beautiful, and that may even possess a seemingly lyric quality. We find a foreshadowing of this kind of effect in such a passage as Tristan’s Bin ich in Kornwall? ” where all of the haunting effect of the phrase is due to the modulation in the harmony into the G-major chord at the first syllable of ” Kornwall.” And one might point out to Mr. Baughan that this effect is subtly dependent upon the co-operation of the voice and the instruments. The phrase in the voice-part is not one ” that an orchestral instrument could do as well,” as Mr. Baughan would at once recognise if he were to play the accompanying chords on a piano and give the progression in the voice to a ‘cello 1 or a violin.
But while Wagner foreshadowed this manner of making his harmonic support confer a special character upon the effect of the voice-part, he did not begin to sound its possibilities. That was left for Debussy to do; and for the task he was obviously equipped in a surpassing degree by his unprecedentedly flexible, plastic, and resourceful harmonic vocabulary the richest harmonic instrument, beyond comparison, that music has yet known.
The score of “Pelleas ” overflows with instances of this one may paradoxically call it harmonicuse of the voice: things that Wagner, with his comparatively limited harmonic range, could not have accomplished. As instances where the voice-part, without being inherently melodic, borrows a semblance of almost lyrical beauty from its harmonic associations, consider the passage in the grotto scene begin-‘ling at Pelleas’ words, ” Elle est tres grande et tres belle,” and continuing to Donnez-moi la main”; r the astonishing passage in the all love scene beginning at Pelleas words, “On a brise la glace aved des fers rougis ! ” or, in the last act’ the expression that is given to Mél’ isande’s phrase, “la grande fenêtr. . . . ” Yet note that in such’ passages the voice-part does not, in Mr. Baughan’s phrase, merely weave up ” with the orchestra, as he protests that it does in Wagner’E practice; in other words, it is not simply an incidental strand in the general harmonic texture; it has character and individuality of its own, though these are absolutely dependent for their full effect upon their harmonic background. Nor is it, on the other hand, so assertive and conspicuous that it comes within the class of that which Debussy repudiates as “parasitic.” Here, then, is a method of uttering the text that not only permits of a just and veracious rendering of every possible dramatic nuance, but which, by virtue of the means of musical enforcement that are applied to it, takes on a character and quality, as music, which are as influential as they are unparalleled.
It has been affirmed that in Pelleas. et Melisande ” Debussy has produced a work as commanding in quality as it is unique in conception and design. Let us consider what grounds there may be for the assertion.
To begin with, its spiritual and emotional flavour are without an alogy in the previous history, not merely of opera, but of music.’ Debussy is a man of unhampered and clairvoyant imagination, a dreamer with a far-wandering vision. He views the spectacle of the world through the magic casements of the mystic who is also a poet and visionary. One can easily conceive him as taking the more tranquil part in that provocative dialogue put by Mr. Yeats into the mouths of two of his dramatic characters:
“And what in the living world can happen to a man that is asleep on his bed? Work must go on and coach-building must go on, and they will not go on the time there is too much attention given to dreams. A dream is a sort of a shadow, no profit in it to anyone at all.”
“There are some would answer you that it is to those who are awake that nothing happens, and it is they who know nothing. He that is asleep on his bed is gone where all have gone for supreme truth.”
In Maeterlinck’s ” Pelleas. et Melisande,” Debussy has, through a fortunate conjunction of circumstances, found a perfect vehicle for his impulses and preoccupations. There will always be, naturally enough, persons who must inevitably regard such a work as that I for which he and Maeterlinck are now responsible as, for the most part, vain, inutile, even preposterous. They are sincere in their I dislike, these forthright and excel-lent people, and they are to be commiserated, for they are, in such r a region of the imagination as this) drama builds up about them, aliens, in a world whose ways and whose wonders must be forever hidden from their most determined scrutiny. Such robust and worldly spirits, writes a thoughtful contemporary essayist, ” that swim so vigorously on the surface of things,” have always ” a suspicion, a jealousy, a contempt, for one who dives deeper and brings back tidings of the strange secrets that the depth holds”: they will not even grant that the depths are anything save murky, that the tidings have validity or importance. They take comfort in their detachment, and are apt to speak of themselves, with mock humility, as “plain, blunt persons,” for whom the alleged vacuities of such an order of art are comfortably negligible. Well, it is, after all, as Maeterlinck’s Pelleas himself observes, a matter not so much for mirth as for lament; yet even more is it a matter for resignation. There will always be, as has been observed, an immense and confident majority for whom that territory of the creative imagination which lies over the boundaries of the palpable world will seem worse than delusive: who will always and sincerely pin their faith to that which is definite and concrete, patent and direct, and who must in all honesty reject that which is undeclared, allusive, crepuscular: which communicates itself through echoes and in glimpses; by means of intimations, signs, and tokens. For them it would be of no avail to point to the dictum of one who, like Maeterlinck, is aware of remote voices and strange dreams: Dramatic art,” he has wisely said, “is a method of expression, and neither a hair-breadth escape nor a love affair more befits it than the passionate exposition of the most delicate and strange intuitions; and the dramatist is as free as the painter of good pictures and the writer of good books. All art is passionate, but a flame is not the less flame because we change the candle for a lamp or the lamp for a fire; and all flame is beautiful.”
It is a dictum that is scarcely calculated to persuade a very general acceptance: a passionate ex-position of the most delicate and strange intuitions ” is not precisely the kind of aesthetic fare which the ” plain, blunt man,” glorying in his plainness and his bluntness, is apt to relish. It is a point upon which it is perhaps needless to dwell; but its recognition serves as explanation of the fact that the music-drama into which Debussy has transformed Maeterlinck’s play should not everywhere and always be either accepted or understood. For in the musical setting of Debussy, Maeterlinck’s drama has found its perfect equivalent: the qualities of the music are the qualities of the play, completely and exactly; and, sharing its qualities, it has evoked and will always evoke the more or less contemptuous antagonism of those for whom it has little or nothing to say.
Of the quality of its style, perhaps the most obvious trait to note is its divergence from the kind of music-making which we are accustomed to regard as typically French. We have come to regard as inevitable the clear-cut precision, the finesse, the instinctive grace of French music; but we are not at all accustomed to discovering this fineness of texture allied with marked emotional richness, with depth and sub-stance of thought we do not look for such an alliance, nor find it, in any French music from Rameau to Saint-Saëns, Gounod, and Masse-net. Yet Debussy has the typical French clarity and fineness of surface without the French hardness of edge and thinness of substance. The contours of his music are as melting and elastic as its emotional substance is rich; and it is phantasmal rather than definite and clear-cut; evasive rather than direct. His art, as a matter of fact, has its roots in the literature rather than in the music of his country. His true fore-bears are not Rameau, Couperin, Boieldieu, Bizet, Saint-Saëns, but Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarmê; and, beyond his own frontier, Rossetti and Maeterlinck. There is scarcely a trace of French musical influence in the score of ” Pelleas,” save for its limpidity of expression and its delicate logic of structure. The truth is that Debussy, with d’Indy, Ravel, and others, has made it impossible to speak any longer, without qualification, of ” French ” quality, or ” French ” style, in music; for to-day there is the French of Saint-Saens and Massenet, and the French of . Debussy, d’ indy, Duparc, Faurê, Ravel: and the two orders are as inassociable under a generic yoke as ,are the poetry of Hugo and the poetry of Verlaine.
But the essential thing to observe and to praise in this music is its astonishing, its almost incredible, affluence of substance: its richness in ideas that are both extraordinarily beautiful and wholly new. The score, in this respect alone, is epoch-making. Debussy is the first music-maker since Wagner to evolve a kind of style of which the sub-stance is, so to say, newly-minted. Strauss is not to be compared with him in this regard; for the basis of the German master’s style, upon which he has reared no matter how wonderful a superstructure, is compounded of materials which he got straight from Richard Wagner. and his great forerunner, Franz Liszt; whereas the basis, the starting-point, of Debussy’s style its harmonic and melodic stuff existed nowhere, in any artistic shape or condition, before him. To speak of it as in any vital sense a reversion, because it makes use of certain principles of plain-song, is mere trifling. Debussy is a true innovator, if ever there was one. He has added fresh materials to the matter out of which music is evolved; and no composer of whom this may be said, from Beethoven to ‘Chopin, has failed to find himself eventually ranked as the originator of a new order of things in the development of the art.
Those who feel the. beauty and recognise the important novelty of the music of Pellêas et Melisande” will for some time to come find it difficult to speak of it appreciatively without an appearance of extravagance. One owns, in trying to appraise it, to a compunction similar to that expressed by one of the wisest of modern critics, when, after applauding some notable poetry, he whimsically reminded himself that he must guard against too great appreciation,” and must mix in a little depreciation,” to show that he had ” read attentively, critically, authoritatively.” Well, there is no doubt a very definite risk in praising too warmly a masterpiece which has the effrontery to intrude itself upon contemporary observation, and upon a critical function which has but just compassed the abundantly painful task of adjusting its views to the masterpieces of the immediate past. I am quite aware that such praise of Debussy’s lyricdrama as is spoken here will seem to many preposterous, or at best excessive. I am also aware that the mistaking of geese for swans is a delusion which afflicts generation after generation of over-confident critics, to the entertainment of subsequent generations and the inextinguishable delight of the Comic Muse which,, as Mr. Meredith has pointed out, watches not more vigilantly over sentimentalism than over every kind of excess. Yet I am willing to assert deliberately, and with a perfectly clear sense of all that the words denote and imply, that the score of Pellêas ” is richer in inner musical substance, in ideas that are at once new and valuable, than anything that has come out of modern music since Wagner wrote his final page a quarter of a century ago. The orchestral score is almost as long as that of Tristan und. Isolde “; yet in the course of its 409 pages there are scarcely half a dozen measures in which one cannot point out some touch of genius. The music is studded with felicities. One carries away from a survey of it a conviction of its almost continuous inspiration, of its profound originality. The score overflows with ideas, ideas that possess character and nobility, and that are often of deep and ravishing beauty a beauty that takes captive both the spirit and the sense. It is difficult to think of more than a few scores in which .the inspiration is so persistent and so fresh in which there is so little that is cliché, perfunctory, derivative. Certainly, if one is thinking of music written for the stage, one has to go to the author of Tristan ” for anything comparable to it. It has been said that in this music Debussy is not always at his best, and the comment is justified. There are passages, most of them to be found in the interludes connecting the earlier scenes (which, it is well known, were extended to meet a mechanical exigency), wherein the fine and rare gold of his thought is inter-mixed with the dross of alien ideas. And it is equally true that the vast and wellnigh inescapable shadow of Wagner’s genius impinges at moments upon the score: thus we hear “Parsifal ” in the first interlude, ” Parsifal ” and “Siegfried” in the interlude following the scene at the fountain the scene wherein Mélisande’s ring is lost. But the fact is mentioned here only that it may be dismissed. The voice of Debussy speaks constantly out of this music, even when it momentarily takes the timbre of another; and none other, since the superlative voice of Wagner himself was stilled, has spoken with so potent and magical a blend of tenderness and passion, with so rare yet limpid a beauty, with an accent so touching and so underived.
The nature of Debussy’s harmony, and the emphasis which is laid upon its remarkable quality by his appreciators, have provoked the assertion that the score of ” Pellêas ” is de-void of melody, or at least that it is weak in melodic invention. Of course the whole matter rests upon what one means by ” melody.” The comment is a perfect exemplification of that critical method which consists in measuring new forms of expression by the standards of the past, instead of seeking to learn whether they do not them-selves establish new standards by which alone they are to be appraised.
The method has been applied to every innovator in the records of art, and it is probably futile to cry out against it, or to assert its stupidity. The music of Pellêas” is rich in melody. It does not, as we have seen, reside in, the voice-parts, for there Debussy, for reasons which have already been discussed, has deliberately and wisely avoided formal melodic contours. It is to be found in the orchestra an orchestra which, while it depends in an unexampled degree upon a predominantly harmonic mode of expression, is at the same time very far from being devoid of melodic effect. But the melody is Debussy’s melody it is fatuous to expect to find in this score the melodic forms which have been made familiar to us by the practice of his predecessors, men who themselves, were made to bear the primeval accusation of melodic barrenness. Debussy’s melodic idiom is his own, and it often baffles impatient or inhospitable ears by reason of its seeming indefiniteness, its apparently way-ward movement, and because of the shifting and mercurial basis of harmony upon which it is imposed. It would be easy to instance page after page in the score where the melodic expression is, for those who are open to its address, of instant and irresistible effect: as the greater part of the scene by the fountain, in the second act; the whole of the tower scene an outpouring of rapturous lyric beauty which, again, sends one to the loveliest pages of “Tristan ” for a comparison the affecting interview between Mélisande and the benign and infinitely wise Arkël, in the fourth act; the calamitous love scene in the park; and almost the whole of the last act. If Debussy had written nothing else than the entrancing music to which he has set the ecstatic apostrophe of Pelleas to his beloved’s hair, he would have established an indisputable claim to a melodic gift of an exquisite and original kind. It has been said that he is “incapable of writing sustained melody”; and though just how extended a melodic line must be in order to merit the epithet “sustained” is not quite clear, it would seem that in this particular scene, at all events, Debussy may be said to have compassed even “sustained ” melody; for the melodic line varied, sensitive, and plastic though it isis here of almost unbroken continuity.
In its total aspect as a dramatic commentary the score provokes wonder at its precision and flexibility. The manner in which each scene is individualised, differentiated and set apart from every other scene, is of a vividness and fidelity beyond praise. For every changing aspect of the play, for its every emotional phase, the composer has discovered the exact and illuminating equivalent. The eloquence of this music is seldom abated; it is as pervasive as it is extreme. One would not be far wrong, probably, in finding this music-drama’s chief and final claim to the highest excellence in its triumphant character as an expressional achievement; in this it ranks with the supreme things in music. There are in the score innumerable passages- which one is tempted to adduce as particular instances of ideally fit and beautiful expression. It is probably unnecessary to allege the quality of such examples as the scene by the fountain, the perilous encounter at the tower window, the final tryst in the park, or the interlude which accompanies the change of scene from the castle vaults to the sun-lit terrace above the seamusic that has an entrancing radiance and perfume, through which blows all the air of all the sea “ these things will be rightly valued by every observer of liberal comprehension and sensitive discernment: to name them is to praise them. But there are other triumphs of expression in the score whose quality is not so immediately to be perceived. I do not speak of the countless felicities of structural and external detail: felicities which will repay close and protracted study. I am thinking of remoter, less obvious felicities: of the grave beauty of the passage in which Genevieve reads to the King the letter of Golaud to his brother Pelléas 1; of the extraordinary final measures of the first act, after Mélisande’s question: Oh ! . . . pourquoi partezvous?”; of the delicious effect which is heard in the orchestra at Pelléas’ words, in the scene at the fountain, . . . le soleil n’entre jamais”; of the exquisite setting of Golaud’s exclamation of delight over the beauty of Mélisande’s hands; of the entire grotto scene, a passage of superb imaginative fervour, with its indescribably poetic ending.
As one out of many instances of similarly striking detail, observe the remarkable and moving progression in the voiceprint from the D in the ninth chord on B-flat to the B-natural in the chord of G-sharp minor, at Genevieve’, words ” .. . tour qui regarde la mer.”
The descending scale given out in imitation by two flutes and a harp); of the passage in the tower scene where the two solo violins in octaves sing the ravishing phrase that accompanies the ” Regarde, re-garde, j’embrasse tes cheveux . . . ” of the enraptured Pelleas; of the piercing effect of the Mélisande theme where it is combined with that of Pelléas in the interlude which follows the scene at the tower window; of the pas-sage preceding the entrance of Mélisande and ,Arkel in the fourth act, where Mélisande theme is heard in augmentation; of the passage in the transitional music following the misusing of Mélisande by Goland where her theme is played by the oboe above an interchanging phrase in the horns a diminuendo of inexpressible poignancy; of the impassioned soliloquy of Pelléas preparatory to the nocturnal meeting in the park; of the theme which is played by the horns and ‘cellos as he invites Mélisande to come out of the moonlight into the shadow of the trees; of the exquisite phrase given out by the strings and a solo horn as he asks her if she knows why he wished her to meet him; of the interplay of ” ninth ” chords which is heard, in the final act, when Arkêl asks Mélisande. if she is cold, and the mysterious majesty of the passage which immediately follows, as Mélisande says that she wishes the window to remain open until the sun has sunk into the sea; of, indeed, the whole of the incomparable music of Mélisande’s death; and finally, of that scene wherein the genius of the musician and musical dramatist is, as I think, most characteristically exerted: the curiously potent and haunting scene in which Pelléas and Mélisande, with Genevieve, watch the departure of the ship from the port and speak of the approaching storm. Here Debussy, in setting the simple yet elliptical speeches of the two tragedians, has written music which is ,of marvellously subtle eloquence in its suggestion of the atmosphere of impending disaster, of vague foreboding and oppressive mystery, which rests upon the scene. The penetrating “On s’embarquerait sans le savoir et L’on ne reviendrait plus ” of Pelléas, sung over a lingering series of descending chords of the ninth; the strange, receding song of the departing sailors; the passage in triplets which is heard when Pelléas speaks of the beacon light shining dimly through the mist; the veiled and sinister phrase in thirds on the muted horns which follows the dying-away of the sail-ors’ call: these are salient moments in a masterly piece of psychological and (there is no other word for it) subliminal delineation.
Whatever Debussy may in the future accomplishand it is not unlikely that he may transcend this score in adventurousness and novelty of style will not imperil the ‘unique distinction, the unique value, of ” Pellêas et Mêlisande.” It has had, it has been truly said, no predecessor, no forerunner; and there is nothing in the musical art that is now contemporary with it which in the remotest degree resembles it in impulse or character. That, as an example of the ideal welding of drama and music, it will exert a formative or suggestive influence, it is not now possible to say; but that its extraordinary importance as a work of art will compel an ever-widening appreciation, seems, to many, certain and indisputable. Thinking of this score, Debussy might justly say, with Coventry Pat-more: I have respected posterity.”