Opera – The Wagnerian Aftermath – Part 1

Since that day when, a quarter of a century ago, Richard Wagner ceased to be a dynamic figure in the life of the world, the history of operatic art has been, save for a few conspicuous exceptions, a barren and unprofitable page; and it has been so, in a considerable degree, because of him. When Mr. William F. Apthorp, in his admirable history of the opera — a book written with unflagging gusto and vividness — observed that Wagner’s style has been, since his death, little imitated, he made an astonishing assertion. If by Wagner’s influence,” he went on, is meant the influence of his individuality, it may fairly be said to have been null. In this respect Wagner has had no more followers than Mozart or Beethoven; he has founded no school.” Again one must exclaim: An astonishing affirmation! and it is not the first time that it has been made, nor will it be the last. Vet how it can have seemed a reasonable thing to say is one of the insoluble mysteries. The influence of Wagner — the influence of his individuality as well as of his principles — upon the musical art of the past twenty-five years has been simply incalculable. It has tinged, when it has not dyed and saturated, every phase and form of creative music, from the opera to the sonata and string quartet.

It is not easy to understand how anyone who is at all familiar with the products’ of musical art in Europe and America since the death of the tyrant of Bayreuth can be disposed to question the fact. No composer who ever lived influenced so deeply the music that came after him as did Wagner. It is an influence that is, of course, waning; and to the definite good of creative art, for it has been in a large deg ree pernicious and oppressive in its effect. The shadow of the most pervasive of modern masters has laid a sinister and paralysing magic upon almost all of his successors. They have sought to exert his spells, they have muttered what they imagined were his incantations; yet the thing which they had hoped to raise up in glory and in strength has stubbornly refused to breathe with my save an artificial and feeble life. None has escaped the contagion of his genius, though some, whom we shall later discuss, have opposed against it a genius and-a creative passion of their own. Yet in the domain of the opera, wherewith we are here especially concerned, it is an exceedingly curious and interesting fact that out of the soil which he enriched with his own genius have sprung, paradoxically, the only living and independent forces in the lyrico-dramatic art of our time.

Let us consider, first, those aspects of the operatic situation which, by reason of the paucity of creative vitality that they connote, are, to-day, most striking; and here we shall be obliged to turn at once to Germany. The more one hears of the new music that is being put forth by Teutonic composers, the stronger grows one’s conviction of the lack, with a single exception, of any genuine creative impulse in that count’ y to-day. It is doubtless a little unreasonable to expect to be able to agree in this matter with the amiable lady who told Matthew Arnold that she liked to think that aesthetic excellence was common and abundant.” As the sagacious Arnold pointed out, it is not in the nature of esthetic excellence that it should be ” common and abundant”; on the contrary, he observed, excellence dwells among rocks hardly accessible, and a man must almost wear out his heart before he can reach her. All of this is quite unanswerable; yet, so far as musical Germany is concermed, is not the situation rather singular? Germany—the Germany which yielded the royal line founded by Bach and continued by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Wagner, and Brahms— can’ show us to-day, save for that exception which we shall later discuss, only a strenuous flock of Lilliputians (whom it would be fatuous to discuss with particularity), each one of whom is confidently aware that 1 he majestic mantle of the author of

Tristan” has descended upon hi m-self. They write music in which one grows weary of finding the same delinquency—the invariable faul: of emptiness, of poverty of idea, allied with an extreme elaboration in the manner of presentation. And it is most deliberate and determined. in address. One would think that the message about to be delivered were of the utmost consequence, the deepest moment: the pose and the manner of the bearer of great tidings are admirably simulated. Yet the actual deliverance is futile and dull, pathetically meagre, causing us to wonder how often we must remind ourselves that it is as impossible to achieve salient or distinguished or noble music without salient, distinguished, and noble ideas as it is to create fire without flame.

In France there are — again with an exception to which we shall later advert — Saint-Saëns, d’ Indy, Massenet, Charpentier, and — les autres.

Now Saint-Saëns is very far from being a Wagnerian. He is, indeed, nothing very definite and determinable. He is M. Saint-Saens,;in abstraction, a brain without a personality. It is almost forty years since Hector Berlioz called him ” one of the greatest musicians of our epoch,” and since then the lustre of his fame has waxed steadily, until to—day one must recognise him as one of the three or four most distinguished living compose rs. Venerable and urbane, M. Saint-Saens, at the New York opening of the American tour which he made in his seventy-second year, sat at .:he piano before the audience whom he had travelled three thousand mile.; to meet, and played a virtuoso piece with orchestral accompaniment, and two shorter pieces for piano and orchestra: a valse-caprice called ” Wedding Cake,” and an “Allegro Appassionato.” That is to say, M. Camille Saint-Saens, the bearer of an internationally famous and most dignified name, braved the tragic perils of the deep to exhibit him-self before a representative American audience as the composer of the ” Wedding Cake ” valse-caprice, an entertaining fantasy on exotic folk-themes, and a jeu d’esprit with a pleasant tune and some pretty orchestral embroidery.

No one could have it in his heart to chide M. Saint-Saëns for there things, for he is very venerable and very famous. Yet is not the occurrence indicative, in a way, of M. Saint Saens’s own attitude toward his art? —that facile, brilliant, admirably competent, chameleon-like art of his, so adroit in its external fashioning, yet so thin and worn in its inner substance ! One wonders if, in the entire history of music, there is the record of a composer more completely accomplished in his art, so exquisite a master of tine difficult trick of spinning a musical web, so superb a mechanician, who has less to say to the world: whose discourse is so meagre and so negligible. One remembers that unfortunate encomium of Gounod’s, which has been so often turned into a justified reproach: Saint Saens,” said the composer of Faust,” will write at will a work in the style of Rossini, of Verdi, of Schumann, of Wagner.” The pity of his case is that, when he writes pure Saint-Saens, one does not greatly care to listen. He has spoken no musical thought, in all his long and scintillant career, that the world will long remember. His dozen operas, his symphonic poems, his symphonies, his concertos, the best of his chamber works—is there in them an accent which one can soberly call either eloquent or deeply beautiful? Do they not excel solely by reason of their symmetry and solidity of structure, their deft and ingenious delivery of ideas which at their worst are banal and at their best mediocre or derivative? “A name always to be remembered with respect ! ” cries one of his most sane and just admirers: since in the face of practical difficulties, discouragements, misunderstandings, sneers he has worked constantly to the best of his unusual ability for musical righteousness in its pure fort i.”

“A name to be remembered with respect,” beyond dispute: with the respect that is due the man of supereminent intelligence, the fastidious artisan, the tireless and honourable workman—with respect, yes; but scarcely with enthusiasm. He never, as has been truly said, bores one; it is just as. true that he never stimulates, moves, transports, or delights one, in the del per sense of the term. At its best, it is a hard and dry light that shines out of his music: a radiance with-out magic and without warmth. His. work is an impressive monument to the futility of art without impulse: to the immeasurable distance that separates the most exquisite talent from the merest genius. For all its brilliancy of investiture, his thought, as the most liberal of his appreciators has said, “can never wander through eternity “—a truth which scarcely needed the invocation of the Miltonic line to enforce. It may be true, as Mr. Philip Hale has asserted, that the success of d’Ir dy, Faure, Debussy, was made possible by the labor and the talent of Saint-Saens “; yet it is one of the pities of his case that when Saint-Saens name shall have become faint Ind fugitive in the corridors of time, the chief glories of French art in our day will be held to be, one may venture, the legacies of the composers of Pelleas et Melisande ” and the Jour d’ete a la montagne,” rather than of the author of Samson et Dalila” and Le Rouet d’Omphale.” Which brings one to M. Vincent d’Indy.

Now M. d’Indy offers a curious spectacle to the inquisitive observer, in that he is, in one regard, the very symbol of independence, of artistic emancipation, whereas, in another phase of his activity, he is a mere echo and simulacrum. As a writer for the concert: room, as a composer of imaginative orchestral works Ind of chamber music, he is one of the most inflexibly original and guided composers known to the contemporary world of music. With his aloofness and astringency of style, his persistent austerity of temper, his invincible hatred of the sensuous, his detestation of the kind of ” felicity ” which is a goal for lesser men, this remarkable musician — who, far more deservingly than the incontinent Chopin, de-serves the title of ” the proudest poetic spirit of our time ” —:his remarkable musician, one must repeat, is the sort of creative artist who is writing, not for his day; but for a surprised and apprehending futurity. He is at once a man of singularly devout and simple nature, and an entire mystic. For him the spectacle of the living earth, in lovely or forbidding guise, evokes reverend and exalted moods. His approach to its wonders is Wordsworthian in its deep and awe-struck reverence and its fundamental sincerity. He does not, like his younger artistic kinsman, Debussy, see in it all manner of fantastic and mist-enwrapped visions; it is not for him a pageant of delicate and shirting dreams. Mallarme’s lazy and indulgent Faun in amorous wood: and reverie would not have suggested to him, as to Debussy, music whose sensuousness is as exquisitely concealed as it is marvellously transfigured. The mysticism of d’Indy is pre-eminently religious; it has no tinge of sensuousness; it, is large and benign rather than intimate and intense.

He is absolutely himself, absolutely characteristic, for example , in his tripartite tone-poem, our d’ete a la montagne.” This music is a hymn the grave ecstasy and the utter sincerity of which are as evident as they are impressive. In its art it is remarkable — not so monumental in plan, so astoundingly complex in detail, as his superb B-minor symphony, yet a work that is full of his peculiar traits.

Now it would seem as if so fastidious and individual a musician as this might do something of very uncommon quality if he once turned his hand to opera-making. Yet in his ” L’Etranger,” completed only a year before he began work on his astonishing B-minor symphony, and in his ” Fervaal ” (1889-95), we have the melancholy special of M. d’Indy concealing his own admirable and expressive countenance behind an ill-fitting mask modelled imperfectly after the linerments of Richard Wagner. In these operas (d’Indy calls them, by the way, an action dramatique and an action musicale: evident derivations from the “Tristan “-esque Handlung) — in these operas,. the speech, from first to last, is the speech of Wagner. The themes, the harmonic structure, the use of the voice, the plots (d’Indy, like Wagner, is his own librettit) — all is uncommuted Wagnesism, with some of the Teutonic cumbrousness deleted and some of the Gallic balance and measure infused. These scoresr have occasional beauty, but it is seldom the beauty that is peculiar to d’Indy’s own genius: it is an imported and alien beauty, a beauty that has in it an element of betrayal.

We find ourselves confronting a situation that is equally dispiriting to the seeker after valuable achievements in contemporary French opera when we view the performances of such minor personages as Massenet, Bruneau, Reyer, Erlanger, and Charpentier. They are all tarred, in a great or small degree, with the Wagnerian stick. WE en they speak out of their own hearts and understandings they are far from commanding: they are vulgarly sentimental or prettily lascivious, like the amiable Masser et, or pretentious and banal, like Bruneau, or incredibly dull, like Reyer, or picturesquely superficial, like Charpentier — though the author of Louise” disports himself w ith a beguiling grace and verve which almost causes one to forgive his essential emptiness.