Richard Wagner’s Music Dramas – Other Schools

Wagner’s Theory of the Music Drama.—Lohengrin, like The Flying Dutchman, was transitional in character and led into Wagner’s third manner. It was his last opera; all his later works were known as music dramas. In these he pursued unhesitatingly the logical conclusions of the theories which he expounded at great length in his controversial writings, though he was far from being always consistent with himself. Thus he reasoned that since in the spoken drama but one speaker is heard at a time, the same practice should prevail in the music drama, which would naturally do away with all concerted music, choruses, etc. This rule he observed in The Ring of the Nibelungen, but he wisely abandoned it in his later works. In Die Meistersinger he also failed to follow his theory that mythical and legendary subjects were the only suitable material for the music drama. Briefly stated, his ultimate conclusion was as follows : that the art-work of the future, as he called it, should consist of a synthesis of all the arts. Music, poetry, painting, sculpture, architecture, he asserted, had exhausted all that was possible to them as separate arts ; a higher plane could be reached hereafter only by a combination which should gain unity by subordination to a single principle. This principle he found in poetry. Beethoven, he argued, had felt the insufficiency of music alone to express his deepest inspiration, and for that reason had incorporated in his last and greatest symphony a choral movement to the words of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” In the music drama, therefore, the scene painter replaces the artist and the architect, the actor by plastic poses the sculptor, while the musician must allow his music no form but that dictated by the poet in his verses. He ascribed the thrilling effect of the Greek drama to such a union of the arts and this it was his aim to revive through his own works.

The Leading Motive.—The part assigned by the Greek dramatists to the chorus who expounded and commented on the events of the play was in his scheme transferred to the orchestra. This he did by means of the Leitmotiv (leading motive). A leitmotiv is a characteristic theme or harmonic progression associated with each of the Dramatis Personae and which appears with such modification of mode, rhythm, or any of its component parts as the dramatic situation demands. It is not confined to personages alone; in The Ring of the Nibelung, for instance, the stolen gold, the ring formed from it, the sword which plays such an important part in Die Walküre and in Siegfried all have their corresponding motives. It is through these motives that Wagner is able to give his orchestra an all but articulate speech and to weld the music drama into an organic whole. By their transformation and development he succeeds in indicating psychological states and changes as well as material conditions and objects. Reminiscent themes of a somewhat similar nature had been used as far back as Mozart and had been employed more freely by composers of the Romantic school, notably by Weber in Der Freischütz and Euryanthe, but they were undeveloped and elementary in character. Berlioz in his Fantastic Symphony was the first to conceive a typical theme and to alter it in logical accordance with the progression of his program, but he did not adopt the practice in his operas.

The Unending Melody. — Beginning with Lohengrin, Wagner abandoned fixed forms and substituted what he called unending melody, a practically continuous flow of tone divided alike between voices and instruments. For the most part he assigned the singer a declamation as far removed from the set aria on the one hand as it was from dry recitative of the early Italian opera on the other. Yet like the latter it was conditioned by principles of speech, Like the early composers, also, his subjects with but two exceptions were mythical or legendary. This, because the supernatural and the unreal correspond more closely with the ideal element introduced by the use of song for speech than material drawn from everyday experience or from the exact chronicles of history.

The Ring of the Nibelung.—In the old Teutonic folk-epic, the Nibelungen Lied (Lay of the Nibelung), Wagner found the inspiration for his next and most extended work. This is the great tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelung (The Ring of the Nibelung), composed of four dramas designed for continuous representation: Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold), Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried, Die Gi5tterdarnmerung (The Twilight of the Gods). It was begun and partially finished during his stay in Switzerland, but his discouragement over what he felt to be the hopeless task of ever securing its performance led him to abandon it and to set to work on another drama which he decided should be lighter in character and less difficult to execute, in order the more readily to find acceptance.

Tristan and Isolde.—The result of this resolution was Tristan and Isolde, but far from being a return to his earlier style, as he had planned, it was and probably still is the most intricate operatic score in existence. It was accepted by the Opera in Vienna, but after fifty-seven rehearsals the singers declared themselves unable to learn it and it was given up as impossible of execution. Three years after his return to Germany an unlooked-for change took place in his fortunes. The young king of Bavaria, Ludwig II, who had just ascended the throne, had been an ardent admirer of Wagner since as a boy of fifteen he had heard Lohengrin. Hardly had he taken his seat before he summoned the discouraged composer to Munich and assured him support and protection. Tristan and Isolde was soon brought out (1865), and Wagner busied himself with the composition of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Master Singers of Nuremberg), produced in 1868.

Die Meistersinger.—This is his only comic work, full of hitherto unsuspected humor and geniality. The story of the young poet endeavoring to gain admission to the jealously-guarded ranks of the master singers who, notwithstanding the beauty of his song, reject him because he has violated their hide-bound rules has a distinctly autobiographic value. Wagner had endured too much from similar pedants to be lenient with the picture he drew of their prototypes in medieval Nuremberg. As strikingly diatonic in style as Tristan and Isolde is chromatic, these two works are the strongest illustrations of his versatility.

Bayreuth and the Festival Theatre.—Wagner had long cherished the plan of a festival theatre for the performance of his Ring of the Nibelung. jealousy of his favor with the king led to various intrigues which prevented the building of such a theatre in Munich. The quiet town of Bayreuth, therefore, as being a central point, was chosen, and there in 1876 the Festspielhaus was opened with the first complete performance of the Tetralogy. It made a profound impression, but the expense of the undertaking was so great that it resulted in a heavy loss and the theatre was closed for a number of years. In 1882, however, it reopened with Parsifal and since then its triumphant career has been part of musical history.

Parsifal.—Until 1903, when it was given in this country, Parsifal was heard only in Bayreuth. Its semi-sacred character, its mingling of religious mysticism and sorcery, its unrivaled stage effects, its overwhelming power of climax, the consummate art of its thematic construction have made it the most discussed of Wagner’s works. What place it may eventually hold in respect to the others can be decided only by time. As it is, it stands alone ; a second Parsifal is hardly conceivable.

Influence of Wagner.—Unlike Weber, Wagner did not create a school—he belonged to the school which Weber founded. Like Gluck, his influence permeated all schools but to a much greater extent; none has succeeded in escaping it. Thus far in Germany it has been felt more in the development of program music, the symphonic poem, etc., than in the music drama itself. Many have attempted to follow directly in his steps, among them August Bungert (1846—) with a cycle of music dramas,.Die Hornerische Welt (The World of Homer), founded upon the Iliad and the Odyssey, and Richard Strauss (1864- ) with his Guntram, Feuersnoth, Salomé and Elektra, but none has yet shown the power to bend the bow of Achilles. Engelbert Humperdinck (1854- ) is the only one of Wagner’s successors to develop a new phase of the music drama. This he did by applying it to the fairy tale in his Hansel and Gretel (1893), which soon found its way to all stages, the first German opera to have such a success since the death of Wagner.

Wagner in France.—In France, Wagner acted at first not so much directly as indirectly, and more in his connection with the Romantic school of Weber than through his individual style as revealed in the music drama. The characteristic conservatism of the French school was shown in holding to forms which had been fixed for generations, but little by little these were filled with the new romantic spirit. This comes to the fore in Charles Gounod (1818-1893), whose Faust (1859) has exercised a strong and lasting influence on the lyric drama in France. Though set forms are not abandoned, they are closely joined by a melodious declamation which approaches the song-speech of Wagner ; the orchestration, too, is unmistakably romantic in treatment. Georges Bizet (1838-1875) in Carmen (1875), an opéra comique notwithstanding its tragic denouement, produced a work of great individuality, which shows even more. plainly the influence of modern romanticism. Had the composer’s career not been cut short by his untimely death, it is possible that the French school would have maintained a more commanding position. For Paris no longer holds her former preeminence as operatic centre; she has been distanced by Bayreuth. Of late years the works that have had the most pronounced success in the French capital have been Wagner’s music dramas. A little more than a generation ago, in the palmy days of Auber and Meyerbeer, a success at the Grand Opéra or the Opéra Comique had an international import and meant a speedy transference to foreign stages. Now the interest is largely local ; but few of the modern French operas are heard outside of France. The influence of Wagner is evident in a new French school, consisting in the main of young composers whose works manifest strongly transitional features. At present this school is in its storm and stress period; it is vet too early to forecast its ultimate effect.

Wagner in Italy.—Italy proved more responsive to Wagner’s influence than France. The performance of Lohengrin (1868), in Bologna, created much enthusiasm among the young musicians of northern Italy, but it was the septuagenarian Verdi who inaugurated the era of the music drama by his Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893). Strictly speaking, he had been anticipated by Arrigo Boito (1842-), who, thrown under Wagner’s influence in Germany, had followed his example in being the poet and composer alike of Mefistofele (1868), a version of the Faust legend. But this was Boito’s only opera, and though he gave the initial impulse to the movement, it was Verdi who carried it to a triumphant issue.

Verdi’s Latest Style.—Aïda had been a grand opera with strong musico-dramatic tendencies. In Otello and Falstaff, Verdi made a definite entrance into the music drama. The latter in particular, founded on Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives of Windsor,” is an astonishing tour de force for a man of four-score years. Full of the sparkle and freshness of youth, yet in every measure revealing the ripeness of matured genius, it is one of an immortal trio of lyric comedies of which the others are Mozart’s Figaro and Wagner’s Meistersinger. The set and traditional forms of the opera here disappear entirely; the music is conditioned by the text and its dramatic requirements ; the orchestra supports the voices in a full, melodious, and comprehensive flow, but never overpowers them. Hardly anything can be detached from its context without losing significance and interest; and this, by the way, is one of the most distinctive peculiarities of the music drama and more than anything else points the radical difference between it and the opera. Yet though this change of manner is undoubtedly due to Wagner, Verdi is in no sense an imitator. The style remains his own and is essentially Italian in character—that is, it is based upon vocal rather than instrumental capabilities.

The New Italian School.—The latest development of the music drama in Italy has been in the direction of so-called naturalism. This consists in the choice of brutal phases of life for illustration, told in short, concise forms which concentrate and hasten the dramatic action. A greater contrast to the inordinately long and heroic operas of Meyerbeer and Wagner can hardly be imagined ; it is more than probable, indeed, that the reaction against the excessive length of the music drama led to the great and sudden vogue of this school. The first impulse to naturalism was given by Pietro Mascagni (1863- ) in his two-act opera, Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry), in 1890. This is a tale of love, jealousy, and revenge told in music admirably adapted to the vivid, crude representation of elemental passions. Two years later followed I Pagliacci (The Clowns) by Ruggiero Leoncavallo (1858- ), a work of precisely the same character. Though many others have essayed the same style, these two thus far remain the most representative of their class. Their popularity has been approached only by Giacomo Puccini (1858- ) in La Bohême (The Bohemians), produced in 1896. Four years later his Tosca appeared and did much to strengthen the impression given by its predecessor—that in Puccini Italy possesses her most promising dramatic composer.

Schools Compared.—Thus at the beginning of the 20th century we find the principles of the music drama as enunciated by Wagner influencing all the three great schools of dramatic composition. It is worthy of note, however, that these schools, though thus approaching in artistic ideals, still retain the characteristics which distinguished them from the very beginning : the Italian, melody and beauty of tone ; the French, clearness of form and logical dramatic development; the German, elevation of subject and harmonic richness.

Younger Schools. — Younger schools having a strongly national character exist in Russia and Bohemia, but as yet they possess only local signification and have produced no practical effect outside of their respective countries. Michael Glinka (1803-1857) with his patriotic opera,. Life for the Czar, founded the Russian opera in 1836. The Bohemian opera is of more recent origin and is associated principally with the names of Friedrich Smetana (1824-1884) and Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904).

Resumé.—From its dual nature, the opera is necessarily a compromise. Composed of two elements, the musical and the dramatic, it is peculiarly susceptible to disintegration; its history is a record of almost continuous veering from one to the other of these two phases. We have seen how the immense proportions of the ancient amphitheatres led to the musical declamation on which the opera is founded, from the fact that the tones of the singing voice are far more reaching than those of the voice in speaking. The Florentine experimenters, in seeking to restore this declamation, soon discovered the capabilities for emotional expression latent in the varying timbres and vastly extended range of the former. As for its musical possibilities, these were entirely beyond their ken. The steps taken in that direction they regarded with disfavor as indicating a deviation from the oratorical standards which were their sole aim. After Carissimi and Scarlatti had developed the elements of symmetrical form and melody, music emerged from this dependent condition and dictated to the drama, which sank to an almost negligible factor. The reaction led by Gluck served to restore the balance for a time, but through Rossini and his followers the pendulum again swung in the other direction. The Romantic movement then brought the drama again to the fore; the spirit of the age was behind it and all schools felt its influence, though each manifested it in characteristic fashion.

Influence of the Opera on Music in General.—These alter-nations have had a powerful effect on the development of music in general, an effect both technical and expressive in nature. From the harpsichord and the few viols used at first merely to support the voice and to give it pitch, the orchestra expanded into a large body of instruments capable in itself of dramatic utterance. From the tiny ritornello of eight measures played by three flutes in Peri’s Euridice, there has grown an independent instrumental art of vast significance. The opera also created a school of singing which though often unworthily used for purposes of purely personal display is the basis of the vocal art of today. In short, it is not too much to say that the little band of scholars and musicians who met three centuries ago with the aim of reviving a lost art practically originated a new one.


Finck.—Wagner and His Works.

Modern Composers and Their Works.