« AnteriorContinuar »
part, under exceedingly difficult conditions; and they accepted to the full that dangerous maxim that an art which lives by pleasing must please at once.' But while, in Tragic Opera, they abandoned all intellectual appeal and all seriousness of purpose, they found in Opera Buffa and Intermezzo forms exactly suited to their genius. These little pieces, light, dainty, playful, with just enough plot to hold them together and just enough characterisation to give point to the dialogue, represented without effort or fatigue their quick sensibility, their native charm, and their inexhaustible gift of tunefulness. It was these Intermezzi which the Bouffons brought to Paris, and in so doing created an entire school of French light opera. It was Opera Buffa which made the reputation of Gluck's unfortunate rival Piccini. Only in the nineteenth century did this form also degenerate, and become, in the hands of its most brilliant exponent, a mere handful of artificial flowers.'
It was their influence, together with that of Gluck, which trained the operatic style of Mozart. During his early days he was much in Italy; throughout his life he wrote many of his works to Italian libretti. In 1778 he visited Paris and arrived there in the middle of the Gluckist and Piccinist controversy. The first-fruits of this visit may be found in 'Idomeneo,' where the effects of Gluck's doctrine and example are beyond question. And, apart from La Clemenza di Tito,' which was written to order, all his operas after Idomeneo' are comedies. To discuss these even in outline would carry us far beyond the limits of the present theme. It is enough to say that they represent artificial opera-opera as distinct from music-drama-at its best and highest. The set forms which would impede tragedy are here not hindrances but bowers of delight; the characterisation, though it never looks beyond the immediate scene, is wonderfully deft and skilful; the declamations flow like a stream; the melodies rise and hover and sparkle like a fountain. 'Die Zauberflöte' may be a satire or an allegory or a harlequinade; in any case it is a miracle of musical genius.
One more strand is waiting to be interwoven, in due time, with the general texture. Folk-drama began from humble origins, from village festival and rustic merry
making; and some centuries elapsed before it found any settled place in a polite and civilised art. Indeed, one of the earliest attempts to put folk-music on the operatic stage was 'The Beggar's Opera,' an intentional burlesque; and it was probably the remarkable success of this work which brought the form into vogue. Through the eighteenth century it gradually advanced in skill and favour, growing more and more oblivious of its ancestry, more and more concerned with local stories and the humours of country life, its simple lyric melodies derived or imitated from the songs of the people. So arose Hiller in Leipsic, Dittersdorf in Vienna, Shield and Attwood in London; so at a later stage of development came Weber and glorified the national music of Germany with Der Freischütz.'
Had Weber possessed more of the dramatist's instinct he might have anticipated by nearly half a century the reforms of Richard Wagner. But his allegiance, like that of Beethoven, was on the side of music. Fidelio' is really an impossible compromise, a monument of symphonic style, which, except for one superb scene, never strikes the spectator as dramatic. And the same, with due modification, may be said about the work which Weber intended for his masterpiece. Euryanthe' is
ruined not only by a bad libretto, but by the conflict of two incompatible ideals. As Wagner sums it up: 'Never, so long as Opera has existed, has there been composed a work in which the inner contradictions of the whole genre have been more consistently worked out, more openly exhibited, by a gifted, deeply-feeling and truth-loving composer, for all his high endeavour to attain the best. These contradictions are: absolute, self-sufficing melody, and unflinchingly true dramatic expression. Here one or the other must necessarily be sacrificed-either Melody or Drama. Rossini sacrificed the Drama; the noble Weber wished to reinstate it by force of his more judicious melody. He had to learn that this was an impossibility. Weary and exhausted by the troubles of his "Euryanthe," he sank back upon the yielding pillow of an oriental fairy-dream; through the wonder-horn of Oberon he breathed away his last life's-breath.'*
Where Weber failed it was not for any other Romantic composer to succeed. Berlioz's Cellini' was hissed off
* 'Oper und Drama,' pp. 86, 87: Mr. Ashton Ellis's translation.
the stage, Schumann's 'Genoveva' withdrawn after three performances; Spohr, safe in his fastness at Cassel, tried a few ingenious experiments, but they came to nothing; for a time it looked as though true art would abandon the opera-house and leave it to the rhetoric of Meyerbeer and the tinkle of Donizetti's guitar. Once more the musicians were 'treating as an end what should only be treated as a means,'* and in so doing were displacing the artistic balance. The only hope of restoring it lay in the advent of a man who should be primarily a dramatist, but to whom music should be a natural means of expression; who should approach the problem from the dramatic side, yet with such mastery of music as should make it subservient to his purpose.
Wagner's autobiography tells us at first hand how this hope was fulfilled. It is not altogether a pleasant book; there are many details of private life which do not concern us, and would have been better omitted; but, as an account of his artistic career, the work is one of absorbing interest. Some of it has been anticipated in his earlier writings, † but in none of them is the story told with such wealth of incident or such candour of self-revelation - the schoolboy who played truant to write a great Shakespearean tragedy, and justified himself on the ground that he had been placed in a class below his merits; the university student with a drawer full of immature compositions and an overwhelming passion for Beethoven; the theatrical experience at Magdeburg and Riga; the struggling, starving days at Paris; the brief period of official dignity at Dresden; then revolution and exile full of stormy treatises and projects of new work; and so the story closes when King Louis of Bavaria sends his equerry with that offer of freedom and competence to which we owe Bayreuth and all that it has brought us. One point of interest emerges from the volumes with special clearness-the extent to which Wagner, when he had once determined the nature of his message, foresaw the successive stages in which it was to be delivered. It is well known that 'Die Meistersinger' was sketched,
* See Oper und Drama,' Introduction.
† Notably in Eine Mittheilung an meine Freunde.'
twenty-two years before the completion of the work, at the time that he was making the arrangements for the production of Tannhäuser.' It is not so well known that the idea of Parsifal' was conceived at the same time, and that the scenario was written during the intervals of 'Siegfried.'
This is the more noticeable because Wagner's dramatic work traces back the history of the art almost continuously from the point at which he received it. We have seen the music-drama begin with religion, change to the conflict of motives and the presentation of human tragedy, develope for a short time into folk-legend, and finally lose itself in the sands of dramatic convention. Wagner reversed this order. He began by adopting the current conventions. In 'Rienzi,' for example, Adriano's song is not better than Bellini; 'Santo Spirito Cavalieri' is not much better than Meyerbeer; the whole substance of the music is like amateur's work, filling with immense enthusiasm and vitality the accepted formulas of its time. Then came the period of folk-legend, with The Flying Dutchman' for initiative and 'Tannhäuser' and 'Lohengrin' for completion. Wagner has told us in full detail how he hesitated between Tannhäuser' and 'Manfred,' and for what reason he abandoned the 'historical grand opera in five acts' which he had already sketched, and took in its place that very essence of the folk-poem' which had been brought to his notice in a popular ballad. No doubt he treated these national subjects in his own manner, and his own manner was not that of Weber; but none the less he was feeling his way through nationalism to the most intimate and central emotions of mankind. It is not for nothing that, in the oration which celebrated the transference of Weber's body to Dresden, he spoke of the composer of Der Freischütz' as the most German of musicians.' Then the stage widens for the larger tragedies of mankind; the immortal passion of Tristan,' the fundamental problems of right and justice in The Ring.' Then follows Die Meistersinger,' the greatest of musical comedies, a triumphant vindication of love and art which is as well illustrated by the conflict of Beckmesser and Walther as Aristophanes' patriotism is illustrated by the conflict of Eschylus and Euripides. So the course winds
upwards from 'frivolity' and spectacular display to national legend, from national legend to the great epic mythology in which human life is symbolised, and to the service of art by which it is ennobled, until at last the summit is attained in the Eucharistic feast of Parsifal.' Throughout the whole of his work the animating force is love. I cannot think of music except as love,' he says -love which is born amid the beauty and goodness of earth and soars flight above flight to the mystic contemplation of eternal beauty and eternal goodness.
With such an inspiration it is little wonder that he has moved the hearts of men. We may grant much that has been said against him-occasional roughness of style, occasional poverty of technique, the faults that follow from a hasty education and an imperfect equipment. His verse can no more stand beside Goethe's than his tunes beside those of Schubert; he is 'not great as they are, point by point'; the work of his early manhood sometimes falls into commonplace; that of his maturity is sometimes heavy and slow of movement. Yet even here the advocatus diaboli cannot pass unanswered. Where Wagner's technique is strong it is irresistible. No man before his time ever showed such supreme mastery of orchestral colour. No man except Beethoven has ever compressed his thoughts into such clear, incisive musical phrase. If the stanza-tunes are sometimes illrhymed, they are more than compensated by that wonderful diffused melody which overflows the stanza and is the more beautiful for its lack of restriction. If the verse is often unmemorable, at any rate we do not forget the characters that speak it or the scenes in which it is uttered. And, further, it may be urged that to try Wagner by these analytic tests is to judge him on a false issue; the limitations may be real, but they are irrelevant. The sole ground on which Wagner's work can be rightly appraised is its effect in the theatre; and on this ground the verdict of posterity is assured. As the great dramas unroll before us, we have no thought of criticism or analysis; we let ourselves be carried away by the swelling
*My path led first to utter frivolity in my views of art,' says Wagner in Eine Mittheilung an meine Freunde,' which, it will be remembered, was written to serve as a preface to 'The Flying Dutchman,' 'Tannhäuser,' and 'Lohengrin,' and to explain their place in his general scheme.