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trust, with Wagner-in a lower degree, of course—and who is certainly entitled to the "fair play" of a hearing ; and any one who has heard his operas, or, better still, selections from them, and who knows the music, must admit that Wagner has contributed to the great musical treasury-like Garrick, has increased the stock of harmless pleasure—and is a true composer,
That his operas will succeed, or “take,” is another question ; but that the intention of his music is good, and has a character of its own, is no less certain. About his principles there is something very remarkable, something that irresistibly commends itself; and though like many a reformer he has rushed into extravagances, into what is impracticable and even ludicrous, and though the illustrations of his own theories have been so far failures in the main, there can be no question he has left his mark upon the time, and will in the end have a real though moderated influence. We can all remember the first grotesque feats of the English pre-Raffaellite school, and how. gradually, these antics were duly restrained, and have had the most healthful and beneficial influence on English painting. Wagner is, besides, a true poet, a writer of great power and nice accuracy, and has reasoned out his principles, with a logical refinement seldom found in a composer. For a theorist; he has shown the most surprising consistency and tenacity of purpose. His scheme is about the same now as it was twenty years ago ; and any one who studies his music will see that,'had he chosen to adopt the conventional style of composition, he must have taken very high rank among the popular composers of his time. Instead, and with a fatal self-denial, he has rigidly adhered to his own uncouth forms and rugged shapes. But to understand the question, we must look at opera as he finds it, and then at opera as he would have it, and we shall see that there are many things which we accept simply because they exist, and we have grown accustomed to them, and which are purely conventional; and this investigation will be more interesting, as musical expression forms a large part of the grand dramatic languages which belong to the stage, and which are indeed by the same principles a graceful sort of narrative which, as the story advances, is coloured richly. A great deal of this we owe to Wagner.
But as to the story itself, his theory is more remarkable still, and , certainly deserves consideration. It is usual to consider the story and the music apart, just as the story writers and the music writers are apart. Wagner, on the contrary, considers they are one and inseparable. The story should be wholly in the music, or rather the music should be the story. The common journeyman practitioner
looks out for the professional story writers—looks over what is merely told to him, sees that there are good " situations," openings for “marches," finales, and sensation music, and sets to work. Hundreds of operas have been written on this principle ; but Wagner requires something more.
Now, there is a vulgar theory as to musical expression, which may be put aside at the outset,—namely, that of peculiar sounds and contrasts, imitating in a lame and remote way physical sounds, changes, and phenomena. Thus many are transported with delight at Haydn's “Let there be light," when the sudden blaze is represented, as it were, by a vociferous blaze of trumpets. In one of Handel's plagues " in
in “Israel in Egypt,” the skipping of animals and insects is represented by a kind of hopping, spasmodic music. So with Haydn's “Surprise." This is all, without disrespect to those great masters, so much “trick.” So with “storms,” and “thunder," and the “Surprise" symphony, and such things. These attempts are mere devices, and only show how limited are these imitative powers of music. They are, indeed, more the things they profess to imitate than imitation ; for noise is thus reproduced in noise, and skipping and hopping by skipping and hopping.
We advance to a stage far higher when we come to Swiss pastoral music, gondola songs, marches, &c., which acquire their character, not from imitation, but from association. Thus the familiar pastoral horn-like “six-eight” measure conveys the idea of goatherd mountains, from its having the character of the sort of melody usually played in such places, and from the few notes such instruments are capable of producing. So with a march, which to any one who had not seen soldiers marching to music, would not convey any martial or processional ideas. These standards are very conventional, and still belong to the lower class of musical reproductions. We now come to the real function of music as a language or mode of expression.
Now, in common language, most words stand for some object, colour, thought-i.e., for mountain, valley, &c.—and a rich sentence, full of words of this class, brings a museum of real objects before the eye and the mind. Every word is a deputy, as it were. But in music, notes, sounds, chords, passages, stand for nothing concrete at least. All that we are conscious of in listening to fine and noble music, is that of a strange and stirring tide of emotions, which at the same time are indistinct and mysterious. These, indeed, have a language of their own, and a colour ; but though we feel the earth trembling and the air fluttering, we have not found the secret.
Sublimity, inspiration, rapturous joy, despair, love, sorrow, and mystery, here are certainly passions or tones of mind, which music can utter very distinctly, and the true limit of expression would seem to be this: that music is the true voice of the passions and emotions, far beyond gesture, facial expression, and voice, and can furnish appropriate colour and a thousand rich and mysterious hints and degrees, and modifications of all those feelings. To the composer who has the inspiration, who is genuine, and writes what the afflatus within him and the passion of the situation forces him to write, it becomes a genuine language, faithfully reflects what has inspired him, and will as truly call up the same emotions in those who listen. This is the true function of this noble language, and its true limit.
Now, to look for a moment at the conventional theory and practice of opera, as Wagner found it,- not as it is at present, when there is a vast change taking place. The older pattern of opera was designed to give good music, and to show off the singers as much as possible, with also an effective story. There was an overture, choruses, two or three quartettes, florid solos, duets, &c. All these, in most instances, were written with very little reference to the story, and, in
of Donizetti's operas, could have been shifted from one to the other without making any sensible difference. The bravura airs, where the prima donna has a fine field for exhibition all to herself, were intended quite as much for the concert-room and drawing-room as for the opera house. So, too, with some minor points. As at some crisis, when the whole action stopped, the leading characters became silent, and began to group themselves; and the orchestra began, in the most leisurely fashion, a long and tranquil symphony, at whose close a no less tranquil pizzicato accompaniment would set in. Then would the tenor advance from the ranks, and entirely putting aside stage and story, address himself to the audience altogether, and sing for a whole measure. Then the other voices would have their turn; the whole would work gradually into a quartette, often melodious and charming, which closed as it began, and brought great applause. Then the play went on. So did Catalani, and Ambrogetti, and others, delight the last generation. We shall find in Mercadante, and Bellini, and Rossini even, many such „pieces, which could either be cut out or introduced into another opera, and which the composer would own had been mainly written as an effective vehicle for voices. So with the vocal exercises for the prima donna, which are all so inany “impertinences." The familiar long duet in “Norma," “ Deh conte," where the injured Priestess and the false Adalgisa, with their faces carefully turned to
each other, glided over their passages “in thirds," is a good specimen. There are many other instances which will occur of contradiction and antagonism to probability, and which have been accepted mainly from custom, and in which the real dramatic musical element, so powerful and varied, has been sacrificed to the vanity of the singers and to the gratification of the audience in pure concert singing
In this state of things came Wagner, who had long pondered on reforms. Like all reformers, he elaborated his theories à l'outrance : having discovered, as it seems to him, a system of making musical dialogue correspond to ordinary speech, and that certain rude and raw phrases correspond to a nicety to the common speeches of ordinary lips. But this may be passed by for the present. A more valuable reform was the abolition of the official symphony to a piece of music—that is, the playing of a part of the air by the accompanist, as is done in our English ballads; and the yet more official division of the whole work into separate, neat, and compact pieces, which can be taken out, and which can stand by themselves. With him the opera becomes a whole, and though there are pauses and breaks, still it is all in the nature of an epic song, which flows on and on, and lingers and halts even, but still is of one piece. That this is the true theory there can be no question, as Verdi has illustrated in his later operas, the “ Ballo in Maschera," and the “Forza del Destino ;” and the more popular Gounod, from whose operas the drawing-room singers complain bitterly they can find little that can be conveniently extracted, the whole "being so mixed up with the opera.” And the old conventional, chirruping, recitative, monotonous, and jerking expostulations, which were neither musical nor shapely—they were so much "padding," a sort of plain chaunt, which was dispiriting to a degree,--this, which abounds in “Norma" and “Puritani,” and operas of that pattern, has now nearly disappeared. Time or opportunity has been found too valuable to be wasted in such common forms, which did not advance the story; and in “Faust," "Romeo," and the “Ballo," its place has been taken by delicious musical commentaries, irregular but flowing.
He holds that the composer should be his own librettist, which is a piece of extravagance, and impracticable in his sense, but not so under modifications. As we have seen, opera music should deal with passions and emotions, tones of mind, rather than with mere narratives and adventures. The composer should choose something simple, poetic, legendary almost, which he should feel himself drawn, as it were, to translate into music, all which he could sit down and
paint in music without words. He should feel and be filled with the subject. The words and songs should be mere landmarks and signposts to keep him straight on his road; but the true writing and painting of the story he should do in his music.
Thus Wagner himself is a poet, and chooses for his musical stories exactly the subjects which, had he been nothing beyond a poet, are precisely what he would have chosen for his verse. All his “subjects” are in the same key, as it were, charming even to readperfect poems or legends, which represent more pictures than stories. They are all akin to Tennyson's "Idylls of the King :" and we can perfectly conceive a composer, as he reads, finding his brain filling with musical fancies quite in keeping and reflecting the colour of those charming genii legends. Wagner draws his themes from old German legends, from the lays of the Minnesänger, the Tannhauser, the story of Lohengrin and the enchanted swan; from the old Nuremberg atmosphere, and its public singing contests, and the weird vision of the Flying Dutchman. In each there is a prevailing thought which gives the key to the music, as in the Flying Dutchman, the notion of a spectral ship with a ghostly captain-allowed only a term of absence to be on shore, and then obliged to return to his ship. So with Lohengrin, which shows the same mournful influence ..--that being obliged to forswear earth and all newly-made ties, and return to a supernatural bondage. The music, married to these strange pictures, is all in keeping-witching, melancholy, and supernatural; and we feel, as we listen, that it is the sort of music that ought to express such themes. He, indeed, once went so far as to lay down that really mythological stories ought to be treated in music-that atmosphere lending itself to the dreamy, grand mistiness of music. This opinion was revised and enlarged by admitting the legendary element also. And who shall say that he is not right, when we turn from one of his exquisitely poetical stories now before us, to the every-day vulgarity of our modern opera—of “Linda de Chamouni,” or “ Matilda of Hungary," and a'“ Traviata”-where music is combed and cropped, and forced into kid gloves and patent leather boots, and made to express and translate the most common transactions of our daily life? We turn from this to the “ Master Singers" —Wagner's last-a mediæval glimpse of old Nuremberg, when there were the guilds and the competition for the prize of song, given by the Burghers, and Hans Sachs, and Beckmesser, and the loves of Walther and Eva.
Granting the rudeness and uncouthness of certainly one half of each of his operas-at best, the monotony--it is surprising that the English