WAGNER'S EARLY WORKS
Richard Wagner (1813-
From one point of view Wagner's revolt is even more important than that of either of his forerunners, for they were men who, having failed to win success under the existing conditions of music, revolted—so to speak—in self-
Wagner's first opera, 'Die Feen,' was written in 1833, when the composer was twenty years old. Wagner always wrote his own libretti, even in those days. The story of 'Die Feen' was taken from one of Gozzi's fairy-
When Wagner wrote 'Die Feen' he was under the spell of Weber, whose influence is perceptible in every page of the score. Marschner, too, whose 'Vampyr' and 'Templer und Jüdin' had been recently produced at Leipzig, which was then Wagner's headquarters, also appealed very strongly to the young musician's plastic temperament. 'Die Feen' consequently has little claim to originality, but the work is nevertheless interesting to those who desire to trace the master's development ab ovo. Both in the melodies and rhythms employed it is possible to trace the germs of what afterwards became strongely marked characteristics. Wagner himself never saw 'Die Feen' performed. In 1833 he could not persuade any German manager to produce it, and, in the changes which soon came over his musical sympathies, 'Die Feen' was laid upon the shelf and probably forgotten. It was not until 1888, five years after the composer's death, that the general enthusiasm for everything connected with Wagner induced the authorities at Munich to produce it. Since then it has been performed with comparative frequency, and formed a part of the cycles of Wagner's works which were given in 1894 and 1895. Wagner's next work was of a very different nature. 'Das Liebesverbot' was a frank imitation of the Italian school. He himself confesses that 'if any one should compare this score with that of "Die Feen" he would find it difficult to understand how such a complete change in my tendencies could have been brought about in so short a time.' The incident which turned his thoughts into this new channel was a performance of Bellini's 'Capuletti e Montecchi,' in which Madame Schroeder-
'Rienzi,' the next in order of Wagner's operas, was written on the lines of French opera. Wagner hoped to see it performed in Paris, and throughout the score he kept the methods of Meyerbeer and Spontini consistently in his mind's eye. There is very little attempt at characterisation, but the opportunities for spectacular display are many and various. In later years Meyerbeer paid Wagner the compliment of saying that the libretto of 'Rienzi' was the best he had ever read. 'Rienzi' was produced at Dresden in 1842.
The opera opens at night. The scene is laid in a street near the Lateran Church in Rome. Orsini, a Roman nobleman, and his friends are attempting to abduct Irene, the sister of Rienzi, a Papal notary. They are disturbed by the entrance of Colonna, another Roman noble, and his adherents. The two ruffians quarrel over the unfortunate girl; their followers eagerly join in the fray; and in a moment, as it seems, the quiet street is alive with the cliquetis of steel and the flash of sword-
In the third act the struggle between the nobles and the people advances another stage. The nobles have once more broken their oath, and are drawn up in battle array at the gates of Rome. Rienzi marshals his forces and prepares to march forth against them. In vain Adriano pleads once more for pardon. The fortune of war goes in favour of the plebeians. The nobles are routed, Colonna is slain, and the scene closes as Adriano vows vengeance over his father's body upon his murderer.
In the fourth act the tide has turned against Rienzi. The citizens suspect him of treachery to their cause. Adriano joins the ranks of malcontents, and does all in his power to fire them to vengeance. Rienzi appears, and is at once surrounded by the conspirators, but in a speech of noble patriotism he convinces them of their mistakes, and wins them once more to allegiance. Suddenly the doors of the Lateran Church are thrown open; the Papal Legate appears, and reads aloud the Bull of Rienzi's excommunication. Horror-
In the fifth act, Rienzi, after a last vain attempt to arouse the patriotism of the people, seeks refuge in the Capitol, which is fired by the enraged mob. The Tribune and Irene perish in the flames, together with Adriano, whose love for Irene proves stronger than death.
Wagner himself has described the frame of mind in which he began to work at 'Rienzi': "To do something grand, to write an opera for whose production only the most exceptional means should suffice...this is what resolved me to resume, and carry out with all my might, my former plan of 'Rienzi.' In the preparation of this text I took no thought for anything but the writing of an effective operatic libretto." In the light of this confession, it is best to look upon 'Rienzi' merely as a brilliant exercise in the Grand Opéra manner. Much of the music is showy and effective; there is a masculine vigour about the melodies, and the concerted pieces are skilfully treated, but, except to the student of Wagner's development, its intrinsic value is very small.
Appropriately enough, the idea of writing an opera upon the legend of the Flying Dutchman first occurred to Wagner during his passage from Riga to London in the year 1839. The voyage was long and stormy, and the tempestuous weather which he encountered, together with the fantastic tales which he heard from the lips of the sailors, made so deep an impression upon his mind, that he determined to make his experiences the groundwork of an opera dealing with the fortunes of the 'Wandering Jew of the Ocean.' When he was in Paris, the stress of poverty compelled him to treat the sketch, which he had made for a libretto, as a marketable asset. This he sold to a now forgotten composer named Dietsch, who wrote an opera upon the subject, which failed completely. The disappearance of this work left Wagner's hands free once more, and some years later he returned con amore to his original idea. 'Der Fliegende Holländer' was produced at Dresden in 1843.
The legend of the Flying Dutchman is, of course, an old one. The idea of the world-
In the second act we are at Daland's house. Mary, the old housekeeper, and a bevy of chattering girls are spinning by the fireside, while Senta, lost in gloomy reverie, sits apart gazing at a mysterious picture on the wall, the portrait of a pale man clad in black, the hero of the mysterious legend of the Flying Dutchman. The girls rally Senta upon her abstraction, and as a reply to their idle prattle she sings them the ballad of the doomed mariner. Throughout the song her enthusiasm has been waxing, and at its close, like one inspired, she cries aloud that she will be the woman to save him, that through her the accursed wretch shall find eternal peace. Erik, her betrothed lover, who enters to announce the approach of Daland, hears her wild words, and in vain reminds her of vows and promises made long ago. When Daland brings the Dutchman in, and Senta sees before her the hero of her romance, the living embodiment of the mysterious picture, she gazes spell-
In the last act we are once more on the seashore. The Dutch and Norwegian vessels are moored side by side, but while the crew of the latter is feasting and making merry, the former is gloomy and silent as the grave. A troop of damsels runs on with baskets of food and wine; they join with the Norwegian sailors in calling upon the Dutchmen to come out and share their festivities, but not a sound proceeds from the phantom vessel. Suddenly the weird mariners appear upon the deck, and while blue flames hover upon the spars and masts of their fated vessel, they sing an uncanny song taunting their captain with his failure as a lover. The Norwegian sailors in terror hurry below, the girls beat a hasty retreat, and silence descends once more upon the two vessels. Senta issues from Daland's house, followed by Erik. In spite of his importunity, her steadfast purpose remains unmoved; but the Dutchman overhears Erik's passionate appeal and, believing Senta to be untrue to himself, rushes on board his ship and hastily puts out to sea. Senta's courage rises to the occasion. Though the Dutchman has cast her off, she remains true to her vows. She hastens to the edge of the cliff hard by, and with a wild cry hurls herself into the sea. Her solemn act of renunciation fulfils the promise of her lips. The gloomy vessel of the Dutchman, its mission accomplished, sinks into the waves, while the forms of Senta and the Dutchman transfigured with unearthly light are seen rising from the bosom of the ocean.
The music of 'Der Fliegende Holländer' may be looked at from two points of view. As a link in the chain of Wagner's artistic development, it is of the highest interest. In it we see the germs of those theories which were afterwards to effect so formidable a revolution in the world of opera. In 'Der Fliegende Holländer' Wagner first puts to the proof the Leit-
If 'Der Fliegende Holländer' proved that the descriptive side of Wagner's genius had developed more rapidly than the psychological, the balance was promptly re-
So far as mere form is concerned, 'Tannhäuser' (1845) is far freer from the conventionalities of the Italian school than 'Der Fliegende Holländer,' but this would not have availed much if Wagner's constructive powers had not matured in so remarkable a way. It would have been useless to sweep away the old conventions if he had had nothing to set in their place. Apart from the strictly musical side of the question, Wagner had in 'Tannhäuser' a story of far deeper human interest than the weird legend of the Dutchman, the tale which never grows old of the struggle of good and evil for a human soul, the tale of a remorseful sinner won from the powers of hell by the might of a pure woman's love.
There is a legend which tells that when the gods and goddesses fled from their palace on Olympus before the advance of Christianity, Venus betook herself to the North, and established her court in the bowels of the earth, beneath the hill of Hörselberg in Thuringia. There we find the minstrel Tannhäuser at the opening of the opera. He has left the world above, its strifes and its duties, for the wicked delights of the grotto of Venus. There he lies in the embraces of the siren goddess, while life passes in a ceaseless orgy of sinful pleasure. But the poet wearies of his amorous captivity, and would fain return to the earth once more. In vain the goddess pleads, in vain she calls up new scenes of ravishing delight, he still prays to be gone. Finally he calls on the sainted name of Mary, and Venus with her nymphs, grotto, palace and all, sink into the earth with a thunder-
In the second act we are at the Wartburg, in the Hall of Song in which those tournaments of minstrelsy were held, for which the castle was celebrated in the middle ages. Elisabeth enters, bringing a greeting to the hall, whose threshold she has not crossed since Tannhäuser's mysterious departure. Her joyous tones have scarcely ceased when Tannhäuser, led by Wolfram, appears and falls at the feet of the youthful Princess. Her pure spirit cannot conceive aught of dishonour in his absence, and she welcomes him back to her heart with girlish trust. Now the guests assemble and, marshalled in order, take their places for the singers' tourney. The Landgrave announces the subject of the contest—the power Of love—and more than hints that the hand of Elisabeth is to be the victor's prize. The singers in turn take their harps and pour forth their improvisations; Wolfram sings of the chaste ideal which he worships from afar, Walther of the pure fount of virtue from which he draws his inspiration, and the warrior Biterolf praises the chivalrous passion of the soldier.
Each in turn is interrupted by Tannhäuser, who, with ever-
The scene of the third act is the same as that of the first, a wooded valley beneath the towers of the Wartburg; but the fresh beauty of spring has given place to the tender melancholy of autumn. No tidings of the pilgrim have reached the castle, and Elisabeth waits on in patient hope, praying that her lost lover may be given back to her arms free and forgiven. While she pours forth her agony at the foot of a rustic cross, the faithful Wolfram watches silently hard by. Suddenly the distant chant of the pilgrims is heard. Elisabeth rises from her knees in an agony of suspense. As the pilgrims file past one by one, she eagerly scans their faces, but Tannhäuser is not among them. With the failure of her hopes she feels that the last link which binds her to earth is broken. Committing her soul to the Virgin, she takes her way slowly back to the castle, the hand of death already heavy upon her, after bidding farewell to Wolfram in a passage which, though not a word is spoken, is perhaps more poignantly pathetic than anything Wagner ever wrote. Alone amid the gathering shades of evening, Wolfram sings the exquisite song to the evening star which is the most famous passage in the opera. The last strains have scarcely died away when a gloomy figure slowly enters upon the path lately trodden by the rejoicing pilgrims. It is Tannhäuser returning from Rome, disappointed and despairing. His pilgrimage has availed him nothing. The Pope bade him hope for no pardon for his sin till the staff which he held in his hand should put forth leaves and blossom. With these awful words ringing in his ears, Tannhäuser has retraced his weary steps. He has had enough of earth, and thinks only of returning to the embraces of Venus. In response to his cries Venus appears, in the midst of a wild whirl of nymphs and sirens. In vain Wolfram urges and appeals; Tannhäuser will not yield his purpose. He breaks from his friend, and is rushing to meet the extended arms of the goddess, when Wolfram adjures him once more by the sainted memory of Elisabeth. At the sound of that sinless name Venus and her unhallowed crew sink with a wild shriek into the earth. The morning breaks, and the solemn hymn of the procession bearing the corpse of Elisabeth sounds sweetly through the forest. As the bier is carried forward Tannhäuser sinks lifeless by the dead body of his departed saint, while a band of young pilgrims comes swiftly in, bearing the Pope's staff, which has put forth leaves and blossomed—the symbol of redemption and pardon for the repentant sinner.
It will generally be admitted that the story of 'Tannhäuser' is better suited for dramatic purposes than that of 'Der Fliegende Holländer,' apart from the lofty symbolism which gives it so deeply human an interest. This would go far to account for the manifest superiority of the later work, but throughout the score it is easy to note the enhanced power and certainty of the composer in dealing even with the less interesting parts of the story. Much of 'Tannhäuser' is conventional, but it nevertheless shows a great advance on 'Der Fliegende Holländer,' in the disposal of the scenes as much as in the mere treatment of the voices. But in the orchestra the advance is even more manifest. The guiding theme, which in 'Der Fliegende Holländer' only makes fitful and timid appearances, is used with greater boldness, and with increased knowledge of its effect. Wagner had as yet, it is true, but little conception of the importance which this flexible instrument would assume in his later works; but such passages as the orchestral introduction to the third act, and Tannhäuser's narration, give a foretaste of what the composer was afterwards to achieve by this means. So far as orchestral colour is concerned, too, the score of Tannhäuser is deeply interesting to the student of Wagner's development. Here we find Wagner for the first time consistently associating a certain instrument or group of instruments with one of the characters, as, for instance, the trombones with the pilgrims, and the wood-
'Lohengrin' (1850) was the first of Wagner's operas which won general acceptance, and still remains the most popular. The story lacks the deep human interest of 'Tannhäuser,' but it has both power and picturesqueness, while the prominence of the love-
In the second act it is night; Telramund and Ortrud are crouching upon the steps of the Minster, opposite the palace, plotting revenge. Suddenly Elsa steps out upon the balcony of the Kemenate, or women's quarters, and breathes out the tale of her happiness to the breezes of night. Ortrud accosts her with affected humility, and soon succeeds in establishing herself once more in the good graces of the credulous damsel. She passes into the Kemenate with Elsa, first promising to use her magic powers so as to secure for ever for Elsa the love of her unknown lord. Elsa rejects the offer with scorn, but it is evident that the suggestion has sown the first seeds of doubt in her foolish heart. As the day dawns the nobles assemble at the Minster gate, and soon the long bridal procession begins to issue from the Kemenate. But before Elsa has had time to set foot upon the Minster steps, Ortrud dashes forward and claims precedence, taunting the hapless bride with ignorance of her bridegroom's name and rank. Elsa has scarcely time to reply in passionate vindication of her love, when the King and Lohengrin approach from the Pallas, the quarters of the knights. Lohengrin soothes the terror of his bride, and the procession starts once more. Once more it is interrupted. Telramund appears upon the threshold of the cathedral and publicly accuses Lohengrin of sorcery. The King, however, will not harbour a suspicion of his spotless knight. Telramund is thrust aside, though not before he has had time to whisper fresh doubts and suspicions to the shuddering Elsa, and the procession files slowly into the Minster.
A solemn bridal march opens the next act, while the maids of honour conduct Elsa and Lohengrin to the bridal chamber. There, after a love scene of enchanting beauty, her doubts break forth once more. 'How is she to know,' she cries, 'that the swan will not come some day as mysteriously as before and take her beloved from her arms?' In vain Lohengrin tries to soothe her; she will not be appeased, and in frenzied excitement puts to him the fatal question, 'Who art thou?' At that moment the door is burst open, and Telramund rushes in followed by four knights with swords drawn. Lohengrin lifts his sacred sword, and the false knight falls dead at his feet. The last scene takes us back to the banks of the Scheldt. Before the assembled army Lohengrin answers Elsa's question. He is the son of Parsifal, the lord of Monsalvat, the keeper of the Holy Grail. His mission is to succour the distressed, but his mystic power vanishes if the secret of its origin be known. Even as he speaks the swan appears once more, drawing the boat which is to bear him away. Lohengrin bids a last farewell to the weeping Elsa, and turns once more to the river. Now is the moment of Ortrud's triumph. She rushes forward and proclaims that the swan is none other than Godfrey, Elsa's brother, imprisoned in this shape by her magic arts. But Lohengrin's power is not exhausted; he kneels upon the river bank, and in answer to his prayer the white dove of the Grail wheels down from the sky, releases the swan, and, while Elsa clasps her restored brother to her breast, bears Lohengrin swiftly away over the waters of the Scheldt.
The interest of 'Lohengrin' lies rather in the subtle treatment of the characters than in the intrinsic beauty of the story itself. Lohengrin's love for Elsa, and his apparent intention of settling in Brabant for life, seem scarcely consistent with his duties as knight of the Grail, and, save for their mutual love, neither hero nor heroine have much claim upon our sympathies. But the grouping of the characters is admirable; the truculent witch Ortrud is a fine foil to the ingenuous Elsa, and Lohengrin's spotless knighthood is cast into brilliant relief by the dastardly treachery of Telramund. The story of 'Lohengrin' lacks the deep human interest of 'Tannhäuser,' and the music never reaches the heights to which the earlier work sometimes soars. But in both respects 'Lohengrin' has the merit of homogeneity; the libretto is laid out by a master hand, and the music, though occasionally monotonous in rhythm, has none of those strange relapses into conventionality which mar the beauty of 'Tannhäuser.' Musically 'Lohengrin' marks the culminating point of Wagner's earlier manner. All the links with the Italian school are broken save one, the concerted finale. Here alone he adheres to the old tradition of cavatina and cabaletta—the slow movement followed by the quick. The aria in set form has completely disappeared, while the orchestra, though still often used merely as an accompaniment, is never degraded, as occasionally happens in 'Tannhäuser,' to the rank of a 'big guitar.'
The opening notes of 'Lohengrin' indeed prove incontestably the increased power and facility with which Wagner had learnt to wield his orchestra since the days of 'Tannhäuser.' The prelude to 'Lohengrin'—a mighty web of sound woven of one single theme—is, besides being a miracle of contrapuntal ingenuity, one of the most poetical of Wagner's many exquisite conceptions. In it he depicts the bringing to earth by the hands of angels of the Holy Grail, the vessel in which Joseph of Arimathea caught the last drops of Christ's blood upon the cross. With the opening chords we seem to see the clear blue expanse of heaven spread before us in spotless radiance. As the Grail motive sounds for the first time pianissimo in the topmost register of the violins, a tiny white cloud, scarcely perceptible at first, but increasing every moment, forms in the zenith. Ever descending as the music gradually increases in volume, the cloud resolves itself into a choir of angels clad in white, the bearers of the sacred cup. Nearer and still nearer they come, until, as the Grail motive reaches a passionate fortissimo, they touch the earth, and deliver the Holy Grail to the band of faithful men who are consecrated to be its earthly champions. Their mission accomplished the angels swiftly return. As they soar up, the music grows fainter. Soon they appear once more only as a snowy cloud on the bosom of the blue. The Grail motive fades away into faint chords, and the heaven is left once more in cloudless radiance.
A noticeable point in the score of 'Lohengrin' is the further development of the beautiful idea which appears in 'Tannhäuser,' of associating a certain instrument or group of instruments with one particular character. The idea itself, it may be noticed in passing, dates from the time of Bach, who used the strings of the orchestra to accompany the words of Christ in the Matthew Passion, much as the old Italian painters surrounded his head with a halo. In 'Lohengrin' Wagner used this beautiful idea more systematically than in 'Tannhäuser'; Lohengrin's utterances are almost always accompanied by the strings of the orchestra, while the wood-