Wagner: The Ring of the Nibelung and the Bayreuth Premiere, August 1876
(“L’anneau du Nibelung et les représentations de Bayreuth, Août 1876”, Harmonie et mélodie, Calmann-Lévy, 1885, 37–98)
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter discusses Richard Wagner and his works. It turns its attention to the kind of author in the Ring der Nibelungen, whose libretto was completely finished and published as early as 1863 and has nothing to do with the difficulties that grew up between France and Germany. Since the celebrated Tetralogy can be considered as being the most complete expression of the composer's system, its performance is the best occasion for studying this system and giving an idea of it. Before beginning this enquiry, this chapter offers a few preliminary details about Wagnerians and anti-Wagnerians.
It is not without a certain apprehension that I undertake this article on Richard Wagner and his works.
The press has been discussing the composer of Tannhäuser for many years now. Maybe I’m wrong, but it has seemed to me that every time anything was written on this subject, the pen involved went through strange contortions, jumping to right and left in a disturbing and unnatural manner.
Shall I escape this curious contagion? Shall I, in this delicate exercise, preserve my mental faculties unharmed? At all events I am no more at risk of insanity than many others, and over some I have the advantage of not belonging to any coterie.
First of all let us beware of that stand of principle which confounds the question of nationality with that of art. Wagner loathes France, but what has that to do with the quality of his music? Those writers who have for the last fifteen years been covering him with the grossest insults find him to be ungrateful; they could be right, because nothing has done more to promote his fame than these unceasing attacks. Whatever the truth of that, his hatred of France has become comical, since the day when he penned that astonishing object entitled Une Capitulation—a disgusting parody that no German theatre was willing to stage and that could never harm anyone except its author. An insult to the conquered in the mouth of the conqueror is hateful, but it ceases to be so when the insulter picks (p. 102 ) the lyre of the Unitéide1 up from the gutter. This passing resemblance to the archpoet and archprophet Gagne is indeed a worrying symptom.
But that is not the reason why they whistled at Tannhäuser; or why Fétis's Biographie universelle des musiciens treats Lohengrin as a monstrosity; or why a German doctor has written a book to prove that Wagner has been mad for years.
So let's forget the author of Une Capitulation and turn our attention to that of the Ring der Nibelungen, whose libretto was completely finished and published as early as 1863 and therefore has nothing to do with the difficulties that grew up between France and Germany.
Since the celebrated Tetralogy can be considered as being the most complete expression of the composer's system, its performance is the best occasion for studying this system and giving an idea of it.
Before beginning this enquiry, a few preliminary details about Wagnerians and anti-Wagnerians will perhaps not be out of place.
I studied Wagner's works at some length. I took the greatest pleasure in doing so and the performances of his works I have attended have made a profound impression on me, which not all the theories in the world will force me to forget or deny. Because of that I was accused of Wagnerism, and I myself believed for a certain time that I was a Wagnerian.
How wrong I was and how far this was from a true reckoning!
I got to know some Wagnerians and I realized that I was not one of them and never would be.
For the Wagnerian, music did not exist before the works of Wagner, or rather it existed merely in an embryonic state. Wagner elevated it to the status of art. J. S. Bach, Beethoven and at times Weber heralded the coming of the Messiah: as precursors, they have their value. As for the rest, they don’t count. Neither Handel nor Haydn nor Mozart nor Mendelssohn wrote a tolerable note; the French and Italian schools never existed. When listening to the music of anyone other than Wagner, the face of the Wagnerian expresses profound disdain; but any old product by the master, even the ballet from Rienzi, plunges them into a state of exaltation that is hard to describe.
One day I was present at a truly curious scene between the master and a charming lady who was a very talented writer and a Wagnerian of the first water. The lady was begging the master to play for her an unheard-of, indescribable chord that she had discovered in the score of Siegfried.
(p. 103 ) —O maître, maître, that chord!
—But my dear girl, replied the master with a kindly smile, it's only the chord of E minor, you can play it as well as I can.
—O maître, maître, I beg you, THAT CHORD!!!
And the master, wearying of the struggle, went to the piano and struck the chord E G B. At which the lady fell backwards on to the sofa with a loud cry. It was too much for her to bear!
On the other hand, I saw a musician, a man of talent and experience, turn red, then blue, then purple at the third bar of the “March of the Gods” in Das Rheingold, which is written entirely in perfect major chords and in a slow tempo. At the sixth bar he was beginning to foam at the mouth and his eyes were starting out of his head: I found it impossible to finish the phrase he himself had asked me to play him.
What can one say about those people who feel their patriotism gravely threatened by the notion that at this moment Wagner is having his Tetralogy performed in a little town in Bavaria? It is true that patriotism comes in for harsh words and it would be better perhaps not to squander one of the finest sentiments of the human soul, but to keep it back carefully like a choice weapon and not use it except on certain occasions. But we must all judge this matter for ourselves.
Other people, who are also excellent Frenchmen and have proved it when required, would joyfully immolate themselves on the altar of their idol, if the whim overtook him to demand human sacrifices.
I regret that I cannot share these feelings, and I limit myself to respecting them. When all is said and done, I prefer those who bow to an evident superiority and do not grudge their admiration, even if it is given on trust, to those who denigrate out of prejudice and make a show of not understanding anything of works that many other people do understand, and which they themselves would be able to understand perfectly well if they were willing to take the trouble.
One of the most distinguished theorists of the last century, Bérardi, gave a very tidy definition of theatrical style: “This style,” he said, “consists merely in speaking while singing and singing while speaking.” That is to say, this style should in essence be sung declamation or declaimed song, which is the character of recitative and of singing suitable for the stage. This idea, which some modern writers have presented as being new and have taken further, has, from the beginning, been the sole guide of composers writing for the stage…and they used to apply this principle so rigorously that all operatic music was reduced to very simple recitative—which was, so to speak, no more than notated declamation.
As the ideal style and vocal music took on new developments, the theatre introduced all these improvements and enriched itself with their (p. 104 ) discoveries and, in our day, things have reached such a pitch that in all our opera houses everything is sacrificed to effect, and to the desire to bring out the singers’ talents. This change in direction began with the Italians; then the Germans copied it and, after some resistance, the French did too. There is no need to point out to what extent the habits followed these days are contrary to the aims we should be setting ourselves.
Who wrote that? Choron, and no one would accuse him of Wagnerism.
Let us note in passing that France is the chosen land of opera. It has not been easy to persuade her that realistic stage action, good declamation and fine verses were nothing when compared to a graceful tune, decked out with a pedal point like an ostrich feather on a hat; it has not been easy to succeed in destroying the work begun by Rameau and completed by Gluck, in the midst of a fierce struggle; because the struggle was already going on and, essentially, it was the same struggle we are seeing now. Pergolesi was set against Rameau and Piccinni against Gluck. The enemies of these great men were using the weapon that is still being wielded by their descendants: “melody”. When faced with the highest levels of reasoning or with the most self-evident beauties, they always countered with “melody”. Rameau responded by writing “Dans ces doux asiles”, Gluck with “Jamais dans ces beaux lieux”; but they also wrote the “Trio des Parques” and the “Songe d’Iphigénie”, and there was dispute as to whether these last qualified as “melody”. For a hundred and fifty years, “melody” has been the touchstone of musical criticism.
A man arrived on the scene recently who realized that modern opera, for all its grandeur and beauty, was built on a concept “contrary to the aims we should be setting for ourselves”; and that this concept was in opposition to the developments in poetry, music and drama. This man thought that a new form of opera, in which the music would not do violence to the words and would not hold up the action, in which the orchestra with all its modern developments would restore to music what it might have lost and would give up a part of its prerogatives for the benefit of the drama, that this form would be worthier of an intelligent and enlightened public than the one currently in use.
That is why this man has attracted such hatred; that is why for twenty years in his own country he has been branded a maniac, a cretin, a raving idiot and a purveyor of trash, why finally he has been heaped with all the insults usually reserved for composers who are misguided enough to take their art seriously and to think that music in the theatre should fit the words and the dramatic situation, and not confine itself to providing singers who are more or less capable with the opportunity to demonstrate their prowess.
(p. 105 ) Let's assume for a moment that this man has been wrong, that he has been pursuing a chimaera. Certainly it is a noble chimaera, which is not aimed at easy success or money, and which is concerned only with respect for music and for the public. There is nothing here to undermine the bases of society. How then could such an enterprise provoke feelings other than curiosity and interest? Why these restraints on an art which, by its nature, is the freest thing in the world? Why do writers, who spend their lives demanding freedom of the press, freedom of commerce, freedom of the rights of union and association, refuse a composer the right to compose music as he likes? What are the reasons behind this rage?
There are two. The first is the force of inertia.
Every work of art depends on a convention. But curiously it is a fact that when this convention is new, neither the artist nor the public realizes it; both of them think they are dealing with reality. That continues for a certain time, after which the convention loses its prestige, the mirage vanishes, and a new convention becomes necessary. The art changes its ground. This is what is generally referred to as the progress of art, which is not progress in the sense usually given to the word, but a simple change without which the life of art would become impossible.
Great artists, being gifted with powerfully active imaginations, quickly use up their tools, like tough workmen; they have soon worn through the convention they employ to express their ideas; they then create another one for their use and move their art to a different place, before the public, for its part, feels the need for it. There ensues a furious resistance. This is what happened to Rameau, and later to Gluck and Beethoven; it is what is happening now to Wagner. But this resistance on its own would not be enough to give this artistic struggle the bitterness that distinguishes it; for that it has to be combined with another emotion.
That emotion is the hatred of art.
The hatred of art—that is the secondary reason, but a powerful one none theless, for the persecution that determined and innovative artists must inevitably undergo.
It does not declare itself openly; it adopts any pretext and any mask. It is this hatred that latches on to the cause of “melody” and other touchstones. It is this hatred that stands out against symphonic writing in the opera house, supposedly in the interests of stage realism, and which goes into raptures about Italian operas in which the most elementary rules of stagecraft are ignored. It is this hatred that is niggardly with its applause for great artists and reserves its ovations for café-concert singers who have no voice and sing out of tune. It is this hatred that, in its attacks on art in all its manifestations, gradually eliminates picturesque costumes the world over, teaches the peasant to despise his lovely old carved oak furniture and his beautiful china, which he then sells off cheaply, and persuades (p. 106 ) Japanese ladies to wear hats from the passage du Caire.2 It is this hatred that leads the priest to whitewash his church and the municipal council to demolish the town's ancient tower. It is this hatred, finally, that works unceasingly for the triumph of the bourgeois, tradesman's spirit over the artistic one, for the victory of little ideas over great emotions.
Where does this hatred come from? I have no idea and do not wish to have. It is enough to recognize and oppose it.
Among the radical ideas for which Wagner has been criticised we must include the construction, duly carried out, of an auditorium with a new layout, replacing the various kinds of seating with uniform rows and concealing the orchestra from the eyes of the spectators.
It is rather interesting to find this idea in Grétry's Essais sur la musique. This is what the composer of L’Epreuve villageoise wrote in year V of the French Republic :
I would like the theatre to be small, holding at most a thousand people; for there to be only one kind of seat throughout, no boxes, large or small. I would like the orchestra to be concealed so that neither the players nor their desk lights would be visible to the audience. The effect would be magical, and we know that, whatever the situation, the orchestra is never thought to be present.
I again find this question of the orchestra's invisibility in Choron's later Manuel de musique: “The presence of an orchestra playing under the eyes of the audience and being mixed up with them is, to say the least, as shocking as would be the sight of the machinery and the technicians working the scenery and lighting.”
Concealing the orchestra is an excellent idea; but how? Wagner has found the way: he has put it in the space under the actors’ feet. A long time ago M. Adolphe Sax produced the plan of an auditorium that differs from Grétry's and Wagner's in its seating layout, but which adopts Wagner's for the placing of the orchestra. This plan was nearly adopted at the 1867 Exhibition; unfortunately administrative and bureaucratic routine prevented it.
It was left to Wagner to realize Grétry's dream.
…[There follow details of the plot of The Ring and of the 1876 Bayreuth performance]…
Apart from the construction of the auditorium and the placing of the orchestra, the theatre at Bayreuth differs from others in more than one respect. The footlights are cleverly hidden and are totally invisible; more (p. 107 ) often than not they are lowered and the actors hardly ever move near them. Usually they stay upstage; as they are strongly lit from the flies and the wings, and as the auditorium is plunged in darkness, they are quite visible enough. There is no box for the prompter; the prompters stand in the wings or are concealed behind the scenery. Smoke plays a large role in the stage effects; torrents of white smoke simulate clouds; when lit in red, they turn into billows of flame.
The invisible orchestra represents an undoubted improvement that will, in time, be imported into every opera house with an increased efficiency born of experience. At Bayreuth the volume of the orchestra suffers overmuch. Many interesting details remain buried in the cavern where the orchestra grumbles, like the giant Fafner; but there is no doubt that this layout adds considerably to the stage illusion.
After the premiere of his Tetralogy, Wagner made a speech, the nub of which was: France has an art, Italy has an art; if you support my efforts, Germany at last will have an art. Not everyone found this notion to their taste, but his admirers have long known that his tactlessness is as great as his talent and don’t take his comments seriously. If I were to report the ones he made about an important personage of the Imperial Court, France and Germany would be exchanging diplomatic notes.
He also claims he never intended to insult France; what then did he intend? That is what nobody, even he, will ever know.3 To paint him as a bitter enemy of France is quite simply absurd; he only hates those people who don’t like his music. They have every right not to, but they pass the bounds of understanding when they feel they have to represent the composer of works they loathe as a bloodthirsty monster.
Wagneromania is ridiculous but excusable; Wagnerophobia is a disease.
(1) L’Unitéide ou la Femme Messie (1858) is a sprawling philosophico-poetic saga, published by Paulin Gagne at his own expense. The action takes place in 2000 when, so the author assures us, there are only 12 countries left in the world. God sends the female messiah of the title to save it.
(2) The passage du Caire, then as now, displayed clothes occupying the middle ground of fashion.
(3) On the subject of Wagner's attitude to France, and France's attitude to Wagner, it is perhaps pertinent to quote from the memoirs of the art dealer Ambroise Vollard, who implicates Saint-Saëns on a personal level:
Saint-Saëns's orchestral Marche héroïque of 1871 is indeed dedicated to the painter Henri Regnault—who was killed in the Franco-Prussian War.
At [Téodor de] Wyzewa's house I met the editor of a music review [Revue SIM] who had got from one of Saint-Saëns's friends the story of the quarrel between that composer and Wagner. The scene took place at Bayreuth, in Wagner's house, to which Saint-Saëns's frenetic cult of the German composer had gained him access. One evening Mme Wagner asked the French acolyte to play something on the piano in Wahnfried's grand salon and Saint-Saëns launched out on his Funeral March written in honour of Henri Regnault. Upon which Wagner, whether as a friendly tease or maybe innocently, exclaimed: “Ah! a Parisian waltz!” And taking one of the ladies present by the waist, he began to dance around the piano!…(Ambroise Vollard, En écoutant Cézanne, Degas, Renoir, Grasset, Paris, 1938; 2/2005, 283–284).