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Wagner's Later Works
(This is taken from R. A. Streatfeild's The Opera, originally published in 1907.)
The attempt to divide the life and work of a composer into fixed periods is generally an elusive and unsatisfactory experiment, but to this rule the case of Wagner is an exception. His musical career falls naturally into two distinct divisions, and the works of these two periods differ so materially in scope and execution that the veriest tyro in musical matters cannot fail to grasp their divergencies. In the years which elapsed between the composition of 'Lohengrin' and 'Das Rheingold,' Wagner's theories upon the proper treatment of lyrical drama developed in a surprising manner. Throughout his earlier works the guiding theme is used with increasing frequency, it is true, so that in 'Lohengrin' its employment adds materially to the poetical interest of the score; but in 'Das Rheingold' we are in a different world. Here the guiding theme is the pivot upon which the entire work turns. The occasional use of some characteristic musical phrase to illustrate the recurrence of a special personality or phase of thought has given way to a deliberate system in which not only each of the characters in the drama, but also their thoughts, feelings, and aspirations are represented by a distinct musical equivalent. These guiding themes are by no means the mere labels that hostile critics of Wagner would have us believe. They are subject, as much as the characters and sentiments which they represent, to organic change and development. By this means every incident in the progress of the drama, the growth of each sentiment or passion, the play of thought and feeling, all find a close equivalent in the texture of the music, and the connection between music and drama is advanced to an intimacy which certainly could not be realised by any other means.
The difference in style between 'Lohengrin' and 'Das Rheingold' is so very marked that it is only natural to look for some explanation of the sudden change other than the natural development of the composer's genius. Wagner's social position at this point in his career may have reacted to a certain extent upon his music. An exile from his country, his works tabooed in every theatre, he might well be pardoned if he felt that all chance of a career as a popular composer was over for him, and decided for the future to write for himself alone. This may explain the complete renunciation of the past which appears in 'Das Rheingold,' the total severance from the Italian tradition which lingers in the pages of 'Lohengrin,' and the brilliant unfolding of a new scheme of lyric drama planned upon a scale of unexampled magnificence and elaboration.
Intimately as Wagner's theory of the proper scope of music drama is connected with the system of guiding themes which he elaborated, it need hardly be said that he was very far from being the first to recognise the importance of their use in music. There are several instances of guiding themes in Bach. Beethoven, too, and even Grétry used them occasionally with admirable effect. But before Wagner's day they had been employed with caution, not to say timidity. He was the first to realise their full poetic possibility.
'Das Rheingold,' the first work in which Wagner put his matured musical equipment to the proof, is the first division of a gigantic tetralogy, 'Der Ring des Nibelungen,' The composition of this mighty work extended over a long period of years. It was often interrupted, and as often recommenced. In its completed form it was performed for the first time at the opening of the Festspielhaus at Bayreuth in 1876, but the first two divisions of the work, 'Das Rheingold' and 'Die Walküre,' had already been given at Munich, in 1869 and 1870 respectively. It will be most convenient in this place to treat 'Der Ring des Nibelungen' as a complete work, although 'Tristan und Isolde' and 'Die Meistersinger' were written and performed before 'Siegfried' and 'Götterdämmerung.'
Wagner took the main incidents of his drama from the old Norse sagas, principally from the two Eddas, but in many minor points his tale varies from that of the original authorities. Nevertheless he grasped the spirit of the myth so fully, that his version of the Nibelung story yields in harmony and beauty to that of none of his predecessors. There is one point about the Norse mythology which is of the utmost importance to the proper comprehension of 'Der Ring des Nibelungen.' The gods of Teutonic legend are not immortal. In the Edda the death of the gods is often mentioned, and distinct reference is made to their inevitable downfall. Behind Valhalla towers the gigantic figure of Fate, whose reign is eternal. The gods rule for a limited time, subject to its decrees. This ever-present idea of inexorable doom is the guiding idea of Wagner's great tragedy. Against the inevitable the gods plot and scheme in vain.
The opening scene of 'Das Rheingold' is in the depths of the Rhine. There, upon the summit of a rock, lies the mysterious treasure of the Rhine, the Rhine-gold, guarded night and day by the three Rhine-maidens Wellgunde, Woglinde, and Flosshilde, who circle round the rock in an undulating dance, joyous and light-hearted 'like troutlets in a pool.' Alberich, the prince of the Nibelungs, the strange dwarf-people who dwell in the bowels of the earth, now appears. Clumsily he courts the maidens, trying unsuccessfully to catch first one, then another. Suddenly the rays of the rising sun touch the treasure on the rock and light it into brilliant splendour. The maidens, in delight at its beauty, incautiously reveal the secret of the Rhine-gold to the inquisitive dwarf. The possessor of it, should he forge it into a ring, will become the ruler of the world. But, to that end, he must renounce the delights of love for ever. Alberich, fired with the lust of power, hastily climbs the rock, tears away the shining treasure, and plunges with it into the abyss, amidst the cries of the maidens, who vainly endeavour to pursue him. The scene now changes, the waves gradually giving place to clouds and vapour, which in turn disclose a lofty mountainous region at the foot of which is a grassy plateau. Here lie the sleeping forms of Wotan, the king of the gods, and Fricka, his wife. Behind them, upon a neighbouring mountain, rise the towers of Valhalla, Wotan's new palace, built for him by the giants Fafner and Fasolt in order to ensure him in his sovereignty of the world. In exchange for their labours Wotan has promised to give them Freia, the goddess of love and beauty, but he hopes by the ingenuity of Loge, the fire-god, to escape the fulfilment of his share of the contract. While Fricka is upbraiding him for his rash promise Freia enters, pursued by the giants, who come to claim their reward. Wotan refuses to let Freia go, and Froh and Donner come to the protection of their sister. The giants are prepared to fight for their rights, but the entrance of Loge fortunately effects a diversion. He has searched throughout the world for something to offer to the giants instead of the beautiful goddess, but has only brought back the news of Alberich's treasure-trove, and his forswearing of love in order to rule the world. The lust of power now invades the minds of the giants, and they agree to take the treasure in place of Freia, if Wotan and Loge can succeed in stealing it from Alberich. On this quest therefore the two gods descended through a cleft in the earth to Nibelheim, the abode of the Nibelungs. There they find Alberich, by virtue of his magic gold, lording it over his fellow-dwarfs. He has compelled his brother Mime, the cleverest smith of them all, to fashion him a Tarnhelm, or helmet of invisibility, and the latter complains peevishly to the gods of the overbearing mastery which Alberich has established in Nibelheim. When Alberich appears, Wotan and Loge cunningly beguile him to exhibit the powers of his new treasures. The confiding dwarf, in order to display the quality of the Tarnhelm, first changes himself into a snake and then into a toad. While he is in the shape of the latter, Wotan sets his foot upon him, Loge snatches the Tarnhelm from his head, and together they bind him and carry him off to the upper air. When he has conveyed his prisoner in safety to the mountain-top, Wotan bids him summon the dwarfs to bring up his treasures from Nibelheim. Alberich reluctantly obeys. His treasure is torn from him, his Tarnhelm, and last of all the ring with which he hoped to rule the world. Bereft of all, he utters a terrible curse upon the ring, vowing that it shall bring ruin and death upon every one who wears it, until it returns to its original possessor. The giants now appear to claim their reward. They too insist upon taking the whole treasure. Wotan refuses to give up the ring until warned by the goddess Erda, the mother of the Fates, who rises from her subterranean cavern, that to keep it means ruin. The ring passes to the giants, and the curse at once begins to work. Fafner slays Fasolt in a quarrel for the gold, and carries off the treasure alone. Throughout this scene the clouds have been gathering round the mountain-top. Donner, the god of thunder, now ascends a cliff, and strikes the rock with his hammer. Thunder rolls and lightning flashes, the dark clouds are dispelled, revealing a rainbow bridge thrown across the chasm, over which the gods solemnly march to Valhalla, while from far below rise the despairing cries of the Rhine-maidens lamenting their lost treasure.
'Das Rheingold' is conspicuous among the later works of Wagner for its brevity and concentration. Although it embraces four scenes, the music is continuous throughout, and the whole makes but one act. Wagner's aim seems to have been to set forth in a series of brilliant pictures the medium in which his mighty drama was to unfold itself. Human interest of course there is none, but the supernatural machinery is complete. The denizens of the world are grouped in four divisions—the gods in heaven, the giants on the earth, the dwarfs beneath, and the water-sprites in the bosom of the Rhine. 'Das Rheingold' has a freshness and an open-air feeling which are eminently suitable to the prologue of a work which deals so much with the vast forces of nature as Wagner's colossal drama. There is little scope in it for the delicate psychology which enriches the later divisions of the tetralogy, but, on the other hand, Wagner has reproduced the 'large utterance of the early gods' with exquisite art. Musically it can hardly rank with its successors, partly no doubt because the plot has not their absorbing interest, partly also because 'Das Rheingold' is the first work in which Wagner consciously worked in accordance with his theory of guiding themes, and consequently he had not as yet gained that complete mastery of his elaborate material which he afterwards attained. Yet some of the musical pictures in 'Das Rheingold' would be difficult to match throughout the glowing gallery of 'Der Ring des Nibelungen,' such as the beautiful opening scene in the depths of the Rhine, and the magnificent march to Valhalla with which it closes.
Before the opening of 'Die Walküre,' the next work of the series, much has happened. Wotan has begotten the nine Valkyries (Walküren, or choosers of the slain), whose mission is to bring up dead heroes from the battle-field to dwell in Valhalla, and, if need be, help to defend it. He determines, too, since he may not possess the ring himself, to beget a hero of the race of men who shall win it from Fafner (who has changed himself into a dragon in order to guard the treasure more securely), and so prevent it falling into the hands of an enemy of the gods. For this purpose he descends to earth and, under the name of Volse, unites himself with a mortal woman, who bears him the Volsung twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde. Bound by his oath to Fafner, Wotan may not openly assist Siegmund in the enterprise, but he dwells with him on the earth, and trains him in all manly exercises. Sieglinde is carried off by enemies and given as wife to Hunding, and Siegmund returning one day from the chase finds his father gone, and nothing but an empty wolf-skin left in the hut. Alone he has to wage continual war with the enemies who surround him. One day, in defending a woman from wrong, he is overpowered by numbers, and losing his sword, has to fly for his life. With this 'Die Walküre' opens. A violent storm is raging when Siegmund reaches Hunding's hut. Exhausted by fatigue, he throws himself down by the hearth, and is soon fast asleep. Sieglinde entering offers him food and drink. Soon Hunding appears, and, after hearing his guest's name and history, discovers in him a mortal foe. Nevertheless the rights of hospitality are sacred. He offers Siegmund shelter for the night, but bids him be ready at dawn to fight for his life. Left alone, Siegmund muses in the dying firelight on the promise made him by his father, that at the hour of his direst need he should find a sword. His reverie is interrupted by the entrance of Sieglinde, who has drugged Hunding's night draught, and now urges Siegmund to flee. Each has read in the other's eyes the sympathy which is akin to love, and Siegmund refuses to leave her. Thereupon she tells him of a visit paid to the house upon the day of her marriage to Hunding by a mysterious stranger, who thrust a sword into the stem of the mighty ash-tree which supports the roof, promising it to him who could pull it out. Siegmund draws the sword (which he greets with the name of Nothung) in triumph from the tree, and the brother and sister, now united by a yet closer tie, fall into each other's arms as the curtain falls.
The scene of the next act is laid in a wild, mountainous region. Wotan has summoned his favourite daughter, the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, and directs her to protect Siegmund in the fight with Hunding which is soon to take place. Brünnhilde departs with her wild Valkyrie cry, and Fricka appears in a car drawn by two rams. She is the protectress of marriage rites, and come to complain of Siegmund's unlawful act in carrying off Sieglinde. A long altercation ensues between the pair. In the end Fricka is triumphant. She extorts an oath from Wotan that he will not protect Siegmund, and departs satisfied. Brünnhilde again appears, and another interminable scene follows between her and Wotan. The father of the gods is weighed down by the sense of approaching annihilation. He now realises that the consequences of his lawless lust of power are beginning to work his ruin. He tells Brünnhilde the whole story ot his schemes to avert destruction by the help of Siegmund and the Valkyries, ending by commanding her, under dreadful penalties, to leave the Volsung hero to his fate. Siegmund and Sieglinde now appear, flying from the vengeful Hunding. Sieglinde's strength is almost spent, and she sinks exhausted in a death-like swoon. While Siegmund is tenderly watching over her, Brünnhilde advances. She tells Siegmund of his approaching doom, and bids him prepare for the delights of Valhalla. He refuses to leave Sieglinde, and, rather than that they should be separated, he is ready to plunge his sword into both their hearts. His noble words melt Brünnhilde's purpose, and, in defiance of Wotan's commands, she promises to protect him. Hunding's horn is now heard in the distance, and Siegmund leaves Sieglinde still unconscious and rushes to the encounter. Amid the gathering storm-clouds the two men meet upon a rocky ridge. Brünnhilde protects Siegmund with her shield, but just as he is about to deal Hunding a fatal blow, Wotan appears in thunder and lightning and thrusts his spear between the combatants. Siegmund's sword is shivered to fragments upon it, and Hunding strikes him dead. Brünnhilde hastily collects the splinters of the sword, and escapes with Sieglinde upon her horse, while Hunding falls dead before a contemptuous wave of Wotan's hand.
The third act shows a rocky mountain-top in storm and tempest. One by one the Valkyries appear riding on their horses through the driving clouds. Last comes Brünnhilde, with the terrified and despairing Sieglinde. Sieglinde wishes to die, but Brünnhilde entreats her to live for the sake of her child that is to be, and giving her the splintered fragments of Siegmund's sword, bids her escape to the forest, where Fafner watches over his treasure. The voice of the wrathful Wotan is now heard in the distance. He appears, indignant at Brünnhilde's disobedience, dismisses the other Valkyries, and tells Brünnhilde what her punishment is to be. She is to be banished from the sisterhood of Valkyries, and Valhalla is to know her no more. Thrown into a deep sleep, she shall lie upon the mountain-top, to be the bride of the first man who finds and wakens her. Brünnhilde pleads passionately for a mitigation of the cruel sentence, or at least that a circle of fire shall be drawn around her resting-place, so that none but a hero of valour and determination can hope to win her. Moved by her entreaties, Wotan consents. He kisses her fondly to sleep, and lays her gently upon a mossy couch, covered with her shield. Then he strikes the earth with his spear, calling on the fire-god Loge. Tongues of fire spring up around them, and leaving her encircled with a rampart of flame, he passes from the mountain-top with the words, 'Let him who fears my spear-point never dare to pass through the fire.'
With 'Die Walküre' the human interest of 'Der Ring des Nibelungen' begins, and with it Wagner rises to greater heights than he could hope to reach in 'Das Rheingold.' In picturesque force and variety 'Die Walküre' does not yield to its predecessors, while the passion and beauty of the immortal tale of the Volsungs lifts it dramatically into a different world. 'Die Walküre' is the most generally popular of the four works which make up Wagner's great tetralogy, for the inordinate length of some of the scenes in the second act is amply atoned for by the immortal beauties of the first and third. Twenty years ago Wagner's enemies used to make capital out of the incestuous union of Siegmund and Sieglinde, but it is difficult to believe in the sincerity of their virtuous indignation. No sane person would conceivably attempt to judge the personages of the Edda by a modern code of ethics; nor could any one with even a smattering of the details of Greek mythology affect to regard such a union as extraordinary, given the environment in which the characters of Wagner's drama move. It may be noted in passing that 'Die Walküre' is the latest of Wagner's works in which the traces of his earlier manner are still perceptible. For the most part, as in all his later works, the score is one vast many-coloured web of guiding themes, 'a mighty maze, but not without a plan!' Here and there, however, occur passages, such as the Spring Song in the first act and the solemn melody which pervades Brünnhilde's interview with Siegmund in the second, which, beautiful in themselves as they are, seem reminiscent of earlier and simpler days, and scarcely harmonise with the colour scheme of the rest of the work.
With 'Siegfried' the drama advances another stage. Many years have elapsed since the tragic close of 'Die Walküre.' Sieglinde dragged herself to the forest, and there died in giving birth to a son, Siegfried, who has been brought up by the dwarf Mime in the hope that when grown to manhood the boy may slay the dragon and win for him the Nibelung treasure. The drama opens in Mime's hut in the depths of the forest. The dwarf is engaged in forging a sword for Siegfried, complaining the while that the ungrateful boy always dashes the swords which he makes to pieces upon the anvil as though they were toys. Siegfried now comes in, blithe and boisterous, and treats Mime's new sword like its predecessors, blaming the unfortunate smith for his incompetence. Mime reproaches Siegfried for his ingratitude, reminding him of the care with which he nursed him in childish days. Siegfried cannot believe that Mime is his father, and in a fit of passion forces the dwarf to tell him the real story of his birth. Mime at length reluctantly produces the fragments of Siegmund's sword, and Siegfried, bidding him forge it anew, rushes out once more into the forest. The dwarf is settling down to his task, when his solitude is disturbed by the advent of a mysterious stranger. It is Wotan, disguised as a wanderer, who has visited the earth to watch over the offspring of his Volsung son, and to see how events are shaping themselves with regard to the Nibelung treasure. The scene between him and Mime is exceedingly long, and, though of the highest musical interest and beauty, does very little to advance the plot. The god and the dwarf ask each other a series of riddles, each staking his head upon the result. Mime breaks down at the question, 'Who is to forge the sword Nothung anew?' Wotan tells him the answer, 'He who knows not fear,' and departs with the contemptuous reminder that the dwarf has forfeited his head to the fearless hero. Siegfried now returns, and is very angry when he finds that Mime has not yet forged the sword. The frightened dwarf confesses that the task is beyond his powers, and finding that Siegfried does not know what fear is, tells him to forge his sword for himself. Siegfried then proceeds to business. He files the pieces to dust and melts them in a melting-pot, singing a wild song as he fans the flames with a huge bellows. Next he pours the melted steel into a mould and plunges it into water to cool, heats it red-hot in the furnace, and lastly hammers it on the anvil. When all is finished he brandishes the sword, and, to the mingled terror and delight of Mime, with one mighty stroke cleaves the anvil in twain.
The next act shows a glen in the gloomy forest close to Fafner's lair. Alberich is watching in the darkness, in the vain hope of finding an opportunity of recovering his lost treasure. Wotan appears, and taunts him with his impotence, telling him meanwhile of Siegfried's speedy arrival. Mime and Siegfried soon appear. The dwarf tries to excite the feeling of fear in Siegfried's bosom by a blood-curdling description of the terrible dragon, but finding it useless, leaves Siegfried at the mouth of Fafner's cave and retires into the brake. Left alone, Siegfried yields to the fascination of the summer woods. Round him, as he lies beneath a giant linden-tree, the singing of birds and the murmur of the forest blend in a mysterious symphony. His thoughts fly back to his dead mother and his lonely childhood. But his reverie is interrupted by the awakening of Fafner, who resents his intrusion. Siegfried boldly attacks his terrible foe, and soon puts an end to him. As he draws his sword from the dragon's heart, a rush of blood wets his hand. He feels it burn, and involuntarily puts his hand to his lips. Forthwith, by virtue of the magic power of the blood, he understands the song of the birds, and as he listens he hears the warning voice of one of them in the linden-tree telling him of the Tarnhelm and the ring. Armed with these he comes forth from the dragon's cave to find Mime, who has come to offer him a draught from his drinking-horn after his labours. But the dragon's blood enables him to read the thoughts in the dwarf's heart under his blandishing words. The draught is poisoned, and Mime hopes by slaying Siegfried to gain the Nibelung hoard. With one blow of his sword Siegfried slays the treacherous dwarf, and, guided by his friendly bird, hastens away to the rock where Brünnhilde lies within the flaming rampart awaiting the hero who shall release her.
The third act represents a wild landscape at the foot of Brünnhilde's rock. Wotan once more summons Erda, and bids her prophesy concerning the doom of the gods. She knows nothing of the future, and Wotan professes himself resigned to hand over his sovereignty to the youthful Siegfried, who shall deliver the world from Alberich's curse. Erda sinks once more into her cavern, and Siegfried appears, led by the faithful bird. Wotan attempts to bar his passage, but Siegfried will brook no interference, and he shivers Wotan's spear (the emblem of the older rule of the gods) with a blow of his sword. Gaily singing, he passes up through the fire, and finds Brünnhilde asleep upon her rock. Love teaches him the fear which he could not learn from Fafner. He awakens the sleeper, and would clasp her in his arms, but Brünnhilde, who fell asleep a goddess, knows not that she has awaked a woman. She flies from him, but his passion melts her, and, her godhead slipping from her, she yields to his embrace.
'Siegfried,' as has been happily observed, is the scherzo of the great Nibelung symphony. After the sin and sorrow of 'Die Walküre' the change to the free life of the forest and the boyish innocence of the youthful hero is doubly refreshing. 'Siegfried' is steeped in the spirit of youth. There breathes through it the freshness of the early world. Wagner loved it best of his works. He called it 'the most beautiful of my life's dreams.' Though less stirring in incident than 'Die Walküre,' it is certainly more sustained in power. It is singularly free from those lapses into musical aridity which occasionally mar the beauty of the earlier work. If the poem from time to time sinks to an inferior level, the music is instinct with so much resource and beauty that there can be no question of dulness. In 'Siegfried,' in fact, Wagner's genius reaches its zenith. In power, picturesqueness, and command of orchestral colour and resource, he never surpassed such scenes as the opening of the third act, or Siegfried's scaling of Brünnhilde's rock. It is worth while remarking that an interval of twelve years elapsed between the composition of the second and third acts of 'Siegfried.' In 1857, although 'Der Ring des Nibelungen' was well advanced towards completion, Wagner's courage give way. The possibility of seeing his great work performed seemed so terribly remote, that he decided for the time being to abandon it and begin on a work of more practicable dimensions. In 1869 King Ludwig of Bavaria induced him to return to the attack, and with what delight he did so may easily be imagined. At first sight it seems strange that there should be such complete harmony between the parts of the work, which were written at such different times. The explanation of course lies in the firm fabric of guiding themes, which is the sure foundation upon which the score of 'Siegfried' is built. Had Wagner trusted merely to the casual inspiration of the moment, it is possible that the new work would have harmonised but ill with the old; as it was, he had but to gather up the broken threads of his unfinished work to find himself once more under the same inspiration as before. His theory still held good; his materials were the same; he had but to work under the same conditions to produce work of the same quality as before.
In 'Götterdämmerung' we leave the cool forest once more for the haunts of men, and exchange the sinless purity of youth for envy, malice, and all uncharitableness. The prologue takes us once more to the summit of Brünnhilde's rock. There, in the dim grey of early dawn, sit the three Norns, unravelling from their thread of gold the secrets of the present, past, and future. As the morning dawns the thread snaps, and they hurry away. In the broadening light of day Siegfried and Brünnhilde appear. The Valkyrie has enriched her husband from her store of hidden wisdom, and now sends him forth in quest of new adventures. She gives him her shield and Grane, her horse, and he in turn gives her his ring, as a pledge of his love and constancy. He hastens down the side of the mountain, and the note of his horn sounds fainter and fainter as he takes his way across the Rhine.
The first act shows the hall of the castle of the Gibichungs near the Rhine. Here dwell Gunther and his sister Gutrune, and their half-brother Hagen, whose father was the Nibelung Alberich. Hagen knows the story of the ring, and that its present possessor is Siegfried, and he devises a crafty scheme for getting Siegfried into his power. Gunther is still unmarried, and, fired by Hagen's tale of the sleeping Valkyrie upon the rock of fire, yearns to have Brünnhilde for his wife. Hagen therefore proposes that Gutrune should be given to Siegfried, and that the latter, who is the only hero capable of passing through the fire, should in return win Brünnhilde for Gunther. In the nick of time Siegfried arrives. Hagen brews him a magic potion, by virtue of which he forgets all his former life, and his previous love for Brünnhilde is swallowed up in a burning passion for Gutrune. He quickly agrees to Hagen's proposal, and assuming the form of Gunther by means of the Tarnhelm, he departs once more for Brünnhilde's rock. Meanwhile Brünnhilde sits at the entrance to her cave upon the fire-girt cliff, musing upon Siegfried's ring. Suddenly she hears the old well-known Valkyrie war-cry echoing down from the clouds. It is her sister Waltraute, who comes to tell her of the gloom that reigns in Valhalla, and to entreat her to give up the ring once more to the Rhine-maidens, that the curse may be removed and that the gods may not perish. Brünnhilde, however, treasures the symbol of Siegfried's love more than the glory of heaven, and refuses to give it up. She defies the gods, and Waltraute takes her way sadly back to Valhalla. Now Siegfried's horn sounds in the distance far below. Brünnhilde hurries to meet him, and is horrified to see, not her beloved hero, but a stranger appear upon the edge of the rocky platform. The disguised Siegfried announces himself as Gunther, and after a struggle overcomes Brünnhilde's resistance and robs her of the ring. This reduces her to submission; he bids her enter her chamber and follows her, first drawing his sword, which is to lie between them, a proof of his fidelity to his friend.
The second act begins with the appearance of Alberich, who comes to incite his son Hagen to further efforts to regain the ring. Siegfried appears, and announces the speedy arrival of Gunther and Brünnhilde. Hagen thereupon collects the vassals, and tells them the news of their lord's approaching marriage, which is received with unbounded delight. Brünnhilde's horror and amazement at finding Siegfried in the hall of the Gibichungs, wedded to Gutrune and with the ring so lately torn from her upon his finger, are profound. She accuses him of treachery, declaring that she is his real wife. Siegfried, for whom the past is a blank, protests his innocence, declaring that he has dealt righteously with Gunther and not laid hands upon his wife. Brünnhilde, however, convinces Gunther of Siegfried's deceit, and together with Hagen they agree upon his destruction.
The scene of the third act is laid in a forest on the banks of the Rhine. The three Rhine-maidens are disporting themselves in the river while they lament the loss of their beautiful treasure. Siegfried, who has strayed from his companions in the chase, now appears, and they beg him for the ring upon his finger, at first with playful banter, and afterwards in sober earnest, warning him that if he does not give it back to them he will perish that very day. He laughs at their womanly wiles, and they vanish as his comrades appear. After the midday halt, Siegfried tells Gunther and his vassals the story of his life. In the midst of his tale Hagen gives him a potion which restores his faded memory. He tells the whole story of his discovery of Brünnhilde, and his marriage with her, to the horror of Gunther. At the close of his tale two ravens, the birds of Wotan, fly over his head. He turns to look at them, and Hagen plunges his spear into his back. The vassals, in silent grief, raise the dead body upon their shields, and carry it back to the castle through the moonlit forest, to the immortal strains of the Funeral March.
At the castle Gutrune is anxiously waiting for news of her husband. Hagen tells her that he has been slain by a boar. The corpse is brought in and set down in the middle of the hall, amidst the wild lamentations of the widowed Gutrune. Hagen claims the ring, and stabs Gunther, who tries to prevent his taking it; but as he grasps at it, Siegfried's hand is raised threateningly, and Hagen sinks back abashed. Brünnhilde now comes in, sorrowful but calm. She understands the whole story of Siegfried's unwitting treachery, and has pardoned him in his death. She thrusts the weeping Gutrune aside, claiming for herself the sole right of a wife's tears. The vassals build a funeral pyre, and place the body of Siegfried upon it. Brünnhilde takes the ring from his finger, and with her own hand fires the wood. She then leaps upon her horse Grane, and with one bound rides into the towering flames. The Rhine, which has overflowed its banks, now invades the hall. Hagen dashes into the flood in search of the ring, but the Rhine-maidens have been before him. Flosshilde, who has rescued the ring from the ashes of the pyre, holds it exultantly aloft, while Wellgunde and Woglinde drag Hagen down to the depths. Meanwhile a ruddy glow has overspread the heavens behind. Valhalla is burning, and the gods in calm resignation await their final annihilation. The old order yields, giving place to the new. The ancient heaven, sapped by the lust of gold, has crumbled, and a new world, founded upon self-sacrificing love, rises from its ashes to usher in the era of freedom.
'Götterdämmerung' is prevented by its portentous length from ever becoming popular to the same extent as Wagner's other works, but it contains some of the noblest music he ever wrote. The final scene, for sublimity of conception and grandeur of execution, remains unequalled in the whole series of his writings. It fitly gathers together the many threads of that vast fabric, 'Der Ring des Nibelungen.' Saint Saëns says of it that 'from the elevation of the last act of "Götterdämmerung," the whole work appears, in its almost supernatural grandeur, like the chain of the Alps seen from the summit of Mont Blanc.'
The literature of 'Der Ring des Nibelungen' is already very large, and not a year passes without some addition to the long catalogue of works dealing with Wagner's mighty drama. Readers desirous of studying the tetralogy more closely, whether from its literary, ethical, or musical side, must refer to one or more of the many handbooks devoted to its elucidation for criticism on a more elaborate scale than is possible within the narrow limits of such a work as the present.
It has already been related how Wagner broke off, when midway through 'Der Ring des Nibelungen,' and devoted himself to the composition of a work of more conventional dimensions. The latter was 'Tristan und Isolde.' Produced as it was in 1865, four years before 'Das Rheingold,' it was the first of Wagner's later works actually to see the light. Round its devoted head, therefore, the war of controversy raged more fiercely than in the case of any of Wagner's subsequent works. Those days are long past, and 'Tristan' is now universally accepted as a work of supreme musical loveliness, although the lack of exciting incident in the story must always prevent the profanum vulgus from sharing the musician's rapture over the deathless beauties of the score.
Isolde, the daughter of the King of Ireland, is sought in marriage by Marke, the King of Cornwall, and Tristan, his nephew, has been sent to bring the princess to England. Before the beginning of the drama Tristan had slain Morold, Isolde's lover, and sent his head to Ireland in place of the tribute due from Cornwall. He himself had been wounded in the fight, and when washed by the tide upon the shores of Ireland, had been tended by Isolde. To conceal his identity he assumed the name of Tantris, but Isolde had recognised him by a notch in his sword, which corresponded with a splinter which she had found imbedded in Morold's head. Finding the murderer of her lover in her power, her first impulse had been to slay him, but as she lifted the sword she found that love had conquered hate, and she let Tristan depart unscathed. When he returned as the ambassador of his uncle, her love changed to indignation that he who had won her heart should dare to woo her for another. The scene of the first act is laid on board the vessel which is conveying her to Cornwall. She vows never to become the bride of Marke, and opening a casket of magic vials, bids Brangäne, her attendant, pour one which contains a deadly poison into a goblet. Then she summons Tristan from his place at the helm, and bids him share the draught with her. Tristan gladly obeys, for he loves Isolde passionately, and prefers death to a life of hopeless yearning. But Brangäne has substituted a love philtre for the poison, and the lovers, instead of the pangs of death, feel themselves over-mastered by an irresistible wave of passion. As the shouts of the sailors announce the arrival of the ship, Tristan and Isolde meet in a long embrace.
The second act is practically one vast love duet. Isolde is waiting in the castle garden, listening to the distant horns of the King's hunting-party, and longing for the approach of night, when she may meet her lover. In spite of the entreaties of Brangäne, she extinguishes the torch which is to be the signal to Tristan, and soon she is in his arms. In a tender embrace they sink down among the flowers of the garden, murmuring their passion in strains of enchanting loveliness. Brangäne's warning voice falls upon unheeding ears. The King, followed by his attendants, rushes in, and overwhelmed with sorrow and shame, reproaches his nephew for his treachery. Tristan can only answer by calling upon Isolde to follow him to death, whereupon Melot, one of the King's men, rushes forward, crying treason, and stabs him in the breast.
In the last act Tristan is lying wounded and unconscious in his castle in Brittany, tended by Kurwenal, his faithful squire. He is roused by the news of Isolde's approach, and as her ship comes in sight he rises from his couch and in wild delirium tears the bandages from his wounds. Isolde rushes in in time to receive his parting sigh. As she bends over his lifeless body, another ship is seen approaching. It is the King, come not to chide but to pardon. Kurwenal, however, does not know this, and defends his master's castle with the last drop of his blood, dying at last at Tristan's feet, while Isolde chants her death-song over the fallen hero in strains of celestial loveliness.
'Tristan und Isolde' is the 'Romeo and Juliet' of music. Never has the poetry and tragedy of love been set to music of such resistless beauty. But love, though the guiding theme of the work, is not the only passion that reigns in its pages. The haughty splendour of Isolde's injured pride in the first act, the beautiful devotion of the faithful Kurwenal, and the blank despair of the dying Tristan, in the third, are depicted with a magical touch.
Some years ago it was the fashion, among the more uncompromising adherents of Wagner, to speak of 'Tristan und Isolde' as the completest exposition of their master's theories, because the chorus took practically no share in the development of the drama. Many musicians, on the other hand, have felt Wagner's wilful avoidance of the possibilities of choral effect to detract seriously from the musical interest of the opera, and for that reason have found 'Tristan und Isolde' less satisfying as a work of art than 'Parsifal' or 'Die Meistersinger,' in which the chorus takes its proper place. It is scarcely necessary to point out that, opera being in the first instance founded upon pure convention, there is nothing more illogical in the judicious employment of the chorus than in the substitution of song for speech, which is the essence of the art-form.
Wagner's one comic opera was born under a lucky star. Most of his operas had to wait many years for production, but the kindly care of Ludwig of Bavaria secured the performance of 'Die Meistersinger' a few months after the last note had been written. Unlike many of his other masterpieces, too, 'Die Meistersinger' (1868) was a success from the first. There were critics, it is true, who thought the opera 'a monstrous caterwauling,' but it had not to wait long for general appreciation, and performances in Berlin, Vienna, and Dresden soon followed the initial one at Munich.
The scene of 'Die Meistersinger' is laid in sixteenth-century Nuremberg. Walther von Stolzing, a young Franconian knight, loves Eva, the daughter of Pogner the goldsmith; but Pogner has made up his mind that Eva shall marry none but a Mastersinger, that is to say, a member of the guild devoted to the cultivation of music and poetry, for which the town was famous. Eva, on the contrary, is determined to marry no one but Walther, and tells him so in a stolen interview after service in St Catherine's Church. It remains therefore for Walther to qualify as a master, and David, the apprentice of Hans Sachs the cobbler, the most popular man in Nuremberg, is bidden by his sweetheart Magdalena, Eva's servant, to instruct the young knight in the hundred and one rules which beset the singer's art. The list of technicalities which David rattles off fills Walther with dismay, and he makes up his mind to trust to his native inspiration. The Mastersingers now assemble, and Pogner announces that Eva's hand is to be the prize of the singing contest next day. Walther now steps forward as a candidate for admission to the guild. First he must sing a trial song, and Beckmesser, the malicious little ape of a town-clerk, is appointed marker, to sit in a curtained box and note down upon a slate every violation of the rules of singing which may occur in the candidate's song. Walther sings from his heart of love and spring. The untutored loveliness of his song fills the hide-bound Mastersingers with dismay, and Beckmesser's slate is soon covered. Walther, angry and defeated, rushes out in despair, and the assembly breaks up in confusion. Only the genial Hans Sachs finds truth and beauty in the song, and cautions his colleagues against hasty judgment.
The scene of the second act is laid at a delightfully picturesque street-corner. Sachs is musing before his shop-door when Eva comes to find out how Walther had fared before the Mastersingers. Hans tells her of his discomfiture, and, by purposely belittling Walther's claims to musicianship, discovers what he had before suspected, that she loves the young knight. Sachs loves Eva himself, but finding out the state of her affections, nobly determines to help her to win the man of her heart. Walther now comes to meet his love, and, full of resentment against the Masters, proposes an elopement. Eva readily agrees, but Sachs, who has overheard them, frustrates the scheme by opening his window and throwing a strong light upon the street by which they would have to pass. Beckmesser, lute in hand, now comes down the street and begins a serenade under Eva's window. Sachs drowns his feeble piping with a lusty carol, hammering away meanwhile at a pair of shoes which he must finish that night for Beckmesser to wear on the morrow. Beckmesser is in despair. Finally they come to an arrangement. Beckmesser shall sing his song, and Sachs shall act as 'marker,' noting every technical blunder in the words and tune with a stroke of his hammer. The result is such a din as disturbs the slumbers of the neighbours. David, the apprentice, comes out and recognises his sweetheart Magdalena at Eva's window. He scents a rival in Beckmesser, and begins lustily to cudgel the unfortunate musician. Soon the street fills with townsfolk and apprentices, all crying and shouting together. Eva and Walther, under cover of the uproar, are making their escape, when Sachs, who has been on the watch, steps out and stops them. He bids Eva go home, and takes Walther with him into the house. Suddenly the watchman's horn is heard in the distance. Every one rushes off, and the street is left to the quiet moonlight and the quaint old watchman, who paces up the street solemnly proclaiming the eleventh hour.
In the third act we find Sachs alone in his room, reading an ancient tome, and brooding over the follies of mankind. David interrupts him with congratulations on his birthday, and sings a choral in his honour. Walther now appears, full of a wonderful dream he has had. Sachs makes him sing it, and writes down the words on a piece of paper. After they have gone out, Beckmesser creeps in, very lame and sore after his cudgelling. He finds the paper and appropriates it. Sachs comes in and discovers the theft, but tells Beckmesser he may keep the poem. The latter is overjoyed at getting hold of a new song, as he supposes, by Sachs, and hurries off to learn it in time for the contest. Eva now comes in under the pretence of something being amiss with one of her shoes, and, while Sachs is setting it right, Walther sings her the last verse of his dream-song. The scene culminates in an exquisite quintet in which David and Magdalena join, after which they all go off to the festivities in a meadow outside the town. There, after much dancing and merry-making, the singing contest comes off. Beckmesser tries to sing Walther's words to the melody of his own serenade, the result being such indescribable balderdash that the assembled populace hoots him down, and he rushes off in confusion, Walther's turn then comes, and he sings his song with such success that the prize is awarded to him with acclamation. He wins his bride, but he will have nothing to say to the Mastersingers and their pedantry, until Hans Sachs has shown him that in them lies the future of German art.
Although it contains comic and even farcical scenes, 'Die Meistersinger' is in fact not so much a comedy as a satire, with a vein of wise and tender sentiment running through it. It has also to a certain extent the interest of autobiography. It is not difficult to read in the story of Walther's struggles against the prejudice and pedantry of the Mastersingers a suggestion of Wagner's own life-history, and if Beckmesser represents the narrow malice of critics who are themselves composers—and these were always Wagner's bitterest enemies—Sachs may stand for the enlightened public, which was the first to appreciate the nobility of the composer's aim. It is not surprising that 'Die Meistersinger' was one of the first of Wagner's mature works to win general appreciation. The exquisite songs, some of them easily detachable from their context, scattered lavishly throughout the work, together with the important share of the music allotted to the chorus, constitute a striking contrast to 'Tristan und Isolde' or 'Der Ring des Nibelungen.' It has been suggested that this was due to a half-unconscious desire on Wagner's part to write music which should appeal more to the popular ear than was possible in 'Tristan und Isolde.' One of the most striking features of the opera is the mastery with which Wagner has caught and reproduced the atmosphere of sixteenth-century Nuremberg without sacrificing a jot of the absolute modernity of his style. 'Die Meistersinger' yields to none of the composer's work in the complexity and elaboration of the score—indeed, the prelude may be quoted as a specimen of Wagner's command of all the secrets of polyphony at its strongest and greatest.
'Parsifal,' Wagner's last and in the opinion of many his greatest work, was produced in 1882 at the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth. The name by which the composer designated his work, Bühnenweihfestspiel which may be translated 'Sacred Festival Drama,' sufficiently indicates its solemn import, and indeed both in subject and treatment it stands remote from ordinary theatrical standards. The subject of 'Parsifal' is drawn from the legends of the Holy Grail, which had already furnished Wagner with the tale of 'Lohengrin.' Titurel, the earthly keeper of the Holy Grail, has built the castle of Monsalvat, and there established a community of stainless knights to guard the sacred chalice, who in their office are miraculously sustained by its life-giving power. Growing old, he has delegated his headship to his son Amfortas. Near to the castle of Monsalvat dwells the magician Klingsor, who, having in vain solicited entry to that pure company, is now devoted to the destruction of the knights. He has transformed the desert into a garden of wicked loveliness, peopled by beautiful sirens, through whose charms many of the knights have already fallen from their state of good. Lastly Amfortas, sallying forth in the pride of his heart to subdue the sorcerer, armed with the sacred spear that clove the Saviour's side, has succumbed to the charms of the beauteous Kundry, a strange being over whom Klingsor exercises an hypnotic power. He has lost the spear, and further has sustained a grievous wound from its point dealt by Klingsor, which no balm or balsam can heal.
The first scene opens in a cool woodland glade near the castle of Monsalvat, where Gurnemanz, one of the knights, and two young esquires of the Grail are sleeping. Their earnest converse is interrupted by Kundry, who flies in with a healing medicine for the wounded King, which she has brought from Arabia. This strange woman is that Herodias who laughed at our Saviour upon the Cross, and thenceforth was condemned to wander through the world under a curse of laughter, praying only for the gift of tears to release her weary soul. Klingsor has gained a magic power over her, and, to use the language of modern theosophy, can summon her astral shape at will to be the queen of his enchanted garden, leaving her body stark and lifeless; but when not in his power she serves the ministers of the Grail in a wild, petulant, yet not wholly unloving manner. Gurnemanz tells the young esquires the story of the Grail, and together they repeat the prophecy which promises relief to their suffering King:—
Wise through pity,
The sinless fool.
Look thou for him
Whom I have chosen.
Their words are interrupted by loud cries from without, and several knights and esquires rush in, dragging with them Parsifal, who has slain one of the sacred swans with his bow and arrow. Gurnemanz protects Parsifal from their violence, and seeing that the youth, who has lived all his life in the woods, is as innocent as a child, leads him up to the castle of the Grail, in the hope that he may turn out to be the sinless fool of the prophecy. In the vast hall of the Grail the knights assemble, and fulfil the mystic rites of the love-feast. Amfortas, the one sinner in that chaste community, pleads to be allowed to forgo his task of uncovering the Grail, the source to him of heartburning remorse and anguish; but Titurel, speaking from the tomb where he lies between life and death, sustained only by the miraculous power of the Grail, urges his son to the duty. Amfortas uncovers the Grail, which is illumined with unearthly light, and the solemn ceremony closes in peace and brotherly love. Parsifal, who has watched the whole scene from the side, feels a strange pang of sympathy at Amfortas's passionate cry, but as yet he does not understand what it means. He is not yet 'wise through pity,' and Gurnemanz, disappointed, turns him from the temple door.
In the second act we are in Klingsor's magic castle. The sorcerer, knowing of the approach of Parsifal, summons Kundry to her task, and with many sighs she has to submit to her master. Parsifal vanquishes the knights who guard the castle, and enters the enchanted garden, a wilderness of tropical flowers, vast in size and garish in colour. There he is saluted by troops of lovely maidens, who play around him until dismissed by a voice sounding from a network of flowers hard by. Parsifal turns and sees Kundry, now a woman of exquisite loveliness, advancing towards him. She tells him of his dead mother, and drawing him towards her, presses upon his lips the first kiss of love. The touch of defilement wakens him to a sense of human frailty. The wounded Amfortas's cry becomes plain to him. He starts to his feet, throbbing with compassion for a world of sin. No thought of sensual pleasure moves him. He puts Kundry from him, and her endearments move him but to pity and horror. Kundry in her discomfiture cries to Klingsor. He appears on the castle steps, brandishing the sacred spear. He hurls it at Parsifal, but it stops in the air over the boy's head. He seizes it and with it makes the sacred sign of the Cross. With a crash the enchanted garden and castle fall into ruin. The ground is strewn with withered flowers, among which Kundry lies prostrate, and all that a moment before was bright with exotic beauty now lies a bare and desert waste.
Many years have passed before the third act opens. Evil days have fallen upon the brotherhood of the Grail. Amfortas, in his craving for the release of death, has ceased to uncover the Grail. Robbed of their miraculous nourishment, the knights are sunk in dejection. Titurel is dead, and Gurnemanz dwells in a little hermitage in a remote part of the Grail domain. There one morning he finds the body of Kundry cold and stiff. He chafes her to life once more, and is surprised to see in her face and gestures a new and strange humility. A warrior now approaches clad in black armour. It is Parsifal returned at length after long and weary wanderings. Gurnemanz recognises the spear which he carries, and salutes its bearer as the new guardian of the Grail. He pours water from the sacred spring upon Parsifal's head, saluting him in token of anointment, while Kundry washes his feet and wipes them with her hair. The first act of Parsifal in his new office is to baptize the regenerate Kundry, redeemed at length by love from her perpetual curse. Bowing her head upon the earth, she weeps tears of repentant joy. The three now proceed to the temple, where the knights are gathered for Titurel's burial. Amfortas still obstinately refuses to uncover the Grail, and calls upon the knights to slay him. Parsifal heals his wound with a touch of the sacred spear, and taking his place, unveils the sacred chalice, and kneels before it in silent prayer. Once more a sacred glow illumines the Grail, and while Parsifal gently waves the mystic cup from side to side, in token of benediction alike to the pardoned Amfortas and the ransomed Kundry, a snowy dove flies down from above, and hovers over his anointed head.
It would be in vain to attempt to treat, within the restricted limits of these pages, of the manifold beauties of 'Parsifal,' musical, poetical, and scenical. Many books have already been devoted to it alone, and to these the reader must be referred for a subtler analysis of this extraordinary work. It is difficult to compare 'Parsifal' with any of Wagner's previous works. By reason of its subject it stands apart, and performed as it is at Bayreuth and there, save for sacrilegious New York, alone, with the utmost splendour of mounting, interpreted by artists devoted heart and soul to its cause, and listened to by an audience of the elect assembled from the four corners of the earth, 'Parsifal,' so to speak, is as yet surrounded by a halo of almost unearthly splendour. It is difficult to apply to it the ordinary canons of criticism. One thing however, may safely be said, that it stands alone among works written for theatrical performance by reason of its absolute modernity coupled with a mystic fervour such as music has not known since the days of Palestrina.
Of Wagner's work as a whole it is as yet too early to speak with certainty. The beauty of his works, and the value of the system upon which they are founded, must still be to a certain extent a matter of individual taste. One thing, at any rate, may safely be said: he has altered the whole course of modern opera. It is inconceivable that a work should now be written without traces more or less important of the musical system founded and developed by Richard Wagner.
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