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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

“Siegfried” at Bayreuth

By John Rose Greene Hassard (1836–1888)

[Born in New York, N. Y., 1836. Died there, 1888. The Ring of the Nibelungs. A Description of its First Performance in August, 1876.]

BAYREUTH, Aug. 16.—The third performance of the Nibelung series was to have taken place yesterday, but Herr Betz was so hoarse that a postponement was unavoidable…. To-day Betz is himself again, and the performance of “Siegfried” was the most successful so far of the series. The work is very different from the two preceding. It is less romantic than “Das Rheingold,” less heroic than “Die Walküre,” more ethereally poetical than either.

Siegfried is the hero born of the union of Siegmund and Sieglinde, and destined to be the agent in repairing the wrong done in the theft of the Ring and at the same time of bringing the reign of the divinities of Walhalla to an end. Sieglinde died in giving birth to him, and the child was brought up by the dwarf Mime, who hoped to use him in recovering the Ring and the Tarn helmet. The instrumental introduction made use of the anvil motive, and when the curtain drew back we saw the dim interior of a great cavern in a wood. On the left was a smithy, with a glowing fire and an anvil, where Mime sat hammering at a sword-blade. On the right a few steps led up to the opening of this rocky retreat, and beyond we saw a beautiful vista of forest, with golden light bathing the foliage. It was not a scene to astonish and bewilder the spectator, like that of the depths of the Rhine, but it was a picture whose tone and composition delighted the artistic taste and pleased us better and better the more we looked at it. There was less of decoration and mechanism employed in “Siegfried,” and fewer characters appeared upon the stage than in any of the other divisions of the work, and yet the effects, musical and dramatic alike, far surpassed those of the previous evenings. Mime was a personage of inferior importance in “Rheingold”; here he became one of the chief actors in the story, and the remarkable ability of which the representative of the part gave proof on Sunday evening was now illustrated with much greater fullness. Herr Schlosser of Munich, to whom this rôle was allotted, is highly esteemed as a delineator of “character parts,” and in Mime he seemed to find a congenial opportunity. The dwarf was malevolent and hypocritical. In the opening scene he sat scowling and complaining over his work. He could not make a weapon strong enough for the volsung. Brands that the giants might have wielded Siegfried shattered with a single blow. Only the sword of Siegmund, broken against Wotan’s spear, would fit his hand, but all the art of the dwarf could not mend that terrible blade. Mime was still hammering and lamenting, in a song of great vigor and a certain rhythmic regularity, when the merry notes of a horn were heard in the wood, and Siegfried came bounding in, driving a bear by a rope. Georg Unger, who personated the hero, is a tall, handsome, well-built fellow, with a robust, half-trained tenor voice of good quality, and a free and dashing manner. Dressed in a short coat of skins, with bare arms, flowing yellow hair, short beard, and a silver horn slung at his belt, he was at any rate in appearance an ideal hero of the Northern race. He amused himself a while with Mime’s fear of the bear; he tried the sword just made for him, and broke it at the first trial; he threw himself in anger on a couch of skins; he repulsed the dwarf’s advances, and dashed from his hand the proffered food and drink. When Siegfried came into the cavern, it was as if a high wind fresh from the fir-clad mountains swept through those dark recesses. There was a wonderful scene when the dwarf drew close and began to tell what he had done for him, how he had found him as a helpless child, and fed and clothed him—

  • “Als zullendes Kind
  • Zog ich dich auf,
  • Warmte mit Kleiden
  • Den kleinen Wurm,”—
  • and how he got no thanks for his pains. And Siegfried frankly replied that he did not love the dwarf, and could not love him. In this scene an exquisite melody, of which great use is made afterward, is given to the violincello. The psychological distinction between the two characters was preserved in the music and strongly marked by the actors also. Siegfried, impatient of Mime’s hypocrisy, at last insisted upon knowing the secret of his birth. He extorted from the dwarf the story of his mother’s death and of the broken sword, the narrative being interrupted by the constant attempt of Mime to recur to the catalogue of his benefactions. “Als zullendes Kind zog ich dich auf,” which Siegfried checked with angry impetuosity. “That,” he cried, “shall be my sword. Weld the pieces for me this very day, and I will go forth into the world free as the fish in the stream and the bird in the air.” So, with a melody of characteristic strength and freshness—
  • “Wie der Fisch froh
  • In der Fluth schwimmt,
  • Wie der Fink frei
  • Sich davon schwingt”—
  • he dashed into the sunlight and disappeared.

    The whole had been vivid, dramatic, and elevated even above the common level of this work. Now we were to have another equally impressive, but in a very different style. Close upon the departure of Siegfried entered Wotan, in the disguise of the Wanderer, a character which he preserves throughout this division of the play. A broad hat half concealed his features. A dark-blue mantle hid his figure. A reddish beard fell over his breast. His spear with the potent runes served for a staff. A glow of light, so artfully thrown that it seemed to radiate from his face, indicated to the spectator the presence of a supernatural being. He asked for hospitality and was rudely repulsed, but seating himself by the cavern fire he staked his head upon his ability to answer any three questions the dwarf might choose to put him. Nothing could have been more dramatic than the ensuing dialogue. The majestic utterances of the god were clothed in music of the most elevated and imposing character. The craft of the dwarf found expression in strangely contrasted strains, while the figure of the actor, as he crouched ungainly by his anvil, questioning, musing, losing himself in perplexity over his strange visitor, was a bit of realistic personation which I shall not soon forget. All this time, of course, the orchestra continued its great work of illustration and suggestion. “What race lives in the bowels of the earth?”—here we heard the same motive which accompanied our introduction to the caves of Nibelheim in “The Rhinegold.” “What race works on the earth’s back?”—here came again the tramp of the giants as it fell upon our ears when they went to fetch away Freia. “Who dwells in the cloudy heights?”—the oft-repeated motive, which symbolizes the power and glory of the gods, came to us with the answer. Mime in his turn was able to reply when the Wanderer asked him about the volsungs and the virtues of the broken sword Nothung; but who might mend that sword he could not tell. “Only he who has never known fear shall weld Nothung anew,” exclaimed the god, and so saying he went forth again into the forest, and as he went a mighty music, as of rushing winds and the tossing boughs of great forests, rose out of the orchestra, and lightning flashed in the sky. Mime, remembering that Siegfried knew not fear, sank trembling to the ground. There was a short, impressive scene in which Mime portrayed his terror, while the bass tuba, to which Wagner has given such great power of expression, uttered underneath the orchestral accompaniment a suggestive passage of its own. The dwarf cowered behind his anvil. Suddenly the music changed; we heard in the forest the voice of Siegfried; the breezy song which followed him when he rushed forth in the earlier part of the act recurred again, and he burst into the cave, calling loudly for the sword. Mime, still agitated and bewildered, repeated only the words of Wotan:

  • “Nur wer das Fürchten nie erfuhr
  • Schmiedet Nothung neu.”
  • Roused at last, he tried to teach Siegfried fear. He told him of Fafner, who in the form of a dragon kept guard over the treasure of the Nibelungs, in a lonely region called Neidhole. But Siegfried’s spirits only rose the higher at the tale. He longed to attack the dragon. He demanded to be led to the spot. He called for the pieces of his father’s sword, and welded them himself by the dwarf’s forge. As he stood with his hand on the bellows-rope, and the flames glowed about the iron, he sang the great Song of the Smithy:

  • “Nothung, Nothung
  • Neidliches Schwert!
  • Was musstest du zerspringen?”
  • —a song to be given with full chest and head erect and a bold and manly voice, a song that breathes of heroism in every note, and rouses the coldest listener to a passionate delight. It is difficult to write of this long scene in Mime’s cavern without an appearance of exaggerated enthusiasm, but the strongest possible praise would not be too strong for such an extraordinary creation of genius, and I am sure that there was hardly an intelligent man in the theatre who did not feel his pulses beating quicker and quicker as the act developed itself. The blade was drawn red from the fire, hammered and tempered and fitted to the hilt (let me remark here that the forge and fire were real, and they were real sparks which flew from the iron when it was beaten on the anvil). Siegfried’s exultation rose as he drew near the end of his task; with every repetition of the song, “Nothung, Nothung, ho-ho! ha-hei! ho-ho! ha-hei!” the excitement increased, till the sword was finished, and he tested it by striking a terrible blow upon the anvil, cleaving the iron block in twain. Then the curtain fell.

    In the second act, after a portentous Vorspiel, we saw the exterior of Fafner’s cave, a huge pile of rocks filling the background, a forest opening on the left, beautiful spreading trees and clumps of reeds extending toward the front. It was dark night, and we dimly discerned the figure of a man leaning against the rocks. It was Alberich, who haunted the spot where his stolen treasures lay hid. There was a fine scene between him and the Wanderer, Wotan, over which, as it was somewhat episodical in a dramatic sense, I may pass briefly, only remarking that according to his custom Wagner gives the god here a sort of solemn declamation, while the melody, which is of the most exquisite kind, is assigned almost entirely to the orchestra. The noise of a storm-wind and a sudden gleam of light followed Wotan as he disappeared from the stage. Then day began to dawn. The faint twilight was followed by the rosy blush, and in the growing light the beauty of the foliage revealed itself. Mime led Siegfried upon the scene and showed him the cave of the dragon which he was to kill. For the dwarf, since he had not been able to prevent the young volsung from getting possession of the terrible sword which was to conquer the dragon, had resolved first to aid him in his enterprise and then to kill him and secure the treasures. Here again, as in the first act, the characters and purposes of the dwarf and the hero were wonderfully discriminated in the music. When Mime had gone away, Siegfried threw himself upon a grassy bank at the foot of a tree. And now began a pastoral scene of delicious delicacy and elegance. The orchestral part of what followed has been called almost symphonic in its character, as it certainly is in its beauty and richness. As Siegfried in a charming strain of tenderness, such as he had not hitherto shown, mused on the history of his birth, and gave voice to the half-defined aspirations which drove him into the world, the orchestra filled the scene with the music of nature. The still woods woke to life with the rising of the sun. The murmur of rustling leaves, the sighing of the waving branches, the whir of myriads of insects, the morning greeting of the birds, rose and fell upon the air. It was the birds at last that drew Siegfried from his reverie. “Ah,” he cried, “how often have I tried to understand their song! Let me imitate it, and perhaps I shall know what it says.” He made a pipe from a reed which he cut with his sword. The futile attempt to reproduce the music of the feathered tribes on this rude instrument is treated by Wagner with considerable humor. Siegfried threw away his whistle, and seating himself at the foot of a tree took up his silver horn. “This at least,” said he, “I can play.” He wound upon it an exceedingly pretty and merry tune, the effect of the scene being greatly helped by the fact that the horn passage was played not in the orchestra, as is usual in such cases, but by a performer concealed behind the tree.

    The horn aroused the giant Fafner, and we saw him in dragon’s guise (the German text calls him a “great worm”) roll out of the cave. The machine was big enough for a man to stand upright inside its head, and the voice of the Fafner of the first evening issued from its chasm of a throat. The battle that ensued was short and, to tell the plain truth, rather absurd. In drawing his sword from the body of the slain dragon some of the blood fell upon Siegfried’s hand; it burned like fire, and he put his hand to his mouth. Instantly the understanding of the language of birds came to him. From the branches overhead we heard a light soprano voice, in phrases which most ingeniously wedded articulate speech to bird-like tones, direct Siegfried to enter the cavern and secure the helmet and the ring. We heard it again warn him against the treachery of Alberich, and behold the dwarf, when he approached, was made to utter not the false professions that were framed on his lips, but the malice and murderous purpose that lurked in his heart. He offered a poisoned drink, and Siegfried slew him, threw his body into the cave, and blocked up the entrance with the carcass of the dragon. It would be useless to try to describe the music of this animated scene, or rather I should say this succession of scenes all crowded with incident. Every action had its appropriate accompaniment, every word fitted exactly its musical expression. There is no such thing as analyzing music which changes as rapidly and freely as the shapes in the evening sky. At one moment the orchestra told us of quarrel and conflict. The next, it brought back the music of the woods, as Siegfried stretched himself beneath the trees, and in gentle accents, lamenting his desolate condition, asked council of his friends the birds. Again the pretty voice came from the tree-tops. It told him of Brünnhilde, and bade him penetrate the barrier of fire, and win the most glorious of women for his bride. Siegfried started to his feet. A new passion burned in his veins, and with the first experience of love his music took a changed character. He was no longer the rosy and bare-limbed young savage, rejoicing in his freedom and strength; higher aims and deeper feelings than he had yet known made him another man. At his call a bird fluttered down from the trees to show him his way, and led by this strange guide he set forth for the rock of fire.

    The third act was introduced by an orchestral passage of a sombre and mysterious character, with sustained harmonies of marked importance for the trumpets and trombones. Again the curtain rose upon night and a wild landscape. Steep rocks stretched across the background, and over them lowered an angry sky. Thunder rolled and lightning flashed from the clouds. Hither came Wotan, the Wanderer, to call up Erda for counsel and prophecy. At his summons a faint bluish light began slowly to appear in a hollow of the rocks, and we saw dimly the figure of a woman clothed in black robes and a silvery veil rise half into view. Little by little, while the solemn music went on, the form became more distinct and radiated a stronger light. But Erda would give no advice in the coming crisis of the divinities of Walhalla. She had parted with her wisdom to Brünnhilde, and when Wotan told how he had imprisoned the Walküre in sleep and fire, Erda veiled her head in dismay and was silent. The god foresaw the downfall of his race through the triumph of human free will in the person of Siegfried, but in accents of inimitable dignity and sadness he avowed that he did not regret it, and after a scene of great power, pervaded by a dignified pathos, he commanded Erda to sink again to her everlasting sleep; the light faded away, and the Wanderer was left alone. The storm had now ceased, and dawn began to show in the sky. With the morning light came Siegfried following his bird, which fluttered a moment upon the scene and then disappeared among the rocks. Here then was the path to Brünnhilde’s prison; but when Siegfried attempted to pursue the way, Wotan withstood him, and barred the approach with his spear. A blow with the sword Nothung cut the spear in two. The power of the gods was forever broken. While the ponderous motive in the bass, so often cited, was thundered forth—this time, however, with halting and disturbed rhythm, to indicate that the law was at last fulfilled—lightning flashed, flames began to gleam among the rocks, and Wotan disappeared. Siegfried hailed the outbreak of the flames with cries of joy, and as they gradually overspread the rocks his exultation rose. He plunged into the midst of them. We saw him for a few moments pushing forward, and then the clouds of red steam rising from below and the ruddy vapors dropping from above enveloped the whole scene. In a moment a curtain of gauze had fallen across the stage, and behind it the whole theatre seemed to be wrapped in flame and curling smoke. The orchestra meanwhile continued an interlude in which there was a marvellous combination of the two characteristic melodies of Siegfried with one of the motives of Wotan’s Farewell in the last scene of “Die Walküre.”

    When the flames died down we looked upon the other side of the barrier of fire—the summit of Brünnhilde’s rock, as in the third act of “Die Walküre.” Brünnhilde lay as Wotan left her, the helm over her face, the long shield covering her body. In the background the glow of advancing day struggled with the fading light of the flames, when Siegfried mounted the rocks and came upon the scene. He raised the shield and helmet, he cut the fastenings of the armor, and Brünnhilde, waking from her sleep, recognized in the young volsung her appointed deliverer. The whole of this last scene was virtually a love duet of the most impassioned character, its spirit changing as Brünnhilde, no more a goddess but now in heart and impulse a woman, was swayed in turn by fear, by trust, by modest tenderness and burning love, and Siegfried gave loose rein to feelings which seemed to engross his whole nature. Love duets alike of the tender and the fiery sort are common enough in operatic music, but no one has ever written a scene like this, which startles the listener with the dramatic truth of every phrase and the evidences of such deep insight into the human heart. It has all the characteristic eloquence and clearness of Wagner’s peculiar form of melodic declamation and a great deal of what the least cultivated ear recognizes as suave and well-defined melody. The composer resorts in it to a common device of the older schools which he seldom allows himself, employing the two voices in concert instead of alternately, and the rapturous finale reminds one somewhat of the Italian stretta. Here Frau Materna, the only woman living, I am sure, who could sing Brünnhilde, was superb. Unger was not a bad Siegfried. Wagner chose him mainly for his fine figure and bearing, and when he began to study his part he was a musician of very ordinary abilities. He has still a great deal to learn; above all he has to learn how to avoid shouting and to keep his voice clear and true through a long and difficult performance. But minor defects of interpretation were lost sight of in the effect of a scene which roused the whole audience to extraordinary excitement, and brought the evening to a glorious close.