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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Charles Harvey Genung

By Richard Wagner (1813–1883)

NO name in the history of music occupies at the same time in the annals of literature so high a place, and with so secure a title, as that of Richard Wagner. He was a philosopher, who, with a nervous incisive prose which almost rivaled that of his master Schopenhauer, was able to set forth the theories by which his creative genius was guided; and he was a poet of supreme eminence in a field quite his own, reconstructing in form and spirit the splendid conceptions of the legendary ages, and infusing into the characters of that heroic time the more complicated emotions of our modern days. He displayed a power of dramatic construction, and a depth of poetic imagination, that rank him among the great romantic poets of the nineteenth century. When Schopenhauer read the text of the ‘Nibelungen’ trilogy he exclaimed, “The fellow is a poet, not a musician;” and again, “He ought to hang music on the nail: he has more genius for poetry.” But the might of Wagner’s musical genius long obscured the poet’s fame. Critics continued to sneer at the lines long after they had conceded the merit of the scores; but it is a crowning tribute to the greatness of the poet-composer that now a whole literature has arisen around his operas as poems, and the process still goes on. It is a remarkable coincidence that in the very town of Bayreuth, where since 1876 the Wagner festivals have been held, Jean Paul Richter in a preface to a book of E. T. W. Hoffmann’s wrote the half-prophetic words: “Hitherto Apollo has always distributed the poetic gift with his right hand, the musical with his left, to two persons so widely apart that up to this hour we are still waiting for the man who will create a genuine opera by writing both its text and its music.”

In the very year in which these words were written, Richard Wagner was born in Leipsic on May 22d, 1813. It is not to the present purpose to follow his career in biographical detail. The fatuous prophecies of criticism which followed him through life began when his music-teacher announced in disgust that he would never amount to anything. The creative impulse in him was early manifested when he wrote an ambitious tragedy, in which, having killed off all but one of forty-one characters, he was obliged to have some of them return as ghosts in order to save the last act from being a monologue. When he was sixteen he turned to music, and after a week’s study he found its difficulties so great that he resolved to become a musician. Difficulties stimulated his energy. The germ of the ideas by which Wagner subsequently revolutionized the operatic stage lay already in the mind of Carl Maria von Weber, who, as early as 1817, had begun a campaign against the empty forms of the Italian-French opera. In Weber’s ‘Euryanthe’ Wagner found suggestion and inspiration; and in 1843 he succeeded to the position that Weber had held in Dresden, of court capellmeister. The commonplaceness of his early operas, and the Meyerbeer-like blatancy of ‘Rienzi,’ was less a concession to public taste than the result of an irresistible creative impulse with artistic aims as yet undefined. But when these aims became definite, never did an artist pursue his purpose with a more relentless energy in the face of gigantic obstacles. He defied the public taste in the midst of poverty and ridicule; the more discouraging his reception, the more absolute became his adherence to his ideals. There was something victorious in his resolute nature, which, quite apart from the originality and intrinsic beauty of his works, made him one of the formative forces of his age.

During the days of poverty in Paris, Wagner began his series of essays with a short story entitled ‘A Pilgrimage to Beethoven.’ Already a new world was dawning upon him; but it was at the time of the general revolutionary movement in Europe that he began to publish the works which proclaimed the revolution in art. The first was entitled ‘Art and Revolution’ (1849); the much-discussed ‘Art Work of the Future’ appeared in the following year; and in 1851 the ‘Communication to my Friends,’ and ‘Opera and Drama.’ In these works Wagner had not yet developed the powerful prose style of his later period: the metaphysician in him led him into what Mr. Finck has called “sophomoric bombast,” and sometimes into unintelligibility. To the public of that day it all appeared unintelligible. In the ‘Communication to my Friends,’ first published as a preface to the poems of ‘The Flying Dutchman,’ ‘Tannhäuser,’ and ‘Lohengrin,’ the plan of a Nibelung festival was announced. ‘Opera and Drama,’ the most important of these revolutionary treatises, is in three parts: of the Opera, of the Drama, and of the Music Drama. Of these the third part has permanent value: it is the statement of his ideals and the programme of his life. All the arts are to be merged into one composite but unified art work. Architecture and painting contribute the scenery, the actor is the sculptured figure, while poetry and music unite in drama, orchestra, and voice.

With such ideas as these, it was obvious at once that the theatre as then constituted must be revolutionized. Wagner fought against the degradation of the theatre to a mere place of entertainment. The relations of art to public life were the burden of his argument. The great Wagner strife was thus of much wider scope than the musical questions involved. The national drama, or as Wagner called it, true German art, was to be the highest expression of the culture and artistic capabilities of the German people; and this art work, Wagner, by his own unaided genius, stood ready to create. A self-confidence so colossal moved to astonishment and scornful laughter; but the battle has been won, and the only echoes of the days of strife are the self-apologetic phrases of the former scoffers, who have slowly become conscious that the lack lay in them, while the works of the master exist by their own right and might. They received their consecration in the pilgrimage temple of Bayreuth in 1876 and 1882.

That the extravagant theories of Wagner, with their contravention of artistic limitations and their socialistic coloring, have not been carried out in their entirety, is perfectly true. The genius of the artist was superior to the reasoning of the theorizer. What Wagner did, viewed from the standpoint of literature, was to create a national music-drama, based upon ancient Germanic traditions and legends, about which he threw the gorgeous mantle of his harmonies. In addition to the beauty of the poetic conceptions, the literary artist appears in the perfect adaptation of each phrase and word and vowel, not only to the dramatic expression of the thought but to the needs of the human voice as well. His method of treating themes associates them inseparably with certain thoughts, so that the words come involuntarily to the mind: and in the midst of all the action, the orchestra speaks an articulate language; suggests, warns, alarms, melts, threatens, or moves to tears of sympathy or joy,—produces in short that “demonic” emotion, the effect beyond all for which the reason can account, the effect which Goethe considered the highest achievement of all art. Indeed, the music will not yield the whole secret of its charm until the words, the poetic thought, and the entire dramatic conception, have become completely a part of the hearer’s mental equipment. To this quality of Wagner’s works the art of the poet contributed as much as the genius of the composer.

For the material through which to give national expression to the culture of the German people, Wagner turned, like a true poet of Romanticism, to the heroic traditions of his race. In the ‘Flying Dutchman’ it is a somber legend of the sea; in ‘Tannhäuser’ it is the famous contest of the thirteenth century when the Minnesingers strove together in song in the hall of the Wartburg; in ‘Lohengrin’ and ‘Parsifal’ it is the mediæval tradition of the Holy Grail; in ‘Tristan und Isolde’ it is the most popular love tale of the Middle Ages; and finally in ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’ (The Nibelungs’ Ring), Wagner has combined in a colossal work of wonderful unity and beauty the most ancient poetic legends of the Germanic peoples, the legends out of which seven centuries before Wagner’s time some unnamed poet created Germany’s most national epic,—the ‘Nibelungenlied.’ To have created anew these splendid conceptions of the poetic past, is not the least of Wagner’s merit. His works, in addition to their æsthetic value, have a value of the moral sort as well: in them speaks the deep soul of a historic people, with its moral earnestness, its childlike love of song and legend, its martial strength and its manly tenderness.

The central theme of all these poems is love. It is through Senta’s love, faithful unto death, that the curse is removed from the Flying Dutchman. Through the power of Elizabeth’s pure passion and incessant prayers, Tannhäuser is at last delivered from the bondage of the Venusberg. In ‘Lohengrin,’ love is the manifestation of the Divine mercy; and a knight of the Holy Grail comes, swan-drawn, from his inaccessible temple to rescue a maiden in distress. He becomes her husband and protector, but Elsa, tempted of evil, puts the fatal question: her faith was insufficient, and her lord returns to the service of the Grail.

‘Tristan und Isolde’ is the apotheosis of earthly passion. Into this Celtic legend, of which Gottfried von Strassburg in the thirteenth century had made a German epic, Wagner has introduced a modern psychology; and he has given the poem a new significance. He has retained the love potion, but he has not made it the cause of the lover’s passion. They loved before, but Tristan is resolutely faithful to King Mark; and Isolde is wounded to the quick that Tristan should have wooed her in another’s name. The potion symbolizes the irresistible power of a love that bears down all obstacles and stifles all considerations. The triumph, the reconcilement, the nirvana of their passion, is attained only in death. This work must be numbered among the greatest love poems of literature.

And so too in the ‘Nibelungen’ trilogy, love is not only the theme, but in the end the force that conquers even in death. In ‘Rheingold’ the power of love is contrasted with the lust for gold; and here the keynote is struck, and the tragedy set in motion. The love and faithfulness of Siegmund and Sieglinde in the ‘Walküre’ show Brünnhilde for the first time what love can do; and when Siegfried, in the idyllic fairy tale that bears his name, awakens her from her long sleep, she throws aside her Walküren nature for the joy of human love. Siegfried is the free fate-defying man, triumphing over the powers of darkness and destiny; to him Wotan, ever seeking guidance from the mother of wisdom, is forced to yield. In the ‘Götterdämmerung’ the god awaits the fullness of time, while the guileless Siegfried falls a victim to the wiles of man. But the end towards which Wotan blindly strove is attained by Siegfried’s death. Brünnhilde, to whom the counsels of the gods are known, restores the symbolic ring to the daughters of the Rhine, and in twilight the ancient reign of the gods comes to an end. The reign of love is proclaimed as Brünnhilde immolates herself upon Siegfried’s funeral pyre. But the symbolism which it is so easy to find in these operas, and so easy to exaggerate, is unimportant, if not wholly negligible. The Nibelung poems are fairy tales; it is the buoyant spirit of the young German race that revels here in the poetry and legends of its childhood, and as fairy tales these works should be enjoyed.

Wagner died in Venice on February 13th, 1883. In the preceding year he had seen his life work crowned by the performance of ‘Parsifal’ at Bayreuth. Wolfram von Eschenbach’s ‘Parzifal,’ the finest courtly epic of the Middle Ages, Wagner has wrought into a music-drama of even greater moral significance and beauty. Wolfram’s salvation of Parsifal through self-renunciation, as in ‘Faust,’ has in Wagner’s work become the salvation of humanity through all-saving pity. This is love sublimated into its most unselfish form. The central thought is announced by an invisible chorus from the dome of the temple of the Holy Grail:—

  • “Made wise through pity
  • The guileless fool:
  • Wait for him,
  • My chosen tool.”
  • And Parsifal, once found wanting, attains at last, through paths of pain and error, the wisdom of pity. He is the chosen tool of the Divine power for the salvation of suffering sinners.

    One great opera remains to be mentioned, and that which is probably destined to be Wagner’s most popular work,—‘The Mastersingers of Nuremberg.’ This, unless we include ‘Siegfried,’ as Wagner once did, is his only comic opera; and that in a sense widely different from the ordinary. ‘The Mastersingers’ gives a wonderful picture of German life in the early sixteenth century. The humorous and serious elements are so artistically woven around the central story of Walther’s and Eva’s love, that as a play this poem must be pronounced the finest example of Wagner’s dramatic power. With a blending of satire and genial appreciation, Wagner has herein set forth his own theories of musical art and ridiculed the formalists. Hans Sachs is one of the most winning of all his creations, and through him the poet expresses his own philosophy. Walther, in his exquisite song before the Mastersingers in the first act, attempts to conform to the rules, but the marker scores countless mistakes against him; it is only under the instruction of Hans Sachs in the last act that he really composes his master-song.

    And as through this opera the golden age of Nuremberg has been made to live again, so have the ancient gods and heroes and mythical happenings of early German legend been impressed upon the modern imagination, as not all the critical texts of the original poems, nor all the efforts of the other Romantic poets, have been able to impress them. They have passed not into the national consciousness only, but these fine old fairy tales and mediæval pictures have become an indispensable part of the culture of the world. If this be to create a national art, Wagner has accomplished his purpose. There is an inscription under a bust of the poet-composer in Leipzig, which in the old alliterative form that he used in the ‘Nibelungenring’ sums up the genius which has wrought a greater artistic revolution than any other force of this century:—

  • “Denker und Dichter
  • Gewaltigen Willens,
  • Durch Worte und Werke
  • Wecker und Meister
  • Musischer Kunst.”
  • (Thinker and poet of powerful will, by words and by works awakener and master of musical art.)