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position as an operatic reformer in the first instance, before glancing at the wider bearing of the theory of music which he wishes the world to accept as the future basis of the art.
Musical drama, commonly called opera, is a form of art which has not been much in the odour of sanctity. Its logical basis, as a combination of poetry and music, has been little considered; and while the opportunities it presents for brilliant climax of musical and spectacular effect have made it always a favourite entertainment with the wealthier section of the mob (using the word in Fielding's sense), by the minority who take their pleasure thoughtfully it has usually been regarded, in England especially, as an illicit union of music and drama, greatly to the dishonouring of the latter; and our literature, from Swift and Addison to Thackeray, abounds in gibes on the subject, intensified perhaps by the lack of musical organisation and sympathy in the English literary mind since the Elizabethan era. But even in Germany, where opera has always ranked more as an art and less as a mere entertainment than with us, there has been a frequently recurring dissatisfaction amongst thoughtful critics with the one-sided principle on which the marriage of music with not very immortal verse has been carried out, and which is curtly summed up by Wagner in his definition of the popularly accepted idea of opera as ' a tightly-built scaffolding of musical forms, to which the poetry was to conform.' In other words, the primary object of opera having usually been to give opportunity for brilliant or passionate musical expression, with whatever additional effect could be contributed by spectacle and by free action on the part of the singers (which latter is a more important element in the effect of declamatory singing than is sometimes recognised), the result came to be that the musician had it all his own way (always with due submission to the singers), the story and situations being regarded merely as furnishing the needful opportunities for composer and singers to display their respective powers. As it was not to be expected that any dramatic poet of genius would move in these shackles, operatic libretti afforded in general only too good an excuse for the ridicule of the English critics before mentioned -for the sarcasm of Voltaire, Ce qui est trop sot pour être 'dit, on le chante'--for the contemptuous wonderment expressed by Goethe at the arrangement in some people's natures' by which they were enabled to enjoy beautiful music, though illustrating a miserable subject--for such a more serious and detailed arraignment of opera as that quoted from a German critic of the last century by Professor Ritter, whose two lectures on Opera, forming the fourth and eighth chapters in his lectures on the
VOL. CXLIJI. NO. CCXCI.
· History of Music,' should be read by those who are interested in the subject :
* In that extraordinary spectacle to which the Italians have given the name of opera, there is to be found such a mingling of the great and the small, the beautiful and tasteless, that I hesitate in what terms to write about it. In the best of operas, we see and hear such stupid and trivial things, that we might think them only calculated for children, or for a childish populace; and in the midst of their revolting silliness, passages occur that pierce the heart with horror, fear, pity, or refined voluptuousness. A scene during which we have forgotten ourselves, and felt the liveliest interest in the characters, is followed by one in which the same characters strike us as blundering fools, awkwardly trying to astonish and alarm a vulgar crowd. While we cannot bear to recall the senselessness which has disgusted us in the opera, we cannot help remembering its charming scenes with emotion, or without wishing that artists would unite to make of this great spectacle that perfect thing which it is capable of becoming. The opera might be the most powerful of all spectacles, because all the fine arts unite in it; but it is a proof of the superficiality of the moderns that they have lowered, and exposed to contempt, all these arts.' (Sulzer : l'heorie der schönen Künsten.)
These words are the more significant, inasmuch as the writer of them was nearly contemporary with Gluck, who, as most of our readers must be aware, occupied in his own day somewhat the same position in regard to opera as Wagner occupies now, and at whose work it is necessary to glance in order rightly to appreciate both the coincidence and the divergence between the modern composer and the one who is now habitually spoken of as his predecessor in operatic reform. The part played by the composer of · Alceste' and · Iphigénie 'may be stated in his own words, which we again borrow from Professor Ritter's • History':
"When I undertook to set to music the opera of “Alceste,” I proposed to myself to avoid the abuses which the mistaken vanity of singers and the excessive complaisance of composers had introduced, and which, from the most splendid and beautiful of all public exhibitions, had reduced the opera to the most tiresome and ridiculous of spectacles. I wished to confine music to its true province—that of seconding poetry by strengthening the expression of the sentiments and the interest of the situation, without interrupting the action and weakening it by superfluous ornament. I thought that music ought to give that aid to poetry which the liveliness of colouring and the happy combination of light and shade afford to a correct and well-designed picture-animating the figures without injuring their contour. I have therefore carefully avoided interrupting a singer in the warmth of a dialogue, in order to wait for a tedious ritornel; or stopping him in the midst of a speech, in order to display the agility of the voice in a large passage.
I have not thought it right to pass rapidly over the second part of the air
, when it is the most impassioned and important portion of it, in order to repeat the words regularly four times; or to finish when the sense is not complete, in order to give the singer the opportunity of showing that he can vary a passage in several ways according to his own fancy. In short, I have endeavoured to reform those abuses against which good sense and good taste have long exclaimed in vain.'
In these words Gluck indicates the nature of the ästhetic deficiencies in the opera of his day, and in a general way the extent to which he was prepared to go in reforming them. More particularly, it may be observed that he gave much greater space to the free recitative, a form of composition in which the music and words are more interdependent and more synchronous than in any other, and which indeed there seems reason to believe was the form in which musical drama first arose at the end of the sixteenth century; and he employed the orchestra not as a mere accompaniment, a background of sound against which to relieve the voice, and with which to fill up the harmony; but, by his characteristic use of special instruments, made it an important element in the musical colouring of the scene, and in enforcing and illustrating the actions and feelings represented on the stage. It is also important to observe that he selected for the subjects of his dramas, almost exclusively, stories of a legendary character, drawn mostly from the great pre-historic tales on which the Greek drama was founded. In these two last-named points he may be considered as the direct precursor of Wagner. But Gluck did not carry the subordination of the music to the poem so far as to abrogate musical forms of composition altogether, and render the music entirely dependent for its motive and interest on the stage situation. On the contrary, even in nearly his latest opera, ' Iphigenia in Tauris,' there is an air (O Malheureuse * Iphigénie ') which may be and is frequently transplanted to the concert-room, without losing, perhaps, much of its effect; and it is worth remark that it never seems to have occurred to Gluck that, on the principle of rendering the music strictly subordinate to the poem, there was no logical halting-place at the point at which he chose to stop. If it be a question of rendering music subservient to dramatic action, the shearing off of the conventional “repeat' of the air, and giving it a freer form, was only after all a half-way step. The problem, of course, really turns upon the question, what degree of conventionality is aimed at in musical drama? All dramatic art of a high class is conventional-is removed back from the plane of realism-and we require that the special standard of conventionality adopted should be consistently maintained. A
perfectly logical scheme of lyrical drama may be framed, if we regard the music as only employed to illustrate, heighten, and prolong the expression of feeling at certain points where it rises to a climax suitable for lyrical utterance; the intermediate or connecting links of the poem being treated in a more desultory musical form (recitative), chiefly with the view of preserving tonal unity and continuity. This principle is very nearly realised in such an opera, for instance, as • Don Gio"vanni'; indeed, the adherents of Wagner admit that the dramatic demands of opera were by no means overlooked in the main by Mozart, whom, in fact, they rather adroitly manage to claim as an ally on the plea that he unconsciously worked
to the same end, though they (correctly) adduce instances in which he uses the lyric form where stage situation does not admit of it; as, for instance, in the duet in · Figaro’ before the page jumps out of the window. But there is nothing essentially illogical or shocking to the critical sense in this form of lyric drama, if consistently carried out; the conditions of the representation are understood beforehand; there is really no more æsthetic lapsus in it than in people talking in blankverse or rhymed couplets in the spoken drama. It may no doubt be objected that in such a form of composition the music is of primary and the poem of secondary importance, but it must be remembered that much of the effect and even the meaning of the music are dependent upon the existence of wellcontrasted characters and telling 'situations, which must be defined by the poet, not to say that the very objection supposed involves a begging of the question and an entire shifting of the ground of criticism. Waiving that, however, it must, we think, be admitted that there is a consistent form of lyrical drama, which has been the point de départ in the operatic works of Mozart, Beethoven, and Weber (not to mention lesser names), and which Herr Wagner himself adheres to, to a considerable extent, in his • Tannhäuser.' But there is also what we should distinguish as musical drama, in which the poem occupies altogether the first place, and in which the musical setting is employed purely as a means of adding force and colouring to dramatic expression, and the musical form compelled to bend entirely to the form and progress of the drama. To this principle of the combination of music and drama Gluck's method tended, though, as we have inferred, he never fully realised it, the outlines of the old regular musical forms constantly showing themselves through the dramatic veil hung before them; and this principle Wagner has definitively adopted in its entirety,
as the only legitimate and satisfactory solution of the problem of the union of music with dramatic story and stage action.
The process of reasoning by which he arrived at this conclusion, and the theoretic basis upon which his form of musical drama is founded, are clearly set forth by Wagner in a letter to M. Villot, which summarises a good deal of what was expressed more at length in his “ Oper und Drama,' a treatise he admits to be at the present time rather of interest to himself than to the public. We may briefly touch on the stages in the development of Wagner's ideal theory of musical drama; recommending the perusal of the letter in extenso to all who wish, in making acquaintance with his works, to arrive at a just estimate of their aim, whether from a critical or an appreciative point of view. At the very commencement of his studies as a dramatic composer, the style of contemporary Italian opera, with its vocal displays illogically dragged in, its degradation of the orchestra into a monstrous guitar for the accompaniment of arias,' seems to have impressed him much as it would impress all who look upon music as more than a mere plaything French musical drama, as then displayed at the Paris Grand Opera, had more of attraction for a composer who seems to have been possessed naturally with a love of brilliant scenic effect and of characteristic instrumentation. The traditions of Gluck may be said to have so far left their impression on French opera, that, in spite of their radical divergence in spirit and aim, the modern operas of the French school display a richness of orchestral treatment, and a completeness of design in the relation of parts to the whole, to which the normal form of Italian opera is quite a stranger. That Wagner was carried away by the splendour and dazzle of this class of work as displayed with every advantage of mise en scène in Paris, is evident from the fact that his first important work, · Rienzi,' written with a view to the 'Grand Opera,' is completely in the cut and style of Meyerbeer, though not showir:g anything like the point, brilliancy, and individuality of treatment attained by that consummate master of scene-setting.
But the fascination of the Grand Opera style soon palled upon the composer, who declares himself to have been inspired with a desire for a higher ideal of musical drama partly by his admiration for the genius of Mdme. Schroeder-Devrient, and for the effect she produced even in spite of the defective genre of the art which she had to illustrate, and which suggested the reflection. what an in* comparable work of art that might be, which should be per*fectly worthy of such an artist, or of the dramatic talents