A Book of Operas: Their Histories, Their Plots, and Their Music Part 13

To the old history of Nuremberg written by Wagenseil, Wagner went for other things besides the theatre and personages of his play.

From it he got the rules which governed the meeting of the mastersingers, like that which follows the religious service in the church of St. Catherine in the first act, and the singular names of the melodies to which, according to David, the candidates for mastersingers' honors were in the habit of improvising their songs.

In one instance he made a draft on an authentic mastersinger melody.

The march which is used throughout the comedy to symbolize the guild begins as follows:--

[Musical excerpt]

Here we have an exact quotation from the beginning of the first Gesetz in the "Long Tone" of Heinrich Muglin, which was a tune that every candidate for membership in the guild had to be able to sing. The old song is given in full in Wagenseil's book, and on the next page I have reproduced a portion of this song in fac-simile, so that my readers can observe the accuracy of Wagner's quotation and form an idea of the nature of the poetic frenzy which used to fill the mastersingers, as well as enjoy the ornamental pa.s.sages (called "Blumen" in the old regulations) and compare them with the fiorituri of Beckmesser's serenade.

There is no doubt in my mind but that Wagner's purpose in "Die Meistersinger" was to celebrate the triumph of the natural, poetical impulse, stimulated by healthy emotion and communion with nature, over pedantry and hide-bound conservatism. In the larger study of the opera made in another place, I have attempted to show that the contest is in reality the one which is always waging between the principles of romanticism and cla.s.sicism, a contest which is essentially friendly and necessary to progress. The hero of the comedy is not Walther, but Sachs, who represents in himself both principles, who stands between the combatants and checks the extravagances of both parties. {3}

Like Beethoven in his "Leonore" overtures written for the opera "Fidelio," Wagner constructs the symphonic introduction to his comedy so as to indicate the elements of his dramatic story, their progress in the development of the play, and, finally, the outcome.

The melodies are of two sorts conforming to the two parties into which the personages of the play can be divided; and, like those parties, the melodies are broadly distinguished by external physiognomy and emotional essence. Most easily recognized are the two broad march tunes typical of the mastersingers and their pageantry. One of them has already been presented. Like its companion,--

[Musical excerpt]

which opens the prelude, it is a strong, simple melody, made on the intervals of the diatonic scale, square-cut in rhythm, firm and dignified, and, like the mastersingers, complacent and a trifle pompous in stride. The three melodies which are presented in opposition to the spirit represented by the mastersingers and their typical music, are disclosed by a study of the comedy to be a.s.sociated with the pa.s.sion of the young lovers, Walther and Eva.

They differ in every respect--melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic,--from those which stand for the old guildsmen and their rule-of-thumb notions. They are chromatic, as see this:--

[Musical excerpt]

and this (which is the melody which in a broadened form becomes that of Walther's prize song):--

[Musical excerpt]

and this, which is peculiarly the symbol of youthful ardor:--

[Musical excerpt]

Their rhythms are less regular and more eager (note the influence of syncopation upon them); they are harmonized with greater warmth and infused with greater pa.s.sion. In the development of the prelude these melodies are presented at first consecutively, then as in conflict (first one, then another pushing forward for expression), finally in harmonious and contented union. The middle part of the prelude, in which the opening march tune is heard in short, quick notes (in diminution, as the theoreticians say) maybe looked upon as caricaturing the mastersingers, not in their fair estate, but as they are satirized in the comedy in the person of Beckmesser.


{1} "Joh. Christophori Wagenseilii De Sacri Rom. Imperii Libera Civitate Noribergensi Commentatio. Accedit, De Germaniae Phonascorum Von Der Meister-Singer Origine, Praestantia, Utilitate, et Inst.i.tutis, Sermone Vernaculo Liber. Altdorf Noricorum Typis Impensisque Jodoci Wilhelmi Kohlesii. CID ICD XCVII."

{2} I quote from Wagenseil's book--he is writing about the history of the mastersingers: "Nach der Stadt Mayntz, hat in den Statten Nurnberg und Stra.s.sburg / die Meister-Singer-Kunst sonderlich floriret / wie dann auchXII. Alte Nurnbergische Meister annoch im Beruff sind; so mit Namen geheissen / 1. Veit Pogner. 2. c.u.n.tz Vogelgesang. 3. Hermann Ortel. 4. Conrad Nachtigal. 5. Fritz Zorn. 6. Sixtus Beckmesser. 7. Fritz Kohtner. 8. Niclaus Vogel.

9. Augustin Moser. 10. Hannss Schwartz. 11. Ulrich Eisslinger.

12. Hannss Foltz."

{3} "In the musical contest it is only the perverted idea of Cla.s.sicism which is treated with contumely and routed; the glorification of the triumph of Romanticism is found in the stupendously pompous and brilliant setting given to the mastersingers' music at the end. You see already in this prelude that Wagner is a true comedian. He administers chastis.e.m.e.nt with a smile and chooses for its subject only things which are temporary aberrations from the good. What is strong, and true, and pure, and wholesome in the art of the mastersingers he permits to pa.s.s through his satirical fires unscathed. Cla.s.sicism, in its original sense as the conservator of that which is highest and best in art, he leaves unharmed, presenting her after her trial, as Tennyson presents his Princess at the close of his corrective poem, when

"All Her falser self slipt from her like a robe, And left her woman, lovelier in her mood Than in her mould that other, when she came From barren deeps to conquer all with love."

--"Studies in the Wagnerian Drama," by H. E. Krehbiel, p. 95.



In the last hundred lines of the last book of his epic poem to which Wagner went for the fundamental incidents, not principles, of his "Parsifal," Wolfram von Eschenbach tells the story of one of the Grail King's sons whom he calls Loherangrin. This son was a lad when Parzival (thus Wolfram spells the name) became King of the Holy Grail and the knights who were in its service. When he had grown to manhood, there lived in Brabant a queen who was equally gifted in beauty, wealth, and gentleness. Many princes sought her hand in marriage, but she refused them all, and waited for the coming of one whom G.o.d had disclosed to her in a vision. One day a knight of great beauty and n.o.bley, as Sir Thomas Mallory would have said, came to Antwerp in a boat drawn by a swan. To him the queen at once gave greeting as lord of her dominions; but in the presence of the a.s.sembled folk he said to her: "If I am to become ruler of this land, know that it will be at great sacrifice to myself. Should you nevertheless wish me to remain with you, you must never ask who I am; otherwise I must leave you forever." The queen made solemn protestation that she would never do aught against his will. Then her marriage with the stranger knight was celebrated, and they abode together long in happiness and honor. But at the last the queen was led to put the fatal question. Then the swan appeared with the boat, and Loherangrin, for it was he, was drawn back to Montsalvat, whence he had come. But to those whom he left behind he gave his sword, horn, and ring.

There are other mediaeval poems which deal with the story of Lohengrin, more, indeed, than can or need be discussed here. Some, however, deserve consideration because they supply elements which Wagner used in his opera but did not find in Wolfram's poem. Wagner went, very naturally, to a poem of the thirteenth century, ent.i.tled "Lohengrin," for the majority of the incidents of the drama. Thence he may have drawn the motive for the curiosity of Elsa touching the personality of her husband. Of course, it lies in human nature, as stories which are hundreds if not thousands of years older attest; but I am trying, as I have been in preceding chapters in this book, to account for the presence of certain important elements in Wagner's opera, and so this poem must also be considered. In it Lohengrin rescues Elsa, the d.u.c.h.ess of Brabant, from the false accusations of Telramund, the knight having been summoned from Montsalvat (or "Monsalvasch," to be accurate) by the ringing of a bell which Elsa had taken from a falcon's leg. The knight marries her, but first exacts a promise that she will never seek of him knowledge of his race or country. After the happy domestic life of the pair has been described, it is told how Lohengrin overthrew the Duke of Cleves at a tournament in Cologne and broke his arm. The d.u.c.h.ess of Cleves felt humiliated at the overthrow of her husband by a knight of whom nothing was known, and wickedly insinuated that it was a pity that so puissant a jouster should not be of n.o.ble birth, thereby instilling a fatal curiosity into the mind of the Lady of Brabant, which led to questions which Lohengrin answered before the emperor's court and then disappeared from view. From "Der jungere t.i.turel," another mediaeval poem, came the suggestion that the mysterious knight's prowess was due to sorcery and might be set at naught if his bodily integrity were destroyed even in the slightest degree. In the French tale of "Le Chevalier au Cygne," as told in the "Chansons de geste," you may read the story of Helyas, who was one of seven children of King Oriant and Queen Beatrix, who were born with silver chains around their necks. The chains being removed with evil purpose, the children turned into swans and flew away--all but one, Helyas, who was absent at the time. But Helyas got possession of all the chains but one, which had been wrought into a cup, and one day, when he heard the sound of wings, and six swans let themselves down into the water, he threw the chains around their necks, and they at once a.s.sumed the forms of his brothers. Also how, one day, Helyas, from the window of his palace, saw a swan drawing a boat, and how he donned his armor, took a golden horn, and was drawn away to Nimwegen, where Emperor Otto was holding court. There he found that the Count of Blankenbourg had accused his sister-in-law, the d.u.c.h.ess of Bouillon, of having poisoned her husband, and had laid claim to the duchy. There was to be a trial by ordeal of battle, and while the d.u.c.h.ess waited for the coming of a champion, lo! there was the sound of a horn, and Helyas came down the river in a boat drawn by a swan, undertook the cause of the innocent lady, slew her accuser, and married her daughter. For long she was a good and faithful wife, and bore him a child who became the mother of G.o.dfrey de Bouillon, Baldwin de Sebourg, and Eustace de Boulogne.

But one day she asked of her lord his name and race. Then he bade her repair to Nimwegen, and commending her and her daughter to the care of the emperor, he departed thence in a swan-drawn boat and was never seen more.

Here we have the essentials of the story which Wagner wrought into his opera "Lohengrin" Only a few details need be added to make the plot complete. The meeting of Lohengrin and Elsa takes place on the banks of the river Scheldt in Brabant. The King has come to ask the help of the Brabantians against the Huns, who are invading Germany. He finds Brabant in a disturbed state. The throne is vacant; Count Frederick of Telramund, who has his eyes upon it, had offered his hand in marriage to Elsa, who, with her brother, Gottfried, had been left in his care on the death of their father, but had met with a refusal. He had then married Ortrud, a Frisian princess. She is the last of a royal line, but a pagan, and practises sorcery. To promote the ambition of herself and her husband, she has changed Gottfried into a swan by throwing a magical chain about his neck, and persuaded Telramund to accuse Elsa of having murdered the boy in the hope of enjoying the throne together with a secret lover. The King summons Elsa to answer the charge and decrees trial by ordeal of battle. Commanded to name her champion, she tells of a knight seen in a dream: upon him alone will she rely. Not until the second call of the Herald has gone out and Elsa has fallen to her knees in prayer does the champion appear. He is a knight in shining white armor who comes in a boat drawn by a swan. He accepts the gage of battle, after asking Elsa whether or not she wants him to be her husband if victorious in the combat, and exacting a promise never to ask of him whence he came or what his name or race. He overcomes Telramund, but gives him his life; the King, however, banishes the false accuser and sets the stranger over the people of Brabant with the t.i.tle of Protector. Telramund is overwhelmed by his misfortunes, but Ortrud urges him to make another trial to regain what he has lost. The knight, she says, had won by witchcraft, and if but the smallest joint of his body could be taken from him, he would be impotent. Together they instil disquiet and suspicion into the mind of Elsa as she is about to enter the minster to be married. After the wedding guests have departed, her newly found happiness is disturbed by doubt, and a painful curiosity manifests itself in her speech. Lohengrin admonishes, reproves, and warns in words of tenderest love. He had given up greater glories than his new life had to offer out of love for her. A horrible fear seizes her: he who had so mysteriously come would as mysteriously depart. Cost what it may, she must know who he is. She asks the question, but before he can reply Telramund rushes into the room with drawn weapon. Elsa has but time to hand Lohengrin his sword, with which he stretches the would-be a.s.sa.s.sin dead on the chamber floor. Then he commands that the body be carried before the King, whither he also directs her maids to escort his wife. There is another conclave of King and n.o.bles. Lohengrin asks if he had acted within his right in slaying Telramund, and his deed is approved by all. Then he gives public answer to Elsa's question:

In distant lands, where ye can never enter, A castle stands and Montsalvat its name; A radiant temple rises from its center More glorious far than aught of earthly fame.

And there a vessel of most wondrous splendor, A shrine, most holy, guarded well doth rest, To which but mortals purest service render-- 'Twas brought to earth by hosts of angels blest!

Once every year a dove from heaven descendeth To strengthen then its wondrous powers anew: 'Tis called the Grail--and purest faith it lendeth To those good knights who are its chosen few.

To serve the Grail whoe'er is once elected Receives from it a supernatural might; From baneful harm and fraud is he protected, Away from him flees death and gloom of night!

Yea, whom by it to distant lands is bidden As champion to some virtuous cause maintain, Well knows its powers are from him never hidden, If, as its knight, he unrevealed remain.

Such wondrous nature is the Grail's great blessing, Reveal'd must then the knight from mortals flee: Let not rest in your hearts a doubt oppressing,-- If known to you he saileth o'er the sea.

Now list what he to you in troth declareth: The Grail obeying here to you I came.

My father Parzival, a crown he weareth, His knight am I and Lohengrin my name! {1}

A prohibition which rests upon all who are served by a Knight of the Grail having been violated, he must depart from thence; but before going he gives his sword, horn, and ring to Elsa, and tells her that had he been permitted to live but one year at her side, her brother would have returned in conduct of the Grail. The swan appears to convey him back to his resplendent home. Ortrud recognizes the chain around its neck and gloats over her triumph; but Lohengrin hears her shout. He sinks on his knees in silent prayer. As he rises, a white dove floats downward toward the boat. Lohengrin detaches the chain from the neck of the swan. The bird disappears, and in its place stands Gottfried, released from the spell put upon him by the sorceress. The dove draws the boat with its celestial pa.s.senger away, and Elsa sinks lifeless into the arms of her brother.

In this story of Lohengrin there is an admixture of several elements which once had no a.s.sociation. It is the story of an adventure of a Knight of the Holy Grail; also a story involving the old principle of taboo; and one of many stories of the transformation of a human being into a swan, or a swan into a human being. This swan myth is one of the most widely spread of all transformation tales; it may even be found in the folk-stories of the American Indians. To discuss this feature would carry one too far afield, and I have a different purpose in view.

The two Figaro operas, the discussion of which opened this book, were composed by different men, and a generation of time separated their production. The opera which deals with the second chapter of the adventures of Seville's factotum was composed first, and is the greater work of the two; yet we have seen how pleasantly they can be a.s.sociated with each other, and, no doubt, many who admire them have felt with me the wish that some musician with sufficient skill and the needful reverence would try the experiment of remodelling the two and knitting their bonds closer by giving ident.i.ty of voice to the personages who figure in both. The Wagnerian list presents something like a parallel, and it would be a pleasant thing if two of the modern poet-composer's dramas which have community of subject could be brought into similar a.s.sociation, so that one might be performed as a sequel to the other. The operas are "Lohengrin" and "Parsifal." A generation also lies between them, and they ought to bear a relationship to each other something like that existing between "Le Nozze di Figaro" and "Il Barbiere di Siviglia." Indeed, the bond ought to be closer, for one man wrote books and music as well of the Grail dramas, whereas different librettists and different composers created the Figaro comedies. But it will never be possible to bring Wagner's most popular opera and his "stage-consecrating play" into logical union, notwithstanding that both deal with the legend of the Holy Grail and that the hero of one proclaims himself to be the son of the hero of the other. Wagner cast a loving glance at the older child of his brain when he quoted some of the "swan music" of "Lohengrin "in "Parsifal"; but he built an insurmountable wall between them when he forsook the sane and simple ideas which inspired him in writing "Lohengrin" for the complicated fabric of mediaeval Christianity and Buddhism which he strove to set forth in "Parsifal." In 1847 Wagner was willing to look at the hero of the quest of the Holy Grail whom we call Percival through the eyes of his later guide, Wolfram von Eschenbach. To Wolfram Parzival was a married man; more than that--a married lover, clinging with devotion to the memory of the wife from whose arms he had torn himself to undertake the quest, and losing himself in tender brooding for days when the sight of blood-spots on the snow suggested to his fancy the red and white of fair Konwiramur's cheeks. Thirty years later Wagner could only conceive of his Grail hero as a celibate and an ascetic. Lohengrin glories in the fact that he is the son of him who wears the crown of the Grail; but Parsifal disowns his son.

This is one instance of the incoherency of the two Grail dramas.

There is another, and by this second departure from the old legends which furnished forth his subject, Wagner made "Lohengrin" and "Parsifal" forever irreconcilable. The whole fabric of the older opera rests on the forbidden question:--

Nie solist du mich befragen, noch Wissen's Sorge tragen, woher ich kam der Fahrt, noch wie mein Nam' und Art. {2}

So impressed was Wagner with the significance of this dramatic motive sixty years ago, that he gave it a musical setting which still stands as the finest of all his many ill.u.s.trations of the principle of fundamental or typical phrases in dramatic music:--

[Musical excerpt--"Nie sollst du mich befragen"]

And no wonder. No matter where he turned in his studies of the Grail legend, he was confronted by the fact that it was by asking a question that the seeker after the Grail was to release the ailing king, whom he found in the castle in which the talismans were preserved, from his sufferings. In the Welsh tale of Peredur and the French romances the question went only to the meaning of the talismans; but this did not suffice Wolfram von Eschenbach, who in many ways raised the ethical standard of the Grail legend. He changed the question so as to make it a sign of affectionate and compa.s.sionate interest on the part of the questioner; it was no longer, "What mean the b.l.o.o.d.y head and the bleeding lance?" but "What ails thee, uncle?"

Wagner was fond, a little overfond, indeed, of appealing to the public over the heads of the critics, of going to the jury rather than the judge, when asking for appreciation of his dramas; but nothing is plainer to the close student than that he was never wholly willing to credit the public with possession of that high imaginativeness to which his dramas more than those of any other composer make appeal. His first conception of the finale of "Tannhauser," for instance, was beautiful, poetical, and reasonable; for the sake of a spectacle he reconstructed it after the original production and plunged it into indefensible confusion and absurdity.

A desire to abstain as much as possible from criticism (that not being the purpose of this book) led me to avoid mention of this circ.u.mstance in the exposition of "Tannhauser"; but I find that I must now set it forth, though briefly. In the original form of the opera there was no funeral procession and no death of the hero beside the bier of the atoning saint. The scene between Tannhauser and Wolfram was interrupted by the tolling of a bell in the castle to indicate the death of Elizabeth and the appearance of a glow of rose-colored light across the valley to suggest the presence of Venus. By bringing the corpse of Elizabeth on the stage so that Tannhauser might die by its side, Wagner was guilty of worse than an anachronism. The time which elapses in the drama between Elizabeth's departure from the scene and her return as a corpse is just as long as the song which Wolfram sings in which he apostrophizes her as his "holder Abendstern"--just as long and not a moment longer. There is no question here of poetical license, for Wolfram sings the apostrophe after her retreating figure, and the last chord of his postlude is interrupted by Tannhauser's words, "Ich horte Harfenschlag!" Yet we are asked to a.s.sume that in the brief interim Elizabeth has ascended the mountain to the Wartburg, died, been prepared for burial, and brought back to the valley as the central object of a stately funeral.

It would have been much wiser to have left the death of Elizabeth to the imagination of the public than to have made the scene ridiculous. But Wagner was afraid to do that, lest his purpose be overlooked. He was a master of theatrical craft, and though he could write a tragedy like "Tristan und Isolde," with little regard for external action, he was quite unwilling to miss so effective a theatrical effect as the death of Tannhauser beside Elizabeth's bier. After all, he did not trust the public, whose judgment he affected to place above that of his critics, and for this reason, while he was willing to call up memories of his earlier opera by quoting some of its music in "Parsifal," he ignored the question which plays so important a role in "Lohengrin," and made the healing of Amfortas depend upon a touch of the talismanic spear--a device which came into the Grail story from pagan sources, as I have already pointed out.

Now, why was the questioning of Lohengrin forbidden? Wolfram von Eschenbach tells us, and his explanation sufficed Wagner when he made his first studies of the Grail legends as a preparation for "Lohengrin." It was the Holy Grail itself which p.r.o.nounced the taboo. An inscription appeared on the talisman one day commanding that whenever a Knight of the Grail went into foreign lands to a.s.sume rule over a people, he was to admonish them not to question him concerning his name and race; should the question be put, he was to leave them at once. And the reason?

Weil der gute Amfortas So lang in bittern Schmerzen lag, Und ihn die Frage lange mied, Ist ihnen alles Fragen leid; All des Grales Dienstgesellen Wollen sich nicht mehr fragen la.s.sen.

The same explanation is made in the mediaeval poem "Lohengrin." We are not called upon to admire the logic of Wolfram and the Knights of the Grail, but nothing could be plainer than this: The sufferings of Amfortas having been wofully prolonged by Parzival's failure to ask the healing question, the Knights of the Grail were thereafter required by their oracular guide to prohibit all questioning of themselves under penalty of forfeiture of their puissant help.

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