Popular taste in respect of the opera is curiously unstable. It is surprising that the canons of judgment touching it have such feeble and fleeting authority in view of the popularity of the art-form and the despotic hold which it has had on fashion for two centuries. No form of popular entertainment is acclaimed so enthusiastically as a new opera by an admired composer; none forgotten so quickly. For the spoken drama we go back to Shakespeare in the vernacular, and, on occasions, we revive the masterpieces of the Attic poets who flourished more than two millenniums ago; but for opera we are bounded by less than a century, unless occasional performances of Gluck's "Orfeo" and Mozart's "Figaro," "Don Giovanni," and "Magic Flute" be counted as submissions to popular demand, which, unhappily, we know they are not. There is no one who has attended the opera for twenty-five years who might not bewail the loss of operas from the current list which appealed to his younger fancy as works of real loveliness. In the season of 1895-96 the audiences at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York heard twenty-six different operas. The oldest were Gluck's "Orfeo" and Beethoven's "Fidelio," which had a single experimental representation each. After them in seniority came Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor," which is sixty-one years old, and has overpassed the average age of "immortal" operas by from ten to twenty years, assuming Dr. Hanslick's calculation to be correct.
The composers who wrote operas for the generation that witnessed Adelina Patti's début at the Academy of Music, in New York, were Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, and Meyerbeer. Thanks to his progressive genius, Verdi is still alive on the stage, though nine-tenths of the operas which made his fame and fortune have already sunk into oblivion; Meyerbeer, too, is still a more or less potent factor with his "Huguenots," which, like "Lucia," has endured from ten to twenty years longer than the average "immortal;" but the continued existence of Bellini and Donizetti seems to be as closely bound up with that of two or three singers as was Meleager's life with the burning billet which his mother snatched from the flames. So far as the people of London and New York are concerned whether or not they shall hear Donizetti more, rests with Mesdames Patti and Melba, for Donizetti spells "Lucia;" Bellini pleads piteously in "Sonnambula," but only Madame Nevada will play the mediator between him and our stiff-necked generation.
Opera is a mixed art-form and has ever been, and perhaps must ever be, in a state of flux, subject to the changes of taste in music, the drama, singing, acting, and even politics and morals; but in one particular the public has shown no change for a century and a half, and it is not quite clear why this has not given greater fixity to popular appreciation. The people of to-day are as blithely indifferent to the fact that their operas are all presented in a foreign tongue as they were two centuries ago in England. The influence of Wagner has done much to stimulate a serious attitude toward the lyric drama, but this is seldom found outside of the audiences in attendance on German representations. The devotees of the Latin exotic, whether it blend French or Italian (or both, as is the rule in New York and London) with its melodic perfume, enjoy the music and ignore the words with the same nonchalance that Addison made merry over. Addison proves to have been a poor prophet. The great-grandchildren of his contemporaries are not at all curious to know "why their forefathers used to sit together like an audience of foreigners in their own country, and to hear whole plays acted before them in a tongue which they did not understand." What their great-grandparents did was also done by their grandparents and their parents, and may be done by their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren after them, unless Englishmen and Americans shall take to heart the lessons which Wagner essayed to teach his own people. For the present, though we have abolished many absurdities which grew out of a conception of opera that was based upon the simple, sensuous delight which singing gave, the charm of music is still supreme, and we can sit out an opera without giving a thought to the words uttered by the singers. The popular attitude is fairly represented by that of Boileau, when he went to hear "Atys" and requested the box-keeper to put him in a place where he could hear Lully's music, which he loved, but not Quinault's words, which he despised.
It is interesting to note that in this respect the condition of affairs in London in the early part of the eighteenth century, which seemed so monstrously diverting to Addison, was like that in Hamburg in the latter part of the seventeenth, and in New York at the end of the nineteenth. There were three years in London when Italian and English were mixed in the operatic representations.
"The king or hero of the play generally spoke in Italian and his slaves answered him in English; the lover frequently made his court and gained the heart of his princess in a language which she did not understand."
At length, says Addison, the audience got tired of understanding half the opera, "and to ease themselves entirely of the fatigue of thinking, so ordered it that the whole opera was performed in an unknown tongue."
There is this difference, however, between New York and London and Hamburg at the period referred to: while the operatic ragout was compounded of Italian and English in London, Italian and German in Hamburg, the ingredients here are Italian, French, and German, with no admixture of the vernacular. Strictly speaking, our case is more desperate than that of our foreign predecessors, for the development of the lyric drama has lifted its verbal and dramatic elements into a position not dreamed of two hundred years ago. We might endure with equanimity to hear the chorus sing
at the beginning of "Robert le Diable," as tradition says used to be done in Paris, but we surely ought to rise in rebellion when the chorus of guards change their muttered comments on Pizarro's furious aria in "Fidelio" from
as is a prevalent custom among the irreverent choristers of Germany.
Addison confesses that he was often afraid when seeing the Italian performers "chattering in the vehemence of action," that they were calling the audience names and abusing them among themselves. I do not know how to measure the morals and manners of our Italian singers against those of Addison's time, but I do know that many of the things which they say before our very faces for their own diversion are not complimentary to our intelligence. I hope I have a proper respect for Mr. Gilbert's "bashful young potato," but I do not think it right while we are sympathizing with the gentle passion of Siebel to have his representative bring an offering of flowers and, looking us full in the face, sing:
It isn't respectful, and it enables the cynics of to-day to say, with the poetasters and fiddlers of Addison's day, that nothing is capable of being well set to music that is not nonsense. Operatic words were once merely stalking-horses for tunes, but that day is past. We used to smile at Brignoli's "Ah si! ah si! ah si!" which did service for any text in high passages; but if a composer should, for the accommodation of his music, change the wording of the creed into "Credo, non credo, non credo in unum Deum," as Porpora once did, we should all cry out for his excommunication.
As an art-form the opera has frequently been criticised as an absurdity, and it is doubtless owing to such a conviction that many people are equally indifferent to the language employed and the sentiments embodied in the words. Even so serious a writer as George Hogarth does not hesitate in his "Memoirs of the Opera" to defend this careless attitude.
"The words of an air are of small importance to the comprehension of the business of the piece," he says; "they merely express a sentiment, a reflection, a feeling; it is quite enough if their general import is known, and this may most frequently be gathered from the situation, aided by the character and expression of the music."
I, myself, have known an ardent lover of music who resolutely refused to look into a libretto because, being of a lively and imaginative temperament, she preferred to construct her own plots and put her own words in the mouths of the singers. Though a constant attendant on the opera, she never knew what "Il Trovatore" was about, which, perhaps, is not so surprising after all. Doubtless the play which she had fashioned in her own mind was more comprehensible than Verdi's medley of burnt children and asthmatic dance rhythms. Madame de Staël went so far as to condemn the German composers because they "follow too closely the sense of the words," whereas the Italians, "who are truly the musicians of nature, make the air and the words conform to each other only in a general way."
Now the present generation has witnessed a revolution in operatic ideas which has lifted the poetical elements upon a plane not dreamed of when opera was merely a concert in costume, and it is no longer tolerable that it be set down as an absurdity. On the contrary, I believe that, looked at in the light thrown upon it by the history of the drama and the origin of music, the opera is completely justified as an art-form, and, in its best estate, is an entirely reasonable and highly effective entertainment. No mean place, surely, should be given in the estimation of the judicious to an art-form which aims in an equal degree to charm the senses, stimulate the emotions, and persuade the reason. This, the opera, or, perhaps I would better say the lyric drama, can be made to do as efficiently as the Greek tragedy did it, so far as the differences between the civilizations of ancient Hellas and the nineteenth century will permit. The Greek tragedy was the original opera, a fact which literary study would alone have made plain even if it were not clearly of record that it was an effort to restore the ancient plays in their integrity that gave rise to the Italian opera three centuries ago.
Every school-boy knows now that the Hellenic plays were simply the final evolution of the dances with which the people of Hellas celebrated their religious festivals. At the rustic Bacchic feasts of the early Greeks they sang hymns in honor of the wine-god, and danced on goat-skins filled with wine. He who held his footing best on the treacherous surface carried home the wine as a reward. They contended in athletic games and songs for a goat, and from this circumstance scholars have surmised we have the word tragedy, which means "goat-song." The choric songs and dances grew in variety and beauty. Finally, somebody (tradition preserves the name of Thespis as the man) conceived the idea of introducing a simple dialogue between the strophes of the choric song. Generally this dialogue took the form of a recital of some story concerning the god whose festival was celebrating. Then when the dithyrambic song returned, it would either continue the narrative or comment on its ethical features.
The merry-makers, or worshippers, as one chooses to look upon them, manifested their enthusiasm by imitating the appearance as well as the actions of the god and his votaries. They smeared themselves with wine-lees, colored their bodies black and red, put on masks, covered themselves with the skins of beasts, enacted the parts of nymphs, fauns, and satyrs, those creatures of primitive fancy, half men and half goats, who were the representatives of natural sensuality untrammelled by conventionality.
Next, somebody (Archilocus) sought to heighten the effect of the story or the dialogue by consorting it with instrumental music; and thus we find the germ of what musicians—not newspaper writers—call melodrama, in the very early stages of the drama's development. Gradually these simple rustic entertainments were taken in hand by the poets who drew on the legendary stores of the people for subjects, branching out from the doings of gods to the doings of god-like men, the popular heroes, and developed out of them the masterpieces of dramatic poetry which are still studied with amazement, admiration, and love.
The dramatic factors which have been mustered in this outline are these:
1. The choric dance and song with a religious purpose.
2. Recitation and dialogue.
3. Characterization by means of imitative gestures—pantomime, that is—and dress.
4. Instrumental music to accompany the song and also the action.
All these have been retained in the modern opera, which may be said to differ chiefly from its ancient model in the more important and more independent part which music plays in it. It will appear later in our study that the importance and independence achieved by one of the elements consorted in a work by nature composite, led the way to a revolution having for its object a restoration of something like the ancient drama. In this ancient drama and its precursor, the dithyrambic song and dance, is found a union of words and music which scientific investigation proves to be not only entirely natural but inevitable. In a general way most people are in the habit of speaking of music as the language of the emotions. The elements which enter into vocal music (of necessity the earliest form of music) are unvolitional products which we must conceive as co-existent with the beginnings of human life. Do they then antedate articulate speech? Did man sing before he spoke? I shall not quarrel with anybody who chooses so to put it.
Think a moment about the mechanism of vocal music. Something occurs to stir up your emotional nature—a great joy, a great sorrow, a great fear; instantly, involuntarily, in spite of your efforts to prevent it, maybe, muscular actions set in which proclaim the emotion which fills you. The muscles and organs of the chest, throat, and mouth contract or relax in obedience to the emotion. You utter a cry, and according to the state of feeling which you are in, that cry has pitch, quality (timbre the singing teachers call it), and dynamic intensity. You attempt to speak, and no matter what the words you utter, the emotional drama playing on the stage of your heart is divulged.
The man of science observes the phenomenon and formulates its laws, saying, for instance, as Herbert Spencer has said: "All feelings are muscular stimuli;" and, "Variations of voice are the physiological results of variations of feeling." It was the recognition of this extraordinary intimacy between the voice and the emotions which brought music all the world over into the service of religion, and provided the phenomenon, which we may still observe if we be but minded to do so, that mere tones have sometimes the sanctity of words, and must as little be changed as ancient hymns and prayers.
The end of the sixteenth century saw a coterie of scholars, art-lovers, and amateur musicians in Florence who desired to re-establish the relationship which they knew had once existed between music and the drama. The revival of learning had made the classic tragedy dear to their hearts. They knew that in the olden time tragedy, of which the words only have come down to us, had been musical throughout. In their efforts to bring about an intimacy between dramatic poetry and music they found that nothing could be done with the polite music of their time. It was the period of highest development in ecclesiastical music, and the climax of artificiality. The professional musicians to whom they turned scorned their theories and would not help them; so they fell back on their own resources. They cut the Gordian knot and invented a new style of music, which they fancied was like that used by the ancients in their stage-plays. They abolished polyphony, or contrapuntal music, in everything except their choruses, and created a sort of musical declamation, using variations of pitch and harmonies built up on a simple bass to give emotional life to their words. In choosing their tones they were guided by observation of the vocal inflections produced in speech under stress of feeling, showing thus a recognition of the law which Herbert Spencer formulated two hundred and fifty years later.
The music which these men produced and admired sounds to us monotonous in the extreme, for what little melody there is in it is in the choruses, which they failed to emancipate from the ecclesiastical art, and which for that reason were as stiff and inelastic as the music which in their controversies with the musicians they condemned with vigor. Yet within their invention there lay an entirely new world of music. Out of it came the solo style, a song with instrumental accompaniment of a kind unknown to the church composers. Out of it, too, came harmony as an independent factor in music instead of an accident of the simultaneous flow of melodies; and out of it came declamation, which drew its life from the text. The recitatives which they wrote had the fluency of spoken words and were not retarded by melodic forms. The new style did not accomplish what its creators hoped for, but it gave birth to Italian opera and emancipated music in a large measure from the formalism that dominated it so long as it belonged exclusively to the composers for the church.
Detailed study of the progress of opera from the first efforts of the Florentines to Wagner's dramas would carry us too far afield to serve the purposes of this book. My aim is to fix the attitude proper, or at least useful, to the opera audience of to-day. The excursion into history which I have made has but the purpose to give the art-form a reputable standing in court, and to explain the motives which prompted the revolution accomplished by Wagner. As to the elements which compose an opera, only those need particular attention which are illustrated in the current repertory. Unlike the opera audiences of two centuries ago, we are not required to distinguish carefully between the various styles of opera in order to understand why the composer adopted a particular manner, and certain fixed forms in each. The old distinctions between Opera seria, Opera buffa, and Opera semiseria perplex us no more. Only because of the perversion of the time-honored Italian epithet buffa by the French mongrel Opéra bouffe is it necessary to explain that the classic Opera buffa was a polite comedy, whose musical integument did not of necessity differ from that of Opera seria except in this—that the dialogue was carried on in "dry" recitative (recitativo secco, or parlante) in the former, and a more measured declamation with orchestral accompaniment (recitativo stromentato) in the latter. So far as subject-matter was concerned the classic distinction between tragedy and comedy served. The dry recitative was supported by chords played by a double-bass and harpsichord or pianoforte. In London, at a later period, for reasons of doubtful validity, these chords came to be played on a double-bass and violoncello, as we occasionally hear them to-day.
Shakespeare has taught us to accept an infusion of the comic element in plays of a serious cast, but Shakespeare was an innovator, a Romanticist, and, measured by old standards, his dramas are irregular. The Italians, who followed classic models, for a reason amply explained by the genesis of the art-form, rigorously excluded comedy from serious operas, except as intermezzi, until they hit upon a third classification, which they called Opera semiseria, in which a serious subject was enlivened with comic episodes. Our dramatic tastes being grounded in Shakespeare, we should be inclined to put down "Don Giovanni" as a musical tragedy; or, haunted by the Italian terminology, as Opera semiseria; but Mozart calls it Opera buffa, more in deference to the librettist's work, I fancy, than his own, for, as I have suggested elsewhere,[E] the musician's imagination in the fire of composition went far beyond the conventional fancy of the librettist in the finale of that most wonderful work.
It is well to remember that "Don Giovanni" is an Opera buffa when watching the buffooneries of Leporello, for that alone justifies them. The French have Grand Opéra, in which everything is sung to orchestra accompaniment, there being neither spoken dialogue nor dry recitative, and Opéra comique, in which the dialogue is spoken. The latter corresponds with the honorable German term Singspiel, and one will not go far astray if he associate both terms with the English operas of Wallace and Balfe, save that the French and Germans have generally been more deft in bridging over the chasm between speech and song than their British rivals. Opéra comique has another characteristic, its dénouement must be happy. Formerly the Théatre national de l'Opéra-Comique in Paris was devoted exclusively to Opéra comique as thus defined (it has since abolished the distinction and Grand Opéra may be heard there now), and, therefore, when Ambroise Thomas brought forward his "Mignon," Goethe's story was found to be changed so that Mignon recovered and was married to Wilhelm Meister at the end. The Germans are seldom pleased with the transformations which their literary masterpieces are forced to undergo at the hands of French librettists. They still refuse to call Gounod's "Faust" by that name; if you wish to hear it in Germany you must go to the theatre when "Margarethe" is performed. Naturally they fell indignantly afoul of "Mignon," and to placate them we have a second finale, a dénouement allemand, provided by the authors, in which Mignon dies as she ought.
Of course the Grosse Oper of the Germans is the French Grand Opéra and the English grand opera—but all the English terms are ambiguous, and everything that is done in Covent Garden in London or the Metropolitan Opera House in New York is set down as "grand opera," just as the vilest imitations of the French vaudevilles or English farces with music are called "comic operas." In its best estate, say in the delightful works of Gilbert and Sullivan, what is designated as comic opera ought to be called operetta, which is a piece in which the forms of grand opera are imitated, or travestied, the dialogue is spoken, and the purpose of the play is to satirize a popular folly. Only in method, agencies, and scope does such an operetta (the examples of Gilbert and Sullivan are in mind) differ from comedy in its best conception, as a dramatic composition which aims to "chastise manners with a smile" ("Ridendo castigat mores"). Its present degeneracy, as illustrated in the Opéra bouffe of the French and the concoctions of the would-be imitators of Gilbert and Sullivan, exemplifies little else than a pursuit far into the depths of the method suggested by a friend to one of Lully's imitators who had expressed a fear that a ballet written, but not yet performed, would fail. "You must lengthen the dances and shorten the ladies' skirts," he said. The Germans make another distinction based on the subject chosen for the story. Spohr's "Jessonda," Weber's "Freischütz," "Oberon," and "Euryanthe," Marschner's "Vampyr," "Templer und Jüdin," and "Hans Heiling" are "Romantic" operas. The significance of this classification in operatic literature may be learned from an effort which I have made in another chapter to discuss the terms Classic and Romantic as applied to music. Briefly stated, the operas mentioned are put in a class by themselves (and their imitations with them) because their plots were drawn from the romantic legends of the Middle Ages, in which the institutions of chivalry, fairy lore, and supernaturalism play a large part.
These distinctions we meet in reading about music. As I have intimated, we do not concern ourselves much with them now. In New York and London the people speak of Italian, English, and German opera, referring generally to the language employed in the performance. But there is also in the use of the terms an underlying recognition of differences in ideals of performance. As all operas sung in the regular seasons at Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera House are popularly spoken of as Italian operas, so German opera popularly means Wagner's lyric dramas, in the first instance, and a style of performance which grew out of Wagner's influence in the second. As compared with Italian opera, in which the principal singers are all and the ensemble nothing, it means, mayhap, inferior vocalists but better actors in the principal parts, a superior orchestra and chorus, and a more conscientious effort on the part of conductor, stage manager, and artists, from first to last, to lift the general effect above the conventional level which has prevailed for centuries in the Italian opera houses.
In terminology, as well as in artistic aim, Wagner's lyric dramas round out a cycle that began with the works of the Florentine reformers of the sixteenth century. Wagner called his later operas Musikdramen, wherefore he was soundly abused and ridiculed by his critics. When the Italian opera first appeared it was called Dramma per musica, or Melodramma, or Tragedia per musica, all of which terms stand in Italian for the conception that Musikdrama stands for in German. The new thing had been in existence for half a century, and was already on the road to the degraded level on which we shall find it when we come to the subject of operatic singing, before it came to be called Opera in musica, of which "opera" is an abbreviation. Now it is to be observed that the composers of all countries, having been taught to believe that the dramatic contents of an opera have some significance, are abandoning the vague term "opera" and following Wagner in his adoption of the principles underlying the original terminology. Verdi called his "Aïda" an Opera in quattro atti, but his "Otello" he designated a lyric drama (Dramma lirico), his "Falstaff" a lyric comedy (Commedia lirica), and his example is followed by the younger Italian composers, such as Mascagni, Leoncavallo, and Puccini.
In the majority of the operas of the current list the vocal element illustrates an amalgamation of the archaic recitative and aria. The dry form of recitative is met with now only in a few of the operas which date back to the last century or the early years of the present. "Le Nozze di Figaro," "Don Giovanni," and "Il Barbiere di Siviglia" are the most familiar works in which it is employed, and in the second of these it is used only by the bearers of the comedy element. The dissolute Don chatters glibly in it with Zerlina, but when Donna Anna and Don Ottavio converse, it is in the recitativo stromentato.
In both forms recitative is the vehicle for promoting the action of the play, preparing its incidents, and paving the way for the situations and emotional states which are exploited, promulgated, and dwelt upon in the set music pieces. Its purpose is to maintain the play in an artificial atmosphere, so that the transition from dialogue to song may not be so abrupt as to disturb the mood of the listener. Of all the factors in an opera, the dry recitative is the most monotonous. It is not music, but speech about to break into music. Unless one is familiar with Italian and desirous of following the conversation, which we have been often told is not necessary to the enjoyment of an opera, its everlasting use of stereotyped falls and intervallic turns, coupled with the strumming of arpeggioed cadences on the pianoforte (or worse, double-bass and violoncello), makes it insufferably wearisome to the listener. Its expression is fleeting—only for the moment. It lacks the sustained tones and structural symmetry essential to melody, and therefore it cannot sustain a mood. It makes efficient use of only one of the fundamental factors of vocal music—variety of pitch—and that in a rudimentary way. It is specifically a product of the Italian language, and best adapted to comedy in that language. Spoken with the vivacity native to it in the drama, dry recitative is an impossibility in English. It is only in the more measured and sober gait proper to oratorio that we can listen to it in the vernacular without thought of incongruity. Yet it may be made most admirably to preserve the characteristics of conversation, and even illustrate Spencer's theory of the origin of music. Witness the following brief example from "Don Giovanni," in which the vivacity of the master is admirably contrasted with the lumpishness of his servant:
Listen View Lilypond
Of course it is left to the intelligence and taste of the singers to bring out the effects in a recitative, but in this specimen it ought to be noted how sluggishly the disgruntled Leporello replies to the brisk question of Don Giovanni, how correct is the rhetorical pause in "you, or the old one?" and the greater sobriety which comes over the manner of the Don as he thinks of the murder just committed, and replies, "the old one."
I am strongly inclined to the belief that in one form or the other, preferably the accompanied, recitative is a necessary integer in the operatic sum. That it is possible to accustom one's self to the change alternately from speech to song we know from the experiences made with German, French, and English operas, but these were not true lyric dramas, but dramas with incidental music. To be a real lyric drama an opera ought to be musical throughout, the voice being maintained from beginning to end on an exalted plane. The tendency to drop into the speaking voice for the sake of dramatic effect shown by some tragic singers does not seem to me commendable. Wagner relates with enthusiasm how Madame Schroeder-Devrient in "Fidelio" was wont to give supreme emphasis to the phrase immediately preceding the trumpet signal in the dungeon scene ("Another step, and you are dead!") by speaking the last word "with an awful accent of despair." He then comments:
"The indescribable effect of this manifested itself to all like an agonizing plunge from one sphere into another, and its sublimity consisted in this, that with lightning quickness a glimpse was given to us of the nature of both spheres, of which one was the ideal, the other the real."
I have heard a similar effect produced by Herr Niemann and Madame Lehmann, but could not convince myself that it was not an extremely venturesome experiment. Madame Schroeder-Devrient saw the beginning of the modern methods of dramatic expression, and it is easy to believe that a sudden change like that so well defined by Wagner, made with her sweeping voice and accompanied by her plastic and powerful acting, was really thrilling; but, I fancy, nevertheless, that only Beethoven and the intensity of feeling which pervades the scene saved the audience from a disturbing sense of the incongruity of the performance.
The development which has taken place in the recitative has not only assisted in elevating opera to the dignity of a lyric drama by saving us from alternate contemplation of the two spheres of ideality and reality, but has also made the factor itself an eloquent vehicle of dramatic expression. Save that it had to forego the help of the instruments beyond a mere harmonic support, the stilo rappresentativo, or musica parlante, as the Florentines called their musical dialogue, approached the sustained recitative which we hear in the oratorio and grand opera more closely than it did the recitative secco. Ever and anon, already in the earliest works (the "Eurydice" of Rinuccini as composed by both Peri and Caccini) there are passages which sound like rudimentary melodies, but are charged with vital dramatic expression. Note the following phrase from Orpheus's monologue on being left in the infernal regions by Venus, from Peri's opera, performed A.D. 1600, in honor of the marriage of Maria de' Medici to Henry IV. of France:
Listen View Lilypond
Out of this style there grew within a decade something very near the arioso, and for all the purposes of our argument we may accept the melodic devices by which Wagner carries on the dialogue of his operas as an uncircumscribed arioso superimposed upon a foundation of orchestral harmony; for example, Lohengrin's address to the swan, Elsa's account of her dream. The greater melodiousness of the recitativo stromentato, and the aid of the orchestra when it began to assert itself as a factor of independent value, soon enabled this form of musical conversation to become a reflector of the changing moods and passions of the play, and thus the value of the aria, whether considered as a solo, or in its composite form as duet, trio, quartet, or ensemble, was lessened. The growth of the accompanied recitative naturally brought with it emancipation from the tyranny of the classical aria. Wagner's reform had nothing to do with that emancipation, which had been accomplished before him, but went, as we shall see presently, to a liberation of the composers from all the formal dams which had clogged the united flow of action and music. We should, however, even while admiring the achievements of modern composers in blending these elements (and I know of no more striking illustration than the scene of the fat knight's discomfiture in Ford's house in Verdi's "Falstaff") bear in mind that while we may dream of perfect union between words and music, it is not always possible that action and music shall go hand in hand. Let me repeat what once I wrote in a review of Cornelius's opera, "Der Barbier von Bagdad:"[F]
"After all, of the constituents of an opera, action, at least that form of it usually called incident, is most easily spared. Progress in feeling, development of the emotional element, is indeed essential to variety of musical utterance, but nevertheless all great operas have demonstrated that music is more potent and eloquent when proclaiming an emotional state than while seeking to depict progress toward such a state. Even in the dramas of Wagner the culminating musical moments are predominantly lyrical, as witness the love-duet in 'Tristan,' the close of 'Das Rheingold,' Siegmund's song, the love-duet, and Wotan's farewell in 'Die Walküre,' the forest scene and final duet in 'Siegfried,' and the death of Siegfried in 'Die Götterdämmerung.' It is in the nature of music that this should be so. For the drama which plays on the stage of the heart, music is a more truthful language than speech; but it can stimulate movement and prepare the mind for an incident better than it can accompany movement and incident. Yet music that has a high degree of emotional expressiveness, by diverting attention from externals to the play of passion within the breasts of the persons can sometimes make us forget the paucity of incident in a play. 'Tristan und Isolde' is a case in point. Practically, its outward action is summed up in each of its three acts by the same words: Preparation for a meeting of the ill-starred lovers; the meeting. What is outside of this is mere detail; yet the effect of the tragedy upon a listener is that of a play surcharged with pregnant occurrence. It is the subtle alchemy of music that transmutes the psychological action of the tragedy into dramatic incident."
For those who hold such a view with me it will be impossible to condemn pieces of set forms in the lyric drama. Wagner still represents his art-work alone, but in the influence which he exerted upon contemporaneous composers in Italy and France, as well as Germany, he is quite as significant a figure as he is as the creator of the Musikdrama. The operas which are most popular in our Italian and French repertories are those which benefited by the liberation from formalism and the exaltation of the dramatic idea which he preached and exemplified—such works as Gounod's "Faust," Verdi's "Aïda" and "Otello," and Bizet's "Carmen." With that emancipation there came, as was inevitable, new conceptions of the province of dramatic singing as well as new convictions touching the mission of the orchestra. The instruments in Wagner's latter-day works are quite as much as the singing actors the expositors of the dramatic idea, and in the works of the other men whom I have mentioned they speak a language which a century ago was known only to the orchestras of Gluck and Mozart with their comparatively limited, yet eloquent, vocabulary. Coupled with praise for the wonderful art of Mesdames Patti and Melba (and I am glad to have lived in their generation, though they do not represent my ideal in dramatic singing), we are accustomed to hear lamentations over the decay of singing. I have intoned such jeremiads myself, and I do not believe that music is suffering from a greater want to-day than that of a more thorough training for singers. I marvel when I read that Senesino sang cadences of fifty seconds' duration; that Ferri with a single breath could trill upon each note of two octaves, ascending and descending, and that La Bastardella's art was equal to a perfect performance (perfect in the conception of her day) of a flourish like this:
Listen View Lilypond
I marvel, I say, at the skill, the gifts, and the training which could accomplish such feats, but I would not have them back again if they were to be employed in the old service. When Senesino, Farinelli, Sassarelli, Ferri, and their tribe dominated the stage, it strutted with sexless Agamemnons and Cæsars. Telemachus, Darius, Nero, Cato, Alexander, Scipio, and Hannibal ran around on the boards as languishing lovers, clad in humiliating disguises, singing woful arias to their mistress's eyebrows—arias full of trills and scales and florid ornaments, but void of feeling as a problem in Euclid. Thanks very largely to German influences, the opera is returning to its original purposes. Music is again become a means of dramatic expression, and the singers who appeal to us most powerfully are those who are best able to make song subserve that purpose, and who to that end give to dramatic truthfulness, to effective elocution, and to action the attention which mere voice and beautiful utterance received in the period which is called the Golden Age of singing, but which was the Leaden Age of the lyric drama.
For seventy years the people of New York, scarcely less favored than those of London, have heard nearly all the great singers of Europe. Let me talk about some of them, for I am trying to establish some ground on which my readers may stand when they try to form an estimate of the singing which they are privileged to hear in the opera houses of to-day. Madame Malibran was a member of the first Italian company that ever sang here. Madame Cinti-Damoreau came in 1844, Bosio in 1849, Jenny Lind in 1850, Sontag in 1853, Grisi in 1854, La Grange in 1855, Frezzolini in 1857, Piccolomini in 1858, Nilsson in 1870, Lucca in 1872, Titiens in 1876, Gerster in 1878, and Sembrich in 1883. I omit the singers of the German opera as belonging to a different category. Adelina Patti was always with us until she made her European début in 1861, and remained abroad twenty years. Of the men who were the artistic associates of these prime donne, mention may be made of Mario, Benedetti, Corsi, Salvi, Ronconi, Formes, Brignoli, Amadeo, Coletti, and Campanini, none of whom, excepting Mario, was of first-class importance compared with the women singers.
Nearly all of these singers, even those still living and remembered by the younger generation of to-day, exploited their gifts in the operas of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, the early Verdi, and Meyerbeer. Grisi was acclaimed a great dramatic singer, and it is told of her that once in "Norma" she frightened the tenor who sang the part of Pollio by the fury of her acting. But measured by the standards of to-day, say that set by Calvé's Carmen, it must have been a simple age that could be impressed by the tragic power of anyone acting the part of Bellini's Druidical priestess. The surmise is strengthened by the circumstance that Madame Grisi created a sensation in "Il Trovatore" by showing signs of agitation in the tower scene, walking about the stage during Manrico's "Ah! che la morte ognora," as if she would fain discover the part of the castle where her lover was imprisoned. The chief charm of Jenny Lind in the memory of the older generation is the pathos with which she sang simple songs. Mendelssohn esteemed her greatly as a woman and artist, but he is quoted as once remarking to Chorley: "I cannot think why she always prefers to be in a bad theatre." Moscheles, recording his impressions of her in Meyerbeer's "Camp of Silesia" (now "L'Étoile du Nord"), reached the climax of his praise in the words: "Her song with the two concertante flutes is perhaps the most incredible feat in the way of bravura singing that can possibly be heard." She was credited, too, with fine powers as an actress; and that she possessed them can easily be believed, for few of the singers whom I have mentioned had so early and intimate an association with the theatre as she. Her repugnance to it in later life she attributed to a prejudice inherited from her mother. A vastly different heritage is disclosed by Madame Lehmann's devotion to the drama, a devotion almost akin to religion. I have known her to go into the scene-room of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York and search for mimic stumps and rocks with which to fit out a scene in "Siegfried," in which she was not even to appear. That, like her super-human work at rehearsals, was "for the good of the cause," as she expressed it.
Most amiable are the memories that cluster around the name of Sontag, whose career came to a grievous close by her sudden death in Mexico in 1854. She was a German, and the early part of her artistic life was influenced by German ideals, but it is said that only in the music of Mozart and Weber, which aroused in her strong national emotion, did she sing dramatically. For the rest she used her light voice, which had an extraordinary range, brilliancy, and flexibility, very much as Patti and Melba use their voices to-day—in mere unfeeling vocal display.
"She had an extensive soprano voice," says Hogarth; "not remarkable for power, but clear, brilliant, and singularly flexible; a quality which seems to have led her (unlike most German singers in general) to cultivate the most florid style, and even to follow the bad example set by Catalani, of seeking to convert her voice into an instrument, and to astonish the public by executing the violin variations on Rode's air and other things of that stamp."
Madame La Grange had a voice of wide compass, which enabled her to sing contralto rôles as well as soprano, but I have never heard her dramatic powers praised. As for Piccolomini, read of her where you will, you shall find that she was "charming." She was lovely to look upon, and her acting in soubrette parts was fascinating. Until Melba came Patti was for thirty years peerless as a mere vocalist. She belongs, as did Piccolomini and Sontag, to the comic genre; so did Sembrich and Gerster, the latter of whom never knew it. I well remember how indignant she became on one occasion, in her first American season, at a criticism which I wrote of her Amina in "La Sonnambula," a performance which remains among my loveliest and most fragrant recollections. I had made use of Catalani's remark concerning Sontag: "Son genre est petit, mais elle est unique dans son genre," and applied it to her style. She almost flew into a passion. "Mon genre est grand!" said she, over and over again, while Dr. Gardini, her husband, tried to pacify her. "Come to see my Marguerite next season." Now, Gounod's Marguerite does not quite belong to the heroic rôles, though we can all remember how Lucca thrilled us by her intensity of action as well as of song, and how Madame Nilsson sent the blood out of our cheeks, though she did stride through the opera like a combination of the grande dame and Ary Scheffer's spirituelle pictures; but such as it is, Madame Gerster achieved a success of interest only, and that because of her strivings for originality. Sembrich and Gerster, when they were first heard in New York, had as much execution as Melba or Nilsson; but their voices had less emotional power than that of the latter, and less beauty than that of the former—beauty of the kind that might be called classic, since it is in no way dependent on feeling.
Patti, Lucca, Nilsson, and Gerster sang in the operas in which Melba and Eames sing to-day, and though the standard of judgment has been changed in the last twenty-five years by the growth of German ideals, I can find no growth of potency in the performances of the representative women of Italian and French opera, except in the case of Madame Calvé. For the development of dramatic ideals we must look to the singers of German affiliations or antecedents, Mesdames Materna, Lehmann, Sucher, and Nordica. As for the men of yesterday and to-day, no lover, I am sure, of the real lyric drama would give the declamatory warmth and gracefulness of pose and action which mark the performances of M. Jean de Reszke for a hundred of the high notes of Mario (for one of which, we are told, he was wont to reserve his powers all evening), were they never so lovely. Neither does the fine, resonant, equable voice of Edouard de Reszke or the finished style of Plançon leave us with curious longings touching the voices and manners of Lablache and Formes. Other times, other manners, in music as in everything else. The great singers of to-day are those who appeal to the taste of to-day, and that taste differs, as the clothes which we wear differ, from the style in vogue in the days of our ancestors.
A great deal of confusion has crept into the public mind concerning Wagner and his works by the failure to differentiate between his earlier and later creations. No injustice is done the composer by looking upon his "Flying Dutchman," "Tannhäuser," and "Lohengrin" as operas. We find the dramatic element lifted into noble prominence in "Tannhäuser," and admirable freedom in the handling of the musical factors in "Lohengrin," but they must, nevertheless, be listened to as one would listen to the operas of Weber, Marschner, or Meyerbeer. They are, in fact, much nearer to the conventional operatic type than to the works which came after them, and were called Musikdramen. "Music drama" is an awkward phrase, and I have taken the liberty of substituting "lyric drama" for it, and as such I shall designate "Tristan und Isolde," "Die Meistersinger," "Der Ring des Nibelungen," and "Parsifal." In these works Wagner exemplified his reformatory ideas and accomplished a regeneration of the lyric drama, as we found it embodied in principle in the Greek tragedy and the Dramma per musica of the Florentine scholars. Wagner's starting-point is, that in the opera music had usurped a place which did not belong to it.[G] It was designed to be a means and had become an end. In the drama he found a combination of poetry, music, pantomime, and scenery, and he held that these factors ought to co-operate on a basis of mutual dependence, the inspiration of all being dramatic expression. Music, therefore, ought to be subordinate to the text in which the dramatic idea is expressed, and simply serve to raise it to a higher power by giving it greater emotional life. So, also, it ought to vivify pantomime and accompany the stage pictures. In order that it might do all this, it had to be relieved of the shackles of formalism; only thus could it move with the same freedom as the other elements consorted with it in the drama. Therefore, the distinctions between recitative and aria were abolished, and an "endless melody" took the place of both. An exalted form of speech is borne along on a flood of orchestral music, which, quite as much as song, action, and scenery concerns itself with the exposition of the drama. That it may do this the agencies, spiritual as well as material, which are instrumental in the development of the play, are identified with certain melodic phrases, out of which the musical fabric is woven. These phrases are the much mooted, much misunderstood "leading motives"—typical phrases I call them. Wagner has tried to make them reflect the character or nature of the agencies with which he has associated them, and therefore we find the giants in the Niblung tetralogy symbolized in heavy, slowly moving, cumbersome phrases; the dwarfs have two phrases, one suggesting their occupation as smiths, by its hammering rhythm, and the other their intellectual habits, by its suggestion of brooding contemplativeness. I cannot go through the catalogue of the typical phrases which enter into the musical structure of the works which I have called lyric dramas as contra-distinguished from operas. They should, of course, be known to the student of Wagner, for thereby will he be helped to understand the poet-composer's purposes, but I would fain repeat the warning which I uttered twice in my "Studies in the Wagnerian Drama:"
"It cannot be too forcibly urged that if we confine our study of Wagner to the forms and names of the phrases out of which he constructs his musical fabric, we shall, at the last, have enriched our minds with a thematic catalogue and—nothing else. We shall remain guiltless of knowledge unless we learn something of the nature of those phrases by noting the attributes which lend them propriety and fitness, and can recognize, measurably at least, the reasons for their introduction and development. Those attributes give character and mood to the music constructed out of the phrases. If we are able to feel the mood, we need not care how the phrases which produce it have been labelled. If we do not feel the mood, we may memorize the whole thematic catalogue of Wolzogen and have our labor for our pains. It would be better to know nothing about the phrases, and content one's self with simple sensuous enjoyment than to spend one's time answering the baldest of all the riddles of Wagner's orchestra—'What am I playing now?'
"The ultimate question concerning the correctness or effectiveness of Wagner's system of composition must, of course, be answered along with the question: 'Does the composition, as a whole, touch the emotions, quicken the fancy, fire the imagination?' If it does these things, we may, to a great extent, if we wish, get along without the intellectual processes of reflection and comparison which are conditioned upon a recognition of the themes and their uses. But if we put aside this intellectual activity, we shall deprive ourselves, among other things, of the pleasures which it is the province of memory to give; and the exercise of memory is called for by music much more urgently than by any other art, because of its volatile nature and the rôle which repetition plays in it."