New Books on Music



Richard Wagner (7551 bytes)

The Wagner Library

Edition 1.0

Table of Contents

About this Title


New Books on Music

The Atlantic Monthly
Volume 72 Issue 432
Pages 557-559
Published in 1893

Original Page Images at Cornell University Library

Reading Information

This title contains 1793 words.
Estimated reading time between 5 and 9 minutes.

Page numbers are indicated using square brackets, like [62], while footnotes are indicated using parenthesis, like (1).

New Books On Music.

OF biographies of Richard Wagner there are already a good many. There is the master's own Autobiographical Sketch, published in Volume I. of the Gesammelte Schriften und Dichtungen, and translated into English in Burlingame's Art-Life and Theories; then there are the biographies by Dannreuther, Gaspérini, Glasenapp, Hueffer, Jullien, Kobbé, Muncker, Nohl, Pohl, and Tappert. Yet few of these works have made much way with the general reading public: the Autobiographical Sketch, although eminently good reading, is but cursory, and extends only to the year 1842; the biographies, except those by Glasenapp and Jullien, cover more ground, but are all more or less summary and incomplete. The charge of sketchiness can hardly be brought against Glasenapp's book, though it, too, is not complete, ending as it does with the first Parsifal year (1882); but, with all its careful detail, it has the disadvantage of being unreadable; none but the maddest enthusiast for the subject would care to wade through that morass of words. It also deals almost exclusively with Wagner the poet and composer; there is little in it concerning Wagner the man. Jullien's work is by far the best of them all: it is masterly in style and arrangement, thorough, easily readable. Unfortunately, Jullien, as a Frenchman, had little appreciation of, and less sympatby with, so inveterately Teutonic a nature as Wagner's, well as he estimated him as an artist, and the picture he draws of his character is all too distorted and trivial; now and then, too, he is not entirely accurate. At last comes Mr. Finck, of New York, with a two-volume biography, (1) which is even more detailed than Glasenapp's or Jullien's, and may be accepted as exhausting all the documentary material as yet available; beyond this, it goes more fully into an examination of Wagner's personal character than any of its predecessors. It is at once a life and a critico-biographical essay.

Mr. Finck's book has conspicuous merits. The author is an acknowledged Wagnerian, even a pretty ultra Wagnerian; but he has not the would-be-philosophical cloudiness of most of his fellows in faith; neither has he that fondness for a ponderous and involved style that makes most Wagnerian writing next to impossible reading. No one can say to him, as Hanslick once said to Hans von Wolzogen: "My dear Hans, if you would only go over your manuscript carefully and strike out every third adjective, then go over it again and do the same once more, and then repeat the process a third time; then, when you had thus cleared away the worst underbrush of your style, you might perhaps be able to see clearly what was still lacking!" Indeed, Mr. Finck shows distinct native literary ability, even talent; his book is eminently readable and interesting. To be sure, his style is in general rather careless, often slipshod; he writes on in what seems to be a desultory way, without very apparent plan or method. But this makes surprisingly little trouble for the reader. Mr. Finck is so thoroughly possessed with his theme, writes at such a white heat of enthusiasm, and tells his story so vividly that you follow him willingly and without effort; he impresses facts and ideas so clearly upon your mind that you feel none of the evil effects usually incident to an ill-considered literary plan. The picture he draws of Wagner the man [558] and of Wagner the artist leaves nothing to be desired in clearness of outline and vividness of color. He can be witty, too, at a pinch. What could be more delicious than, for instance, this about the quondam estimate of Wagner in Germany? "The funniest part of this business is that, in a country where almost every man suffers from megalomania, the one man who had the best claim to the title of genius should have been pronounced a lunatic!" Of humor he has less; he is too desperately in earnest for that; and though he does a good deal of laughing at times, his laugh is rather bitter, and has no very spontaneous ring.

Upon the whole, it is a lack of humor more than anything else that prevents his book being thoroughly good. He wholly ignores what was really the most serious difficulty in his task, his proximity to his subject. He shuts his eyes to the fact that Wagner and his works are still too recent to be viewed in due historic perspective. As mathematicians arrive per saltum at a point they name "infinity," for the practical purposes of calculation, so does he often appear to be looking back upon Wagner from a coign of vantage in the as yet dim future, where he has set up an imaginary pou sto from which to work his critical lever. He regards the fierce controversy over Wagner as not only ended, but so completely ended that not a scar remains to show that any of the surviving combatants were wounded in the mellay; he not only assumes that Wagnerianism is triumphant along the whole line, with all the enemy's guns spiked, but that all the world—that is, all the world worth mentioning—knows it and cries "Io pæan!" with him. The humorous element in this attitude of his does not seem to strike him.

It may be that he really feels quite secure in his position; but it must be admitted that he behaves rather suspiciously, as if he had a sub-conscious inkling of something being the matter. He has a nonchalant way of saying the most astonishing things as if they were mere every-day commonplaces, which sounds very like gasconade; he keeps his countenance remarkably well, but you cannot help feeling that he is pretty well aware that his hair-raising utterances will excite wonder, and that his impassive manner is assumed, partly pour épater la galerie, partly to shame contradiction into submissive silence, as much as to say, "If you don't see these things as I do, you really are not in the swim at all!" In a word, lie is often very saucy indeed. Take, for example, the way he has of speaking of Mozart's, Beethoven's, and Weber's melodies as "dance tunes;" this is pure sauciness, for it is really nonsense. The classic melodic cut, based on four-measure sections, may have been originally derived from the dance; but there is no more propriety in calling Beethoven's melodies "dance tunes" than there would be in calling Wagner an ape because he probably had simian ancestors. Mr. Finck ignores a whole important process of evolution.

With Mr. Finck's frankness no one need quarrel. If, for instance, he really considers Tannhäuser and Lohengrin greater operas than, say, Don Giovanni or Fidelio, there can be no earthly objection to his saying so; but when he adds, "To-day it seems funny that any one could ever have doubted this," he implies a general consensus of opinion, the existence of which is at least open to question. The time is not yet come when the man who still thinks Don Giovanni a greater masterpiece than Tannhäuser is to be looked upon in a merely humorous light. Mr. Finck is also characteristically incautious as to whom he ranks on his side. He makes capital out of Robert Franz's well-known outburst of enthusiasm over Lohengrin in 1852, his glowing letter published in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, and his [559] dedication of a book of songs "to the Composer of Lohengrin," to prove that Franz was essentially a Wagnerian. Now, the fact is that this Wagner enthusiasm of Franz's was exceedingly short-lived, and that, from not long after 1852 to his dying day, Franz was about as thorough and determined an anti-Wagnerian as could be found in all Europe. Mr. Finck is very careful to show how Wagner outgrew some of his earlier opinions on music; but of Franz's change of heart in re Wagner he says nothing, and does not even hint at the possibility of the Halle master's regarding the imputation of Wagnerianism as little short of an insult.

Still, if Mr. Finck's boundless enthusiasm for and faith in Wagner somewhat obscure his sense of humor,—think, for instance, of his printing a chapter of quasi-Messianic prophecies, foretelling the advent of the great master!—they are a genuine source of strength to him as a biographer. The eye of sympathy sees more keenly than the circumspect eye of calm criticism! The picture he draws of Wagner as a man, of his personal character, is probably the best and most lifelike that has yet been given to the public ; it shows Wagner as essentially a noble, high-souled nature, furiously concentrated upon one single aim in life, terribly sensitive to criticism, and ever yearning for sympathy. His volcanic petulancy, which often seemed like spite, was but a symptom of persistent ill health. Mr. Finck flatly denies tbe charge of meanness and ingratitude often brought against him. To be sure, here as elsewhere, Mr. Finck looks obstinately on the sunny side, and gives the impression of being rather preternaturally naïf; some of the instances he gives to show that Wagner was not unmindful of benefits conferred upon him look a little as if he were bent on making an ounce of gratitude go a long way, and his rehabilitation of the great man's character would have been more convincing had he shown a little less zeal. But, with all its redundancy of rose tints, the portrait is probably a far better likeness than Jullien's. His estimate of Wagner's works will most likely be accepted by Wagnerians only; but this is by no means to be urged against him. He has followed the wisest course, putting his own side of the question as strongly as possible, and leaving the opposite side to be defended by others who know more about it than he.

The pains Mr. Finck has evidently taken with his work deserve the fullest recognition; his accuracy—saving an occasional error, perhaps a slip of the pen, in matters of minor importance—seems unquestionable. The book is handsomely got up, paper, type, and paging being equally good; in the matter of proof-reading, however, it leaves something to be desired.



Wagner and his Works. The Story of his Life, with Critical Comments. By HENRY T.FINCK. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1893.