The Opera before the Court of Reason

By William F. Biddle

1896

 

Richard Wagner (7551 bytes)

The Wagner Library

Edition 1.0

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The Opera before the Court of Reason
By William F. Biddle

The Atlantic Monthly
Volume 77 Issue 464
Pages 786-796
Published in 1896

Original Page Images at Cornell University Library

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This title contains 6870 words.
Estimated reading time between 20 and 34 minutes.

Page numbers are indicated using square brackets, like [62], while footnotes are indicated using parenthesis, like (1).
[786]

The Opera before the Court of Reason.

THERE must be a large class of respectable persons,—so large, indeed, as to be respectable for their numbers, if for nothing else,—not gifted with creative powers, but well endowed through their love of beauty with very important appreciative powers, who would gladly welcome an authoritative discussion on the function of reason (I narrowly escaped calling it common sense) in matters of art. To make such a discussion truly authoritative, however, its protagonists should possess not only acknowledged artistic culture and insight, but also strong and honest logical faculty; and this combination is of mournfully rare occurrence. It is a question whether most of those now claiming to possess the best artistic culture and insight would not be ready to dismiss this subject instantly by the positive statement that reason has no function whatever in matters of art, and common sense still less. Such a dictum would of course be intuitively rejected by the respectable class of appreciators just described, but these are seldom sufficiently voluble and self-confident to clothe their intuitive convictions in words convincing to others; while, unfortunately, the claimants of artistic authority nearly always belong to that class so aptly described by Sam Weller as having "the gift o' gab wery gallopin'," and they often get a verdict by mere default, and not on the real merits of the case.

Now we of class first,—perhaps perceiving the wider general bearings of art the more clearly and completely for living watchfully around it, instead of absorbed and workfully within it, —we feel that while the finest foliage, flowers, and fruits of art growth are found on the slender upper stems of finer and more delicate fibre, which, as they wind their way farther and farther into the upper air, bend more freely and flexibly before the wandering and incalculable breath of inspiration (" Thou canst not tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth"), nevertheless these final and glorious gifts of art are possible only because those flower and fruit bearing stems are borne by and draw strength through the sturdy trunk of reason under them, which is itself firmly rooted in and nourished from the solid ground of everlasting truth, the mother earth of the tree of human progress.

It would be very comforting to have this feeling put into forceful words by some strong one whose very name would compel respectful attention from the claimants of artistic authority, and keep them from calling us fools and Philistines. For surely, unless men have sunk into egoistic hedonists, all fine and earnest art must now seek truth first of all,—philosophy's truth by which to justify its existence and its pursuit, and nature's truth by which to express itself. The first of these was once felicitously indicated by Mr. Howells in the Easy Chair of Harper's Magazine (I quote from [787] memory), "The old pagan idea of art for art's sake has become obsolete with thinkers, and has been replaced by the modern Christian idea of art for humanity's sake;" and the second is found in those fundamental maxims of modern art schools, "Paint what you see. Be sincere." (Please note that the rule does not say, "Paint what you would like to see.") Even dramatic art, justly ranked by Mr. Birrell lowest in the list, has ennobled itself in our day by treading the same path toward truth. Both writer and actor must now go to the realities of life, the one for motives, and the other for methods. The very stage fittings and accessories must now be real to the utmost possibility. No more wooden chickens and empty cups are seen in stage feasts. Dramatic action must be studied from and modeled after actual life,—ay, and actual death, too,—and Duse surpasses Bernhardt because she fulfills this requirement more closely and sincerely.

It would not be difficult to cover some pages with proofs and instances of the widening reign of reason over the drama; but with music this is not so apparent, and I fear that the claimants of artistic authority, and perhaps others, would be quick to call that man rash, if not stupid, who should try to bring common sense into a discussion on taste in music, an art generally admitted to be the most emotional, and therefore the least logical of all. Yet Mr. Krehbiel, in a recent lecture on Listening to Music, opened his subject by stating that among the writers and talkers about music there are two sorts who should be equally shunned, both being objectionable and misleading, because both are equally unreasonable, though in opposite directions,—the pedants and the rhapsodists. Now this is only a rather picturesque variant of the old maxim "In medio tutissimus ibis," which is just as true of the other arts, of all art in the largest sense, as it is of music; and it admits reason as a governing principle of judgment. This done, it will be difficult, at least for those belonging to the species homo sapiens, to fix upon the where and the why for refusing to follow reason's lead farther.

But even the least logical of the arts must use a deal of common sense in the management of their means of expression,—the tools of their trades, to speak irreverently. The poets,— genus irritabile vatum, who might perhaps be ranked as next to the least logical of artists,—even the dear poets are compelled to parse, and to punctuate, and to scan; or rather, they used to be. Nowadays, I believe, the claimants no longer think it necessary that poetry should either parse or scan, though it still is punctuated to some extent.

Rash though it may be, my present aim is a common-sense consideration, reckless of the claimants' scorn, of some aspects of that old and great quœstio vexata between classic and dramatic music: and this is attempted because I find so many who, like myself, have been keen lovers and learners of music all their lives without ever feeling sure that some of its chief apostles and loudest professors are preaching the real truth about it.

Here let me say that since most persons who speak of dramatic music mean opera or music-drama, that meaning will be taken here, though I do not indorse it as a strict definition. When, however, the effort is made to express the classic side of this question in a similarly condensed way, some very serious difficulties are met. If we try to boil it down into a phrase, we find that some of its most characteristic contents are so volatile and expansive that they are driven off. I myself should be quite willing to come down at once to describing the question as the case of Truth versus Opera; but I should not expect many to come with me, for choice of sides on this question seems to be controlled usually by idiosyncrasy rather than by thought, and to be the result of processes not so much mental as temperamentaL In fact, the [788] temptation to accept as belief on proof that which one wants to believe is just as irresistible here as in morals and religion and all other things; and so the discussions of this question have been more in the nature of pleas for previously adopted views than of earnest searches after fundamental truth. Naturally enough, also, these views have been almost as many and as various as the viewers and their points of view. Some talk learnedly of absolute music as the antithesis of dramatic music, and some still more learnedly about subjective and objective music; and always, the more of such learning there is in the talk, the greater seems the loss by evaporation when you come to boil it down.

One of the brightest and pleasantest of the later essays on this question denies dramatic power to polyphonic music, and grants it to monodic music, and for illustrative examples cites Three Blind Mice as polyphonic harmony, and Home, Sweet Home, as monodic melody. But from my point of view not only is this proposed principle quite wrong, but the examples given do not illustrate it. Three Blind Mice was one of the earliest of my musical experiences, and I can still remember distinctly the childish pity for the wretched little rodents inspired by those pathetic descending thirds when the second voice enters, and the hurrying horror when the quicker-moving third voice tells out the tragedy of the tails and the carving-knife: and all this without the slightest action on the part of the singers. I was not a very impressionable child; I am sure there must have been many others who felt that music just as I did: and this seems to me to be evidence of dramatic quality inherent in the very music that was cited as devoid of it.

As to Home, Sweet Home, for an example of monody, can any one who knows that song listen to it sung unaccompanied without being conscious of hearing in his mind's ear, along with the melody, the main chords of the usual harmony in the remembered instrumental accompaniment? I myself cannot, and I have yet to find any musical person (others are out of this question) who, after fair trial and thought, will claim such ability. Is that song, so heard, true monody to such hearers? Truly not; and I believe this holds good of every theme, vocal or instrumental, whose harmonic foundation is known to the hearer; and it is preeminently true of those many masterpieces of modern song-writing whose accompaniments are essential and integral parts of the works, and are sometimes splendid specimens of polyphonic writing in themselves without the vocal parts they were written to sustain.

Is there, then, no such thing as true monody to modern musical ears? When such a determined effort after it as the piping of the peasant in Wagner's Tristan is found to carry with it suggestions of various minor and major chords, as it is found to do on close and honest scrutiny, it almost seems as if real monody must be relegated to those distant days B. C. when Theocritus reveled in the songs of the Sicilian shepherds as "the fairest meed of the gods," and told with pride how Menalcas skillfully made and played a herdsman's pipe, but lost it to Daphnis in an open-air song competition. It may be safely assumed that no accompanying chords and harmonies suggested themselves to the ears that listened to their music.

But I think the real roots of the question lie much below all this, and lower than most music lovers are willing to dig for them. Perhaps my purpose will be best served by at once taking hold of what seems to me a sort of tap-root, and working upwards.

Some years ago I happened to hear, in the English West Indian island Trinidad, a party of negro working men and women at one of their customary moonlight-night outdoor dances. The music, or, more correctly, motive power, was [789] furnished solely by an empty keg with a piece of hide stretched over one end, assisted by a gourd containing dried peas and small pebbles; the first was thumped and the second rattled, in strictest time and with exasperating continuity, until moonset. These two instruments were generally accompanied by hand-clapping from some of those not dancing. Now there was rhythm, pure and simple and alone, utterly independent and neglectful of the musical qualities and attributes of the sound produced, and used only as a means of conveying the ictus to the ears of all the party, in order that individual overflow of emotion might be worked off in associated physical motion; and to this pure rhythm the negroes danced almost all night. Occasionally a dancer would give a staccato shout, and the sitters around would answer with a longer crooning on two or three notes, wordless, rising and falling in apparently aimless but musical intervals. When the dancers all gave out and stopped to rest, which was very seldom, the thump and the rattle kept right on, and somebody began to sing one of the many songs in the West Indian French patois; marked rhythm being also a conspicuous feature in these somewhat monotonous melodies. Presently the song would stop and dancing would be resumed for a while, and so on till the moon was gone.

The next Sunday I attended morning service at the English Church in Port of Spain, and saw a large chancel choir of negroes only, young men and girls and boys, all dressed in the cleanest of white clothes, and seated in rows with becoming seriousness. They might very well have been children of some of those I had heard dancing and singing almost like savages, to the drum and rattle in the moonlight; and yet this choir, led by the admirable playing of an English organist, sang in unison the music of the English Church service, including an elaborate Te Deum by Berthold Tours and several chants and modern hymn-tunes, and all with really delightful perfection of time, tone, and expression. I had always known that negroes are a tuneful race, but this performance was a surprising one.

Do not these incidents point to the natural order and succession of steps in the evolution of music? Rhythm first, suggested and shown to individuals in the motion of their own limbs; then rhythm becoming stronger, and marked by uttered sound, as the walking of one man grows into the marching of many men; then rhythm still more marked, as the joyous excitement of friendly association seeks outlet in the excited and exciting motions of the dance, led by rhythmical sounds of percussion; then rhythmic shouting; and then song; and all the rest follows naturally. But always present, and controlling, and inspiring, is rhythm. When the evolutionary process arrives at recording the music, then the rhythm of notes and bars is discovered to be the only means by which music can be written and read. When the further stage of several persons playing or singing together is reached, then still more must rhythm rule them all alike, all reading the same record. And when the final stage of the great orchestras and choruses is reached, then, above and beyond the same written record placed before all, there must also be visible to all the imperative controlling rhythm of the conductor's beat, in order to secure perfect ensemble performance.

Let us now consider what part rhythm plays in volitional human action, which is the main constituent of that visible human life to which we have already seen that artistic dramatic action must in these days be true. The walking of a grown person is about as automatic as breathing, and may be justly set aside with it as scarcely volitional action. But rhythm evidently governs marching, and dancing, and in fact any conditions of life wherein the object is to produce continuous consentient and coincident action of several; and this, I suppose, might as fairly include the baby-hushing that mothers do so rhythmically all the world over as it surely does the "Yo! heave O!" of the sailors' songs. And what else? Human emotion? That is too capricious, and changes every instant on the whim of the individual. Human passion? That is both explosive and capricious, as well as individual. The talk of human intercourse? That varies with every fleeting phase of individual feeling.

I have tried hard to think this point out fairly and thoroughly, and I earnestly hope that some better equipped mind may be induced to take it up in the same spirit; for the longer and harder I think about it, the more am I convinced that, except under the conditions just specified, the visible action of human life naturally rebels against the bonds of rhythm instead of submitting to them; and that this natural antagonism is permanent and irreconcilable, because, as a rule, the working of human volition is not rhythmic, but the reverse, being always more or less spasmodic.

There could be cited abundant instances in support of this all-important postulate; so let us go on to see where we stand after taking these consecutive steps, first placing them in close sequence, that their relations may be clearly perceived.

  1. We have seen that dramatic action, in order to be really artistic, must be true to natural human action.
  2. We have seen that music does not and cannot escape from the bonds of rhythm.
  3. We have seen that, with very few exceptions, natural human action does not and cannot submit to the bonds of rhythm.
  4. Now what follows by logical necessity concerning dramatic action and music? Can we escape the conclusion that if dramatic action joins itself to music, it must lose its truth to natural human action, and therefore its standing as fine art?

Here it is perhaps more than likely that some who may have admitted seeing steps 1, 2, and 3, and the need for ascending them, will, when confronted by step 4, say, "But we don't see that." Are they willing to see it, I wonder? Turning again to a sister art for an illustration, I expand that school maxim of the painters, "Paint what you see on close and honest scrutiny, and not what you would like to see." If any students or painters are color-blind, or astigmatic, or otherwise incapable of seeing truly, that is a personal limitation entitling them to pity, and to that extent relieving them from condemnation. But if any refuse honest scrutiny, and insist on painting what they would like to see, whether they really see it or not, such persons are ruled by and have the courage of their propensities, not their convictions; and this, translated into those esoteric terms so dear to the claimants, would probably be written, "They have a great deal of temperament."

I think this applies equally to those musicians who, on reaching step 4, stop, and decline to ascend the logical staircase any farther, seeking progress sideways instead of upward; but they will doubtless be confirmed in their doings on being told that they are in this matter in the same category with Richard Wagner, for that is precisely what he did.

Let us look at some of the conspicuous facts in the career of this genius (for that he surely was), with all possible sidelights let in on them; and one of the brightest, I think, shines from his parentage and the principles of heredity. Wagner came of a theatrical family; he was born and bred in a theatrical atmosphere and environment; his childish amusements were theatrical; he began his career in a theatre; he married an actress; his aims and ambitions were early centred entirely on theatrical success; and in short, love of the theatrical, [791] which was doubtless transmitted to him intensified, according to the admitted principle of heredity, soon became the dominating propensity and passion of his life,—placing the theatrician before and above the musician in him, obscuring his artistic judgment and insight, clouding his reasoning powers, and leading him into undignified and unfortunate displays of vanity, and into serious lapses from that nobility of personal life and deportment that should have grown from his great gifts, and probably would have done so had he not been possessed of the theatric devil from his childhood. His letters to his tailors, ordering and designing to the smallest detail the numerous brocaded silk and embroidered velvet dressing-gowns he wore when composing (could anything be more theatrical!) almost equal in number and in anxious importunity his letters to Liszt and other admirers, begging them for money to live on. The joyous enthusiasm and pride with which he devoted himself for months at a time to every item of stage costuming and stage carpentry seemed almost to exceed his satisfaction in writing his music.

Among his earlier achievements was a keen perception of the absurdities of the then popular and accepted opera libretto as literature; and as he was conscious of possessing a very prolific imagination and a copious command of language, he confidently undertook the task of producing for himself operatic poems of real literary value, and having coherent and consequent plots, with situations properly led up to and down from, and states of mind sufficiently explained and accounted for. He also perceived the absurdity of chopping up the action of an opera into a series of short musical pieces, scenas, arias, ariettas, and the like, with a complete cadence at the end of each, and a fresh musical start at the beginning of the next; and so he wrote his music with no cadence or stop at all from the beginning to the end of each entire act. He was keen enough and bold enough and earnest enough in detecting and denouncing these particular absurdities, but why did he stop here? Why did he shut his eyes to those still remaining? Only because he was possessed of that theatric devil which continually blinded his artistic sight. And what did his methods of cure really accomplish? They added greatly to the literary value of the opera libretto and to the desirable continuity of the action; but, unfortunately, they made so many more words to be set to music because of these coherent and consequent and well-developed plots, and made the music itself so much longer, because that too could not now jump into suitability to dramatic changes, but must be appropriately and continuously developed into it, that the resulting performances also developed themselves into sittings of four and five and even six hours. Now, this is practically beyond the limits of physical endurance, and is as bad an artistic blunder as painting a picture with a part of it beyond the limits of physical vision. But the theatre was to Wagner the main purpose and business of his life, and he would not see that to his audiences it could be only an episode, meant for recreation. (And may it never be more, for that way national decadence lies.) Nor would he condescend to see the next upward step in the logical staircase he had started so bravely to ascend. But I think there is ample evidence that he soon became conscious of the remaining absurdities, even though his theatrical demon never allowed him to acknowledge them; for very soon he positively asserts publicly, in print and at length, that the only proper field for opera or music-drama is to be found, not in actual human life, not even in historical human life, but in myth and legend; not in the natural, but in the supernatural. And thenceforth he deals only with mythic gods, demigods, heroes, valkyrs, Rhinemaidens, and such. His indwelling theatric devil makes him hold to the marriage [792] of music to visible action, but his artistic consciousness is not totally depraved, for it feels the still remaining and inherent absurdities of even his amended work, and in order to forestall the further attacks of the criticism he has himself started he drops human action and makes his entire dramatis personæ superhuman, in order that nothing they do or say may be judged by human standards, and so found absurd; fondly hoping thus to get rid of the humanities that so trouble him. But he forgets, or else his theatric devil will not let him see, that, since he and his audiences are but mortals, he can only express, and they can only receive, his fine superhumanities in terms of the human. In spite of his calling his characters gods and goddesses and other fine names, we still see only remarkably queer men and women, and so the absurdities really remain, after all.

Wagner, of course, would not admit this, but loudly announced that he had at last produced a perfect art form for the music-drama, and in this very many claimants now clamorously agree with him. Nevertheless, I think there is ample evidence that he soon came to still another consciousness of failure and of still remaining absurdities. Let us review the position he now held.

After climbing part way up the logical staircase, he finds that unconquerable theatric devil of his confronted by the problem (insoluble, as we know, but he didn't think so) of bringing into artistic union two antagonistic elements,—dramatized human action and rhythmic music. This reminds one somewhat of the juvenile days when one was questioned about the consequences of an irresistible force meeting an immovable body. He first tries to escape step 4 by changing the action, and he takes superhuman in place of human; but this does not do all he wants, because the result remains anthropomorphic, so to speak. Now, if he is conscious of failure and wants to try again, what is there left for him to try? He has already changed his action, and that will not do. Manifestly, nothing remains but to change the music, if he can, by robbing it of that root of his theatrical trouble, its rhythm. And if it can be shown that Wagner did try to eliminate rhythm from his music, I think this is evidence enough that he was conscious of his artistic failure in joining rhythmic music to dramatic action, and was doing his best to avoid step 4 by turning aside to lose, if he could, the one of the spirits of music that was most hateful to his theatric demon.

Now comes the question, did Wagner try to rid his music of rhythm? Even the claimants will scarcely dare to deny his having done so, since it would be so easy to cover pages with proofs and instances of it, taken by pages from his scores, where they are thick as leaves in Vallombrosa. And it was not only in his scores that he strove for this. One of the last and strongest links in the chain of evidence is the fact that when Wagner built his own theatre at Baireuth, not satisfied with smothering audible rhythm out of his music as much as he dared, he went the further length of covering entirely from the audience the visible rhythm of baton and bow, without which his performances were impossible, by hiding his orchestra and its conductor behind a great screen or shield, lest the eyes of the listeners should remind their ears that there was such a thing as rhythm to make the action of his characters ridiculous.

For in very truth Wagner's patent improved operatic action remains absurd and ridiculous in many of the old and acknowledged points, in spite of his lifelong labors in the service of the demon of the theatre. I do not refer to such pitiful puerilities as the dragon in Siegfried, and that wonderful wood-bird which, when Siegfried tastes the magic blood, instantly learns to speak German, but to the most serious histrionic efforts of the ablest Wagnerian artists, trained by the master himself. They still stride and gesture [793] on the accented beats—when they can find them; they still perilously suspend the action while they hold high notes; the mirrors they hold up to nature still have surfaces warped by the waves of sound, and of course still reflect distorted images.

A few years ago, Dion Boucicault, that past master in dramatic art, wrote for The North American Review a most trenchant and pungent paper on operatic acting in general, and on Wagnerian acting in particular; the paper being pointed mainly at the claimants of high artistic value for Wagnerian acting. I wish that every reader of this could and would read that, or that Boucicault's paper might be again presented to that great grand jury, the public; for it is an indictment that has never yet been quashed, and some day the public may find a true bill on it. After many keen thrusts, he boldly challenges the claimants to place the best Wagnerian acting they can find side by side, as acting, with any standard good performance of modern spoken drama, and asserts that not even the most clamorous claimant can feel any doubt about the verdict, or as to the Wagnerian kind of acting being laughed off the stage if applied to spoken words. Boucicault, however, concerned himself only with judging the facts, and did not follow with a study of their causes. Two replies appeared in consecutive numbers of the magazine, but neither did they reach the real root of the matter. The first objected to the attack on the ground that Boucicault's reasoning would deprive us of all song; but that was manifestly unfair, since it is plain that he dealt not with the marriage of words and music which makes song, but with that marriage of worded music and dramatic action which makes opera. The second reply was much stronger than the first, but never reached the underlying truth of the case, and the writer soon undermined his own position completely by citing, with highest praise and as a triumphant example in refutation, the acting of Isolde in the garden scene, when, after extinguishing the torch, she watches in silence, but in great excitement, for Tristan's coming, waves her scarf, and generally deports herself in a way to convey her feelings very fully to the audience without saying anything; the orchestra meanwhile accompanying her pantomime deliciously. Why she should be silent just here I never could quite understand, since before this she has not been backward about shouting her emotions under all circumstances; but she is silent until Tristan appears, and devotes herself to "business" with such success that, as I said, the scene is naïvely quoted in refutation; the writer not perceiving that his quotation comes back like a boomerang and smites himself, since, on his own showing, this acting can be good and is good because there is no singing at all. Therefore what he praises is only pantomime, not opera.

Since I have begun citing authorities, I cannot resist the temptation to quote Wagner against himself concerning "sung acting." In his discussion of The Purpose of the Opera, he frankly admits that the very best dramatic singers are sometimes forced to spoken words in the midst of sung acting, in order to produce reality of impression; and he gives the instance of Madame Schroeder Devrient, whom he greatly admired, and who made a fine point in Fidelio on "Another step, and—thou art—DEAD!" the last words being most dramatically and forcibly spoken instead of sung, with an almost startling effect of reality on the hearers. (Madame Calvé does the same thing for the same purpose in Carmen, speaking instead of singing the supreme words, "Non, je ne t'aime plus.") And yet in another place, when his devil had evidently downed his logic again, he says that a poor singer can produce effects that are impossible in the best spoken drama. So, indeed, he can, but only because of the intrinsic difference in kind between them, which is here so radical [794] as utterly to invalidate the comparison in degree, and to the detriment of spoken drama, which Wagner meant.

But we have sufficiently disposed of Wagnerian music-drama acting. It cannot reach the best development of acting.

And now a few words concerning Wagnerian music-drama music. Wagner himself placed music in the subordinate position, in this amazing marriage, and a recent inquiry among living English composers of the first ability resulted in a published opinion that the permanent art form of what is now known as music-drama is not to be music with drama added, as might be supposed from the name, but drama with music added. Is not this enough to make true lovers of true music indignant? For it has been shown that this unnatural union must bring dramatic action down far below its best; and since it is now also asserted that in this union music is always to be thrust below even this degraded drama, how does the beloved Muse fare in the marriage? There are many rhythmic gems of Wagner's genius that have brought delight to listening thousands and will live forever. There are many and many dreary pages in the works he thought his best which, as music, have no coherence and give no pleasure. I remember well that, some years ago, Theodore Thomas, with his superb orchestra, gave a concert rendering of the Good Friday music from Parsifal, the vocal parts being sung by Scaria and Winckelmann. It was triumphantly announced as a grand treat to music lovers, and nothing could have been finer technically. But when the music that was written to go with the slow wandering of Parsifal and Gurnemanz among the flowers was given with only the orchestra filling the stage, and with two stout and rather elderly gentlemen, in black dress suits and white chokers, standing stock-still at the footlights, and now and then singing the few scattered phrases they had to sing, it was all heard and judged simply as music, and was found wanting. It was felt to be dreary and depressing.

Here are two arts, each of them, when alone, entitled to rank as fine art. Here is a union of the two in which the best in both is killed, and neither can possibly reach its highest development and achievement. Am I to be told that this killing union can claim rank for itself as fine art? I trow not, at this stage in the world's progress. Here it is interesting to note that there have always been some celebrated musicians—these being also always among the noblest—who have gone, perhaps unconsciously, up that logical staircase to the top; some without any stop at step 4, like Bach, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and others who never wrote opera at all, though, like Mendelssohn, they may have thought of it; and others who paused at step 4, and perhaps turned aside for a time before going up, like Beethoven, who wrote only Fidelio, and then went higher. These men all, sooner or later, attained true artistic insight, and placed the truth above the theatre. Wagner never did. He was conscious of the truth, but his love of the theatre would not let him admit it. He saw step 4, and knew that it led upward to a truer art life; but he gloried so in the theatrical that I do not believe he ever thought of mounting that step, though, as we have seen, he struggled hard to get around it. Since that was impossible, he lived and worked below it, under the dominion of the demon of the theatre and of other propensities all his life.

In the occasional periods of decadence that come to the arts of color and of form, efforts are sure to be made at uniting painting and sculpture by coloring statues; and a slight tint of delicate color on some sculpture seems sometimes so beautifully suggestive as to add value to the form, just as a slight hint of dramatic action in the singing of some songs is suggestive as to the spirit of the music, [795] and also awakens the appreciation of the hearer. (Here opens a most tempting side-vista of talk about song, worded music, its powers, its relations, its limitations; that, however, "is another story.") But if the coloring of sculpture goes beyond this and is laid on imitatively, then the sculpture and painting are both degraded by the effort at unnatural union, and the result sinks to the level of waxwork, which has its own place and its own interest in exhibitions like Madame Tussaud's, but which is not fine art. And in a precisely similar way, the union attempted in music-drama, though proved to be a failure as fine art, may and does find a legitimate place and interest of its own in the shapes of operetta, light opera, opera bouffe, musical extravaganza, et id omne genus, in which "everything goes" because nothing is serious.

Some claimants have told me that the music-drama absurdities, crudities, and crimes against nature are to be accepted seriously as conventions (I suppose this includes their beloved leit Motif) which are employed to convey serious and valuable ideas; but this view just as surely brings the music-drama down, and to the lower level of decorative art, which also deals with conventions and unnaturalities, and very successfully too, but which is not fine art.

Others assert that the music-drama of our day is a regeneration of the lyric drama or tragedy of the Greeks; and that because the alliance of their recitations of dramatic poetry with their music was an accepted art form in that glorious period, therefore the marriage of our dramatic acting with our music must be accepted as a justified art form. Certainly this claim has sometimes been presented with a fascinating display of scholarship, and with erudite instances arrayed in seductive graces of thought and language. But as well might they claim that because Greek actors and orators chanted, in order to make themselves heard in those vast open theatres where speech was useless, therefore our actors and orators ought to chant. As well might they insist that we must bring back the masks, and the chorus, and the choric dances. I love scholarship as I do music; but the new wine of modern life, thought, culture, and feeling cannot be held in those old forms, any more than one can bring back that national spirit which enabled a fool who could win a foot-race to lift his name into the national chronology. We do not want that spirit revived, any more than we wish for that old Bowery school of acting, once so popular, which our music-drama acting in some points so much resembles.

Many a time have all these arguments been earnestly placed before music lovers in the effort to show them that serious grand opera and music-drama have no reasonable basis as works of art; and almost as many times have I been met, not by answering arguments, but by simple statements, such as "But I truly think thus," "I enjoy this," "I like that," "I admire the other." Here comes in the old adage de gustibus. It is useless to argue in such cases, but I have sometimes been tempted to say, by way of rejoinder, that the stoners of Stephen truly thought they were doing God service; and by way of reductio ad absurdissimum, that some men still enjoy—chewing tobacco; that some neighborhoods are known to like—molasses on their pork; that some nations are known to admire—three hundred pounds of flesh on the female form. This latter method seems the surest and quickest way of opening such blinded eyes to see that the acknowledgment of perverted thoughts and vitiated tastes never in the least justifies them, and that their existence is no excuse whatever for their persistence against proof and against the truth of nature.

Here at last devotion to truth and to candor compels me to a confession of a little remnant of indwelling sin, perhaps [796] of a little backsliding, since, in spite of all this reason and conviction, I find myself still so much the victim of surviving vitiated tastes and habits as to get a good deal of musical enjoyment from much that has been here condemned,— especially if I shut my eyes to the acting, which, however, I seldom do; never if there is a spectacle, or a tableau, or even a ballet.

But all the same I do firmly believe that serious grand opera or music-drama is an artistic blunder; that it is approaching recognition as such; and that even in this stage of the world's thought about art it is almost an anachronism. Except in the spectacular form, its passing may be prophesied because it is founded on a falsehood; for "Magna est veritas et prevalebit," and when it does, then farewell to serious opera, with all other falsehoods in art.

May we all strive to limit our lovings, and to turn our likings to the true flowers of art, and not allow our affections to fix themselves on any parasitic growths, lest haply we should be found fighting against truth,—which sounds so very much like a sermon that I will close with another pious wish (but alas! without any hope): that by it the theatric devil may be cast out from a few of the claimants, and they be turned from the errors of their ways to a true and reasonable art faith.

William F. Biddle.