Some of Wagner's Heroes and Heroines

By William F. Apthorp



Richard Wagner (7551 bytes)

The Wagner Library

Edition 1.1

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About this Title


Some of Wagner's Heroes and Heroines
By William F. Apthorp

Scribner's Magazine
Volume 5 Issue 3
Pages 331-348
Published in 1889

Original Page Images at Cornell University Library

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This title contains 7685 words.
Estimated reading time between 22 and 38 minutes.

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

Some of Wagner's Heroes and Heroines

By William F. Apthorp.

Alberich in the "Rheingold" (as personated by Hill). WAGNER'S intrinsic poetic gift has been variously rated. His more ardent admirers do not hesitate to call him a great poet, without restriction; others are more moderate in their estimate, setting him down rather as a great librettist—a distinction of some importance. Eduard Hanslick, for one, has said that to regard Wagner's dramas simply as dramatic poems, and apart from the music, would be to pierce them clean through the heart. Certain elements of poetic greatness Wagner unquestionably possessed: he had the true poet's energy; he had a highly and profoundly poetic imagination; his power of drawing character was conspicuous—it passed the point of mere delineation and portraiture, it was genuinely creative. What he most lacked was the power of truly poetic diction. It is not that his language is often inflated and turgid—you can find some pretty tall talk in Shakespeare, and a great deal of it in Schiller; it is not that his tropes and metaphors are often far-fetched, and at times ridden verily to death. The trouble lies deeper. It is that the poetic form of his expression too seldom adds anything to his idea. One feels, too often, that what he says could have been said as well in prose. It is this defect which makes Hanslick's criticism entirely just: his dramas, considered simply as dramatic poems, cannot stand beside the works of the truly great poets. But happily there is no need of considering them simply as dramatic poems. That luminous vividness, that well-nigh limitless scope which Shakespeare, for instance, gave to his expression of a thought, by means of his incomparable force of poetic diction, Wagner imparts through his music. In his operas and music-dramas, the music adds just that transfiguring element which is, for the most part, lacking in his verse and it is not until we hear verse and music together that we can recognize his expression as fully and completely poetic. And as it is with his expression of poetic thought, so is it also with his drawing of human character. His heroes and heroines, as they speak to us from the printed page of the text-book, are, to be sure, alive and convincingly real. They are no mere cloud-phantasms, no merely fantastic puppets, artificially galvanized into a ghastly semblance of vitality. They live and breathe with a Shakespearean intensity of life; we recognize them as made of the same stuff as ourselves; our interest in them is not owing merely to their fortunes and adventures, but to themselves, to their individual humanity and reality. It is a truly personal interest, for we seem to know them as [332] friends or foes, they form part of our ideal circle of acquaintance, we feel with and for them in their joys and sorrows. They have a very real place in our affection or abhorrence. Neither Goethe nor Schiller has created more thoroughly living men and women; Victor Hugo, at his best, could hardly rise to such a pitch of convincing reality. Yet truly alive, human, and individual as we find these heroes and heroines to be in Wagner's poems, we do not recognize them as living that larger, intenser, more heroic and poetic life which befits the creations of a great genius, until we meet them in the exalted musical atmosphere which encompasses them in his scores.

The difference between Wagner's second and third manner as a composer, (1) which has been quite sufficiently pointed out by his commentators, is hardly more marked than that between the attitude he assumed as a dramatic poet in the operas written before 1848, and in the dramas written after that year. To be sure, this difference does not lie quite on the surface, but it is none the less evident to him who takes the trouble to look beneath. The "Holländer," "Tannhäuser," and "Lohengrin" are based quite as much upon legendary material as "Tristan," "Parsifal" or the "Nibelungen," but this material is somewhat differently treated. In the earlier operas, Wagner seems to have been bent upon grasping the ethical contents of the myth or legend he was putting into a dramatic shape, and then condensing it, as it were, into a few strongly marked types of human character. The myth seems to have had ethical meaning and poetic value in his eyes, only in so far as it showed forth certain special psychical traits of the human race, each one raised to its highest potency, and exhibited in unalloyed purity. The full weight of his endeavor was thus thrown upon the creation, or reproduction, of certain idealized types of humanity, each of which should stand as the embodiment, as the complete and living incarnation, of a special psychical characteristic. Thus we recognize Senta (in the Holländer) as the human embodiment of that love which is rather a blind, adoring faith than a passion, and which feeds and thrives upon complete self-abandonment and sacrifice. Elsa (in "Lohengrin") is the embodiment of that other, more jealous love, which although not incapable of self-sacrifice, aims instinctively and irresistibly at fuller and ever fuller possession of its object. Senta cares not a whit whence the Dutchman has come, who he is, or whither he may be going; he is the man she loves, and that is enough for her; from the first moment she sees him, even from the first moment she hears of him, she is wholly his, body and soul. Elsa cannot rest content with loving Lohengrin, nor with his loving her; he must be wholly and completely hers, she must own his whole past and future, she must feel assured that nothing in him, or his life, is hidden from her, and that no one on earth can claim any part of him that is not hers also. Lohengrin is Elsa's counter-part; his love is to the full as exacting as hers.

As Wagner himself said:

Lohengrin sought the woman who believed in him; who should not ask who he was, nor whence he came, but should love him as he was, and because he was what he appeared to her to be. He sought the woman to whom lie should not have to account for himself, to justify himself, but who should unconditionally love him."

Had Lohengrin met Senta, instead of Elsa, there would have been no tragedy. Ortrud is another type; Wagner describes her thus:

Ortrud is the woman that—does not know love. With this, all, and all that is most terrible, is said. Her very being is policy. A politic man is repugnant, but a politic woman is horrible; this horror I had to represent. There is a love in this woman, the love for the past, for extinct generations, the frightful, insane love of ancestral pride, which can reveal itself only as hatred toward all that lives, that really exists. In a man such a love is ludicrous, but in a woman it is terrible, because woman—from her naturally strong need of loving—must love something, and her ancestral pride, her clinging to the past, thus becomes a murderous fanaticism. It is not jealousy [333] of Elsa—on Friedrich's account— that drives Ortrud on, but her whole passion is disclosed solely in the scene in the second act—after Elsa's disappearance from the balcony—where she springs up from the steps of the cathedral, and calls upon her old long-extinct gods. She is a reactionary, caring only for what is old, and therefore antagonistic to all that is new, and this, too, in the most furious sense of the word. She would fain exterminate the world and nature, just to bring her mouldy gods to life again. But this is no whimsical, morbid mood of Ortrud's; this passion masters her with the whole force of a woman's—stunted, undeveloped, objectless—need of loving: and this is why she is terribly sublime.

I might go on to multiply examples of Wagner's earlier heroes and heroines; but this would be needless. They all, or at least all of them who play an important part in the earlier operas, have this family trait in common: they are idealized embodiments of certain special traits of human character. But when we turn to the later music-dramas (always excepting the "Meistersinger") we find ourselves in a quite different atmosphere. The subject-matter is legendary or mythical, as before; but in his treatment of it, Wagner now seems bent upon illustrating not only certain types of human character, but also some general philosophic truths. He becomes distinctly metaphysical, and dives at once to the very roots of things.

In order to understand, as fully as may be, the gradual change which came over Wagner's mode of treating the Myth as a theme for the Lyric Drama, it will be well first to recall some points in the history of the production of his texts to the "Nibelungen" and other subsequent dramas. In a letter to Liszt, dated Albisbrunn, November 20, 1851, Wagner writes as follows:

In the autumn of 1848 I first sketched out the complete Mythos of the Nibelungen in the shape in which it will henceforth remain my own poetic property. (2) My next attempt to adapt one of the principal catastrophes of the grand story to our stage was "Siegfried's Tod" (the Death of Siegfried); after long hesitation I was at length, in the autumn of 1850, on the point of sketching out the music to this drama, when the repeated recognition of the impossibility of having it adequately performed anywhere deterred me from the undertaking. To cure myself of my consequent desperate mood, I wrote the book "Oper und Drama" (Opera and Drama). But last spring you inspired me so with your article on "Lohengrin," that —for the love of you—I quickly and joyfully set myself once more to writing a drama; I wrote to you at the time. But "Siegfried's Death" was, as I well knew, impossible then; I saw that I must first lead up to it with another drama, and so I put into execution a plan I had formed for some time, of making the "Young Siegfried" the subject of a poem. . . . This poem was soon sketched out and completed. As I was about to send it to you, I felt a curious, painful hesitation; it seemed to me as if I could not possibly send it to you so, without further ado; as if I had much to explain to you about it. . . . At last, after quiet consideration, my project has become clear to me in its whole logical sequence. hear me!

This "Young Siegfried," too, is only a fragment, and it cannot make its right and unquestionable impression as a single whole, until it is allotted its necessary place in the complete whole, which place I now give it, together with "Siegfried's Death "—in pursuance of my present plan. In these two dramas an abundance of all-important matter has been left simply to narration or even to the imagination of the listener. All that gives the action and personages in these two dramas their infinitely thrilling and far-reaching significance would have to be absent from the presentation, and be imparted only to the thinking faculty. I have now come to the fullest conviction that a work of art—and, above all things, the drama —can produce its due effect only when the poetic intention, in all its important elements, is communicated immediately and completely to the senses; and I, of all men, cannot sin against the truth I have recognized. I must therefore set forth the whole of my mythos, in its profoundest and widest significance, with the highest degree of artistic clearness, if I am to be completely understood. Nothing must be left to be supplemented by thought or reflection: every listener of unprejudiced human feeling must be able to comprehend the whole through his artistic perceptive organs, because then only will he be able rightly to understand the single incidents. . . . My plan now comprises three dramas: 1. "Die Walküre." 2. "Der junge Siegfried." 3. "Siegfried's Tod." To give everything completely, these three dramas must be preceded by a grand introduction (Vorspiel): "Der Raub des Rheingoldes" (The Rape of the Rhinegold).

Now, all this shows, of itself, little else than that Wagner was bent upon treating a mythical subject with perfect dramatic completeness. This was a not unnatural result of that full development of his theory of art which we find set forth exhaustively in his book, "Oper und Drama," the writing of which fell between the completion of [334] "Lohengrin" and his drawing up the full scheme of the "Nibelungen" tetralogy. Yet, although there is nothing in the passages I have quoted from the Albisbrunn letter to Liszt (nor, indeed, in the whole letter) to point directly to Wagner's intending to draw metaphysics into his artistic scheme, this desire for absolute completeness of dramatic presentation might easily tend that way. It is especially noticeable, for one thing, that the plot of the "Nibelungen" is immensely complex, compared with the utter simplicity of the plots of his earlier operas. In studying out so involved a story, in tracing the personages who take part in the action home to their very origin and genesis, in showing their acts as links in an inexorable chain of causes and effects, and themselves in all their relations to Fate and Free Will, in trying to reveal, in a word, their full significance, not only as moral agents, but also as tools iu the hands of Fate, as actors in the great drama of Time and Eternity, it was unavoidable that he should, sooner or later, look at the story from a metaphysical point of view, as well as from an ethical or emotional one. If, at the time of the Albisbrunn letter (November, 1851) metaphysics had not already crept into his scheme, it was, so to speak, just round the corner, and one step further would bring him face to face with it. This step was destined soon to be taken, and what especially impelled Wagner to take it is not difficult to discover. The following passage in a letter to Liszt (undated, but written certainly within the last three months of 1854) is all-significant:

Besides the—slow—progress of my music, I have now been occupying myself exclusively with a man who—if only in a literary way—has come to me in my solitude like a gift from heaven. It is Arthur Schopenhauer, the greatest philosopher since Kant, whose thoughts—as he expresses it—he has been the first to think out completely to the end. The German professors—very prudently—ignored him for forty years; but he has recently been discovered—to Germany's shame—by an English critic. What charlatans all the Hegels, etc., are, compared with him! His main thought, the final negation of the will to live, is a terribly serious one, but alone redeeming. It naturally did not come to me as new, for no one can think it at all, in whom it has not already lived. But this philoso pher has been the first to awaken it in me with such clearness. When I reflect upon the storms of my heart, upon the frightful spasms with which it has—against my will—clung to the hope of life, yes, when they even now often wax to a hurricane—I have, after all, found only one anodyne which alone would help me to sleep in wakeful nights; it is the heartfelt, fervent yearning after death: complete uncon- sciousness, total nonexistence, the vanishin gof all dreams—the only final redemption!

This was written in the later part of 1854; in a letter from Carolyne von Wittgenstein to Wagner, dated May 7, 1855 (not over six months later), we read the following:

Take a sheet of paper, and write on it these verses, which, as you know, seem to me written in the purest blood of my veins.

Nicht Gut, nicht Gold,
noch göttliche Pracht;
nicht Haus, nicht Hof,
noch herrischer Prunk;
nicht trüber Verträge
trügender Bund,
noch heuchelnder Sitte
hartes Gesetz:
Selig in Lust und Leid
lässt die Liebe nur sein! (3)

Sign them with your name, your great name, seal them in an envelope, put on my address, and send it by post.

These lines are from the last scene in "Götterdämmerung;" so it is quite evident that Wagner had changed "Siegfried's Tod" to "Götterdämmerung" before 1855, that is before he had begun "Tristan," for these lines do not occur in "Siegfried's Tod" at all. The very change in the title of this last drama of the Tetralogy is significant; it shows that Wagner was bentupon establishing a mystical connection between Siegfried's and Brünnhilde's death and the old Ragnarök, or Dusk of the Gods, the Last Judgment, or end of the World, of Northern mythology. And that his object in this was purely metaphysical is. evident enough. The lines from "Götterdämmerung," quoted by Carolyne von Wittgenstein, are immediately preceded in the drama by the following:

Ye race that shall remain in blooming life, mark well what I tell you—When ye have. [335] seen Siegfried and Brünnhilde devoured by the kindling flames; when ye have seen the Rhine's daughters bear the Ring back to the depths: then look through the night toward the North; if then a sacred glow lights np the heavens, so know ye all—that ye have seen the end of Valhalla!—When the race of gods has passed away like a breath, I leave behind me the world, without rulers: I now give to the world the treasure of my most sacred knowledge.

Then follows: "Not possessions, not gold, etc." Now, compare this with the corresponding passage in the original version, "Siegfried's Tod," which runs as follows:

Ye Nibelungs, hear my words! I proclaim the end of your bondage: he who forged the Ring, and bound you active ones shall not receive it back—but let him be free, as ye are! For this gold I give to you, wise sisters of the waters' depths! Let the fire that consumes me cleanse the Ring of the curse: ye shall dissolve it, and keep pure the radiant gold of the Rhine, that was stolen from you, for mishap! Let only One reign: Allfather! Thou lordly one! Rejoice over the freest hero! I lead Siegfried to thee: give him loving greeting to the fastnesses of eternal power.

Here is a contrast indeed! "Siegfried's Tod" ended dramatically: Siegfried and Brünnhilde were to find final rest in Wotan's bosom, and he was to reign eternal; "Götterdämmerung" ends mystically: Wotan, the gods, Valhalla and the old heaven are all to pass away, and Love alone is to remain. Although Wagner afterwards cut out the metaphysical passage, quoted from "Götterdämmerung" by Carolyne von Wittgenstein, when he wrote the music to the last scene, in 1872, because he found he could better express its meaning in music, he did not do so until he had made one more attempt to clothe the idea in verse. The latest version runs:

If I go no more to Valhalla's feasts,know ye whither I go? From the Home of Desire I depart; the Home of Illusion I flee forever; the open gates of ever-renewed being I close behind me: full of knowledge, redeemed from reincarnation, I now go to the most holy Land of Election, where is neither desire nor illusion. Know ye how I have compassed the blessed end of all that is eternal ? The deepest woes of sorrowing Love have opened my eyes: I have seen the world end. (4)

Now, here is metaphysics with a vengeance! and good, specifically Schopenhauerish, Neo-Buddhistic metaphysics, too. And if Wagner thought, at last, that he could best convey his idea by the musical setting and scenic arrangement of this closing scene in "Götterdämmerung," it was by no means because he undervalued its metaphysical significance.

Wagner interrupted his work on the music of the Tetralogy in 1857, at about the middle of the second act of "Siegfried." In the late spring or early summer of that year he began his poem of "Tristan." The first conception of this work dates back somewhat earlier. In the letter to Liszt, about Schopenhauer, Wagner wrote:

But, as I have never in my life enjoyed the true happiness of love, I will erect one more monument to this most beautiful of all dreams, in which, from beginning to end, this love shall fully satisfy itself: I have planned out, in my head, a Tristan and Isolde, the simplest but most full-blooded musical conception; with the "black flag" that floats at the end, I will then cover myself up—to die.

Later on, the postscript to a letter,. dated July 12, 1856, runs:

But "Mazeppa" (5) is frightfully beautiful: I was quite out of breath, when I had only read it through for the first time! I pity, too, the poor horse: Nature and the World are terrible, after all.

At bottom, I feel more like writing poetry than composing, just now: it takes a monstrous obstinacy of perseverance to keep up playing wheelhorse. I have again two wonderful subjects, that I must work out some time or other: Tristan and Isolde (that you know!) but then—the Victory—the holiest, the completest redemption: but about this I cannot tell you. I can, however, interpret it otherwise than V. Hugo, and your music has shown me this interpretation, only not the close—for greatness, fame, and dominion over nations I care not a rap.

Again he writes, dating from "Mornex, near Geneva," July 20, 1856, after urging Liszt to make him a visit:

If you should put me into a right good humor, I will perhaps trot out my "Sieger" (Victors) for you; although the matter will not be without its great difficulties, as I have, to be sure, carried the idea about with me for a good while, but the substance for its incarnation has [336] come to me but just now, as in a flash of lightning; in the highest degree of clearness and distinctness for me, it is true, but not yet so that I can well impart it to others. You ought first to have digested my "Tristan," especially the third act, with its black and its white flag. Then only would the "Sieger" become plainer.

But what nonsense am I talking!

Come! and bring me the Divine Comedy (6) —then we will see how we can come to an understanding about the Divine Tragedy.

"Tristan" formed part of a great scheme, which Wagner did not live fully to carry out. This scheme, which was purely metaphysical in its essence, was to include three separate music dramas—quite unrelated in plot, action, and legendary origin, but mystically connected by a metaphysical thread. These dramas are "Tristan und Isolde," "Parsifal," and the problematical "Die Sie'ger," which Wagner mentions in his letters to Liszt. The first two he completed, as is well known; of the last, little is publicly known, save that he had sketched out the general plan of the work, and was ready to carry it out after the first performances of "Parsifal," in 1882, when ill-health and his death in Venice (February 13, 1883) interposed. He had, however, determined upon changing the title, from "Die Sieger" (The Victors) to "Die Büsser" (The Penitents). It is also known that the work was on an Oriental subject. These last two facts, taken together with what is known of Wagner's philosophical tendencies, are especially significant, and throw all-sufficient light upon the main drift of his unfinished drama. It is indubitable that, in this clover-leaf of music-dramas, Wagner intended to illustrate the three cardinal points of Schopenhauer's philosophy. In them he meant to do for man's metaphysical, spiritual life what Victor Hugo tried to do for man's actual, social life, in three of his novels. The preface to Hugo's "Les Travailleurs de la Mer" runs thus:

Religion, society, nature; such are the three conflicts of man. These three conflicts are, at the same time, his three needs; he must believe, hence the temple; he must create, hence the city; he must live, hence the plough and the ship. But these three solutions contain three wars. The mysterious difficulty of life proceeds from all three. Man has to face his obstacle, under the form of superstition, under the form of prejudice, and under the form of element. A treble anankè (7) weighs upon us: the anankè of dogmas, the anankè of laws, the anankè of things. In Notre Dame de Paris, the author has denounced the first; in les Misérables, he has described the second; in this book he points out the third.

With these three fatalities that encompass man is mingled the interior fatality, the supreme anankè, the human heart.

The three metaphysical points Wagner set himself to illustrate were: first, THE AFFIRMATION OF THE WILL TO LIVE, the essence of what, in Christian nomenclature, is called Sin ("Tristan und Isolde"); next, COMPASSION with the sufferings of others—Altruism—which, according to Schopenhauer, is the basis of Ethics ("Parsifal"); last, THE NEGATION OF THE WILL TO LIVE—Renunciation—which, also according to Schopenhauer, is the essence of Sanctity ("Die Büsser"). Thus in "Tristan," "Parsifal," and "Die Büsser" Wagner set himself to illustrate, separately and in detail, the three great problems in Schopenhauer's philosophy, which he had illustrated, as a whole, if with less completeness and clearness, in the "Nibelungen." And there can be little doubt that, if the mystical ending of the "Ring des Nibelungen "—as it stands in the last scene of "Götterdämmerung"—and the metaphysical character it imparts to the whole Tetralogy, had been foreseen by Wagner when first he wrote the text, he would have worked out his philosophical scheme with somewhat greater clearness, and have made its metaphysical character and meaning more apparent from the beginning, than he actually did. The metaphysical idea of the whole—probably suggested to him by his reading in Schopenhauer in 1854—was unquestionably an after-thought; changing "Siegfried's Tod" to "Götterdämmerung" was the first step toward carrying out this idea. Rewriting the dénoûment was not the only change he made; this mystical end of the Tetralogy had also to be foreshadowed, earlier in the work, as indeed we find it in the scene between Brünnhilde and Waltraute in the first act. (8) What similar changes [337] The Dutchman in "The Flying Dutchman" (Max Staegemann). Wagner may have made in "Der Junge Siegfried" (9) I do not know; the text, in its original shape (if different from its present one), is not published. Still it is highly probable (from internal evidence) that some new mystical and metaphysical elements may have been introduced in the scene between the Wanderer and Erda at the beginning of the third act.

If we find little reference to metaphysics in the texts of "Das Rheingold" or "Die Walküre," it is well nigh impossible to consider these dramas, as component parts of the whole Tetralogy, without recognizing that a certain mystical or metaphysical significance is retroactively imputed to them by the dénoûment of "Götterdänmerung." They are, in fact, quite as integral factors of [338] a coherent metaphysical scheme, as they are of a connected dramatic whole. Hans Sachs in the "Meistersinger" (Eugen Gura).

This philosophic, metaphysical element in Wagner's later music-dramas does not, by any means, affect all the characters that take part in them. The metaphysical burden is, in every case, borne by only a few; the rest, even some of those of prime dramatic importance in the plot, have little directly to do with it. They are to be recognized simply as strongly individualized types of human character, quite in the same way as the various personages in the earlier operas. The, so to speak, metaphysical characters, those in whose being and actions a metaphysical truth is incarnated and illustrated, are Wotan, the Volsungs, Brünnhilde, Tristan, Isolde, Parsifal, Amfortas, and Kundry. Let us turn our attention to, at least, a few of these now. "Tristan und Isolde" has generally, and with justice, been accounted Wagner's greatest metaphysical triumph. Here, if anywhere, Wagner has succeeded in thoroughly incarnating his conception, in clothing it in living flesh and blood. Here he has gained such absolute mastery over his metaphysical idea, [339] has so entirely assimilated it and made it his own, that this idea is to be recognized as an integral vivifying and invigorating factor of his poetic creative power. (10) As the drama progresses, as the two lovers live a larger and larger life, as their seemingly foolish lovers' babble acquires a profounder and ever wider significance and scope, as their joy and sorrow seem to break through the narrow confines of the gardens in Cornwall and Careol, and fill the eternal welkin with shouts or sobbing, as they become, at last, the crowning expression of all the passionate love and all the passionate despair of the whole human race, through all time, their figures just as constantly gain in sharpness of definition and convincingly intense reality. They are truly heroic and tragic; indeed, I iknow of few figures in all drama that are so largely and profoundly tragic as they. Shakespeare's Lear comes near it; but Lear is rather pathetic than tragic in his character and fate; it is Shakespeare's poetry, rather than Lear's own nature, or the circumstances in which he is placed, that raises him to the tragic level. Wagner once said that Lohengrin was "the type of the only really tragic material, the tragic element in modern life; of the same significance in the present as Antigone was—in a different relation, to be sure—in Greek civil life." The tragic element in Lohengrin's situation is that of spontaneous emotion brought face to face with and uncomprehended by the reflective intellect; where he asked for sympathy and love, he was met by critical investigation. But tragic as this situation is, in its essence, how much more profoundly tragic is that of Tristan and Isolde! They are, in a larger way, what Paracelsus was in a smaller way. He thought he had discovered the elixir vitæ, and it proved to be the virus of death. They blindly thought they had found the road to infinite happiness, and with every step they plunged deeper and deeper into infinite misery. They yearned for Nirvana, and tried to reach it by the path that led further and further into Sansara. Here is the greatest tragedy of all, the crowning tragedy of all existence: to think you have discovered a short cut to Heaven, and then Telramund in "Lohengrin" (Otto Schelper). [340] find that it leads straight to Hell and the Pit!

King Mark in "Tristan and Isolde" (Wiegand). If Tristan and Isolde may be taken as the two characters in which Wagner has most completely incarnated a metaphysical truth, and are to be ranked with his most splendid poetic triumphs, there is one character in which we are forced to recognize the incarnation as so incomplete, the outlines of which, are so blurred, and the substance so elusive, that it must rank as his most dismal failure. I mean Wotan in the "Nibelungen." This is the more distressing that one has a suspicion that Wagner meant Wotan to be one of his grandest creations; for the great Northern god is certainly his most ambitious one—the character in which he aimed at most. The fundamental idea in Wotan is the gradual transition from absolute Affirination of the Will to Live to utter Negation and Renunciation—or, as it would be called in specifically Christian phraseology, the transition from the depths of Sin to Sanctity and Salvation. But this idea is only vaguely shadowed forth in Wotan; it is not distinctly and completely embodied; we are not immediately and irresistibly impressed with it, nor with him as its exponent. Hence it comes that his resounding expressions of mental anguish seem disproportionate, and their occasion too [341] trivial; where Tristan in "Tristan and Isolde" (Heinrich Vogl). he should be overwhelmingly tragic, he is often merely tedious. He stands forth as the concrete representation of a whole universe in the travail throes of its own redemption; bnt we somehow find it hard to recognize him as such. He utterly fails to enlist our sympathies, and we find him, for the most part, a good deal of a bore. Now, a bore is just the thing of all others that a dramatic hero should by no means be; if he is not interesting, he is worse than nothing. And I think Wotan's tediousness does not spring merely from the vast amount of already-known narrative that Wagner has put into his mouth; Wotan is tedious, not because he talks much, but because, as a dramatic character, he lacks definition of outline and real vitality. He does not appear like real flesh and blood, but like a mere shadow figure. Only once does he seem to spring into real being, to become thoroughly human, and this is in the third act of "Die Walküre," notably in the great parting scene with Brünnhilde; here he is at once interesting, pathetic, even profoundly tragic.

Another instance of an only partially incarnated me physical abstraction is [342] Parsifal. The essence of this divine "pure fool" is Compassion. Originally the most heedless of creatures, his tender, compassionate nature is first aroused by Gurnemanz's reproaches for his wantonly killing the swan. Of all the mysterious rites of the Sangreal, he comprehends only one thing: that Amfortas suffers; and it is only through his own heroic endeavors to alleviate that torture that he becomes, at length, conscious of the sanctity of his mission. This boundless compassion is his one safeguard against the machinations of Klingsor. Just as he is about to succumb to Kundry's wiles, he remembers Amfortas, and feels the Sinner King's wound burning in his own breast; that is enough; he repulses the siren, his own purity is safe, and the miracle is accomplished. Amfortas's cure has been revealed to him; he has become, as the prophecy foretold, "durch Mitleid WISSEND"—filled with divine knowledge through Parsifal in "Parsifal" (Winkelmann). compassion. Such a character is infinitely beautiful; but I think that the constant sympathy with which we follow Parsifal through the drama comes rather from our recognition of this divine quality in him, of his mission, and of the metaphysical idea he represents (which, in this case, Wagner has made perfectly clear) than from our recognizing him as a vitally and sharply drawn character, with whom we can enter into personal emotional relations. As a dramatic character, Parsifal is quite as vague in outline and elusive in substance as Wotan; but he is sympathetically presented to us, and is hence not tiresome. Then, too, another element comes into play: the familiar, specifically Christian form in which the mysticism in "Parsifal" is clothed. That this form was purely accidental with Wagner, and was taken straight from the old Grail legends, is to me, at least, indubitable; it implies no dogmatic Tendenz whatever. It is no more exclusively, nor necessarily, fitted to reveal the metaphysical gist of "Parsifal" than the specifically Buddhistic form of the metaphysical portions of the Tetralogy, or of "Tristan." But to most of us, whether we have the faith of the charcoal burner, the metaphysical belief of the Buddhist, or the scientific doubt of the sceptic—so long as we are not mere vulgar scoffers—this specifically Christian form is familiar and endeared by many an hallowing association. We have been brought up in an atmosphere of Christianity, and it suits our instinctive feeling of reverence for what we, or those around us, hold sacred that Parsifal [343] Isolde and Brangäne in "Tristan and Isolde" (Mme. Sucher as Isolde). [344] —the incarnation of the mystery—should appear to us in something of a penumbra, as not entirely human and distinct, but as viewed through a certain quasi-religious haze. Thus we easily forgive in Parsifal what we cannot pardon in Wotan: a lack of distinct, vital, human personality. Wotan in the "Walküre" (Franz Betz).

Kundry is decidedly more clearly defined and life-like a figure than Parsifal; and this is the more remarkable, because the idea she embodies is a rather vague one. Her character is the most complex in all Wagner, as the legendary sources from which he drew it are the most varied. In a certain sense, Kundry may be called the opposite of Goethe's Mephistopheles, when he describes himself as "a part of that power which always aims at evil, and always accomplishes good." Kundry tries to do good, but her destiny is ever to work evil. She is the representative of two antagonistic principles in woman: of feminine love, ever devoted, self-sacrificing, and help- ful, and of feminine fascination and seduction, [345] ever baneful, enervating, and fraught with ruin. Whomsoever she tries to help is damned by being drawn under the blighting influence of her charms. This twofold nature of Kundry's, this blending of the Helper and the Destroyer in one person, is indicated allegorically by Wagner, and, it must be admitted, often in a rather vague and shadowy way. But with and in spite of all this, he has made her a real, living, human presence. However perplexing Kundry the allegory may be, Kundry the woman stands bodily before us; and although we may possibly be blind to the double principle she embodies, she is so instinct with real life, emotion, and individuality, she has such quantity of being, that we accept her, at once, unquestioning, and our sympathies fly out to her, unbidden, as to a living and breathing fellow mortal Here is a contrast: Parsifal's metaphysical significance lies on the very surface, and is perfectly clear; Kundry's, albeit not really problematical in the last analysis, is by no means so immediately evident. Parsifal's personality, on the other hand, is rather vague and elusive, while Kundry's is sharply drawn and tangible. Parsifal holds our sympathy fast through the idea he personifies; Kundry, through what she herself is. As a piece of dramatic and poetic workmanship, so to speak, she is the finer triumph of the two. Siegfried in "Siegfried" (Georg Unger).

It remains for me to speak of one more character to which Wagner has attributed a profound and far-reaching metaphysical significance, and which stands at the very summit of the ideal poetic world he has created. Sharper in definition, more thoroughly human, alive, and individual even than Tristan or Isolde, full of eternal, universal significance as Parsifal, she is the culminating example of Wagner's poetic, creative power: Brünnhilde, in the Tetralogy. Metaphysically, Brüunhilde may be called a combination of Parsifal and the presumable hero of the unwritten "Die Büsser"—she is, at once, Compassion and Renunciation, the final expiation of Wotan's guilt. (11)

As a concrete character, Brünnhilde is Woman, the Woman, das Ewigweibliche, in the fullest sense. At the time [346] when Wagner was at work on the text of the "Nibelungen," he wrote to Liszt: "Never has such a tribute been paid to Woman as in this last work of mine!" Indeed, the picture of womanhood Wagner has painted in Brünnhilde is at once as exalted, poetic, and complete as any that I know of. Of course, it is a picture of woman as man sees her—that absolute completeness which would have come from a double and converging point of view was out of the question; but there is nothing mean nor puny in the likeness, every stroke is large, noble, and heroic. Brünnhilde first appears as the virgin-goddess, the Valkyr, in all the joyous pride of her own power, and conscious—or half-conscious—that her power lies in her maidenhood. She is the true ruler over the destinies of men; it is at her nod that heroes are borne aloft to the halls of Valhalla, or are left to lead a less noble life on earth. Sieglinde in the "Walküre" (Josephine Schefzki). Then comes the moment when her heart is touched with compassion; Siegmund is to be chosen for Valhalla, but Siegmund loves Sieglinde; and Brünnhilde, for the first time, feels that this love may have more sacred claims upon her than any com- mand of Wotan's. Wotan, too, loves Siegmund, although he has, against his will, decreed his death; shall Brünnhilde obey her father's order, or shall she secretly work his will? Filial love, fraternal love, and a new-born intuition of still another love, different from these, stand marshalled on one side; on the other stands a categorical imperative. In a moment, the girl becomes a woman, and, womanlike, must do as her heart bids her. She is cast out from Valhalla, her virgin-goddesshood is forfeit; henceforth she has but her womanhood left. In the great scene in "Die Walküre," where Wotan takes leave of Brünnhilde, one beautifully true and delicate touch of Wagner's is especially to be noted: Brünnhilde acquiesces in the punishment [347] of her disobedience, in her exile Siegmund in the "Walküre" (Albert Niemann). from the company of the gods, but her whole nature revolts at the thought of being left defenceless to the approach of man. She still clings, as for dear life, to her maidenhood, that last precious remnant of her divinity. The gods may subdue her, but man shall not; this pride burns unquenched in her bosom. Next comes her meeting with Siegfried, who is to be to her what Siegmund was to Sieglinde; the crisis is at hand—the woman of women and the man of men stand face to face, and are to try conclusions with each other. That love which, in another, first moved her heart to sympathy and compassion, is now kindled in her own breast. But the old, virgin-goddess pride still survives, and will not submit without a struggle. Yet the flame of love burns brighter and warmer; little by little, her eyes are opened; not virginity, but wedlock and maternity are the true crown of womanhood, and the old pride of impregnability gives way to the new glory of self-bestowal. What are Valhalla and her Valkyrship to her now? Would, rather, that she had been heiress to a thousand Valhallas, that she might forego them all for Siegfried!

Nowhere, in all dramatic poetry, have [348] I seen this gradual transition in woman from virginity to muliebrity, from the maiden to the wife, and the acute moral wrench it involves, so vigorously, largely, poetically, and truthfully portrayed as in this Brünnhilde of Wagner's. Brünnhilde in the "Walküre" (Mme. Materna). She has now reached her highest point as woman; the heights of the Brünnhildenstein have witnessed, not her degradation, but her elevation from Valkyrdom to complete womanhood. Then come Siegfried's unwitting treachery and her revenge— and she is to the full as much a woman in her rage and thirst for vengeance, as she was in her maidenly pride and the ardor of her love. At last the catastrophe is reached: she has compassed Siegfried's death, she has probed the mystery of existence to its profoundest depths; the tragic import of life has been revealed to her. Not fruition, but renunciation brings with it blessedness. Once she had renounced her divinity, and won thereby the raptures of Siegfried's love; now, in the name of gods and men, she solemnly renounces alL The gates of Nirvana fly open to welcome her; she is the accepted expiation. The old order can pass away, and the new order begin.



Musically considered, "Die Feen," "Das Liebesverbot," and "Rienzi" belong to Wagner's first period, "Der Holländer" and "Tannhäuser" to his second, the "Nibelungen," "Tristan," "Die Meistersiuger," and "Parsifal" to his third. "Lohengrin" stands, in a sense, on the dividing line between his second and third periods.


This original sketch is probably identical with the one published in Burlingame's "Art Life and Theories of Richard Wagner," p. 242.


"Not possessions, not gold, nor godlike splendor; not house, not home, nor lordly show; not the deceitful bond of dim contracts, nor the hard law of hypocrite custom: blessed in joy and sorrow let Love only be."


This emendation appeared for the first time in Vol. VI. of Wagner's collected Writings and Poems, which was published in 1872. In the duodecimo edition of the whole text of the Tetralogy, published in 1863, there is no mention of it.


Liszt's symphonic poem, written on Victor Hugo's "Mazeppa."


Liszt had just finished his "Dante's symphony.


Greek, αναγκη: force, destiny, the decree of the gods.


The corresponding scene, between Brünnhilde and the Valkyrior, in "Siegfried's Tod" contains no reference to anything of the sort, and is of a quite different character. It ends with "Thanks, Wotan Ruling god!"—for keeping alive the fire that shelters Brünnhilde. The Valkyrior, too, sing: "We journey Southward, to beget victories, to cast the lot for fighting hosts, to fight for heroes, to overthrow heroes, to lead slain victors to Valhalla!" Not a word or hint at the destruction of Valhalla, which Waltraute (in "Götterdämmerung") speaks of as imminent. Her parting words are: "Woe! Woe! Woe to thee, sister! Woe to Valhalla's gods!"


Its present title is simply "Siegfried."


Both text and music of "Tristan und Isolde" were written in 1857-59, that is when Wagner was hetween the ages of forty-four and forty-six, at the very height of his powers.


In a certain high, ideal sense, Wotan, the Volsungs (Siegmund, Sieglinde, Siegfried) and Brünnhilde are really one and the same person; or, perhaps, it were more exact to say that the Volsungs and Brünnhilde represent different successive phases of Wotan's volition. It is only by appreciating the very intimate bond that unites these several characters that the metaphysical scheme of the Tetralogy can, as it seems to me, be fully apprehended.