Bayreuth Revisited

By H. E. Krehbiel



Richard Wagner (7551 bytes)

The Wagner Library

Edition 1.0

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Bayreuth Revisited
By H. E. Krehbiel

Scribner's Magazine
Volume 11 Issue 1
Pages 98-104
Published in 1892

Original Page Images at Cornell University Library

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This title contains 4526 words.
Estimated reading time between 13 and 23 minutes.

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

Bayreuth Revisited

By H. E. Krehbiel.

FOR a month last summer Bayreuth, in Bavaria, was overrun by tourists. By simply going to the Wagner Theatre a traveller from the United States was as sure to meet a score of acquaintances from home any day as he was, a few weeks later, at the Louvre, when the current of return travel whirled in the annual Parisian eddy. Between the acts the victims of the opera habit were kept as busy greeting friends in that far-away Franconian town as if the New York or London season were at its height and they seated in box or stall at the Metropolitan Opera House or Covent Garden. The French contingent seemed to come remittently, attracted by "Tristan und Isolde" rather than by "Parsifal;" but to the members of the General Richard Wagner Verein, who had delayed the purchase of tickets until it was too late, the American contingent was a plague of locusts. Bayreuth was not privileged this year to sun itself in the presence of German King or Kaiser, but there were princes and dukes in plenty, and every railway train that crawled grunting down the two sides of the triangle from Schnabelwaid and Weiden carried enough American monarchs to be considered thrice royal. At the Fantasie, one day, I looked up from my wine to see two excabinet ministers of the United States shaking hands, and when I went to Angermann's for my beer in the evening, I found a place at a table around which a publisher, novelist, poet, painter, and critic had gathered. They had forgotten their natural antagonisms and were discussing the ethical problem set by "Parsifal" as earnestly as if it had a more vital bearing on American literature and art than either McKinley or Copyright Bill. An itinerant essayist and peripatetic humorist, of whom I had caught furtive glimpses, were not in the party. The former had probably not recovered from the fatigue caused by his carrying home the keys with which he had been invested by his lodgings keeper on his arrival. Those keys were too large for his pockets; so he carried them in his hands and exhibited them proudly as antiquities dating back to the period of Bayreuth's splendor under the old Margraves. "This, to the door of my lodgings; this to the gates of the town!" As for the humorist, he was "doing" Bayreuth with enough impedimenta in gowns to keep him supernaturally solemn, and at a pace which did not allow his feet to come in contact with the ground.

The visitors who came and went during the month numbered, let me say, about 25,000, of whom 24,500 had tickets for the festival plays in their pockets, bought in advance at the rate of five dollars for each representation. The ticketless five hundred "chanced it," either buying the precious pasteboards from speculative headwaiters at prices ranging from seven dollars and a half to twenty dollars, or waiting for an opportunity to be booked for the gallery above the lamps, for which privilege the management, most uncompromisingly democratic in this particular, exacted five dollars a seat. The sum which these patient pilgrims paid into the exchequer of the Richard Wagner Theatre is reported at between $165,000 and $200,000.

"Tannhäuser" was this year added to the Bayreuth list, being associated [99] with "Parsifal" and "Tristan und Isolde." The old opera was decked out with brave clothes, at a cost, it is said (the statement is calculated to stretch even a Wagnerite's credulity), of $125,000. Felix Mottl and his forces did some extraordinary things with its music—things that were more extraordinary than excellent, indeed—and Madame Wagner disclosed some of her ideas touching the familiar work. For the chief impersonator of the sainted Elizabeth of the play, she brought forward a young woman who was certified to the public as just the age which one should be who would represent the heroine. Just how old the representative of Elizabeth was, I did not take the trouble to learn. It was obvious enough that she was young and inexperienced, and we have Madame Wagner's word for it that she was gifted with the lack of years and experience which Elizabeth had when she became infatuated with the renegade lover of Dame Venus. The care bestowed in searching out Fräulein Wiborg's physical qualifications was calculated to make one forget Wagner's hunt for "Rheingold" giants sixteen years ago. Unhappily, Madame Wagner forgot consistency when she cast the other tragedy. Kurwenal's chief representative had avoirdupois for two squires, and the actor who essayed the part of Tristan lacked at least six inches of the stature essential to belief in the story that he could worst a score of King Mark's knights and contumeliously apply his sword "flatlings," as Sir Thomas Malory says, to that monarch's person.

But in spite of the things which to the common eye seemed to make for the greatest success ever achieved at Bayreuth, the Inner Brotherhood at Angermann's, and the Mahatmas from Leipsic and elsewhere, shook their heads mournfully and said that for Bayreuth, Ragnarök was not far away. Since then they have printed their plaints. And thereby hangs a tale.

As a rule, the writers for the press who attend the festivals at Bayreuth are admirers of the dramas of Richard Wagner and upholders of his artistic principles. If it were not for this fact, the significance of which is obvious in view of the disaffection aroused by the last festival, the world would not hear as much as it does about the latter-day representations in the out-of-the-way town. Fifteen years ago the spectacle presented by the first festival was so unique and extraordinary in the history of music and the drama, that it was only the performance of an obvious and imperative journalistic duty to care for the curiosity and interest which had been excited throughout the cultured world. In 1882 the desire to report upon the last drama created by the poet-composer, was an equally potent incentive to the journalistic fraternity. With the reports upon "The Nibelung's Ring" and "Parsifal," however, the demands of necessity were satisfied, and since then only love for the works of Wagner, or a desire to study phases of artistic development which the festivals disclose, has sent the professional reviewer for the press to Bayreuth. If then a grave doubt touching the present value of the festival enterprise has entered the minds of the German critics, it is worth while to inquire into the cause of such a phenomenon. Such doubts have been expressed. To the casual observer they seem to stand in a paradoxical relationship with their alleged causes. Elements which, at first blush, would seem to make for good, are looked upon as in the highest degree disturbing. Such elements are the financial success of the festivals; the ever-growing popular interest in them, especially among the people of the United States and Great Britain; the influence of Wagner's principles of construction on contemporaneous composition, even in France and Italy. Practically, anti-Wagnerism is only a phrase; it stands for nothing. There is no longer an effective opposition to Wagner. Its last bulwark, the chauvinism of the Parisians, has gone down before "Lohengrin." Criticism of his principles and methods continues to be written; but the sanest and best of it fails to arrest the current of Wagner's popularity, or check his influence among music students. In this we have but a repetition of the spectacle, which is as old as the world, of the impotence of obstructive argument, [100] of all criticism, indeed, in the presence of a vital art-work. Wagner's influence for good in the encouragement of sincerity of purpose and truthfulness of representation is universally conceded; his influence in emancipating the lyric drama from silly conventions, which long stood in the way of naturalness and truth, may be seen in the compositions which come from Vienna, Paris, Milan, London, and St. Petersburg. Think of "Cavalleria Rusticana" in Italy, twenty years ago! The one unsolved question in the case goes to the value of Wagner as a model of style. Here there is room for controversy, and one might go so far as to say that the effect of his example has been, not only to stifle spontaneity and put reflection in its place, but even to put a clog upon all creative activity in the field of the lyric drama, without being a traitor to the Wagnerian cause. The bow of Ulysses is not to be bent by every suitor for the hand of Penelope. It is sometimes hard to find the boundary line between spontaneous invention and the fruit of reflection in Wagner's works; they often overlap each other. In "Tristan und Isolde" the music sounds most spontaneous when he is hewing most closely to the line of his constructive theories. Besides, all creative geniuses are not good models. Bismarck's diplomatic methods, Carlyle's diction, cannot be imitated successfully by men of less original strength. But peers ought not and will not be imitators. Wagner's only worthy successor must be one as original as he; for him the world must wait.

The feeling of unrest, among some of the most aggressive friends of Wagner's art, which has been visible of late was not born in Bayreuth, last summer. It is much older. Nor has the full extent of the disaffection found vent in open utterance and conduct. Many eminent men who were identified closely with the Bayreuth enterprise while Wagner was living, are inactive in the premises now. In one instance, doubly noteworthy because of the reputation of the man and the violence of both manifestations, a most energetic champion was transformed into a recklessly virulent opponent. In 1876, Frederich Nietzsche, formerly Professor of Classical Philology at the University of Basel, considered Wagner not merely the discoverer of a new art, but of art itself and its true relation to human society. He was a philosopher, historian, æsthetician, critic, master of language, "mythologist and mytho-poet." It seemed at least a debatable point in the mind of the enthusiastic professor, whether a visit to Bayreuth was not enough in itself to furnish an affirmative answer to the question whether life was at all worth living. In 1888, the same man doubted whether Wagner was either dramatist or musician. He did not know whether or not the god of his previous idolatry was entitled to be called a German, or even a man (Mensch). He was sure however, that he was "a modern Cagliostro" who had "made music ill," a "master of hypnotic tricks." His music was "endlessness without melody," the "gymnastics of ugliness on the tight-rope of unharmony," his characters a "gallery of invalids." Bayreuth was "grand opera, and not even good grand opera." In this instance, a discrediting personal equation was too obvious to require demonstration, but the violence with which Professor Nietzsche proclaimed his apostasy remained inexplicable, until the news of his mental derangement followed hard on the heels of his book, "Der Fall Wagner." To complete the spectacle, a critic who had been relegated by the Wagnerites to the ranks of their enemies, now came forward as the champion of Wagner against Nietzsche. It was an easy task for Eduard Kulke to show that the book of 1888 was as illogical as the book of 1876.

Some other noteworthy instances have been in a different case. Five years ago Moritz Wirth, an enthusiastic adherent of the Wagnerian cause, said that Bayreuth was doomed. To save what he conceived it to represent, he urged the establishment of five theatres, in as many European cities, for the purpose of giving model representations of Wagner's dramas. Herr Wirth was again at Bayreuth last summer, and at the meeting of the General Richard Wagner Verein, he was the most uncompromising of the critics of the festival [101] management. He is probably engaged now in the preparation of the pamphlet which at the meeting he threatened to publish, the character of which may be guessed from the title: "The Circus at Bayreuth." In a pamphlet written by Dr. Paul Marsop, another eminent disciple of Wagner, it is argued that the Bayreuth festivals are worthless and needless. In the true spirit of pessimism, Dr. Marsop urges that nothing be done to prevent them from hastening on to that Nirvana which, in the philosophy held by Wagner, is the true goal of all things.

These three men illustrate three of the view-points of Bayreuth criticism, the personal and physical, the artistic, and the philosophical. The most thoroughly consistent, perhaps, is the last. The popularity of Wagner's works means nothing to Dr. Marsop, for it is a phenomenon which is paralleled by the popularity of "Der Trompeter von Säkkingen." In this reflection Wagner anticipated him, using the same illustration. Had he lived to see the rise of Mascagni, he would have had even a more striking instance to advance. Marsop is simply a Tolstoi in music—there is nothing to do except to wait for the end of all things. Here, too, he is a true disciple of his master in his latter days, who writing to Friedrich Schön in the last year of his life, used this extraordinary language: "I no longer believe in music, and when I meet it I turn away as a matter of principle. If the prediction of our friend, Count Gobineau, should be fulfilled, Europe be overrun in ten years by Asiatic hordes, and all our civilization and culture be destroyed, I would not twitch an eye; for then I might believe that, before anything else, our present music-making would go by the board."

Herr Wirth's pugnacity is due to the strained relations between the representatives of Wagner, the man, and several of the Richard Wagner societies, especially that at Leipsic, of which Herr Wirth is an influential member. Madame Wagner and Councillor Gross have assumed the artistic and business management of the festivals, and carry them on as a private enterprise. The theatre, built by the gifts of King Ludwig II. of Bavaria and the contributions of the old Society of Patrons, they say, is the personal property of Wagner's heirs; whatever interest the Society may once have had, was extinguished by its failure to rescue Wagner from the financial dilemma in which the festival of 1876 left him. The present General Richard Wagner Verein, which is the successor of the Society of Patrons, organized on a plan proposed by Wagner for the purpose of building the theatre and producing "The Nibelung's Ring," has been informed by Madame Wagner that it has nothing to do with the festivals, which belong now to the public; it lives to disseminate the ideas embodied in the writings of Wagner. The Society has a different view of its mission, derived from Article I. of its constitution, and the fact that it sends thirty-five per centum of all money collected by it to Bayreuth, to be applied to the payment of the expenses of impecunious musicians who wish to attend the festivals. For its own tickets the Society in effect pays three times as much as the tourist, who "does" the festival in the same spirit as he "does" a bull-fight in Spain.

A decadence in the festival may be charged, and its nature inquired into, without going so far as to charge that the mission of Bayreuth has been sunk in the desire to transform it into a money-making institution for the family of Wagner. The festivals have indeed changed in purpose since 1876, but the change was suggested by Wagner. They have degenerated artistically, but this decadence, inevitable as soon as the death of Wagner removed him from the artistic management, has been hastened by the assumption of supreme authority on the part of his widow. The bond between Wagner and the Society which for a decade helped him to execute his vast scheme, was a sentimental one. So far as that bond seemed to imply a privileged relationship of the Society toward his institution, Wagner severed it when he began his preparations for the second festival. Whether by his own fiat he could relieve himself of the great obligation under which he rested, need not be discussed here. He exacted, not only devotion to his principles, but also affection for his person, [102] from those whom he called his friends, and he received both in generous measure. He is still receiving both devotion and affection, though some of those friends think that ingratitude, as well as incompetency, is undermining the fabric which they helped him to build. All this has less bearing on the artistic question involved than the fact that, with the accomplishment in 1876 of the purpose which had animated him for over a quarter of a century, Wagner entered upon a course in which it is scarcely possible to avoid seeing a loss in consistency of conduct, as well as ideality of purpose. The story of that change seems to point the old moral, that suffering is essential to true artistic production. Even Wagner was no exception to the rule that worldly prosperity is subversive of ideality in art.

The festival project is contemporaneous in origin with "The Nibelung's Ring." Strictly speaking, it is a little older, for when he first conceived a performance of his work under artistic conditions like those which prevailed at Bayreuth in 1876, Wagner had only a single drama, "Siegfried's Death," in mind. In a letter written to his friend Uhlig, in September, 1850, he sets down the completion of that work and its performance as the conscious mission of his life. He wanted ten thousand thalers. With this sum he would build a rough theatre at Zurich (where he was then living in exile), furnish it with the necessary scenery and machines, organize a chorus of amateurs, invite orchestral musicians, select his singers, and invite the world to a dramatic festival. All who would show enough interest to come to Zurich should be admitted without money or price, but a special invitation was to issue to the young people of Zurich, the university, and the choral unions. After three performances of "Siegfried's Death" had been given in one week, the theatre was to be torn down, and the score of the drama burnt. "To those who had been pleased with the thing I should then say: 'Now do likewise.' But if they wanted something new from me, I should say: 'You get the money."' For the next few years his mind is full of the plan. His single drama grows into a tetralogy, and with it the scope of his festival. To attain his end of creating what he conceives to be an ideal work and giving it an ideal representation, he longs to sever all connection with the contemporary stage. To "do things by halves" becomes "a martyrdom;" with his new conception, he withdraws "entirely from all connection with our theatre and public of to-day," breaks "decisively and forever with the formal present." His earlier works were now intolerable to his thoughts. He asked nothing from them, save that they should bring him money; the desire of managers to produce them was to him "disgusting;" his consent to yield them up to commonplace performance for gain he called his "prostitution."

That was Wagner's ideal in the day of his adversity, nor did it change after the favor of King Ludwig told him to hope for its realization. Artistic necessity was still to determine everything. The theatres of Germany had degenerated under foreign influences till they could not do justice to a work of strong native originality. The corrupted taste of the ignorant public was tending to the demoralization of the theatres. A festival performance of "The Nibelung's Ring" was therefore a necessity. Such a consummation, however, was possible only with the help of the friends who loved him. He called for the organization of a Society of Patrons, and it came into being. The theatre was built, the first festival given. It left him in debt, and he was disappointed in his expectation that the Imperial Government would establish the theatre firmly by granting it a subvention as a national institution. He abandoned his plan to repeat the festival and surrendered the tetralogy to the theatres which in his opinion could not do justice to it. In a review of the festival he laid stress upon the failure of his plan to prevent the sale of tickets "just as they are at any opera-house," or to give him a public different from the ordinary "opera public" with the usual admixture of the critics, who to him were an abomination. Yet an overwhelming majority of the visitors of 1876 were the friends who had strained every nerve to enable Wagner to perform his miracle.


In 1880 Wagner has other notions in his head. His tetralogy has been sacrificed to the theatres, but he has a theatre of his own and the prestige of having accomplished all that he had dreamed of twenty-five years before and more. He now conceives the plan of a series of festivals at which all of his works are to be performed, and as a first step he forgets his antipathy to the general public. Upon the success of the performances, to be confined for the present to "Parsifal," the procurement of the means for producing gradually all his works is to be left dependent, and a faithful company of patrons is to assume the duty of preserving the correct spirit of the performances for the friends of his art, even after his death. He confessed his obligation to the Society of Patrons for having founded his enterprise, which he felt he could now continue by appealing in the ordinary manner to the public. Two reasons led him to take this step with "Parsifal:" the reservation of the work for Bayreuth would guarantee its profitableness. That was an external reason; but there was also an internal one: "Parsifal" was a work of such unique character that the festivalswould have an educational value: by participating in them, young singers would learn the elements of the new style of lyrico-dramatic representation, and would escape the danger which lay in their precipitation into a field already spoiled by bad habits—the field, for instance, occupied by his older operas, whose manner of representation was subject to the ordinary operatic régime. For himself he was unwilling to attempt the task of preparing model performances of his older works; experience had taught him that the exertion would be useless. To the Society of Patrons he suggested a reorganization which would limit its direct connection with the festival to the provision of means to save the poorer portion of the public from exclusion by the rich, a contingency which he foresaw would result from the adoption of the ordinary showman's methods against which he had railed after the festival of 1876. The organized patrons of his art-work were now to become organized patrons of the public—a Charity Society.

In one respect Madame Wagner has been harshly accused. I am unable to see that she has done aught with the mission of Bayreuth than administer the trust bequeathed to her by her husband. How she has administered it is another question. After the manifestations of last summer I can see only a speedy collapse of the proud edifice; but the seeds of destruction are not all of her sowing; Wagner scattered them broadcast when he set a new purpose for the festivals and—died. All would be different were he still alive. His participation would insure a standard of representation so high that competition with the operatic establishments of the world, in the performance of works open to them all, would benefit rather than injure the festivals. His death threw the directors and performers on tradition as the conservator of his artistic intentions. Tradition is a weak reed in the best of cases, and peculiarly liable to become treacherous when a person of strong individuality, like Madame Wagner, constitutes herself its sole repository and oracle. An early effect was seen in the estrangement of Hans Richter, Wagner's ablest and most zealous coadjutor in the early festivals, because of disagreements with the widow concerning tempi. Another effect was seen last summer in the representations of "Tannhäuser." This opera was always the most beloved of Wagner's older brain-children. Doubtless much of the favoritism with which he regarded it was due to the abuse which it received in the German opera-houses. In its performance he exacted so much that, as late as 1870, he said that he knew of no capable representative of the titular rôle. The performance at Bayreuth last summer was a delight to the eye. There were pretty pictures in plenty. But if pretty pictures make "Tannhäuser," Wagner's despair at ever seeing a correct performance was hypocritical, and his criticisms of the Parisian performance of 1861 dishonest. There are settings of "Tannhäuser" in Dresden and Vienna to-day which compare favorably with the new ones at Bayreuth. In producing the opera last summer, Madame Wagner essayed a task from which her [104] husband shrunk in 1882. She measured her talent with his genius, and the result cannot be summed up more truthfully or sententiously than in the words which came, three years ago, from the embittered and deranged mind of Friedrich Nietzsche: "Tannhäuser" was grand opera, and not even good grand "opera." Not one of the spiritual wants which Wagner deplored, even in the representations superintended by himself, was supplied. A crude and wofully materialistic interpretation was given to the suggestions contained in his brochure "On the Representation of Taunhäuser." The tempi were dragged till one's patience was tried to the extreme verge of endurance; the players on wind instruments in the orchestra vied with the singers on the stage in tearing the musical phrases to tatters, in the belief that thereby they were heeding Wagner's advice to phrase vocally. In a composition written to a great extent in the old-fashioned lyric vein, Madame Wagner compelled her fledglings to declaim in the manner contemplated by Wagner in "Parsifal," which, in her conception, seemed to mean the pursuit of every consonant to the death. Faithful friends of Wagner were amazed and aggrieved. Musicians who had come to learn were disgusted by these things, while the careless tourists from afar were set to wondering what they had come out for to see. For the first time in the history of the festivals, Wagner's friends had to hear comparisons between Bayreuth and the contemned court and municipal theatres of Germany. Such comparisons are a deathblow to the interest represented by the tourists. It is said that the managers of the German opera-houses have threatened to withhold from their singers the privilege of singing at Bayreuth. Such a step would be foolish, because useless. Bayreuth will no longer be a rival to their establishments the moment it becomes one. Which is another paradox like the proof of Bayreuth's decadence in the signs of her prosperity.