On the name "Musikdrama"

By Richard Wagner


Translated by William Ashton Ellis

Richard Wagner (7551 bytes)

The Wagner Library

Edition 1.0

Table of Contents

About this Title


On the name "Musikdrama"
By Richard Wagner
Translated by William Ashton Ellis

Actors and Singers
Richard Wagner's Prose Works
Volume 5
Pages 299-304
Published in 1896

Original Title Information

Über die Benennung "Musikdrama".
Published in 1872
Sämtliche Schriften und Dichtungen : Volume IX
Pages 302-308

Reading Information

This title contains 2103 words.
Estimated reading time between 6 and 11 minutes.

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

On the name “Musikdrama.”

WE often read just now of a “Musikdrama,” also hear of a society in Berlin, for instance, that proposes to help this Music-drama forward—yet without our being able to form an accurate idea of what is meant. I certainly have reason to suppose that this term was invented for sake of honouring my later dramatic works with a distinctive classification; but the less I have felt disposed to accept it, the more have I perceived an inclination in other quarters to adopt the name for a presumably new art-genre, which would appear to have been bound to evolve in answer to the temper and tendences of the day, even without my intervention, and now to lie ready as a cosy nest for everyone to hatch his musical eggs in.

I cannot indulge in the flattering view, that things are so pleasantly situate; and the less, as I don't know how to read the title “Musikdrama.” When we unite two substantives to form one word, with any understanding of the spirit of our language, by the first we always signify in some sort of way the object of the second; so that “Zukunftsmusik,” though invented in derision of me, had its sense as “music for the future.” (01) But “Musikdrama” similarly interpreted as “drama for the object of music” would have no sense at all, were it not point-blank the old familiar libretto, which at anyrate was a drama expressly constructed for music. Yet this certainly is not what we mean: merely our sense of literary propriety has become so blunted through a constant reading of the farrago of our [300] newspaper-writers and other beaux esprits, that we believe we may put any meaning we choose to the nonsensical words they coin, and in the present case we use “Musikdrama” to denote the very opposite of the sense the word implies.

Upon closer inspection, however, we find that the solecism here consists in the now favourite conversion of an adjectival predicate into a substantival prefix: one had begun by saying “musical drama.” Yet it perhaps was not solely that evil habit, that brought about the abbreviation into “Musikdrama,” but also a hazy feeling that no drama could possibly be “musical,” like an instrument or (in rare enough events) a prima donna. A “musical drama,” taken strictly, would be a drama that made music itself, or was good for making music with, or even that understood music, somewhat as our musical reporters. As this would not do, the mental confusion thought better to hide behind a wholly senseless word: for “Musikdrama” was a name which nobody had heard before, and one felt assured that nobody would ever dream of wilfully misconstruing so seriously-combined a word by its analogy with “Musikdosen” [musical snuffbox] and the like.

Now the serious meaning, intended by the term, was probably an actual “drama set to music.” The mental emphasis would therefore fall on the “drama,” which one regarded as differing from the former opera-libretto, and differing in that a dramatic plot was not to be simply trimmed to the needs of traditional operatic music, but the musical structure itself was to be shaped by the requirements characteristic of an actual drama. But if the “drama” was thus the main affair, it surely ought to have been placed before the “music” which it governed, and, somewhat like “Tanzmusik” or “Tafelmusik” [dance, and banquet-music], we then should have had to say “Dramamusik.” Into this absurdity, however, one did not care to fall; twist and turn it as one might, “music” remained the real encumbrance to the naming, though everybody dimly felt that it was the chief concern in spite of all [301] appearances, and the more so when that music was invited to develop and put forth its amplest powers through its association with an actual drama.

The obstacle to devising a name for this artwork was accordingly, in any event, the assumed necessity of indicating that the new whole had been formed by welding two disparate elements, music and drama, together. And certainly the greatest difficulty is to place “music” in a proper position toward “drama,” since it can be brought into no equality therewith, as we have just seen, and must rank as either much more or much less than “drama.” (02) The reason surely lies in the fact that the word “music” denotes an art, originally the whole assemblage of the arts, whilst “drama” strictly denotes a deed of art. In coupling words together it is easy to tell by the intelligibleness of the resulting compound whether we really still understand its constituent parts, taken separately, or merely employ them after a conventional usage. The primary meaning of “drama” is a deed or action: as such, displayed upon the stage, it at first formed but a portion of the Tragedy, i.e. the sacrificial choral chant, but at last invaded it from end to end and thus became the main affair. By its name one now denoted for all ages an action shewn upon the stage, and, to lay stress on this being a performance to look at, the place of assembly was called the “theatron,” the looking-room. Our “Schauspiel” [strictly “look-game” or “show-play”] is therefore a very sensible name for what the Greeks more naïvely still called “drama,” for it still more definitely expresses the characteristic development of an initial part into the ultimate main object. But Music is placed in an utterly false relation to this “show-play,” if she now is to form but a part of that whole; as such she is wholly superfluous and disturbing, and for this reason has at last been quite excluded from [302] the stricter Play. Of a truth she is “the part that once was all,” and even now she feels called to re-assume her ancient dignity, as very mother-womb of Drama. Yet in this high calling she must neither stand before nor behind the Drama: she is no rival, but its mother. She sounds, and what she sounds ye see upon the stage; for that she gathered you together: what she is, ye never can but faintly dream; so she opens your eyes to behold her through the scenic likeness, as a mother tells her children legends shadowing the mysteries of religion.

The stupendous works of their Æschylus the Athenians called not dramas, but left them with the holy name of their descent: “tragedies,” sacrificial chants in celebration of the god inspiring them. Happy they, to have to puzzle out no name for them! They had the most unheard-of artwork, and—left it nameless. But there came the great critics, the redoubtable reporters; abstract ideas were found, and where these ran short came words for word's sake. The good Polonius edifies us with a handsome list of them in “Hamlet.” The Italians capped it with a “Dramma per musica,” which expresses much the same idea, though more grammatically phrased, as our “Musikdrama”; but one manifestly was not satisfied with this expression, and the curious outcome of the changes introduced by vocal virtuosi had to accept a name as nothing-saying as the genre itself. “Opera,” plural of “opus,” this new variety of “works” was dubbed; the Italians made a female of it, the French a male, so that the variety seemed to have turned out generis utriusque. I believe one could find no apter criticism of “Opera,” than to allow this name as legitimate an origin as that of “Tragedy”; in neither case was it a matter of reason (Vernunft), but a deep-set instinct here expressed a thing of nameless nonsense, there a thing of sense indicibly profound.

Now I advise my professional competitors to retain the designation “opera,” on second thought, for their musical works intended for the present theatre: it leaves them where they are, gives them no false colour, lifts them [303] above all rivalry with their librettist, and if they are blest with good ideas for an aria, a duet, or even a drinking-chorus, they will please and give us something worth acknowledging, without having to overtax their strength to spoil their prettiest fancies. In every age there have been not only pantomimists, but cithern-players, flautists, and finally cantores: if some of their tribe were called for once to do a thing beyond their kind and custom, it was only very solitary units, whose unexampled rarity the finger of History underlines across the centuries and tens thereof; but never has a genre arisen thence, a genre in which, once given its proper name, the extra-ordinary lay ready for the common use of every fumbler. As for myself, with the best of will I should scarcely know what name to give the child that smiles from out my works a trifle shyly on a good part of the world we live in. Herr W. H. Riehl, as he somewhere has said, loses sight and hearing at my operas, for with some he hears, with others sees: how shall one name so inaudible, invisible a thing? I should almost have felt disposed to take my stand on its visibility, and abide by the “show-play,” as I would gladly have called my dramas deeds of Music brought to sight (ersichtlich gewordene Thaten der Musik). But that would have been quite an art-philosophical title, fit to grace the catalogue of the future Polonii of our art-struck courts; since one may assume that, after their soldiers' successes, our Princes next will wish the Theatre led onward in a corresponding German sense. Only, in spite of all the “play” I offer, which many declare to touch the monstrous, there really would be far too little to see; as for instance I have been rebuked for not introducing into the second act of “Tristan” a brilliant court-ball, during which the hapless pair of lovers might hide themselves at the proper time in some shrubbery or other, where their discovery would create quite a startling scandal, with all the usual consequences. Instead there passes little more than music in this act, which unfortunately seems to be so very much music that [304] people with the organisation of Herr W. H. Riehl quite lose their hearing through it; the more's the pity, as I give them next to nothing to see.

As folk would not let my poor works even pass for “operas,” mainly because of their great dissimilarity to “Don Juan,” I have had to console myself with handing them to the theatres without any designation of their genre at all; by this device I also think of abiding for just as long as I have to do with our theatres, which rightly recognise no other genre than “Opera,” and, let one give them never so strict a “music-drama,” would make of it an “opera” notwithstanding. To boldly emerge from the whole confusion, I lit, as known, on the thought of a Bühnenfestspiel [stage-festival-play], which I am hoping to bring about at Bayreuth with help from my friends. The name suggested itself through the character of my undertaking; for I knew of Singing-festivals, Gymnastic-fêtes and so forth, and could well imagine a theatre-feast—in which the stage and what takes place upon it, appropriately termed a play, would of course be the chief affair. But if any of the visitors to this Bühnenfestspiel shall chance to preserve a remembrance thereof, to him there may likewise occur a name for that thing I now propose to offer my friends as an unnamed deed of art.



Namely, for a time when one could get it performed without bungling.— R. WAGNER.


“Das Schwierigste hierbei ist jedenfalls, die ‘Musik’ in eine richtige Stellung zum ‘Drama’ zu bringen, da sie, wie wir dieses soeben ersehen mussten, mit diesem in keine ebenbürtige Verbindung zu bringen ist, und uns entweder viel mehr, oder viel weniger als das Drama gelten muss.”



A senseless name, apparently invented in honour of my later works, and now usurped by imitators. Meaning of German compound words; this one a solecism, condensed from equally incorrect “musical drama.” Music an art, Drama a deed. Music the part that once was all; Greek “Tragedy,” Italian “Opera,” and German “Schauspiel.” Let my rivals stick to “opera,” which will confuse no one, nor spoil their prettiest fancies. I should like to call my dramas “deeds of Music brought to sight,” but people say I give them too little to see. Let “Bühnenfestspiel” serve for the nonce, for at Bayreuth the stage will be the main object of the festival (304).