The Life of
Richard Wagner
Volume One

Ernest Newman
(Alfred A Knopf)

W. J. Turner

"It might truthfully be said, I believe," says Mr. Turner, "that Wagner was the most completely successful man who has ever lived." As for me, I can think of no candidate to run against him, save perhaps Martin Luther. This is not saying, of course, that his life was a bed of roses; far from it indeed. He had a somewhat meagre boyhood, and until he was thirty he dodged around from one bad job to another, and no one save a few nobodies took any interest in his music. Even after "Rienzi," followed soon afterward by that of "Tannhäuser," he had to face an ocean of troubles, including years of exile from his native land. There were times when he was so close to despair that suicide was only around the corner, and at no time until he was at the end of his forties did he ever feel really secure.

But then, of a sudden, all his chickens came home to roost, bearing bays in one claw and gold in the other. A King became his treasurer, and the world fell at his feet. From 1854 onward he was rich, happy and at, ease. Masterworks poured from his studio, and each was received with a kind of enthusiasm approaching religious exaltation. After 1876, when the Bayreuth orgies began, he was not only the undisputed first of living composers, but also a public character of the highest eminence, ranking only after Bismarck at home. Certainly no other musician has ever come within miles of his triumph, and no other artist of any sort, and few other men. When he died in 1883 he was a sort of monstrous combination of Charlie Chaplin, Henry Ford, Hitler, Einstein and Tolstoy, with overtones of both Beelzebub and the Pope.

How this unparalleled Cinderella story came to be enacted is something that the psychologists will be investigating some day, if, when and as psychology ever becomes an actual science. Maybe Mr. Newman will go into it in his later, volumes: in the present one he stops with 1848. It is easy enough to say that Wagner's music conquered the world for him, but that is only begging the question, for one may still ask why it should have had so vast a potency. As a matter of fact, it remains caviare to the general to this day, and even among persons educated in music there are many who do not like it, or like it only in small doses.

Mr. Turner himself is among the former. He follows the recusant Nietzsche, who turned against it after whooping for it for ten years, in holding that there is some "fundamental weakness" in it, and he expresses the belief, plainly supported by an earnest hope, that "we of the Twentieth Century are witnessing its gorgeous fabric crumbling into dust." I doubt seriously that its case is really so parlous, but everyone must see that Wagner had been going downhill of late, and that his rank is now definitely below the three B's. Yet during the thirty years between his meeting with King Ludwig and his death he walked such heights as none of them ever attained. How? Why? Wherefor?

His merits, I believe, were mainly on the technical side. Though he was always, judged by conservatory standards, an amateur, with only the most sketchy training in the elements of his craft, he became in the end the most stupendous musical technician who ever lived. There is in his scores an almost appalling virtuosity. So great, indeed, was his skill that he disdained most of the tricks that other composers resort to. His harmony was colorful and pungent but essentially orthodox, and there is no sign in it of the sensational cacophony that has since become the rage. His melody was almost as undistinguished, and he seems to have picked up from Beethoven the notion that very little of it was enough for an ingenious man. As for his instrumentation, though there was a considerable boldness in it, and it made extraordinarily heavy demands upon the performers, it still fell short of the bizarre inventions of Berlioz, the one composer among his contemporaries whom he seems to have respected.

But with these meagre, and often downright austere materials, he yet managed to achieve astounding effects. Consider, for example, the prelude to "Lohengrin." It sounds banal enough today, and in melody and harmony there was surely nothing very novel about it, even in 1850, but when it was first heard even the retired Hofräte of Weimar must have gathered that something extraordinary was before them --- something that lies in its sheer virtuosity.

It is the work of a man who is the complete master of his materials, and can do things with them, naturally and easily, that are quite impossible to other men. To compare it to the first movement of Beethoven's "Fifth Symphony" is, of course, to flatter it, but nevertheless the two works belong to the same class: both are the products of musicians who were so supremely competent that they could throw all the ordinary devices of their craft overboard, and perform miracles in a sort of vacuum. The leap from Weber to "Lohengrin" was enormous, and yet there was nothing in "Lohengrin" that was not implicit in Weber --- nothing, that is, save the hard, ever-ready, overwhelming brilliance of a man who was as far beyond Weber, technically speaking, as Weber was beyond a rustic Stadtpfeiffer.

This brilliance, of course, carried its own penalties. Wagner, an egoist undiluted, was intensely aware of it, and trusted it to get him round every difficulty. In fact, he trusted it so fully that it led him to disdain all the more homely and less exhilarating devices of a practicing composer --- for example, the laborious polishing of melodies à la Beethoven. Wagner's melodies, only too often, are obvious and ineffective, and sometimes they are almost idiotic; he know that he could erect gorgeous structures upon them, however bad they were to begin with, and so he did not bother to perfect them. This over-confidence, for all his skill, sometimes got him into difficulties, as anyone may discover by sitting through "The Ring." It is magnificent, but there are times when it leaves the hearer cold and bored. The ear longs for simple beauty, for honest, innocent emotion, such as one finds in all of Schubert, and in most of Brahms. The thing sounds more like oratory than like music, and the fact that the orchestra is meanwhile giving a fine show only makes one wish that the so-called singers would shut down altogether and let the fiddlers and horn-players have their way.

This lack may be responsible for the "crumbling" of the Wagnerian edifice that Mr. Turner thinks he observes. The music of the master is being played more than ever before, but not in the opera-house: even in Germany there has been a flight toward the simpler lyricism of Verdi. It may be childish, but it is a relief from the rhetoric of sopranos and tenors who are seldom permitted to sing, even when they can sing, which is surely not always. To be sure, some incomparable moments remain, and the second act of "Tristan and Isolde" suggests itself at once. But even the second act of "Tristan and Isolde" would probably be surer of life if it were a double concerto for violin and cello, as, indeed, it may become some time tomorrow. In the concert hall, Wagner's music is still immensely effective; none other, new or old, can match its brilliance at its high points, which may be insulated there very conveniently and effectively. But in the opera-house it has to carry a heavy burden of puerile folk-lore, summagem patriotism, and bilge-water Christianity, and another and even heavier burden of choppy and gargling singing. No wonder it begins to stagger.

Mr. Turners's conviction that it is doomed altogether would be more impressive if he could rid himself of certain highly dubious ideas --- for example, that "Der Fliegewende Holländer" is "in many ways the best of it." Mr. Newman, in his present volume, does not go into the matter at all; perhaps he will undertake it in his third and last. No man now extent in the world, whether in or out of Germany, is a more learned Wagnerologist; his learning in his chosen field is enormous. Nevertheless, he must begin his three volumes with an unanswered question: was Wagner the son of his mother's husband, the honest police actuary, Carl Friedrich Wagner, or of her lover, the second-rate actor, Ludwig Geyer? He can only reply that some say one thing and some another. Wagner himself apparently vacillated between the two --- apparently it never occurred to him, as it has never occurred to Mr. Newman, that Frau Wagner may have had more than one lover.

Mr. Newman's biography promises to be much more than a mere biography. It is also a history of German music, in its practical aspects, since the first days of the last century. The chapters describing the bad orchestras and worse singers that Wagner had to deal with at Magdeburg, Riga, Königsberg and Dresden are among the most interesting in the first volume. Mr. Newman has unearthed a great deal of unfamiliar matter, and he presents it, as always, very effectively. His analysis of Wagner's character is frank, penetrating and amusing. In the ordinary sense there never lived a more immoral man. If he was not a rascal then there is no record of a rascal in the modern world. But under all his villainies, most of them petty but some of them atrocious, there lay as high and noble a purpose as any man has ever served, and we must look to it for his excuse. If he made his friends its victims, then he was its chief victim himself. No man has ever labored more valiantly for an ideal. Contemplating his ultimate triumph, the world is only too apt to forget what it cost him. Not many men have the resolution to pay what he paid for it, or the intelligence to see that it was worth the paying.

--- H. L. Mencken
The American Mercury


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