FRIDAY evening, May 9, the Wagner Society gave their last concert for the present season at St. James’s Hall in London. The occasion was a peculiarly interesting one, if only from the fact that Dr. Hans v. Biilow led some of the numbers himself, Mr. Edward Dannreuther, the regular conductor of the society, having generously given up the bâton for the second half of the concert. The selections were taken entirely from the works of Richard Wagner, with the single exception of Beethoven’s twenty-five variations and fugue on the theme of the finale of the Eroica Symphony, for piano-forte, played by Dr. v. Billow. How especially these variations came to form part of the programme might be a not unnatural question, unless indeed it was to give the public a chance of hearing the great pianist in one of his pet specialties. The other selections in the programme were the Overture to Der Fliegende Holländer; the Procession Music and Elsa’s Song to the Night Breeze from the second act of Lohengrin, and the introduction to the third act (ball-room music) of the same opera ; Elisabeth’s Prayer to the Virgin, from the third act of Tannhduser, and the Overture to the same ; Introduction and Finale to the third act of Tristan und Isolde ; and the Huldigungs-marsch. Elsa’s song and the prayer from Tannhäutser were sung by Madame Otto-Alvsleben, formerly of the Royal Opera at Dresden.
The object of the society is to create an interest in the works and art-theories of Richard Wagner, and to raise funds to help defray the expenses of the coming festival performance of Der Ring des Nibelun - gen at Bayreuth. That there was no great need of creating in London an interest in Wagner has been abundantly shown by the crowded audiences at each of the present society’s concerts. The persistent, violent denunciation of the composer by the late Mr. Chorley and some other critical writers had already done more than enough towards creating an interest, if nothing more, in Wagner’s works; and those to whom Mr. Chorley’s almost unbounded admiration for Meyerbeer and Gounod was familiar (not to speak of his flattering estimation of Sir Michael Costa’s oratorios) may have had a suspicion that all this wholesale denunciation was, perhaps, after all to be taken as not entirely uncomplimentary to Wagner’s genius. The great difficulty in hearing any of Wagner’s music, that existed for many years in England, acted only as oil to the fire. Add to this the popularity of the Tannhäuser Overture,— almost the only work of the composer with which the English public were at all familiar, — and we have causes enough for a widely extended and lively interest in Wagner and all his doings. The musical success of Der Fliegende Holländer, when performed at her Majesty’s some three years ago, served to give this interest rather a favorable than an unfavorable direction ; and the quickly promulgated warning of the anti-Wagnerites that the “ Dutchman ” could not be considered as a fair example of the composer’s style, and that even the composer himself looked upon the opera as an immature production of callow youth, only added to the desire to know Wagner as he really is. That the “ Dutchman ” was not a financial success was by no means surprising, for the opera is hardly calculated to make its fortune as a mere after-dinner keep-awake, and the most discriminating applause and hisses do not always come from the stalls. Finally, the Nibelungen Festival at Bayreuth having brought all Wagner excitement, either pro or con, wellnigh to the culminating point, the Wagner Society was formed in London, just as similar societies have been formed in more of the principal cities in Europe ; one of its prime objects being, as we have already said, to help in raising funds to meet the expenses of the festival. Another object, undoubtedly, was the furthering the artistic ends of the school of the “Future,” and the practical exemplification, by public performances, of the musical ideas of Richard Wagner. Both of these objects are more praiseworthy. Whatever may be the opinion of many musicians concerning the genius of Richard Wagner, or the validity of his art-theories, there can be little doubt as to the important part the festival performance of Der Ring des Nibelungen will play in the history of musico-dramatic art. Whatever of mere personal vanity may be mixed up or seem to be mixed up in the motives which have led Wagner to bring himself before the world in this unusual manner, however much the Bayreuth Festival may seem to be a mere glorification of the projector’s art-theories, heralded by a cry of Adeste fideles, to the tune of three hundred thousand thalers, it must be borne in mind that one of the projector’s prime objects in these performances is, not to show the world how operas, or musical dramas if you will, should be written, but how they should be performed. It is an attempt to bring before the world certain improvements in musico-dramatic performances, in the mere details of the Thespian art,—which improvement can be applied as well to the performances of Gluck, Mozart, or Weber operas as to those of the projector’s own composition,— an attempt, in fine, to sweep from the operatic stage a host of conventional absurdities, which the world has hitherto sluggishly regarded as inseparable from all musico-dramatic art. Such an attempt should excite the sympathy of all true artlovers. How well the London Wagner Society have succeeded in the financial part of their undertaking we do not know; but to judge from the crowded audiences at their concerts, they cannot have been wholly unsuccessful. As to the society’s other object — the artistic one — of bringing the English public to a better understanding and appreciation of Wagner’s music, much more doubt may be felt. Forourown part, we cannot but think that the means employed were utterly inadequate to the task. To appreciate the æsthetic value of Wagner’s music from hearing the music alone requires the sagacity of an expert. We have already said something to this effect, when noticing Theodore
Thomas’s performances of selections from Wagner operas ; and the more we hear of such performances, the more firmly are we convinced of their inability to give the public an adequate idea of the composer’s works. The temptation for any admirer of Wagner who may have a fine orchestra at his command, to indulge in such partial presentation of his music is necessarily great, almost irresistible ; he probably knows the work, of which he gives the public this imperfect sketch, by heart; not only every note of it, but every line and word of it, has very likely seen it actually performed, and is familiar with every situation, with every dramatic intention. He has identified every musical phrase with some corresponding bit of dramatic action or poetic imagery, and when, afterwards, he hears the music alone, it calls up before his mind’s eye the whole scene in all its original intensity : the music makes him see the drama. How hard, then, for him to realize that the music which, to him, means so much, may mean to others so little ! Nay, that it may mean little to others, just in the exact ratio that it means much to him; for the dramatic quality in the music, its powers of definitely expressing or portraying certain emotions are often exactly in an inverse ratio to its purely musical perfection of form, and the self-dependent vitality of its structural development. Much may, indeed, be done by elaborate descriptions of the dramatic situations of which the music forms a part; and the Wagner Society have evidently spared no pains in making the public as much as possible acquainted with the meaning of the music. Neatly bound little pamphlets, containing an analysis of all the music performed, together with a thematic index of the principal phrases, are distributed among the audience at sixpence apiece. Not wholly worthless as a make-shift in lack of something better, but yet how far from helping the audience to enjoy the music ! To understand Wagner’s music is one thing, but to feel it as a vital and inseparable part of the drama is another; and we imagine that Wagner is the last man in the world to wish to have his compositions presented to the world as a theme for purely philosophical investigation. In short, Wagner’s music, divorced from the drama, is worse than the “ statue without its pedestal” ; it is the vertebrate without a spinal column, a superstructure without a foundation, an effect with no discoverable cause. Even the instrumental introductions to his dramas, his overtures, with the exception of those to Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,1 lose by far the greater part of their significance when separated from the dramas to which they belong.
Such compositions as the Overture to Der Fliegende Holländer, and the Introductions to Tristan und Isolde and the A'/belungen dramas are really nothing more than a preparation for the drama that is to follow, a sort of æsthetic appetizer, as it were, to prepare the mind for the appreciation of the rest. Performed by themselves in the concert-room, they are but a question without an answer, leaving the hearer in a state of most unsatisfied perplexity.
But in spite of the many serious and unavoidable imperfections of such performances, the Wagner Society concert was still most enjoyable, especially to any one who, like the leader, was thoroughly acquainted with the numbers performed.
The society’s orchestra is excellent, and large enough to do full justice to any modern orchestral music. A great want of proper preparation, probably arising from the impossibility of having the requisite number of rehearsals, was in some passages plainly perceptible. Many mistakes in the performance were evidently due to typographical errors in the orchestral parts, which more thorough rehearsing might have discovered and corrected. In addition to this, we cannot but feel that Mr. Dannreuther is not as yet an accomplished orchestral conductor. His command over his orchestral forces was at times very small, and the audience could not feel that positive security in everything going right that is indispensable to the thorough enjoyment of music. The difference between his conducting and that of Dr. Von Bülow was as that between day and night. Although Von Biilow’s acquaintance with the London orchestra must necessarily have been very slight, and the number of rehearsals very limited, his command over the orchestra was as perfect and easy as his command over the keyboard of the piano-forte. To fully appreciate how much is meant by this, one must bear in mind the immense difficulty of conducting Wagner’s later music at all, where the tempo is continually changing, and where the orchestra have often no other indication of a change in tempo than the sudden movement of the conductor’s bâton. The manner in which the extremely difficult and intricate movements from Tristan und Isolde were played was, under the circumstances, a positive triumph. Orchestra and conductor seemed animated by one great impulse, and the glorious Finale left an impression on all who heard it not soon to be effaced. The only thing to be regretted was, that with such an excellent artist as Madame Otto-Alvsleben at hand, the voice part in the Finale should not have been sung. With such an Isolde, nothing, or next to nothing, would have been wanting to the completeness of the performance. As it was, however, the orchestra did so well as to leave little to be desired ; only the presence of Madame Alvsleben at the concert and her actually taking part in the programme made her silence in the most important number rather tantalizing, the more so as her rendering of the all●tted selections from Lohengrin and Tunnhäuser was so fine as to make us want to hear her more. The Introduction was played with the ending added by Wagner for concert performance, and thus had a more satisfying effect than when played in Boston by Theodore Thomas’s orchestra, and the large body of violins gave the strong passages with their rapid, ascending runs with intense effect.
As to Dr. Von Biilow’s piano-forte playing, it is difficult to form any very definite opinion after hearing him only once or twice. We have never heard a player who apparently more completely forgot himself in playing than he, though there is this difference between him and Anton Rubinstein, that v. Bülow never for a moment seems to forget that he is playing to an audience. He makes the impression of standing as a conscious interpreter between the music and his hearers ; the habit he has of looking at his audience in passages of especial beauty, as if to see whether they have fully caught his meaning, makes this the more striking. His playing of Chopin is really wonderful, and to our mind more satisfying than Rubinstein’s, although a comparison between the two men is hardly fair, they presenting but few points of similarity. But Von Bülow’s acknowledged forte is Beethoven, and it is about his playing of the great piano-forte sonatas that we find the greatest difficulty in forming any judgment, if such a word is to be used in talking of a man like Von Eülow. We heard him play two of the later sonatas, and felt of astonishment and delight not a little, but yet not entire satisfaction. What the disturbing element was in his performance we are wholly unable to determine, but a certain something there was that prevented that perfect, spontaneous enjoyment of the music, that unbroken magnetic communication between composer and hearer, that we have felt while listening to some other players. Yet there was not a single point in the whole performance that we would have had changed, the relation of every part to the well-organized whole was perfect. Von Billow’s playing of Liszt’s Venezia e Napoli was positively astounding in brilliancy, strength, and graceful poetic sentiment ; in this style of music, now that Carl Tausig is dead, Von Bülow stands easily pre-eminent and without a rival.
BOUKNABAT, NEAR SMYRNA, June 27, 1873.
How to say anything about music in these latitudes is a question that reminds one forcibly of the German proverb, Wo Nichts ist, da hat der Raiser scin Recht verloren. Since I first saw the Mediterranean, very little that even pretended to be music has struck my ears. At Athens, the bullfrogs of the Illissus might well have claimed the attention of the impartial critic, by their well-scanned rendering of the Aristophanic βρϵκϵκέκϵξ кωάξ кωάξ mo-
notonous recitative, while the screech-owl undoubtedly deserved some praise for the admirable pose de voix and consequent purity of tone he displayed in his flute-like tioop, tioop. A poet with resurrectionist tendencies might have been inspired with a musico-dramatic article by the sight of the Theatre of Dionysius and the private box of TOΥ ΣTPATHΓOΥ KHPHKOΣ, with the general’s name still engraved on the seat. But being neither a poet nor an æsthetic ornithologist, I must content myself with describing what little music I have heard of mere vulgar, vibrating catgut and reeds.
So, leaving the Theatre of Dionysius, and turning towards the Illissus, a little above the site of the Temple of Zeus, I stop before a poster that bears strong resemblance to a play-bill. Calling up to my aid what little Greek there is left in me, and conquering an instinctive tendency to give the principal parts of every verb, and inflect and compare every adjective as I slowly spell them out (for the type is none of the clearest), I become aware of the fact that I am standing before the Oϴéaτpov δ ’Aπbλλwv, at which is to be given at that day and hour the Tρωβаτŵρϵ by BÉρδη. After paying some forgotten, infinitesimal sum at the entrance, I am shown into a very pretty garden, not unlike the German beer-gardens, where some twenty rows of wooden benches are drawn up before a wooden stage that looks much like an overgrown Théátre Guignol from the Champs Elysées. The orchestra, of some seventeen or eighteen musicians, is engaged in tuning vigorously and conscientiously, each man being called up in turn by the conductor to prove by actual fortissimo demonstration that his instrument is at the proper pitch. After considerable delay occasioned by the alto trombone’s arriving late and the ensuing difficulty in collecting together several other members of the orchestra, who had gone in various directions to look after him, the conductor gravely opens his score, puts on a sort of smokingcap, and taps his desk as a signal to begin. All those members of the orchestra whose mouths are not to be taken up by wind instruments fix their cigarettes firmly between their teeth (for every male being in Athens smokes on every possible occasion), and the impatient kickings and knockings of sticks among the long-suffering audience are hushed to respectful silence. So here we are in Athens, with the Temple of Zeus behind us, and Mount Hymettus visibly looming over our right shoulder, Pallas Athene’s owl tioop-ing over our heads, and we preparing to listen to — Verdi’s Trovatore! To any one with never so slight a bent for moralizing, the situation is a pregnant one. The scene is, however, much too gay and unaccustomed to throw one into a moralizing mood, even if the hazardous playing of the orchestra, and the sonorous raps upon his score by which the conductor marks the beginning of every bar did not force the attention to the business of the evening. The performance is by no means unenjoyable, and the singers throw themselves into their parts with wonderful energy. The mise-en-scène is most simple, and reflects great credit upon the imaginative faculty of the Athenian audience. The well-known types of unhappy tenor and soprano, bloodthirsty barytone and majestic bass are recognizable here quite as plainly as on more sumptuously appointed stages. The soprano shows the same self reliance or despair in the cantilena and caballetta, and the same craving for sympathy from her confidant in the tutti interludes, that she is famous for elsewhere. In fact, I find that Italian opera, of the violent and canniballic type, is not more ridiculous when stripped of its stage finery than when dressed up in the most gorgeous London or Parisian manner. Nay, it is rather less so, for in this homely setting the opera has rather the air of a dramatized witch or fairy tale, and is not unenjoyable as such ; whereas on the London and Paris stages, its pretensions to being a real drama are more evident, while the illusion is entirely lost. The truculent individual announced in the play bills as ö Κbμης τῆς Σϵλῆνης,
the “ Companion of the Moon,” and in whom I after some time recognize our old friend, il Conte di Luna, seems here rather like some fabulous ogre or evil-mided magician than the impossible mock-human being I have been accustomed to think him ; and even the usually unaccountable Azucena does not seem here in so open rebellion against the laws of normal being as elsewhere. Neither does the music lose by the change. Its artistic vulgarity and coarseness are lost sight of in these primitive surroundings, and its real fire, impetuosity, and passion are all the more evident; for Verdi by no means lacks inspiration of a very genuine kind, and, however coarse and deformed his modes of expression may be, much of his music comes straight from the heart. Even the Anvil Chorus, dreariest of musical miscarriages, has here something of local coloring about it, almost charming for the time being ; and, taken as a whole, the Trovatore impresses me this evening as something less monstrous and deformed than ever before. The audience, like all Southern audiences, is wildly enthusiastic and apathetically talkative by turns ; now madly applauding a forced high note, now discussing its own private affairs, with perfect unconcern and in tones of voice proportionate to the loudness of the music, stopping every now and then to bestow ironical encouragement of hand-clapping upon some doleful member of the chorus, who has momentarily blossomed out into solo recitative, evidently to the huge delight of everybody upon the stage, including the favored individual himself, who enjoys the joke as much as anybody. Between the acts, the stage is made ready for the impending ballet interlude. After some renewed tuning, the orchestra precipitates itself upon a dance-tune, and the curtain flies up. As the ballet is something intended mainly for the eyes, the audience, with human perverseness, suddenly fall into a death-like silence ; not a whisper is heard. During the opera, they talk as much ai.d as loudly as they please ; during the ballet, they are hushed to perfect stillness. Two very small young women and one very large and not entirely young man make their appearance in the customary state of begauzed and bespangled undress, and go through their mystic evolutions. The dancing is of about the excellence we usually find in the corps de ballet. The large man, however, has certain acrobatic qualities which strike fire from the hearts of the audience ; and a volley of applause, mingled with violent cries of “ Kάτω Kάτω " (anglicé " Down in front "), from the rear benches, is the immediate effect. One of the interludes is a ballet pantomime, which might have rejoiced the soul of Vincent Crummles himself. Never was swain more tortuously tender in his pleadings than the large man, never was fair maiden more delighted by a pickled cabbage than the maiden of his choice, and never did slighted rival seek consolation in terpsichorean torture with more complete success than the second small yourg woman. The audience rise like one man, woman, and child, and literally scream with delight. The ballet music is very pretty, and, as all the orchestra know it by heart, it goes quite well; and in going home after the performance, I hear shrill treble and grumbling bass reminiscences of it from among the scattering crowd, invariably much out of tune.
During my five days’ stay in Athens, the Italian opera was the only available amusement; the required visits to the ruins in the early morning go as a matter of course ; the daytime was too hot for anything but sleep. The second evening I went to a rival operatic establishment over the way from the Apollo, which rejoices in the title of Tò ϴέριννoν ϴέɑτρoν Ėv τᾧ κῆπῳ τ8182;'Iλλισσιῶν-Μoυσῶν. The opera of the evening was Verdi’s Traviata. The “ grove of the Illissian Muses ” is rather larger than the garden of the Apollo, and the theatre itself is better built and more highly finished, but the orchestra is, if possible, even poorer. The Traviata also, as a representation of elegant Parisian life, is hardly calculated to show to advantage with so limited a mise-en-scène. Some of the singers, however, especially the barytone, showed much better vocal training than at the other theatre, and the little prima donna, whose name I have unfortunately forgotten, evinced a dramatic talent I have very rarely seen surpassed. In the dying scene her whole make-up and acting was really superb,— thoroughly artistic and refined, and intensely powerful. The ballet in the interludes was much better than at the Apollo, the large man being replaced by a première of really great ability. One of the most noticeable features of the entertainment was the perpetual shower of little nosegays of wild flowers that was kept up by the audience throughout the performance. The bouquet-throwers did not seem tochose any particular moment in the opera, but threw their flowers at any odd time ; sometimes in the middle of a song, at other times when nobody was apparently doing anything. In the ballet each ballerina had from three to seven and eight of these little bunches of flowers thrown at her feet after every tour. The next evening a mostly ridiculous hut not entirely bad performance of Lucrezia Borgia took place at the same theatre. Lucrezia and Orsini held their own well, and the Duke’s acting was capital, but his Grace had hard work to keep himself up to time in the music, and in his air in the first act, and especially in the famous Guai se ti fugge un moto, he often found himself separated from the orchestra and his fellow-singers by somewhat more than a bar. But the great event of our stay was a performance of Linda di Chamounix at the Apollo. The rôle of the heroine was take by ǹ κúριɑ Bɑλμπûργɑ (Walpurga ?) Мϵλλŵνη, a most fascinating soubrette, with deliciously fresh and sympathetic voice and great powers of espièglerie. To judge from her personal appearance, blond hair, and manner, she must be a German ; no Italian could ever assume such coquettish vivacity without losing much of the real sentiment of the rôle. The air, Oluce di quest' anima, and the duet, A consolarmi affrettisi, were given with immense effect, to which the personal charms of the fair cantatrice no doubt contributed. Bouquets again flew thickly, many of them quite large. Every now and then, at the end of a song, a large bouquet with a live bird about the size of a pigeon attached to it would be thrown upon the stage, and once the lovely singer had to repeat an air with a bird fluttering in each hand. If the birds are edible, this must have been a solid compliment worth having. Mademoiselle Melloni one would think might make a reputation on some more distinguished stage, with that voice and manner of hers. In personal appearance she strongly resembles Madame Christine Nilsson-Rouzaud.
The only really characteristic music I have heard was at a celebration in a small Turkish family the other evening at this little town of Bournabat. The scene was worthy of Rembrandt. Imagine a small, irregularly-shaped court-yard, surrounded by high walls, a sort of iron cage filled with flaring olive-sticks upon the top of a tall pole in one corner, in dangerous proximity to a pile of olive-brush upon which several children are seated, with every appearance of going to be burned at the stake. Innumerable Turks seated in a circle along the walls and standing in the narrow passageway in every variety of national costume, with white-veiled women looking on from the windows. In the sort of arena formed by this motley audience is placed the orchestra, which consists of two big drums beaten with a simple club, and two oboes. The oboes play with surpassing shrillness some curious, florid melody, or melodies (for they play so out of time, and the resonance of the court is so great, that it is impossible to tell whether they are both trying to play the same thing), and the drums keep up a regular rhythmic banging. A man performs a slow-measured dance to these strains, to the admiration of the crowd, who now and then indulge in unearthly yells. When we consider that this has been kept up all day, and will be kept up all night into the bargain, our respect for Turkish lungs and perseverance grows to veneration.
W. F. A.
- We leave the Overture to Rienzi entirely out of the question, as being written upon a wholly different plan from any of the composer’s other works, and, in fact, in no way characteristic of his peculiar genius.↩