Universal Brotherhood – November 1899

RICHARD WAGNER'S PROSE WORKS: VIII (1) — Basil Crump

VOL. — I A COMMUNICATION TO MY FRIENDS.

(continued.)

     I stood
Among them, but not of them, in a shroud
Of thoughts which were not their thoughts.
     — Byron.

Power is the moral law of men who are distinguished above others, and it is mine.
     — Beethoven.

Paris was still Wagner's unwelcome home when, at twenty-nine, a change in his fortunes beckoned him back to Germany. Dresden was preparing Rienzi; Berlin had accepted The Flying Dutchman. It was at this time that studies for Tannhauser and Lohengrin began. For these subjects Wagner went direct, as was his wont, to the original sources — the genuine Folk-poems. He studied the Tannhauserlied and the Sangerkrieg. "Thus," he says, "with one blow a whole new world of poetic stuff was opened out to me; a world of which in my previous search, mostly for ready-made material adapted to the genre of Opera, I had not had the slightest conception." He then describes a historical plot, the Sarazenin, based upon the last events of the Hohen-staufian era, which he had sketched after completing The Flying Dutchman but which quickly gave way before the mythical subject of Tannhauser.

Let us remember here what was said about History and Myth in The Artwork of the Future. The still active struggle between the Intellect and the Intuition going on in Wagner he here again refers to: "In the choice of the Tannhauser-stuff, also, I acted entirely without reflection * * * following absolutely the dictates of instinctive feeling. * * * With the Sarazenin I was on the point of harking back, more or less, to the road of my Rienzi, and again writing a 'historical Grand Opera in five acts;' only the overpowering subject of Tannhauser, grappling my individual nature with far more energetic hold, kept my footsteps firm upon the path which Necessity had bid me strike."

It is now that we light upon a still more remarkable evidence of the strength of Wagner's inner nature. The success of Rienzi brought him the appointment of Conductor of the Court Orchestra at Dresden. He records with unerring self-analysis how the desire for physical comfort, public fame and admiration battled in him with the selfless trend of the true artist. The latter won again, for it saw that its course was incompatible with fame and gain. Thus Wagner leads us up to the point where Tannhauser, as the fruitage of an inner conquest, sprang to life:

"If at last I turned impatiently away, and owed the strength of my repugnance to the independence already developed in my nature, both as artist and as man, so did that double revolt, of man and artist, inevitably take on the form of a yearning for appeasement in a higher, nobler element; an element which, in its contrast to the only pleasures that the material Present spreads in Modern Life and Modern Art, could but appear to me in the guise of a pure, chaste, virginal, unseizable and unapproachable ideal of Love. What, in fine, could the love-yearning, the noblest thing my heart could feel — what other could it be than a longing for release from the Present, for absorption into an element of endless Love, a love denied to earth and reachable through the gates of Death alone? (2) * * * The above is an exact account of the mood in which I was when the unlaid ghost of Tannhauser returned again, and urged me to complete his poem. * * * With this work I penned my death-warrant; before the world of Modern Art I now could hope no more for life. (3) * * * My whole being had been so consumed with ardour for my task that, as I cannot but call to mind, the nearer I approached its completion the more was I haunted by the fancy that a sudden death would stay my hand from finishing it; so that, when at last I wrote its closing chord, I felt as joyful as though I had escaped some mortal danger."

It was during a health trip after these heavy labors that Wagner gave expression to his inherent mirthfulness (Heit-erkeit) in the sketch of The Mastersingers of Nuremberg. It is fortunate for the world that this masterpiece of satirical comedy was not worked out until a much later period of the tone-poet's career, when his marvelous musical style was fully developed and he had leisure and congenial surroundings for its full elaboration.

At this earlier time, however, Wagner describes how the primal force of Mirth itself drove him back into the earnest yearning mood which urged him to the shaping of Lohengrin. For he found the public could not understand real Mirth (Heiterheit: an untranslatable word meaning the opposite to the French Ennui), but only Irony. Hence he felt he could only express himself "in tones of yearning, and finally of revolt, and therefore in a tragic mood." This may be noted by those critics who think that the tragic view of life has "overpowered the genius of Wagner." May not the same thing be said of Christianity?

Lohengrin, by the way, we here find to be "no mere outcome of Christian meditation, but one of man's earliest poetic ideals." Wagner here points out, as he does also in the preface to his Tannhauser poem, that "not one of the most affecting, not one of the most distinctive Christian myths belongs by right of generation to the Christian spirit, such as we commonly understand it; it has inherited them all from the purely human intuitions of earlier times, and merely moulded them to fit its own peculiar tenets." He traces Lohengrin to the Grecian myth of Zeus and Semele, though rightly saying that even this is not its oldest form: "The God loves a mortal woman, and for sake of this love approaches her in human shape; but the mortal learns that she does not know her lover in his true estate, and, urged by Love's own ardour, demands that her spouse shall show himself to physical sense in the full substance of his being. Zeus knows that she can never grasp him, that the unveiling of his god-head must destroy her; himself, he suffers by this knowledge beneath the stern compulsion to fulfill his loved one's dreaded wish; he signs his own death warrant when the fatal splendor of his godlike presence strikes Semele dead."

Wagner doubtless also had in mind the myth of Eros and Psyche, in which the resemblance to Lohengrin is still closer. Certain it is that he grasped the great fact of human evolution embodied in these myths, and so well expressed by Eliphas Levi in these few words: "The angels aspire to become men; for the perfect man, the Man-God, is above even angels." Heaven and earth must kiss each other; Spirit and Matter must blend; and the struggle to attain this union constitutes the Tragedy of the Soul.

It was the feeling of utter loneliness in the face of the modern art-world which caused the story of Lohengrin to appeal so powerfully to Wagner at this time. He tells us that in the performances of the "Dutchman" and "Tannhauser" he found he was speaking in a tongue the public did not understand. They were used to ordinary opera, where it was a case of "singer" first and "actor" nowhere. "I required the Actor in the forefront, and the Singer only as the Actor's aid; lastly, therefore, a public who should join me in this claim. For I was forced to see that not until such claim were met could there be the remotest question of an impression by the story told. * * * Thus I could only look upon myself as a madman who speaks to the wind and expects it to understand him. * * *"

Alas! Alas! That was half a century ago, and can we say that the claim has yet been met? Partly in Germany, perhaps; but go to the Opera-house in London or New York, and what does one hear? Appreciation of the story told and the moral lesson conveyed? Not at all! The air resounds after each act with ecstatic praise of this or that star singer, and the "cakewalk" before the curtain becomes the most significant dramatic event of the evening.

As an illustration of this, the following comments were made in the New York Times last winter: "Here all is hysterical adulation of operatic artists. * * * No one thinks seriously about the creative worker. The composer is relegated to a secondary position. He is merely a provider for the singers."

The description of how Wagner, through stress of these outward circumstances, reached the state of consciousness in which the Knight of the Grail became a living reality to him is described in these remarkable words:

"By the strength of my longing I had mounted to the realms where purity and chastity abide: I felt myself outside the modern world, and mid a sacred, limpid aether which, in the transport of my solitude, filled me with that delicious awe we drink-in upon the summit of the Alps, when, circled with a sea of azure air, we look down upon the lower hills and valleys. Such mountain-peaks the Thinker climbs, and on this height imagines he is 'cleansed' from all that's 'earthly,' the topmost branch upon the tree of man's omnipotence; here at last may he feed full upon himself, and, midst this self-repast, freeze finally beneath the Alpine chill into a monument of ice." Thus Wagner gauged the nature of the purely spiritual and found that even it was only half a state which yearned for its redemption into, or union with, the purely earthly; the "angel" yearning to become the human being. "From these heights," he continues, "my longing glance beheld at last — das Weib: the woman for whom the 'Flying Dutchman' yearned from out the ocean of his misery; the woman who, star-like, showed to 'Tannhauser' the way that led from the hot passion of the Venusberg to Heaven; the woman who now drew Lohengrin from sunny heights to the depths of Earth's warm breast.

"Lohengrin sought the woman who should trust in him * * * who would not call for explanations or defense. * * * Thus yearned he for Woman — for the Human Heart. And thus did he step down from out his loneliness of sterile bliss, when he heard this woman's cry for succor, this heart-cry from Humanity below. But there clings to him the tell-tale halo of his 'heightened' nature * * * doubt and jealousy convince him that he has not been understood, but only worshipped, and force from him the avowal of his divinity, wherewith, undone, he returns into his loneliness. * * *

"The character and situation of this Lohengrin I now recognize, with clearest sureness, as the type of the only absolute tragedy, in fine, of the tragic element of modern life. * * * From out this sternest tragic moment of the Present one path alone can lead: the full reunion of sense and soul. * * *"

It may seem at first sight that here we have a complete reversal of the "Manly" and the "Womanly" as previously pictured by Wagner. But, looking a little deeper, we see it is not so. The Woman is still here the redeemer, for she redeems Lohengrin from the egoism of his absolute spirituality. The natural egoism of the Manly element is equally a one-sided or unbalanced state, whether it be egoism of spirituality, intellectuality or sensuality. As W. Q. Judge so well expresses it: "A balance is needed, and that balance is found in women, or the Woman element." It is through the proper adjustment of this balance that the Human Being is evolved. Thus Wagner describes Elsa as "my desired antithesis to Lohengrin * * * the other half of his being. * * * Elsa is the Unconscious, the Undeliberate, into which Lohengrin's conscious, deliberate being yearns to be redeemed." This view of the Lohengrin drama is of special interest as showing how a myth is capable of more than one interpretation. It also illustrates how far the Tone-Poet's intuition led him in the analysis and portrayal of the most complex phases of human nature.

Wagner composed Lohengrin at a time when every kind of distraction — political troubles, debts, fights with the theatres, opposition of every kind — oppressed him. When it was finished he locked it away in a drawer, and no one knew of its existence until it was unearthed years later by Liszt, who performed it at Weimar. Its creator did not hear it for fourteen years. Yet he went straight ahead with The Ring of the Nibelung and Tristan and Isolde, regardless alike of failure or success, defeat or victory. For him it was no question of writing to earn money or to please the public; he had a certain work to do, and he did it. Such is the true artist.

FOOTNOTES:

1. Translated by W. Ashton Ellis. London: Kegan Paul. (return to text)

2. This mood found complete expression some fifteen years later in "Tristan and Isolde," as can be seen in the following lines from Act II.

He who, loving, beholds Death's Night,
To whom she trusts her secret deep —
For him Day's falsehoods, fame and honor,
Power and gain, so radiantly fair,
Are woven in vain like the sunbeam's dust.
Amid the Day's vain dreams
Only one longing remains,
The yearning for silent Night. (return to text)

3. So long as some seventeen years later "Tannhauser" was hooted off the stage at the Paris Opera House, and the song of the evening- star was described as "a cat-serenade!" (return to text)


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