Was ever work like mine created for no purpose? Am I a miserable egotist, possessed of stupid vanity? It matters not, but of this I feel positive; yes, as positive as that I live, and this is, my "Tristan and Isolde," with which I am now consumed, does not find its equal in the world's library of music. Oh, how I yearn to hear it; I am feverish; I am worn. Perhaps that causes me to be agitated and anxious, but my "Tristan" has been finished now these three years and has not been heard. When I think of this I wonder whether it will be with this as with "Lohengrin," which now is thirteen years old, and is still dead to me. But the clouds seem breaking, they are breaking--I am going to Vienna soon. There they are going to give me a surprise. It is supposed to be kept a secret from me, but a friend has informed me that they are going to bring out "Lohengrin."
--Wagner in a Letter to Praeger
Absurd and silly people make jokes about mothers-in-law, stepmothers and stepfathers--we will none of this. My heart warms to the melancholy Jacques, who dedicated his book to his mother-in-law, "my best friend, who always came when she was needed and never left so long as there was work to do." Richard Wagner's stepfather was his patient, loving and loyal friend.
The father of Wagner died when the child was six months old. The mother, scarcely turned thirty, had a brood of seven, no money and many debts. There is trouble for you--ye silken, perfumed throng, who nibble cheese-straws, test the hyson when it is red, and discuss the heartrending aspects of the servant-girl problem to the lascivious pleasings of a lute!
But the widow Wagner was not cast down to earth--she resolved on keeping her family together, caring for them all as best she could. The suggestion from certain kinsmen that the children should be given out for adoption was quickly vetoed. The fine spirit of the woman won the admiration of a worthy actor, in slightly reduced circumstances, who had lodgings in the house of the widow. This actor, Ludwig Geyer by name, loved the widow and all of the brood, and he proposed that they pool their poverty.
And so before Mrs. Wagner had been a widow a twelvemonth they were married.
In this marriage Geyer seemed to be moved to a degree by the sentiment of friendship for his friend, the deceased husband. Geyer was a man of many virtues--amiable, hopeful, kind. He had the artistic temperament without its faults. To writers of novels, in search of a very choice central character, Ludwig Geyer affords great possibilities. He was as hopeful as Triplett and a deal more versatile. The histrionic art afforded him his income of eleven dollars a week; but painting was his forte--if he only had time to devote to the technique! Yet all the arts being one he had written a play; he also modeled in clay and sang tenor parts as understudy to the great Schudenfeldt. Hope, good-cheer and a devotion to art were the distinguishing features of Mein Herr Geyer.
All this was in the city of Leipzig; but Herr Geyer becoming a member of the Court Theater, the family moved to Dresden, where at this time lived one Weber, a composer, who used to walk by the Geyer home and occasionally stop in for a little rest. At such times one of the children would be sent out with a pitcher, and the great composer and Herr Geyer would in fancy roam the realm of art, and Herr Geyer would impart to Herr Weber valuable ideas that had never been used. The little boy, Richard, used to cherish these visits of Weber, and would sit and watch for hours for the coming of the queer old man in the long gray cloak.
The stork, one fine day, brought Richard a little sister. He was scarce two years older than she. These two sort of grew up together, and were ever the special pets of Herr Geyer, who used to take them to the theater and seat them on a bench in the wings where they could watch him lead the assault in "The Pirate's Revenge."
Richard regarded his stepfather with all the affection that ever a child had for its own parent; and until he was twenty-one was known to the world as Richard Wilhelm Geyer.
The comparison of Ludwig Geyer with Triplett is hardly fair, for Geyer's fine effervescence and hopeful, rainbow-chasing qualities were confined to early life.
As the years passed Geyer settled down to earnest work and achieved a considerable success both as an actor and as a painter. The unselfish quality of the man is shown in that his income was freely used to educate the Wagner children. He was sure that Richard had the germ of literary ability in his mental make-up, and his ambition was that the boy should become a writer. But alas! Geyer did not live long enough to know the true greatness of this child he had fostered and befriended.
Unlike so many musicians Richard was not precocious. He was slow, thoughtful and philosophic; and music did not attract him so much as letters. Incidentally he took lessons in music with his other studies, and his first teacher, Gottlieb Muller, has left on record the statement that the boy was "self-willed and eccentric, and not fluid enough in spirit to succeed in music."
The mother of Wagner seems to have been a woman of marked mentality--not especially musical or poetic, but possessing a fine appreciation of all good things, and best of all, she had commonsense. She very early came to regard Richard as her most promising child, and before he was ten years of age, said to a friend, "Richard will be able to succeed at anything he concentrates his mind upon."
The truth of the remark has often been reiterated. The youth was superb in his mental equipment--strong, capable, independent. Had he turned his attention to any other profession, or any branch of art or science, he could have probed the problem to its depths, and made his mark upon the age in which he lived.
In height Wagner was a little under size, but his deep chest, well-set neck, and large, shapely head gave him a commanding look. In physique he resembled the "big little men" like Columbus, Napoleon, Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton and John Bright--men born to command, with ability to do the thinking for a nation.
It's magnificent to be a great musician, and many musicians are nothing else, but it is better to be a man than a musician. Richard Wagner was a man. Environment forced literature upon his attention: he desired to be a great poet. He wrote essays, stories, quatrains, epics. Chance sent the work of Beethoven within his radius, and he became filled with the melody of the master. Young men of this type, full of the pride of youth, overflowing with energy, search for a something on which to try their steel. Wagner could write poetry, that was sure, and more, he could prepare the score and set his words to music. He fell upon the work like one possessed--and he was. To his amazement the difficulties of music all faded away, and that which before seemed like a hopeless task, now became luminous before the heat of his spirit.
Nothing is difficult when you put your heart in it.
The obstacles to be overcome in setting words to sounds were like a game of chess--a pleasing diversion. In a month he knew as much of the science of music as many men did who had grubbed at the work a lifetime. "The finances! Get your principles right and then 'tis a mere matter of detail, requiring only concentration--I will arrange it," said Napoleon.
Wagner focused on music, yet here seems a good place to say that he never learned either to play the piano or to sing. He had to trust the "details" to others. Yet at twenty he led an orchestra. Soon after he became conductor of the opera at Magdeburg.
In some months more he drifted to Konigsberg, and there acted as conductor at the Royal Theater. In the company of this theater was a young woman by the name of Wilhelmina Planer. Wagner got acquainted with her across the footlights. She was young, comely and all that--they became engaged. Shortly afterwards, one fine moonlight night, in response to her merry challenge, they rang up the "Dom" and were married. They got better acquainted afterward.
* * * * * * *
It is a fact that Wagner's imprudent marriage at the age of twenty-three has been much regretted and oft lamented. "What," say the Impressionable Ones, "Oh, what could he not have accomplished with a proper mate!"
It is very true that Minna Planer had no comprehension of the genius of her husband; that her two feet were always flatly planted on earth, and her head never reached the clouds; and true it is that she was a weary weight to him for the twenty-five years they lived together. Still men grow strong by carrying burdens; and we must remember that Wagner was what he was on account of what he endured and suffered.
Wagner expressed himself in his art, and all great art is simply the honest, spontaneous, individual expression of soul-emotion. Had Wagner's emotions been different he would have produced a totally different sort of art. That is to say, if Wagner in his youth had loved and wedded a woman who was capable of giving his soul peace, we would have had no Wagner; we would have had some one else, and therefore a totally different expression, or no expression at all. Probably the man would have been quite content to be a village Kapellmeister. His life being reasonably complete, his spirit would not have roamed the Universe crying for rest. The ideals of his wife were so low and commonplace that she influenced his career by antithesis. His soul was ahungered for the bread of life, and stones were given him in way of the dull, the ugly, the affected, the smug, the ridiculous. Wagner's life was a revolt from the ossified commonplace, a struggle for right adjustment--a heart tragedy. And all this reaching out of the spirit, all the prayers, hopes, fears and travail of his soul, are told and told again in his poetry and in his music.
All art is autobiography.
Minna Planer was amiable and kind, but the frantic effort she made at times, in public, to be profound or chic must have touched the great man on the raw. He sought, however, to protect her, and at public gatherings used to keep very near to her in order that she should not fall into the clutches of some sharp-witted enemy and be lead on into unseemliness of speech. The scoffs of critics and the ready-made gibes and jeers of the mob were to her gospel truth; her husband's genius was a vagary to be stoutly endured. So for many years she was inclined to pose as one to be pitied--and so she was. That she suffered at times can not be denied, yet God is good, and so has put short limit on the sensibilities of the vain.
But Wagner would never tolerate an unkind word spoken of Minna in his presence, and once rebuked a friend who sought to console him by saying, "Never mind, Minna lives her life the best she can, and expresses the thoughts that come to her--what more do you and I do?"
And in his later years, when calm philosophy was his, he realized that Minna Planer had supplied him a stinging discontent, a continued unrest that formed the sounding-board on which his sorrow and his hope and his faith in the Ideal were echoed forth.
Love is the recurring motif in all of Wagner's plays. A man and a woman, joined by God, but separated by unkind condition, play their parts, and our hearts are made by the Master to vibrate in sympathy with the central idea. Only a broken-hearted man could have conjured forth from his soul such couples as these: Senta and the Dutchman, Elizabeth and Tannhauser, Elsa and Lohengrin, Tristan and Isolde, Siegmund and Sieglinde, Walter and Eva, Siegfried and Brunhilde.
Wagner's unhappy marriage forms the keynote of his art. Every opera he wrote depicts a soul in bonds. From "The Flying Dutchman" to "Parsifal" we are shown the struggle of a strong man with cruel Fate; a reaching out for liberty and light; the halting between duty and inclination; and the endless search for a woman who shall give deliverance through her abiding love and faith.
* * * * * * *
All art seems controlled by fad and fashion. No fashion endures, else 'twere not fashion, and in its character the fad is essentially transient. Still we need not rail at fashion; it is a form of periodicity, and periodicity exists through all Nature. There are day and night, winter and summer, equinox and solstice, work and rest, years of plenty and years of famine. Comets return, and all fashions come back. Keep your old raiment long enough and it will be in style.
All things move in an orbit, even theories and religions. Certain forms of fanaticism come with the centuries--every new heresy is old. All extremes cure themselves, for when matters get pushed to a point where the balance of things is in danger of being disturbed, a Reformer appears and utters his stentorian protest. This man is always ridiculed, hooted, reviled, mobbed, and very happy indeed is his fate if he is hanged, crucified or made to drink of the deadly hemlock; for then his place in the affection of men is made secure, sealed with blood, and we proclaim him liberator or savior. The Piazza Signora is sacred soil because there it was that Savonarola died; John Brown's body lies a-moldering in the grave, but his soul goes marching on; J. Wilkes Booth linked his own name with that of Judas Iscariot and made his victim known to the Ages as the Emancipator of Men.
These strong men, sent at the pivotal points in history, are born out of a sore need--they are sent from God. Yet strong men always exist, but it is the needs of the hour that develop and bring them to our attention. Not always have the Reformers been fortunate in their takings off--many have lingered out lengthening, living deaths in walled-up cells. The Bastile, Chillon, London Tower, that prison joined to a palace by the Bridge of Sighs, and all other such plague-spots of blood are haunted by the ghosts of infamy. Before the memory of all those who wrote immortal books behind grated bars we stand uncovered.
Exile has been the lot of many who tried to live for sanity, justice and truth when mad riot raged. Dante, Victor Hugo, Prince Kropotkin and Wagner are types to which we turn. Then there is an attenuated form of persecution known as ostracism, which consists in being exiled at home, but of this it is not worth while to speak.
Wagner was a strong, honest man who simply desired to express his better self. The elements of caution and expediency were singularly lacking in his character. These qualities of independence and self-reliance brought him into speedy collision with those who stood in the front rank of the artistic world of his day, and he became a marked man. His offense was that he expressed his honest self.
In Eighteen Hundred Forty-three, when he appeared upon the scene in Dresden as Hofkapellmeister of the Royal Theater, matters musical were just about where the stage now is in America. In this Year of Grace, Nineteen Hundred One, the great Shakespeare has been elbowed from the stage by the author of "A Texas Steer"; and where once the haughty Richard trod the boards, the skirt-dance assumes the center of the stage and looms lurid like the spirit of the Brocken. Recently a vaudeville "turn" of Hamlet has been presented, where the gravediggers do their gruesome tasks to ragtime; and on every hand we behold the Lyceum giving way to the McClure Continuous, Lim.
Wagner abhorred the mere tune for the sake of tune. "You can not produce art and leave man out," he said. All art must suggest something. Mere verbal description is not literature: it is only words, words, words; a picture must be charged with soul, otherwise a photograph would outrank "The Angelus." Music must be more than jingling tunes and mincing sounds. And thus we find Wagner at thirty years of age boldly putting forth "The Flying Dutchman," with music not written for the text, nor text written for the music, but words and music created at the same time--the melody mirroring forth the soul of the words.
In this play Wagner for the first time sacrificed every precedent of musical construction and all thought of symmetrical form, in order to make the music tell the tale. "The Flying Dutchman" is to opera what Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" is to poetry, or Millet's "Sower" is to painting. There is strength, heroic strength, in each of these masterpieces I have named, but the "Dutchman" needs a listener, "Leaves of Grass" requires a reader who has experienced, and the "Sower" demands one who has eyes to see, before its lesson of love and patience and the pathetic truth of endless toil are bodied forth.
Whitman's book was well looked after by the local Antonius Ash-Box inspector of the day, its publication forbidden, and the author incidentally deprived of his clerkship at Washington; Millet did service as the butt for jokes of artistic Paris, and was dubbed "The Wild Man"; Wagner's play was hooted off the stage.
* * * * * * *
Every man is but a type representing his class. Of course the class may be small and one man may even be its sole living representative: but Wagner had his double in William Morris. These men were brothers in temperament, physique, habit of thought and occupation.
Wagner wrote largely on the subjects of Art and Sociology, and made his appeal for the toiler in that the man should be allowed to share the joys of Art by producing it. His argument is identical with that of William Morris; and yet the essays of Wagner were not translated into English until after Morris had written his "Dream of John Ball," and Morris did not read German.
Both men hark back to a time when Man and Nature were on friendly terms; when the thought, best exemplified by the early Greeks, of the sacredness of the human body was recognized; when the old medieval feeling of helpful brotherhood yet lingered; and the restless misery of competition and all the train of woe, squalor and ugliness that "civilization" has brought were unknown.
Wagner's music is made up of the sounds of Nature conventionalized. You hear the sighing of the breeze, the song of the birds, the cries of animals, the rush of the storm. Wagner's essay, entitled, "Art and Revolution," is the twin to the lecture, "Art and Socialism," by Morris; and in the "Art-Work of the Future," Wagner works out at length the favorite recurring theme of Morris: work is for the worker, and art is the expression of man's joy in his work.
In Eighteen Hundred Forty-four, when Morris was ten years of age, Wagner wrote:
"I compose for myself; it is just a question between me and my Maker. I grow as I exercise my faculties, and expression is a necessary form of spiritual exercise. How shall I live? Express what I think or feel, or what you feel?
"No, I must be honest and sincere. I must, for the need of myself, live my own life, for work is for the worker, at the last. Each man must please himself, and Nature has placed her approbation on this by supplying the greatest pleasure men ever know as a reward for doing good work. I hate this fast-growing tendency to chain men to machines in big factories and deprive them of all joy in their efforts--the plan will lead to cheap men and cheap products. I set my face against it and plead for the dignity and health of the open air, and the olden time."
This sort of talk led straight to Wagner's arrest in the streets of Dresden on the charge of inciting a riot; and it was the identical line of argument that caused the arrest of Morris in Trafalgar Square, London, when he was taken struggling to the station-house.
Wagner was exiled and Morris merely "cautioned," placed under police surveillance and ostracized. The difference in time explains the difference in punishment. A century earlier and both men would have forfeited their heads.
In all of Wagner's operas the scene is laid at a time when the festivals, games and religious ceremonies were touched with the thought of beauty. Men were strong, plain, blunt and honest. Affectation, finesse, pretense and veneer were unknown. Art had not resolved itself into the possession of a class of idlers and dilettantes who hired long-haired men and fussy girls in Greek gowns to make pretty things for them. All worked with their hands, through need, and when they made things they worked for utility and beauty. They gave things a beautiful form, because men and women worked together, and for each other. And wherever men and women work together we find Beauty. Men who live only with other men are never beautiful in their work, or speech, or lives, neither are women. But at this early time life was largely communal, natural, and Art was the possession of all, because all had a share in its production. Observe the setting of any Wagner opera where Walter Damrosch has his way and get that flavor of bold, free, wholesome, honest Beauty. And yet no stage was ever large enough to quite satisfy Wagner, and all the properties, if he had had his way, would have been works of Art, thought out in detail and materialized for the purpose by human hands.
Now turn to "The Story of the Glittering Plain," "Gertha's Lovers," "News From Nowhere" or "The Hollow Land," by William Morris, and note the same stage-setting, the same majesty, dignity and sense of power. Observe the great underlying sense of joy in life, the gladness of mere existence. A serenity and peace pervades the work of both of these men; they are mystic, fond of folklore and legend; they live in the open, are deeply religious without knowing it, have nothing they wish to conceal, and are one with Nature in all her many moods and manifestations--sons of God!
* * * * * * *
In the history of letters there is a writer by the name of Green, who exists simply because he reviled a contemporary poet by the name of Shakespeare. Green's name is embalmed in immortal amber with that of Richard Quiney, who wrote a letter to the author of "The Tempest" begging the favor of a loan of forty pounds.
There are several ways of winning fame. Joseph Jefferson has written in classic style of Count Johannes and James Owen O'Connor, who played "Hamlet" to large and enthusiastic audiences, behind a wire screen; then there was John Doe, who fired the Alexandrian Library, and Richard Roe, the man who struck Billy Patterson. Besides these we have the Reverend Obadiah Simmons of Nashville, Tennessee, who, in Eighteen Hundred Sixty, produced a monograph proving that negroes had no souls, the value of which work, to be sure, is slightly vitiated when we remember that the same arguments were used, in Seventeen Hundred One, by Bishop Volberg, in showing that women were in a like predicament.
And now Henry T. Finck has compiled a list of more than one hundred names of musical critics who placed themselves on record in opposition to Richard Wagner and his music. Only such men as proved themselves past masters in density and adepts in abuse are given a place in this Academy of Immortals.
No writer, musician or artist who ever lived brought down on his head an equal amount of contumely and disparagement as did Richard Wagner. Turner, Millet and Rodin have been let off lightly compared with the fate that was Wagner's; and even the shrill outcry that was raised in Boston at sight of MacMonnies' Bacchante was a passing zephyr to the storm that broke over the head of Wagner in Paris, when, after one hundred sixteen rehearsals, "Tannhauser" was produced.
The derisive laughter, catcalls, shouts, hisses and uproar that greeted the play were only the shadow of the criticisms that filled the daily press, done by writers who mistook their own anserine limitations for inanity on the part of the composer. They scorned the melody they could not appreciate, like men who deny the sounds they can not hear; or those who might revile the colors they could not distinguish. And worse than all this, the aristocratic hoodlums refused to allow any one else to enjoy, and would not tolerate the thought that that which to them was "jumbling discord, seven times confounded" might be a succession of harmonies to one whose perceptions were more fully developed.
Wagner himself only escaped personal violence by discreetly keeping out of sight. The result of the Paris experiment was that the poor man lost nearly a year's time, all of his modest savings were gone, creditors dogged his footsteps, and the unanimous tone of the critics, for a time, almost made him doubt his own sanity. What if the critics were really right?
And this, we must remember, was in Eighteen Hundred Sixty-one, when Wagner was forty-eight years of age.
That even a strong man should doubt his value when he finds a world of learned men arrayed against him is not strange. Every man who works in a creative way craves approbation. Some one must approve. After the first fever of ecstasy there comes the reaction, when the pulse beats slow and the mind is filled with doubt and melancholy. This desire for approval is not a weakness--it seems to stand as a natural need of every human soul. When the great Peg Woffington played, you remember, she begged Sir Henry Vane to stand in the wings so as to meet her when she came off the stage, take her in his arms just for an instant, kiss her on the forehead and say, "Well done!"
Shallow people may smile at such a scene as this, but those who have delved in the realm of creative art know this fervent need of a word of encouragement from One who Understands.
The one man who held the mirror up to Nature for Wagner was Franz Liszt. Were it not for the steadfast love and faith of this noble soul, Wagner must surely have fallen by the way. Wagner worked first to please himself, and having pleased himself he knew it would please Franz Liszt, and having pleased Franz Liszt he knew it would please all those as great, noble, excellent and pure in heart as Franz Liszt. To speak to an audience made up of such as Liszt, and have them approve, was the sublime dream and hope of Richard Wagner.
Some of the enemies of Wagner, having placed themselves on record against the man, have sought to make out that Wagner and Liszt often quarreled, but this canard has now all been exploded. Such another friendship between two strong men I can not recall. That of Goethe and Schiller seems a mere acquaintanceship, and the friendship of Carlyle and Emerson a literary correspondence with an eye on posterity, as compared with this bond of brotherhood that existed between Wagner and Liszt.
During the ten years of Wagner's exile in Switzerland he received barely enough from his work in music to support him, and several times he would have been in sore need were it not for the "loans" made him by Liszt. He did not even own a piano, and never heard his scores played, except when Liszt made a semi-yearly visit. At such times a piano would be borrowed, and the friends would revel in the new scores, and occasionally talk the entire night away.
When Liszt would go home after such visits, Wagner would go off on long tramps, climbing the mountains, lonely and bereft, sure that the mood for high and splendid work would never come again. Then some morning the mist would roll away, the old spirit would come back, and he would apply himself with all the intense fire and burning imagination of which his spirit was capable.
When the score was done it was sent straight to Liszt, before the ink was dry.
The "Lohengrin" manuscript was sent along in parts, and Liszt was the first man to interpret it. On one such occasion we find Liszt writing: "Your 'Walkure' has arrived--and gladly would I sing to you with a thousand voices your 'Lohengrin Chorus'--a wonder, a wonder! Dearest Richard, you are surely a divine man, and my highest joy is to follow you in your flight and be one with you in spirit!"
On this occasion, when the "Lohengrin Chorus" first found voice, the only auditor was the Princess von Wittgenstein, who added a postscript to Liszt's letter, thus: "I wept bitter tears over the scene between Siegmund and Sieglinde! This is beautiful--like heaven, like earth--like eternity!" Was ever a woman so blest in privilege--to be the near, dear friend of Franz Liszt and hear him play the music of Richard Wagner from the manuscript, and then add her precious word of appreciation for the work of the weary exile! The quotation given is only a sample of the messages that Liszt was constantly sending to his exiled friend. And we must understand that at this time Liszt had a world-wide reputation as a composer himself, and was the foremost pianist of his time. And Wagner--Wagner was only an obscure dreamer, with a penchant for erratic music!
The "Lohengrin" was produced at Weimar under the leadership of Liszt, but even his magic name could not make the people believe--the critics had their way and wrote it down.
Yet Liszt lived to see the name of Wagner proclaimed as the greatest contemporary name in music; and he was too great and good to allow jealousy to enter his great soul. Yet he knew that as a composer his own work was quite lost in the shadow of the reputation of his friend. At a banquet given in Munich in Eighteen Hundred Eighty-one in honor of Wagner, Liszt said, "I ask no remembrance for myself or my work beyond this: Franz Liszt was the loved and loving friend of Wagner, and played his scores with tear-filled eyes; and knew the Heaven-born quality of the man when all the world seemed filled with doubt."
* * * * * * *
Among men of worth, no man of his time was more thoroughly hated, detested and denounced than Richard Wagner. Before he became an anarch of art, he was singled out for distinction by royalty and a price was placed upon his head. He escaped, and for ten years lived in exile, his sole offense being that he lifted up his voice for liberty.
That is the only thing worth lifting up your voice, or pen, or sword for. The men who live in history are the men who have made freedom's fight--there is no other. These men fought for us, and some of them died for us--Socrates, Jesus, Savonarola, John Brown, Lincoln--saviors all--they died that we might live.
Instead of dying for us, Wagner lived for us, but he had to run away in order to do it. There, in exile--in Switzerland--he wrote many of his most sublime scores, and these he did not hear played till long years after, for although the man could compose, he could not execute. The music was in his brain and he could not get it out at his finger-tips--for him the piano was mute. So now and again Franz Liszt would come and play for him the scores he had never heard, and tears of joy would flow down his fine face; then he would stand on his head, walk on his hands and shout for pure gladness.
All this, I will admit, was not very dignified.
Ostracism, exile, hatred, and stupid misunderstanding did not suppress Wagner. In his work he is often severe, stern, tragic, but the man himself bubbled with good-cheer. He made foolish puns, and routed the serious ones of earth by turning their arguments into airy jests. If in those early days he had been caught and carried in the death-tumbrel to the Place of the Skull, he would have remarked with Mercutio, "This is a grave subject."
Finally, public opinion relaxed, and Wagner found his way back to Germany. He settled at the town of Bayreuth, and very slowly it dawned upon the thinking few that at Bayreuth there lived a Man.
Among the very first who made this discovery was one Friedrich Nietzsche, an idealist, a dreamer, a thinker, and a revolutionary. Nietzsche was an honest man of marked intellect, whose nerves were worn to the quick by the pretense of the times--the mad race for place and power--the hypocrisy and phariseeism that he saw sitting in high places. He longed to live a life of genuineness--to be, not to seem. And so he had wandered here and there, footsore, weary, searching for peace, scourged forever by the world's displeasure.
The trouble was, of course, that Nietzsche didn't have anything the world wanted. In the time of the Crusaders, the tired children would ask at night-time, when the tents were pitched, "Is this Jerusalem?"
And the only answer was: "Jerusalem is not yet! Jerusalem is not yet!"
In Wagner, Nietzsche felt that at last he had found the Moses who would lead the people out of captivity, into the Promised Land of Celestial Art.
Nietzsche came and heard the Wagnerian music and was caught as flotsam in its whirling eddies. He read everything that Wagner had written, and having come within the gracious sunshine of the great man's presence, he rushed to his garret and in white heat wrote the most appreciative criticism of Wagner and his work that has ever, even yet, been penned. This booklet, "Wagner at Bayreuth," is a masterpiece of insight and erudition, written by a man of imagination, who saw and felt, and knew how to mold his feelings into words--words that burn. It is a rhapsody of appreciation.
Art is more a matter of heart than of head.
The book had a wide circulation, helped on, they do say, by the Master himself, who confessed that in the main the work rang true.
The publication of the book sort of linked these two men, Wagner and Nietzsche. The disciple sat at the feet of the elder man, and vowed he would be in literature what Wagner was in music. He gazed on him, fed on him, quoted him, waiting in patience for the pearls of thought.
Now Wagner was a natural man--a natural son of God. He had the desires, appetites and ambitions of a man. If he voiced great thoughts and wrote great scores, he did these things in a mood--and never knew how. At times he was coarse, perverse, irritable.
The awful, serious, sober ways of Nietzsche began to pall on Wagner--he would run away when he saw him coming, for Nietzsche had begun to give advice about how Wagner should regenerate the race, and also conduct himself. Now Richard Wagner had no intention of setting the world straight--he wanted to express himself, that was all, and to make enough money so he could be free to come and go as he chose.
Once, at a picnic, Wagner climbed a tree and cawed like a crow; then hooted like an owl; he ate tarts out of a tin dish with a knife; a little later he stood on his head and yelled like a Congo chief. When Nietzsche tearfully interposed, Wagner told him to go and get married--marry the first woman who was fool enough to have him--she would relieve him of some of his silliness.
Shortly after this, the great Wagner festival came on, and Bayreuth was filled with visitors who had read Nietzsche's book, and bought excursion-tickets to Bayreuth.
Wagner was over his ears in work--an orchestra of three hundred players to manage, new music to arrange, besides the humdrum, but necessary, work of feeding and housing and caring for the throng. Of course he did not do all the work, but the responsibility was his.
In this rush of work, Nietzsche was dropped out of sight--there was no time now for long conferences on the Over-Soul and Music of the Future.
Nietzsche was snubbed. He went off to his garret and wrote a scathing criticism on the work of Richard Wagner. This divine music was not for the intellectual few at all--it was getting popular and it was getting bad. Wagner was insincere--commercial--a charlatan.
Nietzsche was no longer interested in Wagner--he was interested only in Nietzsche.
Literary men do not quarrel more than other men--it only seems as if they did. This is because your writer uses his kazoo in getting even with his supposed enemy--he flings the rhetorical stinkpot with precision, and his grievances come into a prominence all out of keeping with their importance.
In Eighteen Hundred Eighty-eight, Nietzsche issued his little book, "The Fall of Wagner."
After a person has greatly praised another, and wishes to say something particularly unkind about him, one horn of the dilemma must be taken. If you admit you were wrong in the first conclusion, you lay yourself open to the suspicion that you are also wrong in the second--that you are one who makes snap judgments. The safer way then is to cling close to the presumption of your own infallibility, without, of course, actually stating it, and claim that your idol has changed, backslidden--fallen. This then lends an aura of virtue to your action, as it shows a wholesome desire on your part not to associate with the base person, and also an altruistic wish to warn the world so it shall not be undone by him.
Of all the bitter, unkind and malicious things ever uttered against Wagner, none contains more free alkali than the booklet by Nietzsche.
Nietzsche, not being satisfied with an attack on Wagner's art, also made a few flings at his pedigree, and declared that the Master's real name was not Wagner: this was his mother's name, he being a natural son of Ludwig Geyer, the poet--the Jew. What this has to do with Tannhauser, Tristan and Isolde, the Ring, Lohengrin, and Parsifal, Nietzsche does not explain. In any event, the information about Wagner's birth comes with very bad grace from an avowed enemy, who practically admits that he got the facts, in confidence, from Wagner himself. Neither does Nietzsche, the freethinking radical, recognize that good men have long ceased taunting other men concerning their parentage, or boasting of their own.
A man is what he is; and the word "illegitimate" is not in God's vocabulary, since He smiles on love-children as on none other. If you know history, you know this: that into their keeping God has largely given the beauty, talent, energy, strength, skill and power, as well as that divinity which confuses its possessor with Deity Incarnate.
Wagner might have replied to Nietzsche in kind, and pointed him out as the product of "tired sheets," to use the phrase of Shakespeare. Wagner might have said, "Yes, I am a member of that elect class to which belong William the Conqueror, Leonardo da Vinci, Erasmus, the Empress Josephine, Alexander Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln!" But he didn't--he did better--he said nothing. Wagner had the pride that scorned a defense--he realized his priceless birthright, and knew that his mother and father had dowered him with a divine genius. Let those talk who could do nothing else: silence was his only answer.
In a year later, Nietzsche was taken to an asylum, dead at the top. He lingered on until Nineteen Hundred, when his body, too, died, died there at Weimar, the home of Goethe and the home of Franz Liszt--another of life's little ironies. It is an obvious thing to say that Friedrich Nietzsche was insane all the time. The fact is, he was not. He was a great, sincere and honest soul, intent on living the ideal life. He wrote thoughts that have passed into the current coin of all the thinking world. When he praised Wagner to the skies and afterwards damned him to the lowest depths of perdition, he was sane, and did the thing that has been done since Cain slew his brother Abel. Take it home to yourself--haven't the best things and the worst that have ever been said about you, been expressed by the same person?
The opinion of any one person concerning any man of genius, or any product of art, is absolutely valueless. Whim, prejudice, personal bias, and physical condition color our view and tint our opinions, and when we cease to love a man personally, to condemn his art is an easy and natural step. What was before pleasing is now preposterous.
Of course, it is all a point of view--a matter of perspective, and most of us are a trifle out of focus. When we change our opinions we change our friends.
As a prescription for preserving a just and proper view, and living a sane life, I would say, climb a tree occasionally, and hoot like an owl and caw like a crow; stand on your head and yell at times like a Comanche.
Robert Louis Stevenson says, "A man who has not had the courage to make a fool of himself has not lived."
The man who does not relax and hoot a few hoots voluntarily, now and then, is in great danger of hooting hoots and standing on his head for the edification of the pathologist and trained nurse, a little later on.
The madhouse yawns for the person who always does the proper thing. Impropriety, in right proportion, relieves congestion, and thus are the unities preserved. And so here the great Law of Compensation, invented by Ralph Waldo Emerson, comes in: The sane, healthy man, who occasionally strips off his dignity and hoots like an owl, or rolls naked in the snow, will surely be called insane by the self-nominated elect, but his personal compensation lies in the fact that he knows he is not.
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And now look upon the face of this man! Even so, and upon every face is written the record of the life the man has led: the loves that were his, the thoughts, the prayers, the aspirations, the disappointments, all he hoped to be and was not--all are written there--nothing is hidden, nor can it be. Here was one born in poverty, nurtured in adversity, and yet uplifted and sustained by homely friendships and rugged companions who dumbly guessed the latent greatness of their charge.
With soul athirst he sought for truth, and stubbornly groped his way alone. Immediate precedent stood to him for little, and his sincerity and honesty made him the butt of mob and rabble. His ambition to be himself, to live his life, the desire to express his honest thought, led straight to deprivation of bread and shelter. He had too much sympathy, his honesty was not tempered by the graces of a diplomat--a price was placed upon his head. By the help of that one noble friend, whose love upheld him to the last, he escaped to a country where freedom of speech is not a byword. But misunderstanding followed close upon his footsteps, even his wife doubted his sanity, mistaking his genius for folly, and died undeceived. Calumny, hate, brutal criticism, the contempt of the so-called learned class--and all the train of woe that want and debt can bring to bear were his lot and portion.
Still he struggled on, refusing to compromise or parley--he would live his life, expressing the divinity within, and if fate decreed it so, die the death, misunderstood, reviled, and be forgotten.
And so he lived, working, praying, hoping, toiling, travailing--but with days, now and then, when rifts broke the clouds and the sun shone through, his Other Self giving approbation by saying, "Well done! the work will live."
More than half a century had passed over his head, and the frost of years had whitened his locks; his form was bowed from the many burdens it had borne; the fine face furrowed with lines of care; his eyes grown dim from weeping--when gradually the critics grew less severe.
Advocates were coming to the front, demanding that brutal hands should no longer mangle this man: grudgingly pardon came for offenses never committed, and he was permitted to return to his native land. Strong men and women placed themselves on his side. They declared their faith, and said his work was sublime; and they boldly stated the patent fact that those who had done most to cry Wagner down, had themselves done nothing, nor added an iota to the wealth or the harmony of the world. People began to listen, to investigate, and they said, "Why, yes, the music of Wagner has a distinct style--it has individuality."
Individuality is a departure from a complete type, and so is never perfect, any more than man is perfect. But Wagner's music is honest and genuine emotion set to sweet sounds, with words in keeping. It mirrors the hopes, the disappointments, the aspirations and the love of a great soul.
As men and women grew to cultivate the hospitable mind and receptive heart, tears filled their eyes and as they listened they came to understand. Honesty and genuineness in souls are too rare to flout--when found men really uncover before them. The people saw at last that they had been deceived by the savants, blinded by the dust of paid and prejudiced critics, fooled by those who led the way for a consideration. They flocked to see the great composer and listen to his matchless music, and they gave the man and his work their approval. Such sums were paid to him as he had only read of in books. Adulation, approbation and crowning fame were his at last.
Then love came that way and gentle, trusting affection, and sweet, spiritual comradeship, such as he had never known except in dreams--all these were his. His fame increased, and lavish offers from across the sea came, proffering him such wealth and honor as were not for any other living artist.
A theater was built for the presentation of his productions alone; the lovers of music from every nation made Bayreuth a place of pilgrimage.
When the man died--passed peacefully away, supported by the arms of the one woman he had loved--the daughter of Liszt--the art-loving world paid his genius all the tribute that men can offer to the worth of other men.
And now the passing years have brought a confirmation in belief of the statement made by Franz Liszt, "Richard Wagner is the one true musical genius of his age."
Wagner's admirers should, for him, plead guilty to the worst that can be said: he is everything that his most bitter critics say, but he is so much more that his faults and follies sink into ashes before the divine fire of his genius, and we still have the gold. Inconsistent, paradoxical, preposterous--why, yes, of course! Still he is the greatest poet of passion the world has ever seen--don't cavil--passion's consistency consists in being inconsistent.
"Every sentence must have a man behind it," and so we might say, "Every bar of music must have a man behind it." That harmony only can live which once had its dwelling-place in a great and tender heart.
The province of art is to impart a sublime emotion, and that which affects to be an emotion, no matter how subtly launched, can never live as classic art. Honesty here, as elsewhere, must have its reward. Be yourself, though all the world laugh.
I will not say that Wagner was--he is. The man himself in life was often worn to the quick by the deprivations he had to endure, or the stupid misunderstandings he encountered, so at times he was impatient, erratic, possibly perverse. But all that is gone--his mistakes have been washed in the blood of Time--only the good survives. The best that this great and godlike man ever thought, or felt, or knew, is ours--he lives immortal in his Art.