A few of these will be welcome to the ordinary citizen visiting
the theatre to satisfy his curiosity, or his desire to be in the
fashion, by witnessing a representation of Richard Wagner's
famous Ring of the Niblungs.
First, The Ring, with all its gods and giants and dwarfs, its
water-maidens and Valkyries, its wishing-cap, magic ring,
enchanted sword, and miraculous treasure, is a drama of today,
and not of a remote and fabulous antiquity. It could not have
been written before the second half of the nineteenth century,
because it deals with events which were only then consummating
themselves. Unless the spectator recognizes in it an image of the
life he is himself fighting his way through, it must needs appear
to him a monstrous development of the Christmas pantomimes, spun
out here and there into intolerable lengths of dull conversation
by the principal baritone. Fortunately, even from this point of
view, The Ring is full of extraordinarily attractive episodes,
both orchestral and dramatic. The nature music alone--music of
river and rainbow, fire and forest--is enough to bribe people
with any love of the country in them to endure the passages of
political philosophy in the sure hope of a prettier page to come.
Everybody, too, can enjoy the love music, the hammer and anvil
music, the clumping of the giants, the tune of the young
woodsman's horn, the trilling of the bird, the dragon music and
nightmare music and thunder and lightning music, the profusion of
simple melody, the sensuous charm of the orchestration: in short,
the vast extent of common ground between The Ring and the
ordinary music we use for play and pleasure. Hence it is that
the four separate music-plays of which it is built have become
popular throughout Europe as operas. We shall presently see that
one of them, Night Falls On The Gods, actually is an opera.
It is generally understood, however, that there is an inner ring
of superior persons to whom the whole work has a most urgent
and searching philosophic and social significance. I profess to
be such a superior person; and I write this pamphlet for the
assistance of those who wish to be introduced to the work on
equal terms with that inner circle of adepts.
My second encouragement is addressed to modest citizens who may
suppose themselves to be disqualified from enjoying The Ring by
their technical ignorance of music. They may dismiss all such
misgivings speedily and confidently. If the sound of music has
any power to move them, they will find that Wagner exacts
nothing further. There is not a single bar of "classical music"
in The Ring--not a note in it that has any other point than the
single direct point of giving musical expression to the drama.
In classical music there are, as the analytical programs tell
us, first subjects and second subjects, free fantasias,
recapitulations, and codas; there are fugues, with
counter-subjects, strettos, and pedal points; there are
passacaglias on ground basses, canons ad hypodiapente, and other
ingenuities, which have, after all, stood or fallen by their
prettiness as much as the simplest folk-tune. Wagner is never
driving at anything of this sort any more than Shakespeare in
his plays is driving at such ingenuities of verse-making as
sonnets, triolets, and the like. And this is why he is so easy
for the natural musician who has had no academic teaching. The
professors, when Wagner's music is played to them, exclaim at
once "What is this? Is it aria, or recitative? Is there no
cabaletta to it--not even a full close? Why was that discord not
prepared; and why does he not resolve it correctly? How dare he
indulge in those scandalous and illicit transitions into a key
that has not one note in common with the key he has just left?
Listen to those false relations! What does he want with six
drums and eight horns when Mozart worked miracles with two of
each? The man is no musician." The layman neither knows nor
cares about any of these things. If Wagner were to turn aside
from his straightforward dramatic purpose to propitiate the
professors with correct exercises in sonata form, his music
would at once become unintelligible to the unsophisticated
spectator, upon whom the familiar and dreaded "classical"
sensation would descend like the influenza. Nothing of the kind
need be dreaded. The unskilled, untaught musician may approach
Wagner boldly; for there is no possibility of a misunderstanding
between them: The Ring music is perfectly single and simple. It
is the adept musician of the old school who has everything to
unlearn: and him I leave, unpitied, to his fate.
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