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The Nineteenth Century

When Wagner was born in 1813, music had newly become the most
astonishing, the most fascinating, the most miraculous art in
the world. Mozart's Don Giovanni had made all musical Europe
conscious of the enchantments of the modern orchestra and of
the perfect adaptability of music to the subtlest needs of the
dramatist. Beethoven had shown how those inarticulate mood-poems
which surge through men who have, like himself, no exceptional
command of words, can be written down in music as symphonies.
Not that Mozart and Beethoven invented these applications of
their art; but they were the first whose works made it clear that
the dramatic and subjective powers of sound were enthralling
enough to stand by themselves quite apart from the decorative
musical structures of which they had hitherto been a mere feature.
After the finales in Figaro and Don Giovanni, the possibility
of the modern music drama lay bare. After the symphonies of
Beethoven it was certain that the poetry that lies too deep for
words does not lie too deep for music, and that the vicissitudes
of the soul, from the roughest fun to the loftiest aspiration,
can make symphonies without the aid of dance tunes. As much,
perhaps, will be claimed for the preludes and fugues of Bach; but
Bach's method was unattainable: his compositions were wonderful
webs of exquisitely beautiful Gothic traceries in sound, quite
beyond all ordinary human talent. Beethoven's far blunter craft
was thoroughly popular and practicable: not to save his soul
could he have drawn one long Gothic line in sound as Bach could,
much less have woven several of them together with so apt a
harmony that even when the composer is unmoved its progressions
saturate themselves with the emotion which (as modern critics are
a little apt to forget) springs as warmly from our delicately
touched admiration as from our sympathies, and sometimes makes us
give a composer credit for pathetic intentions which he does not
entertain, just as a boy imagines a treasure of tenderness and
noble wisdom in the beauty of a woman. Besides, Bach set comic
dialogue to music exactly as he set the recitatives of the
Passion, there being for him, apparently, only one recitative
possible, and that the musically best. He reserved the expression
of his merry mood for the regular set numbers in which he could
make one of his wonderful contrapuntal traceries of pure ornament
with the requisite gaiety of line and movement. Beethoven bowed
to no ideal of beauty: he only sought the expression for his
feeling. To him a joke was a joke; and if it sounded funny in
music he was satisfied. Until the old habit of judging all music
by its decorative symmetry had worn out, musicians were shocked
by his symphonies, and, misunderstanding his integrity, openly
questioned his sanity. But to those who were not looking for
pretty new sound patterns, but were longing for the expression of
their moods in music, he achieved revelation, because, being
single in his aim to express his own moods, he anticipated with
revolutionary courage and frankness all the moods of the rising
generations of the nineteenth century.

The result was inevitable. In the nineteenth century it was no
longer necessary to be a born pattern designer in sound to be a
composer. One had but to be a dramatist or a poet completely
susceptible to the dramatic and descriptive powers of sound.
A race of literary and theatrical musicians appeared; and
Meyerbeer, the first of them, made an extraordinary impression.
The frankly delirious description of his Robert the Devil in
Balzac's short story entitled Gambra, and Goethe's astonishingly
mistaken notion that he could have composed music for Faust, show
how completely the enchantments of the new dramatic music upset
the judgment of artists of eminent discernment. Meyerbeer was,
people said (old gentlemen still say so in Paris), the successor
of Beethoven: he was, if a less perfect musician than Mozart, a
profounder genius. Above all, he was original and daring. Wagner
himself raved about the duet in the fourth act of Les Huguenots
as wildly as anyone.

Yet all this effect of originality and profundity was produced by
a quite limited talent for turning striking phrases, exploiting
certain curious and rather catching rhythms and modulations, and
devising suggestive or eccentric instrumentation. On its
decorative side, it was the same phenomenon in music as the
Baroque school in architecture: an energetic struggle to enliven
organic decay by mechanical oddities and novelties. Meyerbeer was
no symphonist. He could not apply the thematic system to his
striking phrases, and so had to cobble them into metric patterns
in the old style; and as he was no "absolute musician" either, he
hardly got his metric patterns beyond mere quadrille tunes, which
were either wholly undistinguished, or else made remarkable by
certain brusqueries which, in the true rococo manner, owed their
singularity to their senselessness. He could produce neither a
thorough music drama nor a charming opera. But with all this,
and worse, Meyerbeer had some genuine dramatic energy, and even
passion; and sometimes rose to the occasion in a manner which,
whilst the imagination of his contemporaries remained on fire
with the novelties of dramatic music, led them to overrate him
with an extravagance which provoked Wagner to conduct a long
critical campaign against his leadership. Thirty years ago this
campaign was mentably ascribed to the professional jealousy of a
disappointed rival. Nowadays young people cannot understand how
anyone could ever have taken Meyerbeer's influence seriously.
Those who remember how his reputation stood half a century ago,
and who realize what a nothoroughfare the path he opened proved
to be, even to himself, know how inevitable and how impersonal
Wagner's attack was.

Wagner was the literary musician par excellence. He could not,
like Mozart and Beethoven, produce decorative tone structures
independently of any dramatic or poetic subject matter, because,
that craft being no longer necessary for his purpose, he did not
cultivate it. As Shakespeare, compared with Tennyson, appears to
have an exclusively dramatic talent, so exactly does Wagner
compared with Mendelssohn. On the other hand, he had not to go to
third rate literary hacks for "librettos" to set to music: he
produced his own dramatic poems, thus giving dramatic integrity
to opera, and making symphony articulate. A Beethoven symphony
(except the articulate part of the ninth) expresses noble
feeling, but not thought: it has moods, but no ideas. Wagner
added thought and produced the music drama. Mozart's loftiest
opera, his Ring, so to speak, The Magic Flute, has a libretto
which, though none the worse for seeming, like The Rhine Gold,
the merest Christmas tomfoolery to shallow spectators, is the
product of a talent immeasurably inferior to Mozart's own.
The libretto of Don Giovanni is coarse and trivial: its
transfiguration by Mozart's music may be a marvel; but nobody
will venture to contend that such transfigurations, however
seductive, can be as satisfactory as tone poetry or drama in
which the musician and the poet are at the same level. Here,
then, we have the simple secret of Wagner's preemminence as a
dramatic musician. He wrote the poems as well as composed the
music of his "stage festival plays," as he called them.

Up to a certain point in his career Wagner paid the penalty of
undertaking two arts instead of one. Mozart had his trade as a
musician at his fingers' ends when he was twenty, because he had
served an arduous apprenticeship to that trade and no other.
Wagner was very far from having attained equal mastery at
thirty-five: indeed he himself has told us that not until he had
passed the age at which Mozart died did he compose with that
complete spontaneity of musical expression which can only be
attained by winning entire freedom from all preoccupation with
the difficulties of technical processes. But when that time came,
he was not only a consummate musician, like Mozart, but a
dramatic poet and a critical and philosophical essayist,
exercising a considerable influence on his century. The sign of
this consummation was his ability at last to play with his art,
and thus to add to his already famous achievements in sentimental
drama that lighthearted art of comedy of which the greatest
masters, like Moliere and Mozart, are so much rarer than the
tragedians and sentimentalists. It was then that he composed the
first two acts of Siegfried, and later on The Mastersingers, a
professedly comedic work, and a quite Mozartian garden of melody,
hardly credible as the work of the straining artifices of
Tanehauser. Only, as no man ever learns to do one thing by doing
something else, however closely allied the two things may be,
Wagner still produced no music independently of his poems. The
overture to The Mastersingers is delightful when you know what it
is all about; but only those to whom it came as a concert piece
without any such clue, and who judged its reckless counterpoint
by the standard of Bach and of Mozart's Magic Flute overture, can
realize how atrocious it used to sound to musicians of the old
school. When I first heard it, with the clear march of the
polyphony in Bach's B minor Mass fresh in my memory, I confess I
thought that the parts had got dislocated, and that some of the
band were half a bar behind the others. Perhaps they were; but
now that I am familiar with the work, and with Wagner's harmony,
I can still quite understand certain passages producing that
effect organ admirer of Bach even when performed with perfect

George Bernard Shaw