Opera and Drama (German: Oper und Drama) is a book-length essay written by Richard Wagner in 1851 setting out his ideas on the ideal characteristics of opera as an art form. It belongs with other essays of the period in which Wagner attempted to explain and reconcile his political and artistic ideas, at a time when he was working on the libretti, and later the music, of his Ring cycle.
As the longest of all of Wagner's literary works apart from his autobiography Mein Leben (376 pages long in its English translation), Opera and Drama is perhaps better described by the word 'treatise', as suggested by its translator W. Ashton Ellis. It follows from his earlier writings of the period 1849–50: more particularly "Art and Revolution" (1849), which sets out Wagner's ideals for an artwork that would be appropriate for his ideal society; "The Artwork of the Future" (1849), which sets out ideas for a music drama which would meet such ideals; and "Jewishness in Music" (1850), which (amongst other matters) excoriates commercialism in art.
Wagner wrote the entire book in Zurich in four months between October 1850 and January 1851. He gave public readings of large extracts in Zurich in early 1851, with a dedication to Theodor Uhlig. Parts of it were published in the Monatschrift, an intellectual magazine, and the whole was published in Leipzig later in 1851. A second edition appeared in 1868, with a dedication to the German political writer Constantin Frantz.
The earliest English translation had appeared as early as 1856, but the translation generally used in the English-speaking world is that by W. Ashton Ellis, first published in 1893. Like the original, this is full of complex phrases, grammar and structure, which render the work difficult to absorb. Even Ellis commented that some 'tantalising epithets seemed to group themselves into a coruscation baffling all description.'
Opera and Drama is in three parts.
The first part, "Opera and the Nature of Music", is an extended attack on contemporary opera, with significant attacks on Rossini and Meyerbeer, whom Wagner regarded as betraying art for public acclaim and sensationalism. In this section Wagner makes his famous allegation of Meyerbeer's operas consisting of "effects without causes".
The second part, "The Play and the Nature of Dramatic Poetry" is Wagner's most extensive consideration of the role of poetry in his idealised music drama.
The last section, "The Arts of Poetry and Tone in the Drama of the Future", gives a conspectus of the ideal music drama as a whole—an ideal which, however, in reality Wagner was obliged to compromise to achieve success in his later works.
The Wagner scholar Curt von Westernhagen identified three important problems discussed in the essay which were particularly relevant to Wagner's own operatic development: the problem of unifying verse stress with melody; the problems caused by formal arias in dramatic structure, and the way in which opera music could be organised on a different basis of organic growth and modulation; and the function of musical motifs in linking elements of the plot whose connections might otherwise be inexplicit (what was to become known as the leitmotif technique, although Wagner himself did not use this word).
- Peter Burbidge and Richard Sutton, The Wagner Companion, London, 1979. ISBN 0-571-11450-4
- Richard Wagner, tr. W. Ashton Ellis, Opera and Drama, University of Nebraska Press, 1995. ISBN 0-8032-9765-3
- ^Wagner (1995), p. xix
- ^Burbidge and Sutton, (1979), pp. 345–66
"Die Walküre" returns to the Metropolitan Opera for two performances on April 19 and April 23. Valery Gergiev conducts. I suspect that once again I'll be overcome by this achingly sad exchange between Sieglinde and Siegmund (to be sung by Katarina Dalayman and Plácido Domingo), so full of mythical, spiritual and psychological resonances.
But it is Wagner's music that gives this moment its impact: the subtle yet ingenious harmonic manipulations of the motif, the sonorous yet calmly subdued orchestration, Sieglinde's poignantly long-spun vocal line.
I thought a lot about the specific character and qualities of Wagner's music as I slowly made my way through the latest biography of the composer, "Richard Wagner: The Last of the Titans" by the German author Joachim Köhler, first published four years ago in Germany and released late last year by Yale University Press in Stewart Spencer's English translation. Mr. Köhler focuses on Wagner's immense influence on German culture and history.
Striding through the 700 pages of this book is Wagner the aesthetician, the cultivator of myths, the Nietzschean superman, the megalomaniac, the shocking anti-Semite, the dramatic visionary. But Wagner the composer and musical craftsman makes scant appearances. Do not look here for musical analyses.
Mr. Köhler has perceptive insights into Wagner's letters and essays. The discussions of his life and works are enriched by Mr. Köhler's Olympian knowledge of German history, philosophy and politics. His analysis of the "Ring," at nearly 100 pages, takes the form of an engrossing retelling of the story, complete with fascinating comments drawn from his readings of the early drafts of Wagner's librettos.
Still, the questionable premise of this biography is that music in itself meant nothing to Wagner. "When he wrote it, it left no impression," Mr. Köhler writes. "Only when it drew its strength from the dramatic situations that were at the basis of his imagination did he succeed in creating anything that he could call his own. Music had to give expression to a world of living ideas."
I don't doubt that Wagner believed this; he certainly affirmed it in his essays. But I still don't buy it. Whether he knew it or not, Wagner was first and foremost a composer, inspired as much by harmony as by history, hooked as much by melody as by mythology. A lifelong student of the Beethoven symphonies and piano sonatas, he prepared detailed piano arrangements of the symphonies to earn money when he was young.
Mr. Köhler writes that what mattered to Wagner was not the feelings his art inspired but the ideas it communicated. "He expected nothing less from this message than that it would radically change the world, just as the Gospels had done," Mr. Köhler asserts.
Yes, this was Wagner's expectation, and yes, you could say that his art changed the world. But Wagner's manipulation of notes and rhythms played a big part in the process. Whatever convoluted philosophical notions filled his head in the fit of inspiration, his ear cut through the clutter when he sat down to compose.
To me, the real mystery of Wagner is that he became such a master craftsman despite his scattershot formal training. As a young man he studied a composition treatise on his own, took harmony lessons with a local musician in Dresden and spent six intensive months working with the cantor of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig.
Mr. Köhler is at his best when he discusses the multiple layers of meaning in crucial scenes from the "Ring." Toward the end of "Die Walküre," for example, Wotan carries out the punishment he has decreed for his favorite Valkyrie daughter, Brünnhilde: she will be placed in a sleeping state on a mountain, surrounded by fire until such time as a mortal man will come to wake her and claim her.
For all her wildness, as Mr. Köhler explains, Brünnhilde is not a creature of free will. She lives only to carry out her father's will. She is, as Fricka, Wotan's jealous wife, puts it, "the bride of his wishes."
But not this time. When Wotan orders Brünnhilde not to side with his son, Siegmund, in the fight to death that he is about to have with Sieglinde's avenging husband, she is perplexed. How can Wotan do this? Siegmund is heroic; Siegmund is his child.
Though confused and uncertain, Brünnhilde tries to obey Wotan's order. But when she meets Siegmund and Sieglinde, she is moved beyond reason. She has never seen mortal love before. In deciding to aid Siegmund in the fight she divorces herself from Wotan's will and commits her first independent act.
Wotan is furious. Having thrown her lot in with the mortals, Brünnhilde must become one, as her punishment. As she sinks into sleep, she loses her godhood.
But Mr. Köhler says nothing about the ingenious orchestral music with which Wagner conveys Brünnhilde's transformation. As a series of hushed, ethereal chords floats downward from on high, a parallel series of chords rises from below. The chords are mostly in the major mode, clear, diatonic and soothing. Yet as the bass line rises through an unconventional pattern of intervals (minor thirds and half-steps), touching all 12 tones of the chromatic scale on the way, the passage dislodges any sense of tonal stability.
The transfixing result is a strangely beautiful harmonic progression, at once calming and unhinged, that seems to descend and ascend at the same time. The music uncannily mimics what is happening to Brünnhilde as she sinks into a sleeping state losing her godliness but rising anew as a vulnerable mortal.
When Mr. Köhler does discuss music, he says nothing specific enough to be valuable and sometimes loses all perspective. The "intimidating violence" of the storm music that opens "Die Walküre," he writes, "had not hitherto been known in art." Oh, come on. I can think of passages from Bach Passions, Beethoven symphonies and Schubert songs that convey intimidating violence as graphically as Wagner does.
Mr. Köhler thoroughly discusses Wagner's aesthetic treatises, like "The Artwork of the Future" and "Opera and Drama," essays that mix keen insights about the pragmatic needs of musical drama with lots of grandiose and muddled theories. There is a long and sober critical analysis the repugnant essay "Jews in Music," in which Wagner argued that the honorable heritage of German music had been diluted by the slick and facile contributions of Jewish composers. But at some point, the only reaction you can have to Wagner's convoluted and hateful argument is to dismiss it as loony.
How did such sublime music come from such a warped man? Maybe art really does have the power to ferret out the best in us.
One of the most awesome, wrenching and profound performances of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was made by Wilhelm Furtwängler, conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in 1942, when the Nazis were at the height of their power. Furtwängler's impassioned and volatile reading seems a tormented German musician's attempt to reveal Beethoven as an apocalyptic visionary. Still, it's eerie to hear an orchestra and chorus purged of Jews performing with palpable intensity a work that proclaims all men brothers.
Similarly, you can't tell me that the man who wrote "Die Walküre," "Die Meistersinger" and "Parsifal," no matter how dreadful a character, did not somewhere in his being know compassion, tenderness, humility, parental devotion and spiritual longing. But only by composing his astounding music could Wagner tap into those human feelings.
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