WAGNER By Peter Latham: Aesthetics and Orchestration. Gramophone 1926

Written By The Wagnerian on Saturday, 28 May 2011 | 5:19:00 am

An article published in Gramophone, June 1926. Latham discuss, Wagner, Gluck, Music -Drama, Aesthetics and Orchestration.


WAGNER himself never wished to be regarded as a composer pure and simple. He protested with some justice that his achievement covered many fields, and that any estimate of it must be based on a general survey and not merely on the music that constituted but one element in the complex whole. Even the modern opera-goer (andthe opera-singer, too) is far too apt to forget all other considerations in his anxiety to appreciate to the full the music that the composer puts before him ; and if this tendency is common to-day, it was almost universal when Wagner lived and wrote. For though the obvious truth that an opera is a combination of music and drama has never been entirely forgotten since it was first stated by the group of Florentines among whom this form of art originated, yet the ideal blend of the two has not proved easy to discover. Music has always had a way of asserting her pm-eminence at the expense of the plays with which she has been associated, in spite of all the efforts of theorists and reformers to keep her within legitimate bounds. Even the redoubtable Gluck himself could not always resist her imperious demand for freedom to develop unrestrained along her own lines, and during the seventy-five years or so that elapsed between Iphigenia in Tauris and The Rhine gold she succeeded in reducing the sister art to a condition of almost complete subjection. Mozart and Beethoven, it is true, never failed to give due consideration to the significance of the scene they were setting, but the bent of their minds towards purely instrumental compositions made them illfitted to continue the work of Gluck, even if the sheer splendour of their genius had not been such as to overwhelm by its very magnificence the dramas to which it lent its lustre. Their deep sense of artistic fitness did, indeed, lead to the creation of an operatic tradition that was to develop through Weber till at last it bore rich fruit in the work of Wagner himself. But before this consummation could be reached a period had to be traversed during which the original ideals of dramatic music seemed to be obliterated in a flood of lyric eloquence and vocal virtuosity. This is not the place for an estimate of the operas of Spontini, Meyerbeer, Auber, Donizetti, Bellini, and a host of others, all famous in their day and not by any means forgotten even now ; but it will be generally conceded that in their work it was the music and the singers that mattered. The very inanity of so many of their libretti is sufficient evidence of the small store they set on dramatic considerations.

Such being the operas to which audiences were accustomed when Wagner appeared upon the scene, it is not surprising that he should have decided that his theories required some explanation if they were to prove acceptable to the operatic public. His hearers, he felt, must be made to see that his mature work, however novel it might appear, contained nothing that was not perfectly logical and easily intelligible once the standpoint from which he regarded the artistic problem was properly appreciated, and consequently we find him in his writings insisting again and again on the essential unity of the true "Music-Drama," in which literature, acting, and stagecraft should all play their part with the music in achieving the desired dramatic result.