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her absence her garden had been neglected, her cat had never been combed, several pieces of her furniture had disappeared, and eight of her silver dishes had been pawned by her servants, of whose' villany and treachery' she could not say enough. All the interest she had felt in her journey was forgotten in these annoyances, which no doubt were chiefly imaginary.
VOL, LXIII – No. 373
'THE RING IN ENGLISH AND MUSIC
DRAMA OF THE FUTURE
The recent performances of Wagner's tetralogy in English have proved to the whole world that we can hold our own on the opera stage. The proof was not required by those whose memory is not of the shortest and whose knowledge of musical life extends beyond the four-mile radius of London. For many years the Moody-Manners and Carl Rosa Opera Companies have given excellent performances of Wagner in English, and the Covent Garden stage itself is by no means ignorant of native opera-singers. Moreover, our teaching institutions have made a practice of annual operatic performances, which have invariably brought forward several young students with genuine talent for musical stage-work. It is true, however, that nothing quite as ambitious as the two cycles of the Ring had ever been attempted, and certainly no performances have reached the same level of excellence, nor has the general public of musical amateurs ever had such an opportunity of understanding what we could do if conditions were favourable. For these reasons the recent performances of the Ring may be said, without exaggeration, to have begun a new epoch in the British practice of music. They also suggest many points for discussion, and, to some extent, they throw a new light on Wagner's achievements as musician and dramatist.
That the style of singing was more musical and pleasant to the ear than the ' Bayreuth bark’ to which we have grown accustomed in recent years was generally remarked by the critics. The pleasure was so unexpected and welcome that it seems churlish to sound a note of adverse criticism. At the same time, although Wagner's music is not as unsingable as the half-trained German artist would have us believe, the English cantabile style is not really suited to it. For instance, Miss Agnes Nicholls sang the exacting music of the loveduet in Siegfried with a finish and beauty of tone which made the performance memorable. Miss Nicholls has had considerable stage experience, and therefore her style may be fairly criticised on its
dramatic side—a criticism one cannot justly extend to Miss Perceval Allen. As singing, pure and simple, the part has never been so well done, not even by Ternina. But it may well be asked if we are not inclined to place absolute finish of singing in Wagner's music-dramas on too high a pedestal, and I confess it is natural we should thus exalt the vocal factor after much painful experience of second-rate German artists; but to write as if the music-dramas of Wagner should be sung in an ordinary sense is to misunderstand his aims. Wagner certainly did not wish his music to be barked out of all recognition, and in the early days of Bayreuth-when his artists were men and women who had been trained, more or less, in the Italian schoolthere was no danger of that misconception of his aims. As time went on, and the great artists of the early Wagnerian period had to retire from the stage, there seemed no one to take their place, and quite inexperienced singers had to be engaged and specially trained. We have heard some of them in London. We shall not be
sorry hear them no more. They had learned how to declaim, but they had forgotten how to be musical. And now, as a reaction, we are going to the other extreme, and have set up a standard of bel canto applied to Wagner which will stultify his aims. What he really wanted is shown both by the music itself and by his own writings. In a letter to Liszt there is an illuminative passage concerning the singing of Tichatschek in Tannhäuser. 'In spite of his voice,' wrote Wagner, * T. did not bring out many a point that has been possible to much less favoured singers. . . . He has only brilliance or softness in his voice, not one true accent of grief.' That passage proves, at any rate, that Wagner did not want mere beauty of tone and finish of phrasing in a musical sense, and it must be remembered that he was writing of Tannhäuser, a work which seems to us now one mass of vocal melody and melodious declamation.
In his prose writings Wagner over and over again insisted on the proper pronunciation and articulation of the words being the basis of the singing he required for his music-dramas. He protested that the Italian style of singing applied to the German language had utterly ruined German opera or music-drama. 'If we insist on speaking in another tongue to that “canto” it becomes a jumble of inarticulate vowels and consonants which simply hinder and distort the singing without being understood as speech.' In his essay on * Actors and Singers' Wagner has given a clear account of what he wanted his singers to do. The essay was written in 1872.
If to-day I seek out singers for a passably correct performance of my own dramatic works, it is not by chance the “scarcity of voices' that alarms me, but my fear of their having been utterly ruined by a method which excludes all sound pronunciation. As our singers do not articulate properly, neither for the most part do they know the meaning of their speeches, and thus the character of any rôle entrusted to them strikes their minds in none but general hazy outlines, after the manner of certain operatic commonplaces. In their consequent frenzied hunt for something to please, they light at last on stronger tones (Tonaccente) strewn here and there, on which they rush with panting breath as best they can, and end by thinking they have sang quite ' dramatically if they bellow out the phrases' closing note with an emphatic bid for applause.'
Wagner then explains how he freed his singer of these senseless habits.
My compulsorily simple plan was to make him really and distinctly speak in singing, whilst I brought the lines of musical curvature to his consciousness by getting him to take in one breath, with perfectly even intonation, the calmer, lengthier periods on which he formerly had expended a number of gusty respirations ; when this had been well done I left it to his natural feeling to give the melodic lines their rightful motion, through accent, rise and fall, according to the verbal sense.
There could be no clearer exposition of the method of true Wagnerian singing. It is a method, too, which is required for the modern songs of Hugo Wolf and Richard Strauss, but it is not the method on which our singers are taught. That is still based on the Italian ‘canto,' as Wagner called it, and only in musical comedy or in ballads do our singers pay the attention to articulation which Wagner required. Singing masters affirm that the voice is best trained on the Italian system, and certainly the artists who are clearest in articulation when they choose have been trained in the Italian 'canto.' It is a mere question of vocal gymnastics. But it is quite certain that the style of singing which is suitable for suave Italian melody, either ancient or modern, and for the ornate embellishments of Handelian oratorio, is not the style of singing for Wagner's music-dramas. Although there is no kind of reason for the emission of bad and inaccurate tone in singing Wagner, good and accurate intonation and the general flow of Italian phrasing will not express the drama as the composer wished it to be expressed. Wagner himself was at fault to some extent, or, rather, as an absolute musician he departed from his compact little theories. Thus in his elaborate use of the orchestra as the main expression of his drama he too often employed the voice as a mere instrument. The sensitive balance of declamation and singing of which he wrote is not possible beyond a well-defined limit of vocal stress. That limit is precisely the point at which the clear pronunciation of vowels and consonants has to be abandoned in order to produce the requisite body of tone. But that is a matter bound up with the æsthetic side of Wagner's music-dramas, of which I will deal at the end of this article. I
may quote one more passage from this essay on ' Actors and Singers’ in order to show what was Wagner's ideal of singing. Of Schröder-Devrient he wrote :
Concerning the artist I have again and again been asked if her voice was really so remarkable, since we glorified her as a singer—the voice being all folk
1 Mr. Wm. Ashton Ellis's translation.
seem to think about in such a case. It constantly annoyed me to answer this question, for I revolted against the thought of the great tragedian being thrown into one bevy with the female castrati of our opera. Were it asked once more to-day, I should answer somewhat as follows : ‘No ! she had no voice” at all ; but she knew how to use her breath so beautifully, and to let a true womanly soul stream forth in such wondrous sounds, that we never thought of either voice or singing.'
All these passages must not be taken as evidence that Wagner did not want good singing or that the ‘Bayreuth bark’ is sufficient for his music, but merely as showing that good singing in the ordinary sense was not what he demanded. In his theory singing was a form of speech.
When we remember how little experience our singers can gain of even the ordinary opera stage their achievements in the Ring at Covent Garden were remarkable enough. Our artists proved that Wagner's music is not the superhuman impossibility which many have held it to be, but at the same time it is arrant flattery to pretend that they really did bring out all the drama of the Ring. A few who had had long experience of the opera stage showed some grasp of the vocal declamatory style necessary for Wagner's music-dramas, but the majority of the singers, however excellently they sang, did not get the right 'bite' into their voices. Moreover, many little dramatic points were lost in the general desire to sing Wagner. Something of this effect of undramatic suavity may have been due to the fact that Mr. Frederick Jameson's translation, splendid as it is in poetic essentials, does not quite preserve the clashing alliteration of Wagner's Stabreim. From his later works it is evident that Wagner himself considered he had attached too much importance to alliteration; but the music of the Ring was written with the Stabreim in view, and any softening of the clash of vowels and consonants must detract from the vigour and point of the declamation. But there is a larger question at issue than this. Do operas and music-dramas suffer from being sung in a translation? What they gain we know, and it is much. By hearing an opera in English the ordinary member of an audience, not skilled in any language but his own, is able to make out roughly the main motives of the drama. As a set-off there must always be a certain disparity between the music and the words. However faithful a translation may be, and Mr. Jameson's is a model translation in all respects, it is not possible to make the words exactly fit the music. The construction of languages differs so much that it is impossible always to place the important word of a sentence beneath the important note. The difference of accentuation also tells. In Italian and French there are many equally accented short syllables which you cannot match in English and yet retain the