A Book of Operas
Henry Edward Krehbiel

Part 4 out of 5

enough to smile a welcome to Sir Adelbert. He thanked her gallantly
and queried: Was the pretty sight a May Day celebration? Replied
the winsome gate-keeper: "Here Dame' Venus holds court in honor
of the noble knight Sir Tannhäuser"; and she opened the gate and
Adelbert entered. Within he beheld a gay tent pitched in a grove of
flowering shrubs, and out of it emerged a beauteous creature and
advanced toward him. Her robe was rose color, adorned with strings
of pearls and festooned with fragrant blossoms. A crown which
glistened with gems rested lightly on her head. In her right hand--a
dainty hand--she carried a tiny kerchief of filmy white stuff
embroidered with gold, and in her left a lute. She sate herself down
on a golden chair, bent her head over her left shoulder. A dreamy,
tender light came into her eyes, and her rosy fingers sought the
strings of her lute--strings of gold. Would she sing? Just then one
of the maidens approached her, lisped musically into her ear, and
pointed to the approaching knight. Almost imperceptibly, but oh,
so graciously, the lips of the vision moved. As if in obedience to
a command, the maiden approached, and said in rhythmical cadence:
"Greetings, Sir Knight, from Dame Venus, who sends you message that
all who love gaming and fair women are welcome at her court." She
gave him her hand to escort him, and when the knight pressed her
fingers in gratitude he felt a gentle pressure in return. The knight
approached the dazzling queen of the palace and fell upon his knee;
but she gave him her hand and she bade him arise, which he did after
he had kissed her fingers. And she called to a maiden, who fetched
a golden horn filled to the brim with wine and handed it to the
knight. "Empty the goblet, like a true knight, to the health of all
fair women who love and are beloved," said the queen. Sir Adelbert
smiled obedience: "To love, fair lady," he said and drank the wine
at a draught. And thus he became a captive and a slave.

Long did he sojourn within the magic realm, in loving dalliance with
Venus and her maidens, until one day a hermit entered the cave in
the absence of the queen and bore him back to the outer world, where
penance and deeds of piety restored him to moral health and saved
him from the fate of Tannhäuser.


{1} "Studies in the Wagnerian Drama," by H. E. Krehbiel, pp. 35, 36.



A vassal is sent to woo a beauteous princess for his lord. While he
is bringing her home the two, by accident, drink a love potion, and
ever thereafter their hearts are fettered together. In the midday of
delirious joy, in the midnight of deepest woe, their thoughts are
only of each other, for each other. Meanwhile the princess has
become the vassal's queen. Then the wicked love of the pair is
discovered, and the knight is obliged to seek safety in a foreign
land. There (strange note this to our ears) he marries another
princess whose name is like that of his love, save for the addition
With the White Hand; but when wounded unto death he sends across the
water for her who is still his true love, that she come and be his
healer. The ship which is sent to bring her is to bear white sails
on its return if successful in the mission; black, if not. Day after
day the knight waits for the coming of his love while the lamp of
his life burns lower and lower. At length the sails of the ship
appear on the distant horizon. The knight is now himself too weak to
look. "White or black?" he asks of his wife. "Black," replies she,
jealousy prompting the falsehood; and the knight's heart-strings
snap in twain just as his love steps over the threshold of his
chamber. Oh, the pity of it! for with the lady is her lord, who,
having learned the story of the fateful potion, has come to unite
the lovers. Then the queen, too, dies, and the remorseful king
buries the lovers in a common grave, from whose caressing sod spring
a rose-bush and a vine and intertwine so curiously that none may
separate them. {1}

Upon the ancient legend which has thus been outlined Wagner reared
his great tragedy entitled "Tristan und Isolde." Whence the story
came nobody can tell. It is a part of the great treasure preserved
from remotest antiquity by itinerant singers and story-tellers, and
committed to writing by poets of the Middle Ages. The first of
these, so far as unquestioned evidence goes, were French trouvères.
From them the tale passed into the hands of the German minnesinger.
The greatest of these who treated it was Gottfried von Strasburg
(circa A.D. 1210), who, however, left the tale unfinished. His
continuators were Ulrich von Türnheim and Heinrich von Freiberg,
whose denouement (not, however, original with them) was followed by
Hermann Kurtz when he published a version of Gottfried's poem in
modern German in 1844. This, unquestionably, was the version which
fell into Wagner's hands when, in the Dresden period (1843-1849)
he devoted himself assiduously to the study of Teutonic legend and
mythology. In English the romance has an equally honorable literary
record. In 1804 Sir Walter Scott edited a metrical version which he
fondly believed to be the work of the somewhat mythical Thomas the
Rhymer and to afford evidence that the oldest literary form of the
legend was British. The adventures of Tristram of Lyonesse (who is
the Tristan of Wagner's tragedy) form a large portion of Sir Thomas
Malory's thrice glorious "Morte d'Arthur." Of modern poets Tennyson,
Matthew Arnold, and Swinburne have sung the passion of the
ill-starred lovers.

Elements of the legend can be traced back to the ancient literatures
of the Aryan peoples. The courtship by proxy has a prototype in
Norse mythology in Skirnir's wooing of Gerd for Van Frey. The
incident of the sails belongs to Greek story--the legend of AEgeus
and Theseus; the magic potion may be found in ancient Persian
romance; the interlocked rose-tree and vine over the grave of the
lovers is an example of those floral auguries and testimonies which
I have mentioned in connection with the legend of Tannhäuser and
the blossoming staff: in token of their innocence flowers spring
miraculously from the graves of persons wrongly done to death.

A legend which lives to be retold often is like a mirror which
reflects not only the original picture, but also the social and
moral surroundings of different relators. So this ancient tale has
been varied by the poets who have told it; and of these variants the
most significant are those made by Wagner. If the ethical scheme of
the poet-composer is to be observed, the chief of these must be kept
in mind. In the poems of Gottfried, Arnold, and Swinburne the love
potion is drunk accidentally and the passion which leads to the
destruction of the lovers is a thing for which they are in nowise
responsible. Wagner puts antecedent and conscious guilt at the door
of both of his heroic characters; they love each other before the
dreadful drinking and do not pay the deference to the passion which
in the highest conception it demands. Tristan is carried away by
love of power and glory before man and Isolde is at heart a murderer
and suicide. The potion is less the creator of an uncontrollable
passion than it is an agency which makes the lovers forget honor,
duty, and respect for the laws of society. Tennyson omits all
mention of the potion and permits us to imagine Tristram and Iseult
as a couple of ordinary sinners. Swinburne and Arnold follow the old
story touching the hero's life in Brittany with the second Iseult
(she of the White Hand); but while Swinburne preserves her a "maiden
wife," Arnold gives her a family of children. Wagner ennobles his
hero by omitting the second Isolde, thus bringing the story into
greater sympathy with modern ideas of love and exalting the passion
of the lovers.

The purpose to write a Tristan drama was in Wagner's mind three
years before he began its execution. While living in Zurich, in
1854, he had advanced as far as the second act of his "Siegfried"
when, in a moment of discouragement, he wrote to Liszt: "As I have
never in my life enjoyed the true felicity of love, I shall erect
to this most beautiful of my dreams" (i.e. the drama on which he
was working) "a monument in which, from beginning to end, this
love shall find fullest gratification. I have sketched in my head
a 'Tristan und Isolde,' the simplest of musical conceptions, but
full-blooded; with the 'black flag' which waves at the end I shall
then cover myself--to die." Three years later he took up the
project, but under an inspiration vastly different from that
notified to Liszt. The tragedy was not to be a monument to a mere
dream of felicity or to his artistic despair, but a tribute to a
consuming passion for Mathilde Wesendonck, wife of a benefactor
who had given him an idyllic home at Triebschen, on the shore of
Lake Lucerne. Mme. Wesendonck was the author of the two poems
"Im Treibhaus" and "Träume," which, with three others from the same
pen, Wagner set to music. The first four were published in the winter
of 1857-1858; the last, "Im Treibhaus," on May 1, 1858. The musical
theme of "Träume" was the germ of the love-music in the second act
of "Tristan und Isolde"; out of "Im Treibhaus" grew some of the
introduction to the third act. The tragedy was outlined in prose in
August, 1857, and the versification was finished by September 18.
The music was complete by July 16, 1859. Wagner gave the pencil
sketches of the score to Mme. Wesendonck, who piously went over them
with ink so that they might be preserved for posterity.

In 1857 Wagner had been eight years an exile from his native land.
Years had passed since he began work on "Der Ring des Nibelungen,"
and there seemed to him little prospect of that work receiving
either publication or performance. In May of that year he received
an invitation from Dom Pedro, Emperor of Brazil, to write an opera
for Rio de Janeiro and direct its production. Two and a half years
before he had seriously considered the project of coming to America
for a concert tour; so the invitation did not strike him as so
strange and extraordinary as it might have appeared to a musician of
less worldly wisdom. It is not likely that he took it seriously into
consideration, but at any rate it turned his thoughts again to the
opera which he had mentioned to Liszt. With it he saw an opportunity
for again establishing a connection with the theatre. Dom Pedro
wanted, of course, an Italian opera. Wagner's plan contemplated the
writing of "Tristan und Isolde" in German, its translation into
Italian, the dedication of its score to the Emperor of Brazil, with
the privilege of its performance there and a utilization of the
opportunity, if possible, to secure a production beforehand of
"Tannhäuser." Meanwhile, he would have the drama produced in its
original tongue at Strasburg, then a French city conveniently near
the German border, with Albert Niemann in the titular rôle and an
orchestra from Karlsruhe, or some other German city which had an
opera-house. He communicated the plan to Liszt, who approved of the
project heartily, though he was greatly amazed at the intelligence
which he had from another source that Wagner intended to write the
music with an eye to a performance in Italian. "How in the name
of all the gods are you going to make of it an opera for Italian
singers, as B. tells me you are? Well, since the incredible and
impossible have become your elements, perhaps you will achieve this,
too," Liszt wrote to him, and promised to go to Strasburg with
a Wagnerian coterie to act as a guard of honor for the composer.
Nothing came of either plan. Inspired by his love for Mathilde
Wesendonck, Wagner wrote the opera and succeeded in selling the
score to Breitkopf & Härtel for the equivalent of $800. Then began
the hunt for a theatre in which to give the first representation.
Eduard Devrient urged Karlsruhe, where he was director, but Wagner
wanted to supervise the production, and this was impossible in
a theatre of Germany so long as the decree of banishment for
participation in the Saxon rebellion hung over his head. The Grand
Duke of Baden appealed to the King of Saxony to recall the decree,
but in vain. Wagner went to Paris and Brussels, but had to content
himself with giving concerts. Weimar, Prague, and Hanover were
considered in order, and at length Wagner turned to Vienna. There
the opera was accepted for representation at the Court Opera, but
after fifty-four rehearsals between November, 1862, and March, 1863,
it was abandoned as "impossible."

The next year saw the turning-point in Wagner's career. Ludwig
of Bavaria invited him to come to Munich, the political ban was
removed, and "Tristan und Isolde" had its first performance, to the
joy of the composer and a host of his friends, on June 10, 1865, at
the Royal Court Theatre of the Bavarian capital, under the direction
of Hans von Bölow. The rôles of Tristan and Isolde were in the hands
of Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld and his wife. Albert Niemann was
prevented by the failure of the Strasburg plan from being the first
representative of the hero, but to him fell the honor of setting the
model for all American representations. The first performance in the
United States took place in the Metropolitan Opera-house on December
1, 1886, under the direction of Anton Seidl. The cast was as
follows: Isolde, Lilli Lehmann; Brangäne, Marianne Brandt; Tristan,
Albert Niemann; Kurwenal, Adolf Robinson; König Marke, Emil Fischer;
Melot, Rudolph von Milde; ein Hirt, Otto Kemlitz; ein Steuermann,
Emil Saenger; ein Seemann, Max Alvary.

Two circumstances bid us look a little carefully into the
instrumental prelude with which Wagner has prefaced his drama. One
is that it has taken so prominent a place in the concert-room that
even those whose love for pure music has made them indifferent to
the mixed art-form called the opera ought to desire acquaintance
with its poetical and musical contents; the other is that the
prelude, like the overture to "Fidelio" known as "Leonore No. 3,"
presents the spiritual progress of the tragedy from beginning to
end to the quickened heart and mind of the listener freed from all
material integument. To do this it makes use of the themes which are
most significant in the development of the psychology of the drama,
which is far and away its most important element, for the pictures
are not many, and the visible action is slight. Listening to the
music without thought of the drama, and, therefore, with no purpose
of associating it with the specific conceptions which later have
exposition in the text, we can hear in this prelude an expression
of an ardent longing, a consuming hunger,

which doth make
The meat it feeds on,

a desire that cannot be quenched, yet will not despair. Then, at the
lowest ebb of the sweet agony, an ecstasy of hope, a wildly blissful
contemplation of a promise of reward. If I depart here for a brief
space from my announced purpose not to analyze the music in the
manner of the Wagnerian commentators, it will be only because the
themes of the prelude are the most pregnant of those employed in the
working out of the drama, because their specific significance in the
purpose of the composer is plainly set forth by their association
with scenes and words, and because they are most admirably fitted
by structure and emotional content to express the things attributed
to them. The most important of the themes is that with which the
prelude begins:--

[Musical excerpt]

Note that it is two-voiced and that one voice ascends chromatically
(that is, in half steps), and the other descends in the same manner.
In the aspiring voice there is an expression of longing; in the
descending, of suffering and dejection. We therefore may look upon
it as a symbol of the lovers and their passion in a dual aspect.
After an exposition of this theme there enters another:--

[Musical excerpt]

followed immediately by:--

[Musical excerpt]

In the play the first of these two is associated with the character
of the hero; the second with the glance which Tristan cast upon
Isolde when she was about to kill him--the glance which inspired
the love of the princess. Two modifications of the principal theme
provide nearly all the rest of the material used in the building up
of the prelude. The first is a diminution of the motif compassed by
the second and third measures, which by reiteration develops the
climax of the piece:--

[Musical excerpt]

The second is a harmonized inversion of the same short figure,
preceded by a jubilantly ascending scale:--

[Musical excerpt]

This is the expression of the ecstasy of hope, the wildly blissful
contemplation of a promise of reward of which I have spoken.
Wagner tells us what the thing hoped for, the joy contemplated in
expectation, is, not only in the drama, but also in an exposition of
the contents of the prelude made for concert purposes. He deserves
that it shall be known, and I reproduce it in the translation of
William Ashton Ellis. After rehearsing the legend down to the
drinking of the fateful philtre, he says:--

The musician who chose this theme for the prelude to his love drama,
as he felt that he was now in the boundless realm of the very
element of music, could only have one care: how he should set
bounds to his fancy, for the exhaustion of the theme was impossible.
Thus he took, once for all, this insatiable desire. In long-drawn
accents it surges up, from its first timid confession, its softest
attraction, through sobbing sighs, hope and pain, laments and
wishes, delight and torment, up to the mightiest onslaught, the most
powerful endeavor to find the breach which shall open to the heart
the path to the ocean of the endless joy of love. In vain! Its power
spent, the heart sinks back to thirst with desire, with desire
unfulfilled, as each fruition only brings forth seeds of fresh
desire, till, at last, in the depths of its exhaustion, the starting
eye sees the glimmering of the highest bliss of attainment. It is
the ecstasy of dying, of the surrender of being, of the final
redemption into that wondrous realm from which we wander farthest
when we strive to take it by force. Shall we call this Death? Is it
not rather the wonder world of night, out of which, so says the
story, the ivy and the vine sprang forth in tight embrace o'er the
tomb of Tristan and Isolde?

If we place ourselves in spirit among the personages of Wagner's
play, we shall find ourselves at the parting of the curtain which
hangs between the real and the mimic world, on board a mediaeval
ship, within a few hours' sail of Cornwall, whither Tristan is
bearing Isolde to be the wife of his king Marke. The cheery song of
a sailor who, unseen, at the masthead, sings to the winds which are
blowing him away from his wild Irish sweetheart, floats down to us.
It has a refreshing and buoyant lilt, this song, with something of
the sea breeze in it, and yet something, as it is sung, which
emphasizes the loneliness of the singer:--

[Musical excerpt--"Frisch weht der Wind der Heimat zu: Mein irisch
Kind, wo weilest du?"]

An innocent song, the strain of which, more decorous than any modern
chantey, inspires the sailors as they pull at the ropes, and gives
voice to the delights of the peaceful voyage:--

[Musical excerpt]

Yet it stirs up a tempest in the soul of Isolde. She is the daughter
of an Irish queen, a sorceress, and she now deplores the degeneracy
of her race and its former potency. Once her ancestors could command
wind and wave, but now they can brew only balsamic potions. Wildly
she invokes the elements to dash the ship to pieces, and when her
maid, Brangäne, seeks to know the cause of her tumultuous disquiet,
she tells the story of her love for Tristan and of its disgraceful
requital. He had come to Ireland's queen to be healed of a wound
received in battle. He had killed his enemy, and that enemy
was Morold, Isolde's betrothed. The princess, ignorant of that
fact,--ignorant, too, of his name, for he had called himself
Tantris,--had herself nursed him back almost to health, when one day
she found that a splinter of steel, taken from the head of Morold,
where he had received the adolorous stroke, fitted into a nick in
the sword of the wounded knight. At her mercy lay the slayer of her
affianced husband. She raised the sword to take revenge, when his
look fell upon her. In a twinkling her heart was empty of hate
and filled instead with love. Now, instead of requiting her love,
Tristan is taking her to Cornwall to deliver her to a loveless
marriage to Cornwall's "weary king." It will be well to note in this
narrative how the description of Tristan's sufferings are set to a
descending chromatic passage, like the second voice of the principal
theme already described:--

[Musical excerpt--"Von einem Kahn, der klein und arm"]

The thought of her humiliation maddens the high-spirited woman,
and she sends her maid, Brangäne, to summon the knight into her
presence. The knight parleys diplomatically with the messenger. Duty
keeps him at the helm, but once in port he will suffer no one but
himself to escort the exalted lady into the presence of the king. At
the last the maid is forced to deliver the command in the imperious
words used by her mistress. This touches the pride of Tristan's
squire, Kurwenal, who asks permission to frame an answer, and,
receiving it, shouts a ballad of his master's method of paying
tribute to Ireland with the head of his enemy; for the battle
between Tristan and Morold had grown out of the effort made by the
latter to collect tribute-money from England. It is a stiff stave,
rugged, forceful, and direct, in which the spirit of the political
ballad of all times is capitally preserved.

Isolde resolves to wipe out what she conceives to be her disgrace by
slaying Tristan and herself. Brangäne tries to persuade her that the
crown of Cornwall will bring her honor, and when Isolde answers
that it would be intolerable to live in the presence of Tristan and
not have his love, she hints that her mother had not sent her into
a strange land without providing for all contingencies. Isolde
understands the allusion to her mother's magical lore, and commands
that a casket be brought to her. Brangäne obeys with alacrity and
exhibits its contents: lotions for wounds, antidotes for poisons,
and, best of all,--she holds a phial aloft. Isolde will not have it
so; she herself had marked the phial whose contents were to remedy
her ills. "The death draught!" exclaims Brangäne, and immediately
the "Yo, heave ho!" of the sailors is heard and the shout of "Land!"
Throughout this scene a significant phrase is heard--the symbol
of death:--

[Musical excerpt]

Also the symbol of fate--a downward leap of a seventh, as in the
last two notes of the brief figure illustrative of the glance which
had inspired Isolde's fatal love.

At sight of land Tristan leaves the helm and presents himself before
Isolde. She upbraids him for having avoided her during the voyage;
he replies that he had obeyed the commands of honor and custom. She
reminds him that a debt of blood is due her--he owes her revenge for
the death of Morold. Tristan offers her his sword and his breast;
but she declines to kill the best of all Marke's knights, and
offers to drink with him a cup of forgiveness. He divines her
purpose and takes the cup from her hand and gives this pledge:
Fidelity to his honor, defiance to anguish. To his heart's illusion,
his scarcely apprehended dream, will he drink the draught which
shall bring oblivion. Before he has emptied the cup, Isolde snatches
it from his hands and drains it to the bottom. Thus they meet
their doom, which is not death and surcease of sorrow, as both had
believed, but life and misery; for Brangäne, who had been commanded
to pour the poison in the cup, had followed an amiable prompting and
presented the love-potion instead. A moment of bewilderment, and
the fated ones are in each other's arms, pouring out an ecstasy of
passion. Then her maids robe Isolde to receive the king, who is
coming on board the ship to greet his bride.

In the introduction to the second act, based upon this restless

[Musical excerpt]

we have a picture of the longing and impatience of the lovers before
a meeting. When the curtains part, we discover a garden before the
chamber of Isolde, who is now Cornwall's queen. It is a lovely night
in summer. A torch burns in a ring beside the door opening into
the chamber at the top of a stone staircase. The king has gone
a-hunting, and the tones of the hunting-horns, dying away in the
distance, blend entrancingly with an instrumental song from the
orchestra which seems a musical sublimation of night and nature in
their tenderest moods. Isolde appears with Brangäne and pleads with
her to extinguish the torch and thus give the appointed signal to
Tristan, who is waiting in concealment. But Brangäne suspects
treachery on the part of Melot, a knight who is jealous of Tristan
and himself enamoured of Isolde. It was he who had planned the
nocturnal hunt. She warns her mistress, and begs her to wait. Beauty
rests upon the scene like a benediction. To Isolde the horns are but
the rustling of the forest leaves as they are caressed by the wind,
or the purling and laughing of the brook. Longing has eaten up all
patience, all discretion, all fear. In spite of Brangäne's pleadings
she extinguishes the torch, and with wildly waving scarf beckons on
her hurrying lover. Beneath the foliage they sing their love through
all the gamut of hope and despair, of bliss and wretchedness. The
duet consists largely of detached ejaculations and verbal plays,
each paraphrasing or varying or giving a new turn to the outpouring
of the other, the whole permeated with the symbolism of pessimistic
philosophy in which night, death, and oblivion are glorified, and
day, life, and memory contemned. In this dialogue lies the key
to the philosophy which Wagner has proclaimed in the tragedy. In
Wagner's exposition of the prelude we saw that he wishes us to
observe "the one glimmering of the highest bliss of attainment" in
the "surrender of being," the "final redemption into that wondrous
realm from which we wander farthest when we try to take it by
force." For this realm he chooses death and night as symbols, but
what he means to imply is the nirvana of Buddhistic philosophy, the
final deliverance of the soul from transmigration. Such love as
that of Tristan and Isolde presented itself to Wagner as ceaseless
struggle and endless contradiction, and for this problem nirvana
alone offers a happy outcome; it means quietude and identity.

In vain does Brangäne sing her song of warning from the tower;
the lovers have been transported beyond all realization of their
surroundings; they sing on, dream on in each other's arms, until
at the moment of supremest ecstasy there comes a rude interruption.
Kurwenal dashes in with a sword and a shout: "Save thyself,
Tristan!" the king, Melot, and courtiers at his heels. Day, symbol
of all that is fatal to their love, has dawned. Tristan is silent,
though Marke bewails the treachery of his nephew and his friend.
From the words of the heart-torn king we learn that he had been
forced into the marriage with Isolde by the disturbed state of his
kingdom, and had not consented to it until Tristan, whose purpose
it was thus to quiet the jealous anger of the barons, had threatened
to depart from Cornwall unless the king revoked his purpose to make
him his successor, and took unto himself a wife. Tristan's answer to
the sorrowful upbraidings of his royal uncle is to obtain a promise
from Isolde to follow him into the "wondrous realm of night." Then,
seeing that Marke does not wield the sword of retribution, he makes
a feint of attacking Melot, but permits the treacherous knight to
reach him with his sword. He falls wounded unto death.

The last act has been reached. The dignified, reserved knight
of the first act, the impassioned lover of the second, is now a
dream-haunted, longing, despairing, dying man, lying under a lime
tree in the yard of his ancestral castle in Brittany, wasting his
last bit of strength in feverish fancies and ardent yearnings
touching Isolde. Kurwenal has sent for her. Will she come? A
shepherd tells of vain watches for the sight of a sail by playing
a mournful melody on his pipe:--

[Musical excerpt]

Oh, the heart-hunger of the hero! The longing! Will she never come?
The fever is consuming him, and his heated brain breeds fancies
which one moment lift him above all memories of pain and the next
bring him to the verge of madness. Cooling breezes waft him again
toward Ireland, whose princess healed the wound struck by Morold,
then ripped it up again with the avenging sword with its telltale
nick. From her hands he took the drink whose poison sears his heart.
Accursed the cup and accursed the hand that brewed it! Will the
shepherd never change his doleful strain? Ah, Isolde, how beautiful
you are! The ship, the ship! It must be in sight. Kurwenal, have
you no eyes? Isolde's ship! A merry tune bursts from the shepherd's

[Musical excerpt]

It is the ship! What flag flies at the peak? The flag of "All's
well!" Now the ship disappears behind a cliff. There the breakers
are treacherous. Who is at the helm? Friend or foe? Melot's
accomplice? Are you, too, a traitor, Kurwenal? Tristan's strength is
unequal to the excitement of the moment. His mind becomes dazed. He
hears Isolde's voice, and his wandering fancy transforms it into the
torch whose extinction once summoned him to her side: "Do I hear
the light?" He staggers to his feet and tears the bandages from his
wound. "Ha! my blood! flow merrily now! She who opened the wound is
here to heal it!" Life endures but for one embrace, one glance, one
word: "Isolde!" While Isolde lies mortally stricken upon Tristan's
corpse, Marke and his train arrive upon a second ship. Brangäne
has told the secret of the love-draught, and the king has come
to unite the lovers. But his purpose is not known, and faithful
Kurwenal receives his death-blow while trying to hold the castle
against Marke's men. He dies at Tristan's side. Isolde, unconscious
of all these happenings, sings out her broken heart, and expires.

And ere her ear might hear, her heart had heard,
Nor sought she sign for witness of the word;
But came and stood above him, newly dead,
And felt his death upon her: and her head
Bowed, as to reach the spring that slakes all drouth;
And their four lips became one silent mouth. {2}


{1} "Studies in the Wagnerian Drama," by H. E. Krehbiel.

{2} Swinburne, "Tristram of Lyonesse."



A lad, hotfoot in pursuit of a wild swan which one of his arrows has
pierced, finds himself in a forest glade on the side of a mountain.
There he meets a body of knights and esquires in attendance on a
king who is suffering from a wound. The knights are a body of men
whose mission it is to succor suffering innocence wherever they may
find it. They dwell in a magnificent castle on the summit of the
mountain, within whose walls they assemble every day to contemplate
and adore a miraculous vessel from which they obtain both physical
and spiritual sustenance. In order to enjoy the benefits which flow
from this talisman, they are required to preserve their bodies in
ascetic purity. Their king has fallen from this estate and been
grievously wounded in an encounter with a magician, who, having
failed in his ambition to enter the order of knighthood, had built
a castle over against that of the king, where, by practice of the
black art and with the help of sirens and a sorceress, he seeks the
ruin of the pure and celestial soldiery. In his hands is a lance
which once belonged to the knights, but which he had wrested from
their king and with which he had given the dolorous stroke from
which the king is suffering.

The healing of the king can be wrought only by a touch of the lance
which struck the wound; and this lance can be regained only by one
able to withstand the sensual temptations with which the evil-minded
sorcerer has surrounded himself in his magical castle. An oracle,
that had spoken from a vision, which one day shone about the
talisman, had said that this deliverer fool, an innocent simpleton,
pity had made knowing:--

[Musical excerpt--"Durch mitleid wissend, der reine Thor, harre sein'
den ich erkor." THE ORACLE]

For this hero king and knights are waiting and longing, since
neither lotions nor baths nor ointments can bring relief, though
they be of the rarest potency and brought from all the ends of the
earth. The lad who thus finds himself in this worshipful but woful
company is himself of noble and knightly lineage. This we learn from
the recital of his history, but also from the bright, incisive,
militant, chivalresque music associated with him:--

[Musical excerpt--THE SYMBOL OF PARSIFAL]

But he has been reared in a wilderness, far from courts and the
institutions of chivalry and in ignorance of the world lying beyond
his forest boundaries. His father died before he was born, and his
mother withheld from him all knowledge of knighthood, hoping thus
to keep him for herself. One day, however, he saw a cavalcade of
horsemen in brilliant trappings. The spectacle stirred the chivalric
spirit slumbering within him; he deserted his mother, followed after
the knights, and set out in quest of adventure. The mother died:--


In the domain whither his quarry had led the lad, all animals were
held sacred. A knight (Gurnemanz) rebukes him for his misdeed in
shooting the swan, and rue leads him to break his bow and arrows.
From a strange creature (Kundry),--

[Musical excerpt--THE PENITENT KUNDRY]

in the service of the knights, he learns of the death of his mother,
who had perished for love of him and grief over his desertion. He is
questioned about himself, but is singularly ignorant of everything,
even of his own name. Hoping that the lad may prove to be the
guileless fool to whom knowledge was to come through pity, the
knight escorts him to the temple, which is the sanctuary of the
talisman whose adoration is the daily occupation of the brotherhood.
They walk out of the forest and find themselves in a rocky defile
of the mountain. A natural gateway opens in the face of a cliff,
through which they pass, and are lost to sight for a space. Then
they are seen ascending a sloping passage, and little by little the
rocks lose their ruggedness and begin to take on rude architectural
contours. They are walking to music which, while merely suggesting
their progress and the changing natural scene in the main, ever and
anon breaks into an expression of the most poignant and lacerating
suffering and lamentation:--


Soon the pealing of bells is heard:--

[Musical excerpt]

and the tones blend synchronously and harmonously with the music of
their march:--


At last they arrive in a mighty Byzantine hail, which loses itself
upward in a lofty, vaulted dome, from which light streams downward
and illumines the interior. Under the dome, within a colonnade, are
two tables, each a segment of a circle. Into the hall there come
in procession knights wearing red mantles on which the image of a
white dove is embroidered. They chant a pious hymn as they take
their places at the refectory tables:--

[Musical excerpt--"Zum letzten Liebesmahle Gerüstet Tag für Tag."

The king, whom the lad had seen in the glade, is borne in on a
litter, before him a veiled shrine containing the mystical cup which
is the object of the ceremonious worship. It is the duty of the
king to unveil the talisman and hold it up to the adoration of the
knights. He is conveyed to a raised couch and the shrine is placed
before him. His sufferings of mind and body are so poignant that
he would liever die than perform his office; but the voice of his
father (Titurel), who had built the sanctuary, established the order
of knighthood, and now lives on in his grave sustained by the sight
of the talisman, admonishes the king of his duty. At length he
consents to perform the function imposed upon him by his office. He
raises himself painfully upon his couch. The attendants remove the
covering from the shrine and disclose an antique crystal vessel
which they reverently place before the lamentable king. Boys' voices
come wafted down from the highest height of the dome, singing a
formula of consecration: "Take ye my body, take my blood in token
of our love":--

[Musical excerpt--THE LOVE-FEAST FORMULA]

A dazzling ray of light flashes down from above and falls into the
cup, which now glows with a reddish purple lustre and sheds a soft
radiance around. The knights have sunk upon their knees. The king
lifts the luminous chalice, moves it gently from side to side, and
thus blesses the bread and wine provided for the refection of the
knights. Meanwhile, celestial voices proclaim the words of the
oracle to musical strains that are pregnant with mysterious

Another choir sturdily, firmly, ecstatically hymns the power
of faith:--

[Musical excerpt--THE SYMBOL OF FAITH]

and, at the end, an impressive antiphon, starting with the knights,
ascends higher and higher, and, calling in gradually the voices of
invisible singers in the middle height, becomes metamorphosed into
an angelic canticle as it takes its flight to the summit. It is
the voice of aspiration, the musical symbol of the talisman which
directs the thoughts and desires of its worshippers ever upward:--


The lad disappoints his guide. He understands nothing of the solemn
happenings which he has witnessed, nor does he ask their meaning,
though his own heart had been lacerated with pain at sight of the
king's sufferings. He is driven from the sanctuary with contumely.

He wanders forth in quest of further adventures and enters the
magical garden surrounding the castle of the sorcerer. A number of
knights who are sent against him he puts to rout. Now the magician
summons lovely women, clad in the habiliments of flowers, to seduce
him with their charms:--


They sing and play about him with winsome wheedlings and cajoleries,
with insinuating blandishments and dainty flatteries, with pretty
petulancies and delectable quarrellings:--

[Musical excerpt--"Komm, Komm, holder Knabe," THE SEDUCTIVE SONG OF

But they fail of their purpose, as does also an unwilling siren whom
the magician invokes with powerful conjurations. It is Kundry, who
is half Magdalen, half wicked sorceress, a messenger in the service
of the pious knights, and as such hideous of aspect; a tool in the
hands of the magician, and as such supernaturally beautiful. It was
to her charms that the suffering king had yielded. To win the youth
she tells him the story of his mother's death and gives to him her
last message and--a kiss! At the touch of her impure lips a flood of
passion, hitherto unfelt, pours through the veins of the lad, and in
its surge comes understanding of the suffering and woe which he had
witnessed in the castle on the mountain. Also a sense of his own
remissness. Compassionate pity brings enlightenment; and he thrusts
back the woman who is seeking to destroy him. Finding that the wiles
of his tool have availed him naught, the wicked magician himself
appears to give battle, for he, too, knows the oracle and fears the
coming of the king's deliverer and the loss of the weapon which he
hopes will yet enable him to achieve the mystical talisman. He hurls
the lance at the youth, but it remains suspended in midair. The lad
seizes it, makes the sign of the cross, speaks some words of exorcism,
and garden, castle, damsels--all the works of enchantment disappear.

Now the young hero is conscious of a mission. He must find again
the abode of the knights and their ailing king, and bring to them
surcease of suffering. After long and grievous wanderings he is
again directed to the castle. Grief and despair have overwhelmed the
knights, whose king, unable longer to endure the torture in which he
has lived, has definitively refused to perform his holy office. In
consequence, his father, no longer the recipient of supernatural
sustenance, has died, and the king longs to follow him. The hero
touches the wound in the side of the king with the sacred spear,
ends his dolors, and is hailed as king in his place. The temptress,
who has followed him as a penitent, freed from a curse which had
rested upon her for ages, goes to a blissful and eternal rest.

* * *

Such is the story of Wagner's "Parsifal." It is the purpose of this
book to help the musical layman who loves lyric drama to enjoyment.
Criticism might do this, but a purpose of simple exposition has
already been proclaimed, and shall be adhered to lest some reader
think that he is being led too far afield. In this case the
exposition shall take the form of a marshalling of the elements of
the story in two aspects--religious and legendary. Careful readers
of English literature will have had no difficulty in recognizing in
it a story of the quest of the Holy Grail. Tennyson will have taught
them that the hero is that

Sir Percivale
Whom Arthur and his knighthood called the Pure;

that the talismanic vessel is

the cup itself from which our Lord
Drank at the last sad supper with His own;

that the lance which struck and healed the grievous wound in the
side of the king is the spear with which the side of the Christ was
pierced on Calvary. It is also obvious that the king, whose name
is Amfortas, that is, "the powerless one," is a symbol of humanity
suffering from the wounds of slavery to desire; that the heroic act
of Parsifal, as Wagner calls him, which brings release to the king
and his knights, is renunciation of desire, prompted by pity,
compassion, fellow-suffering; and that this gentle emotion it was
that had inspired knowledge simultaneously of a great need and a
means of deliverance. The ethical idea of the drama, as I set forth
in a book entitled "Studies in the Wagnerian Drama" many years ago,
is that it is the enlightenment which comes through pity which
brings salvation. The allusion is to the redemption of mankind
by the sufferings and compassionate death of Christ; and that
stupendous tragedy is the prefiguration of the mimic drama which
Wagner has constructed. The spectacle to which he invites us, and
with which he hoped to impress us and move us to an acceptance of
the lesson underlying his play, is the adoration of the Holy Grail,
cast in the form of a mimicry of the Last Supper, bedizened with
some of the glittering pageantry of mediaeval knighthood and romance.

In the minds of many persons it is a profanation to make a stage
spectacle out of religious things; and it has been urged that
"Parsifal" is not only religious but specifically Christian; not
only Christian but filled with parodies of elements which are partly
liturgical, partly Biblical. In narrating the incidents of the play
I have purposely avoided all allusions to the things which have been
matters of controversy. It is possible to look upon "Parsifal" as a
sort of glorified fairy tale, and to this end I purpose to subject
its elements to inquiry, and shall therefore go a bit more into
detail. Throughout the play Parsifal is referred to as a redeemer,
and in the third act scenes in which he plays as the central figure
are borrowed from the life of Christ. Kundry, the sorceress, who
attempts his destruction at one time and is in the service of the
knights of the Grail at another, anoints his feet and dries them
with her hair, as the Magdalen did the feet of Christ in the house
of Simon the Pharisee. Parsifal baptizes Kundry and admonishes her
to believe in the Redeemer:--

Die Taufe nimm
Und glaub' an den Erlöser!

Kundry weeps. Unto the woman who was a sinner and wept at His feet
Christ said: "Thy sins are forgiven. . . . Thy faith hath saved
thee. Go in peace." At the elevation of the grail by Parsifal after
the healing of Amfortas a dove descends from the dome and hovers
over the new king's head. What saith the Scripture? "And Jesus,
when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water; and
lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God
descending like a dove, and lighting upon him." (St. Matthew iii.
16.) It would be idle to argue that these things are not Biblical,
though the reported allusions to Parsifal as a redeemer do not of
necessity belong in the category. We shall see presently that the
drama is permeated with Buddhism, and there were a multitude of
redeemers and saviours in India besides the Buddha.

Let us look at the liturgical elements. The Holy Grail is a chalice.
It is brought into the temple in solemn procession in a veiled
shrine and deposited on a table. Thus, also, the chalice, within its
pall, is brought in at the sacrament of the mass and placed on the
altar before the celebrant. In the drama boys' voices sing in the
invisible heights:--

Nehmet hin mein Blut
Um unserer Liebe willen!
Nehmet hin meinem Leib
Auf dass ihr mein gedenkt!

Is there a purposed resemblance here to the words of consecration in
the mass? Accipite, et manducate ex hoc omnes. Hoc est enim Corpus
meum. Accipite, et bibite ex eo omnes. Hic est enim Calix sanguinis
mei! In a moment made wonderfully impressive by Wagner's music,
while Amfortas bends over the grail and the knights are on their
knees, a ray of light illumines the cup and it glows red. Amfortas
lifts it high, gently sways it from side to side, and blesses the
bread and wine which youthful servitors have placed beside each
knight on the table. In the book of the play, as the hall gradually
grows light the cups before the knights appear filled with red wine,
and beside each lies a small loaf of bread. Now the celestial
choristers sing: "The wine and bread of the Last Supper, once the
Lord of the Grail, through pity's love-power, changed into the blood
which he shed, into the body which he offered. To-day the Redeemer
whom ye laud changes the blood and body of the sacrificial offering
into the wine poured out for you, and the bread that you eat!" And
the knights respond antiphonally: "Take of the bread; bravely change
it anew into strength and power. Faithful unto death, staunch in
effort to do the works of the Lord. Take of the blood; change
it anew to life's fiery flood. Gladly in communion, faithful as
brothers, to fight with blessed courage." Are these words, or are
they not, a paraphrase of those which in the canon of the mass
follow the first and second ablutions of the celebrant: Quod ore
sumpsimus Domine, etc., and: Corpus tuum, Domine, etc.? He would
be but little critical who would deny it.

Nevertheless, it does not necessarily follow that Wagner wished only
to parody the eucharistic rite. He wanted to create a ceremonial
which should be beautiful, solemn, and moving; which should be an
appropriate accompaniment to the adoration of a mystical relic;
which should, in a large sense, be neither Catholic, Protestant,
nor Buddhistic; which should symbolize a conception of atonement
older than Christianity, older than Buddhism, older than all records
of the human imagination. Of this more anon. As was his custom,
Wagner drew from whatever source seemed to him good and fruitful;
and though he doubtless thought himself at liberty to receive
suggestions from the Roman Catholic ritual, as well as the German
Lutheran, it is even possible that he had also before his mind
scenes from Christian Masonry. This possibility was once suggested
by Mr. F. C. Burnand, who took the idea from the last scene of the
first act only, and does not seem to have known how many connections
the Grail legend had with mediaeval Freemasonry or Templarism. There
are more elements associated with the old Knights Templars and their
rites in Wagner's drama than I am able to discuss. To do so I should
have to be an initiate and have more space at my disposal than I
have here. I can only make a few suggestions: In the old Welsh tale
of Peredur, which is a tale of the quest of a magical talisman, the
substitute for the grail is a dish containing a bloody head. That
head in time, as the legend passed through the imaginations of poets
and romances, became the head of John the Baptist, and there was a
belief in the Middle Ages that the Knights Templars worshipped a
bloody head. The head of John the Baptist enters dimly into Wagner's
drama in the conceit that Kundry is a reincarnation of Herodias,
who is doomed to make atonement, not for having danced the head off
the prophet's shoulders, but for having reviled Christ as he was
staggering up Calvary under the load of the cross. But this is
pursuing speculations into regions that are shadowy and vague. Let
it suffice for this branch of our study that Mr. Burnand has given
expression to the theory that the scene of the adoration of the
grail and the Love Feast may also have a relationship with the
ceremony of installation in the Masonic orders of chivalry, in
which a cup of brotherly love is presented to the Grand Commander,
who drinks and asks the Sir Knights to pledge him in the cup "in
commemoration of the Last Supper of our Grand Heavenly Captain, with
his twelve disciples, whom he commanded thus to remember him." Here,
says Mr. Burnand, there is no pretence to sacrifice. Participation
in the wine is a symbol of a particular and peculiarly close
intercommunion of brotherhood.

To get the least offence from "Parsifal" it ought to be accepted in
the spirit of the time in which Christian symbolism was grafted on
the old tales of the quest of a talisman which lie at the bottom of
it. The time was the last quarter of the twelfth century and the
first quarter of the thirteenth. It is the period of the third
and fourth crusades. Relic worship was at its height. Less than a
hundred years before (in 1101) the Genoese crusaders had brought
back from the Holy Land as a part of the spoils of Caesarea, which
they were helpful in capturing under Baldwin, a three-cornered dish,
which was said to be the veritable dish used at the Last Supper of
Christ and his Apostles. The belief that it was cut out of a solid
emerald drew Bonaparte's attention to it, and he carried it away
to Paris in 1806 and had it examined. It proved to be nothing but
glass, and he graciously gave it back to Genoa in 1814. There it
still reposes in the Church of St. John, but it is no longer an
object of worship, though it might fairly excite a feeling of

For 372 years Nuremberg possessed what the devout believed to be the
lance of Longinus, with which the side of Christ was opened. The
relic, like most objects of its kind (the holy coat, for instance),
had a rival which, after inspiring victory at the siege of Antioch,
found its way to Paris with the most sacred relics, for which Louis
IX built the lovely Sainte Chapelle; now it is in the basilica of
the Vatican, at Rome. The Nuremberg relic, however, enjoyed the
advantage of historical priority. It is doubly interesting, or
rather was so, because it was one of Wagner's historical characters
who added it to the imperial treasure of the Holy Roman Empire. This
was none other than Henry the Fowler, the king who is righteous in
judgment and tuneful of speech in the opera "Lohengrin." Henry, so
runs the story, wrested the lance from the Burgundian king, Rudolph
III, some time about A.D. 929. After many vicissitudes the relic was
given for safe keeping to the imperial city of Nuremberg, in 1424,
by the Emperor Sigismund. It was placed in a casket, which was
fastened with heavy chains to the walls of the Spitalkirche. There
it remained until 1796. One may read about the ceremonies attending
its annual exposition, along with other relics, in the old history
of Nuremberg, by Wagenseil, which was the source of Wagner's
knowledge of the mastersingers. The disruption of the Holy Roman
Empire caused a scattering of the jewels and relics in the imperial
treasury, and the present whereabouts of this sacred lance is
unknown. The casket and chains, however, are preserved in the
Germanic Museum at Nuremberg to this day, and there have been seen,
doubtless, by many who are reading these lines.

There is nothing in "Parsifal," neither personage nor incident nor
thing, no principle of conduct, which did not live in legendary
tales and philosophical systems long before Christianity existed as
a universal religion. The hero in his first estate was born, bred,
went out in search of adventure, rescued the suffering, and righted
wrong, just as Krishna, Perseus, Theseus, OEdipus, Romulus,
Remus, Siegfried, and Wolf-Dietrich did before him. He is an Aryan
legendary and mythical hero-type that has existed for ages. The
talismanic cup and spear are equally ancient; they have figured
in legend from time immemorial. The incidents of their quest,
the agonies wrought by their sight, their mission as inviters of
sympathetic interest, and the failure of a hero to achieve a work of
succor because of failure to show pity, are all elements in Keltic
Quester and Quest stories, which antedate Christianity. Kundry, the
loathly damsel and siren, has her prototypes in classic fable and
romantic tale. Read the old English ballad of "The Marriage of Sir
Gawain." So has the magic castle of Klingsor, surrounded by its
beautiful garden. It is all the things which I enumerated in the
chapter devoted to "Tannhäuser." It is also the Underworld, where
prevails the law of taboo--"Thou must," or "Thou shalt not;" whither
Psyche went on her errand for Venus and came back scot-free; where
Peritheus and Theseus remained grown to a rocky seat till Hercules
came to release them with mighty wrench and a loss of their bodily
integrity. The sacred lance which shines red with blood after it
has by its touch healed the wound of Amfortas is the bleeding spear
which was a symbol of righteous vengeance unperformed in the old
Bardic day of Britain; it became the lance of Longinus which pierced
the side of Christ when Christian symbolism was applied to the
ancient Arthurian legends; and you may read in Malory's "Morte
d'Arthur" how a dolorous stroke dealt with it by Balin opened a
wound in the side of King Pellam from which he suffered many years,
till Galahad healed him in the quest of the Sangreal by touching
the wound with the blood which flowed from the spear.

These are the folklore elements in Wagner's "Parsifal." It is plain
that they might have been wrought into a drama substantially like
that which was the poet-composer's last gift to art without loss
of either dignity or beauty. Then his drama would have been like
a glorified fairy play, imposing and of gracious loveliness, and
there would have been nothing to quarrel about. But Wagner was a
philosopher of a sort, and a sincere believer in the idea that the
theatre might be made to occupy the same place in the modern world
that it did in the classic. It was to replace the Church and teach
by direct preachments as well as allegory the philosophical notions
which he thought essential to the salvation of humanity. For the
chief of these he went to that system of philosophy which rests on
the idea that the world is to be redeemed by negation of the will to
live, the conquering of all desire--that the highest happiness is
the achievement of nirvana, nothingness. This conception finds its
highest expression in the quietism and indifferentism of the old
Brahmanic religion (if such it can be called), in which holiness
was to be obtained by speculative contemplation, which seems to me
the quintessence of selfishness. In the reformed Brahmanism called
Buddhism, there appeared along with the old principle of self-erasure
a compassionate sympathy for others. Asceticism was not put aside,
but regulated and ordered, wrought into a communal system. It was
purged of some of its selfishness by appreciation of the loveliness
of compassionate love as exemplified in the life of Çakya-Muni and
those labors which made him one of the many redeemers and saviours
of which Hindu literature is full. Something of this was evidently
in the mind of Wagner as long ago as 1857, when, working on "Tristan
und Isolde," he for a while harbored the idea of bringing Parzival
(as he would have called him then) into the presence of the
dying Tristan to comfort him with a sermon on the happiness of
renunciation. Long before Wagner had sketched a tragedy entitled
"Jesus of Nazareth," the hero of which was to be a human philosopher
who preached the saving grace of love and sought to redeem his time
and people from the domination of conventional law, the offspring
of selfishness. His philosophy was socialism imbued by love. Before
Wagner finished "Tristan und Isolde" he had outlined a Hindu play in
which hero and heroine were to accept the doctrines of the Buddha,
take the vow of chastity, renounce the union toward which love
impelled them, and enter into the holy community. Blending these two
schemes, Wagner created "Parsifal." For this drama he could draw
the principle of compassionate pity and fellow-suffering from the
stories of both Çakya-Muni and Jesus of Nazareth. But for the sake
of a spectacle, I think, he accepted the Christian doctrine of the
Atonement with all its mystical elements; for they alone put the
necessary symbolical significance into the principal apparatus of
the play--the Holy Grail and the Sacred Lance. {1}


{1} "Parsifal" was performed for the first time at the Wagner
Festival Theatre in Bayreuth on July 28, 1882. The prescription
that it should belong exclusively to Bayreuth was respected till
December 24, 1903, when Heinrich Conried, taking advantage of the
circumstance that there was no copyright on the stage representation
of the work in America, brought it out with sensational success at
the Metropolitan Opera-house in New York. The principal artists
concerned in this and subsequent performances were Milka Ternina
(Kundry), Alois Burgstaller (Paraifal), Anton Van Rooy (Amfortas),
Robert Blass (Gurnemanz), Otto Görlitz (Klingsor) and Louise Homer
(a voice).



The best definition of the true purpose of comedy which I know is
that it is to "chastise manners with a smile" (Ridendo castigat
mores); and it has no better exemplification in the literature
of opera than Wagner's "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg." Wagner's
mind dwelt much on Greek things, and as he followed a classical
principle in choosing mythological and legendary subjects for his
tragedies, so also he followed classical precedent in drawing the
line between tragedy and comedy. "Tannhäuser," "Tristan und Isolde,"
"Der Ring des Nibelungen," "Parsifal," and, in a lesser degree,
"Lohengrin," are examples of the old tragedy type. To them the
restrictions of time and space do not apply. They deal with large
passions, and their heroes are gods or godlike men who are shattered
against the rock of immutable law--the "Fate" of the ancient
tragedians. His only significant essay in the field of comedy was
made in "Die Meistersinger," and this is as faithful to the old
conception of comedy as the dramas mentioned are to that of tragedy.
It deals with the manners, vices, and follies of the common people;
and, therefore, it has local environment and illustrates a period
in history. It was conceived as a satyr-play following a tragedy
("Tannhäuser"), and though there can be no doubt that it was
designed to teach a lesson in art, it nevertheless aims primarily
to amuse, and only secondarily to instruct and correct. Moreover,
even the most cutting of its satirical lashes are administered with
a smile.

As a picture of the social life of a quaint German city three and a
half centuries ago, its vividness and truthfulness are beyond all
praise; it is worthy to stand beside the best dramas of the world,
and has no equal in operatic literature. The food for its satire,
too, is most admirably chosen, for no feature of the social life of
that place and period is more amiably absurd than the efforts of the
handicraftsmen and tradespeople, with their prosaic surroundings,
to keep alive by dint of pedantic formularies the spirit of
minstrelsy, which had a natural stimulus in the chivalric life of
the troubadours and minnesingers of whom the mastersingers thought
themselves the direct and legitimate successors. In its delineation
of the pompous doings of the mastersingers, Wagner is true to
the letter. He has vitalized the dry record to be found in old
Wagenseil's book on Nuremberg, {1} and intensified the vivid
description of a mastersingers' meeting which the curious may read
in August Hagen's novel "Norica." His studies have been marvellously
exact and careful, and he has put Wagenseil's book under literal and
liberal contribution, as will appear after a while. Now it seems
best to tell the story of the comedy before discussing it further.

Veit Pogner, a rich silversmith, desiring to honor the craft of the
mastersingers, to whose guild he belongs, offers his daughter Eva
in marriage to the successful competitor at the annual meeting of
the mastersingers on the feast of St. John. Eva is in love (she
declares it in the impetuous manner peculiar to Wagner's heroines)
with Walther von Stolzing, a young Franconian knight; and the knight
with her. After a flirtation in church during divine service,
Walther meets her before she leaves the building, and asks if she
be betrothed. She answers in the affirmative, but it is to the
unknown victor at the contest of singing on the morrow. He resolves
to enter the guild so as to be qualified for the competition. A
trial of candidates takes place in the church of St. Catherine in
the afternoon, and Walther, knowing nothing of the rules of the
mastersingers, some of which have hurriedly been outlined to him
by David, a youngster who is an apprentice at shoemaking and also
songmaking, fails, though Hans Sachs, a master in both crafts,
recognizes evidences of genius in the knight's song, and espouses
his cause as against Beckmesser, the town clerk, who aims at
acquiring Pogner's fortune by winning his daughter. The young
people, in despair at Walther's failure, are about to elope when
they are prevented by the arrival on the scene of Beckmesser. It is
night, and he wishes to serenade Eva; Sachs sits cobbling at his
bench, while Eva's nurse, Magdalena, disguised, sits at a window
to hear the serenade in her mistress's stead. Sachs interrupts
the serenader, who is an ill-natured clown, by lustily shouting
a song in which he seeks also to give warning of knowledge of
her intentions to Eva, whose departure with the knight had been
interrupted by the cobbler when he came out of his shop to work
in the cool of the evening; but he finally agrees to listen to
Beckmesser on condition that he be permitted to mark each error in
the composition by striking his lap-stone. The humorous consequences
can be imagined. Beckmesser becomes enraged at Sachs, sings more
and more falsely, until Sachs is occupied in beating a veritable
tattoo on his lap-stone. To add to Beckmesser's discomfiture,
David, Sachs's apprentice and Magdalena's sweetheart, thinking
the serenade intended for his love, begins to belabor the singer
with a chub; neighbors join in the brawl, which proceeds right
merrily until interrupted by the horn of a night watchman. The
dignity and vigor of Wagner's poetical fancy are attested by the
marvellous chose of the act. The tremendous hubbub of the street
brawl is at its height and the business of the act is at an end.
The coming of the Watchman, who has evidently been aroused by the
noise, is foretold by his horn. The crowd is seized with a panic.
All the brawlers disappear behind doors. The sleepy Watchman stares
about him in amazement, rubs his eyes, sings the monotonous chant
which publishes the hour of the night, continues on his round, and
the moon shines on a quiet street in Nuremberg as the curtain falls.

In the third act Walther, who had been taken into his house by Sachs
and spent the night there, sings a recital of a dream; and Sachs,
struck by its beauty, transcribes it, punctuating it with bits of
comments and advice. Beckmesser, entering Sachs's shop when the
cobbler-poet is out for a moment, finds the song, concludes that it
is Sachs's own composition, and appropriates it. Sachs, discovering
the theft, gives the song to Beckmesser, who secures a promise from
Sachs not to betray him, and resolves to sing it at the competition.
The festival is celebrated in a meadow on the banks of the Pegnitz
River, between Fürth and Nuremberg. It begins with a gathering
of all the guilds of Nuremberg, each division in the procession
entering to characteristic music--a real masterpiece, whether
viewed as spectacle, poetry, or music. The competition begins, and
Beckmesser makes a monstrously stupid parody of Walther's song.
He is hooted at and ridiculed, and, becoming enraged, charges the
authorship of the song on Sachs, who coolly retorts that it is
a good song when correctly sung. To prove his words he calls on
Walther to sing it. The knight complies, the mastersingers are
delighted, and Pogner rewards the singer with Eva's hand. Sachs,
at the request of the presiding officer of the guild, also offers
him the medal as the insignia of membership in the guild of
mastersingers. Walther's experience with the pedantry which had
condemned him the day before, when he had sung as impulse, love, and
youthful ardor had prompted, leads him to decline the distinction;
but the old poet discourses on the respect due to the masters and
their, work as the guaranty of the permanence of German art, and
persuades him to enter the guild of mastersingers.

"Die Meistersinger" is photographic in many of its scenes,
personages, and incidents; but so far as the stage pictures which
we are accustomed to see in the opera-houses of New York and the
European capitals are concerned, this statement must be taken with
a great deal of allowance, owing to the fact that opera directors,
stage managers, scene painters, and costumers are blithely
indifferent to the verities of history. I have never seen a mimic
reproduction of the church of St. Catherine on any stage; yet the
church stands to-day with its walls intact as they were at the time
in which the comedy is supposed to play. This time is fixed by the
fact that its principal character, Hans Sachs, is represented as
a widower who might himself be a suitor for Eva's hand. Now the
veritable Sachs was a widower in the summer of the year 1560. I
visited Nuremberg in 1886 in search of relics of the mastersingers
and had no little difficulty in finding the church. It had not been
put to its original purposes for more than a hundred years, and
there seemed to be but few people in Nuremberg who knew of its
existence. It has been many things since it became secularized: a
painter's academy, drawing-school, military hospital, warehouse,
concert-hall, and, no doubt, a score of other things. When I found
it with the aid of the police it was the paint-shop and scenic
storeroom of the municipal theatre. It is a small building, utterly
unpretentious of exterior and interior, innocent of architectural
beauty, hidden away in the middle of a block of lowly buildings
used as dwellings, carpenter shops, and the like. That Wagner never
visited it is plain from the fact that though he makes it the
scene of one act of his comedy (as he had to do to be historically
accurate), his stage directions could not possibly be accommodated
to its architecture. In 1891 Mr. Louis Loeb, the American artist,
whose early death in the summer of 1909 is widely mourned, visited
the spot and made drawings for me of the exterior and interior of
the church as it looked then. The church was built in the last half
decade of the thirteenth century, and on its water-stained walls,
when I visited it, there were still to be seen faint traces of the
frescoes which once adorned it and were painted in the fourteenth,
fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries; but they were ruined beyond
hope of restoration. In the Germanic Museum I found a wooden tablet
dating back to 1581, painted by one Franz Hein. It preserves
portraits of four distinguished members of the mastersingers' guild.
There is a middle panel occupied by two pictures, the upper
showing King David, the patron saint of the guild, so forgetful of
chronology as to be praying before a crucifix, the lower a meeting
of the mastersingers. Over the heads of the assemblage is a
representative of the medallion with which the victor in a contest
used to be decorated, as we see in the last scene of Wagner's
comedy. One of these decorations was given to the guild by Sachs
and was in use for a whole century. At the end of that time it had
become so worn that Wagenseil replaced it with another.

Church and tablet are the only relics of the mastersingers left
in Nuremberg which may be called personal. I had expected to find
autobiographic manuscripts of Sachs, but in this was disappointed.
There is a volume of mastersongs in the poet-cobbler's handwriting
in the Royal Library of Berlin, and one of these is the composition
of the veritable Sixtus Beckmesser; but most of the Sachs
manuscripts are in Zwickau. In the Bibliotheca Norica Williana,
incorporated with the Municipal Library of Nuremberg, there are
several volumes of mastersingers' songs purchased from an old
mastersinger some 135 years ago, and from these the students may
learn the structure and spirit of the mastersongs of the period of
the opera as well as earlier and later periods, though he will find
all the instruction he needs in any dozen or twenty of the 4275
mastersongs written by Hans Sachs. The manuscript books known serve
to prove one thing which needed not to have called up a doubt. In
them are poems from all of the mastersingers who make up the meeting
which condemns Walther in St. Catherine's church. Wagner has adhered
to the record. {2} The most interesting of Sixtus Beckmesser's
compositions is "A New Year's Song," preserved in the handwriting
of Sachs in the Royal Library at Berlin. This I have translated in
order to show the form of the old mastersongs as described by the
apprentice, David, in Wagner's comedy, and also to prove (so far
as a somewhat free translation can) that the veritable Beckmesser
was not the stupid dunce that Wagner, for purposes of his own,
and tempted, doubtless, by the humor which he found in the name,
represented him to be. In fact, I am strongly tempted to believe
that with the exception of Sachs himself, Beckmesser was the best
of the mastersingers of the Nuremberg school:--

By Sixtus Beckmesser

(First "Stoll")
Christian thoughts employ
This day
Doth say
The Book of old
That we should hold
The faith foretold;
For naught doth doubt afford.
The patriarchs with one accord
Lived hoping that the Lord
Would rout the wicked horde.
Thus saith the word
To all believers given.

(Second "Stoll")
Council held, triune,
When soon
The boon
The son foresaw:
Fulfilled the law
That we might draw
Salvation's prize. God then
An angel sent cross moor and fen,
('Twas Gabriel, heaven's denizen,)
To Mary, purest maid 'mongst men.
He greeted her
With blessings sent from heaven.

(The "Abgesang")
Thus spake the angel graciously:
"The Lord with thee,
Thou blessed she;
The Lord's voice saith,
Which breathes thy breath,
That men have earned eternal death.
Saves alone from sin's subjection;
For while weak Eve God's anger waked,
'Twas, Ave, thine the blest election
To give the world peace and protection,
Most blessed gift
To mortals ever given!"

In Nuremberg the veritable Hans Sachs wrote plays on Tännhauser,
Tristan, and Siegfried between three and four hundred years before
the poet-composer who put the old cobbler-poet into his comedy. Very
naïve and very archaic indeed are Hans Sachs's dramas compared with
Wagner's; but it is, perhaps, not an exaggeration to say that Sachs
was as influential a factor in the dramatic life of his time as
Wagner in ours. He was among the earliest of the German poets
who took up the miracle plays and mysteries after they had been
abandoned by the church and developed them on the lines which ran
out into the classic German drama. His immediate predecessors were
the writers of the so-called "Fastnacht" (Mardi-gras) plays, who
flourished in Nuremberg in the fifteenth century. Out of these
plays German comedy arose, and among those who rocked its cradle
was another of the mastersingers who plays a part in Wagner's
opera,--Hans Folz. It was doubtless largely due to the influence of
Hans Sachs that the guild of mastersingers built the first German
theatre in Nuremberg in 1550. Before then plays with religious
subjects were performed in St. Catherine's church, as we have seen,
the meeting place of the guild. Secular plays were represented in
private houses.

Hans Sachs wrote no less than 208 dramas, which he divided into
"Carnival Plays," "Plays," "Comedies," and "Tragedies." He dropped
the first designation in his later years, but his first dramatic
effort was a Fastnachtspiel, and treated the subject of Tannhäuser
and Venus. It bears the date February 21, 1517, and was therefore
written 296 years before Wagner was born. Of what is now dramatic
form and structure, there is not a sign in this play. It is merely
a dialogue between Venus and various persons who stand for as many
classes of society. The title is: "Das Hoffgesindt Veneris," or,
as it might be rendered in English, "The Court of Venus." The
characters are a Herald, Faithful Eckhardt, Danheuser (sic),
Dame Venus, a Knight, Physician, Citizen, Peasant, Soldier, Gambler,
Drunkard, Maid, and Wife. The Knight, Citizen, and the others appear
in turn before Venus and express contempt for her powers,--the
Knight because of his bravery, the Physician because of his learning,
the Maid because of her virtue, the Wife because of her honor.
Faithful Eckhardt, a character that figures in many Thuringian
legends, especially in tales of the Wild Hunt, warns each person in
turn to beware of Venus. The latter listens to each boast and lets
loose an arrow. Each boaster succumbs with a short lamentation. When
the play opens, Danheuser is already a prisoner of the goddess.
After all the rest have fallen victims, he begs for his release,
and they join in his petition. Venus rejects the prayer, speaks in
praise of her powers, and calls on a piper for music. A general
dance follows, whereupon the company go with the enchantress into
the Venusberg. The last speech of Venus ends with the line:--

So says Hans Sachs of Nuremberg.

There is but a single scene in "The Court of Venus." In other plays
written in after years, no matter how often the action demanded it,
there is neither change of scenes nor division into acts; and the
personages, whether Biblical or classical, talk in the manner of
the simple folk of the sixteenth century. Sachs's tragedy, "Von der
strengen Lieb' Herrn Tristrant mit der schönen Königin Isalden" ("Of
the strong love of Lord Tristram and the beautiful Queen Iseult"),
contains seven acts, as is specified in the continuation of the
title "und hat sieben Akte." It was written thirty-six years later
than the carnival play and three years after the establishment of
a theatre in Nuremberg by the mastersingers. Each act ends with a
triple rhyme. Though Sachs uses stage directions somewhat freely
compared with the other dramatists of the period, the personages
all speak in the same manner, and time and space are annihilated in
the action most bewilderingly. Thus, no sooner does Herr Tristrant
volunteer to meet Morhold der Held to settle the question of
"Curnewelshland's" tribute to "Irland" than the two are at it hammer
and tongs on an island in the ocean. All the other incidents of the
old legends follow as fast as they are mentioned. Tristrant saves
his head in Ireland when discovered as the slayer of Morhold by
ridding the country of a dragon, and is repeatedly convicted of
treachery and taken back into confidence by König Marx, as one may
read in Sir Thomas Malory's "Morte d'Arthur." Sachs follows an old
conclusion of the story and gives Tristrant a second Iseult to wife,
and she tells the lie about the sails. The first Iseult dies of a
broken heart at the sight of her lover's bier, and the Herald in a
speech draws the moral of the tale:--

Aus dem so lass dich treulich warnen,
O Mensch, vor solcher Liebe Garnen,
Und spar dein Lieb' bis in die Eh',
Dann hab' Ein lieb' und keine meh.
Diesselb' Lieb' ist mit Gott und Ehren,
Die Welt damit fruchtbar zu mehren.
Dazu giebt Gott selbst allewegen
Sein' Gnad' Gedeihen und milden Segen.
Dass stete Lieb' und Treu' aufwachs'
Im ehlich'n Stand', das wünscht Hans Sachs.

One of the most thrilling scenes in "Die Meistersinger" is the
greeting of Hans Sachs by the populace when the hero enters with the
mastersingers' guild at the festival of St. John (the chorus, "Wach'
auf! es nahet gen den Tag"). Here there is another illustration of
Wagner's adherence to the verities of history, or rather, of his
employment of them. The words of the uplifting choral song are not
Wagner's, but were written by the old cobbler-poet himself. Wagner's
stage people apply them to their idol, but Sachs uttered them in
praise of Martin Luther; they form the beginning of his poem
entitled "The Wittenberg Nightingale," which was printed in 1523.

To the old history of Nuremberg written by Wagenseil, Wagner went
for other things besides the theatre and personages of his play.
From it he got the rules which governed the meeting of the
mastersingers, like that which follows the religious service in the
church of St. Catherine in the first act, and the singular names
of the melodies to which, according to David, the candidates for
mastersingers' honors were in the habit of improvising their songs.
In one instance he made a draft on an authentic mastersinger melody.
The march which is used throughout the comedy to symbolize the guild
begins as follows:--

[Musical excerpt]

Here we have an exact quotation from the beginning of the first
Gesetz in the "Long Tone" of Heinrich Müglin, which was a tune
that every candidate for membership in the guild had to be able to
sing. The old song is given in full in Wagenseil's book, and on the
next page I have reproduced a portion of this song in fac-simile, so
that my readers can observe the accuracy of Wagner's quotation and
form an idea of the nature of the poetic frenzy which used to fill
the mastersingers, as well as enjoy the ornamental passages (called
"Blumen" in the old regulations) and compare them with the fiorituri
of Beckmesser's serenade.

There is no doubt in my mind but that Wagner's purpose in "Die
Meistersinger" was to celebrate the triumph of the natural, poetical
impulse, stimulated by healthy emotion and communion with nature,
over pedantry and hide-bound conservatism. In the larger study of
the opera made in another place, I have attempted to show that the
contest is in reality the one which is always waging between the
principles of romanticism and classicism, a contest which is
essentially friendly and necessary to progress. The hero of the
comedy is not Walther, but Sachs, who represents in himself both
principles, who stands between the combatants and checks the
extravagances of both parties. {3}

Like Beethoven in his "Leonore" overtures written for the opera
"Fidelio," Wagner constructs the symphonic introduction to his
comedy so as to indicate the elements of his dramatic story, their
progress in the development of the play, and, finally, the outcome.
The melodies are of two sorts conforming to the two parties into
which the personages of the play can be divided; and, like those
parties, the melodies are broadly distinguished by external
physiognomy and emotional essence. Most easily recognized are the
two broad march tunes typical of the mastersingers and their
pageantry. One of them has already been presented. Like its

[Musical excerpt]

which opens the prelude, it is a strong, simple melody, made on the
intervals of the diatonic scale, square-cut in rhythm, firm and
dignified, and, like the mastersingers, complacent and a trifle
pompous in stride. The three melodies which are presented in
opposition to the spirit represented by the mastersingers and their
typical music, are disclosed by a study of the comedy to be
associated with the passion of the young lovers, Walther and Eva.
They differ in every respect--melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic,--from
those which stand for the old guildsmen and their rule-of-thumb
notions. They are chromatic, as see this:--

[Musical excerpt]

and this (which is the melody which in a broadened form becomes that
of Walther's prize song):--

[Musical excerpt]

and this, which is peculiarly the symbol of youthful ardor:--

[Musical excerpt]

Their rhythms are less regular and more eager (note the influence of
syncopation upon them); they are harmonized with greater warmth and
infused with greater passion. In the development of the prelude
these melodies are presented at first consecutively, then as in
conflict (first one, then another pushing forward for expression),
finally in harmonious and contented union. The middle part of the
prelude, in which the opening march tune is heard in short, quick
notes (in diminution, as the theoreticians say) maybe looked upon as
caricaturing the mastersingers, not in their fair estate, but as
they are satirized in the comedy in the person of Beckmesser.


{1} "Joh. Christophori Wagenseilii De Sacri Rom. Imperii Libera
Civitate Noribergensi Commentatio. Accedit, De Germaniae
Phonascorum Von Der Meister-Singer Origine, Praestantia, Utilitate,
et Institutis, Sermone Vernaculo Liber. Altdorf Noricorum Typis
Impensisque Jodoci Wilhelmi Kohlesii. CID ICD XCVII."

{2} I quote from Wagenseil's book--he is writing about the history
of the mastersingers: "Nach der Stadt Mäyntz, hat in den Stätten
Nürnberg und Strassburg / die Meister-Singer-Kunst sonderlich
floriret / wie dann auchXII. Alte Nürnbergische Meister annoch im
Beruff sind; so mit Namen geheissen / 1. Veit Pogner. 2. Cuntz
Vogelgesang. 3. Hermann Ortel. 4. Conrad Nachtigal. 5. Fritz
Zorn. 6. Sixtus Beckmesser. 7. Fritz Kohtner. 8. Niclaus Vogel.
9. Augustin Moser. 10. Hannss Schwartz. 11. Ulrich Eisslinger.
12. Hannss Foltz."

{3} "In the musical contest it is only the perverted idea of
Classicism which is treated with contumely and routed; the
glorification of the triumph of Romanticism is found in the
stupendously pompous and brilliant setting given to the
mastersingers' music at the end. You see already in this prelude
that Wagner is a true comedian. He administers chastisement with a
smile and chooses for its subject only things which are temporary
aberrations from the good. What is strong, and true, and pure, and
wholesome in the art of the mastersingers he permits to pass through
his satirical fires unscathed. Classicism, in its original sense as
the conservator of that which is highest and best in art, he leaves
unharmed, presenting her after her trial, as Tennyson presents his
Princess at the close of his corrective poem, when

Her falser self slipt from her like a robe,
And left her woman, lovelier in her mood
Than in her mould that other, when she came
From barren deeps to conquer all with love."

--"Studies in the Wagnerian Drama," by H. E. Krehbiel, p. 95.



In the last hundred lines of the last book of his epic poem to which
Wagner went for the fundamental incidents, not principles, of his
"Parsifal," Wolfram von Eschenbach tells the story of one of the
Grail King's sons whom he calls Loherangrin. This son was a lad when
Parzival (thus Wolfram spells the name) became King of the Holy
Grail and the knights who were in its service. When he had grown
to manhood, there lived in Brabant a queen who was equally gifted
in beauty, wealth, and gentleness. Many princes sought her hand in
marriage, but she refused them all, and waited for the coming of one
whom God had disclosed to her in a vision. One day a knight of great
beauty and nobley, as Sir Thomas Mallory would have said, came to
Antwerp in a boat drawn by a swan. To him the queen at once gave
greeting as lord of her dominions; but in the presence of the
assembled folk he said to her: "If I am to become ruler of this
land, know that it will be at great sacrifice to myself. Should you
nevertheless wish me to remain with you, you must never ask who
I am; otherwise I must leave you forever." The queen made solemn
protestation that she would never do aught against his will. Then
her marriage with the stranger knight was celebrated, and they abode
together long in happiness and honor. But at the last the queen was
led to put the fatal question. Then the swan appeared with the boat,
and Loherangrin, for it was he, was drawn back to Montsalvat, whence
he had come. But to those whom he left behind he gave his sword,
horn, and ring.

There are other mediaeval poems which deal with the story of
Lohengrin, more, indeed, than can or need be discussed here. Some,
however, deserve consideration because they supply elements which
Wagner used in his opera but did not find in Wolfram's poem. Wagner
went, very naturally, to a poem of the thirteenth century, entitled
"Lohengrin," for the majority of the incidents of the drama. Thence
he may have drawn the motive for the curiosity of Elsa touching the
personality of her husband. Of course, it lies in human nature, as
stories which are hundreds if not thousands of years older attest;
but I am trying, as I have been in preceding chapters in this book,
to account for the presence of certain important elements in
Wagner's opera, and so this poem must also be considered. In it
Lohengrin rescues Elsa, the Duchess of Brabant, from the false
accusations of Telramund, the knight having been summoned from
Montsalvat (or "Monsalväsch," to be accurate) by the ringing of a
bell which Elsa had taken from a falcon's leg. The knight marries
her, but first exacts a promise that she will never seek of him
knowledge of his race or country. After the happy domestic life of
the pair has been described, it is told how Lohengrin overthrew the
Duke of Cleves at a tournament in Cologne and broke his arm. The
Duchess of Cleves felt humiliated at the overthrow of her husband by
a knight of whom nothing was known, and wickedly insinuated that it
was a pity that so puissant a jouster should not be of noble birth,
thereby instilling a fatal curiosity into the mind of the Lady of
Brabant, which led to questions which Lohengrin answered before the
emperor's court and then disappeared from view. From "Der jüngere
Titurel," another mediaeval poem, came the suggestion that the
mysterious knight's prowess was due to sorcery and might be set at
naught if his bodily integrity were destroyed even in the slightest
degree. In the French tale of "Le Chevalier au Cygne," as told in
the "Chansons de geste," you may read the story of Helyas, who was
one of seven children of King Oriant and Queen Beatrix, who were
born with silver chains around their necks. The chains being removed
with evil purpose, the children turned into swans and flew away--all
but one, Helyas, who was absent at the time. But Helyas got
possession of all the chains but one, which had been wrought into a
cup, and one day, when he heard the sound of wings, and six swans
let themselves down into the water, he threw the chains around their
necks, and they at once assumed the forms of his brothers. Also how,
one day, Helyas, from the window of his palace, saw a swan drawing a
boat, and how he donned his armor, took a golden horn, and was drawn
away to Nimwegen, where Emperor Otto was holding court. There he
found that the Count of Blankenbourg had accused his sister-in-law,
the Duchess of Bouillon, of having poisoned her husband, and had
laid claim to the duchy. There was to be a trial by ordeal of
battle, and while the duchess waited for the coming of a champion,
lo! there was the sound of a horn, and Helyas came down the river in
a boat drawn by a swan, undertook the cause of the innocent lady,
slew her accuser, and married her daughter. For long she was a good
and faithful wife, and bore him a child who became the mother of
Godfrey de Bouillon, Baldwin de Sebourg, and Eustace de Boulogne.
But one day she asked of her lord his name and race. Then he bade
her repair to Nimwegen, and commending her and her daughter to the
care of the emperor, he departed thence in a swan-drawn boat and was
never seen more.

Here we have the essentials of the story which Wagner wrought into
his opera "Lohengrin" Only a few details need be added to make the
plot complete. The meeting of Lohengrin and Elsa takes place on the
banks of the river Scheldt in Brabant. The King has come to ask
the help of the Brabantians against the Huns, who are invading
Germany. He finds Brabant in a disturbed state. The throne is
vacant; Count Frederick of Telramund, who has his eyes upon it,
had offered his hand in marriage to Elsa, who, with her brother,
Gottfried, had been left in his care on the death of their father,
but had met with a refusal. He had then married Ortrud, a Frisian
princess. She is the last of a royal line, but a pagan, and
practises sorcery. To promote the ambition of herself and her
husband, she has changed Gottfried into a swan by throwing a magical
chain about his neck, and persuaded Telramund to accuse Elsa of
having murdered the boy in the hope of enjoying the throne together
with a secret lover. The King summons Elsa to answer the charge and
decrees trial by ordeal of battle. Commanded to name her champion,
she tells of a knight seen in a dream: upon him alone will she
rely. Not until the second call of the Herald has gone out and
Elsa has fallen to her knees in prayer does the champion appear. He
is a knight in shining white armor who comes in a boat drawn by a
swan. He accepts the gage of battle, after asking Elsa whether or
not she wants him to be her husband if victorious in the combat, and
exacting a promise never to ask of him whence he came or what his
name or race. He overcomes Telramund, but gives him his life; the
King, however, banishes the false accuser and sets the stranger over
the people of Brabant with the title of Protector. Telramund is
overwhelmed by his misfortunes, but Ortrud urges him to make another
trial to regain what he has lost. The knight, she says, had won by
witchcraft, and if but the smallest joint of his body could be taken
from him, he would be impotent. Together they instil disquiet and
suspicion into the mind of Elsa as she is about to enter the
minster to be married. After the wedding guests have departed, her
newly found happiness is disturbed by doubt, and a painful curiosity
manifests itself in her speech. Lohengrin admonishes, reproves,
and warns in words of tenderest love. He had given up greater
glories than his new life had to offer out of love for her. A
horrible fear seizes her: he who had so mysteriously come would as
mysteriously depart. Cost what it may, she must know who he is. She
asks the question, but before he can reply Telramund rushes into
the room with drawn weapon. Elsa has but time to hand Lohengrin his
sword, with which he stretches the would-be assassin dead on the
chamber floor. Then he commands that the body be carried before the
King, whither he also directs her maids to escort his wife. There is
another conclave of King and nobles. Lohengrin asks if he had acted
within his right in slaying Telramund, and his deed is approved by
all. Then he gives public answer to Elsa's question:

In distant lands, where ye can never enter,
A castle stands and Montsalvat its name;
A radiant temple rises from its center
More glorious far than aught of earthly fame.
And there a vessel of most wondrous splendor,
A shrine, most holy, guarded well doth rest,
To which but mortals purest service render--
'Twas brought to earth by hosts of angels blest!
Once every year a dove from heaven descendeth
To strengthen then its wondrous powers anew:
'Tis called the Grail--and purest faith it lendeth
To those good knights who are its chosen few.
To serve the Grail whoe'er is once elected
Receives from it a supernatural might;
From baneful harm and fraud is he protected,
Away from him flees death and gloom of night!
Yea, whom by it to distant lands is bidden
As champion to some virtuous cause maintain,
Well knows its powers are from him never hidden,
If, as its knight, he unrevealed remain.
Such wondrous nature is the Grail's great blessing,
Reveal'd must then the knight from mortals flee:
Let not rest in your hearts a doubt oppressing,--
If known to you he saileth o'er the sea.
Now list what he to you in troth declareth:
The Grail obeying here to you I came.
My father Parzival, a crown he weareth,
His knight am I and Lohengrin my name! {1}

A prohibition which rests upon all who are served by a Knight of the
Grail having been violated, he must depart from thence; but before
going he gives his sword, horn, and ring to Elsa, and tells her that
had he been permitted to live but one year at her side, her brother
would have returned in conduct of the Grail. The swan appears to
convey him back to his resplendent home. Ortrud recognizes the chain
around its neck and gloats over her triumph; but Lohengrin hears her
shout. He sinks on his knees in silent prayer. As he rises, a white
dove floats downward toward the boat. Lohengrin detaches the chain
from the neck of the swan. The bird disappears, and in its place
stands Gottfried, released from the spell put upon him by the
sorceress. The dove draws the boat with its celestial passenger
away, and Elsa sinks lifeless into the arms of her brother.

In this story of Lohengrin there is an admixture of several elements
which once had no association. It is the story of an adventure of a
Knight of the Holy Grail; also a story involving the old principle
of taboo; and one of many stories of the transformation of a human
being into a swan, or a swan into a human being. This swan myth is
one of the most widely spread of all transformation tales; it may
even be found in the folk-stories of the American Indians. To
discuss this feature would carry one too far afield, and I have
a different purpose in view.

* * *

The two Figaro operas, the discussion of which opened this book,
were composed by different men, and a generation of time separated
their production. The opera which deals with the second chapter of
the adventures of Seville's factotum was composed first, and is the
greater work of the two; yet we have seen how pleasantly they can be
associated with each other, and, no doubt, many who admire them have
felt with me the wish that some musician with sufficient skill and
the needful reverence would try the experiment of remodelling the
two and knitting their bonds closer by giving identity of voice
to the personages who figure in both. The Wagnerian list presents
something like a parallel, and it would be a pleasant thing if two
of the modern poet-composer's dramas which have community of subject
could be brought into similar association, so that one might be
performed as a sequel to the other. The operas are "Lohengrin" and
"Parsifal." A generation also lies between them, and they ought
to bear a relationship to each other something like that existing
between "Le Nozze di Figaro" and "Il Barbiere di Siviglia." Indeed,
the bond ought to be closer, for one man wrote books and music
as well of the Grail dramas, whereas different librettists and
different composers created the Figaro comedies. But it will
never be possible to bring Wagner's most popular opera and his
"stage-consecrating play" into logical union, notwithstanding that
both deal with the legend of the Holy Grail and that the hero of one
proclaims himself to be the son of the hero of the other. Wagner
cast a loving glance at the older child of his brain when he quoted
some of the "swan music" of "Lohengrin "in "Parsifal"; but he built
an insurmountable wall between them when he forsook the sane and
simple ideas which inspired him in writing "Lohengrin" for the
complicated fabric of mediaeval Christianity and Buddhism which
he strove to set forth in "Parsifal." In 1847 Wagner was willing
to look at the hero of the quest of the Holy Grail whom we
call Percival through the eyes of his later guide, Wolfram von
Eschenbach. To Wolfram Parzival was a married man; more than that--a
married lover, clinging with devotion to the memory of the wife from
whose arms he had torn himself to undertake the quest, and losing
himself in tender brooding for days when the sight of blood-spots
on the snow suggested to his fancy the red and white of fair
Konwiramur's cheeks. Thirty years later Wagner could only conceive
of his Grail hero as a celibate and an ascetic. Lohengrin glories in
the fact that he is the son of him who wears the crown of the Grail;
but Parsifal disowns his son.

This is one instance of the incoherency of the two Grail dramas.
There is another, and by this second departure from the old legends
which furnished forth his subject, Wagner made "Lohengrin" and
"Parsifal" forever irreconcilable. The whole fabric of the older
opera rests on the forbidden question:--

Nie solist du mich befragen, noch
Wissen's Sorge tragen,
woher ich kam der Fahrt,
noch wie mein Nam' und Art. {2}

So impressed was Wagner with the significance of this dramatic
motive sixty years ago, that he gave it a musical setting which
still stands as the finest of all his many illustrations of the
principle of fundamental or typical phrases in dramatic music:--

[Musical excerpt--"Nie sollst du mich befragen"]

And no wonder. No matter where he turned in his studies of the
Grail legend, he was confronted by the fact that it was by asking a
question that the seeker after the Grail was to release the ailing
king, whom he found in the castle in which the talismans were
preserved, from his sufferings. In the Welsh tale of Peredur and
the French romances the question went only to the meaning of the
talismans; but this did not suffice Wolfram von Eschenbach, who
in many ways raised the ethical standard of the Grail legend. He
changed the question so as to make it a sign of affectionate and
compassionate interest on the part of the questioner; it was no
longer, "What mean the bloody head and the bleeding lance?" but
"What ails thee, uncle?"

Wagner was fond, a little overfond, indeed, of appealing to the
public over the heads of the critics, of going to the jury rather
than the judge, when asking for appreciation of his dramas; but
nothing is plainer to the close student than that he was never
wholly willing to credit the public with possession of that high
imaginativeness to which his dramas more than those of any other
composer make appeal. His first conception of the finale of
"Tannhäuser," for instance, was beautiful, poetical, and reasonable;
for the sake of a spectacle he reconstructed it after the original
production and plunged it into indefensible confusion and absurdity.

A desire to abstain as much as possible from criticism (that not
being the purpose of this book) led me to avoid mention of this
circumstance in the exposition of "Tannhäuser"; but I find that I
must now set it forth, though briefly. In the original form of the
opera there was no funeral procession and no death of the hero
beside the bier of the atoning saint. The scene between Tannhäuser
and Wolfram was interrupted by the tolling of a bell in the castle
to indicate the death of Elizabeth and the appearance of a glow of
rose-colored light across the valley to suggest the presence of
Venus. By bringing the corpse of Elizabeth on the stage so that
Tannhäuser might die by its side, Wagner was guilty of worse than an
anachronism. The time which elapses in the drama between Elizabeth's
departure from the scene and her return as a corpse is just as long
as the song which Wolfram sings in which he apostrophizes her as his
"holder Abendstern"--just as long and not a moment longer. There
is no question here of poetical license, for Wolfram sings the
apostrophe after her retreating figure, and the last chord of
his postlude is interrupted by Tannhäuser's words, "Ich hörte
Harfenschlag!" Yet we are asked to assume that in the brief interim
Elizabeth has ascended the mountain to the Wartburg, died, been
prepared for burial, and brought back to the valley as the central
object of a stately funeral.

It would have been much wiser to have left the death of Elizabeth
to the imagination of the public than to have made the scene
ridiculous. But Wagner was afraid to do that, lest his purpose be
overlooked. He was a master of theatrical craft, and though he could
write a tragedy like "Tristan und Isolde," with little regard for
external action, he was quite unwilling to miss so effective a
theatrical effect as the death of Tannhäuser beside Elizabeth's
bier. After all, he did not trust the public, whose judgment he
affected to place above that of his critics, and for this reason,
while he was willing to call up memories of his earlier opera by
quoting some of its music in "Parsifal," he ignored the question
which plays so important a rôle in "Lohengrin," and made the healing
of Amfortas depend upon a touch of the talismanic spear--a device
which came into the Grail story from pagan sources, as I have
already pointed out.

Now, why was the questioning of Lohengrin forbidden? Wolfram von
Eschenbach tells us, and his explanation sufficed Wagner when he
made his first studies of the Grail legends as a preparation for
"Lohengrin." It was the Holy Grail itself which pronounced the
taboo. An inscription appeared on the talisman one day commanding
that whenever a Knight of the Grail went into foreign lands to
assume rule over a people, he was to admonish them not to question
him concerning his name and race; should the question be put, he
was to leave them at once. And the reason?

Weil der gute Amfortas
So lang in bittern Schmerzen lag,
Und ihn die Frage lange mied,
Ist ihnen alles Fragen leid;
All des Grales Dienstgesellen
Wollen sich nicht mehr fragen lassen.

The same explanation is made in the mediaeval poem "Lohengrin." We
are not called upon to admire the logic of Wolfram and the Knights
of the Grail, but nothing could be plainer than this: The sufferings
of Amfortas having been wofully prolonged by Parzival's failure to
ask the healing question, the Knights of the Grail were thereafter
required by their oracular guide to prohibit all questioning of
themselves under penalty of forfeiture of their puissant help.
When Wagner wrote his last drama, he was presented with a dilemma:
should he remain consistent and adhere to the question as a dramatic
motive, or dare the charge of inconsistency for the sake of that bit
of spectacular apparatus, the sacred lance? He chose inconsistency
and the show, and emphasized the element of relic worship to such
a degree as to make his drama foreign to the intellectual and
religious habits of the time in which he wrote. But this did not
disturb him; for he knew that beauty addresses itself to the
emotions rather than the intellect, and that his philosophical
message of the redeeming power of loving comnpassion would find
entrance to the hearts of the people over all the obstacles that
reason might interpose. Yet he destroyed all the poetical bonds
which ought or might have existed between "Parsifal" and "Lohengrin."

It was Wagner who created the contradiction which puts his operas
in opposition by his substitution of the sacred lance as a dramatic
motive for the question. But poets had long before taken the
privilege of juggling with two elements of ancient myths and
folk-tales which are blended in the story of Lohengrin. Originally
there was no relationship between the Knight of the Holy Grail and
the Swan Knight, and there is no telling when the fusion of the
tales was made. But the element of the forbidden question is of
unspeakable antiquity and survives in the law of taboo which
exists among savages to-day. When Wagner discussed his opera in
his "Communication to My Friends" he pointed out the resemblance
between the story of Lohengrin and the myth of Zeus and Semele. Its
philosophical essence he proclaimed to be humanity's feeling of
the necessity of love. Elsa was "the woman who drew Lohengrin from
the sunny heights to the depths of earth's warm heart. . . . Thus
yearned he for woman--for the human heart. And thus did he step down
from out his loneliness of sterile bliss when he heard this woman's
cry for succor, this heart cry from humanity below." This is all
very well, and it would be churlish to say that it is not beautifully
reflected in Wagner's drama; but it does not explain the need of the
prohibition. A woman who loves must have unquestioning faith in her
husband--that is all. But there are two ancient myths which show
that the taboo was conceived as a necessary ingredient of the
association of divine men with human women. Let both be recalled,
for both have plainly gone over into the mediaeval story.

The first is the one to which Wagner made allusion: Jupiter has
given his love to Semele. Wickedly prompted by the jealous Juno,
Semele asks her august lover to grant her a wish. He promises
that she shall have her desire, and confirms his words with the
irrevocable oath, swearing by the Stygian flood. Semele asks him
then to appear to her in all his celestial splendor. The god would
have stopped her when he realized her purpose, but it was too late.
Sorrowfully he returned to the celestial abode and fearfully he put
on his lesser panoply. Arrayed in this he entered the chamber of
Semele, but though he had left behind him the greater splendors,
the immortal radiance consumed her to ashes.

That is one story; the other is the beautiful fable, freighted with
ethical symbolism, which Apulcius gave to literature in the second
century of the Christian era, though, no doubt, his exquisite
story is only the elaboration of a much older conceit. Psyche, the
daughter of a king, arouses the envy of Venus because of her beauty,
and the goddess's anger because of the feeling which that beauty
inspires among men. She resolves to punish her presumptuous mortal
rival, and sends Cupid as her messenger of vengeance. But the God
of Love falls himself a victim to the maiden's charms. The spell
which he puts upon her he cannot wholly dissipate. Hosts of admirers
still follow Psyche, but no worthy man offers her marriage. Her
parents consult the oracle of Apollo, who tells him that she is
doomed to become the wife of a monster who lives upon a high
mountain. The maiden sees in this a punishment meted out by Venus
and offers herself as a propitiatory sacrifice. Left alone by
parents and friends, she climbs the rocky steeps and falls asleep
in the wilderness. Thither come the Zephyrs and carry her to a
beautiful garden, where unseen hands serve her sumptuously in a
magnificent palace and the voices of invisible singers ravish her
cars with music. Every night she is visited by a mysterious being
who lavishes loving gifts upon her, but forbids her to look upon
his face, and disappears before dawn. Psyche's sisters, envious
of her good fortune and great happiness, fill her mind with wicked
doubt and distrust. A fatal curiosity seizes upon her, and one night
she uncovers her lamp to look upon the form of her doting companion.
Instead of the monster spoken of by the oracle, she sees the
loveliest of the immortals. It is Cupid who lies sleeping before
her, with snowy wings folded, and golden ringlets clustering about
his shoulders. Anxious for a closer view, Psyche leans over him,
but a drop of hot oil falls from the lamp upon his shining skin.
The god awakes, and without a word flies out of the window. Palace
and garden disappear, and Psyche is left alone to suffer the
consequences of her foolish curiosity. After wandering long in
search of the lost one, she wins the sympathy of Ceres, who advises
her to seek out Venus and offer reparation. She becomes the slave of
the goddess, who imposes cruel tasks upon her. But at length Cupid
can no longer endure to be separated from her, and goes to Jupiter,
who intercedes with Venus and wins her forgiveness for Psyche. Then
the supreme god gives her immortality, and she becomes forever the
wife of Cupid.

There are two other points, one legendary, one historical, which
ought to be mentioned for the sake of those who like to know the
sources of stories like that of Lohengrin. The ancient Angles had
a saga which told of the arrival in their country of a boat,
evidently sailless, oarless, and rudderless, containing only a
child surrounded by arms and treasure. They brought him up and
called him Skéaf (from which word our "sheaf"), because he lay upon
a bundle of grain. He became king of the people, and, when he felt
death upon him, commanded to be carried back to the shore where he
had been found. There lay the boat in which he had come, and when
his dead body was placed in it, it moved away of its own accord.
From him descended a race of kings. Here, I am inclined to see a
survival of the story of Danaë and her child Perseus found floating
on the sea in a chest, as sung by Simonides. The historical element
in "Lohengrin" is compassed by the figure of the king, who metes out
justice melodiously in the opening and closing scenes. It is King
Henry I of Germany, called the Fowler, who reigned from A.D. 918 to
936. He was a wise, brave, and righteous king, who fought the savage
Huns, and for his sake the management of the festival performances
at Bayreuth, in 1894, introduced costumes of the tenth century.


{1} John P. Jackson's translation.

{2} In Mr. John P. Jackson's translation:--

Ne'er with thy fears shalt task me,
Nor questions idly ask me:
The land and from whence I came,
Nor yet my race and name.




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