Story type: Literature
There is a strange fascination about Herr Wagner’s musical drama of “Die Walkuere.” A great many people have supposed that Herr Sullivan’s opera of “Das Pinafore” was the most remarkable musical work extant, but we believe the mistake will become apparent as Herr Wagner’s masterpiece grows in years.
We will not pretend to say that “Die Walkuere” will ever be whistled about the streets, as the airs from “Das Pinafore” are whistled; the fact is, that no rendition of “Die Walkuere” can be satisfactory without the accompaniment of weird flashes of fire; and it is hardly to be expected that our youth will carry packages of lycopodium, and boxes of matches, around with them, for the sole purpose of giving the desired effect to any snatches from Herr Wagner’s work they may take the notion to whistle. But in the sanctity of our homes, around our firesides, in the front-parlor, where the melodeon or the newly hired piano has been set up, it is there that Herr Wagner’s name will be revered, and his masterpiece repeated o’er and o’er. The libretto is not above criticism; it strikes us that there is not enough of it. The probability is that Herr Wagner ran out of libretto before he had got through with his music, and therefore had to spread out comparatively few words over a vast expanse of music. The result is that a great part of the time the performers are on the stage is devoted to thought, the orchestra doing a tremendous amount of fiddling, etc., while the actors wander drearily around, with their arms folded across their pulmonary departments, and their minds evidently absorbed in profound cogitation.
As for the music, the only criticism we have to pass upon it is that it changes its subject too often; in this particular it resembles the dictionary,–in fact, we believe “Die Walkuere” can be termed the Webster’s Unabridged of musical language. Herr Wagner has his own way of doing business. He goes at it on the principle of the twelfth man, who holds out against the eleven other jurors, and finally brings them around to his way of thinking.
For instance, in the midst of a pleasing strain in B natural, Herr Wagner has a habit of suddenly bringing out a small reed-instrument with a big voice (we do not know its name), piped in the key of F sharp. This small reed-instrument will not let go; it holds on to that F sharp like a mortgage. For a brief period the rest of the instruments–fiddles, bassoons, viols, flutes, flageolets, cymbals, drums, etc.–struggle along with an attempt to either drown the intruder, or bring it around to their way of doing business; but it is vain. Every last one of them has to slide around from B natural to F sharp, and they do it as best they can.
Having accomplished its incendiary and revolutionary purpose, the small reed-instrument subsides until it finds another chance to break out. It is a mugwump.
Die Walkueren, as given us by the Damrosch Company, are nine stout, comely young women, attired in costumes somewhat similar to the armor worn by Herr Lawrence Barrett’s Roman army in Herr Shakespeare’s play of “Der Julius Caesar.” Readers of Norse mythology may suppose that these weird sisters were dim, vague, shadowy creatures; but they are mistaken. Brunhilde has the embonpoint of a dowager, and her arms are as robust and red as a dairy-maid’s.
As for Gerhilde, Waltraute, Helmwige, and the rest, they are well-fed, buxom ladies, evidently of middle age, whose very appearance exhales an aroma of kraut and garlic, which, by the way, we see by the libretto, was termed “mead” in the days of Wotan and his court. These Die Walkueren are said to ride fiery, untamed steeds; but only one steed is exhibited in the drama as it is given at the Columbia. This steed, we regret to say, is a restless, noisy brute, and invariably has to be led off the stage by one of das supes, before his act concludes.
However, no one should doubt his heroic nature, inasmuch as the cabalistic letters “U. S.” are distinctly branded upon his left flank.
The Sieglinde of the piece is Fraeulein Slach, a young lady no bigger than a minute, but with wonderful powers of endurance. To say nothing of Hunding’s persecutions, she has to shield Siegmund, elope with him, climb beetling precipices, ride Brunhilde’s fiery, untamed steed, confront die Walkueren, and look on her slain lover, and, in addition to these prodigies, participate in a Graeco-Roman wrestling-match with an orchestra of sixty-five pieces for three hours and a half.
Yet she is equal to the emergency. Up to the very last she is as fresh as a daisy; and, after recovering from her swooning-spell in the second act, she braces her shoulders back, and dances all around the top notes of the chromatic scale with the greatest of ease. She is a wonderful little woman, is Fraeulein Slach! What a wee bit of humanity, yet what a volume of voice she has, and what endurance!
Down among the orchestra people sat a pale, sad man. His apparent lonesomeness interested us deeply. We could not imagine what he was there for. Every once in a while he would get up and leave the orchestra, and dive down under the stage, and appear behind the scenes, where we could catch glimpses of him practising with a pair of thirty-pound dumb-bells, and testing a spirometer. Then he would come back and re-occupy his old seat among the orchestra, and look paler and sadder than ever. What strange, mysterious being was he? Why did he inflict his pale, sad presence upon that galaxy of tuneful revellers?
What a cunning master the great Herr Wagner is! For what emergency does he not provide? It was half-past eleven when the third act began. Die Walkueren had assembled in the dismal dell,–all but the den Walkuere, Brunhilde. Wotan is approaching on appalling storm-clouds, composed of painted mosquito-bars and blue lights. The sheet-iron thunder crashes; and the orchestra is engaged in another mortal combat with that revolutionary mugwump, the small reed-instrument, that persists in reforming the tune of the opera.
Then the pale, sad man produces a large brass horn, big enough at the business end for a cow to walk into. It is a fearful, ponderous instrument, manufactured especially for “Die Walkuere” at the Krupp Gun Factory in Essen. It has an appropriate name: the master himself christened it the boomerangelungen. It is the monarch, the Jumbo of all musical instruments. The cuspidor end of it protrudes into one of the proscenium-boxes. The fair occupants of the box are frightened, and timidly shrink back.
Wotan is at hand. He comes upon seven hundred yards of white tarletan, and fourteen pounds of hissing, blazing lycopodium! The pale, sad man at the other end of the boomerangelungen explains his wherefore. He applies his lips to the brazen monster. His eyeballs hang out upon his cheeks, the veins rise on his neck, and the lumpy cords and muscles stand out on his arms and hands. Boohoop, boohoop!–yes, six times boohoop does that brazen megatherium blare out, vivid and distinct, above all the other sixty instruments in the orchestra. Then the white tarletan clouds vanish, the blazing lycopodium goes out, and Wotan stands before the excited spectators.
Then the pale, sad man lays down the boomerangelungen, and goes home. That is all he has to do; the six sonorous boohoops, announcing the presence of Wotan, is all that is demanded of the boomerangelungen. But it is enough: it is marvellous, appalling, prodigious.
Whose genius but Herr Wagner’s could have found employment for the boomerangelungen? We hear talk of the sword motive, the love motive, the Walhalla motive, and this motive, and that; but they all shrink into nothingness when compared with the motive of the boomerangelungen.