Wagner and his Works: The Story of his Life, with Critical Comments. By Henry T. Finck. With Portraits. In two vols. Price $5.00. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1893.
Richard Wagner is unquestionably the central figure of the musical scene which has occupied the stage during the past fifty years. He dominates the situation by virtue of his profound originality, his intellectual power and grasp, his unrivaled creative imagination, his force of character, the unexampled violence of the storm of opposition awakened by his works and his doings generally, and by his unparalleled triumphs over all adverse circumstances.
It was the first of these qualities, to begin with, which hindered the general acceptance of the new truths which he had discovered, and of the colossal art-works which he created for the embodiment of them. People in general are slow to accept radical innovations in their habitual ways of thinking. The vis inertiæ is a great force in human affairs. Indeed, it would seem to be even a greater force in the lives of educated men, especially of those who are nominally occupied with the care of the higher intellectual and spiritual interests, than in the lives of men in general. Woe to that man who discovers a new truth or sets forth a new ideal of life, character, art, religion, morals, science, or philosophy. In this world he shall have tribulation; and the opposition he is sure to meet will more often come from those whose superior education and position ought to insure their appreciation than from people of inferior cultivation. It is not the Hebrew race alone which has always stoned and crucified its great prophets and seers and canonized them afterward; nor is it a characteristic of that race only to divide into a higher intellectual and social class, who cry out “Crucify!” while the common people hear the prophet gladly. Every race has thus treated its great intellectual and spiritual leaders, and the German race is no exception. The story of the struggles which have finally resulted in the triumph of Wagner’s ideal of the music drama is a most impressive illustration of this truth. As set forth in Mr. Finck’s fascinating pages, it is both pathetic and tragic; the German Philistine played a great part in it; and, above all, the educated German Pharisee, who thanked God that he was not as other men are, who considered himself the repository and guardian of orthodoxy in musical art, and who looked down upon more simple-minded and open-hearted men, capable of receiving new ideas, as narrow-minded Philistines. The term itself is a German university term employed to designate the great mass of uneducated and unenlightened men as opposed to those whose better opportunities for development ought to give them greater breadth of view. With what crushing force it may be justly applied to numbers of professional critics, musicians, and official art-leaders, many a page of Mr. Finck’s book conclusively testifies.
This book is not dispassionately written; we are still too near the life of Wagner for that, and he was too much of a fighter, had too many faults and weaknesses which rendered him vulnerable, while at the same time he was a tremendous personal force. Action and reaction are equal; and the personal power of Wagner is marked by the violence of the hostility he aroused. It is still impossible not to be either a partisan or an opponent of Wagner; and it need not be said that Mr. Finck belongs to the former class. He holds up the Wagnerian banner right bravely and deals valiant blows at the enemy, whom he rightly looks on as the enemy of a great and noble cause. It is possible that he sometimes goes too far in imputing unworthy motives to critics who were really more stupid than malignant; but, on the whole, the verdict of intelligent readers will doubtless be, “Served them right.” Indeed, it is out of their own mouths that Mr. Finck condemns Hanslick, Speidel, and many another of the professional leaders of opinion, of having been incapable of comprehending a new manifestation of genius and of throwing every possible obstacle in its way. Hanslick, in particular, committed to a shallow and narrow minded theory of musical esthetics, as expounded in his book, “The Beautiful in Music,” was wholly incapable of appreciating new art works of the very highest rank composed on principles contradictory of his theories. The facts did not fit his theory; therefore the facts must go! Better no education at all than one which makes a man blind, deaf, and stupid!
That Hanslick and his fellow critics were stupid will now be generally, although not universally, admitted. The Wagnerian music-drama has now made its way to genuine popularity. There are thousands of men and women who find in it greater evidence of genius and more of inspiring, uplifting power than in any other music whatsoever. Or if this be too strong a statement, it is at least true that they find no other music comparable with it, except that of Bach and Beethoven, in point of nobility and sublimity. All other music affects them on a lower plane of experience. The number of these persons, too, is constantly increasing, and there can be no reasonable doubt that the future of Wagner’s music is assured. But if the true, the beautiful, and the good always make their way eventually, we may always reckon still more surely on the constant presence of dullness and mental incapacity. The stupid, like the poor, we have always with us. Hanslick is still alive and still Professor of Musical History at the University of Vienna; critics are still to be found who accuse Wagner of being void of melody and of form, of being unvocal, etc., etc. As a simple matter of fact, Wagner’s works are full of melody and are thoroughly vocal in quality more so than the Italian roulades of Rossini, Bellini, et id omne genus; and his forms are the culmination of musical construction up to date. A short review article gives no space to demonstrate these assertions; but those who read Mr. Finck’s lucid pages will find demonstration from any other source superfluous. The critical portions of the book form a model of luminous and convincing exposition. The biographical portion is more full and complete in its information than any to be found elsewhere. In short, there is no other Wagner biography, as yet, to be compared with Mr. Finck’s, nor is there likely to be for many a year to come. It deserves to be read by every musician, critic, and amateur. John Comfort Fillmore.