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Wagner and Vocal Art. A Word to the Student. III.

If Wagner had done nothing more than to emphasize the importance of the text in singing, this alone would have been a great advance in vocal art. The singer, who has learned that each word has its value, and must be understood, imparts a true significance to everything he sings, be it even the simplest song. For music, which is linked to words, always becomes the expression of a definite thought. And the words must be understood, that this thought be made plain. The attention given to enunciation at Bayreuth might well be emulated elsewhere. Though the Wagner singers excel in correct diction (take, as an instance, the late Heinrich Vogl), yet here again there is sometimes the danger of carrying it to an extreme. I refer to the over-accentuation—a sort of explosive emphasis—used by so many in the singing of Wagner. It mars the beauty of the work, and is, to my thinking, often quite unnecessary. Wagner is always so true to the meaning of the text that the music itself affords the proper emphasis to the important word. As an example, take the opening bars in the “Death-Summons” (Brünnhilde, second act “Walküre”): “Siegmund, sieh’ auf mich” (“Siegmund, look on me”). The musical phrase itself contains just the right emphasis on the word “mich.” How many singers, instead of giving this the solemn dignity afforded by a beautiful legato, bring out the “mich” with an explosive accent that ruins the melodic beauty of the music, and is unnecessary to the meaning of the text. One of the most salient characteristics of Wagner’s writing is that the proper accent always falls naturally on the important word. For the singer to intensify this brings about an exaggeration: it is like pointing with both hands.

It cannot be denied that Wagner’s writing for the voice contains many passages of great difficulty, for it is just this truth to the text, above referred to, which makes the use of unusual and sometimes fatiguing intervals so prevalent. One might say that the performance of these intervals is to the singer what the octave work in a Liszt rhapsody is to the pianist. I should hardly think it would be healthful for the voice to sing only Wagner, nor would it be wise for a pianist to devote himself to Liszt rhapsodies exclusively. From a purely-physical stand point is this true, if from no other.

Yet the conscientious study of Wagner is, to my mind, of inestimable value to every artist, if undertaken in the right way; for the performance of these works, whose very nature calls forth devotion to the truth of the work itself, makes the singer truer to the real significance of everything he touches. I would say to the student: Do not be afraid to study Wagner, but be careful how you study him. Absorb the noble ideals of the German singers, emulate their artistic spirit, but remember that most of them are vocally as yet but crude expressions of the highest possibilities of their art. Wagner’s progressive spirit would, I believe, be the first to sanction improvement in the rendering of his works. And these works are full of rare musical beauty, beauty that often to-day lies unrevealed between the pages of the scores. Go straight to Wagner himself, see the wealth of possibilities in every line. The vocal part is so constructed that the meaning of the text cannot be lost by good singing, nor the dramatic effect lessened by musical phrasing. Above all, let the student think, and think for himself.

But, even though we think for ourselves, we must bear in mind that there is much, much to be learned by listening to others no matter how obscure they may be. We must be open to suggestion, ready to receive what is good from every source, to use to the best ends every bit of knowledge we have attained. Art should have no boundaries, national or otherwise. It should belong to all who love truth, and beauty, and man’s expression of it. All prejudice is narrow, unworthy of the purpose of the true artist and stunting to his growth. Old beliefs, old schools still have their worth, though they be absorbed into a higher use in the new. Nor let us ever overthrow the ladder by which we have mounted to the step where we now stand. We are still upon the ladder, and there are many steps ahead of us. Liberty and license are, indeed, very different things, and the greatest freedom is gained by adherence to the good in existing laws, till the higher law be developed. This means progress without revolution.

The influence of Wagner upon vocal art, as I have said, tends to expression of thought and feeling in singing. Let us believe that there are no heights and depths in the human soul that cannot be expressed in art. A singer can infuse into everything he does the truth of his very being. Each effort can ring true to a high ideal. No rôle, no song, no vocalize is too small to reflect the inner light. A drop of water will as surely mirror the sun’s rays as will the whole sea.

Anton Seidl tells us that the conductor stands, for the moment, in the place of the composer,1 and this should be true, to a certain degree, of every reproducing artist. To do this worthily is, indeed, an ideal worth striving for. In consecrating ourselves to art with the noble purpose of expressing through it the highest truth we are capable of receiving, let us realize that the expression, in itself, must be beautiful. If we are to sing, our voices must be trained to give forth in tone every shade of feeling. (And what a wealth of suggestion, as I have said, is conveyed to the auditor by the quality of tone alone!) The text must be so enunciated that it can readily be understood, and the full import of words and music, the union of poetry and song, be borne directly to the mind of the listener. We must have musicianship behind all this, real intelligent musicianship. These are things that can always be acquired by earnest study; they form the true technic of vocal art. Temperament, inspiration, and genius are gifts, but the consecration to high ideals, and determined conscientious effort are possible to us all.—Natalie Curtis.

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