It is a far cry from the date of the first extant opera to the music-dramas of Richard Wagner. The opera, as regards its essential form, is old enough. the Greeks knew it, and it was probably well established before their time. In the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, there was musical recitation, and the choruses were sung in unison. But only a measure or two of this ancient music remains to show what it was like. It is to the age of the Renaissance, with its attempts to revive old-time Greek art, that we owe the first specimens of what we mow understand as opera.
There were plays with musical accompaniment as early as 1350. Towards the close of the sixteenth century, too, a society of literati was established in Florence, with the purpose of instituting a revival of the Greek art of musical and dramatic declamation. But it was not until 1594 that the first real opera was produced. This was the "Daphne" of Jacopo Peri, a member of the Florentine coterie, who wrote, as he averred, to "test the effect of the kind of melody said to be the same as that used by the ancient Greeks and Romans throughout their dramas." In Peris work the recitative was first represented, while it is perhaps worth noting that his orchestra consisted of just four instruments -- a harpsuchord, a harp, a viol di gamba, and a lute! "Daphne" proved a gigantic success, and the result was a second opera, "Eurydice," produced on the occasion of the marriage of Mary de Medicis with Henry IV. of France, in the year 1600.
Peris operas were, however, purely tentative efforts. It was reserved for Claudio Monteverde (1566-1650), a Milanese musician, to give a pronounced form to the opera, and to impart to the recitative a more decided character, by endowing it with flow and expression. Monteverde has been enthusiastically described as "the first opera composer by the grace of God, as real musical genius, the father of instrumentation." Like Wagner, he was a musician greatly in advance of his time. The freedom of his melody was generally remarked upon, and the unprecedented licence of his harmonies was vigorously condemned by all his contemporaries. In an opera of 1624 he introduced instrumental effects which were to become of vast importance in opera. Some of these effects were almost Wagnerian in their attempt to convey to the minds of listeners an idea of the feelings animating the several characters. As a discerning critic observes, it gives one something of a shock to find this early seventeenth century composer indicating the galloping of horses and the fierceness of their riders, rudely indeed, but with the same musical methods as Wagner employs, with their modern development, in his "Ride of the Valkyries." Monteverde had many competitors in the operatic field, but he easily eclipsed them all, and in a few years gave opera quite a new complexion.
In the opera of "Jason," set by Cavalli and Cicognini for the Venetians in 1649, occur the first airs connected in sentiment and spirit with the dialogue. By-and-by the Neapolitan Alessandro Scarlatti (1659-1725) burst on the scene. With him began the real Italian opera, which has held sway for so many years and in so many different countries -- the period of bel canto, when melody completely gained the upper hand. The singer in a new opera, now and until Wagners time, was "the chief personage, and the composer soon became merely a servant."
Meanwhile opera was gaining a footing abroad, that is to say, outside Italy. In 1645 it was transplanted to France by Cardinal Mazarin, and was introduced to Germany some thirty years later. Even England rejoiced for a short time in a national opera under her greatest composer, Henry Purcell, who wrote no fewer than thrity-nine works for the stage. When Handel came to London and established himself there, he gave Italian opera a further fillip, and -- landed himself in bankruptcy! He, too, had to write always with the "star" vocalist in view.
And so it was with all the other notable composers of opera until Wagner appeared -- with Mozart and Weber, with Meyerbeer and Rossini, with Auber and Boieldieu, with Gounod and Ambroise Thomas, even with Beethoven himself. These, with a host of smaller fry, all wrote, and had to write, keeping ever in view the vocal evolutions of the publics favourites. It was Wagners giant mind which accomplished, successfully and for all time, a reaction against this overgrowth of the melodic element as a piece of vulgar (or at least inartistic) ostentation.
Wagners theory of opera, or rather of music-drama, as he preferred to call it, was peculiarly and essentially his own. Vast quantities of ink have been shed by innumerable pens in more or less elaborate explanations of that theory. Let it not be supposed, however, that there is anything bewilderingly abstruse about the Masters doctrine of music-drama.
The first thing to understand clearly is that Wagner was dissatisfied with the form and style of the typical Italian opera of his day. It was not a serious art form. It was designed, as I have tried to indicate, chiefly for display -- display of voice, and pretty costumes, and graceful action in the love-duets. Text and music had no necessary connection. The composers object was to evolve a string of catching melodies; melodies, moreover, which need not arouse any emotion in the listener, but were there simply for showing off the vocal powers of the artistes. The librettos were often so unworthy of musical setting that the French had a saying: "Whatever is too stupid to be spoken may be sung."
Wagners conception of what opera should be was entirely different. He looked back at the old Greek drama, founded on the great mythological legends of the nation, and marked the tremendous influence it had on the life and thought of the people. He would try to do the same with his own countrys myths and legends, so that German opera should be to the Germans what the Greek drama was to the Greeks. As Mr. W. J. Henderson, the author of one of the best books on Wagner in English, has pointed out, it is only by bearing this in mind that we can account for such works as "Lohengrin," "Tannhäuser," and "Parsifal," on the one hand, and the "Ring" on the other. The first three are Wagners embodiment of the Christian mythology of Germany; the last is his presentation of its old pagan mythology.
Wagner preferred the myth or legend because of its universality, its freedom from the conventions of time and place; because it enshrined human types, fundamental traits of character and elementary emotions. His aim was to throw the whole force of his musical expression on character and emotion. Text, music, action, scenery -- all must unite in a common purpose, each indissoluble from the other. He wrote all his own texts, so that he might know exactly what emotions the music ought to convey. Rubinstein, complaining once that people sent him poems to set to music, added that "they might just as well send me a girl to fall in love with." It was the same conviction which led Wagner to provide his texts for himself. And these texts, let it be observed, are not mere schemes of dialogue, arias, processions, ballets, and what not. They are fine dramatic poems.
This it is, indeed, which constitutes one of the outstanding differences between the old conventional opera and the serious music-drama of Wagner. Wagner sets all the conventions of Italian opera at defiance. He will have no set, detached arias, no duets, quartets, ballets, or ensembles. The acting must not be cramped by the music, as in the old style of opera, where a man may have to stand on one toe till he has done his roulade, or pause in the dead of night to shout out a song, "Hush! we shall be discovered," when there is not a moment to spare. With Wagner the music must not be spoiled for the acting, nor the acting for the music. He must have a consistent drama, not a mere musical entertainment cut into lengths, as it were, with breaks for applause, and encores, and so on. His drama must stand or fall as one piece: the weak as necessary in it as the strong. There must be nothing unrelated to the rest; the music shall be woven, not built.
These are the broad distinctions between the old style of opera and the Wagner music-drama. There are other details, but they are mostly too theoretical for amateur interest and understanding. One special feature of the Wagner music-drama must, however, be adverted to. Wagner, having given up the old aria form, had to invent a new system of repetitions for what has been called his "continuous melody." Hence, all though his works, we have the leitmotiv, the "leading motive" or typical theme -- a short, striking, and easily recognised musical phrase, associated with some particular character or some special idea or incident in the drama. Whenever Wagner desires to remind his audience of these characters or ideas or incidents, he introduces the appropriate "leading motive," either in the voice or the orchestra, and in many variations according to circumstances. Thus, supposing a special musical phrase or "motive" is heard every time the hero appears on the stage, then, whenever Wagner wants people to know that the heroine is thinking of the hero in his absence, or hears him coming in the distance, the special "motive" occurs in the music. Very likely this consists of only a few notes played by just one kind of instrument while the rest of the orchestra is busy with elaborate harmonies. Or, again, this particular "motive" may be combined with others, suggestive of other persons, or scenes, or even moods.
Much writing has been devoted to discussions of the leitmotiv system. Luckily the subject is too technical for detailed treatment in these pages, though I have sought to illustrate the system in a simple way in dealing with the music of the several dramas. For the rest, it seems enough to insist that by this essential feature of his art, Wagner tries to embody the principal mental moods of his dramas -- that he uses his "leading motives" whenever he desires to express these moods. It is not really necessary for the hearer to know that there are "leading motives" at all, though an acquaintance with them must of course add to his intellectual pleasure. The important thing is that these "motives" should arouse the emotions which Wagner intended them to arouse. If they do not, then they are useless.