By Peter Bassett
A paper presented to the 8th International Congress of Voice Teachers, Brisbane, on 13 July 2013
There were at least five occasions on which Wagner set out to improve standards of performance through formal education and training. The first occurred when he was a young man in Dresden in the 1840s, occupying the position of second Kapellmeister at the Saxon court. He proposed some entirely reasonable reforms to the conditions and payment of the Royal orchestra but ran up against the insecurities of his superiors and the resentment of others. He then submitted a ‘Plan for a National German Theatre for the Kingdom of Saxony’ in which he advocated the removal of the theatre from the control of the court, the creation of a democratic association of dramatists and composers which should elect the director and determine artistic policy, and the foundation of a theatre workshop to train young artists, producers and technicians. Again, nothing was done, and this report was left to gather dust. The whole experience was an early and depressing brush with bureaucracy and fed the fires of his revolutionary inclinations.
His next attempt at major reform came in Zürich where he had fled after the failure of the 1849 Dresden uprisings. He wrote a paper entitled ‘A Theatre in Zürich’, calling on the town fathers to reshape their theatre from top to bottom. He insisted they should hire singers who were also trained actors, train them on a year-round basis, actively recruit German poets and composers to develop works, limit performances to no more than three per week (so that singers would not be burned out by exploitation), and found a Commission of Theatrical Affairs to govern the institution. As always, he conceived his plans in the context of a reformed world of opera. In Zürich, he drew parallels between what he wanted the theatre to become and folk-like activities such as village festivals and the singing societies in German towns. This was too novel for the staid burghers and, again, nothing came of it, but the seeds of Die Meistersinger were being sown in his mind even at that early date.
He was not discouraged, and the next opportunity to do something came in March 1865, when he was living in Munich under the patronage of the young King Ludwig II. The king commissioned him to prepare a report ‘On the Foundation of a German Conservatoire in Munich’. Once again Wagner called for a school in which singers would be better trained in the theory and practice of music than was usual at the time. He urged the development of performance and production practices for an individually German art. But exclusivity was never part of his plan. After all, he had had considerable experience of conducting the operatic and symphonic works of other composers. Between the ages of 20 and 23 he had conducted or prepared no fewer than seventy-seven operas by most of the major operatic composers of the 18th and early 19th centuries – German, French and Italian. Like Hans Sachs, he was aware that tradition and inspiration are not mutually exclusive but mutually enriching.
In respect of Wagner’s proposals for a school in Munich, he argued the need for a new type of poetic text that took account of the particular attributes and constraints of the German language – so different from the Italian. From such a text, he said, would emerge a dramatic, declamatory vocal line, often un-lyrical and un-vocal to the point where the human voice was treated almost as an instrument of the orchestra. The committee charged with giving effect to Wagner’s report met once or twice, scratched its collective head, and decided that his proposals were too expensive. So that was that. They might also have had trouble dealing with his daunting prose style, and one wonders whether the lengthy report was actually read to its conclusion!
When in 1872 Wagner laid the foundation stone of his festival theatre – not in Munich as King Ludwig had wished but in the provincial town of Bayreuth – he also began work on a long essay entitled ‘On Actors and Singers’. In this he elaborated his ideas on the fundamental importance of gesture, mime and improvisation, and he lamented the disappearance from the modern theatre of a true improvisatory art which, in his view, only survived in elements of popular culture. The salvation of dramatic art, he concluded, lay in the selfless collaboration of the dramatist and the singer or actor.
The improvisatory quality of Wagner’s staging comes out very clearly in the detailed records made of rehearsals for the first Ring in 1876. It was noted that all the things Wagner did at the rehearsals created the impression of having been improvised. He kept changing his mind from day to day, altering not only blocking, stage movement and gestures, but also the musical tempi. Needless to say, this drove the singers mad, but he was giving effect to his own maxim about improvisation. He sought to liberate the singer and never to impose his own personal characterisations. He believed that every artist of stature brought something inimitable to a role, and he only stepped in when he came upon a lack of understanding or superficiality. His only demand was that the singers abandon their personal identities to the role.
In respect of the technicalities of singing, Wagner coached his performers in declamation, intonation, phrasing, and dynamics, and urged the greatest clarity in presenting a character’s emotions. His famous last instruction to his cast before the first Ring performance was: “!Clarity! The big notes will take care of themselves; the small notes and the text are the main things.” Audibility of words was a recurring problem, and Wagner’s view was that the orchestra should support the singer as the sea supports a boat – rocking but never upsetting or swamping. It was a point he made over and over again, and one that today’s conductors and composers would do well to heed. Despite the huge size of the Ring orchestra, in the main it supports and punctuates rather than overwhelms the vocal line. In Parsifal Wagner achieved near perfection in combining maximum orchestral expressiveness with vocal clarity.
In 1877, a year after the first Bayreuth festival, Wagner began looking again at the prospect of establishing a school for the training of singers and actors and the development of other theatrical skills. He contributed an article to the local newspaper, Bayreuther Blätter, that had been set up to support the festival. This article, entitled ‘Proposed Bayreuth School’ was a thoroughly practical statement of arrangements, outlining courses of study for the years 1878 to 1883. He intended to supervise personally the activities of the school, which would be open to male and female graduates of existing music schools, or singers and musicians who had reached an equivalent level. Students would have to commit to remaining in Bayreuth each year from 1 January to 30 September, and the academic year would be divided into three terms. During the first year, 1878, the dramatic works of German composers other than Wagner would be studied under the guidance of a special singing-master. Given the pre-determined level of vocal expertise, the focus of the course would be on interpretative and performing skills. Piano studies would also be undertaken by experienced pianists, which would lead to the conducting of orchestral performances. It was hoped that sufficient instrumental musicians would be available during the final three months to form an orchestra or, failing this, that musicians on holidays from the court orchestra would be able to fill any gaps. During the second quarter, attention would be paid to string-quartet playing. How interesting that Wagner felt that the four ‘voices’ of a string quartet had something to teach human singers about expressive relationships! Throughout the year there would be lectures focusing on cultural, historical, and aesthetic matters towards an appreciation of German performing styles.
In the second year, 1879, a similar course would be followed, but now the focus in the last term would be on Wagner’s own dramatic works, particularly his earlier operas. The third year, 1880, would culminate in complete stage performances of the earlier works – Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg would follow in 1881, Der Ring des Nibelungen in 1882, and the first performance of Parsifal in 1883. He recognized that not all of those who enrolled for the first year would still be involved in the sixth, but he hoped that a sufficient number would continue from year to year to form a nucleus of experienced students who might be able to assist with teaching and serve as models for later intakes.
A feature of this scheme that seems particularly interesting is that Wagner intended to train students in the performance of his works and employ them in the festival theatre, including for a second performance of the Ring in 1882 (six years after the first) and the premiere of Parsifal planned for 1883. He was determined, it seems, to prepare up-and-coming singers, repetiteurs and conductors in a music school environment rather than rely on the ad hoc engagement of outsiders in the traditional way. It was an audacious plan that crystallised once it was clear to him that another festival could not be mounted in 1877. Now he would create a cadre of especially prepared singers and instrumental musicians. After all, his motivation for the Bayreuth experiment from the outset had been to present ideal performances in ideal surroundings, using singers who truly understood his intentions. This was what would distinguish Bayreuth from other opera houses. While many of his singers for the first festival had been the best available, the reality was that they had come from busy careers in the wider world of opera, were wedded to old habits which were not easily thrown off. He was particularly annoyed by the attention-seeking Franz Betz, his Wotan, who had been peeved that he could not take curtain calls whenever he wished and had, as Wagner noted, hammed up his part in some places, especially at the beginning of the Valkyrie. Wagner was inclined not to invite him back and, for his part, Betz declared that he would not come anyway!
To his great regret, Wagner was unable to proceed with his school and create the model productions he desired. The first Bayreuth Festival had left an enormous deficit, which was hardly surprising given that the composer had not only staged the huge four-part Ring for the first time but had also built an entire theatre in which to perform it. There was no way he could mount a new festival in 1877, and so he set about giving concerts in the hope of raising funds. When these concerts generated only modest returns, other ideas were floated, including the sale of the entire enterprise to either the Imperial or Bavarian governments, or relocating the Festival to Munich. These ideas came to nothing and he eventually released the Ring for general performances throughout Europe. This would at least generate royalties, but any hope of creating ideal performances seemed gone forever. The financial crisis was finally settled in 1878 with the intervention of the King who arranged for the Munich Court Theatre to pay royalties until the debt was wiped out.
It was during those testing times after the first Festival that Wagner contemplated one of his more extraordinary solutions. He would sell his house and the theatre in Bayreuth and move to America. At various points during his life America loomed as an attractive prospect or was suggested to him by admirers in the United States. He wrote to a supporter in July 1877 that if nothing came of his plans for a financial solution then he would wash his hands of his Festival and go to America and would never return to Germany. A financial solution was found, and Wagner was soon fully absorbed in his composition of Parsifal which, in July 1882, received its premiere in Bayreuth with great success. His health deteriorated and in February 1883 he died in Venice without having set foot on the North American continent or having brought to fruition his plans for a music school.
In Act 3 of Die Meistersinger, which is itself a giant demonstration of the art of singing, Hans Sachs gives Walther von Stolzing a lesson in how to construct an ideal song and, in the process, Wagner gives us a lesson in how songs should be written and sung. The text is perfectly clear, the musical expression mirrors the spirit of the words, the orchestra is part of the song and, as Wagner put it, his declamation is at the same time song and his song declamation. There is also a masterly lesson in how to set conversations to music.
Wagner’s efforts were titanic and his achievements remarkable, and hand in hand with those achievements went a passion for educating singers and everyone else concerned with the production of opera. Clearly, for him, one crowded lifetime was far too short.