The transit of opera

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

The lead book review in the May Musical opinion is highly interesting as giving us some of Brian’s view on opera as a form, sparked off by a book by an author he greatly respected.

Changing opera, by Paul Bekker.
London: J.M.Dent & Sons, 10s 6d [£0.53].

The author of this book gave up his career as a violinist in the ranks of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra to become the music critic of the Frankfürter Zeitung, but this post was gradually relinquished as his books became widely known. His Beethoven has been reprinted many times. Some years ago Bekker turned his attention to opera production, becoming intendant at the Wiesbaden Opera: but this post he relinquished during the recent political imbroglio. And now he is music critic on a German newspaper published in New York.5

At Wiesbaden Bekker had exceptional opportunities for studying the changes of style in opera that have occurred during the past century and a half: and from out of this experience he writes in his preface: ‘This book addresses itself to those outside musical circles who constitute ‘the public’, including those who think they ‘know nothing about music’, because they believe that music is a thing that can be approached only through study. But music is not a science, or a matter for specialists. It is the ever-alive current of action in the world of sound, and must he grasped as such. And how can it better be grasped than through the most beautiful and noblest organ of sound, belonging to all peoples, of all times, — the human voice.’

Precisely; and Herr Bekker sets out on his task with characteristic German regard for historical knowledge and thoroughness. English music lovers are less fortunate than their fellows in the big operatic centres in Germany, for we in England know little about the eleven operas of Richard Strauss, and nothing of the operas of Schreker, Busoni and Pfitzner. But it is in the numerous post-war works of other men that changes in construction and in writing for the voice are to be found. The supremacy of the singing voice began with the castrati, men who sang with a tone resembling that of a woman but with greater strength and more flexibility. These singers dominated opera during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the influence of their style of singing continued long after they had themselves disappeared. Then what followed was in turn remodelled by Gluck, who sought to obtain a balance between singers, orchestra and the mise en scène.

The most perfect operatic idealism was achieved by Mozart, who, though having a genius for adjusting the opera orchestra, had an unerring instinct for vocal psychology when fixing his characters. His operas form a climax in genuine vocal operas: and he was the first of the great composers to allot the supreme position to the baritone. The greatest change in opera followed the death of Mozart. The first signs of the struggle for the supremacy of instrumental music is heard in Beethoven’s Fedlio [sic – JRM]. Mozart’s melodies, even in his piano sonatas suggest that they are singing melodies and were heard in the voice. In Beethoven, however, the instrumental character of the melodies is unmistakable, and suggests that they were always conceived in the orchestra. We hear no voices in his melodies until we reach the mighty bass recitatives in the Choral Symphony.

This natural instinct of Beethoven for the orchestra joined to a forceful dramatic instinct, dispelling the influence of his immediate predecessors. Weber could not refrain from jeering at him, but nevertheless had to follow suit, as did Meyerbeer, that other pupil of Abt Vogler. But Weber introduced a new element into his own operas,— the elemental, spectral and pictorial; and this had an influence no less profound on Wagner and on Berlioz, moving them more than the mighty orchestral current of Beethoven. In this characterisation the vocal element underwent transformation in the solo voice and in the choral ensembles.

With Wagner the change in the position of the singing voice became more drastic as his work proceeded, though he remained faithful to two types of singers, — the soprano heroine and the heroic tenor, influenced by the great personalities of Schröder-Devrient (soprano) and Tichatschek (tenor), the result of his experiences in Dresden6. His characterisation of the principle characters in The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin marks a departure in histrionic singing and dramatic utilisation of solo voices and chorus. His tendency to symphonic writing eventually produced Tristan, the first symphonic opera, in which solo voices are reduced to an orchestral equilibrium. Yet he had singing actors in his mind, and asked for intelligence, imagination and subtlety from them: hence his designation of the later works as music-dramas.

Obviously, if Sicilian Vespers is an opera, than what is Tristan and Isolde? Verdi, born the same year as Wagner, lived eighteen years longer. But they are unlike in every way. Of all previous famous Italian masters, only Rossini had, in The Barber, discovered the genius of the baritone voice; but in the operas of Verdi the baritone becomes the dominating character. No composer was ever more sensitive than Verdi to vocal psychology or its dramatic possibilities.

The utilisation of the chorus for suggesting fear or horror was attempted by Gluck: but with Verdi such suggestions are made entirely on his own abiding principles. Instances occur throughout the operas and in the magnificent Manzoni Requiem. Other composers have set the Dies Irae, but only Verdi has successfully depicted the horror suggested by the Latin hymn. Achieved by modest technical demands, it remains a remarkable dramatic feat. No composer of opera, other than Wagner, has shown such regard for vocal niceties and possibilities.

Operas of the French school since Gounod, of the Italian school since Verdi, and of the contemporary Slav school, are dealt with under the heading of Lyric Opera, with Puccini most prominent of them all. Here — in the most prominent operas discussed, Carmen, Faust and Boris — the baritone voice is the most dominating character. A point worth noting is that opera-loving Germany did not hear its first performance of Boris until forty years after its first production in Russia. Only a year separated the first performances of Carmen and Boris.

Since Wagner and Verdi, many changes have taken place in the various schools of opera. Strauss has been spoken of as a scoffer in his treatment of the singing voice: nevertheless, he has made some deft dramatic strokes in his use of the solo voice in Salome, Rosenkavalier and Die Frau ohne Schatten. Recent observable changes are far more important than any scoffing or a shuffling of positions. In the operas of Busoni, his intellect carried him so far as almost to ignore the female element, also to make his Mephistopheles (Doktor Faust) a tenor.

  1. Bekker (1882-1937), a champion of Mahler, Schoenberg and Schreker, was one of the leading German critics of his generation, and appears to have been the one whom Brian most respected in the inter-war years: indeed, Brian was to write an obituary of him for Musical Opinion the following year. His reputation has somewhat declined in recent years, partly due to his controversies with such philosophical heavyweights as TW Adorno and Ernst Bloch whose intellectual stock has much appreciated. ↩︎

  2. Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient (1804-1860), German soprano, and Joseph Tichatschek (1807-1886), Bohemian tenor. Both were leading artists at the Dresden court theatre and much admired by Wagner: both sang in early performances of Rienzi, Die fliegende Höllander and Tannhäuser↩︎

Musical opinion, May 1936, pp. 679–680