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- On Conducting (Ueber das Dirigiren): - 1/15 -






"Fliegenschnauz' und Muckennas' Mit euren Anverwandten, Frosch im Laub und Grill' im Gras, Ihr seid mir Musikanten!"

* * * * * * * *

"Flysnout and Midgenose, With all your kindred, too, Treefrog and Meadow-grig. True musicians, YOU!"

(After GOETHE).

[The lines travestied are taken from "Oberon und Titanias goldene Hochzeit." Intermezzo, Walpurgisnacht.--Faust I.]


Wagner's Ueber das Dirigiren was published simultaneously in the "Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik" and the "New-Yorker Musik-zeitung," 1869. It was immediately issued in book form, Leipzig, 1869, and is now incorporated in the author's collected writings, Vol. VIII. p. 325-410. ("Gesammelte Schriften und Dichtungen von Richard Wagner," ten volumes, Leipzig, 1871-1883.) For various reasons, chiefly personal, the book met with much opposition in Germany, but it was extensively read, and has done a great deal of good. It is unique in the literature of music: a treatise on style in the execution of classical music, written by a great practical master of the grand style. Certain asperities which pervade it from beginning to end could not well be omitted in the translation; care has, however, been taken not to exaggerate them. To elucidate some points in the text sundry extracts from other writings of Wagner have been appended. The footnotes, throughout, are the translator's.


The following pages are intended to form a record of my experience in a department of music which has hitherto been left to professional routine and amateur criticism. I shall appeal to professional executants, both instrumentalists and vocalists, rather than to conductors; since the executants only can tell whether, or not, they have been led by a competent conductor. I do not mean to set up a system, but simply to state certain facts, and record a number of practical observations.

Composers cannot afford to be indifferent to the manner in which their works are presented to the public; and the public, naturally, cannot be expected to decide whether the performance of a piece of music is correct or faulty, since there are no data beyond the actual effect of the performance to judge by.

I shall endeavour to throw some light upon the characteristics of musical performances in Germany--with regard to the concert-room, as well as to the theatre. Those who have experience in such matters are aware that, in most cases, the defective constitution of German orchestras and the faults of their performances are due to the shortcomings of the conductors ("Capellmeister," "Musikdirectoren," etc.). The demands upon the orchestras have increased greatly of late, their task has become more difficult and more complicated; yet the directors of our art-institutions, display increasing negligence in their choice of conductors. In the days when Mozart's scores afforded the highest tasks that could be set before an orchestra, the typical German Capellmeister was a formidable personage, who knew how to make himself respected at his post--sure of his business, strict, despotic, and by no means polite. Friedrich Schneider, of Dessau, was the last representative I have met with of this now extinct species. Guhr, of Frankfort, also may be reckoned as belonging to it. The attitude of these men towards modern music was certainly "old fashioned"; but, in their own way, they produced good solid work: as I found not more than eight years ago [Footnote: Circa, 1861.] at Carlsruhe, when old Capellmeister Strauss conducted "Lohengrin." This venerable and worthy man evidently looked at my score with some little shyness; but, he took good care of the orchestra, which he led with a degree of precision and firmness impossible to excel. He was, clearly, a man not to be trifled with, and his forces obeyed him to perfection. Singularly enough, this old gentleman was the only German conductor of repute I had met with, up to that time, who possessed true fire; his tempi were more often a trifle too quick than too slow; but they were invariably firm and well marked. Subsequently, H. Esser's conducting, at Vienna, impressed me in like manner.

The older conductors of this stamp if they happened to be less gifted than those mentioned, found it difficult to cope with the complications of modern orchestral music--mainly because of their fixed notions concerning the proper constitution of an orchestra. I am not aware that the number of permanent members of an orchestra, has, in any German town, been rectified according to the requirements of modern instrumentation. Now-a-days, as of old, the principal parts in each group of instruments, are allotted to the players according to the rules of seniority [Footnote: Appointments at German Court theatres are usually for life.]--thus men take first positions when their powers are on the wane, whilst younger and stronger men are relegated to the subordinate parts--a practice, the evil effects of which are particularly noticeable with regard to the wind instruments. Latterly [Footnote: 1869.] by discriminating exertions, and particularly, by the good sense of the instrumentalists concerned, these evils have diminished; another traditional habit, however, regarding the choice of players of stringed instruments, has led to deleterious consequences. Without the slightest compunction, the second violin parts, and especially the Viola parts, have been sacrificed. The viola is commonly (with rare exceptions indeed) played by infirm violinists, or by decrepit players of wind instruments who happen to have been acquainted with a stringed instrument once upon a time: at best a competent viola player occupies the first desk, so that he may play the occasional soli for that instrument; but, I have even seen this function performed by the leader of the first violins. It was pointed out to me that in a large orchestra, which contained eight violas, there was only one player who could deal with the rather difficult passages in one of my later scores!

Such a state of things may be excusable from a humane point of view; it arose from the older methods of instrumentation, where the role of the viola consisted for the most part in filling up the accompaniments; and it has since found some sort of justification in the meagre method of instrumentation adopted by the composers of Italian operas, whose works constitute an important element in the repertoire of the German opera theatres.

At the various court theatres, Italian operas have always found favour with the Directors. From this it follows as a matter of course, that works which are not in the good grace of those gentlemen stand a poor chance, unless it should so happen that the conductor is a man of weight and influence who knows the real requirements of a modern orchestra. But our older Capellmeisters rarely knew as much--they did not choose to recognize the need of a large increase in the number of stringed instruments to balance the augmented number of wind instruments and the complicated uses the latter are now put to.

In this respect the attempts at reform were always insufficient; and our celebrated German orchestras remained far behind those of France in the power and capacity of the violins, and particularly of the violoncellos.

Now, had the conductors of a later generation been men of authority like their predecessors, they might easily have mended matters; but the Directors of court theatres took good care to engage none but demure and subservient persons.

It is well worth while to note how the conductors, who are now at the head of German music, arrived at the honourable positions they hold.

We owe our permanent orchestras to the various theatres, particularly the court theatres, small and great. The managers of these theatres are therefore in a position to select the men who are to represent the spirit and dignity of German music. Perhaps those who have been thus advanced to posts of honour, are themselves cognizant of how they got there--to an unpractised observer it is rather difficult to discern their particular merits. The so-called "good berths" are reached step by step: men move on and push upwards. I believe the Court orchestra at Berlin has got the majority of its conductors in this way. Now and then, however, things come to pass in a more erratic manner; grand personages, hitherto unknown, suddenly begin to flourish under the protection of the lady in waiting to some princess, etc. etc.--It is impossible to estimate the harm done to our leading orchestras and opera theatres by such nonentities. Devoid of real merit they keep their posts by abject cringing to the chief court official, and by polite submission to the indolence of their musical subordinates. Relinquishing the pretence of artistic

On Conducting (Ueber das Dirigiren): - 1/15

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