List Of Contents | Contents of On Conducting
Next Page > >
the online distributed prooreading team of Charles Franks.





                     MOTTO NACH GOETHE:

                "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
discipline, which they are unable to enforce, they are always
ready to give way, or to obey any absurd orders from headquarters;
and such conductors, under favourable circumstances, have even
been known to become popular favourites!

At rehearsals all difficulties are got over by means of mutual
congratulations and a pious allusion to the "old established fame
of our Orchestra." Who can venture to say that the performances
of that famous institution deteriorate year by year? Where is the
true authority? Certainly not amongst the critics, who only bark
when their mouths are not stopped; and the art of stopping mouths
is cultivated to perfection.

Recently, the post of chief conductor has here and there been
filled by a man of practical experience, especially engaged with

Next Page > >

Other sites: