The music is the last Wagner wrote in his ripe period; when we get to Parsifal his powers were waning. In point of structure it is the same as that of Siegfried. It has less of springtime freshness than the Valkyrie, and the prevailing colour is sombre and tragic; but there are magnificent things. The Norns scene, the Journey of the Rhine, the Waltrante scene, the funeral march, and Brunnhilda’s final speech, are Wagner in the full glory of his strength.
The complete Ring was given for the first time at the opening of the Bayreuth (Wagner) Theatre in 1876. The performance did not pay, and the expenses had to be covered by selling the dresses and scenery. Bayreuth was by no means in those days the fashionable summer resort it has since become. Nevertheless, the immediate effect felt throughout Europe was electric, stupendous. As a mere advertisement, it proved more effective than anything devised for pills and patent soaps. Hundreds who went to Bayreuth to pass the time, or at most in a spirit of intelligent curiosity, came away converted to the new faith; many who went to sponge remained to pay; and all preached the doctrine of Wagnerism wherever they went. Well they might. As I was an infant at the time, my recollections of the first performances and of Wagner’s speech are not so vivid as those of some of my younger colleagues, who, like myself, were not there; but, according to all creditable accounts, the representations must have been a nearer approach to perfection in all respects, save the singing, than anything seen before. In one sense Wagner had attempted no revolution in stage-craft; but in another sense it was, perhaps, the best sort of revolution to secure the ablest men, and make them take care, pains, with their work. Anyhow, if tolerable operatic representations can now be seen in every country of Europe save Italy, the credit must go to Wagner, who first taught the impresarios what to aim at and how to achieve their aim, and gave the accursed star system a blow from which it is slowly dying. Carefully nursed though it is in New York and at Covent Garden, its convulsive shudders announce impending death, and already one hears the wail of those who mourn a departing order of things.
This disastrous and evil opera was written in Wagner’s old age, under the influence of such a set of disagreeably immoral persons as has seldom if ever been gathered together in so small a town as Bayreuth. The whole drama consists in this: At Montsalvat there was a monastery, and the head became seriously ill because he had been seen with a lady. In the long-run he is saved by a young man—rightly called a “fool”—who cannot tolerate the sight of a woman. What it all means—the grotesque parody of the Last Supper, the death of the last woman in the world, the spear which has caused the Abbot’s wound and then cures it—these are not matters to be entered into here. Some of the music is fine.