Wagner as a Teacher of Singers

By Henry T. Finck

Richard Wagner was one of the greatest teachers of singing the world has ever seen. The success of those who came under his instruction proves this even more eloquently than his writings. A few words of explanation would often enable them to overcome a seemingly insurmountable difficulty. He paid much attention to proper breathing, but his usual method was to approach the matter from the mental side; to thoroughly understand a passage was, in his opinion, to master half its technical difficulty.

These words appeared as a footnote in my Wagner and His Works, the first edition of which is dated 1893. It includes a considerable number of details regarding Wagner’s method of teaching his singers and orchestral musicians to grasp and execute his intentions; but I did not have at that time the advantage of utilizing some books that have since appeared, notably Lili Lehmann’s memoirs and, above all, the illuminating volume, entitled Richard Wagner an seine Kunstler, which contains invaluable hints in abundance.

It is a book of 414 pages, containing his letters to the artists who assisted him in giving his three Bayreuth festivals, the first of which was devoted to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the second to his four Nibelung dramas, the third to Parsifal. The number of letters in this book is 360, and there is another volume in which are printed his letters relating to the purely business affairs of the festival. These two books give a vivid idea of Wagner’s amazing capacity for hard work. Edison once said that genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety nine percent perspiration. On reading Wagner’s Bayreuth letters, one realizes that this is not such an exaggeration as at first it seems to be. After devoting a quarter century to the conception and composing of his four colossal Nibelung operas, he was confronted by a task that would have appalled anyone but himself – the Herculean labor of finding musicians who could sing and play them.

From “Rienzi” to “Lohengrin”

It is not easy for us to comprehend the difficulties that confronted Wagner. Today, opera singers of the dramatic class, are expected as a matter of course to do the Wagner roles. But when he began to write his operas there were no Wagner singers. He had to create those, as well as the operas.

His Rienzi was all right, for that was more or less in the prevailing Meyerbeer style; yet even that made what he himself called “extravagant demands on the singers.” The Flying Dutchman went much farther away from the styles to which the singers were accustomed, while Tannhauser and Lohengrin seemed to cap the climax of novelty and difficulty. To singers of our day the vocal music in Lohengrin seems quite simple and tuneful, even in the second act, which foreshadows the Nibelung style; yet the great song writer, Robert Franz, though he liked this opera, wrote that, “it is difficult to understand how the singers can memorize melodic phrases like these, apparently written so much against the grain.”

What would he have thought of Tristan and Isolde?

It was not only the unprecedented intervals in Wagner’s melodious recitatives that the singers found it difficult to master. He had to teach them the art of harmonizing their acting with their singing. Before his day, opera singers were not expected to be actors and actresses, except in a very vague and general way. A few did act, but even these would have opened wide their eyes at Wagner’s demands. His essay on the proper performance of the Flying Dutchman, which ever student of operatic singing should read and re-read and ponder and again ponder, gives a vivid insight into his conception of the intimate union of singing and acting. Six solid pages are devoted to the Hollander alone, demonstrating his every movement and gesture, in close association with the music; and the characters are similarly treated.

There is also an essay on the proper performance of Tannhauser, which is even more valuable. Wagner wrote it because it was not possible for him to travel from city to city and instruct the singers and conductors personally as to the best way of learning to perform this opera.

How to Study an Opera

A glaring light is thrown in this essay on the difference between the old way of staging an opera and his new way.

The old way was to send to each singer his part, which he was expected to study at the piano till he knew it by heart. Then all the singers were assembled for a rehearsal, during which the stage manager gave them a few hints as to the acting of their part.

That was not Wagner’s way of teaching his singers. Before they got a glimpse of the music, he had them meet the conductor and stage manager and read in their presence their respective parts, even the chorus being present. His directions were that this should be done repeatedly, till each of the vocalists got into the spirit of his or her part, just as if they were going to act it without music. After that, they were to receive their vocal parts, which they would then study with greatly increased understanding, and therefore greatly increased interest and chances of success.

Concerning Lohengrin the most valuable pedagogic hints are to be found in a long letter written by Wagner to Liszt when that opera had its first performance anywhere, at Weimar. Naturally, the orchestral splendors and beauties of the score were fully revealed under the direction of Liszt, whose conducting was as wonderful in its way as his piano playing. But he could not create competent singers. Wagner himself realized that he could not “expect the Lord to work private miracles” in his behalf by making singers of the kind he needed “grow on trees.” Yet it annoyed him exceedingly to find that those who heard his opera at Weimar were impressed by the music, but not by the action and the singing on the stage. “If at the performance of my Lohengrin the music alone – nay, as a rule, the orchestra alone – attracts attention, you may be sure that the singers have fallen far below the level of their task.”

How true this was, we who have heard such singers and historical artists as Emma Eames, Lillian Nordica, Johanna Gadski, Marianne Brandt, Jean and Edouard de Resyke in this opera can attest.

“Tristan and Isolde” and “Die Meistersinger”

A few good singers did “grow on trees” for Wagner after the Weimar premiere of Lohengrin, which occurred in 1850. Yet as late as 1863 (when he had already reached his fiftieth year) his Tristan was given up as “impossible” after fifty four rehearsals in Vienne, where the Opera had, as he himself wrote, “better signers than the theaters elsewhere.” It was useless for him to point out that Viardot-Garcia, in Paris, had once sung the part of Isolde in the second act at sight for him. She was not available in Germany, and Paris, at that time, would not have understood his opera.

At last he found in Schnorr von Carolsfeld and ideal Tristan. To him, after his death, he devoted a long and instructive essay, in which he pointed out how Schnorr contrasted with the tenor who sang Lohengrin at Weimar. By his wonderful dramatic and vocal art Schnorr “held the rapt attention of the whole audience in such a way that this orchestral symphony seemed, in comparison to his song, like the simplest accompaniment to an operatic solo, or rather, disappeared as a separate factor, and seemed to be part and parcel of his song.”

Much of this success was directly due to Wagner’s teaching. “Never,” Wagner wrote, “has the most bungling singer or player accepted so much detailed instruction from me as this vocal hero, whose art touched on supreme mastery.”

Instructive glimpses of Wagner as a teach are given in Ludwig Nohl’s Neues Skizzenbuch. They relate to the rehearsals, in Munich, of Die Meistersinger, an opera in which “every step, every nod of the head, every gesture of the arms, every opening of the door, is musically illustrated.” Two details may be quoted from this Boswellian book:

  1. Wagner showed the impersonator of Beckmesser, at the point where he finally is driven frantic by Sach’s persistent singing and hammering, how he must suddenly rush at the ‘malicious and insolent’ cobbler. It was a positively tiger-like, quivering jump, which Holtzel had trouble to imitate even partially.
  2. If anything in the orchestra displeases him, which happens not infrequently, he jumps up as if a snake had bitten him, claps his hands, and calls to the orchestra, after Bulow has rapped for silence; ‘Piano, gentlemen; piano! That must be played softly, softly, softly, as if it came to us from another world.’ And the orchestra begins again. ‘More softly still,’ cries Wagner, with an appropriate gesture, ‘So, so, so, gut, gut, gut sehr schone.’”

A Herculean Task

Each of the operas so far considered called for only about half a dozen artists. But when Wagner had completed the Ring of the Nibelung he needed no fewer than forty nine artists who could act as well as sing. All these required his personal instruction – and got it. On this point the collection of letters to his Bayreuth artists, which is referred to at the beginning of this article, leaves no doubt. “I am obliged,” he wrote to the famous tenor, Albert Niemann, “to devote this whole winter to visiting all the German opera houses, big and small, in order to find out about their singers.”

When he had found out, and had laid his plans, he invited the chosen ones separately to his home at Bayreuth and gave them preliminary personal instructions regarding their parts. None of them could be trusted to find their way unaided in this new realm of art. To the celebrated Betz he wrote in 1874; “I therefore expect you this summer, at your convenience, to come for the first perusal of your part at the piano, to lay the foundation for study.” Karl Hill he begged not to look at the music of the parts assigned to him till he could come to Bayreuth, “because I prefer that you should make your first acquaintance with them through me, since I consider myself the only one qualified for this.”

Hints to Famous Singers

Most of the vocalists whom Wagner engaged were already famous, and it was his desire (as it was Liszt’s practice with his pupils) to take technical skill for granted and confine his instruction to questions of interpretation; yet sometimes he had to go back to first principles, as in the case of Georg Unger, whom he complimented on having mastered what he had been told about the character of his part, but advised to devote more time to vocal exercises in order to get rid of the throaty quality of his voice.

He evidently took this singer because no better was at hand. Unlike the average teacher, he did not believe that by means of exercises a silk purse could be made out of a sow’s ear. “I have never discovered,” he wrote to Hans von Wolzogen, “that a person afflicted with throaty tone and careless enunciation has learned how really to sing. On the other hand, I have at various times come across singers with good tone emission and enunciation whom I had to teach little besides correct phrasing, by telling them when and where to take breath, in order to get from them the best they were capable of. I believe that in this matter the most important thing is praxis and living example.”

Wagner did not like the explosive style so common among German singers, any more than he did a throaty voice. During the rehearsals for the Bayreuth festival in 1876 he had a notice posted behind the scenes beginning with these words: “To the SINGERS: Distinctness – the big notes come of themselves, the small notes and their text are the main thing” – words aimed at the explosive singers, whose method resulted in a choppy effect which gave the erroneous impression that there is no smooth legato in Wagner’s vocal style. We who have heard Lilli Lehmann, Nordica, Gadski and Jean de Resyke, among others, know how ridiculous this notion was.

Materna and Scaria

Having had the privilege of attending the first Bayreuth festival (as well as the second), I can attest from personal experience that only a few of the artists whom Wagner had so industriously selected for these occasions were capable of singing his “speech song” with a legato that melodized it. One of these few was Materna, who created Brunnhilde. In a letter to her, written in November, 1878, he Wagner expressed his “lingering joy” at having found in her “one of those whom I really could teach something.”

Wagner knew that every year many fine voices are ruined in the German opera houses by the enormous demands made on them – the necessity of not only singing very often, but in widely different styles. When he discovered Scaria, the great bass, who, also, could sing with a true melodious legato and at the same time enunciate the text with astonishing distinctness, he had this danger in mind. “Were I a Meyerbeer,” he wrote to him (meaning if he were as rich as Meyerbeer), “I would at once take you away from the opera house in order to preserve your whole strength for my cause.”

“Short rehearsals which do not fatigue” are in Wagner’s opinion, “the only ones that lead to success.” He cautioned Materna to keep her voice fresh. “Do not let the winter repertory fatigue you too much. Take it easy and keep your precious vocal powers untired.”

When he engaged Materna to sing selections from his music dramas in Vienna, he wrote to her: “You must not fail to sing the scene by heart. That increases the effect, even at a concert.”

Time Wasted on Mediocrities

With artists like Materna and Scaria, or Niemann and Betz, it was worth while for Wagner to give his precious time to instructing them. But many of those he was called upon to teach were quite undeserving of such a privilege. On this point Anton Seidl, who knew all about it, as he lived with Wagner five years, speaks with bitterness in his essay on “Conducting.”

“All who were closely associated with Wagner,” he writes, “remember how impressively and with what a variety of voices he was able to sing the different roles for those who had been chosen to interpret them, and how marvelously he phrases them all. It is also know, alas, how few artists are able to imitate him. It always makes me sad when I think of how I saw Wagner wasting his vitality, not only by singing their parts to some of his artists, but acting out the smallest details, and of how few they were who were responsive to his wishes.

Those who can recall the rehearsals for The Ring of the Nibelung and afterwards Parsifal, at Bayreuth, will agree with me that much was afterwards forgotten which had laboriously to be thought out in part later…

“But only the few initiated know how many of Wagner’s days were wasted in useless study with different Siegfireds, Hagens, Hundings, Sieglindes, etc. I also wish to recal the rehearsals for Tannhauser and Lohengrin, in Vienna, in 1875. Then his was the task of creating a Tannhauser out of a bad Raoul, of forming a Telramund out of a singer to whom had never been assigned a half important role; and yet when, after a fair degree of success, Wagner asked for consideration on the ground that he had to do the best he could with existing material, the critics fell upon him like a pack of wolves and dogs as a mark of gratitude for his self-sacrificing exertions.”

Plan for a High School or Dramatic Singing

The Germans and Austrians have given to the world many musical geniuses, but their greatness was seldom realized by their contemporaries. To singers of our day it seems incomprehensible that Wagner’s plan of establishing a high school of dramatic singing at Bayreuth and of producing, under his personal supervision, all of his operas in succession, came to naught because so few were interested in it or discerned the tremendous advantages offered.

With four exceptions, he even had to pay the artists who sang at the Bayreuth festival performances. The others did not realize that the fame they got from being chosen by him, and the blessing of his personal instruction outweighed a thousand times what they could do for him.

Few even took the trouble to hand down the illuminating remarks he made to them about his roles. Fortunately, his “Boswell,” Heinrich Porges, issued a book on the Nibelung rehearsals of 1876 which contains many valuable hints. This was done at Wagner’s special request. He also secured for Baureuth the services of Julius Hey, whom he held in the highest esteem as an “ideal teacher,” and who subsequently published a method of German singing, which is the fullest embodiment of Wagner’s thoughts on the training of the voice for the stage. Particularly valuable are the chapters on the treatment of the vowel and consonantal sounds peculiar to the German language.

Lilli Lehmann and the Flower Girls

One of the four artists who realized the tremendous advantage of studying under Wagner himself, and who therefore refused payment for singing at Bayreuth, was Lilli Lehmann. She was too young, in 1876, to do the part of Burnnhilde, of which she subsequently the greatest of all interpreters; but she sang the role of the first Rhine Maiden most charmingly. For the Parsifal festival Wagner intended at first to secure her as leader of the Flower Girls, but changed his mind because she would have been too conspicuous by her beauty of person and voice.

For this chorus he wanted an ensemble of girls absolutely even and flawless. Besides Lilli Lehmann, he got Humperdinck and Porges to help him find and train such a bevy of girls. Conductor Levi was told that if one of them could not sing the high B flat softly and tenderly, “away with her!” And to Lehmann he wrote: “A single shrill voice would spoil everything!”

It was difficult to secure such a chorus – but the, everything about Wagner’s works was difficult at that time. Lilli Lehmann points out, in her Memoirs, how even Materna, with her powerful voice and physique, needed all her strength to carry out Wagner’s wishes. Another famous singer, Frau von Voggenhuber, stipulated that she must not be called on to sing for a whole week before and after her every appearance as Isolde. Gradually the singers learned to cope with all the difficulties, and in 1890, Lehmann points out, she and Vogl appeared in New York as Isolde and Tristan three times in six days. “Thus do times, views and capabilities change.”

Every student of Wagner’s art should read the chapters on Bayreuth in Lehmann’s Memoirs (the English version of her book is entitled My Path Through Life.) She gives instances showing how artists to whom their parts were as riddles, quickly learned to answer them under Wagner’s guidance. She devotes a whole page to describing in detail how he coached one of the prima donnas in the part of Sieglinde, concluding with the words: “The way Wagner, with his poor figure, acted this, was indescribably touching in its expression. Never has any Sieglinde even remotely approached him in this part.”

Thus did Wagner teach all his singers, women as well as men, to act and sing their parts. No detail was neglected. In a letter to Fricke he calls attention to the fact that the twenty four flower girls in Parsifal must enact something “quaite unlike the ballet;” and he adds, “I can show you how.”

How an Actor Learned from Wagner

One of the most famous German actors, Emanuel Reicher, has related in a Viennese journal how he once saw Wagner coach his wife, Hedwig Reicher-Kindermann. She had been suddenly called upon to take the part of Erda in Siegfried. Mottl was to have played the piano at the special rehearsal, but as he was delayed Wagner himself sat down at the instrument. For a time he seemed satisfied, but when she sang the lines, ‘Why cam you, stubborn wild one, to disturb the Wala’s sleep?’ Wagner complained of insufficient expression. “My wife sang the lines again, but he was still dissatisfied. Again he stopped, in his familiar, impatient and rather rude manner. He struck the piano keys, looked at my wife with a furious mien, and sang the music with an incredibly unpliant, disagreeable voice, even off the pitch, but his eyes, his look, the intense grief depicted in his face, the poignant accentuation of the words ‘to disturb the Wala’s sleep’ – these things made an indelible impression. An elemental tragic emanation came from the master’s soul to mine. I was like one bewitched, and whenever I recall the scene I am affected the same way. Many a successful moment in my tragic impersonations has its origin in what I saw on that occasion.”

By far the most emotional and inspired song ever composed by Brahms is one almost unknown – the gruesome Scotch ballad Edward. I shall never forget Dr. Wullner’s singing of this, with Tilly Koenen. His art was simply terrible – as terrible as Salvini’s when he smothered Desdemona – growing more so as, in successive verses, the secret is gradually wrung from him that the has slain his father – at the bidding of the mother, at whom he now hurls his curses. The eminent German baritone, Eugen Gura (one of the Bayreuth artists), relates in his Erinnerungen aus meinem Leben how Wagner once gave him a lesson regarding the emotional coloring of those increasingly agonized “ohs” in Loewe’s setting of this ballad. Could Wagner have heard Wullner he would have been paralyzed with joy at having found at last his ideal of emotional singing – the art singing of the future.