Bayreuther Festspiele

Preface to the publication of the poem of the stage festival drama 'Der Ring des Nibelungen'

Richard Wagner, 1863

My more intimate friends to whom I communicated the poem of my stage festival drama some years ago were at the same time left in no doubt as to my views on the possibility of a complete musico-dramatic performance of the same. I still hold those views, and as I have not yet learnt to doubt in the genuine success of such an undertaking as soon as adequate material support can be found for it, I now wish to make that plan better known to a wider audience by means of the publication of my poem.
My main concern on that occasion was to ensure that such a performance should be rid of all the influences of the repertory system that obtains in our existing theatres. As a result I had to think in terms of one of the smaller towns in Germany, a town that was favourably situated and able to cope with the influx of an unusual number of visitors, in other words a town in which there would be no clash of interests with one of our larger permanent theatres and where we should not be confronted, therefore, with the theatre audiences typical of a large city and its various customs. Here a temporary theatre was to be built, as simple as possible, perhaps merely of timber, and calculated purely in terms of the functionality of its interior; I had already spoken to an experienced and intelligent architect [Gottfried Semper] and discussed with him a plan for a theatre of this kind, which would include an amphitheatrically-shaped auditorium and involve the great advantage of an invisible orchestra. The finest dramatic singers, drawn from the resident companies of our German opera houses, would be summoned here during the early months of spring to rehearse the multi-sectional stage work that I have written and to do so, moreover, uninterrupted by any other artistic activity. But the German public was to be invited to attend these performances, three cycles of which I reckoned on giving, and, as with our other great music festivals, these performances were to be given not only for a partially municipal audience but for all the friends of art, both far and near. A complete performance of the dramatic poem published herewith was to comprise Das Rheingold on a preliminary evening, followed on the three ensuing evenings by Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, all of them presented at the height of the summer months. The advantages that would accrue from such an arrangement appeared to me to be as follows, beginning with the production itself: from a practical artistic point of view, it seemed to me that a truly successful performance would be possible only in this way. Given our German opera's complete lack of style and the almost grotesque shortcomings of its performances, there is no hope of finding artists capable of rising to a higher challenge at any of our principal theatres. The present writer, planning, as he is, to present a higher, more serious challenge in this dissolute area of public art, finds nothing on which he may rely apart from the genuine talent of individual singers who have been instructed in no school and trained in no particular performance style but who are found here and there, left entirely to their own devices. What no single theatre can offer, therefore, can be achieved - if fortune favours us - only by a combined effort drawing on scattered resources convened for a certain period and in one particular place. In the first instance it would be useful if these artists could concentrate for a time on only a single task, the peculiar nature of which would strike them all the more quickly and clearly in that their studies would not be interrupted by any distracting involvement in their usual operatic work. The result of this concentration of their intellectual powers on a single style and a single task is in itself impossible to overrate, especially when we consider what little success could be expected under normal circumstances, in other words, if a singer who last night appeared in a badly translated modern Italian opera were today to have to rehearse Wotan or Siegfried. [This method would also have the practical advantage that relatively little time would have to be devoted to rehearsals, certainly less than would be possible within the rut of ordinary repertory performances, and this in turn would be highly conducive to the smooth running of the rehearsals.]
Not only is this the only way in which the finest available talents could offer a serious and characteristic reading of the roles in my drama, but the isolated nature of the rehearsals and of the production would be the only way of achieving a good and appropriate staging in terms of its decor. When we consider the consummate achievements in this respect in the theatres in Paris and London, we must attribute these chiefly and, indeed, almost solely to the fact that for each piece the scenery-painters and machinists have access to the stage for some considerable time beforehand; in this way they are able to devise complicated arrangements impossible in those cases where the pieces vary from day to day, none of which can then be staged in a manner even remotely approaching the artistically respectable. The scenic arrangements that I am planning for Das Rheingold, for example, are simply inconceivable in theatres which, like those in Germany, have such a constantly changing repertory, whereas under the propitious circumstances that I have just described, they offer the scenery painter and machinist the most welcome opportunity to demonstrate that their art is indeed a true art.
To complete the impression given by a performance prepared for in this way, I would consider it especially valuable to ensure that the orchestra could not be seen, something that could be achieved by means of an architectural illusion perfectly feasible if the auditorium were designed in the shape of an amphitheatre. The importance of this will be clear to anyone who has attended an opera performance with the aim of gaining a true impression of a work of dramatic art and who is inevitably made an unwilling witness of technical processes that ought to remain almost as well concealed as the cords, ropes, laths and boards of the theatre sets which, when seen from the wings, notoriously destroy all trace of illusion. Listeners who have experienced for themselves the pure, transfigured sound produced by an orchestra heard through an acoustic baffle and freed from all admixture of the non-musical noise inseparable from the production of any instrumental sound and who then imagine the advantageous position that the singer must occupy now that he stands directly opposite them and his words are now easier to understand are bound to form the most favourable opinion of the success of this acoustic and architectural arrangement of mine. But such an arrangement would be possible only in a temporary theatre specially built for this purpose.
Just as important, to my way of thinking, must be the impact of such a performance on the audience. Until now, listeners have been accustomed to seek only mindless entertainment in the extremely dubious products of this decidedly risqué genre and, as members of a city's regular opera-going public, they have peremptorily rejected whatever did not fulfil this function for them, but at our own festival performances such listeners would suddenly enter into a wholly different relationship with what was set before them. Our own audience would be clearly and definitely apprised of what it could expect and would be made up of visitors invited from far and near: they would travel to the place where the performances are to take place and where they would be given the warmest of welcomes, assembling there for the sole purpose of receiving the impression of our own production. This visit would take place at the height of summer and would therefore be combined with a relaxing excursion in the course of which the visitor would rightly start by attempting to unwind from the cares of his workaday existence. Instead of seeking some form of distraction at the end of a wearisome day spent at the counter, in the office or at his desk or in some other professional activity and instead of trying to relax a mind exerted in only one direction and welcoming any form of superficial entertainment, each according to his own tastes, he will now relax during the daytime and collect his thoughts at dusk, when the signal for the start of the performance will invite him to do so. And so, with all his powers refreshed and in a state of great alertness, he will find that the first mystic sounds of the invisible orchestra attune him to that devotional feeling without which no art can leave any real impression. Drawn by his own desire, he will willingly follow, and he will soon acquire an understanding of things that were previously bound to seem strange and even impossible. Whereas he once arrived with a tired brain in an addictive search for mere distraction and was bound to find only some new exertion and, with it, painful over-exertion, leading him to complain of excessive length or undue seriousness or, finally, of complete unintelligibility, he will now find the agreeable feeling of the easy exercise of a hitherto unknown ability to grasp things, an ability that fills him with a new sense of warmth and kindles a light in which he clearly sees things of which he had previously no inkling. As we are here assembled for a festival - and it is a stage festival, not one that is devoted to eating and drinking - so the intervals between the acts could easily be extended and, just as music and speeches are used to whet the appetite between courses, so those intervals could include all conceivable forms of refreshment which, in the open air of a summer evening, will surely contribute to the development of the audience's mental activities.
Now that I have indicated the essential differences between the festival performance that I myself have in mind and the ordinary opera performances seen in our major towns and cities and having briefly demonstrated the surprising advantages of the arrangements that I demand for the signal success of such a performance, I may now be permitted to point out the inevitable consequence of such a development both in general and, more especially, on the art of the musical theatre.
Just as Faust ultimately demands that the Evangelist's 'In the beginning was the word' be replaced by 'In the beginning was the deed', so it seems to me that a valid solution to any artistic problem can be found only in action. We cannot rate highly enough the impact of a stage festival drama performed in the manner that I have just described, especially if - by way of comparison - we draw our inferences from the effects experienced at other exemplary performances. I myself have often been assured that hearing an outstanding performance of my Lohengrin, for example, has caused a total revolution in people's tastes and likings, and there is no doubt that a former art-loving director of the Vienna Court Opera, having managed only with great difficulty to get this opera performed, was encouraged by its successful outcome to revive certain older works of a more serious and substantial kind that had long been banished from the theatre by degenerate public taste but which were now reintroduced to the repertory with a very real prospect of success. Without losing ourselves in extravagant dreams of the intended effect (an effect that I ascribe solely to the excellence and correctness of the performance), let us now examine one aspect alone, namely, the kind of frame of mind in which the artists and the audience accompanying them would return to judge the achievements to which they had previously been accustomed. On the whole, I am not disposed to harbour excessive expectations of the lasting effect of moods aroused by unwonted means, and yet we may surely assume that our performers would not fall back entirely into the rut of their former habits and that they would be even less disposed to do so if they had seen their exceptional achievements greeted in an exceptional manner, above all if we were to assume that we had chosen only the most talented young artists who lacked only encouragement and a proper sense of direction. But we must also assume that our festival performances will have been attended by artistic administrators and even by the artists themselves from the remaining German theatres, if only out of curiosity: all will now have seen with their own eyes and heard with their own ears what could never have been made plain to them by a mere abstract demonstration; they will have received the direct impression of a stage performance in which music and poetic action became a unified whole in every one of their parts. And they will also have witnessed its impact on the audience as well as on themselves. It is impossible that such an experience should be entirely without influence on their own future performances. Here and there - and especially at the better-equipped theatres - people would presumably start by attempting to recreate aspects of these performances for themselves, before going on to recreate the whole. And thanks to the greater understanding gained at these great original performances, even a less perfect performance would stand out advantageously from the normal run of achievements at these same theatres. This in itself might provide the basis for a genuinely German performance style, a style of which there is not a single vestige in the music theatre of today.
However felicitous, these effects would initially no doubt be relatively feeble and perhaps often confused and unclear, but the best way of reinforcing them and of preventing them from disappearing altogether would be to arrange for the original performances themselves to be revived. Initially they would have to be revived once a year, or once in every two or three years, the decisive factor being whether some new original work had been written in a similar style and if it appeared worthy in general of the distinction afforded by such a performance. This would involve the establishment of a prize for the best musico-dramatic work, the prize consisting in the work's selection for a performance at the festival. [The work's form would determine the nature of its performance: a piece that can be performed in a single evening would suffice for the annual festivals on account of the reduced cost of presenting it, whereas longer works such as my present stage festival drama would be presented rather less frequently.]
The German nation prides itself on its earnestness, depth and authenticity, so that in this one area of music and poetry, where it has genuinely placed itself at the head of all the European nations, it seems necessary only to provide it with a formative institution to discover if it truly deserves such praise. But the sort of institution that I have in mind to stage the musical performances that I have just described would in itself be a perfect reflection of the German character, which delights in splitting itself into its constituent parts so as to procure for itself the periodic pride and pleasure of a reunion. [Rather than with uncreative and entirely un-German academic institutions, the institution that I am proposing could very well go hand in hand with all that already exists; it would draw its strength from the latter's finest forces in order to ennoble them to lasting effect and steel them to a genuine sense of self-esteem.] Finally, however, we should have the prospect of seeing the most characteristic and successful aspects of the German spirit presented to us each year, if possible in a new work of a special kind that belongs essentially to ourselves; and finally, too, there would come a time when, at least in one highly significant branch of art, the German would begin to be national by first becoming original, in which regard the Italian and the Frenchman have unfortunately long since stolen a march on him.
So important and successful an outcome as this I most certainly have in mind in devoting my immediate thoughts to ways of acquiring the means that are needed to give the first performances of the present stage festival drama. I myself have the experience and ability to ensure the success of the artistic side of such a production, so that it is merely a question of acquiring the material means.
Two ways present themselves to me. An association of well-to-do, art-loving men and women with the immediate object of raising the financial means necessary to give the first performance of my work. But when I think how pettily the Germans habitually proceed in such matters, I do not have the heart to expect that any appeal that I might make in this regard would prove at all successful.
On the other hand, it would be very easy for a German prince to do this as he would not need to add a new charge to his budget but would simply divert to this cause the monies that he has already spent on maintaining the worst possible public institution, namely, his opera house, an artistic institution that reveals all too plainly the low level to which the Germans' appreciation of music has sunk, while at the same time continuing to corrupt their taste in art. If the opera-goers who turn up at this prince's theatre every evening were to insist on continuing to enjoy the amusing confection of modern operatic performances in his capital, the prince whom I have in mind might grant them their entertainment, but not at his own expense: for whatever he thinks he may have patronized by the munificence that he lavishes on opera, it is neither music nor drama that has benefited from this but merely opera - the very thing that grievously offends the Germans' appreciation of music as of drama.
But now that I have shown him what an exceptional influence he may have on the morality of an artistic genre that has hitherto merely degraded us and what a quintessentially German art form he would hereby be able to create, he would only have to set aside the annual sum allotted to maintaining an opera house in his capital and devote it, if sufficient, to annual festival performances of the kind that I have described, whereas if it is insufficient, the combined sums would allow those performances to be repeated every two or three years: in this way he would establish a foundation that is bound to have an incalculable influence on German taste in art, on the development of the German artistic genius and on the formation of a genuine, rather than a conceited, national spirit, thereby gaining an imperishable reputation for his name. Will this prince be found? 'In the beginning was the deed.'


In waiting for this deed, the present author feels obliged to make a start with the 'word' - indeed, quite literally with the 'word', without any note or sound, but merely the printed word. In short, he has decided to commend his poem, as such, to a wider public. Although I now find myself at odds with my earlier wish to present only the finished whole, to which the music and staged performance are both indispensable, I readily admit that I am weary of remaining patient and of waiting. I no longer expect to live long enough to see a production of my stage festival drama; indeed, I scarcely hope to find the leisure and desire to complete its musical composition. And so I am handing over to the reading public a mere dramatic poem - a literary product. Even to have it noticed at all by that public is unlikely to be easy, for there is no real market for it. The man of letters will thrust it aside as an 'operatic text' that concerns only the musician, while the musician will ignore it because he fails to see how such a text could be set to music. The real public, which so gladly and willingly has decided in my favour, demands the 'deed'. Unfortunately, this is not in my power!
Vienna, 1862 [recte 1863].

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