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An essay by Jerome K Jerome

How Many Charms Hath Music, Would You Say?

Title:     How Many Charms Hath Music, Would You Say?
Author: Jerome K Jerome [More Titles by Jerome]

The argument of the late Herr Wagner was that grand opera--the music drama, as he called it--included, and therefore did away with the necessity for--all other arts. Music in all its branches, of course, it provides: so much I will concede to the late Herr Wagner. There are times, I confess, when my musical yearnings might shock the late Herr Wagner--times when I feel unequal to following three distinct themes at one and the same instant.

"Listen," whispers the Wagnerian enthusiast to me, "the cornet has now the Brunnhilda motive." It seems to me, in my then state of depravity, as if the cornet had even more than this the matter with him.

"The second violins," continues the Wagnerian enthusiast, "are carrying on the Wotan theme." That they are carrying on goes without saying: the players' faces are streaming with perspiration.

"The brass," explains my friend--his object is to cultivate my ear-- "is accompanying the singers." I should have said drowning them. There are occasions when I can rave about Wagner with the best of them. High class moods come to all of us. The difference between the really high-class man and us commonplace, workaday men is the difference between, say, the eagle and the barnyard chicken. I am the barnyard chicken. I have my wings. There are ecstatic moments when I feel I want to spurn the sordid earth and soar into the realms of art. I do fly a little, but my body is heavy, and I only get as far as the fence. After a while I find it lonesome on the fence, and I hop down again among my fellows.

Listening to Wagner, during such temporary Philistinic mood, my sense of fair play is outraged. A lone, lorn woman stands upon the stage trying to make herself heard. She has to do this sort of thing for her living; maybe an invalid mother, younger brothers and sisters are dependent upon her. One hundred and forty men, all armed with powerful instruments, well-organised, and most of them looking well- fed, combine to make it impossible for a single note of that poor woman's voice to be heard above their din. I see her standing there, opening and shutting her mouth, getting redder and redder in the face. She is singing, one feels sure of it; one could hear her if only those one hundred and forty men would ease up for a minute. She makes one mighty, supreme effort; above the banging of the drums, the blare of the trumpets, the shrieking of the strings, that last despairing note is distinctly heard.

She has won, but the victory has cost her dear. She sinks down fainting on the stage and is carried off by supers. Chivalrous indignation has made it difficult for me to keep my seat watching the unequal contest. My instinct was to leap the barrier, hurl the bald- headed chief of her enemies from his high chair, and lay about me with the trombone or the clarionet--whichever might have come the easier to my snatch.

"You cowardly lot of bullies," I have wanted to cry, "are you not ashamed of yourselves? A hundred and forty of you against one, and that one a still beautiful and, comparatively speaking, young lady. Be quiet for a minute--can't you? Give the poor girl a chance."

A lady of my acquaintance says that sitting out a Wagnerian opera seems to her like listening to a singer accompanied by four orchestras playing different tunes at the same time. As I have said, there are times when Wagner carries me along with him, when I exult in the crash and whirl of his contending harmonies. But, alas! there are those other moods--those after dinner moods--when my desire is for something distinctly resembling a tune. Still, there are other composers of grand opera besides Wagner. I grant to the late Herr Wagner, that, in so far as music is concerned, opera can supply us with all we can need.

But it was also Wagner's argument that grand opera could supply us with acting, and there I am compelled to disagree with him. Wagner thought that the arts of acting and singing could be combined. I have seen artists the great man has trained himself. As singers they left nothing to be desired, but the acting in grand opera has never yet impressed me. Wagner never succeeded in avoiding the operatic convention and nobody else ever will. When the operatic lover meets his sweetheart he puts her in a corner and, turning his back upon her, comes down to the footlights and tells the audience how he adores her. When he has finished, he, in his turn, retires into the corner, and she comes down and tells the audience that she is simply mad about him.

Overcome with joy at finding she really cares for him, he comes down right and says that this is the happiest moment of his life; and she stands left, twelve feet away from him, and has the presentiment that all this sort of thing is much too good to last. They go off together, backwards, side by side. If there is any love-making, such as I understand by the term, it is done "off." This is not my idea of acting. But I do not see how you are going to substitute for it anything more natural. When you are singing at the top of your voice, you don't want a heavy woman hanging round your neck. When you are killing a man and warbling about it at the same time, you don't want him fooling around you defending himself. You want him to have a little reasonable patience, and to wait in his proper place till you have finished, telling him, or rather telling the crowd, how much you hate and despise him.

When the proper time comes, and if he is where you expect to find him while thinking of your upper C, you will hit him lightly on the shoulder with your sword, and then he can die to his own particular tune. If you have been severely wounded in battle, or in any other sort of row, and have got to sing a long ballad before you finally expire, you don't want to have to think how a man would really behave who knew he had only got a few minutes to live and was feeling bad about it. The chances are that he would not want to sing at all. The woman who really loved him would not encourage him to sing. She would want him to keep quiet while she moved herself about a bit, in case there was anything that could be done for him.

If a mob is climbing the stairs thirsting for your blood, you do not want to stand upright with your arms stretched out, a good eighteen inches from the door, while you go over at some length the varied incidents leading up to the annoyance. If your desire were to act naturally you would push against that door for all you were worth, and yell for somebody to bring you a chest of drawers and a bedstead, and things like that, to pile up against it. If you were a king, and were giving a party, you would not want your guests to fix you up at the other end of the room and leave you there, with nobody to talk to but your own wife, while they turned their backs upon you, and had a long and complicated dance all to themselves. You would want to be in it; you would want to let them know that you were king.

In acting, all these little points have to be considered. In opera, everything is rightly sacrificed to musical necessity. I have seen the young, enthusiastic opera-singer who thought that he or she could act and sing at the same time. The experienced artist takes the centre of the stage and husbands his resources. Whether he is supposed to be indignant because somebody has killed his mother, or cheerful because he is going out to fight his country's foes, who are only waiting until he has finished singing to attack the town, he leaves it to the composer to make clear.

Also it was Herr Wagner's idea that the back cloth would leave the opera-goer indifferent to the picture gallery. The castle on the rock, accessible only by balloon, in which every window lights up simultaneously and instantaneously, one minute after sunset, while the full moon is rushing up the sky at the pace of a champion comet-- that wonderful sea that suddenly opens and swallows up the ship-- those snow-clad mountains, over which the shadow of the hero passes like a threatening cloud--the grand old chateau, trembling in the wind--what need, will ask the opera-goer of the future, of your Turners and your Corots, when, for prices ranging from a shilling upwards, we can have a dozen pictures such as these rolled up and down before us every evening?

But perhaps the most daring hope of all was the dream that came to Herr Wagner that his opera singers, his grouped choruses, would eventually satisfy the craving of the public for high class statuary. I am not quite sure the general public does care for statuary. I do not know whether the idea has ever occurred to the Anarchist, but, were I myself organising secret committee meetings for unholy purposes, I should invite my comrades to meet in that section of the local museum devoted to statuary. I can conceive of no place where we should be freer from prying eyes and listening ears. A select few, however, do appreciate statuary; and such, I am inclined to think, will not be weaned from their passion by the contemplation of the opera singer in his or her various quaint costumes.

And even if the tenor always satisfied our ideal of Apollo, and the soprano were always as sylph-like as she is described in the libretto, even then I should doubt the average operatic chorus being regarded by the connoisseur as a cheap and pleasant substitute for a bas relief from the Elgin marbles. The great thing required of that operatic chorus is experience. The young and giddy-pated the chorus master has no use for. The sober, honest, industrious lady or gentleman, with a knowledge of music is very properly his ideal.

What I admire about the chorus chiefly is its unity. The whole village dresses exactly alike. In wicked, worldly villages there is rivalry, leading to heartburn and jealously. One lady comes out suddenly, on, say, a Bank Holiday, in a fetching blue that conquers every male heart. Next holiday her rival cuts her out with a green hat. In the operatic village it must be that the girls gather together beforehand to arrange this thing. There is probably a meeting called.

"The dear Count's wedding," announces the chairwoman, "you will all be pleased to hear, has been fixed for the fourteenth, at eleven o'clock in the morning. The entire village will be assembled at ten- thirty to await the return of the bridal cortege from the church, and offer its felicitations. Married ladies, will, of course, come accompanied by their husbands. Unmarried ladies must each bring a male partner as near their own height as possible. Fortunately, in this village the number of males is exactly equal to that of females, so that the picture need not be spoiled. The children will organise themselves into an independent body and will group themselves picturesquely. It has been thought advisable," continues the chairwoman, "that the village should meet the dear Count and his bride at some spot not too far removed from the local alehouse. The costume to be worn by the ladies will consist of a short pink skirt terminating at the knees and ornamented with festoons of flowers; above will be worn a bolero in mauve silk without sleeves and cut decollete. The shoes should be of yellow satin over flesh-coloured stockings. Ladies who are 'out' will wear pearl necklaces, and a simple device in emeralds to decorate the hair. Thank God, we can all of us afford it, and provided the weather holds up and nothing unexpected happens--he is not what I call a lucky man, our Count, and it is always as well to be prepared for possibilities--well, I think we may look forward to a really pleasant day."

It cannot be done, Herr Wagner, believe me. You cannot substitute the music drama for all the arts combined. The object to be aimed at by the wise composer should be to make us, while listening to his music, forgetful of all remaining artistic considerations.

[The end]
Jerome K Jerome's essay: How Many Charms Hath Music, Would You Say?