Leo Tolstoy Archive

What is Art?
Chapter 13

Written: 1897
Source: Original Text from Gutenberg.org
Transcription/Markup: Andy Carloff
Online Source: RevoltLib.com; 2021

Leo Tolstoy

To what an extent people of our circle and time have lost the capacity to receive real art, and have become accustomed to accept as art things that have nothing in common with it, is best seen from the works of Richard Wagner, which have latterly come to be more and more esteemed, not only by the Germans but also by the French and the English, as the very highest art, revealing new horizons to us.

The peculiarity of Wagner’s music, as is known, consists in this, that he considered that music should serve poetry, expressing all the shades of a poetical work.

The union of the drama with music, devised in the fifteenth century in Italy for the revival of what they imagined to have been the ancient Greek drama with music, is an artificial form which had, and has, success only among the upper classes, and that only when gifted composers, such as Mozart, Weber, Rossini, and others, drawing inspiration from a dramatic subject, yielded freely to the inspiration and subordinated the text to the music, so that in their operas the important thing to the audience was merely the music on a certain text, and not the text at all, which latter, even when it was utterly absurd, as, for instance, in the Magic Flute, still did not prevent the music from producing an artistic impression.

Wagner wishes to correct the opera by letting music submit to the demands of poetry and unite with it. But each art has its own definite realm, which is not identical with the realm of other arts, but merely comes in 129contact with them; and therefore, if the manifestation of, I will not say several, but even of two arts—the dramatic and the musical—be united in one complete production, then the demands of the one art will make it impossible to fulfill the demands of the other, as has always occurred in the ordinary operas, where the dramatic art has submitted to, or rather yielded place to, the musical. Wagner wishes that musical art should submit to dramatic art, and that both should appear in full strength. But this is impossible, for every work of art, if it be a true one, is an expression of intimate feelings of the artist, which are quite exceptional, and not like anything else. Such is a musical production, and such is a dramatic work, if they be true art. And therefore, in order that a production in the one branch of art should coincide with a production in the other branch, it is necessary that the impossible should happen: that two works from different realms of art should be absolutely exceptional, unlike anything that existed before, and yet should coincide, and be exactly alike.

And this cannot be, just as there cannot be two men, or even two leaves on a tree, exactly alike. Still less can two works from different realms of art, the musical and the literary, be absolutely alike. If they coincide, then either one is a work of art and the other a counterfeit, or both are counterfeits. Two live leaves cannot be exactly alike, but two artificial leaves may be. And so it is with works of art. They can only coincide completely when neither the one nor the other is art, but only cunningly devised semblances of it.

If poetry and music may be joined, as occurs in hymns, songs, and romances—(though even in these the music does not follow the changes of each verse of the text, as Wagner wants to, but the song and the music merely produce a coincident effect on the mind)—this occurs only because lyrical poetry and music have, to some extent, one and the 130same aim: to produce a mental condition, and the conditions produced by lyrical poetry and by music can, more or less, coincide. But even in these conjunctions the center of gravity always lies in one of the two productions, so that it is one of them that produces the artistic impression while the other remains unregarded. And still less is it possible for such union to exist between epic or dramatic poetry and music.

Moreover, one of the chief conditions of artistic creation is the complete freedom of the artist from every kind of preconceived demand. And the necessity of adjusting his musical work to a work from another realm of art is a preconceived demand of such a kind as to destroy all possibility of creative power; and therefore works of this kind, adjusted to one another, are, and must be, as has always happened, not works of art but only imitations of art, like the music of a melodrama, signatures to pictures, illustrations, and librettos to operas.

And such are Wagner’s productions. And a confirmation of this is to be seen in the fact that Wagner’s new music lacks the chief characteristic of every true work of art, namely, such entirety and completeness that the smallest alteration in its form would disturb the meaning of the whole work. In a true work of art—poem, drama, picture, song, or symphony—it is impossible to extract one line, one scene, one figure, or one bar from its place and put it in another, without infringing the significance of the whole work; just as it is impossible, without infringing the life of an organic being, to extract an organ from one place and insert it in another. But in the music of Wagner’s last period, with the exception of certain parts of little importance which have an independent musical meaning, it is possible to make all kinds of transpositions, putting what was in front behind, and vice, versâ, without altering the musical sense. And the reason why these transpositions do not 131alter the sense of Wagner’s music is because the sense lies in the words and not in the music.

The musical score of Wagner’s later operas is like what the result would be should one of those versifiers—of whom there are now many, with tongues so broken that they can write verses on any theme to any rhymes in any rhythm, which sound as if they had a meaning—conceive the idea of illustrating by his verses some symphony or sonata of Beethoven, or some ballade of Chopin, in the following manner. To the first bars, of one character, he writes verses corresponding in his opinion to those first bars. Next come some bars of a different character, and he also writes verses corresponding in his opinion to them, but with no internal connection with the first verses, and, moreover, without rhymes and without rhythm. Such a production, without the music, would be exactly parallel in poetry to what Wagner’s operas are in music, if heard without the words.

But Wagner is not only a musician, he is also a poet, or both together; and therefore, to judge of Wagner, one must know his poetry also—that same poetry which the music has to subserve. The chief poetical production of Wagner is The Nibelung’s Ring. This work has attained such enormous importance in our time, and has such influence on all that now professes to be art, that it is necessary for everyone to-day to have some idea of it. I have carefully read through the four booklets which contain this work, and have drawn up a brief summary of it, which I give in Appendix III. I would strongly advise the reader (if he has not perused the poem itself, which would be the best thing to do) at least to read my account of it, so as to have an idea of this extraordinary work. It is a model work of counterfeit art, so gross as to be even ridiculous.

But we are told that it is impossible to judge of Wagner’s 132works without seeing them on the stage. The Second Day of this drama, which, as I was told, is the best part of the whole work, was given in Moscow last winter, and I went to see the performance.

When I arrived the enormous theater was already filled from top to bottom. There were Grand-Dukes, and the flower of the aristocracy, of the merchant class, of the learned, and of the middle-class official public. Most of them held the libretto, fathoming its meaning. Musicians—some of them elderly, gray-haired men—followed the music, score in hand. Evidently the performance of this work was an event of importance.

I was rather late, but I was told that the short prelude, with which the act begins, was of little importance, and that it did not matter having missed it. When I arrived, an actor sat on the stage amid decorations intended to represent a cave, and before something which was meant to represent a smith’s forge. He was dressed in trico-tights, with a cloak of skins, wore a wig and an artificial beard, and with white, weak, genteel hands (his easy movements, and especially the shape of his stomach and his lack of muscle revealed the actor) beat an impossible sword with an unnatural hammer in a way in which no one ever uses a hammer; and at the same time, opening his mouth in a strange way, he sang something incomprehensible. The music of various instruments accompanied the strange sounds which he emitted. From the libretto one was able to gather that the actor had to represent a powerful gnome, who lived in the cave, and who was forging a sword for Siegfried, whom he had reared. One could tell he was a gnome by the fact that the actor walked all the time bending the knees of his trico-covered legs. This gnome, still opening his mouth in the same strange way, long continued to sing or shout. The music meanwhile runs over something strange, like beginnings 133which are not continued and do not get finished. From the libretto one could learn that the gnome is telling himself about a ring which a giant had obtained, and which the gnome wishes to procure through Siegfried’s aid, while Siegfried wants a good sword, on the forging of which the gnome is occupied. After this conversation or singing to himself has gone on rather a long time, other sounds are heard in the orchestra, also like something beginning and not finishing, and another actor appears, with a horn slung over his shoulder, and accompanied by a man running on all fours dressed up as a bear, whom he sets at the smith-gnome. The latter runs away without unbending the knees of his trico-covered legs. This actor with the horn represented the hero, Siegfried. The sounds which were emitted in the orchestra on the entrance of this actor were intended to represent Siegfried’s character and are called Siegfried’s leit-motiv. And these sounds are repeated each time Siegfried appears. There is one fixed combination of sounds, or leit-motiv, for each character, and this leit-motiv is repeated every time the person whom it represents appears; and when anyone is mentioned the motiv is heard which relates to that person. Moreover, each article also has its own leit-motiv or chord. There is a motiv of the ring, a motiv of the helmet, a motiv of the apple, a motiv of fire, spear, sword, water, etc.; and as soon as the ring, helmet, or apple is mentioned, the motiv or chord of the ring, helmet, or apple is heard. The actor with the horn opens his mouth as unnaturally as the gnome, and long continues in a chanting voice to shout some words, and in a similar chant Mime (that is the gnome’s name) answers something or other to him. The meaning of this conversation can only be discovered from the libretto; and it is that Siegfried was brought up by the gnome, and therefore, for some reason, hates him and always wishes to kill him. The gnome has forged a sword for Siegfried, but Siegfried 134is dissatisfied with it. From a ten-page conversation (by the libretto), lasting half an hour and conducted with the same strange openings of the mouth and chantings, it appears that Siegfried’s mother gave birth to him in the wood, and that concerning his father all that is known is that he had a sword which was broken, the pieces of which are in Mime’s possession, and that Siegfried does not know fear and wishes to go out of the wood. Mime, however, does not want to let him go. During the conversation the music never omits, at the mention of father, sword, etc., to sound the motive of these people and things. After these conversations fresh sounds are heard—those of the god Wotan—and a wanderer appears. This wanderer is the god Wotan. Also dressed up in a wig, and also in tights, this god Wotan, standing in a stupid pose with a spear, thinks proper to recount what Mime must have known before, but what it is necessary to tell the audience. He does not tell it simply, but in the form of riddles which he orders himself to guess, staking his head (one does not know why) that he will guess right. Moreover, whenever the wanderer strikes his spear on the ground, fire comes out of the ground, and in the orchestra the sounds of spear and of fire are heard. The orchestra accompanies the conversation, and the motive of the people and things spoken of are always artfully intermingled. Besides this the music expresses feelings in the most naïve manner: the terrible by sounds in the bass, the frivolous by rapid touches in the treble, etc.

The riddles have no meaning except to tell the audience what the nibelungs are, what the giants are, what the gods are, and what has happened before. This conversation also is chanted with strangely opened mouths and continues for eight libretto pages, and correspondingly long on the stage. After this the wanderer departs, and Siegfried returns and talks with Mime for thirteen pages more. There is not a single melody the whole of this time, but 135merely intertwinings of the leit-motive of the people and things mentioned. The conversation tells that Mime wishes to teach Siegfried fear, and that Siegfried does not know what fear is. Having finished this conversation, Siegfried seizes one of the pieces of what is meant to represent the broken sword, saws it up, puts it on what is meant to represent the forge, melts it, and then forges it and sings: Heiho! heiho! heiho! Ho! ho! Aha! oho! aha! Heiaho! heiaho! heiaho! Ho! ho! Hahei! hoho! hahei! and Act I. finishes.

As far as the question I had come to the theater to decide was concerned, my mind was fully made up, as surely as on the question of the merits of my lady acquaintance’s novel when she read me the scene between the loose-haired maiden in the white dress and the hero with two white dogs and a hat with a feather à la Guillaume Tell.

From an author who could compose such spurious scenes, outraging all æsthetic feeling, as those which I had witnessed, there was nothing to be hoped; it may safely be decided that all that such an author can write will be bad, because he evidently does not know what a true work of art is. I wished to leave, but the friends I was with asked me to remain, declaring that one could not form an opinion by that one act, and that the second would be better. So I stopped for the second act.

Act II., night. Afterwards dawn. In general the whole piece is crammed with lights, clouds, moonlight, darkness, magic fires, thunder, etc.

The scene represents a wood, and in the wood there is a cave. At the entrance of the cave sits a third actor in tights, representing another gnome. It dawns. Enter the god Wotan, again with a spear, and again in the guise of a wanderer. Again his sounds, together with fresh sounds of the deepest bass that can be produced. These latter indicate 136that the dragon is speaking. Wotan awakens the dragon. The same bass sounds are repeated, growing yet deeper and deeper. First the dragon says, “I want to sleep,” but afterwards he crawls out of the cave. The dragon is represented by two men; it is dressed in a green, scaly skin, waves a tail at one end, while at the other it opens a kind of crocodile’s jaw that is fastened on, and from which flames appear. The dragon (who is meant to be dreadful, and may appear so to five-year-old children) speaks some words in a terribly bass voice. This is all so stupid, so like what is done in a booth at a fair, that it is surprising that people over seven years of age can witness it seriously; yet thousands of quasi-cultured people sit and attentively hear and see it, and are delighted.

Siegfried, with his horn, reappears, as does Mime also. In the orchestra the sounds denoting them are emitted, and they talk about whether Siegfried does or does not know what fear is. Mime goes away, and a scene commences which is intended to be most poetical. Siegfried, in his tights, lies down in a would-be beautiful pose, and alternately keeps silent and talks to himself. He ponders, listens to the song of birds, and wishes to imitate them. For this purpose he cuts a reed with his sword and makes a pipe. The dawn grows brighter and brighter; the birds sing. Siegfried tries to imitate the birds. In the orchestra is heard the imitation of birds, alternating with sounds corresponding to the words he speaks. But Siegfried does not succeed with his pipe-playing, so he plays on his horn instead. This scene is unendurable. Of music, i.e. of art serving as a means to transmit a state of mind experienced by the author, there is not even a suggestion. There is something that is absolutely unintelligible musically. In a musical sense a hope is continually experienced, followed by disappointment, as if a musical thought were commenced only to be broken off. If there are something like musical commencements, these 137commencements are so short, so encumbered with complications of harmony and orchestration and with effects of contrast, are so obscure and unfinished, and what is happening on the stage meanwhile is so abominably false, that it is difficult even to perceive these musical snatches, let alone to be infected by them. Above all, from the very beginning to the very end, and in each note, the author’s purpose is so audible and visible, that one sees and hears neither Siegfried nor the birds, but only a limited, self-opinionated German of bad taste and bad style, who has a most false conception of poetry, and who, in the rudest and most primitive manner, wishes to transmit to me these false and mistaken conceptions of his.

Everyone knows the feeling of distrust and resistance which is always evoked by an author’s evident predetermination. A narrator need only say in advance, Prepare to cry or to laugh, and you are sure neither to cry nor to laugh. But when you see that an author prescribes emotion at what is not touching but only laughable or disgusting, and when you see, moreover, that the author is fully assured that he has captivated you, a painfully tormenting feeling results, similar to what one would feel if an old, deformed woman put on a ball-dress and smilingly coquetted before you, confident of your approbation. This impression was strengthened by the fact that around me I saw a crowd of three thousand people, who not only patiently witnessed all this absurd nonsense, but even considered it their duty to be delighted with it.

I somehow managed to sit out the next scene also, in which the monster appears, to the accompaniment of his bass notes intermingled with the motiv of Siegfried; but after the fight with the monster, and all the roars, fires, and sword-wavings, I could stand no more of it, and escaped from the theater with a feeling of repulsion which, even now, I cannot forget.

138Listening to this opera, I involuntarily thought of a respected, wise, educated country laborer,—one, for instance, of those wise and truly religious men whom I know among the peasants,—and I pictured to myself the terrible perplexity such a man would be in were he to witness what I was seeing that evening.

What would he think if he knew of all the labor spent on such a performance, and saw that audience, those great ones of the earth,—old, bald-headed, gray-bearded men, whom he had been accustomed to respect,—sit silent and attentive, listening to and looking at all these stupidities for five hours on end? Not to speak of an adult laborer, one can hardly imagine even a child of over seven occupying himself with such a stupid, incoherent fairy tale.

And yet an enormous audience, the cream of the cultured upper classes, sits out five hours of this insane performance, and goes away imagining that by paying tribute to this nonsense it has acquired a fresh right to esteem itself advanced and enlightened.

I speak of the Moscow public. But what is the Moscow public? It is but a hundredth part of that public which, while considering itself most highly enlightened, esteems it a merit to have so lost the capacity of being infected by art, that not only can it witness this stupid sham without being revolted, but can even take delight in it.

In Bayreuth, where these performances were first given, people who consider themselves finely cultured assembled from the ends of the earth, spent, say £100 each, to see this performance, and for four days running they went to see and hear this nonsensical rubbish, sitting it out for six hours each day.

But why did people go, and why do they still go to these performances, and why do they admire them? The question naturally presents itself: How is the success of Wagner’s works to be explained?

139That success I explain to myself in this way: thanks to his exceptional position in having at his disposal the resources of a king, Wagner was able to command all the methods for counterfeiting art which have been developed by long usage, and, employing these methods with great ability, he produced a model work of counterfeit art. The reason why I have selected his work for my illustration is, that in no other counterfeit of art known to me are all the methods by which art is counterfeited—namely, borrowings, imitation, effects, and interestingness—so ably and powerfully united.

From the subject, borrowed from antiquity, to the clouds and the risings of the sun and moon, Wagner, in this work, has made use of all that is considered poetical. We have here the sleeping beauty, and nymphs, and subterranean fires, and gnomes, and battles, and swords, and love, and incest, and a monster, and singing-birds: the whole arsenal of the poetical is brought into action.

Moreover, everything is imitative: the decorations are imitated and the costumes are imitated. All is just as, according to the data supplied by archæology, they would have been in antiquity. The very sounds are imitative, for Wagner, who was not destitute of musical talent, invented just such sounds as imitate the strokes of a hammer, the hissing of molten iron, the singing of birds, etc.

Furthermore, in this work everything is in the highest degree striking in its effects and in its peculiarities: its monsters, its magic fires, and its scenes under water; the darkness in which the audience sit, the invisibility of the orchestra, and the hitherto unemployed combinations of harmony.

And besides, it is all interesting. The interest lies not only in the question who will kill whom, and who will marry whom, and who is whose son, and what will happen next?—the interest lies also in the relation of the music 140to the text. The rolling waves of the Rhine—now how is that to be expressed in music? An evil gnome appears—how is the music to express an evil gnome?—and how is it to express the sensuality of this gnome? How will bravery, fire, or apples be expressed in music? How are the leit-motive of the people speaking to be interwoven with the leit-motive of the people and objects about whom they speak? Besides, the music has a further interest. It diverges from all formerly accepted laws, and most unexpected and totally new modulations crop up (as is not only possible but even easy in music having no inner law of its being); the dissonances are new, and are allowed in a new way—and this, too, is interesting.

And it is this poeticality, imitativeness, effectfulness, and interestingness which, thanks to the peculiarities of Wagner’s talent and to the advantageous position in which he was placed, are in these productions carried to the highest pitch of perfection, that so act on the spectator, hypnotizing him as one would be hypnotized who should listen for several consecutive hours to the ravings of a maniac pronounced with great oratorical power.

People say, “You cannot judge without having seen Wagner performed at Bayreuth: in the dark, where the orchestra is out of sight concealed under the stage, and where the performance is brought to the highest perfection.” And this just proves that we have here no question of art, but one of hypnotism. It is just what the spiritualists say. To convince you of the reality of their apparitions, they usually say, “You cannot judge; you must try it, be present at several séances,” i.e. come and sit silent in the dark for hours together in the same room with semi-sane people, and repeat this some ten times over, and you shall see all that we see.

Yes, naturally! Only place yourself in such conditions, and you may see what you will. But this can be still more 141quickly attained by getting drunk or smoking opium. It is the same when listening to an opera of Wagner’s. Sit in the dark for four days in company with people who are not quite normal, and, through the auditory nerves, subject your brain to the strongest action of the sounds best adapted to excite it, and you will no doubt be reduced to an abnormal condition and be enchanted by absurdities. But to attain this end you do not even need four days; the five hours during which one “day” is enacted, as in Moscow, are quite enough. Nor are five hours needed; even one hour is enough for people who have no clear conception of what art should be, and who have come to the conclusion in advance that what they are going to see is excellent, and that indifference or dissatisfaction with this work will serve as a proof of their inferiority and lack of culture.

I observed the audience present at this representation. The people who led the whole audience and gave the tone to it were those who had previously been hypnotized, and who again succumbed to the hypnotic influence to which they were accustomed. These hypnotized people, being in an abnormal condition, were perfectly enraptured. Moreover, all the art critics, who lack the capacity to be infected by art and therefore always especially prize works like Wagner’s opera where it is all an affair of the intellect, also, with much profundity, expressed their approval of a work affording such ample material for ratiocination. And following these two groups went that large city crowd (indifferent to art, with their capacity to be infected by it perverted and partly atrophied), headed by the princes, millionaires, and art patrons, who, like sorry harriers, keep close to those who most loudly and decidedly express their opinion.

“Oh yes, certainly! What poetry! Marvelous! Especially the birds!” “Yes, yes! I am quite vanquished!” exclaim these people, repeating in various tones what they 142have just heard from men whose opinion appears to them authoritative.

If some people do feel insulted by the absurdity and spuriousness of the whole thing, they are timidly silent, as sober men are timid and silent when surrounded by tipsy ones.

And thus, thanks to the masterly skill with which it counterfeits art while having nothing in common with it, a meaningless, coarse, spurious production finds acceptance all over the world, costs millions of rubles to produce, and assists more and more to pervert the taste of people of the upper classes and their conception of what is art.