Wagner Spitzer Karikatur (Public Domain)

Great Literary Takedowns: Tolstoy vs. Wagner

I’m currently reading Tolstoy’s scathing indictment of aestheticism in What is Art, his views of which are unpopular to this day because he pretty much hates everything. I’ve been taking notes, so I’ll have more to say on the whole book later. However, I have to share his crotchety-old-man rant about Wagner, because it is hilarious. Tolstoy describes attending a performance of The Ring of Niebelung in 1898 like it was a terrible fever-dream. Here’s his reaction to Act I in all its TL;DR glory:

“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 which 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 any one 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 is 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 motiv 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 motiv 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 merely intertwinings of the leit-motiv 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.”

—graf Leo Tolstoy. What is Art.

Tolstoy continues to rattle his cane at Act II in the rest of Chapter XIII, and it’s funny as hell.

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Sarah Dimento

The only thing interesting about me is my interest in interesting things – and sometimes I make cool shit.

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