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Wagner, "Über die Benennung 'Musikdrama'"

An essay ("About the name 'music drama'") by this German composer, on the occasion of his 200th birthday.  You can read the original here

We often read nowadays about something called a "music drama" – whereby we may also learn that, for example, this or that music drama is gaining favor thanks to a society in Berlin – without quite being able to imagine what is meant by such terminology.  As it were, I have reason to assume that this designation is in honor of my recent dramatic works; yet the less I have felt myself inclined to claim this term as my own, the more I have detected a predisposition to define with the name "music drama" a new genre of art that – very likely without my own doing, as something simply in accordance with the mood and demands of the epoch and its tendencies – needed to come into being, and which now, akin in some respect to a comfortable nest to hatch one's musical eggs, is available to everyone. 

I cannot yield, however, to the flattering aspect of such a pleasant situation, all the more so because I do not know what is meant by the term "music drama."  When we with sense and reason, and in accordance with the spirit of our language, join two words into a compound noun, we designate each time with the first component the aim of the second.  For example, "future music," although a term invented in my derision, nonetheless means "music for the future," and makes sense.  Explained in this same fashion, "music drama" would then mean drama with the aim of music, which would make no sense at all unless one were indirectly alluding to a good old opera libretto, which in any case would actually imply a drama designed for the music.  But this is surely not what is meant: it is only through constant reading of the elaborations of our newspaper scribes and other such aesthetic literati that our awareness of correct language usage comes undone.  So undone, in fact, that we feel we may attribute any meaning we choose to their senseless verbal bricolage, just as with "music drama" we may designate precisely the opposite of the word's implied meaning.               

Examining the case even more closely, we see that the adulteration of the language in this case involves the transformation of a predicate adjective into an affixed noun: the initial name was "musical drama."  Perhaps it was not as baleful a linguistic turn of mind as hitherto mentioned which undertook the abbreviation of musical drama into "music drama," but merely the very dim thought that a drama could not possibly be as "musical" as, say, an instrument, or even (which occurs rarely enough) a singer may be "musical."  Strictly speaking, a "musical drama" would be a drama that either itself creates music, that is suitable for music making, or that has no notion of music, not unlike our "musical" reviewers.  Since this was not the intention, its unclear meaning was better hidden behind some completely senseless word, because the term "music drama" said something that no person had ever heard before.  One seemed assured against any misinterpretation through the assumption that a word so solemnly produced would never lead anyone to think of an analogy with "music boxes" or things of that sort. 

What is seriously meant by this designation is quite the opposite: a real drama set to music.  We would mentally place the tonal stress on "drama," with the intention of reminding ourselves of its distinction from the hitherto well-known opera libretto.  The difference lies namely in the fact that the dramatic plot does not solely exist for the needs of traditional opera music; on the contrary, the musical construction should be determined by the needs characteristic of a real drama.  Now if the "drama" component were the main thing here, it should have been placed before the word "music," and the former would be determined by the latter, in the vein of "dance music" or "table music" [Tafelmusik], and we would have to say "drama music."  One would think that this might absolve us of the same lapse into nonsense because, however one might twist or turn the matter, the "music" component of the name will always seem disruptive.  Nevertheless, one would again have the dim feeling that, despite all appearance, music was the main thing.  All the more so if, within its drama, the music is accorded the very richest development and demonstration of its potential.      

Thus the awkward thing about establishing a name for the work in question would surely be the necessity of indicating two disparate elements, music and drama, and the assumption that we would perceive in their fusion the creation of something brand new.  The hardest part of this is surely bringing "music" into its proper relation to "drama," since music, as we mentioned before, cannot be combined in even measure, and for us must count either much more or much less than drama.  The reason for this must be that when we mention music, we mean thereby a certain art – originally even, I would say, the very embodiment of all art; while by drama, we actually mean a specific act of art.  When we combine and assemble words, our ease of understanding the newly constructed word will be clearly shown in whether we would still correctly understand the individual parts were they still separate, or whether we would employ them only according to some conventional assumption.  Drama in its Greek origin means deed or plot; as such, when performed on stage, it initially composed a part of a tragedy, that is, the choir's song offerings, whose entire breadth drama would come to encompass, and, eventually, become the main thing.  With this name one has now eternalized a plot, whereby the most important feature is that this performance may be shown to an audience.  For this reason is the room in which the audience is assembled, the θέᾱτρον, is called the "show-place" [Schauraum].  Our Schauspiel ("play," literally "show play") is hence a very understandable name for what the Greeks more naively designated as "drama," for the characteristic form of an initial part of the ultimate and main object is more definitively expressed.  In such a "show play" music occupies but a deficient position, if indeed it is to be thought of as part of the whole; as such a part, it is thoroughly superfluous and disruptive, which is why in more disciplined theater pieces it would finally be removed in its entirety.  That said, it is indeed "the part where everything began," and its value as the womb of drama should be taken into consideration since it seems destined to such a fate.  In its value music should place itself neither before nor after drama: it is not drama's rival, but its mother.  Music tinges; and what it tinges you may witness on the stage; this is why you gather.  For what it is you may only suspect; and for that reason do you open your gaze, by means of the stage allegory, like a mother introduces her children to the mysteries of religion through the narration of legend.

Athenians did not call the formidable works of their Aeschylus dramas, but bestowed upon them the holy names of their origin: "tragedies," song offerings to celebrate their inspirational God.  How lucky they were not to have to devise any name!  They had the most unprecedented work of art and – left it nameless.  But then came the great critics, the powerful reviewers; now terms and concepts were found; and when these were finally exhausted, it was the turn of absolute words.  In Hamlet, Polonius provides us with a handsome list of these words for our edification.  The Italians devised dramma per musica, which roughly expresses our notion of "music drama," if with a more understandable word combination.  The expression was apparently deemed unsatisfactory, and so this wondrous thing, which thrived under the care of virtuoso singers, was forced to assume the most inexpressive of names, as if it were the very genre itself.  "Opera," plural of "opus," was the name of this new form of work, which Italians made female and the French male, and through which the new form seemed to emerge in both genders.  I believe we will find no more pertinent criticism of opera than if the origin of this name were assigned the same legitimacy as the name of tragedy was once assigned: reason prevailed in neither case; instead came a deep instinct, which would designate here something namelessly meaningless, and there something unnameably profound.

Now I advise my professional competitors to retain, after careful deliberation, the name "opera" for their musical works dedicated to the stage of today's theater.  Opera leaves these works where they are, grants them no false respect or dignity, and excuses them from any competition with poets and poetic texts.  And if they should have any good ideas for an aria, a duet, or even a drinking-choir, then they will be able to supply work worthy of recognition and acclaim, without worrying about overtaxing themselves and spoiling those same lovely whims.  In every era there have been pantomimes, cither players, flutists, and cantors, all of whom also sang.  If now and then they were summoned to do anything outside their natural abilities and customs, such exceptions took place in individual, solitary units to whose incomparable rarity the finger of history has pointed through centuries and millennia.  But never hence has a genre emerged in which, once properly named, the extraordinary lay ready for the common use of every bumbler.  In the case just mentioned, I for the life of me do not know what name to give the child who smiles in some astonishment from my works at a good part of my contemporaries.  At my operas Mr. W.H. Riehl, as he assured us somewhere, loses both sight and hearing, whereby he only hears at some of them, and only sees at others.  What should one call such an inaudible and invisible thing?  I would almost have tended to emphasize merely the visible and abide by the term "show-play," since I would have gladly designated my dramas as visualized acts of music.  But that would have been an art philosopher's title, something fit to grace the catalogues of future Poloniuses amidst our more aesthetically-minded courts, from which we may assume that, after the successes of their soldiers, these courts will now let the theater progress in a specific German way.  Yet despite all the “show plays” I may offer – "show plays" which many claim broach the monstrous – there would still be far too little to see in the end.   Such as, for example, when I was reproached in the second act of Tristan und Isolde for missing an opportunity to include a dazzling rout, during which time the star-crossed lovers could have opportunistically gotten lost in a grove, where then their discovery would have caused an appropriate scandal with all its concomitant details.  Instead, almost nothing happens now in this act except music, which unfortunately again seems so very much to be music, that people in Mr. W.H. Riehl's organization lose their hearing, an all the more unfortunate occurrence since there I offer almost nothing at all to see. 

So I begrudgingly resigned myself to hand over my poor works to the theaters without any name for their genre, since they were not allowed, primarily owing to their great dissimilarity to Don Juan, to pass for "operas."  I mean to remain thus for just as long as I am involved with our theaters, which rightly recognize nothing other than "opera," and if one were to give them a still quite correct "music drama," let them make out of it an "opera."  To emerge from the ensuing confusion powerfully for a change, I struck upon, as is known, the idea of a Bühnenfestspiel, which I hope to bring about at Bayreuth with the help of my friends.  The character of my enterprise suggested the name, literally a "stage-festival-play," since I knew of singing festivals, gymnastics festivals, and so forth, and could well imagine a theater festival in which the stage and its happenings, which we quite sensibly collect under the term "play," would become the main and most visible event.  Anyone who will have visited this Bühnenfestspiel, however, will perhaps also preserve a memento of this performance, and will also come up with a name for what I intend to propose to my friends as a nameless artistic act.

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