Richard Wagner On Record
In 1876 Wilhelm Tappert published what he called a "Dictionary of Discourteousness", a collection of maliciously critical comments on Richard Wagner and his operas. It includes quite a number of quotes having to do with Wagner the "voice-wrecker". "Dragon's bellow" is one such epithet; singers have a "huge job of roaring" to do; Wagner is guilty of "vocal Herostratusism", and his festival town, Bayreuth, is the "Moloch of voices". These odd terms of abuse have only curiosity value for us today, especially when we think of the many proud and precious climatic points reached in the more than one-hundred year history of Wagner singing. And yet one can under stand why Wagner's contemporaries were concerned. The decisive turning point brought about by Wagner and his "Gesamtwerk" was so sudden and so overwhelming that many music-lovers seriously feared that the end of singing as they knew it was in sight. Tragic events such as the early deaths of the Wagner tenors Alois Ander in Vienna and Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld in Dresden must have served to heighten the feeling that a vocal eclipse was on the way. That Wagner constantly declared his faith in the art of belcanto, that he was a great admirer of the Italian way of singing - this, hardly anyone was prepared to accept at face value from the composer of "music of the future", even though in his writings he stressed again his attachment to vocal traditions. But Wagner was not interested only in the voice and in vocal culture. In his essay "On Actors and Singers" (1872) he stated precisely the ideal he had in mind: apart from vocal and linguistic perfection it was a matter of intellectual fulfilment, of complete comprehension of the music-dramatic work of art. For Wagner, this ideal was realized at its finest in the "great tragedienne" Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient. It cannot be denied that from Wagner's- time right down to the present these exalted goals have not always been achieved. With its thick orchestration, Wagner's music has led to "bellowing" or "barking" on the part of many raw and clumsy voices, and this has helped to discredit Wagner's art as a whole. But there has also always been what might be called a confederacy of the chosen, singers who were able to carry out Wagner's intentions in an exemplary fashion. These are recordings of vocal pieces from Wagner's operas that date from the very earliest years of the industry, and there are untold numbers of historical Wagner recordings. The names of two artists who lead off our selection of distinguished Wagner interpreters are linked directly to the composer and to the performance history of his works: Lilli Lehmann, who sang one of the Rhine Maidens in the Bayreuth performance of the "Ring" (1876), and Hermann Winkelmann, the first Parsifal in Bayreuth in 1882. Both were among the most outstanding proponents of Wagner's art, Lilli Lehmann mainly in Berlin, Winkelmann in Vienna. At the same time, the recordings serve as documents of the Wagner tradition at the major German-language opera houses. Vienna, for example, is represented by such names as Wilhelm Resch, Leopold Demuth, Erik Schmedes, Leo Slezak, Richard Mayr, Lucie Weidt, Hermine Kittel, Maria Jeritza, Josef von Manowarda, Emil Schipper, Lotte Lehmann, Alfred Jerger, Maria Reining, Anny and Hilde Konetzni; Berlin by Ernst Kraus, Paul Knüpfer, Hermann Jadlowker, Fritz Soot, Melanie Kurt, Barbara Kemp, Lilly Hafgren, Margarete Arndt-Ober, Michael Bohnen, Wilhelm Rode, Rudolf Bockelmann, Gertrud Bindernagel, Heinrich Schlusnus, Emmi Leisner, Frida Leider; Dresden by Carl Burrian, Friedrich Plaschke, Torsten Ralf; Munich by Fritz Feinhals, Heinrich Knote, Berta Morena, Hans Hermann Nissen; Hamburg by Ernestine Schumann-Heink, Heinrich Hensel, Richard Schubert. This list cannot claim to be complete. Other artists would have to be named who sang at various opera houses, such as Theodor Bertram, Franz Völker, Max Lorenz, Helene Wildbrunn, Set Svanholm, and the great Wagner singers of the New York Metropolitan Opera such as Emmy Destinn, Johanna Gadski, Friedrich Schorr, Alexander Kipnis, Lauritz Melchior, Kirsten Flagstad, Karin Branzell, Helen Traubel. And Bayreuth must be remembered, where many of these singers of course appeared, among them the Americans Leon Rains, Allen Hinckley and Clarence Whitehill, the Belgian Jacques Urlus, and many others. The old recordings demand a readiness on the part of the listener to accept into the bargain the imperfections of early recording techniques. Those who possess that readiness will be richly rewarded. These sound documents from bygone epochs constitute a valuable culture-historical resource, and there can be no doubt of its significance for our time.