Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to The Musician

Letter No.: 
October 27, l897


The chief musical event here during the last week has been a most noteworthy performance of the Ring des Nibelungen at the Opera.  Berlin is one of the few towns where the Trilogy can be heard complete; every instrument indicated in the score is found in the orchestra (with the exception, of course, of the six harps in Das Rheingold, which are unnecessary except under the peculiar conditions at Bayreuth); and, above all, there are no cuts.  It is only necessary to hear the work as it was intended to be heard, to be assured that even “cuts of discrimination” are artistically impossible.  I defy anyone, unless he be an incurable impresario, to point out any part of the Ring which can be omitted without destroying not only the dramatic continuity but even the sense of the whole.  I do not mean to say Wagner’s want of conciseness is not a distinct artistic fault; it is unfortunate that he lacked that faculty of self-criticism which would have led him to revise and compress his work - that would have been to have repainted the picture - the managers’ mutilations are holes cut in the canvas.
The great features of last week’s performance were the Wotan of Van Rooy1 and the Siegfried of Kraus.2  Both acted intelligently, and were dignified in presence; moreover, their powerful voices remained strong to the end, and they sang in tune and without vibrato.  Dramatic intelligence is often found among German opera-singers, qualities of voice are too often thought unnecessary.  Lilli Lehmann, as Brunhilde was as good as ever, and her performance was especially interesting, as this was her first appearance at the Berlin opera after an absence of many years.
Weingartner was the conductor, so that an admirable rendering was inevitable, though some of his tempi were rather original; the tone of the brass was particularly fine.3
It is only for the sake of varying the monotony of praise that I mention one small blot in the performance, which was that the various atmospheric phenomena, were not always arranged for the right musical moment. Thus, in the second act of Gotterdammerung, the sun was already mirrored in the Rhine while the bass clarinet was still at the grey of dawn.  This, however, is a very minor matter, and was the only instance of a lack of intense artistic sincerity which marks all German dramatic and musical performances.  Until this spirit inspires English performances, in spite of our vaunted superiority of technique and tone-quality, we shall never achieve such good results as the Germans, even though individually they are sometimes raucous and clumsy.
Why, for instance, do we never hear a real choral or orchestral pianissimo in England?  Because each performer is thinking of himself and not of the general good; it is a case of “each for himself and the devil take the softest”.  The German, on the other hand, never aims at producing a hearable sound when alone, but sinks himself in the whole with excellent results.  This artistic earnestness was very noticeable at a most interesting performance of Brahms’s Requiem, given lately by the members of the Hoch-Schule.  The defects in the raw material were obvious; nevertheless the true spirit was there, and the rehearsals had evidently been numerous and intelligent, so that the music was made to mean much more than can be imagined by those who frequent only the London concert-rooms.  This occasion also served to display Dr. Joachim in a light new to Englishmen; in England we know him only as a performer and composer, but there is a third function in which he is almost equally distinguished - that of conductor.4
R. Vaughan Williams.

1. Anton van Rooy
2. Ernst Kraus
3. Felix Weingartner
4. Joseph Joachim

General notes: 

 This report appeared in The Musician, vol.1 no.25, p.464, dated 27 October 1897. The Musician was launched in 1897 and did not survive beyond the end of the year.

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