Rehearsing the 'Ring'
eye-witness Account of the
Stage Rehearsals of the First Bayreuth Festival
by Robert L. Jacobs
Cambridge University Press 1983
0 521 23722X
book presents Wagner's view of how the Ring
should be performed.
He requested Heinrich Porges,
a member of his circle and an able writer as
well as an accomplished musician, to 'follow
all my rehearsals very closely and note down
everything I say, even the smallest details,
about the interpretation and performance, so
that a tradition goes down in writing'.
opinion of the eminent Wagner scholar, Curt
von Westernhagen (expressed in his recent biography), Porges's conscientious record
shows 'amazing insight and perception' since
what distinguishes it is his 'ability always
to locate the endless detail of Wagner's instructions
in an overall intellectual context'.
is therefore required reading not only for conductors,
producers, instrumentalists and singers but
also for musicologists and critics.
it is a fascinating read for anyone who knows
and loves the Ring since it takes the
form of a blow-by-blow commentary on the stage
action as it unfolds.
The writing has vitality
and flow and one is caught up in the spirit
of the thing as Wagner felt it.
a re-experience of the Ring through his eyes.
Bühnenproben was originally published
in the monthly Bayreuther Blätter
in instalments that were not completed until
1896, when the Ring was first given again
at Bayreuth; its publication in book form was
equally protracted. Its translation now is a
sign of the times.
Wagner in his black moods
longed for an 'invisible theatre'.
He did not
foresee the electronic revolution that has enabled
countless people to sit comfortably at home,
hi-fl equipment at their elbow, vocal score
on their lap, revelling in his fusion of music
and poetry and - guided by his stage directions
- envisaging his 'invisible theatre' in their
witty producer of operas, noted for his enterprise, recently
dismissed his critics with the remark that each wrote 'as
though he had a private line to Parnassus'.
Such a 'private
line' is provided by this authoritative record of what Wagner
said and did during the stage rehearsals of the first Bayreuth
festival and of how he regarded the Ring.
6 November 1872 Wagner wrote the following letter to Heinrich
have you in mind for a task which will be of the greatest
importance to the future of my enterprise.
I want you to
follow all my rehearsals very closely ... and to note down
everything I say, even the smallest details, about the interpretation
and performance of our work, so that a tradition goes down
late Curt von Westernhagen, in his recently translated Wagner:
Biography, after quoting this letter, paid a glowing
tribute to the book which resulted, Die Bûhnenproben
zu den Bayreuther Festspielen des Jahres 1876:
devoted himself to the task conscientiously and with amazing
insight and perception.
He was not only thoroughly familiar
with the score . . . but also, thanks to his education and
culture, fully able to appreciate its literary and philosophical
We sense the fresh air of first-hand experience
in his description of how Wagner transformed himself into
each character ... The distinguishing characteristic ...
is his ability always to locate the endless detail of Wagner's
individual instructions ... in an over-all intellectual
context.' (Cambridge 1978, pp.
all know that in many respects the actual performances themselves
fell short, that Richter's tempos were faulty, that the
Siegfried was a disappointment, that only the Alberich (Karl
Hill) was outstanding, that scene changes were bungled,
that the dragon's neck was missing.
In the 'fresh air' of Porges' record we experience Wagner's vision
of the ideal, a vision of both the microcosm and the macrocosm.
Woglinde's delivery of the Renunciation of Love motive must
be utterly impersonal, the melody 'must have the chiselled
quality of a piece of sculpture' ; the accents must fall
upon the upper notes of the Donner motive when it is thundered
out in the prelude to the first act of Die Walküre
("Play it with greater awareness!" [Wagner] kept
calling') and the staccato of the strings' crotchets as
they die away 'should be weighty, not pointed' ; the tempo
of the Magic Fire music at the close of Wotan's Farewell
should be dictated by the need to make each semiquaver of
the harps' figure 'clearly perceptible'.
And so on and so
on, accompanied throughout by music examples - 411 of them
- and accompanied by, or rather one should say accompanying,
general directives of vital importance.
The audibility of
the words was 'a problem that constantly cropped up during
It was not only that when Sieglinde, whom
Brünnhilde has rescued, wishes to know who it was that bade
Brünnhilde do so ('Wer hiess dich Maid, dem Harst mich
entfähren?') every word must be clearly articulated,
'otherwise all was lost'; every word of the assembling Valkyries'
exchanges must also be audible : 'to ensure this it should
be the rule to deliver all passages of dialogue ... weightily
in a restrained tempo and return to the original faster
tempo for the elemental, exultant outbursts'.
context Porges writes : 'Wagner declared
that the orchestra should support the singer as the sea
does a boat, rocking but never upsetting or swamping over
and over again he employed that image.'
bringing home yet again that in Wagner's mind the drama,
always the drama, was the 'commanding form' (to borrow Suzanne
Langer's expression), is the directive that when motives
are repeated the manner of the repetition should depend
upon the dramatic context : 'A particular remark of Wagner's
I must not pass over : when the (Valhalla) motive is depicting
an actual happening it should be delivered in a grand style,
slowly and broadly, but when serving as a reminiscence -
as for example in Sieglinde's narrative - slightly faster
and with accents less pointed ...
A fine line must always
be drawn between the degree of expression demanded by a
present event and a recollected one.'
And since drama is
the 'commanding form' it must be 'a matter of principle
never, except in very rare cases, to transform scenic effects
into purely pictorial ones'.
For 'drama is a medium through
which life is conveyed in the form of life and life is in
a perpetual state of flux'.
design as such only comes into its own when the action comes
to a standstill (as in Das Rheingold after the giants
have borne Freia away and the gods feel their youth slipping
from them) ; then 'it is as much the scenic designer's function
to aid the dramatist by providing a significant and gripping
spectacle as it is the composer's to reveal the situation's
As if all this were not enough, Porges,
in his introduction and as he takes us through the drama
scene by scene describing the manner and the whys and wherefores
of Wagner's directions, gives you more than a glimpse of
what Wagner conceived to be the drama's inner meaning.
the Ring represents, we come to realize, is man's Laacoon-like
struggle with his 'daemonic' nature, with his unfathomable,
elemental passions and greeds and lusts.
The supreme manifestation
of this 'daemonic' nature is the betrayed Brnnhilde's demand
for an avenger, 'delivered in a voice of steel : "Wer
bietet mir nun das Schwert, mit dem ich die Bande zerschnitt?",
which ... drew from Wagner - as though he himself were carried
away by its elemental power - the exclamation : "This
is the most terrible moment!"
It is because Wagner
was capable of creating a situation such as this and then
by the power of his music in the Immolation scene transcending
it, that Porges' definition of Wagner's
achievement in the Ring as 'a triumph of the spirit',
in that he 'was able to master the tumultuous workings of
all the sensuous and daemonic forces of life and emerge
victorious from the encounter', rings true.
than ever we see what so many have refused to acknowledge:
that the greatness of Wagner's music is part of a still
Wagner well knew when he gave him that commission, Porges
was a man of exceptional parts.
The following entry from
Riemann's Musiklexicon speaks for itself:
Porges, Heinrich, born 25 November 1837 in Prague, died
17 November 1900 in Munich ; German writer on music, studied
music and philosophy, in 1863 became co-editor with Brendel
of the Neue Zeitschrift far Musik in Leipzig.
1867 went to Munich as editor 0f the Süddeutsche
Presse, from 1880 onwards functioned there as music
critic of the Neueste Nachtrichten and in 1886 founded
the Porges Choral Society which besides works by Bach and
Palestrina devoted itself especially to those of Berlioz,
Liszt, Cornelius and Bruckner.
He was also for some time
a piano teacher at the Royal Music School (Riemann's Musiklexikon,
ed. Carl Dahlhaus, London 1975, p. 401)
first contact with Wagner was in 1863, the year of his vain
struggle to re-establish his career with a production of
Tristan in Vienna.
It was Carl Tausig, it seems,
who having given a highly successful concert with Liszt
in Prague in 1861, put into Wagner's head the idea of a
concert there ; Liszt, Cornelius and Bülow were on intimate
visiting terms with the Porges family in
Prague - a Jewish family, but in this context that did not
matter - one of whom, Heinrich's younger brother Fritz,
a doctor, was living in Vienna. (Not
Heinrich, as Westernhagen says (Wagner Vol. I, p. 296))
Fritz enthusiastically supported the idea.
He passed it
on to Heinrich, an ardent adherent of the 'New Music' and
man of the musical world who knew the ropes : which hail
to book, from whom to raise a guarantee, where to publicize.
So effective were his efforts that Wagner enjoyed the memorable
experience of a concert which was not only artistically
but also financially successful.
was a damned difficult man to deal with', Fritz told Heinrich.
Heinrich was nevertheless bowled over by his personality
when he came to Prague.
Ranking him with Liszt, his other
idol (he had at one time contemplated the career of a piano
virtuoso), he told his fiancée that throughout his
life he intended to serve those two : 'I shall not rest until
I have done all in my power to reveal to the world these
wonderful men and their creations.'
(See the Prague musical
monthly Deutsche Arbeit, VIII and IX, 1909.))
1864 the relationship between the two developed rapidly.
Porges was one of the friends who arranged
the sale of Wagner's effects after he fled from his creditors
in Vienna ; later that year, when his fortunes were changed
overnight by King Ludwig of Bavaria, Wagner invited Porges
not only to come to Munich as his private secretary, but
to live there with him : 'How important for me and how beautiful
always to have your understanding, friendly companionship!"
(Richard Wagner an Freunde
und Zeitgenossen, ed. Erich Moss, Leipzig, 1912, p. 404).
But Porges preferred to devote his pen
to Wagner's cause - to co-edit the Wagner-orientated Süddeutsche
Press, write a piece on Lohengrin, performed
in Munich in 1867, and an essay on Tristan (published
posthumously in 1906).
In 1869, when Das Rheingold
was produced in Munich against Wagner's wishes and critics
praised the performance and damned the work, Porges
wrote, so Cosima told Nietzsche, 'some beautiful, profound
words of great congeniality'. (Cit.
Westernhagen, Wagner, Vol. II, p. 416.).
an article on Wagner's ceremonial performance of Beethoven's
Ninth Symphony at the laying of the foundation-stone of
the Festival Theatre gave Wagner the idea of commissioning
him to record the rehearsals of the Ring.
the festival the relationship appears to have been soured
for a while by an article of Porges in
the Bayreuther Blätter in 1880 on art and religion
bringing in Schelling, who was not Wagner's philosopher.
But it was soured only for a while.
not only recorded the rehearsals of Parsifal but
trained the chorus of Flowermaidens, earning from Wagner
the nickname 'Blumenvater'.
After Wagner's death Porges
continued to do this.
When he died in 1900 - of a heart-attack
whilst conducting Liszt's Christus - Siegfried Wagner
delivered a funeral oration, reprinted in the Bayreuther
Blätter, which makes clear how much his support
meant to Cosima : 'As he stood by my father's side, so,
like a faithful Eckhart, he stood by my mother's ... when
visibility was poor and some vessels sailed blindly hither
and thither, friend Porges put his trust in the compass
of his convictions.'
Bühnenproben was originally published in instalments
in the monthly Bayreuther Blätter edited by
Hans von Wolzogen.
The section on Das Rheingold was
brought out in three issues in 1880, that on Die Walküre
in four issues in 1881, that on Siegfried in four
issues in 1884, 1886, 1890 and 1893, and that on Götterdämmerung
in a single issue in 1896.
Its publication in book form
was equally protracted: it was commenced by a Chemnitz firm,
which printed the Rheingold and Walküre
sections in 1881 and 1882, and when that firm got into difficulties
it was completed by a Leipzig firm in 1896.
The fact that
it was in 1896 that the Ring was first performed
again at Bayreuth has an obvious bearing on why the Bayreuther
Blätter brought out the section on Götterdämmerung
and why the publication of the book was completed in that
Why a book of such obvious musicological and aesthetic
importance required reading for anyone actively concerned
with a performance of the Ring and anyone concerned
to think seriously about the work - has not been reissued
and not been translated before is an interesting question.
When I asked Dr Westernhagen why it had not been reissued
he wrote : 'Cosima relied on her memory and Wieland had the
self-confidence of a grandson.'
He might have added that
during the intervening years of the Nazi regime the reissue
of a book by a Jew, let alone a book upon Wagner, was unthinkable,
and that it is only in the latter half of this century that
the shadow of Wagner's influence on Hitler has lifted from
German musical scholarship.
In this country the influence
of Ernest Newman is no doubt one of the reasons why the
book has not been hitherto translated.
For all his range
and penetration Newman's attitude towards Wagner was never
steady and consistent ; he never fully accepted what Porges
makes crystal clear, and what is nowadays becoming more
and more widely acknowledged : that Wagner's music, as I
said above, 'is part of a still greater whole'.
his Wagner as Man and Artist nor his Life
makes any mention, not even a bibliographical one, of the
It was left to Westernhagen, whose
stance towards Wagner is the reverential one of Porges
- the stance Newman derided - to plant the idea of its translation.
all said, it remains to consider a simple and to my mind
overriding answer to our question.
One has but to put another
question, namely, why nearly a hundred years after Wagner's
death has the wheel come full circle, why in many quarters
- heaven knows how many - is he now revered as once he was?
Obviously because the function of the piano as a means of
getting to know the masterpieces of opera has been replaced
by hi-fi recording, making them accessible to the countless
people who are neither pianists nor opera-goers.
therefore can be regarded as a sign of the times, a spin-off
from the mid-twentieth-century technological revolution.
Wagner in his black moods longed for an 'invisible theatre'.
Bernard Shaw (in his preface to the 1922 edition of The
Perfect Wagnerite) confessed that, with due respect
to the scenic achievements of Bayreuth, his 'favourite way
of enjoying the Ring was to sit at the back of a
box, comfortably on two chairs, feet up and listen without
looking', and went on to assert that 'a man whose imagination
cannot serve him better than the most costly devices of
the scene painter should not go to the theatre'.
did not foresee, still less Wagner, was a time when countless
people could sit at home, feet up, hi-fi recording equipment
at their elbows, translation on their laps, steeping themselves
in the fusion of Wagner's music and dramatic poetry.
inferior this solitary pleasure would be to the real
thing though - i.e. a production of the Ring
totally effective because totally faithful to the spirit
of Wagner's intentions - this book makes clear.
this translation I have endeavoured to reproduce the tone
as well as the sense of the original, the excitement of
one recording for posterity the stage rehearsals of a stupendous
masterpiece under the direction of its creator.
a balance had to be struck between the need to provide a
readable English version and fidelity to the author's out-of-date
highflown literary style.
It was not always easy.
been greatly helped by Elaine RobsonScott's scrupulous and
stimulating revision and by my publisher's suggestions.
I must also express my thanks to Duncan Chisholm for the
light his researches threw upon Porges'
background, his first contacts with Wagner and the circumstances
of the book's publication.
Finally I must acknowledge my
debt to Dr Westernhagen for further information for this
Preface and, above all, for the tribute to the Bühnenproben
in his Wagner - A Biography which put into my head
the idea of translating it.