Music Criticism in Vienna, 1896-1897: Critically Moving Forms

By Sandra McColl | Go to book overview
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Opera, Drama, and the Artwork of the Future

Opera and Drama

The oratorio could be defined as a kind of vocal music which must always be too long. Only for the English is no oratorio long enough, just as no mountain is high enough for them. . . . In drama, and so also in musical drama, things follow out of each other. . . . In epic, and so also in musical epic, in oratorio, things simply follow after each other.1

This excerpt from Hirschfeld's review of Dvořák St Ludmila reveals as much of what he thought about these musico-dramatic art forms generally classified as 'opera' as it says about what he thought of opera's somewhat distant relative, oratorio. His description of oratorio as a form of 'musical epic' in which 'things simply follow after each other' could well apply to much of eighteenth- (and even nineteenth-) century number opera, especially if the recitatives are removed. His view of 'musical drama'--his nomenclature alone, with its implicit rejection of the Italianate 'opera', gives him away--is unmistakably Wagnerian. By extension, it is therefore Germanic. The idea of events following 'out of each other' implies a dynamic unfolding of the action supported by a similarly dynamic unfolding of the music, a continuous process of development. This was the yardstick by which all but the most hardened anti-Wagnerians would measure dramatic musical compositions as they came across them.

Even taking into account the differences between 'musical epic' and musical drama', opera, oratorio, and another form to figure in Viennese cultural life in 1897, melodrama, all have in common the fact that, if they are to succeed, they must satisfy both poetically and musically. Furthermore, at that time in Vienna there was not the 'purism' which these days prefers the aural effect of the original language over the comprehension of meaning brought about by translation. Although the debate about opera is largely about whether music is a means to an end which is drama or whether it is an end in itself, the former opinion belonging to Wagner and his followers, the latter to Hanslick and the formalists, it cannot be overemphasized that all music critics, who were themselves (with varying

WZ(A) 17 Nov. 1897 (supplement), 5-6.


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