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Eduard Hanslick on how opera works

April 3, 2012
Dr Eduard Hanslick, lithography by Josef Bauer, 1879

In this extract from The Beautiful in Music Eduard Hanslick discusses the relationship between words and music in opera.


We will now ascend from the declamatory principle in the Recitative to the dramatic principle in the Opera.  In Mozart’s operas there is perfect congruity between the music and the words.  Even the most intricate parts, the Finales, are beautiful if judged as a whole, quite apart from the words, although certain portions in the middle might without them become somewhat obscure.  To do justice in a like degree, both to the musical and the dramatic requirements, is rightly considered to be the ideal of the Opera.  But that for this reason there should be perpetual warfare between the principles of dramatic nicety and musical beauty, entailing never-ending concessions on both sides, has, to my knowledge, never been conclusively demonstrated.  The principle involved in the Opera is not undermined or weakened by the fact that all the parts are sung – our imagination being easily reconciled to an illusion of this kind – but it is the constraint imposed alike upon music and words that leads to continual acts of trespass or concession, and reduces the opera, as it were, to a constitutional government, whose very existence depends upon an incessant struggle between two parties, equally entitled to power.  It is from this conflict, in which the composer allows now one principle and now the other to prevail, whence arise all the imperfections of the opera, and whence, at the same time, all rules important for operatic works are deduced.  The principles in which music and the drama are grounded, if pushed to their logical consequences, are mutually destructive; but they point in so similar a direction that they appear almost parallel.

The dance is a similar case in point, of which any ballet is a proof.  The more the graceful rhythm of the figures is sacrificed in the attempt to speak by gesture and dumb-show, and to convey definite thoughts and emotions, the closer is the approximation to the low rank of mere pantomime.  The prominence given to the dramatic principle in the dance proportionately lessens its rhythmical and plastic beauty.  The Opera can never be quite on a level with a recited drama, or with purely instrumental music.  A good opera composer will, therefore, constantly endeavour to combine and reconcile the two factors, instead of axiomatically emphasizing now one and now the other.  When in doubt, however, he will always allow the claim of music to prevail, the chief element in the Opera being not dramatic, but musical beauty.  This is evident from the different attitudes of mind in which we listen to a play or an opera in which the same subject is treated.  The neglect of the musical part will always be far more keenly felt.

To us it appears that the importance, as regards the history of the art of music, of the celebrated controversy between the disciples of Gluck and those of Piccini lies in the fact that the question of the internal conflict in the Opera, caused by the incompatibility of the musical and the dramatic principles, was then, for the first time, thoroughly discussed.  The controversy, it is true, was carried on without a clear perception of the immense influence which the issue would have on the whole mode of thinking.  He who does not shrink from the labour – a very profitable labour – of tracing this musical controversy to its sources, will notice in the vast range from adulation down to ill-breeding all the wit and smartness of French polemics, but likewise so childish a treatment of the abstract part of the question, and such want of deeper knowledge, that the science of musical aesthetics could gain nothing from the endless disputation.  The most gifted controversialists; Suard and the Abbe Arnaud on Gluck’s side, and Marmontel and La Harpe of the opposite camp, though going repeatedly beyond the limits of Gluck’s critique, and into a more minute examination of the dramatic principle of the Opera, and its relation to music, treated this relation, nevertheless, as one of the many properties of the Opera, but by no means as one of the most vital importance.  It never struck them that the very life of the Opera depended on the nature of this relationship……………………………………………..

Is it credible that La Harpe should have failed to recognise the security and unassailableness of his position? For, after a while, it occurs to him to object to the duet of Agamemnon and Achilles in “Iphigenia” because “it is inconsistent with the dignity of the two heroes to talk simultaneously”.  With this remark he quits the vantage-ground of the principle of purely musical beauty and tacitly – nay, unconsciously accepts the theory of his adversaries.

The more scrupulous we are in keeping pure the dramatic element of the opera, by withholding from it the vivifying breath of musical beauty, the more quickly it faints away like a bird in the exhausted receiver of an air pump.  We have, therefore, no course open but to fall back upon the pure, spoken drama which, at all events, is a proof of the impossibility of the opera, unless, though fully aware of the unreality involved, we assign to the musical element the foremost rank.  In the true exercise of the art, this fact has, indeed, never been questioned.  Even Gluck, the most orthodox dramaturgist, although he originated the fallacy that opera-music should be nothing but exalted declamation by his practice, often allowed his musical genius to get the better of him, and this invariably to the great advantage of the work.  The same holds good of Richard Wagner.  For the object of these pages, it is enough to emphatically denounce as false Wagner s principle theorem, as stated in the first volume of “Oper und Drama”.   “The misconception respecting the Opera, viewed as a work of art, consists in the fact that the means (the music) is regarded as the end, and the end (the drama) as the means”.  An Opera, however, in which the music is really and truly employed solely as a medium for dramatic expression is a musical monstrosity.

Eduard Hanslick, The Beautiful in Music, trans. Gustav Cohen, 1891, pp.58-63 (extracts).  The text of the title page of this edition is reproduced below.








Professor at the Vienna University.



And dedicated to his Friends








One Comment leave one →
  1. June 23, 2016 12:53 pm

    Reblogged this on cracksandshards.

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