RICHARD WAGNER.An article written for the New York Evening Post of February 14, 1883. Its typescript is among Schurz's papers in the Library of Congress.
With the death of Richard Wagner disappears one of the most original individualities of our time. It is doubtful whether there ever was a creative artist whose person attracted in so high a degree the attention even of those who knew little of his art and cared less for it. He was a man of revolutionary impulses in everything — art, literature, society, philosophy, politics; a most aggressive enemy of all traditional conventionalities; a man of such unbounded confidence in the correctness of his own instincts and views against those of the whole world outside of him, that he made himself at certain periods of his life well-nigh intolerable to most of his companions by his uncompromising self-assertion. But at the same time his profound belief in his own creative faculties turned out to be so well founded that he won the respect of the whole world and the homage of a large part of it in a constant, and at times desperate, wrestle with an adverse public opinion. He was one of those rare men who could and did set forth in systematic and elaborate treatises the theories upon which his works of imagination were constructed, giving the why and wherefor of everything, the ends he had in view, and the means he used to accomplish them, defying criticism and contradiction. Nor were these theories cast-iron moulds, admitting of no development, for he expanded and modified them as his inspirations and experiences expanded; but it was his own original insight, not the influence of criticism, that moved and guided him in such modifications. His critics he fought fiercely, not only with his musical performances but with the defence of this theories constantly carried on with a formidable polemic pen, for he would recognize no criticism but his own.
There are few men in history whose confidence in their own powers was more justified by success to the end. Hooted and laughed at when he first appeared before the public with compositions of his own, shifting from place to place for years as a failure — and a somewhat ludicrous, because a pretentious failure — his determination to follow the promptings of his original genius in spite of everything and everybody, seemed to be rather hardened and made more defiant by the buffets of fortune. And finally he achieved a triumph which no musical composer before him ever could boast of. He built his opera-house at a small out-of-the-way place in Germany, to bring before the world what he thought his masterpieces. The first artists considered it the highest honor they could achieve if they were permitted to appear in them, without a penny of compensation. He said to the world, to emperors and kings and princes of literature and art: “I shall not go to you, but you have to come to me.” They came, and with, them lovers of art from all parts of the globe. And again, in all civilized countries the press described and discussed the performances at that little out-of-the-way place — no more important in Europe than Xenia, Ohio, or Springfield, Illinois, are on this continent — as events of the first magnitude.
That he died when he seemed to have reached the zenith of his success and renown, may appear like a fitting close to such a wonderful career. But it is a great loss to the world, for his imagination had lost nothing in creative power with his advancing years. On the contrary, it constantly grew richer and more explicit in its conceptions. It is almost universally admitted that his last works were his grandest. There seems to be nothing known as to whether he had a new work in hand. But it is almost certain, had he lived a few years longer, that the wonderful series of creations begining with Rienzi and constantly moving upward to higher planes, would not have ended with Parsifal, but that he would have surprised the world with new developments of the power of musical expression. How long Wagner's works will remain as prominently before the public as they are now will, of course, depend upon what may follow after him. But it may confidently be said that the revolution he designed he has achieved. Since he developed his original conception of the music drama, blending words, music, and scenery in one harmonious poem, not only in theory, but also in performance; and since he made the world hear in his works what might be called the grand language of the elements in contradistinction to the conventional artificialities and the thin and mostly meaningless harmonies of the modern opera, the victory of the former over the latter is no longer doubtful. Some of Wagner's most contemptuous critics have been obliged to strike their flag, and some of those musical composers whom he himself attacked have begun to imitate him. Whether his own operas hold the stage or not, the influence of his ideas and works upon the music of his future is decided, and cannot be undone.