A New and Complete Translation

Essay 27

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 31 July 1767

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 I want to try to give a sense of Herr Agricola’s music.[27.1] Not, of course, of its effects, for the more lively and fine a sensual pleasure is, the less it allows itself to be described in words. One really cannot do much more than fall into general praise, vague proclamations, and cries of amazement, and these are as un-instructive for the amateur as they are irritating to the virtuoso whom one means to honor. Rather, I want merely to give a sense of the aims the maestro had, and of the general means he wished to use to achieve them.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 The overture consists of three movements. The first movement is a largo, with violins, oboes, and flutes; the bass line is augmented by bassoons. Its expression is serious, at times even wild and stormy; the spectator should assume that the play will be of a similar tenor. But not just this tenor alone; tenderness, remorse, troubled conscience, and submission play a part in it, and the second movement, an andante with muted violins and bassoons in concert, deals with dark and pitiful laments. In the third movement, agile musical phrases intermix with proud ones, as the curtain opens to reveal a stage dressed with more than usual splendor. Semiramis is nearing the end of her magnificence, and the ear should perceive this magnificence as much as the eye does. The character of the movement is allegretto, and the instruments are the same as in the first, except that the oboes, flutes, and bassoons have a few special short passages that they play together.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Throughout the whole, the music between the acts consists of only one movement whose expression refers to the action that has just occurred. Herr Agricola does not seem to approve of a second movement that refers to what will follow. I tend to be very much of the same taste in this matter. For the music should not ruin anything for the poet; the tragic poet loves what is unexpected and surprising more than anything else, and he does not like to allow his course to be guessed easily in advance. The music would betray him if it revealed the next emotion. The case of the overture is different; it cannot refer to anything that preceded it, and yet it must only set the general tone of the play, no stronger or more definitely than the title might. One may show the spectator the destination one wants to lead him to, but the various paths he will take to reach it must remain completely hidden from him. This argument against a second movement between the acts derives from its advantage to the writer, and it is strengthened by a second that comes from the limits of music. For if the passions that dominated two consecutive acts were to be completely contradictory to each other, then of necessity the two musical movements would have to be of similarly conflicting nature. Now I understand quite well how a writer can bring us from one passion to its contradiction, to its complete opposite, without unpleasant violence; he does it bit by bit, slowly, slowly, climbing the whole ladder rung by rung, either up or down, without making the least little jump at any point. But can the musician do this too? It may be that he could do this as well in one piece of the requisite length. But in two completely distinct pieces, the jump – for example, from the calm into the storm, or from tenderness into cruelty – must necessarily be very noticeable, and have all the offensive qualities that every sudden transition in nature from one extreme to another tends to have, e.g. from dark into light, from cold into heat. Now we are melting in sorrow, and suddenly we are supposed to rage. How? Why? Against whom? Against the person toward whom our souls were entirely sympathetic? Or against some other? Music cannot ascertain all this, it leaves us in uncertainty and confusion. We feel, without apprehending a correct sequence of our feelings; we feel as if in a dream, and all of these disorderly feelings are more exhausting than captivating. Poetry, on the other hand, never lets us lose the threads of our feelings; we not only know what we should be feeling but also why we should feel it, and only this “why” makes the sudden transitions not just bearable but pleasant. In fact, this motivation of sudden transitions is one of the greatest advantages that music draws from the union with poetry, perhaps the greatest of all. For it is really not so necessary to use words to restrict general undefined feelings of music, like joy, to a certain single object of joy, because such dark fluctuating feelings are always still very pleasant. But it is very necessary to join separate, conflicting feelings through clear concepts that only words can furnish, in order to weave these feelings into a whole in which one does not just perceive multiple impressions but also recognizes their harmony. With the double movements between the acts of a play, however, this connection would only be made after; we would only come to know afterward why we had to leap from one passion to an entirely opposite one, and as far as the music is concerned, it would be the same as if we never knew at all. The leap has already had its negative effects, and does not offend us any less because we now see that it should not have offended us. One should not believe, however, that this means all symphonies must be condemned, because all of them consist of several movements that can be distinguished from one another, each expressing something other than the rest. They express something other, but not something different; or rather, they express the same thing but only in another way. A symphony that expresses different, conflicting passions in its various movements is a musical monstrosity. In one symphony, only one passion must dominate, and each individual movement must resound with, and try to awaken in us, this very same passion, just with different modifications, according to the degree of its strength and liveliness or according to the amount of its intermingling with other related passions. The overture fully had this quality; the turbulence of the first movement dissolves into the plaintiveness of the second, which is then raised to a kind of solemn majesty in the third. A composer who allows himself more in his symphonies, who stops the emotion after each movement in order to begin a completely new emotion with the subsequent one, and then lets this one go, too, in order to throw himself into a third, equally different one, will have wasted much art to no avail; he can surprise, intoxicate, titillate, but he just cannot move us. The composer who wishes to speak to our hearts and awaken sympathetic feelings in them must pay attention to coherence as much as the one who reckons to entertain our reason and teach us. Without coherence, without the inner connection of each and every part, the best music is a vain heap of sand, incapable of any lasting impression. Only connectedness renders it into a solid marble on which the artist’s hand can immortalize itself.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 The movement after the first act thus seeks only to sustain what the poet has focused on in that act: Semiramis’s worries and fears, which are as yet still mixed with some hope; an andante mesto, with only muted violins and violas.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 In the second act Assur plays too important a role not to determine the expression of the music that follows.[27.2] An allegro assai in G major – with bugles reinforced by flutes, oboes, and bassoons playing along with the contrabass – expresses the pride of this faithless, power-hungry official, a pride that is continually revived despite bouts of fear and doubt.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 The ghost appears in the third act. I have already taken the opportunity in my discussion of the first performance to observe how minimal an impression Voltaire has his ghost make on those present. But the composer rightly ignores this; he makes up for what the poet failed to do, and an allegro in E minor – with the same instrumentation as the previous movement, except that E horns alternate with G horns – depicts no mute dull amazement but rather the true wild panic that such an apparition must provoke among people.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Semiramis’s fear awakens our compassion in the fourth act; we are sorry for the remorseful woman, even though we know her to be a guilty criminal. And so the music strikes a note of compassion and pity, in a larghetto in A minor, with muted violins, violas, and oboes in concert.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Finally, just one movement follows the fifth act, an adagio, in E major, with violins, violas, horns, reinforced by oboes and flutes, and with bassoons playing with the contrabass. It expresses a grief appropriate to the persons of the tragedy, raised to the sublime, with some due regard, it seems to me, to the last four lines, in which Truth gravely and powerfully raises a voice of warning against the powerful on earth.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 To notice the aims of the composer is to acknowledge that he has achieved them. His work should not be a puzzle whose solution is as difficult as it is capricious. Whatever a healthy ear hears most quickly in a work of music is what it intended to say, and nothing else. Its praise increases with its comprehensibility – the more easy and general the latter, the more deserved is the former. – It is no great credit to me to have heard correctly; rather, the credit to Herr Agricola is all the greater because nobody heard anything different than I did in his composition.

  • [27.1] Lessing continues his discussion from [26] of J. F. Agricola’s score for Semiramis; the music composed for this performance is lost. For details on the characters and plot of Semiramis, and Lessing’s analysis thereof, see [10-12].
  • [27.2] Assur: Semiramis’s suitor, poisoner of her husband, and would-be-usurper of her realm.
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    Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/hamburg/essay-27/