Julia del Casal between the mud of Havana and Wagner’s music

By: Dr. Roberto Méndez Martínez

Julián del Casal walks down Aguiar Street, heading home in front of San Juan de Dios Park. In his mind, the long census of the music he heard last night at the Conservatory continues to unfold. Then he stumbles and falls into a large mud puddle. Furious, his hand trembles as he trys to rub the brown spots that have rendered his only decent trousers useless. Limping, he gets to his shelter. Havana is a loathsome city: carriages, people, good intentions, everything sinks into the ubiquitous

Julián del Casal
Julián del Casal

Mud. At the time of twilight he has already forgiven the city, because, by some mystery, without leaving it he has been able to know the only music worthwhile, that of the ineffable Wagner. It is as if the swan pulling the boat of the paladin Lohengrin, submerges its feathered albas in the potholes that populate the streets of the city.
Music does not occupy in the poet’s work a capital site as is the case with the plastic arts. As a chronicler, he had to frequently review concerts, charitable evenings, lyrical performances; most of these texts make it clear that they were written by obligation and that the author did not freely choose to attend such acts.
In Havana of its time, in addition to the fashion dances, the musical scene is dominated by opera, not only thanks to the seasons of the Tacón, by foreign companies, but because in most societies and halls of private houses, fans perform fragments of lyrical works and pianists nurture their repertoire of “fantasies” on fashion operas. Only on very special occasions is it possible to assemble a symphony orchestra, it is usual to listen to the toilets of the bands and when someone refers to the most important composers of the century cite Rossini, Bellini, Verdi, when not Offenbach, Auber, Lecoq and other growers of the French operetta and vaudeville, not forgetting Emilio Chueca and other authors of Spanish zarzuelas. The great romantic creators, from Beethoven and Schubert to Chopin and Liszt were only known to a very select minority of melomaniac and the renewing streams in music represented by authors such as Wagner and Debussy, only began to enter concert programs, very slowly, with the advent of the twentieth century.
The poet, so knowledgeable about contemporary French literature, is much less so in terms of music. He cannot read sheet music, so his knowledge is always indirect. How could Casal know in Havana from 189… of the existence of Richard Wagner and his lyrical dramas? Two texts by Charles Baudelaire relating to the composer were likely to come into his hands: the letter that the poet sent to the composer on February 17, 1860, and the extensive essay Richard Wagner et Tanhauser Paris, drafted the following year in defense of the “music of the future” on the occasion of the failure in the Parisian Opera of the musical drama of the same name; he devotes, by the way, an extensive passage to Lohengrin’s literary and dramatic analysis. But what is certain is that he was able to read Richard Wagner and his poetic work, a book published by Judith Gautier in 1882.
The singular daughter of the poet Théophile Gautier, in addition to her incurable passion for Eastern cultures, which even led her to study Chinese, became one of Wagner’s muses and, at the same time, an indefatigable diffuser of her creations. His father had written an article at the Moniteur in Paris, fascinated by a depiction of the Tanhauser who had witnessed in Germany and her husband Catulle Mendés, was someone especially devoted to sound art, in which he had to influence his long romantic relationship with the composer Augusta Holmes, with which he had several children, even before divorcing the Gautier.
The moment Richard Wagner sees the light and his poetic work, the most advanced European intellectual circles, begin to value the composer as a symbol of modernity. That his work was a patent rejection of the worldhood of Italian and French opera, its quasi-religious conception of art, the mystical foundations he bestowed on his dramas and his controversial links to the thought of Federico Nietzsche, made his aesthetic a matter of initiates, of almost esoteric circles. The spread in Europe and America of some of his dramas or the inclusion in concerts of some of his orchestral passages, was preceded by the support of Baudelaire and some of the symbolist poets in France and later by the recognition of modernist writers in America.
It is striking that both Casal and Martí and Dario referred enthusiastically to Wagner a few years after his death, before in Barcelona and Madrid, the first cities in Spain to possess “Wagnerian circles”, the apologetic texts of Eduardo López Chavarri and Adolfo Bonilla San Martín appeared around 1913. We do not know if Rubén Darío could witness any Wagner drama, but his poems entitled “Wagnerianas” attest to his fascination with Parsifal’s mystique, as well as in his sonnet “El cisne” by Prosas profanas there is a recognition of the aesthetic importance of the creator:

It was in a divine hour for mankind.
The Swan used to sing only to die,
When the Wagnerian Swan accent was heard
it was in the middle of an aurora, it was to revive.1

There is also no certainty that José Martí attended any of Tanhauser and Lohengrin’s successful performances in New York, but we know that he was able to hear some passages of these and other works in orchestral concerts. His comments on them demonstrate quite broad information about the atmosphere of the German’s creations, his mythological motifs and the aesthetics that fueled Bayreuth’s layings, as the following passage demonstrates: “with artistic relief parade before a stricon audience the figures, resplendent and vague as the mists, of Wagner’s legends: they look like a cohort of silver warriors , rising through a dark sky on the back of an immense swan.”2
Casal’s circumstances are different, only a trip to Spain broke the monotony of his existence on the island. In Havana it is not common to interpret Wagner’s music and there are no circles of cons and conditions dedicated to it. He can hardly guess, through the writings that come into his hands, the pleasures, rejections and controversies that this work unleashes in the great capitals. He comes to Wagner through the praise others write and the poetic images associated with his life and work.
A powerful acicate to take an interest in Wagner was his relationship with the king and patron Louis II of Bavaria. Casal felt a particular attraction to this sensitive and insmented monarch, of an almost mythical fame among the members of the circles of “decadent art” and in love with the expensive projects of the author of tetralogy. It is no coincidence that he dedicated the poem “Flowers of Ether” in Snow, published in 1892. The text does not refer to the monarch’s relationship with Wagner, but it seems over-stood when talking about his artistic deliquies:

you went back to the spaces
where the fragrance spread
of dreams that, hour after hour,
mining were your short life,
lonely king like the dawn,
mysterious king like snow.
If so your soul would enjoy
and other regions to take you away,
a lower had: Fantasy;
and a splendid sea: the Sea of Art.3

The figure of the king also appears on a lesser-remembered page of Casal, a weekly chronicle, which he publishes in El País , the official organ of the autonomist party, under the pseudonym Alceste, on December 21, 1890. It’s related to the composer here. It is a commentary of a performance in the Circus Pubillones, which the journalist portrays in a picturesque way until cruelty, inso way he wants, at the expense of this evening, to mock the mediocre theatre and opera performances he has been forced to attend. At the beginning of the work the writer records how difficult it was for him to penetrate that place, because crowds “instilled in him a certain fear”, the same one that caused him to reject churches, theaters and halls, when they were full of people, then makes this curious digression:

“What amazes me most in the life of Louis II of Bavaria, who is the greatest king of this century, even if it is nothing more than for having guessed, understood and encouraged Wagner’s genius, is that he could never hear the master’s operas in the company of a single mortal. He was the most artist king, not only of this century, but of all times, that king who paid with his life for the infinite enjoyment of having felt his dream. He was built, as everyone knows, a special theater, on top of a mountain, to witness the performance of his favorite works. From the bottom of his dark box, where they shone only the cold glows of the precious stones that covered the red velvet of the walls, that legendary king admired Wagner’s creations, without being distracted by the conversations of the boxes, the murmurs of the corridors and the figures of the spectators. Even the orchestra didn’t even look, because the whole theater was dark and only light was on stage.
“Isn’t that the ghost ship and Twilight of the Gods just to be heard. 4

We should not worry about the inaccuracies of such a description. First, the king’s supposed solitude in August 1875, in the general rehearsals of tetralogy that preceded its full premiere at the opening of the Festival Theatre the following year, is known to have wanted such a thing, but the composer understood that the acoustics of the empty room would have undesirable effects and , therefore, allowed the public to fill the localities. As for the fanciful description of the built box does not correspond to the austere conception of the Bayreuth theatre, rather it can be associated with the Munich Opera House, where the sovereign was able to witness The Ghost Ship in 1864, almost alone, as most influential citizens did not attend the performance, in protest at the composer’s ascendant over the monarch.
Thanks to Madame Gautier’s book, the poet was able to learn the plots of Wagner’s musical dramas, which he perhaps supplemented with the descriptions of some of them published in French magazines and the possibility of reading the translation of some libretto could not be missed.
In March 1890 the writer was able to hear for the first time a passage from a Wagner play, it was the “Chorus of the Spinners” of the second act of The Ghost Ship, performed as the closing of an evening at the Hubert de Blanck Conservatory, by eighty students of the institution. Although works by Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Donizetti, Haydn and other authors were performed throughout the night, the journalist in his chronicle “A Wagner Choir”, published in The Discussion on March 31 of that year, says: “The long program was slowly fulfilled, especially for me, who just wanted to hear the magnificent chorus of the second act of the Ghost Ship , superb musical piece, written in the major, by the most amazing genius of the century”.5 Despite his limited knowledge of Wagnerian work he can categorically state:

“Ricardo Wagner is for me a kind of god. I’m afraid to talk about him, because my admiration drags me into the labyrinth of extravagance. I have never been able to read the Lohengrin or twilight of the gods without feeling a deep shock in my whole being. He has the gift of snatching me to such heights that I suffer intensely as I descend from them.”6

Moreover, Casal assures that this music “great as the world and incomprehensible as God, only likes today the spirits thirsting for the new and the enigmatic”.7 As he leaves the concert, the poet lets his fantasy wander:

“[…] with his brain overwhelmed with visions and Wagner’s name between his lips, I wanted to live many years, to arrive one day on pilgrimage to the Bayreuth theatre, to witness the performance of the works of the modern Orpheus, under the direction of Mme. Cosima Wagner, daughter of Liszt and widow of the master, in the same Athenian theatre as Louis II of Bavaria – who will be given, in the legends of the future, the nickname of King Angel – ordered to build in honor of his favorite genius and in which he forgot from the bottom of his dark box, lined with red velvet and lined with precious stones , the imbecility of his ministers, the prosaism of his century, and the sorrows of his heart.”8

There is no need to stress too much that in these concluding lines the poet makes a very eloquent transposition. He, who has attended the evening of the Conservatory, unasoned and apparently unsym related to the rest of the audience, identifies with the legendary king as they can move away from everyday prosaism and concentrate on the world of music created only for select spirits.
Unfortunately, Casal not only never managed to go to Bayreuth, but never gave a full presentation of a Wagnerian drama, for the only one offered during his existence in Havana, a Lohengrin,9 motivated an attractive text of his, but the poet preferred not to attend the staging to prevent that presentation, surely far removed from the spirit of Bayreuth , you’ll be disappointed.

The lohengrin’s habanera laying took place on 18 January 1891 and was facilitated by businessman Napoleone Sieni, who was in charge of the opera seasons at the Heel. The central roles of Elsa and Lohengrin were given by Italian singers Giusseppina Musiani and Oreste Emiliani. It was a real event, as it was the first of the few occasions when a complete work of this great reformer of opera in the nineteenth century came to our scene.10
Little do we know of this performance, which does not seem to have had a resonant success, which is explainable because the usual opera audience in the Heel was accustomed to the Italian belcantist repertoire and could hardly appreciate this work where the germ of reform that Wagner would undertake with the cycle The Gold of the Rhine, The Master Singers and Tristan and Isolde , to strip the lyrical drama of vocal exhibitionism and make it an integral spectacle that was contemplated by attendees with true religious ation.
In the text published by Casal, in El País, the day the premiere was due, casal freely let his fantasy run. His work is that of a spreader, well that he swelled with a poetic spirit.

“As I write the name of this opera to be performed today, I feel it emerge in my memory, like flock of white birds on the black background of closed aviary, a cloud of memories that I long to get rid of in the sunlight. They date back from distant times, from a time that must never come back. It was the time when my imagination, riding on the phrases of a book read, already belonged to a paragraph, already to a stanza, was transported to any point of the globe, to those far away, behind that horizon that I now see, from the table at which I write, covered with black clouds, becoming more black.”

His starting point was Judith Gautier’s book, which evokes the Bayreuth Festivals, where Wagner’s legacy faithful attend to greet his widow Cosima and witness the great theatre shows the composer designed for that purpose. He then devotes most of the text to telling prospective viewers the plot of the opera, in the form of a tale whose action takes place in Antwerp, in the middle of the 10th century and which begins when King Henry “was preparing to form a court of justice to try Elsa, princess of Brabant, accused of having killed her brother Godofredo , whose mysterious disappearance was discussed in various ways.”12

For him the readers of the newspaper learn of Telramundo’s accusation against Elsa, the call for “judgment of God” or combat between him who agreed to defend the young woman and the accuser, and finally, the appearance of the mysterious knight Lohengrin, who accepts the challenge.
Casal finds in the theme of lohengrin a different substance from that of Italian operas that were usually shown in Havana and is allowed to dream of this setting, whose mere mention not only puts him in contact with modern and revolutionary music, but indirectly refers him to a certain literary field: that of Baudelaire and Gautier, which has a special significance for his work.
Hence the simple duty to write a promotional article, which would have been quickly dispatched if it were any other work, becomes here a singular enjoyment, which translates into the delinquent description of the action, very rich from the point of view of imagery. This is the case when she writes: “Ortrude, who was part of the entourage, encourages her to inquire about Lohengrin’s provenance. It looked like an insect torturing a flower.”13
The funny thing is that this image returns, a few lines later, when the reason for Elsa’s curiosity returns and he needs her promise: “Both considered themselves at that time the happiest beings and were preparing to go down together to the garden, when curiosity, like a bee introduced into the petals of a rose, forced Elsa to miss the oath to never ask Lohengrin , where it came from and if I would never abandon it.”14

It is difficult for us to understand how if the poet has the exceptional opportunity to attend a lohengrin setting he prefers to abstain from it. He probably feared that the palpable embodiment of that drama would reserve a disappointment for him. The climate of the Heel, moreover, would be too far from the atmosphere of Bayreuth’s athening, hence he preferred to continue dreaming about that “small volume” that allowed him to imagine the representation at will, which became the purest poetry.

“So I have seen this great opera perform in the Bayreuth theatre, with the eyes of imagination, which are the eyes that see things in the most beautiful way, when I knew how to dream. Tonight is depicted in the Heel. May the artists in charge of her performance have already introduced her to the readers of these chronicles in a way that my fantasy has wanted to present to them!” 15

In a world guided by the absolute laws of poetry, Julian of the Casal would have deserved as the king of Bavaria, witness a representation of the Lohengrin, almost alone in a box and I say almost, because, next to him, could be José Martí. Perhaps Lezama alluded to something like this in his “Ode to Julian of the Casal” when referring to that enigmatic Swan in the Heel, who was that of the Knight of the Holy Grail:

Inside a dragon of golden threads,
walks lightly with the orders of rain,
to the Golden Shell of the Tacón Theatre,
where rigid the chorusman will place
its flowers on the beak of the swan.16 Ω

1 Rubén Darío: “El cisne”, in Poetry, Havana, Editorial Art and Literature, 1989, p. 287.
2 José Martí: Complete works, Havana, Editorial of Social Sciences, 1975, t. 10, p. 131.
3 Julián del Casal: “Flowers of Ether”, in Complete Poetry, Havana, Publications of the Ministry of Education, Directorate of Culture, 1945, p. 227.
4 Julián del Casal: “Weekly Chronicle”, in Prosas, Havana, National Council of Culture, Centennial Edition, 1963, t. 3, p. 56.
5 Julian of the House: “A Choir of Wagner”, in Prosas, ed. cit., t. 2, p. 92.
6 Ibid., p. 93.
9 Lohengrin, a three-act lyrical drama with libretto based on medieval legend and Wagner’s music, had been premiered in Weimar, Germany, on August 28, 1850, thanks to the influence of composer Franz Liszt, Wagner’s friend and future father-in-law. It still has the opera format, that is, it is divided into musical numbers, unlike the lyrical dramas of the late stage of this author. Passages such as the prelude to the third act linking the choral scene of bridal courtship became a favorite of the audience. This is perhaps Wagner’s work most often performed in Germany and abroad.
10 The other occasion was on 13 November 1948, when Tristan and Isolde were presented at the Auditorium Theatre under the direction of Clemens Kraus. To this day, the mythical setting of the Parsifal towards 1921 has not been adequately documented, which Alejo Carpentier has spoken to us about on several occasions.
11 Julian of the House: “Sunday conversations. Lohengrin,” in Prose, ed. cit. at n.4, p. 64.
12 Ibid., p. 65.
13 Ibid., p. 66.
14 Ibid., p. 67.
15 Ibid., p. 68.
16 José Lezama Lima: “Ode to Julián del Casal”, in Complete Poetry, Havana, Institute of the Book, 1970, p. 430.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.