Immolation by James Huneker
She had infinitely sad, wide eyes. The sweet pangs of maternity and
art had not been denied this woman with the vibrant voice and
temperament of fire. Singing only in the Wagner music dramas critics
awarded her the praise that pains. She did not sing as Patti, but oh!
the sonorous heart....
Götterdämmerung was being declaimed in a fervent and eminently
Teutonic fashion. The house was fairly filled though it could hardly be
called a brilliant gathering; the conductor dragged the tempi, the
waits were interminable. A young girl sat and wonderingly watched. Her
mother was the Brynhild....
This daughter was a strange girl. Her only education was the
continual smatter which comes from many cities superficially glided.
She spoke French with the accent of Vienna, and her German had in it
some of the lingering lees of the Dutch. Wherever they pitched their
tent the girl went abroad in the city, absorbing it. Thus she knew many
things denied women; and when her mother was summoned to Bayreuth, she
soon forgot all in the mists, weavings and golden noise of Wagner. Then
followed five happy years. The singer prospered at Bayreuth and
engagements trod upon the heels of engagements. Her girl was petted,
grew tall, shy, and one day they said, She is a young woman. The
heart of the child beat tranquilly in her bosom, and her thoughts took
on little color of the life about her.
Once, after Tristan und Isolde she asked:
Why do you never speak of my father?
Her mother, sitting on the bed, was coiling her glorious hair; the
open dress revealed the massive throat and great white shoulders.
Your father died years ago, child. Why do you ask now?
The girl looked directly at her.
I thought to-night how lovely if he had only been Tristan instead
of Herr Albert.
The other's face was draped by hair. She did not speak for a moment.
Yes. But he never sang: your father was not a music lover. ...
Presently they embraced affectionately and went to bed; the singer
did not sleep at once. Her thoughts troubled her....
Madame Stock was a great but unequal artist. She had never concerned
herself with the little things of the vocal art. Nature had given her
much; voice, person, musical temperament, dramatic aptitude. She erred
artistically on the side of over-emphasis, and occasionally tore
passion to pieces. But she had the true fire, and with time would
compass repose and symmetry. Toward conquering herself she seldom gave
a thought. Her unhappy marriage had left its marks; she was cynical and
often reckless; but with the growth of her daughter came reflection....
Hilda was not to be treated as other girls. Her Scotch ancestry showed
itself early. The girl did not, and could not, see the curious life
about her; it was simply a myopia that her mother fostered. Thus,
through all the welter and confusion of an opera-singer's life, Hilda
walked serenely. She knew there were disagreeable things in the world
but refused herself even the thought of them. It was not the barrier of
innocence but rather a selection of certain aspects of life that she
fancied, and an absolute impassibility in the presence of evil. Then
her mother grew more careful.
Hilda loved Wagner. She knew every work of the Master from Die
Feen to Parsifal. She studied music, arduously playing
accompaniments for her mother. In this way she learned the skeleton of
the mighty music dramas, and grew up absorbing the torrid music as
though it were Mozartean. She repeated the stories of the dramas as a
child its astronomy lessons, without feeling. She saw Siegmund and
Sieglinde entwined in that wondrous Song of Spring, and would have
laughed in your face if you hinted that all this was anything but
many-colored arabesque. It was her daily bread and butter, and like one
of those pudic creatures of the Eleusinian mysteries she lived in the
very tropics of passion, yet without one pulse-throb of its
feverishness. It was the ritual of Wagner she worshipped; the nerves of
his score had never been laid bare to her. She took her mother's tumult
in good faith, and ridiculed singers of more frigid temperaments. When
she writhed in Tristan's arms this vestal sat in front, a piano score
on her lap, carefully listening, and later, at home, she would say:
Dearest, you skipped two bars in the scene with Brangaene, and the
singer could not contradict the stern young critic....
Herr Albert sang with them longer than most tenors. They met him in
Bayreuth and then in Munich. When they went to Berlin Albert was with
them, and also in London. Her mother said that his style and acting
suited her better than any artist with whom she had ever sung. He was a
young man, much younger than Madame Stock, and a Hungarian. Tall and
very dark, he looked unlike the ideal Wagner tenor. Hilda teased him
and called him the hero of a melodrama. She grew fond of the young man,
who was always doing her some favor. To her mother he was extremely
polite; indeed he treated her as a queen.
One afternoon Hilda went back to the dressing-room. In the darkness
of the corridor she ran against some onea man. As she turned to
apologize she was caught up in a pair of strong arms and kissed. It was
all over in the tick of the clock, and then she ranran into the room,
frightened, indignant, her face burning.
Her mother's back was toward her, she was preparing for the last act
of Walküre. She knew Hilda's footsteps. The girl threw herself on a
couch and covered her hot face with the cushions. The woman hummed Ho,
jo to-ho! and continued dressing. And then came her call.
Hilda sat and thought. She must tellshe would tell her. But the
man, what of him? She knew who it was, knew it by intuition. She did
not see his face, but she knew the man. Oh, why did he do it? Why? She
blushed and with her handkerchief she rubbed her lips until they stung.
Wipe away the kiss she must, or she could never look him in the face
It seemed a long time before Brynhild returned. Footsteps and
laughter told of her approach. The maid came in first carrying a shawl,
and at the door the singer paused. Hilda half rose in fearnot knowing
who was talking. Of course it was Albert. The door was partly opened,
and Hilda, looking at her mother on the top steps of the little
staircase, saw her lower her head to the level of the tenor's face and
kiss him.... Fainting, the girl leaned back and covered her face with
her hands. The other entered in whirlwind fashion.
My Hilda. My God! child, have you been mooning here ever since I
went on? What is the matter? You look flushed. Let us go home and have
a quiet cup of tea. Albert is coming for us to go to some nice place
for dinner. Come, come, rouse yourself! Marie-chento the
maiddon't be stupid. Dépêchez-vous, dépêchez-vous!
And Madame Stock bustled about and half tore off her cuirass,
pitched her helmet in the corner and looked very much alive and young.
Oh, what a Wotan, Mein Gott! what a man. Do you know what he was
doing when I sang 'War es so schmählich?' He had his back to the house
and chewed gum. I swear it. When I grabbed his legs in anguish the
beast chewed gum, his whole body trembled from the exertion; he says
that it is good for a dry throat.
Hilda hardly listened. Her mother had kissed Albert, and she shook
as one with the ague....
She pleaded a headache, and did not go to dinner. The next day they
left Hamburg, and Albert did not accompany them. Madame Stock declared
that she needed a rest, and the pair went to Carlsbad. There they
stayed two weeks. The nervous, excitable soprano could not long bide in
one place. She was tired of singing, but she grew restless for the
Yes, yes, she cried to Hilda, in the train which bore them toward
Berlin. Yes, the opera is crowded every night when I sing. You know
that I get flowers, enjoy triumphs enough to satisfy me. Well, I'm sick
of it all. I believe that I shall end by going mad. It may become a
monomania. I often say, Why all this feverishness, this art jargon? Why
should I burn myself up with Isolde and weep my heart out with
Sieglinde? Why go on repeating words that I do not believe in? Art! oh,
I hate the word. ...
Hilda, her eyes half closed, watched the neat German landscape
Her mother grumbled until she fell asleep.
Her face was worn and drawn in the twilight, and Hilda noticed the
heavy markings about the mouth and under the eyes and the few gray
She caught herself analyzing, and stopped with a guilty feeling.
Yes, Dearest was beginning to look old. The stress and strain of Wagner
was showing. In a few years, when her voiceHilda closed her eyes
determinedly and tried to shut out a picture. But then she was not
sure, not sure of herself.
She began thinking of Albert. His swarthy face forced itself upon
her, and her mother's image grew faint. Why did he kiss her, why?
Surely it must have been some mistakeit was dark; perhaps he mistook
her. Here her heart began beating so that it tolled like a bell in her
brainmistook her, oh, God, for her mother! No! no! That could never
be. Had she not caught him watching her very often? But then why should
her mother have kissed himperhaps merely a motherly interest.
Hilda sat upright and tried to discern some expression on her
mother's face. But it was too dark. The train rattled on toward
The next day at the Hôtel Bellevue there was much running to and
fro. Musical managers went upstairs smiling and came down raging;
musical managers rushed in raging and fled roaring. Madame Stock drove
a hard bargain, and, during the chaffering and gabble about dates and
terms, Hilda went out for a long walk. Unter den Linden is hardly a
promenade for privacy, but this girl was quite alone as she trod the
familiar walk, alone as if she were the last human on the pave. She did
not notice that she was being followed; when she turned homeward she
faced Herr Albert, the famous Wagnerian tenor.
She felt a little shocked, but her placidity was too deep-rooted to
be altogether destroyed. And so Albert found himself looking into two
large eyes the persistency of whose gaze disconcerted him.
Ach, Fräulein Hilda, I'm so glad. How are you, and when did you
She had a central grip on herself, and regarded him quite steadily.
He noticed it and became abashedhe, the hero of a hundred
footlights. He could not face her pure, threatening eyes.
Herr Albert, we got back last night. Herr Albert, why did you kiss
me in the theatre?
He looked startled and reddened.
Because I love you, Hilda. Yes, I did it because I love you, he
replied, and his accents were embarrassed.
You love me, Herr Albert, pursued the terrible Hilda. Yet you
were kissed by mamma an hour later. Do you love her too?
The tenor trembled and said nothing....
The girl insisted:
Do you love mamma too? You must, for she kissed you and you did not
Albert was plainly nervous.
Yes, I love your mamma, too, but in a different way. Oh, dearest
Hilda, you don't understand. I am the artistic associate of your
mother. But I loveI love you.
Hilda felt the ground grow billowy; the day seemed supernaturally
bright. She took Albert's arm and they walked slowly, without a word.
When the hotel was reached she motioned him not to come in, and she
flew to her mother's room. The singer was alone. She sat at the window
and in her lap was a photograph. She looked old and soul-weary.
Hilda rushed toward her, but stopped in the middle of the room,
overcome by some subtle fear that seized her throat and limb.
Madame Stock looked at her wonderingly.
Hilda, Hilda, have you gone mad?
Hilda went over to her and put her arms about her and whispered:
Oh, mamma, mamma, he loves me; he has just told me so.
Her mother started:
He! Who loves you, Hilda? What do you mean?
Hilda's eyes drooped, and then she saw the photograph in the
It was Albert's....
I love himyou have his picturehe gave it to you for me? Oh! he
has spoken, Dearest, he has spoken.
The picture dropped to the floor....
Mamma, mamma, what is the matter? Are you angry at me? Do you
dislike Albert? No, surely no; I saw you kiss him at the theatre. He
says that he loves you, but it is a different love. It must be a
Siegmund and Sieglinde love, Dearest, is it not? But he loves me. Don't
be cross to him for loving me. He can't help it. And he says we must
all live together, if ...
The singer closed her eyes and the corners of her mouth became
tense. Then she looked at her daughter almost fiercely. Hilda was
Tell me, Hilda, swear to me, and think of what you are saying: Do
you love Albert?
With my heart, answered the girl in all her white simplicities.
Her mother laughed and arose.
Then you silly little goose, you shall marry him and be nice and
unhappy. Hilda cried with joy: I don't care if I am unhappy with
Idiot! replied the other.
That night Götterdämmerung was given. The conductor dragged the
tempi; the waits were interminable, and a young slip of a girl
wonderingly watched. Her mother was the Brynhild. The performance was
redeemed by the magnificent singing of the Immolation scene....
Later Brynhild faced her mirror and asked no favor of it. As she
uncoiled the heavy ropes of hair her eyes grew harsh, and for a moment
her image seemed blurred and bitter in the oval glass with the
burnished frame that stood upon the dressing-table. But at last she
would achieve the unique Brynhild!...
Entbehren sollst du, sollst entbehren.