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Wagner Musings

Posted by acdtest on February 4, 2003

Wagner Musings

ecently, on the Usenet Wagner newsgroup, one new-to-Wagner member ventured he’d heard some of conductor Karl Böhm’s Wagner readings, and was thrilled by them because

Böhm has a special magic when it comes to Wagner. For example (besides his 1967 _Ring_) his 1972 rendition of the _Fliegende Hollander_ overture is by far the most transparent and thus musically interesting of all the conductors I’ve heard.

That notion struck me as being particularly perverse as the very thing that makes Böhm’s Wagner so unsatisfactory (and so completely un-Wagnerian) is the orchestral transparency on which he (Böhm) insists. Böhm reads a Wagner score as if it were a score by Mozart (of which composer’s music Böhm is a master interpreter).

Böhm is by no means alone in misreading Wagner, especially egregious when the scores of the mature Wagner operas (i.e., those operas post-Lohengrin) are at issue. As a matter of fact, most conductors misread those scores, even some of the greats (Toscanini, my personal god among conductors, is a prime example), their misreading consisting of their reading the orchestral part of the music as “absolute” music à la, say, Beethoven or Mozart. Wagner was unique in that he didn’t write, in fact was incapable of writing, “absolute” music, his few attempts producing only embarrassments, self-acknowledged (his 1876 Centennial March, written on commission from the United States government for mucho bucks, is a standout example).

The thing that distinguishes Wagner’s orchestral writing from that of all other composers, including even those who followed closely in his footsteps (or as closely as is possible, which is not very close at all), is that being written as the primary element of his music-dramas (as opposed to the orchestral writing of the composers of Italian-form opera where the orchestra is in large part merely accompaniment for the singers) in it resides the very center of the music-drama itself, and any reading that does not realize that core characteristic in performance is in fact a misreading.

Referring back to my above comment on Böhm’s Wagner, Wagner’s musico-dramatic and symphonic contrapuntal genius is always realized in the massing, never in details of inner line, and Böhm’s transparent readings of Wagner wherein the revealing of inner line is prominent are therefore just plain wrong (un-Wagnerian). They’re wrong because while the revealing of inner line in the music of, say, Mozart or Beethoven is to reveal the very soul of the music, the revealing of inner line in Wagner serves only to reveal how the sorcerer accomplished his magic. Not a good thing, not a good thing at all, as any self-respecting sorcerer will confirm.

In addition to the business of getting the massing right, there are two other critical elements in getting Wagner right in performance: The continuous micro-adjustment of tempi, and Wagnerian pacing; the two closely related and interdependent, but the latter having particularly to do with how a conductor moves the music across, or “dissolves”, the bar lines.

I once had a delightful discussion with a delightful man; a conductor famous for his love of Wagner, and equally famous among Wagnerians for always getting it pretty much wrong (he shall here remain nameless for obvious reasons). We got onto the matter of Wagnerian pacing, and I couldn’t seem to get across to him exactly what it was I was driving at. In desperation, I finally asked him how many bar lines there were in the first act of Tristan. He immediately came back with a number in the hundreds, whereupon I told him he’d grossly miscounted as there were in fact only two: One at the beginning of the act, and one at the end. He understood me then perfectly, smiled and nodded his agreement.

He understood perfectly, always did understand, but that hadn’t helped him in performance one iota. The curious thing is that a strictly intellectual and musical understanding of Wagner in performance on the part of a conductor is not nearly enough. Over the years there have been so few conductors who really got it right, and a few of those few not otherwise especially distinguished as conductors (Solti is a good example), that one is driven to the conclusion that getting Wagner right in performance is at bottom strictly a matter of special intuitive gift, one a conductor either possesses or doesn’t, and which gift I’ve elsewhere dubbed the “Wagner Gene”, for in its absence nothing avails.

Nothing.

As if Wagner in performance didn’t already present problems enough.

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