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Firsthand Witness

Posted by acdtest on September 7, 2003

Firsthand Witness — Wagner Rehearsing the ‘Ring’

ate in 1872, four years before the first Bayreuth Festival, Richard Wagner wrote to longtime member of his inner circle Heinrich Porges,

I have you in mind for a task which will be of the greatest importance to the future of my enterprise [the Bayreuth Festival generally, and the first performance of Der Ring des Nibelungen specifically]. I want you to follow all my rehearsals very closely…and to note down everything I say, even the smallest detail, about the interpretation and performance of our [sic!] work, so that a tradition goes down in writing.

The result was the book Die Bühnenproben zu den Bayreuther Festspielen des Jahres 1876 (The Stage Rehearsals for the Bayreuth Festival of 1876), which was first published in installments in the official Wagner journal, the Bayreuther Blätter (1881 and 1896), and the English translation of which (by Robert L. Jacobs) was first published in 1983 by Cambridge University Press under the title, Wagner Rehearsing the ‘Ring’ (unhappily, now long out of print).

That Porges was thoroughly qualified to make such a record is beyond question. He was not only a long-time member of Wagner’s inner circle, but an expert musician and music critic, a learned scholar, and intimately familiar with the score of the Ring. And as for trusting what he wrote, it goes without saying that before first publication (in the Blätter) every part of his work was vetted either by Wagner himself, or by the Blätter‘s editor, Wagner factotum Hans von Wolzogen.

I’ve just finished reading a copy of that Cambridge University Press translation (literally a copy; I spent an hour at the library Xeroxing the entire book as there was not available even so much as a single copy of the volume on the used book market), on which there here follow a few random thoughts and impressions.

My first thought is that no conductor, no producer, no director, no singer, no scenic designer, no anyone ought to be permitted to have anything to do with a production of the Ring without first committing to memory and total understanding what Porges records in this book, and then swearing a sacred oath to never, on pain of death, depart from what’s there written, remembering that what Porges recorded were Wagner’s directions and insights on the Ring and its performance, not his own. I take special pleasure in saying this as everything I read in this book accords perfectly with my own independently arrived at views, and I’m not in the least above a little self-congratulatory backslapping on that count.

Some examples (this on the Prelude to Das Rheingold, the Ring‘s first music-drama):

…An instruction given by Wagner for the performance of the main theme illustrates this difference between mere display of feeling and a truly artistic delivery [quotes the opening theme from the Rheingold Prelude]. He wanted the high notes of the horns, especially the climactic G of the widely arched melody, to be played “very tenderly and with sustained softness”, and this to apply to every subsequent repetition. The players must consciously counteract here the natural tendency to make a crescendo on a rising progression; only then will the figure have the desired quality of ideal freedom. Furthermore, sustained softness will serve to clarify the overlapping deliveries of the theme in the [opening] complicated passage for [these] eight horns.

Regarding the orchestral prelude as a whole, built on a single E flat major triad, Wagner insisted that its huge crescendo should throughout create the impression of a phenomenon of nature developing quite of its own accord — so to say, an impersonal impression. Nothing must be forced; there must be no sense of a conscious purpose imposing itself.

Wagner gave especial attention to the harmonic figurations of the strings’ accompaniment to Woglinde’s joyous song just after the rise of the curtain. They should be as pianissimo as possible. The unexpected conversion of a powerful crescendo into a piano created the effect of a transformation of the waves of water into a single human figure…

[author’s footnote]: The device, frequently used by Beethoven, of a sudden pianissimo after a crescendo is of the utmost stylistic significance in that it can be regarded — so it seems to me — as a direct expression of that control of form over matter which Schiller held to be the supreme function of art.

[all emphases mine]

(Regarding my above bolded portions: The “sustained softness” and “subsequent repetitions” comments refer solely to the eight horns, which begin p [pianissimo], and after bar 40 or so are all marked immer p [always pianissimo] which remains in force for the entire Prelude. The “huge crescendo…throughout” comment [i.e., huge in extent, and huge throughout as the crescendo builds slowly from the very beginning of the Prelude to its end, and builds almost solely as a consequence of Wagner’s preternaturally brilliant orchestration even though that slowly-built, Prelude-long crescendo is nowhere notated] refers to the orchestra overall, excluding the eight horns. The “powerful crescendo” comment refers to the entire orchestra for the final seven bars of the Prelude, and to the final bar opening onto Scene 1 in particular, where crescendi are actually notated.*)

As invaluable a record as this book is, however, one cannot shake the feeling that Porges has shortchanged posterity in recording but the tiniest fraction of what he could have recorded, thereby largely failing Wagner’s mandate to “…follow all my rehearsals very closely…and…note down everything I say, even the smallest detail, about the interpretation and performance of our work, so that a tradition goes down in writing.”

Porges’s failure notwithstanding, this volume is the only systematic firsthand account we have of Wagner’s own handling of the musical and dramatic performance sides of this monumental undertaking, and we ought to be grateful for even small such gifts. (There are other more or less desultory firsthand accounts of the first Bayreuth Festival by various members of the production team and cast from the perspective of their own specialties, but none of the systematic nature of Porges’s effort.)

Porges’s record was quite rightly written for working professionals — moreover, for working professionals already thoroughly familiar with the scores and texts of the Ring operas — and so what Porges records (with copious musical quotations) are Wagner’s directions which are supplement to the directions notated in the scores themselves, which scores are already more densely notated with musical directions than any other pre-20th-century score of my experience.

What strikes one most about Wagner’s directions is how often he directs subtle measure-by-measure (sometimes even note-by-note, and sometimes not-so-subtle) adjustments of the “main tempo,” and even of the notated rhythm, in order to achieve the dramatic and psychological effects he desired. That’s in perfect keeping with Wagner’s perennial excoriation (in his writings) of those conductors he referred to as “quadrupeds,” with their foursquare readings of his scores.

One example from the book is particularly telling in this respect.

Porges records Wagner’s handling of Siegfried’s Trauermusik (funeral music; from Act III of Götterdämmerung, the fourth and final Ring music-drama) thus:

The unison passage [here Porges quotes the opening two measures of the Trauermusik proper] requires especial attention. By making a powerful crescendo and slightly altering the time-values of the rests to make them uneven, thereby bringing them alive, Wagner gave those two bars a quite extraordinary significance…. Regarding the performance of the funeral music — that unique heroic lament in the style of the ancient epics — Wagner gave no further directions. To a creation such as this, those words of Goethe, “If you do not feel it, never will you find it,” are more than usually relevant.

Just so, and that intuitive “feel[ing] it” by conductors of what’s hidden beneath the markings of the printed score, so to speak, is precisely what I’ve elsewhere and often characterized as their possessing the “Wagner Gene”.

It was of some interest to me to note (as well as a source of some pride as it again confirms my thinking independently arrived at) that of the available recordings of the Ring with which I’m most familiar, it’s clear that Solti has read Porges’s record, and notated everything said there into his own copy of the score, so perfectly does he follow Wagner’s directives as recorded in this book; while Karajan, Böhm, and even Levine (whose Wagner readings are nothing if not meticulous) have either not read that record, or reading it, have largely ignored it, or were otherwise incapable of incorporating its directives into their own performances.

In summing up, I can’t urge too strongly those with more than a passing or listener’s interest in the Ring to somehow acquire a copy of this invaluable record, if for no reason other than to gain some small insight into the inner workings of the colossal musical and dramatic genius responsible for the creation of Der Ring des Nibelungen.

*Those wanting a fuller explanation of the dynamics of the Prelude may read my analysis here.
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