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A Question Of Rhetoric

Posted by acdtest on October 30, 2003

A Question Of Rhetoric

fter a particularly frustrating extended search, I posted the following whine on several classical music lists in which I’m a participant:

For all the hugely complex works written by Wagner, I can find at least one conductor who gets all or most of the tempi right all the way through. Why, then, is it (seemingly) impossible to find even a single conductor who gets the tempi right for the relatively simple (Dresden) Overture to _Tannhäuser_? Even though I’ve never seen the score of this work, I know they all get it wrong, wrong, wrong, and get it wrong in precisely the same way: they turn the majestic chorale — first and closing episodes both — into a _Marcia Funebre_, the tempo almost the same for both appearances(!), and so the tempi of the _Venusberg_ center taken proportionally too slow as well.

Is a (major) puzzlement.

I saw nothing particularly untoward about anything I wrote there. Simply your regular old standard type whine. But I was called immediately on my declaration that I’ve never seen the score of the work. How, then, could I know that all the conductors I’ve heard get it wrong, especially since, by my own admission, I’ve never heard it done right?

How indeed. And yet I was, and am, perfectly certain of the thing, my ignorance of the score itself, and my never having heard the work done right notwithstanding. The question is: Why, and by what authority, am I so certain?

The answer, it turns out, is a fairly simple one. Or rather, simple to state, not in operation. And that is that by long exposure to Wagner’s works, and detailed study of many of his scores, I’ve become so intimately familiar with Wagnerian rhetoric that I’ve become hypersensitive to any false realization (as opposed to interpretive variation) of his rhetorical voice, both musical and dramatic.

So, what did I find amiss with all the readings of my experience of the Dresden (1845) version of the Tannhäuser overture (the overture to the opera of the same name, one of Wagner’s early-period works)?

Well, the explanation goes like this (and, apologies, but one must know the opera in order to appreciate the following):

In the overture’s opening episode of the chorale (“Pilgrim’s Chorus”) it’s merely the progress of the pilgrims, first toward, then away from an imagined physical point; i.e., a pretty much matter-of-fact affair. The closing episode of that chorale at overture’s close (i.e., with the return to 3/4 and ff in the trombones), however, where it rises above and in opposition to the furious, frenetic, and insistent ff rapid runs of 16ths in the strings (the dithyrambic claims of the Venusberg), is not merely a recap of the opening episode but its apotheosis and as well a declaration of triumph, so to speak, over the claims of the flesh promoted within the Venusberg.

In all the readings I’ve heard up to now, the opening episode of the chorale is taken almost as broad, slow, and triumphant (in the trombones) as the closing episode, which is, of course, rhetorically absurd, both musically and dramatically, as it then leaves no place for the closing episode to go except into the dumper. The Venusberg episode (the overture’s center episodes) is then taken too slow as well, both as a matter of proportion (with the too-slow opening chorale), and also in an attempt at the sensuous rather than the dithyrambic for the Venusberg center as a whole, which is also wrong rhetorically, both musically and dramatically.

All this I knew almost instinctively (“almost” because there was nothing really instinctive about it at all, my sense of it a result of my experience with Wagner’s works as explained above). So how come these expert conductors didn’t know this almost instinctively as well? My guess (and it’s nothing more than a guess) is that majestic chorale and its orchestration are so musically and dramatically seductive in themselves that as a conductor one must get a virtual grip on oneself to not let the thing run away with him for its own sake, and therefore disconnected from its musical and dramatic context. The conductors of my experience simply failed to do so.

Interestingly enough, unlike the case with most of his individual works, Wagner left conductors a major clue for the performance of this overture; a clue ignored by all conductors known to me.

And the major clue? Under Wagner’s own direction (Wagner was considered the premier conductor of his time — generally, not merely of his own works) the performance duration of the Tannhäuser overture was 12 minutes flat. The shortest performance time of all conductors of this work of my experience? Fourteen minutes.

Maestros take note (NPI).

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