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My Wagner Habit

Posted by acdtest on December 26, 2003

My Wagner Habit

egular readers of this weblog know how devoted I am to the mature operas (music-dramas) of Richard Wagner, and frequently post articles here concerning them. Over the past months I’ve received a number of eMails asking how and when I became so addicted to these works, and as I expect more such eMails in future, I here make public answer for the benefit of those who’ve already asked and received from me but the briefest of replies, as well as for those who haven’t yet asked, but will.

First, it’s well to keep in mind when reading the following that the person relating it grew up within a musical milieu peopled by serious-minded musicians, instrumentalists all, who though familiar with Wagner’s music were, for the most part, familiar with it only in its excerpted orchestral embodiments, and tended to regard it as irredeemably vulgar, and in addition considered the whole domain of opera (Mozart’s operas excepted, of course) to be fodder fit only for intellectual groundlings and uncharitable jokes. Bach and Mozart were the musical heroes of this group (with the Beethoven of the late quartets included), as they were (and remain today) mine as well.

Fast-forward to 1970. I’ve been laid up for the better part of a year, courtesy of a near-death-dealing motorcycle accident. Bad business that, but it’s not all terrible. I’ve plenty of time on my hands, and I’m taking full advantage of it by reading like mad (my first introduction to the Holmes-Watson canon was during this period as I related on this weblog in a prior article), and listening to dozens of LPs I’d bought one fevered afternoon of record buying at a Sam Goody 50%-off sale some few years previous but still haven’t gotten around to auditioning. (Not as ridiculous as it sounds. I bought over 250 LPs that wild afternoon.)

One of the albums I’d plucked from Sam Goody’s shelves was the then-new Decca release of the first Ring opera (or more correctly, music-drama), Das Rheingold, an opera of which I never before heard so much as a note, and a recording which I bought not because I had any intention of listening to the opera itself (what an idea!), but because that then-new recording had quickly gained the reputation among audio freaks, of which I was one, as being a kick-ass test of one’s speaker system.

So, one summer afternoon of my enforced confinement I pull the still un-played Rheingold album from its place of storage, think to myself, “Forgot about this. Time I gave it a whirl,” remove its still-intact shrink-wrap, and start the first LP going on the turntable.

With hobbling gait, I almost make it back to my comfy armchair when the soles of my feet more than my ears become aware of that lone, deep-bass, opening E-flat pedal, and my first thought is that something’s gone badly awry with my stereo system. I mean, no opera can possibly begin like that. After assuring myself, however, that my stereo system is operating just fine, I start the LP going again, this time no longer intending to test my speakers, but intending instead to listen to the music.

One-hundred-and-thirty-six measures later (i.e., the full length of the Rheingold prelude proper) such is my utter astonishment that I’m struck virtually dumb. I simply can’t believe what I’ve just heard. No composer — not the divine Wolfgang, nor even great Bach himself — should be able to do that much in so few measures with such a paucity of harmonic and melodic material; essentially little more than a single arpeggiated triad repeated over and over.

Hobbling back to the turntable as quickly as I’m able, I start the LP going again at the beginning, and again listen. And again, and again, and again. I replay those opening 136 measures some dozen times before I let the first of the three Rheintöchter begin her opening phrase. And when I finally permit her to do so, more astonishment. She and her two sisters are bantering among themselves in dramatic real time, their banter sounding as natural as the dialogue of a spoken stage play, but they’re all… singing! And the singing is lovely. Not bel canto lovely, but a different kind of sung lovely I’ve no name for because I’ve never heard anything like it before. Then a nasty-sounding baritone comes on the scene and joins in the sung banter, and his singing, like the singing of the Rheintöchter, is as natural as spoken dialogue, and positively gripping. Inseparably intertwined with all this is the sound of a huge orchestra making rich continuous comment on everything happening onstage in the manner of the chorus in a classical Greek drama, thereby enriching and deepening immeasurably both drama and meaning, and the gestalt effect is riveting.

At this point it’s abundantly clear to me that, in terms of opera, I’m not in Kansas anymore, but hopelessly adrift in strange waters considerably over my head. This is a new, electrifying, and astonishing musico-dramatic experience; one which bears but the most superficial resemblance to opera as I understand it. As I continue listening, almost each succeeding new measure brings with it something else to astonish, and I’m utterly hooked by the magnetic magic of it all.

To shorten the tale, the deeper I immersed myself in the Rheingold, and over the ensuing weeks, months, and years in the entire Ring tetralogy, and then deeper still in Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal, that which initially astonished the Wagner-naïve musical snob continued, as it continues still, to astonish the seasoned and informed devotee I became. While in strictly musical terms Bach and Mozart are still my musical heroes, nonpareil, transcendent geniuses that they unquestionably were, in musico-dramatic terms I now know for certain there has never been, nor is there ever again likely to be, a genius as all-encompassing prodigious as that of Richard Wagner, who today still bestrides the domain of opera like a colossus, and whose operas have since shaped the course not only of opera, but of all Western music.

And that, now and future questioners, is the story of the genesis of my Wagner addiction. And as the saying goes, it’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

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