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Read It And Weep — Or Rage

Posted by acdtest on March 14, 2004

Read It And Weep — Or Rage

We’re momentarily called away from more important and pressing business by this.

Read it and weep — or rage.

Had the name of the author of that piece, and the venue in which it was published, been omitted, I would have been certain the piece was a wicked satire on PoMo critics, using for the purpose a fictional, and particularly imbecile Konzept (Eurotrash) Wagner production.

Alas, neither is true, and production and critic are all too real, and both in earnest.

That the imbecile “concepts” of self-involved and self-serving vandals such as Christopher Alden continue to prosper is a squalid and horrific reminder and identifier of an age that demands novelty and comfortable contemporary “relevance” above all else. Encouraged by the reception their deeply mindless and imbecile productions receive at the hands of “progressive” facilitators such as “with-it” useful idiots like Joseph Horowitz, they today rule the stages of theaters and opera houses world-wide.

Only a cultural blip; a mere passing bit of fashionable grotesquery?

Think again — and be afraid. Be very afraid.

Posted in Opera, Wagner's Ring | Comments Off on Read It And Weep — Or Rage

More On Sweeney Todd

Posted by acdtest on January 28, 2004

More On Sweeney Todd

As I noted here a week ago after arriving at the party a full quarter-century late, I’m much taken with Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, and spent the last week engrossed in a sort of saturation involvement with the work. I first came to it several weeks ago via a TV version done originally for the Entertainment Channel with George Hearn in the title role, and the incomparable Angela Lansbury — about whose stellar performance I cannot even begin to speak without sounding like a gibbering groupie or movie fan — as the very creepy but curiously charming Mrs. Lovett.

Although I could see instantly this was no ordinary Broadway musical (an art form I find vapid and tiresome and have little patience with, even with the best of its examples), I was at first confused by that TV production because something important was missing; something I sensed (but of course couldn’t know) was essential. And what was missing, I decided, was the orchestra, which in this TV production is barely audible. For the typical Broadway musical that would not be a serious problem (as opposed to being merely a problem) as the orchestra for such is not much more than fill accompaniment, much like the orchestra in a typical Italian opera. For both, it’s the songs and singers that are important, and as long as they’re fully intact, and the stagework what it should be, all is well.

Not the case with Sweeney Todd, I conjectured.

And I conjectured correctly, for after purchasing the original cast CD album (also starring Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett, but with Len Cariou in the title role), and for the first time being able to hear that orchestra, I understood at once just how important it is to the work, which is to say Wagnerian-important, as I remarked previously. The very heart of the work’s narrative, emotional, and dramatic core is contained within the orchestral music in Jonathan Tunick’s brilliant orchestration, and a comprehensible Sweeney even partially absent that orchestral music is to me inconceivable.

More generally, Sondheim’s music for Sweeney, melodically and harmonically, is even today atypically avant-garde for the Broadway stage (and the choral writing especially complex), and utilizes forms ranging from the Dies Irae of the Gregorian Requiem Mass (a prominent idée fixe cum leitmotif in the Sweeney score) to love ballads sacred, profane, and perverse — the “Johanna” ballads sung by Anthony (sacred) and Judge Turpin (profane and perverse), “My Friends” (perverse), “Wait” (sacred, in a Mrs. Lovett creepy way), “Not While I’m Around” (sacred when sung by Tobias; perverse (and creepy) when sung by Mrs. Lovett) — to Broadway “jump tunes” (“By the Sea”), as I’ve heard this form referred to by Broadway mavens, to the big Broadway production number (“Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir”, “God, That’s Good!”), to extended Broadway comic numbers (“The Worst Pies in London”, “A Little Priest”), and even to Old English folk ballads (“Parlor Songs”), and a kind of Chanson (“Green Finch and Linnet Bird”). Thanks to Sondheim’s and Tunick’s rare and original treatment, however (and Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics which everywhere are pure magic), all these familiar forms take on a character and coloring markedly unlike that which their provenance would suggest.

And both Sondheim and Tunick are not above, um, “borrowing,” at times almost verbatim, from the music of composers such as Bernard Hermann (from the scores of the movies Cape Fear and Psycho) and Gian Carlo Menotti (from the opera Amahl and the Night Visitors), to name just two that I recognized immediately.

In all, a rich and veritable musical smorgasbord almost without parallel in the Broadway musical theater — at least as far as it’s known to me.

To thoroughly familiarize myself with this new-to-me work, I began by following my usual procedure with any new musical work, which is to first listen several times through to get the work’s overall shape. Having done that, I proceeded to embark on my usual next step: a study of the full score — and was stopped dead in my tracks. It seems there’s no full score to be had, the only score available for purchase being the piano (vocal) score; almost useless for the study of a work such as Sweeney. Worse, it seems that in all probability there’s no full score even extant — for purchase, rent, or otherwise — or so I was informed by a professional acquaintance of mine with many years experience conducting non-Broadway productions of Broadway musicals (he informs me, for instance, that not until the mid-1980s was there available a full score for even so classic a Broadway musical as Leonard Bernstein’s 1957 West Side Story(!)).

For a classical musician, such a state of affairs is both astonishing and incomprehensible. How, for instance, does one prepare for a performance absent a full score? And absent a full score how is the original orchestration preserved across performances in various venues?

The answer, it seems, is the rental of a copy of the original handwritten(!) full score from the designated agent, from whom all the orchestral parts must also be rented, and all that available only to a theater company that intends actually producing the work. It seems the matter of copyright infringement (i.e., performances unauthorized and/or unpaid for) is the specter ostensibly being protected against by this misguided practice (misguided because, especially today, there’s nothing to prevent unauthorized copy of such rented material. And even if only the parts were rentable, nothing to prevent utilizing them to readily “reverse-engineer” a full score).

But as in all things, old practices don’t go easily or willingly into that good night, and in the meantime seriously interested amateurs such as myself (not to speak of genuine students who want to make the Broadway musical theater their life’s work) are royally screwed, and have no choice but to make do with a piano score, as totally inadequate as it most decidedly is for a work as complex as Sweeney Todd.

Major bummer.

Anyway, more on Sweeney to come anon. But for now, enough.

Posted in Music, Opera, Theater | Comments Off on More On Sweeney Todd

A Brief Note On Sweeney Todd

Posted by acdtest on January 23, 2004

A Brief Note On Sweeney Todd

Had anyone suggested to me before yesterday that I’d spend two consecutive days listening four times through a complete Stephen Sondheim musical — listening in the same way I listen through, say, a complete Wagner opera — I would have thought that person lunatic.

But that’s just what I’ve finished doing, and I can report (and, yes, I know just how late to the party I am) Sweeney Todd is a veritable wonder, and the original cast CD (RCA) a wonder as well. The audio is sterling, and the performances first-rate all round, vocally and dramatically, the chorus most decidedly included. And Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Lovett — an impossible role, vocally and dramatically — is done so superbly the performance beggars adequate description or praise.

But most amazing of all is the orchestral music; music as dramatically Wagnerian-integral to the play as anything any of Wagner’s successors ever wrote. The music itself is astonishingly rich, complex, and difficult, and here performed to utter perfection by this supplemented pit band conducted by Paul Gemignani (a name unknown to me); a performance, ensemble-wise, the equal of, or better than, any of this country’s major symphony orchestras.

I’m totally blown away by Sweeney, and haven’t finished with it yet.

Posted in Music, Opera, Recordings, Theater | Comments Off on A Brief Note On Sweeney Todd

Detective Story

Posted by acdtest on January 20, 2004

Detective Story

A couple days ago I was messing about on the computer with music going on the radio in the background to which I was only a quarter listening, when my attention was suddenly arrested by music from Walküre, Act II, Scene 5 (Sieglinde’s awakening near the beginning of the scene), but strangely out of context.

I gave the music all my attention then.

Well, it wasn’t Walküre, certainly, but there was the music — a haunting, twelve-note, two-phrase melodic segment — almost verbatim*, in the midst of some very second-rate music I’d never heard before.

And what was it?, you may ask, and well you may. What it was was the principal motif of the first movement of Franz Liszt’s Faust Symphony, a work totally unfamiliar to me. What was Wagner’s music doing in a Liszt symphony?

That sent me to the books posthaste. Who had taken it from whom?

A quick perusal of the reference material I had to hand yielded the necessary information in terms of dates of composition of both works, and in terms of who of the two composers had knowledge of the other’s work and when.

From letters between the two composers, bosom friends at that time, the case seemed clear-cut. Liszt had a full score of Walküre, Act II in his hands by 12 October 1855, and Wagner, as late as 12 July 1856, was still expressing his desire to hear Liszt’s Faust. Liszt, then, took it from Wagner; a reversal in the ordinary direction of the pilfering in that deep-bonded personal and professional relationship.

But for some reason the matter continued to occupy my thinking far longer than its importance warranted. Perhaps it was because the solution to the mystery was acquired so easily, and was so clear-cut. Perverse, I know, but there it is. In any case, I determined to delve a bit more in detail into the business.

A Google search turned up nothing pertinent on the Faust beyond dates of composition, and so I went back to the reference materials I had to hand (all on Wagner, none on Liszt).

In Ernest Newman’s superb book, The Wagner Operas, I found this snarky little remark in his description of the action in Walküre, Act II, Scene 5:

Sieglinde begins to move restlessly in her dreams. The violas give out a short melody [here, Newman quotes the twelve-note, two-phrase segment in question] which the sufferers from Wagnerphobia assure us Wagner borrowed from Liszt.

Well, that would seem to have indirectly confirmed my original finding, and I ought to have gotten off the case right then and there. But I found Newman’s snarky remark bothersome because, uncharacteristically for this great Wagner scholar, he made no attempt at all to explain, by even so much as a quick gloss or blurb, what’s in error with people thinking Wagner lifted that melodic segment from Liszt.

Further research was required, I decided. (I know, I know. I ought to get a life.)

My next step was to look up Faust Symphony in the index of Volume II (1848-1860) of Newman’s massive, four-volume definitive Wagner biography, The Life of Richard Wagner (quite unbelievably, now out of print). That revealed the following morsel of intelligence:

They were eight glorious days [Liszt’s visit to Wagner in Zürich in July, 1853] both for Liszt…and for Wagner…. Liszt played for him, he says [in his autobiography, Mein Leben], from the manuscripts, his Faust Symphony, various piano works, and some of the symphonic poems….

Newman footnotes this mention by Wagner of Liszt’s Faust Symphony with the following:

Wagner, however, seems to be in error here. Liszt did not begin work on the Faust Symphony until August, 1854, finishing it in October of that year. Wagner is perhaps confusing Liszt’s visit of July, 1853, with that of October, 1856.

As Newman says, perhaps. But I wasn’t at all convinced. For me, the plot, as they say, was beginning to thicken.

The dates of composition of all three movements (minus the choral coda) of the Faust Symphony are given as August to October, 1854 by almost all the Web sources I found, and that agrees with Newman. But Liszt didn’t have the score for Act II, Walküre in hand until 12 October 1855. Does it seem reasonable, I asked myself, that Liszt would have gone back a year later, and rewritten not merely a segment of what he’d already written, but the principal motif itself, which means he would have had to rewrite the entire first movement?

No indeed. It seems totally unreasonable. But that 12-note, two-phrase motif is undeniably almost identical, even to the “color” of the instrumentation, to that Act II, Scene 5 moment in Walküre. How to explain that? The only other explanation would be that both Liszt and Wagner lifted it wholesale from a third composer, identity unknown. But the very idea is prima facie absurd.

The bloody plot has now gotten so thick I can barely see my way through.

I go back to the two-volume Wagner-Liszt correspondence to see what else I might pick up there, and find this in Volume II in a letter from Liszt to Wagner:

Together with this [letter] I send you the score of my Künstler chorus, and between this and the autumn I intend to publish half-a-dozen orchestral pieces, also in full score. By October the Faust symphony will be finished, which also will be published soon after.

The letter is dated, “Weymar, February 21st, 1854.”

But how can that be? Newman says Liszt didn’t begin work on Faust until August, 1854, and that date agrees with all the other articles I read. Yet by his above letter Liszt appears to have already begun work on the symphony by February. The answer can only be that Liszt at that time had at least a rough draft of, at the very least, the first movement of the symphony by February, 1854, and by the presumed prior knowledge wording, almost certainly before that date. And we can say with some measure of assurance just how much before. Wagner was not in error when he said that on his visit to Zürich in July, 1853 Liszt played for him the Faust Symphony — or at very least the draft of the first movement of that work.

And that’s when Wagner first heard that 12-note, two-phrase melodic segment that found its way eventually into Act II, Scene 5 of Walküre. It could have happened no other way as Wagner did not begin writing the music for Act II until 4 September 1854, and didn’t complete that act until 18 November of the same year, and so there was no way possible that Liszt could have heard a note of it before November, 1854, by which time not only the first movement, but all three movements (again, minus the choral coda) of the Faust had already been completed. And so it must be that what Wagner had expressed his desire to hear in his letter of July, 1856 noted above was the full score of the finished work.

Astoundingly, it would appear that in this case Newman’s normally stellar scholarship was deficient, and his snarky remark above noted, misplaced. The direction of the pilfering between the two great friends was, then, as per usual, with Wagner the pilferer, and Liszt the pilferee.

Not an airtight case, I grant you, but close enough to make no nevermind.

Gads!, I do love a detective story with a proper denouement, don’t you?

*I’ve no score for the Faust Symphony, and heard the first movement but that one time. I’m told by a source that’s to be trusted, and who is in possession of scores for both the Faust and the Walküre, that the 12-note, two-phrase melodic segment at issue is not quite the verbatim same in the two works (they differ some in their melodic intervals; at points, minor vs. augmented), but the full shape of it, and the “color” of the instrumentation, is undeniably the verbatim same in both works.

Posted in Music, Opera, Wagner's Ring | Comments Off on Detective Story

So Whose Gold Is It Anyway?

Posted by acdtest on January 19, 2004

So Whose Gold Is It Anyway?

The Nibelung dwarf Alberich forswears love forever, takes a lump of gold from its resting place at the bottom of the river Rhine, forges it into a ring which confers upon him unlimited power, and thereby sets into motion the chain of events which is Wagner’s epic tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen (“The Nibelung’s Ring”).

Conventional readings of Alberich’s seminal deed have it that he stole from the Rhine the gold from which he forged his ring, and indeed throughout the texts of all four music-dramas Alberich is referred to as a Räuber, usually translated as robber or thief. But the German noun Raub, which ordinarily means robbery, has another meaning as well used poetically; namely, rape or ravish (i.e., seize and carry off by force, or despoil), and it seems to me, within the context of the Wagnerian mythology of the Ring, that poetic meaning more correctly and more accurately characterizes Alberich’s initial deed. How can one steal that which he’s paid for in full, and therefore his very own?

The gold of the Rhine — the Rhinegold — cannot be said to be owned by anyone at drama’s opening. It’s certainly not owned by the three Rheintöchter. They’re merely its appointed guardians (more about what that entails anon). The Rhinegold can be said, in a poetic sense, to be owned by the Rhine itself, but its resting place at the bottom of that great river is merely a transient state, self-defined, for as the Rheintöchter inform Alberich, the Rhinegold may be forged into the ring of power by anyone willing to forswear love, which implies unequivocally that such a one is entitled to take the Rhinegold for that purpose, and therefore become the owner of both gold and ring.

So, what, then, did the guardianship of the Rheintöchter entail? Surely, it did not — could not — entail their taking physical measures to prevent the removal of the Rhinegold from its resting place at the bottom of the river. The very idea is absurd. It would seem, then, that their guardianship could have entailed nothing other than their informing any prospective fancier of the Rhinegold that only one who first forswore love would be entitled to it. Such a warning, as is made clear in the text of Das Rheingold, was considered by the Rheintöchter to be more than sufficient to ward off any prospective taker of the Rhinegold, for who in that primal world would even consider doing such a thing given the condition required?

Alberich, that’s who. And only because cruelly, if innocently, pushed to the deed by the unthinking behavior of the Rheintöchter themselves in response to his attempts at wooing them. In that sense, the Rheintöchter can be said to have failed, wantonly and abjectly, the principal charge of their guardianship by themselves creating a condition that all but ensured its breach.

By this reasoning (and to my way of thinking, the only reasoning that makes ethical, dramatic, and mythical sense within the context of the Ring) it’s clear Alberich is by no stretch of the term a thief. He paid, and paid most dearly, for his right to take the Rhinegold from the river for his own, and forge from it the ring of power, which ring is without question his and his alone as the very title of the tetralogy itself proclaims. There’s but a single thief in Das Rheingold, and that’s Wotan himself, chief god and maker of laws. When, in Scene 4, Alberich declares that the ring is as much his own as his head, eyes, and ears, and hurls at Wotan — who’s just about to forcibly take the ring from Alberich’s finger for himself (which he does in the next minute) — the appellation Schächer (thief), he speaks nothing but the truth; technically, legally, and ethically.

When I informed some Wagner fans of my intention to post here an article making the case that Alberich was in fact no thief at all in the matter of the Rhinegold, one replied, “If you can get Alberich off that rap the Michael Jackson defense team want to hear from you NOW!”

My number’s in the book.

Posted in Opera, Wagner's Ring | Comments Off on So Whose Gold Is It Anyway?

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.

Posted in Music, Opera, Wagner's Ring | Comments Off on My Wagner Habit

I Saw The World End

Posted by acdtest on December 19, 2003

I Saw The World End

or the past couple weeks I’ve been immersed in Deryck Cooke’s I Saw The World End, an unfinished study (Cooke’s untimely death in 1976 prevented its completion) of Wagner’s great tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen. (The title of the book is taken from the closing line of an ultimately rejected closing scene of Götterdämmerung.) The book was first published in 1979, and my coming to it so late is the consequence of my ordinary practice of never reading any analysis of an artwork until I’ve worked things out for myself to the fullest I’m able. Only then can I be certain that my ideas were formed by a study of the artwork itself, and not by sources after the fact and external to it.

And a good thing I followed my ordinary procedure in this case as Cooke, an incisive and perceptive Wagner scholar and first-rate musicologist, is almost irresistibly persuasive. In this volume — which volume deals only with the texts of the first two music-dramas of the Ring (Das Rheingold and Die Walküre), Cooke’s death preventing analysis of the texts of the remaining two, the planned but not-started second volume to have dealt with the music — Cooke examines the sources consulted by Wagner in his construction of the drama of the tetralogy, and demonstrates through informed conjecture, and truly encyclopedic scholarly research, how Wagner condensed, altered, conflated, and shaped the wealth of mostly mythological material at his disposal into the cosmic drama that is the Ring, and in the process created a new mythology of his own invention (that last contention mine, not Cooke’s). What is to me astonishing, however, is Cooke’s absolutely categorical conclusion from his researches that

The central reality [Das Rheingold] is concerned with…is the social and political history of mankind.

and that Das Rheingold,

…was intended as, and stands as, an allegory of the social and political world we live in…; and is nothing else.

That idea, of course, is nothing new. Wagner himself, in his first prose sketches for Das Rheingold, was much of the same mind (his thinking was altered radically by the time he came to write the first music for the Ring). And George Bernard Shaw, in his tendentious, witty, but ultimately silly reading of the Ring — the thinly veiled socialist tract, The Perfect Wagnerite — came to pretty much the same conclusion.

Can Das Rheingold be interpreted at that level? It can indeed. As Cooke himself says, “[O]ne can in fact interpret [Das Rheingold] as symbolizing practically anything one likes….” But an interpretation at that level is a relatively trivial and earthbound one, and the music — in Wagnerian music-drama, that in which resides the essential core of the drama — argues against such an interpretation being anything more than trivial; little more than an interesting aside, if you will.

Anyone proposing seriously to put forward such an interpretation of Das Rheingold‘s “central reality” has to contend with two extraordinary episodes in the music-drama that give substantive lie to such an interpretation: the orchestral prelude to Das Rheingold, and the “tremendous, breathtaking surprise,” of the “most unexpected of all the unexpected events in the Ring,” as Cooke put it: the mystical and foreboding rising in Scene 4 of Das Rheingold of she who “know[s] whatever was, whatever is, whatever shall be”; the primordial earth-goddess, Erda.

Erda rises to warn Wotan, in ominous words and to compellingly ominous music to match, to give up Alberich’s ring (which Wotan has just stolen from the hapless Nibelung), and flee the curse placed upon it (by Alberich).

Why would Erda, the very incarnation of Nature itself — in the Ring, the controlling power of the world — rise to involve herself in the affairs of gods and men if what was concerned was merely their social and political machinations and development, both of which are exclusively the quotidian concerns of gods and men? The clear answer is: she wouldn’t. The very idea is thoroughly absurd. It’s something far more dire that provokes Erda into making her extraordinary and (presumably) never before made appearance to the gods. Alberich, as a condition for being empowered to forge the rheingold into the ring of unlimited power, was required to transgress Nature’s most sacred and fundamental law by foreswearing and cursing love forever. That cursing and foreswearing is the Ring‘s Original Sin, and that primal sin is reified and made palpable in the ring Alberich has forged. Were the corrupt and evil power entailed by its forging permitted to pass into the world, the world’s end would be the ineluctable consequence, and it’s this that has provoked Erda to make her extraordinary appearance.

Hear me! Hear me! Hear me!
All that is shall come to an end.
A dark day dawns for the gods.
I charge you: Shun the ring!

And then there’s the extraordinary prelude to Das Rheingold, with its clear intimations of First Creation, and its establishing of the vast, cosmic time scale not only of Das Rheingold, but of the entire tetralogy. Why a prelude so cosmically portentous to a drama whose “central reality” is concerned merely with the essentially quotidian and earthbound “social and political history of mankind”? Again, the very idea is thoroughly and patently absurd as Wagner himself discovered before setting pen to paper to write the prelude to Das Rheingold, the first music written for the Ring.

One cannot help but conclude that Cooke, by his extensive researches into the biographical background of, and sources for, the Ring, has been led astray by that which is extrinsic to the artwork itself. I’ve here and elsewhere more than once declared that all authentic works of art, and most particularly those works of art which are the products of authentic genius, are totally self-contained entities, and require nothing extrinsic to themselves to be understood fully, all that’s required for such understanding being contained within the artworks themselves. Cooke, it would seem — even Cooke, who I know knew better — was overcome by the intoxication of his own formidable researches and scholarly bent, and so permitted the merely extrinsic to distort his vision of the one, the only, thing that matters: the completed artwork itself.

Posted in Books, Opera, Wagner's Ring | Comments Off on I Saw The World End

A Modest Proposal

Posted by acdtest on December 15, 2003

Posted in Cultural Commentary, Opera, Theater, Wagner's Ring | Comments Off on A Modest Proposal

Selling The Met

Posted by acdtest on December 4, 2003

Selling The Met

ow’s this for a great idea — from a big-media NYC classical music critic (name withheld as an act of charity)?

I went to the Met last night, to see Die Frau ohne Schatten.


At the two intermissions, I found myself deep in conversation with someone from the opera business, about why there were so many empty seats. […] [It was] a major evening. Why couldn’t the Met attract more people?


I’m not a marketer, and what follows is, maybe, amateur speculation. But still I’ve been around the business quite a bit, and talk a lot with marketers. Besides, classical music is, as we all keep saying, in some kind of trouble. So every classical music institution has [to] go many extra miles to make some noise. The Met shouldn’t only advertise its operas. It ought to do things designed to get people talking.


Why not do really popular stuff? An Andrea Bocelli concert, for instance? Or an Aretha Franklin event, in which she’d sing some of the opera arias she’s refashioned into Aretha tunes? […] Oh, sure, these things don’t meet the Met’s usual notion of its artistic level (though I’d argue that on a good night, Aretha’s way above the usual artistic level of opera). The point, though, is to show that the Met is for everybody, that it doesn’t make rules, or turn anyone away. Combine that with edgy stuff that artists like, and you expand your reach both to the right and the left.


We could take this further. We could imagine the Met getting involved in all kinds of New York cultural events, from the Next Wave festival at BAM to the Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall. Big pop concerts, too. If Sting or Bruce Springsteen come to town, wouldn’t some of the orchestra, chorus, and even big-time soloists at the Met like to hear them? Can’t believe they wouldn’t. They’re people, just like us. So the Met makes sure they get tickets (house seats, more likely, which the people going to the concerts would be happy to pay for), and also makes sure the world knows it’s involved. In return, of course, Sting and Springsteen (and everyone in their road crews and their bands) gets invited to see opera at the Met. Maybe people in touring pop shows couldn’t go; they aren’t in town long enough. Never mind. The gesture counts, and in other circumstances — when the circus is in town, maybe — the people involved could happily accept the offer.

Uh-huh. Lord save us all from such classical music champions. As the old saw (approximately) goes: With such champions, classical music needs no enemies.

(To be fair, I singled out the above quotes from a piece which contained in addition a few not-so-grotesque if otherwise unremarkable ideas.)

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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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