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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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

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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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Wagner’s Ring: Part III

Posted by acdtest on July 29, 2003

Wagner’s Ring: A Guide For The Willing But Perplexed
Part III: First Day — Das Rheingold (Prelude and Scene 1)

fter completing the full poem (libretto) of his tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen, but still lacking the key to the problem of how to transform the massive drama into music-drama, Wagner, in ill health, repaired to Italy and the sunny Mediterranean in August of 1853 to rest both mind and body. In a hotel room in Spezia in September he lay down on a couch intending to take a short nap, and lapsed into a half-waking, half-dream state.

I felt as though I were sinking in a mighty flood. The rush and roar [of the water] soon took musical shape within my brain as the chord of E-flat major, surging incessantly in broken chords. These declared themselves as melodic figurations of increasing motion, yet the pure triad of E-flat major never changed but seemed by its steady persistence to impart infinite significance to the element in which I was sinking. I awoke from my half-sleep in terror, feeling as though the waves were now rushing high above my head.

Thus, in a quasi-hypnotic or -cataleptic state, was born the first music of the Ring — the orchestral prelude to its first music-drama, Das Rheingold — and to Wagner was finally vouchsafed the long sought for key to this new way of making opera, which key had, until this moment, persistently eluded him.

The prelude to Das Rheingold is one of opera’s most enduring wonders. It begins with an undifferentiated and sustained E-flat sounding in the deepest bass; a sound so low in pitch it’s felt as much as heard (and for sounding which the orchestra’s double basses must manually lower the pitch of their lowest string by a semitone). After continuing by itself for a seeming timeless four full measures, it’s joined by a sustained B-flat in the bassoons sounding above it. Twelve measures later the horns add their voices by sounding a rising arpeggio adding a G-natural, and thereby the triad — the tonic (or first), dominant (or fifth), and third degrees of the scale respectively; the fundamental building block of all Western music — of E-flat major is fully established. At the 49th measure the strings enter with an undulating, melodic figuration adding other degrees of the E-flat major scale, which figuration, rising and becoming progressively more rapid and fully arpeggiated, all the while gaining in volume, culminates with a repeated three-note figure (also forming a complete E-flat major triad) sounding against it in the trumpets, rising in a crescendo to double forte, whereupon, the curtain having just risen, we’re transported seamlessly into the depths of the river Rhine, and into a primal, Nature-ruled world of pristine innocence.

The effect is breathtaking, and unlike anything in all of opera. In a mere 136 measures of little more than a rising, melodically arpeggiated E-flat major triad (which is the Ring‘s first and most basic leitmotif) sounding over an undifferentiated E-flat pedal, Wagner limns no less than the coming into being, out of the emptiness of the void, the very world itself, and thereby at once establishes the cosmic time scale of the epic drama that is the Ring.

And why, you may ask, does Wagner choose, impossibly, to begin the Ring in the depths (actually at the bottom) of a river? Because water is the womb of life itself, and its first nurturer. What more symbolically and psychologically appropriate place to begin this vast, primeval, Nature-ruled and world-embracing drama?

In the predawn twilight at the bottom of the river are cavorting among the rocks three water nymphs; the Rheintöchter, or Rhinedaughters — Woglinde, Wellgunde, and Flosshilde: charmingly frivolous, carefree, and childlike creatures without a serious thought in their very pretty but very empty heads. While cavorting about they chatter away among themselves to a delightful melodic line passed from one to the other (the Ring‘s second leitmotif) that bears no semblance to the closed-form song of ordinary opera, but is more akin to the dialogue of a stage play, as is true of the sung text in all the Ring as we noted in our first discussion.

Unexpectedly, there intrudes into this lovely, carefree world a discordant note in the form of the decidedly unlovely Nibelung dwarf Alberich, who enters by way of a cleft in the rocks to an appropriately unlovely and ungainly figure sounded in the lower strings. He’s come from Nibelheim, his subterranean home, he says, and he, too, wants to cavort.

The Rheintöchter are more surprised and repelled than alarmed, although one of them, Flosshilde, with more sense than we’re wont to credit any of the Rheintöchter with, immediately warns her sisters to look out for their charge, the sacrosanct, magical gold of the Rhine. But her sisters, at the moment, are far too busy trying to figure out just what this disreputable intruder is doing there; a place he has no business being. The answer, they discover in short order, is that the poor dwarf is in love, and just the idea strikes the three sisters as so preposterous as to be thoroughly risible, and Flosshilde quickly forgets her initial fear that the misshapen little fellow might be after the Rhine’s magical gold as it’s now comically clear that what he’s after is her delectable self and her equally delectable sisters.

The three Rheintöchter, in an extended episode continuously commented on by the orchestra in the role of a classical Greek chorus, then set to mercilessly and cruelly, if innocently and without malice, teasing the lovesick Alberich, driving him finally to the point of frantic and helpless frustration, at which point the sun rises, its newborn rays striking down through the waters and touching the Rhine’s fabled treasure perched high atop a rocky bed, the rapidly blossoming golden glow spreading throughout the river’s depths as the orchestra sounds in the trumpets the leitmotif of the Rhinegold.

The Rheintöchter greet the awakening of the gold with a joyous new melody based on the leitmotif of the Rhinegold. Alberich, however, is merely confused. He hasn’t so much as a clue as to what all the fuss is about. He asks, and the Rheintöchter, dismayed at his ignorance of the storied gold of the Rhine, proceed foolishly to spell out for him the gold’s inherent magic. He who could fashion a ring from the gold, they tell him (and here the orchestra sounds for the first time the leitmotif of the ring), would gain by its magic unlimited world power and riches. They tell him this without fear or concern, secure in the knowledge that only one who has first renounced love would be capable of fashioning such a ring (and here the orchestra sounds, also for the first time, the leitmotif of the renunciation of love, one of the most important leitmotifs in all the Ring), and such a one has never existed, nor will ever exist, least of all this comical, helpless, lovesick dwarf.

But the naïve and innocent creatures have neglected to take into account that by reason of their merciless taunting they’ve transformed this comical and helpless dwarf into something decidedly uncomical, and anything but helpless.

The wealth of the world
I could win for my own through the gold?
Where love is denied me,
I still could gain its pleasures through cunning?
Mock on, then!
The Nibelung approaches your toy!

Alberich declares, his words sung to a slightly melodically altered form of the leitmotif of the ring, the orchestra playing against it the leitmotif of the renunciation of love.

The Rheintöchter think Alberich merely grandstanding out of sheer desperation, and they shriek in mock horror at his intended threat, and then fall to laughing at him.

But Alberich has been pushed beyond grandstanding.

Are you still not afraid?
Then coquet in the dark, brood of the waters!
I will put out your light,
wrench the gold from its resting place,
and forge the ring of revenge!
For hear me, ye waters:
Thus I curse love forever!

with which oath (the last line sung to a slight but ominous variation of the renunciation of love leitmotif) Alberich rips the Rhinegold from its bed, and with a sinister laugh disappears with it through the cleft in the rocks back to Nibelheim as the waters grow dark, and the Rheintöchter wail the loss of the gold.

Well, all this is pretty much the stuff of typical fairytale and folklore, isn’t it.

Or is it.

Not in Wagner’s transforming hands it isn’t. In this first scene of Das Rheingold, Wagner has limned, through the organic synthesis of words and music, no less than a world-encompassing secular vision of Original Sin and the consequent loss of Paradise, and all that implies.

But most of all, what Wagner has wrought with this first scene of Das Rheingold is a revolution in the world of opera. For audiences today, as for Das Rheingold‘s very first audience, we know instantly, and with absolute certainty, that we’re not in Kansas anymore. With the Prelude and first scene of Das Rheingold, Wagner has taken opera as far from ordinary Italian-form opera as it’s possible to get and still be recognizable as opera, and at the same time, through the transforming magic of the gestalt created by a previously unimagined synthesis of words and music, transported us into a created world that has all the force and potency of living myth; a feat never before or since accomplished by any work of art.

But Wagner the sorcerer has not finished. As the saying goes, You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Next up: What really went on in Scene 1 of Das Rheingold?

[Note: This is the third in a series of articles on the Ring, further installments of which will appear here as time for the writing permits. All installments of this series may be read here. For access to individual installments, please consult the titles listed under the category Wagner’s Ring to be found in the Master Archives Index.]

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Wagner’s Ring: Part II

Posted by acdtest on July 17, 2003

Wagner’s Ring: A Guide For The Willing But Perplexed
Part II: First Day — Das Rheingold (Introduction)

agner, early in 1853, sent to his friend, champion, and future father-in-law Franz Liszt the just-completed poem (libretto) of his mammoth tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen, along with an accompanying note. “Mark well my new poem,” wrote Wagner. “It contains the beginning of the world and its end.”

As a concise description of the dramatic course of Wagner’s vast four-part drama one could not ask for better. As a description of what this epic, radical undertaking would mean for the world of opera, one could not ask for more prophetic. A few months after he wrote those words, Wagner began the in-earnest composition of the music for the first music-drama of the great tetralogy, Das Rheingold, and when the score was completed the following year it signaled the beginning of the new world of music-drama, and the beginning of the end of the old world of classic Italian-form opera. Wagner’s great achievement would change forever the world of opera, that achievement’s subsequent influence so pervasive and so compelling that even that supremely insular genius of Italian-form opera Giuseppe Verdi — Wagner’s exact contemporary — was not left untouched, his last two operas, Otello (1877) and Falstaff (1883) — singular masterpieces in his operatic oeuvre — displaying a marked Wagnerian influence.

Das Rheingold, the First Day (or Vorabend) of the Ring, is unlike the music-dramas of the three following Days in that it has but a single act of four scenes (the following three music-dramas are all three-act dramas, the last, Götterdämmerung, having in addition a prologue of substantial length), and its approximate total performance time is on the order of only some two-and-a-half hours (the approximate performance time of the Prologue and first act alone of Götterdämmerung is almost that long).

But those differences are merely mechanical. There are differences of a more fundamental nature between Das Rheingold and the other music-dramas of the Ring, all of which differences are purposeful creative acts on Wagner’s part. One such fundamental difference is that the world of Das Rheingold is absent any human folk (presumptively true, but, as we shall later see, not altogether so), but is instead peopled by water nymphs, gods, giants, and subterranean dwarfs.

More fundamental yet is another difference.

The music of Das Rheingold has been remarked by many commentators to lack the sumptuous fluidity and harmonic and melodic richness of the music of the rest of the Ring. The explanation most commonly put forward for this perceived lack is twofold: Wagner, they say, was embarking on a revolutionary new way of making opera in Das Rheingold, and in the composition of its music was feeling his way through step by step, getting his feet wet, so to speak, and at the same time trying to adhere closely to the theoretical principles of music-drama and Gesamtkunstwerk (Total Artwork) he’d set down in Wagnerian-length detail in two publications of two previous years: Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft (The Artwork of the Future) of 1849, and Oper und Drama of 1851.

The explanation sounds perfectly plausible, even perfectly on-target, but it’s almost surely perfectly in error, and betrays a basic misunderstanding of the workings of Wagner’s creative genius.

Wagner never embarked on the in-earnest composition (as opposed to fragments and piecemeal sketches) of the music for any of his music-dramas until he had a full grasp, musically and dramatically, of just what was required. If there was any step-by-step feeling his way through in the composition of any of the music for the Ring it was accomplished in the numerous musical sketches he made between 1848 and the early part of 1853; fragments mostly, as until late 1853 he had not as yet found the key to this new way of making opera. And as to the theoretic principles underlying music-drama (i.e., the synthesis of music, text, and drama), Wagner’s working his way through that thorny problem was accomplished in his writing of the two above mentioned theoretical publications. By the time he actually sat down to in earnest compose the music for Das Rheingold in November of 1853 Wagner knew precisely what had to be done, and precisely how to go about doing it, even to the point of jettisoning at least one of the theoretic principles he adduced in those publications of 1849 and 1851 (the principle of the equality of music and poetry in music-drama).

The commentators are correct, however, in their observation that the quality of the music of Das Rheingold is of a different order from the music of the rest of the Ring. It’s clearly more elemental, and lacks as well the soaring, gravity-defying quality of the music of the three following music-dramas. Where the commentators are in error is in not recognizing that the difference was a purposeful act on Wagner’s part. As Wagner knew better than anyone, before one can soar one must first have a solid earthbound foothold from which to push off, and so the music of Das Rheingold was calculatedly devised to act as solid earthbound foothold for the music of the rest of the Ring.

Like all else in Das Rheingold (and unlike the following three music-dramas), its music is archetypal in nature. Although Wagner, as we noted previously, had used the device of leitmotif in three earlier operas preceding his work on the Ring, what he now had in mind (as was also noted in our previous discussion) was the use of leitmotif on a scale never before attempted, employing a contrapuntal symphonic development never before imagined; a metamorphosing and interweaving organic development of such an affective order that “…the thing shall sound in a way that people shall hear what they cannot see,” as Wagner put it. In the music for Das Rheingold Wagner lays the foundation for, and makes high-relief first use of, this extraordinary new handling of leitmotif, thereby preparing his audience’s mind and ears for the symphonic richness and complexity of what is to come in the following three music-dramas, while at the same time trumpeting loudly and clearly the radical departure from Italian-form opera that Der Ring des Nibelungen was designed by necessity to be.

Next up: Das Rheingold — Prelude and Scene 1.

[Note: This is the second in a series of articles on the Ring, further installments of which will appear here as time for the writing permits. All installments of this series may be read here. For access to individual installments, please consult the titles listed under the category Wagner’s Ring to be found in the Master Archives Index.]

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Wagner’s Ring: Part I

Posted by acdtest on July 13, 2003

Wagner’s Ring: A Guide For The Willing But Perplexed
Part I: Prelude

will write no more operas,” wrote Richard Wagner to a friend in 1851 after having completed in 1848 the first full prose sketch of his planned Nibelungen drama (in 1850 planned as two grand heroic operas called Der junge Siegfried (Young Siegfried) and Siegfrieds Tod (Siegfried’s Death), for which two operas he also completed the libretti), but before he’d written so much as a note of the music (other than brief, tentative sketches in 1850 for some music for Siegfrieds Tod which he ultimately discarded), and before he had even the vaguest conscious idea of just how such a work could be set to music. He knew only that existing musical and operatic forms could not contain it, and that such forms would have to be scrapped totally.

As always with Wagner, his flawless instincts and intuition in matters musical and dramatic never failed him, pointing him always toward the right path, but never letting him set foot upon it until he was fully prepared musically, dramatically, and emotionally to trod it securely with unfaltering and unerring step. It was not until late in 1853, after completing the finished poems (libretti) of what was now a truly mammoth four-work drama to be titled Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Nibelung’s Ring), that Wagner felt himself ready to begin work on the music for the first of these, Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold), and not until late 1874 that he finished the music for the last, Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods). The vast undertaking has no parallel nor any equal in the whole history of art, and not until another possessing Wagner’s colossal, multifaceted genius makes his appearance on the world stage will we again see a work of its like.

It’s traditional to begin articles such as this with an at least brief history of the many twists, turns, and blind alleys attendant the composition of the Ring, along with an at least brief discussion of the sources upon which Wagner drew for his Nibelungen drama. We, however, will dispense with that as, first, the information is available in any number of existing volumes that the interested student may readily consult, and second, and more to the point, because such information, while of legitimate historical and biographical interest in its own right, is of no value whatsoever in understanding the finished artwork. One could even go so far as to assert that such information is of clear negative value as it often leads to distortions of understanding, or to outright misunderstanding. As with all genuinely great works of art, the finished artwork contains within itself all that’s needed for understanding, and requires only that one be sufficiently open and properly prepared to receive it.

Perhaps the very first requirement of proper preparation for understanding the Ring is that one must be willing to jettison entirely one’s ordinary opera expectations, and indeed any ideas one may have of what constitutes an opera. Wagner was not being merely rhetorical when in 1851 he said he would write no more operas (at that time he’d already written six, three of which — Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin — are still in the standard repertoire). He was true to both the letter and spirit of his word, and from that time forward wrote only what he then termed music-dramas, even though through long habit common usage persisted in referring to these later works as operas.

So, what’s the difference between opera and music-drama? In short, just about everything. As has here been previously pointed out, all the two share in common is the technical apparatus of performance: an orchestra and conductor, singer-actors, a sung text (libretto), and appropriate mise en scène. Beyond that, music-drama bears to Italian-form opera as does Italian-form opera to the Broadway musical or rock opera.

Typically (there are exceptions), Italian-form opera, for all its often convoluted melodrama and grand staging, has but one primary purpose: To act as showcase for the human voice in song (and at this juncture, I wish to explicitly except the Italian-form operas of Mozart from this discussion, as they’re a separate issue altogether). Not to put too fine a point on it, Italian-form opera is about singers. Not so music-drama. Music-drama is about the drama, and singers are merely one part of the musico-dramatic apparatus, and not the most important part, either. That role falls to the orchestra within which is contained and played out the very core of the drama itself, the sung libretto and on-stage action acting as armature for the drama in rendering matters specific and concrete which music alone is incapable of rendering. In music-drama all the elements of the technical apparatus exist to serve the drama. In Italian-form opera they exist to serve the singers.

Another difference between Italian-form opera and music-drama is the difference in how one must prepare oneself to receive the work. With the former it’s enough to have a vague idea of what the singers are saying in their stop-the-action arias, duets, trios, quartets, etc. If the singers sing beautifully enough, are halfway decent actors, and are not totally grotesque as stage presences, understanding approximately what they’re saying when they sing is enough to give one the understanding required.

Again, not so with music-drama. There one must pretty much know exactly what the singers are saying when they sing, for absent that knowledge one will become hopelessly lost because rather than action-stopping arias, duets, trios, quartets, etc., in music-drama there are, from beginning to end, but seamless melodic lines which are the approximate equivalent of the spoken dialogue of a dramatic stage play (approximate because in a stage play, unlike music-drama, the whole of the drama is contained within the dialogue itself). Miss what’s being said in music-drama’s sung dialogue, and one misses all concrete dramatic and psychological detail, as well as all that’s concrete and centering in story and plot. But most importantly of all, absent a full knowledge of the sung dialogue, what one will miss is the hallmark gestalt produced by the organic union of text and music that gives music-drama its name, and its very raison d’être.

Which brings us to the famous Wagnerian device of leitmotif; the device of using musical phrases or figures to represent (but typically not onomatopoetically) persons, places, things, abstract ideas, and even states of mind, which device although not invented by Wagner was developed by him to a previously unimaginable degree of symphonic complexity; a veritable musical tour de force unequaled by any composer before or since. Wagner’s melodic and harmonic metamorphoses, permutations, and contrapuntal symphonic development of these leitmotifs are at the heart of music-drama, the Ring most especially, and one might imagine that an intimate knowledge of all the Ring leitmotifs (with their permutations and metamorphoses they number over a hundred) would be prerequisite for one’s understanding of the tetralogy. You’ll be relieved to learn, I’m certain, that such is not the case. One’s understanding of and response to the Ring would be deepened by such intimate knowledge, of course, but some experts’ notions to the contrary, Wagner created his music-dramas to speak directly to the emotions of an audience, none of whom he counted on to be trained musicians or musicologists. The leitmotifs will speak to you and work their magic whether you’re aware of their individual presences or not, so you may put your mind at ease concerning them.

And now, that’s all quite enough for this introductory article. It doesn’t say nearly all that can be said, but says sufficient to prepare you for the next installment wherein we’ll discuss the first music-drama, or as it’s called, the First Day (or Vorabend (Fore-evening), depending on whether one views the Ring as a tetralogy or as a trilogy with an introductory music-drama, as Wagner viewed it),* of Wagner’s great tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen: Das Rheingold.

*Throughout this series, we will treat the Ring as a tetralogy, and number the Days accordingly.

[Note: This is the first in a series of articles on the Ring, further installments of which will appear here as time for the writing permits. All installments of this series may be read here. For access to individual installments, please consult the titles listed under the category Wagner’s Ring to be found in the Master Archives Index.]

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