Gaudeat Auditor
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Gaudeat Auditor

In Gaudeat Auditor Tony Rogers helps the neophyte with some of the "best bits" in Wagner's music.

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Gaudeat Auditor — Tony Rogers


Classic CD magazine in 1992 described him thus:

Richard Wagner is the most awesome artistic phenomenon of the last two centuries. He remains a subject of bitter controversy in a way that no other genius of the front rank ever has.

No doubt some readers have their reservations about Wagner (if not scepticism towards or even dislike of him), and this introductory essay is by way of some restorative advice to them.

Let’s begin with Wagner the man, and ask the question on every lip: how could such an unmitigated cad have written music worth wasting our time on? For, as you know,

Wagner stole other people's wives (e.g. Jessie Laussot, Mathilde Wesendonck, Cosima von Bülow)

He borrowed money recklessly (didn’t his genius deserve it?) and, except when he couldn't get away with it, never repaid a debt

He mistreated even his closest friends and supporters

He hated Jews, though never declined to use them to his own financial or musical advantage

He had a big head (in both senses), to say nothing of the mightiest mouth of the 19th century, the most luxurious tastes and the longest pen (e.g. on top of everything else, he wrote 230 books and 10,000 letters)

He saw himself not just as the greatest musician who ever drew breath, but also as the world's finest living poet, playwright, polemicist and philosopher.

Who will defend this contemptible scoundrel and overweening egotist? Let's see what our trusty mahogany-covered World of Music (1954) has to say. On the matter in question it quotes from a famous radio talk, entitled A Monster, given by American musician and critic Deems Taylor. (You may remember Deems Taylor as the face and voice linking the various musical items in Walt Disney's 1946 film Fantasia.)

[Wagner] . . . was one of the world's greatest dramatists; he was a great thinker; he was one of the most stupendous musical geniuses that, up to now, the world has ever seen. The world did owe him a living . . . What if he was faithless to his friends and to his wives? He had one mistress to whom he was faithful to the day of his death: Music . . . There is not a line of his music that could have been conceived by a little mind . . . There is greatness about his worst mistakes . . . The miracle is that what he did in the little space of 70 years could have been done at all, even by a great genius. Is it any wonder that he had no time to be a man?

And here’s Milton Cross in his Encyclopedia of the Great Composers and Their Music (1962 ed.):

Without that abnormal vanity and self-glorification, he would never have dared to conceive a musical structure . . . [unparalleled] for immensity of design and vastness of scope; or conceiving it, he would never have found the strength to bring it into existence; or bringing it to life, he would never have had the selling power to interest a skeptical world in it.

But what about the music? Surely the credentials of the nightingale or cuckoo will lie in its singing, no matter what it steals or dreams of? So what we need to do now is seek out some suitable examples of Wagner's work and put him to the test.

A small point before we switch on the CD player. Some people have difficulties with the feelings Wagner's music evokes, so for them let us quote from a 1992 book by psychiatrist Anthony Storr, Music and the Mind:

I think that people who are repelled by Wagner's music might well come to appreciate its power and beauty if they realized more clearly what was disturbing them. I believe that listeners to Wagner have to allow themselves to be temporarily overwhelmed if they are fully to appreciate the music. But many people are fearful of 'letting go' to this extent, and consequently shy away from the intense emotional experience which Wagner offers us.

With that encouragement, let's recall the two cardinal rules for Wagner listening. Yes, I know you normally enthuse quietly in whatever you enjoy, but just this once

Turn up the volume; and
Repeat Rule 1.

Now some pieces to listen to.

For various reasons, the vocal parts can seem very fatiguing, and it's the singing that puts most newcomers off. You'll be relieved to hear, therefore, that you may delay that sort of gratification till later, and rely on orchestral excerpts to begin with. There is an abundance of dazzling pieces to choose from.

Colossally daunting it may be, but the tetralogy of Der Ring des Nibelungen (Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, Götterdämmerung) is not as bad place to start as you might first think. Here's what George Bernard Shaw wrote a century ago this year in The Perfect Wagnerite:

. . . The Ring is full of extraordinarily attractive episodes, both orchestral and dramatic. The nature music alone — music of river and rainbow, fire and forest — is enough to bribe people with any love of the country in them to endure the passages of political philosophy in the sure hope of a prettier page to come. Everybody, too, can enjoy the love music, the hammer and anvil music, the clumping of the giants, the tune of the young woodsman's horn, the trilling of the bird, the dragon music and nightmare music and thunder and lightning music, the profusion of simple melody, the sensuous charm of the orchestration: in short, the vast extent of common ground between The Ring and the ordinary music we use for play and pleasure.

Do you like the Ride of the Valkyries? (It introduces Act III of Die Walküre.) Don't know it well? Give it another try, then, and listen to its wonderful galloping progress. I reckon that, like me, you'll also grow to savour the contrast between the heavy deep bass and the rushing runs and trills higher up in the orchestra.

Incidentally, Example 1 is a little ditty you can sing full-throttle to the tune of the Ride. I found it in John Culshaw's Ring Resounding (1967), the story of how the Decca Ring recordings were made, written by the producer in charge of that long project.

Oh, you can’t stand the Ride because of its hackneyed movie associations? Fair enough. Well try some of these instead. Most are around ten minutes or less in length, with the longest, the Siegfried Idyll, being just over 22 minutes. A few were arranged for the concert hall by Wagner himself from the full scores. As you listen, you're sure to become aware of what an untold debt many of Hollywood's derivative composers owe to Our Man in Bayreuth.

Der Fliegende Holländer: Overture — a marvellous, atmospheric tone-poem

Götterdämmerung: Immolation of the Gods — the magnificent and eminently satisfying orchestral culmination of the whole Ring is built up almost entirely from seven leitmotivs used throughout the tetralogy

Götterdämmerung: Siegfried's Death and Funeral March — a splendid death march, worthy of the hero it laments — was played at Wagner's own funeral

Götterdämmerung: Siegfried's Rhine Journey — the intermezzo heard just before the Act I curtain goes up — exultant, but full of foreboding hints

Lohengrin: Prelude — exquisite radiant musical depiction of a vision of the Holy Grail

Lohengrin: Introduction to Act III joyful music, evoking the pageantry of preparations for a mediaeval courtly wedding

Die Meistersinger: Overture — and they said that Wagner was couldn’t write counterpoint — with the Ride of the Valkyries and the Siegfried Idyll, the most accessible of all Wagner's orchestral pieces — sumptuous

Parsifal: Prelude to Act I introduces Wagner's last opera, one even more religious than Lohengrin — features four themes: Last Supper, Holy Grail (different from that in Lohengrin), Faith and Suffering

Das Rheingold: Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla across their Rainbow Bridge — a majestic conclusion to the opera

Rienzi: Overture — written in Wagner's "older" style (the then prevailing grand manner of Meyerbeer) — the overture is still worth hearing, even if the opera is rarely performed today

Siegfried: Forest Murmurs — the definitive Wagnerian nature sound-poem, depicting the peaceful beauty of the forest with its many twittering birds

Siegfried Idyll despite its length, in every respect a miniature by Wagnerian standards, particularly its modest orchestration — weaves together several motives from Siegfried and a folksong-like lullaby, but is also derived from sketches Wagner had made for a string quartet — if you don't know already, we leave you to your own devices to find out the special story of its first performance

Tannhäuser: Overture — Wagner wrote two versions of this, the (longer) concert piece probably the more satisfying one — as far as I’m concerned, the point where the brass re-enter with the solemn Pilgrims' Chorus (shown in Example 2) towards the overture's end is just overpowering

Tristan und Isolde: Prelude to Act I and Isolde's Love Death — two pieces, one from the beginning of the opera which, at its fourth note, contains one of the most famous chords in all music (see Example 3), the other from the stunning conclusion to the tragedy, often performed in the concert hall as one seamless work — but how to describe in mere words the emotional effect as wave after wave of passion surges higher and higher towards the tranquil conclusion of Isolde's death? — just listen and be swept away

Die Walküre: Wotan's Farewell and Magic Fire Music — to the accompaniment of some heart-rending music, the god Wotan takes leave of his favourite daughter, the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, before surrounding her with the fiery glow of her temporary prison sleep.

By now, perhaps, you want to buy some representative discs. To begin with, invest in some compact discs on the Naxos label, that admirable boon to the impecunious music lover. Its “Super Bargain Twin” album Wagner Orchestral Highlights (8.520018) contains eight of the pieces just described, and more. Another Naxos CD of Wagner orchestral music is Wagner, The Ring (8.550211), with six items from our inventory above and no duplications with the double album.

Having enjoyed the orchestral pieces, you're now ready at last for some vocal selections.

How about these three for starters?

Das Rheingold: Final part of Scene Four — listen for Donner’s unforgettable "Heda! Heda! Hedo!", as he calls up a storm (see Example 4) — complete with the sounds of his hammer struck on a rock, lightening flashes and a thunderclap — leads directly into the orchestral Entrance of the Gods

Tristan und Isolde: Prelude and Love Death — the same transcendent music as above, here with Isolde's song of sublimated passion — for me there’s unquestionably only one version to get: Kirsten Flagstad’s from the early 1950s — what a voice!

Die Walküre: Wotan's Farewell and Magic Fire Music — again, the same music already referred to, but with the added poignancy of the voice of Wotan.

Should you buy more expensive versions?

Here is not the place to argue the case for or against the innumerable Wagner performances available on disc — Abbado, Barenboim, Bernstein, Böhm, Boulez, Challender, Furtwängler, Haitink, Janowski, von Karajan, Klemperer, Knappertsbusch, Krauss, Levine, Maazel, Mackerras, Munch, Ormandy, Reiner, Sinopoli, Solti, Szell, Tate, Toscanini, Tuckwell, Simone Young . . . (to name but a few who’ve conducted Wagner).

But if you want to explore the possibilities further, I suggest you first sign up for the Internet and make straight for the P. Zazz site referred to in our Web Line column, where many CD reviews are to be had for the clicking.

Failing that, a current annotated discography of the "Classical Music on CD" type will assist.

In our Web Line column we refer also to a site called A Beginner's Guide to "Der Ring des Nibelungen". This offers further reliable suggestions for the Ring neophyte, and is well worth a look. One piece of advice it gives is to read synopses of the operas and then hire a video. To that we might add “or buy a complete recording of an opera that has gripped you”.

Regarding a short Ring synopsis, by the way, you can do a lot worse than the irrepressible, irreplaceable source Olive Conduit honours in our later article The Tin Voice Laughed.

All right, yes, his music may be an acquired taste, but why not give the utter bastard one more chance?

Sneak up on him cunningly, choosing your pieces carefully, and then get ready to luxuriate in some of the most staggeringly gorgeous music ever written.

Let yourself go.

Listener rejoice.

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