[ Issue 10 ]

Where Three Ways Meet is one of Emily Bronto's favourite Bikwil features

Bikwil has a thing about Trivia

Where Three Ways Meet

Thanks to numerous contributors, editor Tony Rogers has been able to assemble in the Where Three Ways Meet for Issue 10 over thirty of the choicest bits of trivia about Wagner.

Please refer to our Series Catalogue for an indication as to which Bikwil issues a given contributor's pieces of trivia have appeared in.

Out there in Wagner-land is to be found a veritable treasure-trove of trivia. Here, in no particular order, is a tiny representative miscellany — partly droll, partly sedate

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Where Three Ways Meet

(Out there in Wagner-land is to be found a veritable treasure-trove of trivia. Here, in no particular order, is a tiny representative miscellany — partly droll, partly sedate. Many thanks to the Bikwilians who submitted some of these fascinating bits and pieces.)

For Wagner the boy his first love was literature, not music. When he was eleven, steeped in Shakespeare and the Homeric epics, he wrote an intense poetic drama he called Leubold und Adelaide. Wagner himself later said of this work (a sort of cross between Hamlet and King Lear), "I had murdered forty-two in the course of my piece and I was obliged to have most of them reappear as ghosts in the last acts for want of living characters".

Wagner hated his first piano lessons, but while still at school he heard Weber’s Freischütz and Beethoven's Fidelio and symphonies, and right away became bitten by the composing bug. With difficulty he taught himself the rudiments of music theory from a book he borrowed from Friedrich Wieck, Clara Schumann's father.

As his musical skills developed, young Richard made transcriptions of his favourite composers. One was a piano arrangement he did aged 16 of something by his hero, Beethoven. The massive Ninth Symphony, of all things.

Because he concentrated all his energies on composing rather than performing, Wagner never got to be a good pianist. When friends teased him, he’d say, “I play a deal better than Berlioz”. All were well aware, of course, that Berlioz couldn’t play the piano at all.

As you may have already gathered, it has been impossible for me in this special issue to resist the temptation of contributing a couple of burlesques on the Wagner theme. I seem to be in good company with this idea. Anna Russell and Bugs Bunny aside, there’s been a huge number of Wagnerian send-ups written over the past years, and at least one scholarly essay written on the subject of Wagnerian parodies and caricatures.

One of my efforts here (page 12) is based on a well-loved Gilbert and Sullivan Pirates of Penzance song. (Funny how G&S have Wagner connections, isn’t it? At last count, I found four other such references sprinkled throughout these pages.) For my money, some of the most successful Wagner send-ups in a G&S style were written by Robert Zeschin under the collective title The Savoyard Ring; or A Tetralogy in Patter Song. There are eight of them, and here, to whet your appetite for seeking out these masterpieces (they appeared in 1971, in Opera News), is the last stanza of Brünnhilde’s Immolation (to the tune of The Flowers that Bloom in the Spring).

The hours that take up the Ring, tra la,
Are finished, kaput and all done!
While the audience sits sound asleep, tra la,
We singers have all had to keep, tra la,
On our feet till a quarter past one!
And that's what we mean when we say, or we sing,
Our arches are glad it's the end of the Ring!
Tra la la la la la, etc.

You can find Wagnerian obsessive-compulsives just about anywhere. One such addict worthy of our awe-struck admiration is Roger North. In 1996 he self-published the most thorough analytic study imaginable of the music of Tristan und Isolde. Bar by bar he goes through the work, with 16 pull-out summary diagrams and 500 musical examples. For you like-minded fanatics, seven hundred irresistible pages! (Wagner’s Most Subtle Art, ISBN 0 95279750 X, available from the author for a total of £48.25, airmail to Oz.)

For the first Ring festival in 1876, Wagner went to great trouble and expense to get a dragon manufactured in England and shipped to Bayreuth. Although mechanical, it was made from paper-mâché. But it arrived in pieces — the tail first, then the body and eventually the head, but no neck. On stage, with head attached directly to body, the dragon looked even more grotesque than intended. The long neck had been sent by mistake to Beirut.

Present at that première, apart from opera fans, music critics and miscellaneous royalty, was a remarkable gathering of composers — Bruckner . . . Gounod . . . Grieg . . . Liszt . . . Mahler . . . Saint-Saëns . . . Tchaikovsky . . .

It is believed that the very first recording made of Wagner's music was of the Prelude to Die Meistersinger, conducted by Hans von Bülow. The year was 1889, the medium an Edison cylinder.

Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, Wagner's patron, is remembered for many deranged things. None is more bizarre than having himself ferried about a mountain lake in a water chariot drawn by trained swans, all to the accompaniment of the sounds of Wagner's music.

Mind you, royal swan-powered water-skiing aside, as Bikwil’s various contributors herein cogently demonstrate, Wagner’s operas can be harnessed in the service of all manner of human experience — laughter, for starters, patently. Another obvious beneficiary is the movie industry. Likewise police work (albeit fictional). The music has revolutionary applicability, also, to say nothing of sexual uses.

How about the following, though, as an occasion for Wagnerian assistance?

According to W.S. Brooks of Elizabeth Bay (letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, 9/2/98), you can always be guaranteed of making your transport connection at Central Railway by taking advantage of our universal dislike of the headphone music of others. Ever been blocked by people standing on the right of the escalator? Well,

. . . if one marches steadily upwards while listening to Wagner via headphones, these people step aside with alacrity . . . Verdi was born in the same year as Wagner and composed many wonderful tunes, but his music does not have the same effect.

Best known for his Bach interpretations, Canadian pianist Glenn Gould probably wasn't your typical Wagner enthusiast. Yet he made a sympathetic record (Sony SMK 52650) of Wagner's music that includes performances of Gould's own piano transcriptions of Dawn and Siegfried's Rhine Journey (from Götterdämmering), plus a rare example of Gould as conductor — in this case a 13-piece orchestra playing the Siegfried Idyll.

The Ride of the Valkyries is harder in rhythmic terms to play than it might seem. According to George Bernard Shaw, there were so many poor performances that you could be forgiven for thinking that Walkürenritt, the German title, meant “cruelty to animals”.

Although some eventually repudiated his music, for a while even the fastidious French were caught up in the Wagner craze — particularly poets, as Bet Briggs’ A French Connection reveals.

In 1859, for example, Charkes Baudelaire attended a concert of Wagner’s music. “It’s been easily fifteen years since I felt such exhilaration”, he said, and wrote a long, passionate letter to Wagner, from which this is a brief extract:

Above all, I want to tell you that you have given me the greatest musical pleasure I have ever experienced. I am past the age at which one enjoys writing to famous men, and I would have waited even longer before expressing my admiration in a letter, did not my eyes light every day upon outrageous and ridiculous articles in which no effort is spared to malign your genius. You are not the first, Monsieur, to make me ashamed of my country. Indignation finally spurred me to express my gratitude, as I thought: “I wish to distinguish myself from all those imbeciles.”

After he signed it, by the way, he added the following remarkable postscript:

I shall not include my address, since you might then think that I had some favour to ask of you.

French musicians? Alexis Chabrier (he of later España fame) was once a passionate Wagnerian. Indeed, when he first heard the opening of the Tristan Prelude he burst into tears. Not quite as delirious a response, perhaps, as another French muso, one Guillaume Lekeu, who had to be carried out of the same performance fainting.

Wagner seemed to have a forceful effect on the French whenever their paths crossed. In 1861 Wagner took Tannhäuser to Paris for its French première. A big performance was planned, including a special bacchanalian Venusberg ballet, but the occasion was ruined, not by critics, but by the inebriated members of the trendy and snooty Paris Jockey Club.

It was their custom not to arrive at any opera before Act II, which was where an opera’s ballet traditionally was danced. Wagner, however, had written it into Act I, and ignored entreaties to move it. The Club contingent duly arrived just in time for Act II, and when the lads found that they’d missed the erotic dancing girls (some of whom were their mistresses) they began to hiss and boo. Stamping of feet followed, and ultimately a riot. The event was an out-and-out fiasco.

Oh, yes, Wagner has had his detractors, none more vituperative than English art critic and would-be social reformer John Ruskin. Over the last hundred years, Die Meistersinger has proved to be the most popular of Wagner’s operas by far, yet Ruskin (in a letter in 1882 to Lady Burne-Jones) made no bones whatsoever about his own opinion:

. . . of all the bête, clumsy, blundering, boggling, baboon-blooded stuff I ever saw on a human stage that thing last night beat [all] as far as the story and acting went; and of all the affected, sapless, soulless, beginningless, endless, topless, bottomless, topsiterviest, tuneless, scrannelpipiest, tongs-and-boniest doggerel of sounds I ever endured the deadliest of, that eternity of nothing was the deadliest, as the sound went. I was never so relieved . . . in my life, by the stopping of any sound — not . . . [excepting] railway whistles — as I was by the cessation of the cobbler's bellowing; even the serenader's caricatured twangle was a rest after it. As for the great “lied” I never made out where it began or where it ended — except by the fellow's coming off the horse-block.

Much has been said on the fierce enmity between the fans of Wagner and those of Brahms. Brahms, however, seems to have more magnanimous than his supporters. For example: when he heard of Wagner’s death, he was in the middle of a choral rehearsal, which he cancelled, saying, “A master is dead. Today we sing no more.”

In November 1988, actor and comedian Stephen Fry was the willing shipwrecked guest on the long-running BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs. Of the eight musical pieces he selected as his only companions, two were Mozart, one was Verdi, two were rock numbers, one was Cole Porter (Sinatra and Basie), and . . . two were Wagner.

Introducing the Magic Fire Music, Fry confessed, "I'm insanely in love with the master, the great Richard Wagner.” As for Mild und Leise, Wie Er Lächelt, Isolde's "dying song" from the final scene of Tristan, Fry enthusiastically described it as "the most supreme piece of romantic, indeed erotic music”, adding, “This particular climactic piece of music is something one couldn't live without."

When it was prolific sci-fi comedy novelist Terry Pratchett’s turn on the show, one track he chose was The Race for the Rheingold Stakes, and he said of it,

I heard this record when I was about 11 or 12 and it is probably in a sense one of the ancestors of Discworld. It is just a beautifully drawn out joke, which initially appears to be going on for too long and then, merely because it is going on for so long, becomes even funnier. It is The Ride of the Valkyries with horse racing commentary.

The race-caller was none other than Bernard Miles, distinguished actor and long-time close friend of chief Valkyrie Kirsten Flagstad.

In 1886 the 74-year-old Franz Liszt made sure he atttended the Bayreuth Festival once more. Despite doctor's orders, he went to Parsifal and Tristan und Isolde, but collapsed during the third act of Tristan. Afflicted by pneumonia, within two days he was dead. The last word he uttered was "Tristan".

Neither Clara Schumann nor Joseph Joachim, the Hungarian violinist, were much in sympathy with Wagner’s music. At concerts, whenever the sound of a leitmotiv occurred, Joseph used to raise his hat to Clara in an exaggerated manner and murmur "Guten Tag".

Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), militant English suffragette and prolific author, was in her day widely regarded as the sole woman composer of a quality equal to that of the men. Not everyone was so complimentary, however. Sir Osbert Sitwell, for example (himself no stranger to insult), once remarked, "She would be like Richard Wagner if only she looked a bit more feminine."

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