Wagner, R.

WAGNER’S LOHENGRIN — A BEL CANTO WORK IN DISGUISE?

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[Adelina] Patti con­tin­ued her new depar­ture into Wag­n­er­land by singing Elisabeth’s prayer from Tannhäuser,” wrote George Bernard Shaw on July 18, 1894. “Now, if I express some skep­ti­cism as to whether Patti cares a snap of her fin­gers for Elis­a­beth or Wag­ner, I may, after all these years of ‘Una voce’ and ‘Bel rag­gio,’ very well be par­doned. But it is beyond all doubt that Patti cares most intensely for the beauty of her own voice and the per­fec­tion of her singing. What is the result? She attacks the prayer with the sin­gle aim of mak­ing it sound as beau­ti­ful as pos­si­ble; and this being pre­cisely what Wagner’s own musi­cal aim was, she goes straight to the right phras­ing, the right vocal touch, and the right turn of every musi­cal fig­ure, thus mak­ing her Ger­man rivals not only appear in com­par­i­son clumsy as singers, but actu­ally obtuse to Wagner’s meaning.

If Patti were to return to the stage and play Isolde, though she might very pos­si­bly stop the drama half a dozen times in each act to acknowl­edge applause and work in an encore…the pub­lic might learn a good deal about Isolde from her which they will never learn from any of the illus­tri­ous band of Ger­man Wag­ner hero­ines who are queens at Bayreuth, but who can­not sing a grup­petto for all that.”

George Bernard Shaw

Shaw, who knew a great deal about the art of singing and spent much of his tenure as music critic bul­ly­ing the best singers of his day into adding Wag­ner to their reper­tory, ends with a cou­ple of sen­tences that should be posted above the desk of every­one respon­si­ble for cast­ing opera today: “Wag­ner means his music to be sung with the most exquis­ite sen­si­tive­ness in point of qual­ity of tone and pre­ci­sion of pitch, exactly as Mozart did…I am really tired of going to the the­ater to hear the best music asso­ci­ated with the worst singing, and the best singing in the worst music.”

Unfor­tu­nately for most opera singers — to say noth­ing of audi­ences — Wag­ner him­self often sab­o­taged the per­for­mance of his works with “exquis­ite qual­ity of tone” by mak­ing sheer sur­vival a pre­em­i­nent con­sid­er­a­tion in some of his best-known roles. If a singer is wor­ried pri­mar­ily about just get­ting out the notes, being heard above a roar­ing orches­tra, and mak­ing it to the end of the evening, vocal nuance and qual­ity of tone are likely to be jet­ti­soned early on, in the inter­est of stay­ing afloat through a per­for­mance of Brünnhilde, Siegfried, Isolde, or Tris­tan. It is pos­si­ble to sing Wagner’s heav­i­est roles beau­ti­fully and still be heard, but how often does God send along a Kirsten Flagstad?

In Lohen­grin, Wag­ner wrote an entire opera for human-size singers. To bor­row an anal­ogy from the world of sports: if Amina in La Son­nam­bula and many of her bel canto cousins can be com­pared to a hundred-yard sprinter, and Siegfried or Tris­tan to an Olympic weight lifter, then Lohen­grin might be an ice skater, who needs sta­mina and phys­i­cal strength, but also grace and poise, as well as the abil­ity to main­tain a fluid, long line. In Lohen­grin, Wag­ner wrote roles that make their great­est effect, not through sheer lung power but with the abil­ity to infuse a beau­ti­ful vocal line with all the nuances and yes, charm, a singer would use to bring to life an opera by Bellini or Donizetti. This in the process of con­struct­ing an opera made up of arias, ensem­bles, cho­ruses and finales, which — when prop­erly per­formed — send shiv­ers of delight down the spines of bel canto fans.

Wag­ner him­self was thor­oughly famil­iar with bel canto opera. As a young con­duc­tor he had pre­pared and led count­less per­for­mances of the reper­tory. While con­duct­ing in Riga, he even went so far as to doc­tor up a per­for­mance of Bellini’s Norma by writ­ing an addi­tional aria for bass and male cho­rus, “Norma, il pre­desse.” (Dur­ing his early years in Paris, Wag­ner tried to talk the great bass Luigi Lablache into adding the aria to his por­trayal of Oroveso, but this idea was turned down on the grounds that Norma was too well known by the pub­lic to insert extra music.) In Paris, Wag­ner often heard the great singers of his time, such as the tenor Gio­vanni Bat­tista Rubini, and the per­for­mances left an indeli­ble impres­sion on the young composer.

R[ichard] sings a can­tilena from I Puri­tani and remarks that Bellini wrote melodies love­lier than one’s dreams,” Cosima Wag­ner wrote in her diary on August 3, 1872. “The melody recalls Rubini to him, how won­der­fully he sang it, and he observes: ‘Our Ger­man singers have to go about it in an entirely dif­fer­ent way, because they have not got this gift.’ ” In March 1878, Wag­ner enter­tained guests by play­ing parts of Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Mon­tec­chi, La Straniera, and Norma. “There is real pas­sion and feel­ing here, and the right singer has only to get up and sing it for it to win all hearts,” Cosima quotes her hus­band as say­ing, “I have learned things from them which Messrs. Brahms & Co. have never learned, and they can be seen in my melodies.”

Indeed they can. Take Elsa’s entrance aria, “Ein­sam in trüben Tagen.” Like many bel canto entrance arias (Lucrezia Borgia’s “Com’è bello,” for instance), on paper it looks sim­ple, but to make its effect, it must be not only beau­ti­fully sung but mined for every emo­tional and musi­cal nuance, a dif­fi­cult feat. Oth­er­wise the aria falls flat.

In the best bel canto tra­di­tion, Wag­ner uses the vocal line itself to describe Elsa’s char­ac­ter. Her pure, trust­ing nature and lack of worldly expe­ri­ence is reflected in her rather nar­row vocal range: only from E-flat above mid­dle C to A-flat at the top of the staff, a note she sings only twice dur­ing the entire aria. Yet her sim­ple vocal line is stud­ded with grace notes — begin­ning in the very first mea­sure — and Wag­ner con­structed the aria to pro­vide numer­ous oppor­tu­ni­ties for por­ta­mento, and for a soprano to color phrases by using crescendo and dimin­u­endo, as well as by tak­ing sub­tle lib­er­ties with the rhythm, to vary their shape.

Rosa Pon­selle

A prime exam­ple of a singer doing exactly what needs to be done to bring the aria to life is to be found at the end of Rosa Ponselle’s 1923 record­ing. Though Pon­selle never sang the role onstage, she recorded the aria in Ger­man and, on the basis of this excerpt, could have been a superb Elsa. In the last phrase, “was ich bin!,” Pon­selle lingers on the E-flat at the top of the staff (“was”), then slowly reduces its vol­ume, before using a por­ta­mento down to the G (“ich”) and gen­tly lean­ing into and caress­ing the last note (“bin”). With just these three notes, there can be no doubt that Elsa is already in love with her cham­pion, even though he has not yet appeared. It is superb drama, con­veyed solely through the voice.

Ortrud too gains con­sid­er­able power when she approaches her phras­ing from a bel canto stand­point, rather than being con­tent merely to be a vocal blow­torch. Lis­ten­ing to Lohen­grin excerpts per­formed by the Vienna State Opera dur­ing a visit to Paris in 1933 (Vol­ume 16 of the Vienna State Opera Live series from Koch/Schwann), I was stunned by Gertrude Rünger’s great Act II out­burst, “Entweite Göt­ter!” Where many Ortruds sim­ply bel­low the F-sharps at “Wodan!” and “Freia!” in mono­chro­matic fash­ion, leav­ing the depic­tion of the drama to the orches­tra, Rünger hits the cli­mac­tic notes cleanly, exactly on pitch, ele­gantly. (Remem­ber, Ortrud is a noble­woman, and her fam­ily ruled the coun­try for gen­er­a­tions before the upstart Chris­tians took over.) Rünger then bor­rows from Wagner’s dynamic mark­ing for the tim­pani, mak­ing grad­ual crescen­dos on both of the F-sharps. This gives her per­for­mance an astound­ing sense of power in reserve. Just by her vocal inflec­tion on those two notes, Rünger lets us know her Ortrud still has plenty of tricks up her sleeve.

In the operas of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, the singer’s voice was supreme. The orches­tra was used to sup­port and frame the voice, never to com­pete with it, a method Wag­ner incor­po­rated in Lohen­grin to a sur­pris­ing degree. Of course, it is Wag­ner, so the Lohen­grin orches­tra is an impor­tant part of the drama. But even a cur­sory glance at the score shows a con­sid­er­able amount of a cap­pella singing, which Wag­ner uses to great dra­matic purpose.

Take Lohengrin’s entrance. After being her­alded by a rous­ing eight-part cho­rus and for­tis­simo orches­tra, Lohengrin’s first phrase is sung — a cap­pella. In fact, most of his farewell to the swan is unac­com­pa­nied; what dis­creet orches­tral color Wag­ner uses is marked pianis­simo and is sup­posed to dimin­u­endo fur­ther from that pianis­simo. Clearly Wag­ner meant to use Lohengrin’s first thir­teen mea­sures to seduce the audi­ence by purely vocal means, by the way the tenor shapes his phrases, by the ele­gance and grace with which he sings Wagner’s embellishments.

Another exam­ple of Wagner’s use of a cap­pella singing appears at the begin­ning of the Act I finale, shortly before Lohen­grin and Tel­ra­mund fight their duel. Here, Wag­ner had the audac­ity to write an a cap­pella quin­tet! As if it were not tough enough for the singers to stay squarely on pitch, Wag­ner makes it even tougher: Ortrud, who has been stand­ing around ever since the cur­tain went up (about fifty min­utes before), finally sings for the first time all evening — a cap­pella. When Wag­ner brings in the first male cho­rus, then the orches­tra, the effect is noth­ing short of hair-raising.

But then, Wag­ner also clearly under­stood the won­der­ful bel canto tra­di­tion of the two-part oper­atic finale, that mass­ing onstage of cho­rus and prin­ci­pals, all of whom give voice to their (sep­a­rate) feel­ings at that moment, first in slow tempo, then much more quickly. One of the tricks bel canto com­posers used to build excite­ment dur­ing the finale was to give one or two of the prin­ci­pal singers a long, flow­ing melody that would float ecsta­t­i­cally above the pul­sat­ing rhythm of the cho­rus, orches­tra, and chop­pier vocal lines of the other soloists. Donizetti used the device to great effect time after time — at the end of Act II of Lucia di Lam­mer­moor, for instance.

Wag­ner fol­lows this exam­ple at the end of Act I, dur­ing the gen­eral rejoic­ing that fol­lows Lohengrin’s defeat of Tel­ra­mund. He gives Elsa a broad vocal line (even embell­ish­ing her music at one point with a turn) that effec­tively dom­i­nates the oth­er­wise intensely rhyth­mic finale. In per­fect Bellini or Donizetti fash­ion, Wag­ner keeps stretch­ing the length of Elsa’s phrases, finally ask­ing her to stretch one word, “Alles,” for seven and a half mea­sures as she holds a high B-flat for four of the mea­sures, then moves step­wise (still singing the first syl­la­ble of  “Alles”) down to C. It’s all about beau­ti­ful singing, and an Elsa in radi­ant voice, cou­pled with the right con­duc­tor, can bring down the house every time.

Per­haps it is in the bridal-chamber scene of Act III that Wag­ner wrote Lohen­grin’s most heart­felt music. The inti­macy he wrote of the duet for Elsa and Lohen­grin, “Das süsse Lied ver­hallt,” calls for the purest bel canto singing from the tenor and soprano. For the duet to make its max­i­mum effect, both singers must use the same sense of rubato that Maria Callas did in her 1949 record­ing of “Qui la voce.” It is the sub­tle speed­ing up or the slight hes­i­ta­tion a mas­ter singer uses that truly brings the melody to life.

Franz Völker as Lohengrin

There are two record­ings of “Das süsse Lied ver­hallt” that illus­trate this vividly, both based on the deservedly leg­endary 1936 Bayreuth per­for­mances of Lohen­grin with Franz Völker and Maria Müller. The com­mer­cial record­ing (on Teldec CD) is con­ducted by Heinz Tiet­jen, and the sound is more than good, But to be really swept away by the power of Wag­ner at his bel canto best, lis­ten to the thirty min­utes worth of excerpts from the live July 19, 1936 Bayreuth per­for­mance (avail­able on var­i­ous labels). Under the mag­i­cal baton of Wil­helm Furtwän­gler, Völker and Müller sim­ply are Lohen­grin and Elsa, over­whelm­ingly in love. Their music pul­sates with emo­tion: the vocal lines have a truth and life that are almost unthink­able today. The care­fully con­trolled, dreamy qual­ity of the per­for­mance reminds us pow­er­fully that once upon a time the Ger­mans were viewed as a roman­tic peo­ple, not a bru­tal, mil­i­taris­tic soci­ety. Lis­ten­ing to Völker and Müller sing “Das süsse Lied ver­hallt,” one can eas­ily under­stand why tenors like Enrico Caruso, even Fer­nando De Lucia, would chose to sing the part of Lohen­grin — in Ital­ian, of course. (Though Caruso never recorded any of the arias, De Lucia recorded an Ital­ian ver­sion of “Mein lieber Schwan.”) One can also under­stand how Jean de Reszke could, and did, suc­cess­fully alter­nate per­for­mances of Lohen­grin and Faust, or Lohen­grin and Roméo et Juli­ette, at the old Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera House.

And lis­ten­ing to the ebb and flow of the melodic line as glo­ri­ously spun out by Furtwän­gler, Völker, and Müller, one is also reminded of the sheer power a melody can have — and how often in Lohen­grin Wag­ner made his dra­matic and emo­tional points by com­pos­ing some of the most beau­ti­ful bel canto music ever written.

This arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared in the March 14, 1998 issue of Opera News magazine.

 The art at the top is The Arrival of Lohen­grin in Antwerp, a mural by August von Heckel (1882 – 83).

 

RICHARD WAGNER — THE RING, PART IV. GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG

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The most astound­ing fact in all Wagner’s career was prob­a­bly the writ­ing of the text of Siegfried’s Death in 1848,” says Ernest New­man in Wag­ner as Man and Artist. “We can only stand amazed at the audac­ity of the con­cep­tion, the imag­i­na­tive power the work dis­plays, the artis­tic growth it reveals since Lohen­grin was writ­ten, and the total breach it indi­cates with the whole of the oper­atic art of his time. But Siegfried’s Death was impos­si­ble in the musi­cal idiom of Lohen­grin; and Wag­ner must have known this intuitively.”

Even so, it is unlikely that in Novem­ber 1848 Wag­ner under­stood his new opera would not be com­pleted for decades, or that it would — under the title Göt­ter­däm­merung—be the cul­mi­na­tion of one of the great­est mas­ter­pieces in all of West­ern Civ­i­liza­tion, Der Ring des Nibelun­gen. Ear­lier that year Wag­ner had fin­ished orches­trat­ing Lohen­grin. He was becom­ing increas­ingly active in the polit­i­cal tur­moil sweep­ing Dres­den, (as well as much of Europe). He also made sketches for operas based on Friedrich Bar­barossa and Jesus of Nazareth. That sum­mer he had writ­ten “The Wibelun­gen World-history from the Saga,” and then, “The Nibelun­gen Myth as Sketch for a Drama” (dated Octo­ber 4th, 1848). But there is no indi­ca­tion at this time Wag­ner was actively plan­ning on min­ing the Nibelung saga for more than Siegfried’s Death.

In May 1849 the upris­ings in Dres­den were put down and Wag­ner — who was wanted by the police for his polit­i­cal activ­ity — fled, even­tu­ally set­tling in Switzer­land. He pro­duced a num­ber of prose works over the next few years, includ­ing the impor­tant Opera and Drama, writ­ten dur­ing the win­ter of 1850 – 51, and planned an opera called “Wieland the Smith.” But in 1850 he also revis­ited his libretto for Siegfried’s Death, mak­ing some musi­cal sketches.

The more Wag­ner thought about it, the more he real­ized that for Siegfried’s Death to truly be under­stood by the audi­ence, they needed to know more about what had gone before, so in 1851 he wrote the libretto to Young Siegfried, fol­lowed by Die Walküre, and then Das Rhein­gold, spelling out in greater detail why the events of Siegfried’s Death occurred. It was not until Octo­ber 1869 — after com­pos­ing the music for the first three works in the Ring, as well as Tris­tan und Isolde and Die Meis­tersinger von Nürn­berg—that Wag­ner again took up the task of com­pos­ing the music for the drama now known as Göt­ter­däm­merung. The name change reflected a sig­nif­i­cant shift in the opera itself, from the death of its hero to the down­fall of the gods themselves.

In the ear­li­est ver­sion of the story, Brünnhilde took the body of Siegfried to Val­halla where his death redeemed the gods. Before ignit­ing Siegfried’s funeral pyre, she announced, “Hear then, ye mighty Gods; your wrong-doing is annulled; thank him, the hero who took your guilt upon him…. One only shall rule, All-Father, Glo­ri­ous One, Thou [Wotan]. This man [Siegfried] I bring you as pledge of thy eter­nal might: good wel­come give him, as is his desert!”

There has been much spec­u­la­tion about why Wag­ner changed the end­ing of the Ring, from this opti­mistic one in which Wotan and the gods con­tin­ued to rule, to the end­ing we know today, in which the gods per­ish. Some­times this sift is attrib­uted to his dis­cov­ery of Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Rep­re­sen­ta­tion, but that did not occur until the end of 1854, at which point Wag­ner had com­pleted the text for the Ring. Wagner’s opti­mism in a new social order for Europe began crum­bling as the revolts of 1848 and 1849 were crushed, and by the time he began mak­ing a prose sketch for Young Siegfried in May 1851, he noted: “Guilt of the Gods, and their nec­es­sary down­fall. Siegfried’s mis­sion. Self-annihilation of the Gods.”

Wag­ner told his Dres­den friend August Röckel that he had always fol­lowed his inner instincts when writ­ing his operas, rather than what he said — or thought — he believed, which is why even his operas Fly­ing Dutch­man, Tannhäuser and Lohen­grin dealt with themes like tragedy and renun­ci­a­tion, rather than reflect­ing the polit­i­cal and social beliefs he had at the time. Read­ing Schopen­hauer, he said, had allowed him to intel­lec­tu­ally under­stand why his artis­tic instincts had been true all along.

When orig­i­nally plan­ning the Ring, he told Röckel, “I had con­structed a Hel­lenis­ti­cally opti­mistic world for myself which I held to be entirely real­iz­able if only peo­ple wished it to exist, while at the same time seek­ing some­how inge­niously to get round the prob­lem why they did not in fact wish it to exist.” But since he “remained faith­ful to my intu­itions rather than my con­cep­tions — what emerged was some­thing totally dif­fer­ent from what I had orig­i­nally intended.” Finally, he explained, he under­stood that “the key-stone” for the Ring “con­sists in an hon­est recog­ni­tion of the true and pro­found nature of things, with­out the need to be in any way tendentious.”

Röckel, who had only read the libretto of the Ring, asked Wag­ner a ques­tion that has puz­zled audi­ences at Göt­ter­däm­merung from the begin­ning: “Why, see­ing that the gold is returned to the Rhine, is it nec­es­sary for the Gods to perish?”

I believe that, at a good per­for­mance, even the most naïve spec­ta­tor will be left in no doubt on this point,” Wag­ner replied. “It must be said, how­ever, that the gods’ down­fall is not the result of points in a con­tract…; no, the neces­sity of this down­fall arises from our inner­most feel­ings. Thus it was impor­tant to jus­tify this sense of neces­sity emo­tion­ally…. I have once again real­ized how much of the work’s mean­ing (given the nature of my poetic intent) is only made clear by the music. I can now no longer bear to look at the poem [the libretto] with­out music.”

This is a sig­nif­i­cant insight into Wagner’s view of the nature of both drama and music, views he held very early. When he was fif­teen years old, Wag­ner wrote a play called Leubald und Ade­laïde, a “great tragedy,” he later recalled in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy, “drawn largely on Shakespeare’s Ham­let, King Lear, and Mac­beth, and Goethe’s Götz von Berlichin­gen.” There are ghosts, revenge and may­hem galore. The hero goes mad, and as Ernst New­man explains, “stabs Ade­laïde, finds peace in the approved later Wag­ner man­ner, lays his head in her lap, and passes away in a grat­i­fied Verk­lärung, under her blood-stained caresses.” When Wag­ner showed the play to his fam­ily they were hor­ri­fied he was wast­ing his time with such fool­ish­ness and neglect­ing his studies.

I knew a fact that no one else could know,” Wag­ner later wrote, ”namely, that my work could only be rightly judged when set to the music which I had resolved to write for it.”  No trace of his music exists, if, indeed, it was ever writ­ten. But the point is that from the begin­ning, Wagner’s view of drama depended on its most sig­nif­i­cant points being made through music. In a let­ter to the com­poser Franz Liszt, he explained the spe­cial nature of the music he was com­pos­ing for the Ring. “The thing shall sound [the ital­ics are Wagner’s] in such a fash­ion that peo­ple shall hear what they can­not see.”

Thomas Mann bril­liantly summed up the rela­tion­ship between Wagner’s words and his music in the speech he gave on the 50th anniver­sary of Wagner’s death: “The texts around which it [the music] is woven, which it thereby makes into drama, are not lit­er­a­ture — but the music is. It seems to shoot up like a geyser from the pre-civilized bedrock depths of myth (and not only ‘seems’; it really does); but in fact — and at the same time — it is care­fully con­sid­ered, cal­cu­lated, supremely intel­li­gent, full of shrewd­ness and cun­ning, and as lit­er­ary in its con­cep­tion as the texts are musi­cal in theirs.”

Which is why Wagner’s inner dae­mon know he could not com­pose the music of Göt­ter­däm­merung until he had achieved absolute mas­tery of his com­po­si­tional tech­nique, some­thing he explained to Röckel “has become a close-knit unity: there is scarcely a bar in the orches­tra that does not develop out of the pre­ced­ing unit.” As he com­posed the Ring Wag­ner greatly expanded his use of leit­mo­tifs — bits of melody, har­mony, rhythm, even tonal­ity — far beyond merely rep­re­sent­ing a char­ac­ter or an object. They became infi­nitely mal­leable, and Wag­ner put them together in ways that became not only increas­ingly sub­tle, but also superbly expres­sive, adding lay­ers of drama and emo­tion to the events tak­ing place on stage.  Even if lis­ten­ers have no knowl­edge of the leit­mo­tifs, Wagner’s music is still enor­mously potent and can be a life-changing experience.

Music drama should be about the insides of the char­ac­ters,” Wag­ner said. “The object of music drama is the pre­sen­ta­tion of arche­typal sit­u­a­tions as expe­ri­enced by the par­tic­i­pants [Wagner’s ital­ics], and to this dra­matic end music is a means, albeit a uniquely expres­sive one.”

At first glance, after the three pre­ced­ing parts of the Ring with their unin­ter­rupted flow of the drama, the libretto of Göt­ter­däm­merung might seem a throw back. It has rec­og­niz­able, eas­ily excerpt­able arias, a mar­velous love duet, a thrilling swearing-of-blood-brotherhood duet, a chill­ing vengeance trio, and rous­ing cho­ruses. But it is impor­tant to remem­ber that when Wag­ner finally began to com­pose the music for Göt­ter­däm­merung he did not rewrite the libretto, other than mak­ing some changes in the word­ing of Brünnhilde’s Immo­la­tion Scene. He knew the libretto worked exactly as it should, pro­vid­ing him with pre­cisely the words and dra­matic sit­u­a­tions he needed to write some of the great­est orches­tral music ever con­ceived. And it is through the music that Wag­ner can make dra­matic points much more vividly than could be made through words.

One of the most shat­ter­ing parts of Göt­ter­däm­merung is Siegfried’s Funeral Music. Even played in the con­cert hall, shorn of the rest of the opera, it makes a tremen­dous effect. In its proper place dur­ing a per­for­mance of the full drama, it is over­whelm­ing. A bit of insight into why this is so comes from the diary of Wagner’s sec­ond wife, Cosima. The entry for Sep­tem­ber 29th, 1871 reads:

I have com­posed a Greek cho­rus,” R[ichard] exclaims to me in the morn­ing, “but a cho­rus which will be sung, so to speak, by the orches­tra; after Siegfried’s death, while the scene is being changed, the Sieg­mund theme will be played, as if the cho­rus were say­ing: ‘This was his father’; then the sword motive; and finally his own theme; then the cur­tain goes up and Gutrune enters, think­ing she had heard his horn. How could words ever make the impres­sion that these solemn themes, in their new form, will evoke?”

Cosima does not men­tion the con­cept of a Greek cho­rus in con­nec­tion with the Immo­la­tion Scene or the great orches­tral out­pour­ing that fol­lows Brünnhilde’s words. But it is impos­si­ble not to think of it as a mag­nif­i­cent musi­cal thren­ody for every­thing that had gone before. A pro­found sum­ming up of all the com­plex lives, sit­u­a­tions, and emo­tions that had to be expressed by the orches­tra at that moment because mere words could not do jus­tice to them, or pro­vide the cathar­sis that allows for a true trans­for­ma­tion, and a new begin­ning — all of which Wagner’s music does, per­fectly, at the end of Göt­ter­däm­merung.

Sev­eral years after the Ring had been given at Bayreuth in 1876, Cosima noted in her diary: “In the evening, before sup­per [Richard]… glances through the con­clu­sion of Göt­ter­däm­merung, and says that never again will he write any­thing as com­pli­cated as that.” For some Wag­ne­r­i­ans, he never wrote any­thing better.

A slightly dif­fer­ent ver­sion of these notes appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill, Jan­u­ary 2012.

The art at the top of the page is part of Gün­ther Schneider-Siemssen’s pro­duc­tion of Göt­ter­däm­merung for the Salzburg Easter Fes­ti­val 1967– 72.

 

 

RICHARD WAGNER — THE RING, PART III. SIEGFRIED

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In May 1857, Richard Wag­ner wrote to his friend Julie Rit­ter: “Although I have com­pleted only the first act of Siegfried this win­ter, it has turned out bet­ter than I could ever have expected.  It was com­pletely new ground for me. Now that this act has turned out as it has done, I am con­vinced that young Siegfried will be my most pop­u­lar work, spread­ing quickly and suc­cess­fully, and draw­ing all the other dra­mas after it….But it seems increas­ingly prob­a­ble that the first per­for­mance of the whole thing will not take place before 1860.” As things turned out the first per­for­mance “of the whole thing” — Wagner’s four-part cycle, Der Ring des Nibelun­gen—did not take place until 1876. The orches­tra­tion of his opera Siegfried was not com­pleted until Feb­ru­ary 1871, after one of the most trou­bling ges­ta­tions in the his­tory of music.

It had all started in the autumn of 1848 when Wag­ner wrote “The Nibelun­gen Myth as Sketch of a Drama,” based on his own reweav­ing of ancient Ger­manic and Norse myths. His tale of the rise and fall of the gods, the cre­ation of the hero Siegfried (“the most per­fect human being”), and his union with Brünnhilde, even­tu­ally grew from one opera to four. By 1857 Wag­ner had com­pleted the libretto to the entire work, and com­posed the music to the first two operas, Das Rhein­gold and Die Walküre.

But only a month after his let­ter to Julie Rit­ter, Wag­ner wrote to his friend, the com­poser Franz Liszt, “I have finally decided to aban­don my obsti­nate attempts to com­plete my Nibelungs. I have led my young Siegfried into the beau­ti­ful for­est soli­tude; there I have left him beneath a lin­den tree and have said farewell to him with tears of heart­felt sor­row: – he is bet­ter there than any­where else.” Wag­ner — as usual — was in des­per­ate need of money and the pub­lisher who had agreed to buy his score to Siegfried and the last opera of the cycle, Göt­ter­däm­merung, had with­drawn the offer. “And so,” Wag­ner explained to Liszt, “I am now resolved upon a course of self-help. I have con­ceived a plan to com­plete Tris­tan and Isolde with­out fur­ther delay; its mod­est dimen­sions will facil­i­tate a per­for­mance of it, and I shall pro­duce it in Stras­bourg a year from today…I am think­ing of hav­ing this work trans­lated into Ital­ian and offer­ing it to the the­ater in Rio Janeiro…I shall ded­i­cate it to the Emperor of Brazil…and I think there should be enough pick­ings from all this to enable me to be left in peace for a while.”

It was a mad plan and, like many of Wagner’s attempts to make money, came to noth­ing. Wag­ner had not yet fin­ished the prose sketch for Tris­tan, to say noth­ing of the actual libretto, or the music. His plan orig­i­nal plan “of leav­ing Siegfried alone in the for­est for a year, in order to give myself some relief in writ­ing a Tris­tan und Isolde” (as he told Julie Rit­ter in July 1857) even­tu­ally stretched to twelve years. Dur­ing that time he not only fin­ished Tris­tan, but revised his opera Tannhäuser for Paris, and wrote Die Meis­tersinger von Nürn­berg as well. Bavaria’s new king, Lud­wig II took the throne in 1864 and became Wagner’s patron. Wag­ner also began an affair with Liszt’s daugh­ter Cosima while she was still mar­ried to the con­duc­tor Hans von Bülow. Wag­ner and Cosima even­tu­ally mar­ried, but not before set­ting off a major scan­dal in Munich that threat­ened his stand­ing with the king.

More than once, dur­ing this chaotic twelve-year hia­tus, Wag­ner turned back to Siegfried but it was not until Feb­ru­ary 1869 he “put the fin­ish­ing strokes to the sec­ond act of Siegfried” as he informed King Lud­wig. By Sep­tem­ber he had fin­ished the music to Act III, but to avoid hav­ing a per­for­mance of the work given in Munich (as had hap­pened to the first two operas in the Ring, very much against his will), he delayed fin­ish­ing the orches­tra­tion until Feb­ru­ary 1871, mak­ing excuse after excuse to the King.

There are numer­ous log­i­cal “outer” rea­sons that kept Wag­ner from doing any sig­nif­i­cant work on Siegfried for twelve years, but more than likely the true rea­son lay within Wag­ner him­self. Deep within his psy­che he undoubt­edly real­ized that he needed to gain a more com­plete mas­tery of his indi­vid­ual com­po­si­tional style before writ­ing the music for the great con­fronta­tion between Siegfried and Wotan, and then Siegfried’s awak­en­ing of Brünnhilde.

Siegfried is the comic opera of the Ring, but it is also the great turn­ing point of the entire cycle, where Wotan, whose con­cerns dom­i­nated the first two operas, gives way to Siegfried and Brünnhilde. As Wag­ner wrote to his good friend August Röckel, “Fol­low­ing his farewell to Brünnhilde [at the end of Die Walküre], Wotan is in truth no more than a departed spirit: true to his supreme resolve, he must now allow events to take their own course [the ital­ics are Wagner’s], leave things as they are, and nowhere inter­fere in any deci­sive way; that is why he has now become the ‘Wan­derer’: observe him closely! He resem­bles us to a tee; he is the sum total of present-day intel­li­gence, whereas Siegfried is the man of the future whom we desire and long for but who can­not be made by us, since he must cre­ate him­self on the basis of our own anni­hi­la­tion.”

Of all the major char­ac­ters in the Ring, Siegfried is prob­a­bly the one who has been most mis­un­der­stood. Come­di­enne Anna Russell’s descrip­tion (“…he’s very young, and he’s very hand­some, and he’s very strong, and he’s very brave, and he’s very stu­pid — he’s a reg­u­lar Lit­tle Abner type.”) is the one many opera goers have, but it is not accu­rate. Siegfried is not a badly social­ized adult, he is a teenager. Bois­ter­ous one minute, brood­ing and intro­spec­tive the next. Emo­tion­ally he’s more on par with Cheru­bino in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, or Octa­vian in Strauss’s Der Rosenkava­lier, than Wagner’s Tris­tan or Sieg­mund. His only influ­ence, other than nature itself (which he reveres) has been Mime, an evil manip­u­la­tive dwarf who plans to use Siegfried to kill Fafner and regain the Nibelung trea­sure. “Even speech I’d scarcely have mas­tered, had I not wrung it out of  [you],” Siegfried tells him, which tells us just how car­ing Mime has been.

Like most mythic heroes, Siegfried does not know his true par­ents, has never expe­ri­enced their nur­tur­ing love, and has been forced to trust his own, inner instinct for sur­vival. This instinct has made him hun­gry for knowl­edge, dis­trust­ful of Mime, and it is this instinct that leads him to file down the frag­ments of his father’s sword to re-forge into his own, rather than try­ing to patch them together with sol­der as Mime has tried to do. “I’ve grown as old as cave and wood but never saw the like!” Mime mut­ters as he watches Siegfried at work. Psy­cho­log­i­cally it’s a mas­ter­stroke on Wagner’s part to show Siegfried forg­ing his own man­hood (of which the sword is a sym­bol) rather than sim­ply accept­ing some­one else’s sword (iden­tity) and using it as his own, as his father Sieg­mund did in Die Walküre. Sieg­mund sim­ply accepted Wotan’s sword, so when he tried to use it in oppo­si­tion to Wotan’s wishes, it broke. But when Siegfried uses it again Wotan in Act III he is suc­cess­ful because the sword is no longer bor­rowed from Wotan, Siegfried has made it his own. He has become his own man, a hero. And that is why he can eas­ily pass through the mag­i­cal fire sur­round­ing the sleep­ing Brünnhilde, awaken her, and claim her as his mate.

It is through Wagner’s aston­ish­ing music that we can truly intuit the com­plex truth of his char­ac­ters. While work­ing on Siegfried Wag­ner wrote to Liszt, “Only in the course of com­pos­ing the music does the essen­tial mean­ing of my poem [the libretto] dawn on me: secrets are con­tin­u­ally being revealed to me which had pre­vi­ously been hid­den from me. In this way every­thing becomes much more pas­sion­ate and more urgent.”

For Siegfried’s exu­ber­ant entrance in Act I Wag­ner wrote scam­per­ing eighth notes for his laugh­ter that even­tu­ally climb to a high C, but only a few min­utes later, Siegfried’s music is ten­der when he speaks of the birds in the for­est, and it becomes filled with long­ing when he speaks of his mother’s death. At the moment Mime finally shows Siegfried the pieces of his father’s sword, Wagner’s orches­tra tells us unmis­tak­ably what a sig­nif­i­cant moment this is. The very sound of the orches­tra instantly becomes brighter. A lis­tener does not need to intel­lec­tu­ally know the trum­pet plays the musi­cal motif asso­ci­ated with The Sword and the strings counter with the motive known as Siegfried’s Youth­ful Strength in order to emo­tion­ally expe­ri­ence the great burst of energy and enthu­si­asm that explodes from the orches­tra at that moment. It’s the per­fect depic­tion of Siegfried sud­denly under­stand­ing, deep inside, that this is what he needs to take the next step in life.

The music of the first two acts is dom­i­nated by the dark sound of the lower instru­ments in the orches­tra. Act I takes place in Mime’s cave, set deep in the woods. Act II is set next to Fafner’s cave, deep in the for­est. Until we meet the For­est Bird toward the end of Act II all the singers have been male. This means that Wagner’s musi­cal palate has been largely the equiv­a­lent of a Rem­brandt late self-portrait — pre­dom­i­nately dark but filled with sub­tle hues. So when Siegfried defeats the Wan­derer and climbs the moun­tain to find Brünnhilde, the change in Wagner’s music is noth­ing less than aston­ish­ing. It’s the equiv­a­lent of step­ping out­side and tak­ing a deep breath of fresh, clean air after being in a cramped room. The sound of the orches­tra changes as wood­winds and vio­lins become more promi­nent, as do the harps (Wag­ner asked for six). The higher Siegfried climbs, the higher and more trans­par­ent the musi­cal becomes until when he reaches the sum­mit only the first vio­lins are play­ing, their music going still higher up the scale. “He looks around for a long time in aston­ish­ment,” the stage direc­tions say, and just as the vio­lins approach a sus­tained C above high C, four trom­bones — very softly — sound the three chords that make up the Fate motif, the same three chords that had accom­pa­nied Wotan’s stand­ing in the very spot where his grand­son now stands. At the end of Walküre Wotan had stopped to look back with infi­nite regret at the sleep­ing Brünnhilde. Now Siegfried stands in won­der, filled with awe, and soon eager­ness, to con­tinue his heroic journey.

A slightly dif­fer­ent ver­sion of these notes appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill, Octo­ber 2011.

The art at the top of the page is part of Gün­ther Schneider-Siemssen’s pro­duc­tion of Siegfried for the Salzburg Easter Fes­ti­val 1967– 72.

 

 

RICHARD WAGNER — THE RING, PART II. Die Walküre

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My Walküre turns out ter­ri­bly beau­ti­ful,” Richard Wag­ner wrote to his friend, the com­poser Franz Liszt on June 16th, 1852. “I hope to sub­mit to you the whole poem of the tetral­ogy before the end of the sum­mer. The music will be eas­ily and quickly done, for it is only the exe­cu­tion of some­thing prac­ti­cally ready.”

For nei­ther the first, nor the last, time in Wagner’s life, things did not work out quite as he had planned. By the end of that year he had, indeed, fin­ished the libretto (or “poem” as he called it) to his four-part cycle, Der Ring des Nibelun­gen (“The Ring of the Nibelung”) based on sto­ries from ancient Ger­manic and Norse myths. But the music for Walküre was not fin­ished until Decem­ber 1854, and it was another year and a half before he fin­ished the orchestration.

The Ring begins with Das Rhein­gold, a one-act work Wag­ner called a “Pre­lim­i­nary Evening.” Die Walküre (“First Day of the Fes­ti­val Play”) is next, fol­lowed by Siegfried, then Göt­ter­däm­merung. It all started in 1848 when Wag­ner wrote eleven pages he pub­lished as The Nibelun­gen Myth as Sketch for a Drama. But it was almost 30 years before the first per­for­mance of the com­pleted work was given in a the­ater Wag­ner had con­structed specif­i­cally for that pur­pose in Bayreuth, Ger­many. The Ring is mon­u­men­tal in both scope and impact. Most mod­ern per­for­mances are spread over a week, and it is not going too far to say many peo­ple who attend a cycle feel their lives have been changed for­ever by the experience.

Wag­ner wanted the Ring to be given as a whole, rather than bro­ken up, with indi­vid­ual operas given on their own. But soon the­aters were pre­sent­ing the parts of the Ring on their own, and Walküre quickly became the most pop­u­lar. Before this new pro­duc­tion by Robert Lep­age opened in April 2011, Walküre had been given at the Met 522 times, con­sid­er­ably ahead of the next most pop­u­lar part of the Ring, Siegfried (255 times), mak­ing it the sec­ond most-given of all Wagner’s operas, behind Lohen­grin (618 performances.)

There are a num­ber of rea­sons for Walkure’s endur­ing pop­u­lar­ity. For one thing, after the gods and god­desses, dwarves and giants of Rhein­gold, Walküre intro­duces human beings into the story of the Ring. It begins with two very sym­pa­thetic peo­ple, Sieg­mund and Sieglinde, and the first act is devoted to them falling in love. “The score of the first act of Walküre will soon be ready; it is won­der­fully beau­ti­ful. I have done noth­ing like it or approach­ing it before,” Wag­ner told Liszt. He was right. The music of Walküre builds sig­nif­i­cantly on Das Rhein­gold, where he had used leit­mo­tifs to con­struct his music. These short seg­ments of melody, rhythm, or har­mony could be asso­ci­ated with a char­ac­ter or a dra­matic event, even an emo­tion or an object. In Walküre Wag­ner used them to help him sus­pend time itself while the drama takes place, word­lessly, inside the char­ac­ters. Thanks to Wagner’s bril­liant writ­ing for orches­tra — some­thing he had to develop even above what he had done in Rhein­gold—the audi­ence actu­ally expe­ri­ences for them­selves the inner lives of the char­ac­ters on stage.

Just moments into Act 1 of Walküre, Sieglinde offers Sieg­mund some water. The stage direc­tions say: “SIEGMUND: (drinks and hands her back the horn. As he sig­nals his thanks with his head, his glance fas­tens on her fea­tures with grow­ing inter­est.)” To under­line these stage direc­tions, Wag­ner silences the orches­tra entirely, except for a sin­gle cello. For nine mea­sures this lone cello plays some of the sweet­est, most yearn­ing music imag­in­able, before being joined by the rest of the cel­los and two basses for another eight mea­sures. Lis­ten­ers need not know what labels com­men­ta­tors have attached to the music to expe­ri­ence for them­selves the long­ing in Siegmund’s soul, the love that is even then start­ing to blos­som. The music bypasses our mind and goes directly to our heart or soul where it seduces us into sur­ren­der­ing to Wagner’s world, to his way of telling his story.

The plot of Die Walküre can be told in a few dozen words. The outer events are rel­a­tively sim­ple. But the inner jour­ney the char­ac­ters go through is almost unbear­ably rich and com­plex. It’s the dif­fer­ence between fly­ing between New York and Cal­i­for­nia, and dri­ving there. You fly because you want to get to your des­ti­na­tion as quickly as pos­si­ble. But if you drive, the jour­ney itself becomes the point: day after day spent in your car gives you a sense of the vast­ness of the U.S., of the grad­ual changes in the land­scape, the shift­ing speech pat­terns of the peo­ple you meet, the way the light seems dif­fer­ent. Your view of the United States is changed for­ever by the expe­ri­ence, it’s become part of you.

In Walküre, Wagner’s music has a new power to com­pel us to get in the car with him, to let him be our guide to expe­ri­enc­ing quest he is under­tak­ing. That’s how he allows us to expe­ri­ence the grow­ing love between Sieg­mund and Sieglinde for our­selves, to feel the right­ness, the nat­u­ral­ness of it.  The com­pelling nature of their love is well estab­lished long before they (and we) dis­cover they are brother and sis­ter, so our emo­tions accept their love, even if our mind — assum­ing we can wrench it away from Wagner’s music – might have a few questions.

In addi­tion to Sieg­mund and Sieglinde, in Walküre we meet Brünnhilde, one of the most impor­tant char­ac­ters in the Ring. (Some would claim, with good rea­sons, she is the cen­tral char­ac­ter.) If we lis­ten care­fully to the music Wag­ner gives her, the dra­matic arc she has in Walküre alone is stag­ger­ing, to say noth­ing about in the rest of the Ring. She enters the story in Act 2, singing one of the most famous (and short­est) num­bers in the whole cycle, Brünnhilde’s “Hojotoho!”

Wag­ner was extra­or­di­nar­ily care­ful in not­ing exactly how it should be sung. The first two syl­la­bles (“Ho-jo”) are a sin­gle phrase, fol­lowed by a six­teenth note (“to”) then the last syl­la­ble (“ho”) to be held for five beats, fol­lowed by a sin­gle beat rest. This gives the music a quick, bouncy qual­ity that is empha­sized later when he asks the soprano to sing the final “ho” on two notes, sep­a­rated by a octave, but con­nected smoothly, end­ing on high Bs and then high Cs. He also asks her to trill — non­stop — for almost two mea­sures before launch­ing up to a high B and hold­ing it for two mea­sures. If a soprano can sing this incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult “Hojo­toho” as Wag­ner intended, the audi­ence can­not help being charmed by the impetu­ous, cheeky, ram­bunc­tious teenage girl who is sass­ing her father, Wotan — to his delight, and ours. Her char­ac­ter, and her rela­tion­ship with Wotan are firmly estab­lished within a cou­ple of minutes.

It is also one of the few gen­uinely joy­ful moments in Walküre, an opera rather short on hap­pi­ness. To Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein Wag­ner lamented (while in the thick of com­pos­ing), “I find the sub­ject of Die Walküre too painful by far: there’s really not one of the world’s sor­rows that the work does not express, and in the most painful form; play­ing artis­tic games with that pain is tak­ing its revenge on me: it has made me really ill sev­eral times already, so that I have had to stop completely.”

Another rea­son for the pop­u­lar­ity of Walküre is that we are likely to find our­selves mir­rored it in. If not in the new love enjoyed by Sieglinde and Sieg­mund in Act 1, then by the dilemma fac­ing Wotan in Act 2 as he real­izes that all of his care­ful plan­ning is for naught and that, despite his best efforts, his life has taken a ter­ri­ble turn, leav­ing him no way out. The scene in which Wotan wres­tles with this soul-crisis caused Wag­ner no end of trou­ble, and he ago­nized over whether or not peo­ple would grasp what Wotan is going through. “For the devel­op­ment of the great tetral­ogy, this is the most impor­tant scene of all,” he insisted.

Wotan’s anguish con­tin­ues, with a new focus, in Act 3. Its end­ing is one of the most extra­or­di­nary in all of opera, with the sense of loss, of grief, of aban­don­ment, yet over­whelm­ing love, as Wotan is forced to let go of the most pre­cious thing in the world to him, Brünnhilde. It seems like a bit­ter defeat for Wotan. His cher­ished son Sieg­mund is dead. His favorite child, Brünnhilde, is ban­ished for­ever.  His plans – to cre­ate a hero who would be able to win back the Ring and return it to the Rhine maid­ens and thus save the gods – have crum­bled to noth­ing­ness. He has nowhere to turn. And yet…

And yet it is because of these appar­ently fail­ures that Siegfried (in the next opera) can turn out to be the very hero the gods need. This glim­mer of hope, in the mid­dle of such over­whelm­ing sor­row, is surely another rea­son Walküre is such a beloved opera.

Bavaria’s King Lud­wig II was not will­ing to wait until Wag­ner had com­pleted the entire Ring before expe­ri­enc­ing Die Walküre in the the­ater. Against Wagner’s wishes, it was given for the first time on June 26, 1870 in Munich, nine months after the pre­mière there of Das Rhein­gold. To show his dis­plea­sure, Wag­ner refused to be involved in any way, and he asked his friends not to attend. The famous vio­lin­ist Joachim was there. So were Brahms and Saint-Saëns. Despite his friend­ship with Wag­ner Liszt went and sobbed through part of the opera he was so very moved. Even news­pa­pers usu­ally crit­i­cal to Wag­ner pro­nounced Die Walküre an extra­or­di­nary work of art.

The fact that opera houses con­tinue to devote con­sid­er­able time and resources to pre­sent­ing Die Walküre in new ways — gen­er­ally to stand­ing room only audi­ences — proves that Liszt did not exag­ger­ate when he wrote to Wag­ner, “Your Walküre (score) has arrived, and I should like to reply to you by your Lohen­grin cho­rus, sung by 1,000 voices, and repeated a thou­sand­fold: ‘A won­der! A wonder!’ ”

A slightly dif­fer­ent ver­sion of these notes appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill, April 2011.

The art at the top of the page is part of Gün­ther Schneider-Siemssen’s pro­duc­tion of Die Walküre for the Salzburg Easter Fes­ti­val 1967– 72.

 

 

Richard Wagner — THE RING, Part I. DAS RHEINGOLD

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In all of West­ern civ­i­liza­tion there is noth­ing quite like Richard Wagner’s stu­pen­dous cycle Der Ring des Nibelun­gen (The Nibelung’s Ring). Based on Wagner’s own retelling of sto­ries from ancient Ger­man and Scan­di­na­vian mythol­ogy, it con­sists of four sep­a­rate but inti­mately related operas — some of them among the longest ever writ­ten — usu­ally given over the space of a week.

Das Rhein­gold is the first chap­ter in this epic tale, and it is — quite unfairly — some­times not given the respect accorded other parts of the Ring. For one thing, it is by far the short­est. At two and a half hours it is one of Wagner’s short­est operas, about the same length as The Fly­ing Dutch­man. The com­poser him­self (prob­a­bly inad­ver­tently) con­tributed to this slight­ing of Rhein­gold by call­ing it a “pre­lim­i­nary evening” to the rest of the Ring.

In 1848 he fin­ished orches­trat­ing Lohen­grin and wrote the poem to a new opera, Siegfried’s Death, (known today as Göt­ter­däm­merung). Decid­ing he needed to explain how the events of that opera had come to be, he wrote the poem to Young Siegfried (the opera we now know as Siegfried) in 1851. The fol­low­ing year, feel­ing fur­ther expla­na­tion was needed he wrote the poem to Die Walküre.

In order to given every­thing com­pletely, these three dra­mas must be pre­ceded by a grand intro­duc­tory play: The Rape of the Rhein­gold,” Wag­ner wrote to Franz Liszt. “The object is the com­plete rep­re­sen­ta­tion of every­thing in regard to this rape: the ori­gin of the Nibelung trea­sure, the pos­ses­sion of this trea­sure by Wotan, and the curse of Alberich….[By writ­ing this sep­a­rate drama] I gain suf­fi­cient space to inten­sify the wealth of rela­tion­ship, while in the pre­vi­ous mode of treat­ment I was com­pelled to cut down and enfee­ble this.”

Dur­ing the time Wag­ner was cre­at­ing the libretto to his stu­pen­dous new work he was also writ­ing books and pam­phlets – on the­atri­cal reform, on opera and drama, and the art work of the future. As his ideas on the nature of opera changed, so did the nature of his libretti. Göt­ter­däm­merung has mar­velous arias, a thrilling love duet, a sen­sa­tional vengeance trio, all of which can be excerpted and per­formed in on their own (as can some of the orches­tral pas­sages). But by the time Wag­ner wrote the libretto to Rhein­gold in 1852 his idea was that the drama should not be inter­rupted by musi­cal set pieces like arias and duets, but ought to con­tinue unfold­ing seamlessly.

This meant the music for the singers must be dif­fer­ent from the way the vocal line had been writ­ten in operas before. It also meant that the orches­tral music would be dif­fer­ent from any­thing in the his­tory of opera, with the orches­tra being as inte­gral a part of con­vey­ing the drama as were the singers onstage. “The music shall sound in such a fash­ion that peo­ple shall hear what they can­not see,” he wrote to Liszt. In fact, com­po­si­tion sketches show that as Wag­ner was in the pre­lim­i­nary stages of com­posit­ing the music he was think­ing not only of the words, but of the stage direc­tions, as well, writ­ing music that reflected the move­ment on stage.

To do this, Wag­ner devel­oped the sys­tem of leit­mo­tivs — bits of melody, or rhythm, or har­mony that are asso­ci­ated with a char­ac­ter, a dra­matic event, an object or an emo­tion. They are much more than mere “musi­cal sign posts” that whiz past dur­ing the opera. Begin­ning with Rhein­gold, Wagner’s music springs almost entirely from these build­ing blocks, which he molds or com­bines to reflect shifts in the drama tak­ing place on stage. This means the music can let the audi­ence know what a char­ac­ter is really think­ing, for instance, or why an event is tak­ing place. There was no prece­dent in all of opera for this new idiom in which Wag­ner began work­ing for the first time with Rhein­gold. “I am spin­ning my cocoon like a silk­worm,” he wrote to Liszt as he com­posed Rhein­gold’s music, “but I spin it out of myself.”

Wag­ner had writ­ten no music for five years — from the time he fin­ished Lohen­grin until he started com­pos­ing the music to Rhein­gold in 1853. (Though the libretti to the Ring operas were writ­ten in reverse order, the music was com­posed from the begin­ning of the cycle to the end.)

One of the most over­whelm­ing tasks Wag­ner faced was how to start Rhein­gold. What music could pos­si­bly launch not just this opera, but also the Ring as a whole? How do you covey in music the begin­ning of Cre­ation? As always with Wag­ner, his rem­i­nis­cences are to be taken with a grain of salt, but as he later related events, he had gone for a long walk, then returned to take a nap. Falling into a state of half-sleep, he sud­denly felt as if he were sink­ing into a flood of water:

The rush and roar 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….I awake from my half-sleep in ter­ror, feel­ing as though the waves were now rush­ing high above my head. I at once rec­og­nized that the orches­tral pre­lude to the Rhein­gold, which for a long time I must have car­ried about within me, yet had never been able to fix def­i­nitely, had at last come into being in me: and I quickly under­stood the very essence of my own nature: the stream of life was not to flow to me from with­out, but from within.”

There is noth­ing in all of opera like this mirac­u­lous begin­ning to Rhein­gold: the note of low E flat softly played by the dou­bles basses, then, four mea­sures later, the note of B flat added by the bas­soons to that basic E flat. And twelve mea­sure later one French horn (“very sweetly” says the score) inton­ing the notes of the E flat major triad up the scale for over two octaves, fol­lowed by another French horn, and then another, until all eight horns are play­ing waves of arpeg­gios, all on the three notes of the E flat major triad. Then the cel­los, and even­tu­ally the entire orches­tra join in. It’s a musi­cal depic­tion of the cre­ation of life itself, grow­ing from a sin­gle cell (that first E flat) until the Rhine maid­ens sud­denly break into the song of joy­ous, unspoiled Nature itself.

In addi­tion to writ­ing music unlike any­thing ever heard before, in Rhein­gold Wag­ner was mak­ing demands for the phys­i­cal stage that went far beyond what was even pos­si­ble at the time: the open­ing scene in the Rhine river with the Rhine maid­ens swim­ming around as if in mid-air; the shift from the depths of the Rhine to the airy moun­tain tops of the gods with Val­halla in this dis­tance; descend­ing to Nibel­heim and back again; how could Don­ner sum­mon the swirling mists on stage, then dis­si­pate them on cue with his ham­mer, con­jur­ing up the rain­bow bridge over which the gods would walk to their new home?  What did Rhine maid­ens look like? The Nibelun­gen? How should the god­dess Erda be por­trayed so she was not merely (in the words of come­di­enne Anna Rus­sell) “a green-faced torso pop­ping out of the ground”?

All of this Wag­ner had to deal with in Das Rhein­gold. The fact that he not only got it right, but go it so right than the rest of his stu­pen­dous Ring cycle seems to flow effort­lessly from Rhein­gold, means this open­ing chap­ter deserves respect as not only the cor­ner­stone on which the rest of the Ring builds, but as a musi­cal and dra­matic mas­ter­piece all on its own.

Wag­ner did not want to give any part of the Ring until the entire cycle could be pre­sented as a whole, some­thing he knew would require its own “great fes­ti­val, to be arranged per­haps espe­cially for the pur­pose of this per­for­mance,” as he told Franz Liszt before a note of the music had been com­posed. But against Wagner’s wishes, Das Rhein­gold had its pre­mière in Munich on Sep­tem­ber 22, 1869, on the express orders of King Lud­wig II.  It was seven years before Wag­ner was able to present the Ring in its entirety, in the the­ater at Bayreuth he had built specif­i­cally for the work. Even there, the colos­sal stage require­ments Rhein­gold made were not met to Wagner’s satisfaction.

The pro­gram for the first Met per­for­mance of Das Rhein­gold on Jan­u­ary 4, 1889, car­ried the note: “For this opera the scenery has been ordered from Ger­many and the cos­tumes and armorare from the designs of Prof. Doepier, who made the orig­i­nal draw­ings for Richard Wag­ner.” The one-act opera was pre­sented with an inter­mis­sion between the sec­ond and third scenes. “This is the prac­tice of the Impe­r­ial Opera House in Vienna, and though open to objec­tion on artis­tic grounds will doubt­less prove a wel­come relief,” noted one New York news­pa­per the day before the pre­mière. In fact, Wag­ner him­self had raised no objec­tions to the inter­mis­sion when Rhein­gold was given in Berlin in 1881, and until almost World War Two the Met pre­sented the work both with and with­out an inter­mis­sion, some­times dur­ing the same season.

Before this new pro­duc­tion by Robert Lep­age opened the Met’s 2010-11 sea­son on Sep­tem­ber 27th, Das Rhein­gold had been given 154 times by the com­pany, far few times than Göt­ter­däm­merung (224), Siegfried (255), and Die Walküre (522).  But along the way this one-act opera has attracted some of the great­est singers, con­duc­tors, and stage direc­tors of their time, all engaged in the Her­culean task of bring­ing to life Wagner’s sub­lime — and immense — vision.

A slightly dif­fer­ent ver­sion of these notes appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill Sep­tem­ber 2010.

The art at the top of the page is part of Gün­ther Schneider-Siemssen’s pro­duc­tion of Das Rhein­gold for the Salzburg Easter Fes­ti­val 1967 – 72.

 

THE FLYING DUTCHMAN – Richard Wagner

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Wil­helm Richard Wag­ner was born in Leipzig on 22 May, 1813 and died in Venice on 13 Feb­ru­ary, 1883. Der Fliegende Hol­län­der (The Fly­ing Dutch­man) was writ­ten to the composer’s own libretto. His first sketches for the work date from 1840 with the music com­posed dur­ing the fol­low­ing year. The last part to be scored was the famous Over­ture which Wag­ner com­pleted in Novem­ber 1841 though the opera had to wait until Jan­u­ary 2, 1843 for its pre­mier which Read more