Wagner

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(Photo: Wagner’s grave at Wahnfried, taken by myself)

Today is Wilhelm Richard Wagner‘s 200th birthday. The real world and cyberspace are rife with celebrations today and throughout all of 2013. Although, as Dr. Mark Berry correctly noted, “every year is a Wagner year.” This blog is but a drop in the digital ocean of related tributes, and therefore I’m going to be realistic. First, I won’t be breaking any new Wagnerian ground here. Second, there’s no point in writing what others will and have had covered already. But I would like to share something, and so I’d like to jot down a few thoughts about my relationship with my favorite classical composer.

Before going any further, I’d like to suggest a few timely and noteworthy posts and articles (published before today):
Nicholas Spice‘s “Is Wagner bad for us?” from the London Review of Books
Alex Ross‘s “A Wagner Birthday Roast” from The New Yorker
Mark Berry‘s “On entering the week of Wagner’s 200th anniversary” from Boulezian
Alex Ross’s “A Walking Tour of Wagner’s New York” from The New Yorker
Alex Ross’s “Wagner everywhere but New York” from The Rest is Just Noise blog

Being a saxophonist, I ostensibly have little to do with Wagner outside of my instrument’s namesake. (Adolphe Sax was whom Wagner turned to for the development of his Wagner tuba.) That, and Wagner’s use of the saxophone to fill out the needed twelve French horn parts for Tannhäuser‘s Paris premiere, cover most of his saxophonic bases. (Further proof that what you need a ringer, hire a saxophonist!) So what’s my deal?

Honestly, aside from a few random facts and musical excerpts, I knew very little about Wagner until covering him in my music history survey in college. I spent a number of years in my teens voraciously learning about the Holocaust and Nazi Germany, and so I was also aware of some sort of Hitlerian connection, but the specifics were lost on me until later. So I was a relative novice my class’s Romantic unit. I must say that I was instantly fascinated and even a bit overwhelmed. Some reactions, as I can somewhat remember them:
1. I was instantly moved by the music. If I remember correctly, we watched both the end of Die Walküre (I still have my worksheet) and a portion of Act III (?) of Tristan und Isolde (it’s been a while since that course…). And of course listened to the Tristan prelude. Two passages and works that I’m now all too familiar with but that were completely new to me at the time.
2. The theoretical concepts – leitmotif, gesamtkunstwerk, endless melody, etc. – scratched me where I itched. Saxophone literature is largely twentieth (and twenty-first) century or bust. Chronologically, Wagner’s music and musical approach and philosophy represented the first time we covered music in a similar vocabulary (i.e., late Romanticism, highly chromatic, etc.) as some of the solo literature I’d been learning.
3. DRAMA. Wagner’s focus on drama sucked me right in. That music should serve the drama – the actual end – is something with which I whole-heartedly agree (in many contexts still, but at the time it was absolute).

A few weeks after my aforementioned introduction, I checked a recording of Tristan und Isolde out from the music library, and the rest is history. From there I moved to Der Ring des Nibelungen – the Levine/Met recording of the whole cycle – and then Lohengrin, and beyond. I was hooked. A couple years later I completed an independent study for which I researched and wrote about exclusive similarities between Der Ring des Nibelungen and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth works, separate from both creators’ common mythological sources. (Tolkien, along with C.S. Lewis, was at one time quite the Wagnerite.) While at first blush it seems like an easy target, there’s much debate surrounding this topic. Sometime I’d actually like to revisit that paper/project for revision and expansion.

The following semester I saw the full Ring cycle live at the Chicago Lyric Opera featuring James Morris, Michelle DeYoung, Plácido Domingo, Jane Eaglen, and John Treleaven. From the rushing, flowing E-flat chord that opens Das Rheingold to Valhalla’s destruction at the end of Götterdämmerung, I was transfixed. And not just when I was in the theater, mind you. For example, I saw Joshua Redman with the SFJazz Collective on the night between Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, and remember only bits of that performance. My mind was with Wagner throughout. It was my first Ring, and surely not my last. There are so many aspects of that performance I could write about here, but suffice it to say I was profoundly moved. I will say that one of the many things that stood to me was Sir Andrew Davis‘s musicianship. He phrased throughout the whole cycle. For example, the loudest and biggest moments of the whole week were Siegfried’s “Trauermarsch” and Brünnhilde’s “Immolation Scene,” both in Götterdämmerung‘s Act III. He let the music unfold with the drama, and therefore the audience and production alike grew throughout the week.

At this point, there was (and has been) no turning back. In 2008, I had the good fortune of spending some time in Bayreuth while on vacation. Having not been on the infamous years-long wait list, I didn’t attend that afternoon’s Tristan. But simply touring the grounds of the Festspielhaus and spending considerable time at Wahnfried was all I needed (and hoped for) for that trip. (And I ended up seeing Tristan that following fall in Chicago. Another moving performance.) Hopefully I’ll get a chance to return this summer while teaching abroad.

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(Photo: Yours truly at Bayreuth, 2008)

Yadda, yadda, yadda. I could go on and on, but it’s best to find a point.

So those are some things I’ve done. But what does that have to do with today’s bicentennial? The day I returned to school after seeing the Ring, I met with my saxophone professor, John Nichol, to talk about my trip. I jokingly told him that by the end of Götterdämmerung I felt like I had accomplished something just by sitting through it. After a good chuckle, he asked, “But did Wagner accomplish something?” I told him that he did. And I really meant it. Much like Beethoven with the symphony, Wagner composed a relatively “small” number of operas (13, with only 10 being performed regularly). But most of those compositions seemed to dramatically shift the music world in its own way. Most of the operas are artistic behemoths, requiring significant work on behalf of both performer and observer. Unlike Beethoven, however, he wrote very little outside of his operas. (Various orchestral works, songs, and piano work exist but are rarely performed, with Siegfried Idyll being arguably the most well known. I recommend The Other Wagner as a nice, comprehensive starting point.) He also wrote a lot of prose, and his ideas were/are just as game-changing as his music (and not all for the better).

200 years on, Wagner’s legacy continues to cast a shadow over so much in the art world, extending far beyond opera, and in ways that most people perhaps don’t notice. For instance, film music – from the early talkies to present – owes much to his lush musical style and leitmotif-laden compositional approach. Just think: The Wizard of Oz would be a very different film if it weren’t for him (e.g., the overture’s lush orchestration and play-by-play of the various melodies/characters.) And, specifically, much later, how would Apocalypse Now have fared? And how many weddings use Lohengrin‘s “Bridal Chorus”? (That’s not without controversy, as most Wagnerian things aren’t.) And how many children have enjoyed this cartoon? And without Wagner there’d possibly be no castle for Cinderella. Hell, Wagner even gave us horns, spears, and breastplates. (And, occasionally, the all-too-familiar fat lady who sings.)

Yet, despite all of this and more, we Wagnerites must often defend our love of his art and publicly state that we’re not in fact members of the Nazi party. (I didn’t really address that issue in this post. That’s not the purpose here, and it’s much too broad and muddled of a topic, though I touch on it here.) A nice, humorous encapsulation of this, especially the latter point, can be found is “Trick or Treat” from Season 2 of Curb Your Enthusiasm. (Imagine my delight upon first seeing this, considering that Seinfeld – Curb‘s older brother – is my all-time favorite show.)  Here’s a slightly NSFW clip:
[NOTE: Larry David’s brief but hilariously clever quotation of “Springtime for Hitler” is especially entertaining when juxtaposed with the Meistersinger overture at the end, the latter having a main character named Walther – the clip’s antagonist – and being closely associated with German nationalism.]

Pros, cons, and everything in between, Wagner left a huge mark. As mentioned above, his legacy extends far beyond his own music. Price asks if Wagner is bad for us, to which I strongly answer NO. Speaking for myself, his music has left an indelible impression on me. Two of my favorite musical experiences have been because of him (seeing the Ring and Meistersinger), and he’s never far from my ears and mind. And that is why his 200th anniversary is worth noting for me. I’ll of course be enjoying some of my favorite recordings and may even go through some select scenes on DVD. Who knows, perhaps I’ll wear one of my t-shirts and play with my action figure…

For y’all, I recommend and leave you with one of my favorite clips from the great BBC documentary The Golden Ring (about Solti’s recording Götterdämmerung for his landmark cycle):

And so I say, in the manner of Cosima’s tweets: Happy Birthday, R.

(Recent blog posts on Wagner here and here.)

 

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