Last Friday afternoon, Classic FM played the Rienzi Overture by Wagner from a 1956 recording with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. I had to laugh at a statement apparently made by Beecham on Wagner’s music: “We’ve been rehearsing for two hours – and we’re still playing the same bloody tune!”
Anna Russell says it differently. She says that if you know the note E flat, you know the prelude to the Ring of the Nibelung 🙂
Six years on, I am fully recovered from the experience of attending the Ring of the Niebelung in Vienna, a cycle of four epic music dramas by Richard Wagner. Spending one week in Vienna for Wagner’s Ring cycle, when I am not a Wagner fan, was not one of my brightest ideas. Difficult to believe, but I had no idea what that meant. I was thinking about Sacher Torte, apfelstrudel and candied violets from Demel! What can I say, ignorance is bliss until it isn’t any more.
The k.u.k. Hofzuckerbäckerei Demel, the Imperial and Royal Court Confectionary Bakery, is located at Kohlmarkt 14, right before the Michaelerplatz. This bakery is where Empress Elisabeth ordered sweets to accompany her morning coffee, for court festivities, imperial birthdays and the annual Kaiserball. Her favorite dessert was a sorbet made out of violet blossom extract, spun sugar and a few drops of champagne. The violet sorbet is still served at Demel today. Emperor Franz Joseph I on the other hand only ever wanted to eat the carnival doughnuts from Demel.
The apfelstrudel is the best!
And the candied violets are irresistible!
As I was discussing the Ring cycle with a friend before the trip, he asked me only to make sure I wasn’t going to walk out on Die Walküre. After realising I paid €800 for the ticket to the cycle, I wasn’t going to walk out on any of it! I was going to suffer financially and mentally!
The music in the last act of Die Walküre is the most recognisable. After surviving the first two music dramas, it occurred to me that I can only say that I survived the cycle if I actually sat through all four dramas. The thought of missing out on one act and having to sit through the whole lot again at some point in the future was more than I could bear 🙂 so I prepared myself mentally for the endurance test. I enjoyed Siegfried and even more so Götterdämmerung. Of course, by then I could see the light at the end of the tunnel! By the fourth music drama I had resolved to stop reading the English subtitles and just enjoy the music. Wagner did not take into account that anyone else other than German-speaking audiences will ever hear the cycle. It is not possible to watch the performance, read the subtitles and pay attention to the music over the duration of the cycle. And over 5 or 6 hours it is remarkably difficult to maintain focus on just one of these aspects.
The music in Götterdämmerung was simply glorious, especially in the last act when the conductor had the orchestra at full volume. So much so that I was thinking I wouldn’t mind hearing it again! Just the last act, not the full cycle 🙂 It also showed that the acoustics at Vienna State Opera are really good. The theatre did not get overloaded with sound. No sound system could ever deliver the same experience.
Still, I have to agree with Rossini that Wagner has some wonderful moments and some dreadful quarters of an hour. People have been known to use the experience of the cycle as punishment! It’s perfect for diplomatic circles 🙂 More than one ambassador has punished diplomats from other countries by making them sit through the Ring cycle. Seriously!
The cycle is a work of extraordinary scale. Perhaps the most outstanding aspect is its sheer length: a full performance of the cycle takes place over four nights, with a total playing time of about 15-16 hours, depending on the conductor’s pacing. The first and shortest drama, Das Rheingold, typically lasts two and a half hours, while the final and longest, Götterdämmerung, takes up to five hours, excluding intervals! The cycle is modelled after ancient Greek dramas that were presented as three tragedies and one satyr play. The Ring proper begins with Die Walküre and ends with Götterdämmerung, with Rheingold as a prelude. (Now read again Anna Russell’s comment!) Wagner called Das Rheingold a Vorabend or “Preliminary Evening”, and Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung were subtitled First Day, Second Day and Third Day, respectively, of the trilogy proper.
The scale and scope of the story is epic. It follows the struggles of gods, heroes, and several mythical creatures over the eponymous magic ring that grants domination over the entire world. The drama and intrigue continue through three generations of protagonists, until the final cataclysm at the end of Götterdämmerung.
The music of the cycle is thick and richly textured, and grows in complexity as the cycle proceeds. Wagner wrote for an orchestra of gargantuan proportions, including a greatly enlarged brass section with new instruments such as the Wagner tuba, bass trumpet and contrabass trombone. Remarkably, he uses a chorus only relatively briefly, in acts 2 and 3 of Götterdämmerung, and then mostly of men with just a few women. He eventually had a purpose-built theatre constructed, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, in which to perform this work. The theatre has a special stage that blends the huge orchestra with the singers’ voices, allowing them to sing at a natural volume. The result was that the singers did not have to strain themselves vocally during the long performances.
The 2009 Ring cycle at Vienna State Opera was a legacy from the departing directors, Ioan Hollender and Seiji Ozawa, and perhaps even more so, an introductory offering for the incoming Musical Director Franz Welser-Möst, who was also the conductor of this performance and emerged as the hero of it. It helped that he is Austrian. Although that didn’t prevent a turmoil at the Vienna State Opera last September when just days after the new season began Franz Welser-Möst abruptly resigned and withdrew from all his scheduled performances there, citing “irreconcilable differences of opinion regarding the company’s artistic planning and profile”.
Franz Welser-Möst produced a reading of the Ring that emphasized the beautiful lyricism of music. The State Opera Orchestra for the Ring was hand-picked by Welser-Möst from the 160+ members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. They played specialised instruments, unique to this orchestra, from a shallow pit – the sound was huge, immediate and in your face, which only the big voices could cut through. Sometimes the singers were drowned by the orchestra.
The sets were restrained, as were the costumes, and with few exceptions they supported rather than interfered; they did not attempt to dominate the production. This allowed a clear vision of the human problems of the characters. Frederick Zorn for Rheingold, and Fettfilm for the rest of the cycle, turned illumination into an art form with the imaginative use of video that did away with the clutter of sets and special effects.
In Rheingold, the action men are Alberich (Tomasz Konieczny) and Loge (Adrian Erod). Strong, confident voices; rapid, purposeful movements – perfect harmony between pit and stage. Wotan thinks he has won but the real winner is Alberich and his curse. In Die Walküre the great God, Wotan, fails not only with his wife but also with his favourite, Brünnhilde. And he fails to look like a God. Juha Uusitalo as Wotan effectively betrayed his increasing insecurity. The audience buzz was that he was seriously ill the year before and had two bouts of surgery for a “head tumour”. His delivery was static and he was often drowned by the orchestra. Audience reaction confirmed this at the end when Alberich and Loge were hailed loud and long, Wotan less so.
The staging of Die Walküre, however, took a bit of getting used to. Hunding’s tree-house seemed to be growing in the middle of a great room. The third act opening was wonderful, though. A bare stage with nine horses, presumably in the paddock outside Valhalla, before the Walküre appeared, not as nine models off a ramp, but as an extremely dangerous gang of blood-stained harpies, who looked perfectly at ease in combat, with cowering figures fleeing before them. However the horses remained in situ until Loge’s fire engulfed the mountain top in magnificent flames that moved in time with the music. Then it looked as if the poor steeds were being immolated too, and that was upsetting.
There is a similar distraction in Siegfried, when the back wall of Mime’s great workshop, complete with ventilator fans, remained as a backdrop to Brünnhilde’s mountain top. In Götterdämmerung, Siegfried and Brünnhilde’s love nest looks like a white plastic tarpaulin laid in the middle of a car park with chevron stripes marking the parking bays. Later when the Rhinemaidens reappear, dancing in the river wearing swim hats, the thought of a synchronised swimming team is hard to avoid.
However, it must be said that interpretation of abstract sets is fleeting and they quickly give way to focussing on the characters on stage. Musically, one of the highlights is Siegfried’s funeral march. It is quite long, so a funeral procession has to move back and forth across the stage until it is over, unless… Yes, that’s it! Play it to a black stage, let all the drama lie in the music, let the orchestra perform a virtuoso piece, like Leonore III as an intermezzo in Fidelio… And it was wonderful. Conductor and orchestra seized their moment to enthralling effect.
At 10:30pm on May 21, after some 16 hours, it was all over. The relief was palpable! And the only production of the Ring I plan on seeing from now on is the Bugs Bunny one!
For an analysis of the Ring cycle, you can’t go past Anna Russell’s. It is hilarious!
Wagner was big on mythology. He based the four epic music dramas (as they are correctly referred to, as opposed to operas) on Norse mythology. He worked his butt off reading and interpreting the source material. He absolutely incensed the scholars of the day because he reinterpreted the material, simplified it, and reshuffled the names amongst the characters he used as he saw fit. If you think the story in the music dramas is complicated, it is child’s play compared to the source books he used.
Wagner wrote the epic text and composed the music over the course of about twenty-six years, from 1848 to 1874. He did have a 12 year break during that time. Even he got sick of the Ring! The four music dramas that constitute the Ring cycle are, in the order of the imagined events they portray:
Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold)
Die Walküre (The Valkyrie)
Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods)
Although individual dramas are performed as works in their own right, a full understanding of the story of the Ring cycle requires attendance at all four dramas, which was the intention and expectation of the composer.
For the Ring, Wagner decided to adopt a through-composed style, whereby each act of each drama would be a continuous piece of music with no breaks whatsoever. In the essay Opera and Drama (1852), Wagner describes the way in which poetry, music and the visual arts should combine to form what he called The Artwork of the Future. He called these artworks “music-dramas”, and thereafter very rarely referred to his works as operas.
Wagner started with the text, in 1848, and the text for all four dramas was completed in December 1852. In November 1853, Wagner began the composition draft of Das Rheingold. Unlike the verses, which were written as it were in reverse order (4 to 1), the music was composed in the same order as the narrative flowed (1 to 4). Composition proceeded until 1857, when the final score up to the end of Act II of Siegfried was completed. Wagner then laid the work aside for twelve years, during which he wrote Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger of Nurnberg. By 1869, Wagner was living at Tribschen on Lake Lucerne, sponsored by King Ludwig II of Bavaria. He returned to Siegfried, and, remarkably, was able to pick up where he left off. In November 1874, the score of the Ring was finally completed. In 1875 they started the preliminary rehearsals for the Ring and in 1876 they staged the first Bayreuth Festival. They made a loss at the first festival, so the second was not held until 1882.
Wagner was a genius, no question about it. In his lifetime, and for some years after, Wagner inspired fanatical devotion. He still does. There are people spending their life attending one Ring cycle after another. His compositions, in particular Tristan und Isolde, broke important new musical ground. The twentieth century harmonic revolutions of Claude Debussy and Arnold Schoenberg (tonal and atonal modernism, respectively) have often been traced back to Tristan und Isolde. The Italian form of operatic realism known as verismo owes much to Wagnerian reconstruction of musical form. Wagner made a major contribution to the principles and practice of conducting. His essay On conducting (1869) advanced the earlier work of Hector Berlioz and proposed that conducting was a means by which a musical work could be re-interpreted, rather than simply a mechanism for achieving orchestral unison. Wagner also made significant changes to the conditions under which operas were performed. It was Wagner who first demanded that the lights be dimmed during dramatic performances, and it was his theatre at Bayreuth which first made use of the sunken orchestra pit, which at Bayreuth entirely conceals the orchestra from the audience.
Wagner’s influence on literature and philosophy is also significant. He was a prolific writer. Friedrich Nietzsche was part of Wagner’s inner circle during the early 1870s. They fell out after the first Bayreuth Festival. In the twentieth century, W.H. Auden once called Wagner “perhaps the greatest genius that ever lived”, while Thomas Mann and Marcel Proust were heavily influenced by him and discussed Wagner in their novels. Many of the ideas his music brought up, such as the association between love and death in Tristan und Isolde, predated their investigation by Sigmund Freud.
Not everyone was quite so ecstatic. Wagner’s operas, writings, his politics, beliefs and unorthodox lifestyle made him a controversial figure during his lifetime. In September 1876 Karl Marx complained in a letter to his daughter Jenny: “Wherever one goes these days one is pestered with the question: what do you think of Wagner?” I sympathise. Over the week spent in Vienna I came to hate this question. I had someone in the tour group call me names for not professing eternal love for Wagner and the Ring! A Wagner tragic I think. Following Wagner’s death, the debate about his ideas and their interpretation, particularly in Germany during the 20th century, continued to make him politically and socially controversial in a way that other great composers are not. Much heat is generated by Wagner’s comments on Jews, which continue to influence the way that his works are regarded, and by the essays he wrote on the nature of race from 1850 onwards, and their putative influence on the anti-Semitism of Adolf Hitler.
Hitler was an admirer of Wagner’s music and anti-Jewish sentiments and saw in Wagner’s operas an embodiment of his own vision of the German nation. There continues to be debate about the extent to which Wagner’s views might have influenced Nazi thinking. As with the works of Nietzsche, the Nazis used those parts of Wagner’s thought that were useful for propaganda and ignored or suppressed the rest. Hitler is still responsible for what he did, but his anti-Semitic views were not original. Indeed those views are still present and strong in Austria.
Actor Stephen Fry explores his passion for history’s most controversial composer, Richard Wagner, in the BBC documentary “Wagner and Me”. He attempts to wrest the composer from the Nazi stigma, without dismissing the stench of anti-Semitism around a man who wrote an essay in 1850 denouncing the Jewish influence in music, and describing his “involuntary repellence” at their “nature and personality”.
Wagner’s pamphlet is enough to close many ears in the modern world to his music, but Fry cannot believe that the man who wrote the Ring cycle, Tristan and Isolde and Parsifal could have been a racist creep. I can. The problem is that Fry is also Jewish. He lost relatives in Auschwitz and he feels a certain guilt that the greatest love of his artistic life is a small, ugly, Jew-hating German composer who was also Hitler’s favourite.
“Wagner and Me” is an absorbing and elegantly produced film, in which Fry is always a likeable host, even when he gushes. He is a self-declared Wagner tragic! His engagement is infectious and genuinely serious. He makes you want to dive into the 15 hours of The Ring, if not perhaps to line up and wait seven years for a ticket to Bayreuth. But I know better now!