Category Archives: Austria

The Hills Are Alive With The Sound of Music

Look Honey, Mozartkugeln!

The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music

Hmm, they are not blue and round like the Mozartkugeln we had in Salzburg… With early season cherries…

Cherries and Chocolate in Salzburg
Cherries and Chocolate in May in Salzburg

We can only get the Fürst Mozartkugeln in Salzburg. Paul Fürst, the Salzburg confectioner, created Salzburger Mozartkugel in 1890. It’s said he was awarded a gold medal for his product, which had already become famous, at the Paris Exhibition of 1905. These are the Reber Mozart-Kugeln, which have a flat side, like all the other industrially produced Mozartkugeln. Only the Mirabell Mozartkugeln are allowed to be round, like the Fürst Mozartkugeln, because they are made in Grödig, near Salzburg. Even the EC Commissioner had to get involved in the dispute on the Original Austria Mozartkugeln! Only Fürst’s products may be called Original Salzburg Mozartkugeln.

The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music

The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music

In Salzburg, we visited the Mirabell Palace and Gardens, where some of the scenes in The Sound of Music were filmed. Earlier this year, The Sound of Music celebrated its 50th birthday. It was thanks to this Hollywood movie that Salzburg City, home to so many of the most famous shooting locations, became truly world-famous.

The Sound of Music Scene in Salzburg
The Sound of Music Scene in Salzburg

Maria and the children sing ‘Do-Re-Mi’ while dancing around the fountain and using the steps as a musical scale.

The Sound of Music Scene in Mirabell Gardens
The Sound of Music Scene in Mirabell Gardens
The Sound of Music scene in Mirabell Gardens
The Sound of Music scene in Mirabell Gardens

Maria’s hat in the Sound of Music was a bit plain…

The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music

But check out the cherries on Mary Poppins’ hat!

Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins
Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins
Mirabell Garden and Palace
Mirabell Garden and Palace

The Mirabell palace was commissioned in 1606 by Prince Archbishop Wolf Dietrich von Raitenau for his mistress Salome Alt. He called the palace Altenau, and had it built outside the city walls. Altenau Palace was intended to be a fitting residence for Salome and their children and Wolf Dietrich hoped it would go some way to making up for the fact that they were excluded from many social events because he was a cleric and could not marry his beloved Salome, and their children were treated as illegitimate.

Mirabell Palace, Marble Hall
Mirabell Palace, Marble Hall

The Marble Hall and the Grand Staircase have been left unscathed by the fire that swept through the city in 1818 and destroyed much of the palace. The Marble Hall, once the ceremonial hall of the prince archbishops, is now one of the most beautiful wedding halls in the world. Leopold Mozart, and his children Wolfgang and Nannerl, performed here, although they would have played to accompany festive dinners rather than weddings. The Marble Hall is also an imposing venue for conferences, ceremonies, and atmospheric concerts such as the Salzburg Palace Concerts. We were lucky enough to attend a Mozart and Haydn concert in the Marble Hall. The gilded stucco work and the splendid marble make the hall one of the most beautiful halls in the world.

Mirabell Palace, Marble Hall
Mirabell Palace, Marble Hall

The masterly staircase by Lukas von Hildebrandt is among the palace’s greatest artistic treasures. Charming cherubs decorate the marble balustrade and the whole staircase has a playful charm. The sculptures in the niches are the work of the famous Georg Raphael Donner and among the finest products of the European baroque.

Mirabell Palace, Grand Staircase
Mirabell Palace, Grand Staircase

We went to Salzburg looking for the sound of Mozart. After all, the delicious pistachio marzipan and nougat covered dark chocolates are called Mozartkugeln not The Sound of Music Kugeln!

The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music

For Mozart, music just wasn’t difficult. He learned to understand music as he learned to understand speech. Music was part of him and he needed it like we need food. He started playing little pieces on the piano at the age of four, he started to compose at the age of five and shortly after that he became a brilliant organist, an excellent violinist and an able singer. At the age of 12 he composed his first opera and was by then already a fine conductor.

Mozart was obviously such a genius that Papa Leopold (a violinist, composer and music teacher) decided that what the world really needed was to hear Wolfgang along with his pianist / harpsichordist sister Maria Anna (known as Nannerl) play. So waving farewell to their native Salzburg, the Mozart family embarked upon a series of tours to the great cities of Europe. This is great for us, as Leopold started to write long letters to his friends back in Salzburg, boasting of Wolfgang and Nannerl’s triumphs. These letters, and later ones between the family, give us a huge amount of information about Mozart’s life – all of which is today studied, analysed, dissected, held upside-down and read back-to-front by “Mozart scholars” the world over.

Mozart toured, or rather was toured, relentlessly. This must have been hard on him as it would be on any youngster, but it gave him an invaluable insight into all manner of different composers and their musical styles. The combination of his unique talent and what Papa Leopold did to it, produced one of the greatest musical minds ever to have graced the planet.

One of the benefits of this incessant touring is that Mozart touched, at first hand, all manner of musical threads and wove them into his own one-off tapestry. His youthful works show him assimilating, copying and mimicking the music and techniques he came across on tour. Gradually, these became absorbed and he began to produce his own statements, works that could only be “fingerprint” Mozart pieces.

The great artistic heroes often make sacrifices during their pursuit of excellence and in Mozart’s case, his success came with its own set of strings attached.

The concerts were great and the audiences just worshipped him but Mozart was not having a normal childhood and his health suffered from all the travelling. Being away from other children and almost always on his own, save for Nannerl, must have taken its toll on the young boy. He would wake up in the night, crying for Salzburg and the people he knew. He would frequently ask people he had only recently met if they loved him. He appeared to have a number of issues when it came to loving and being loved. These traits of high self-esteem, or even arrogance, coupled with bouts of self-doubt and intense need to be loved are common among many high-achieving artistic performers.

At the age of 25, Mozart finally exchanged the small-minded gossip of Salzburg for the small-minded gossip of Vienna, but at least in Vienna there were lots more people to gossip with. Mozart didn’t take too long to become famous in Vienna, giving masses of concerts, in which he played his own piano music with joyous brilliance and conducted his stunning orchestral works; he also wrote more operas and chamber music and was acknowledged by many as the greatest musician alive.

Although he was earning a lot, at least at one stage, Mozart could never save money. He gave too many parties, bought too many flashy and expensive clothes. He simply lived beyond his means. All the work and the worry about money were taking their toll on Mozart’s health. What he really wanted (and needed) was a major post at the Emperor’s court in Vienna, but he couldn’t get one, partly it seems because of the behind-the-scenes plotting of Salieri who had a finely paid appointment at the court and didn’t want it threatened. Finally though, Mozart’s career took a turn for the better. In 1791, the year of his death, he was commissioned to write two operas. One was the Magic Flute, written for a people’s theatre in Vienna, where the tickets were actually affordable; it was an instant hit. The other was called La Clemenza di Tito, composed for the Czech capital, Prague, where Mozart’s music was adored. He practically wrote the whole opera in 18 days.

Mozart died at the young age of 35, a pretty horrible death. He had a miserable funeral and his body was laid in a common grave outside Vienna, his remains lost to us forever. He deserved better in death, just as he had deserved better in life. Imagine what he might have composed if he had lived another 35 years!

The real miracle about Mozart was that his music became greater and greater as he got older. Someone once asked Mozart how he managed to write such perfect music. “I don’t know any other way to compose” was the answer. But although every note he wrote was beautiful, he could express within that beauty any number of emotions or moods, including tragic or even terrifying ones. His music was everything.

Mozart wrote 27 piano concertos, mostly for his own concerts. One of the reasons for this was that Vienna was piano country. This is what Mozart wrote to his father in 1781, noting that in the salons of Vienna, the piano was king. In all the 25 years of his life prior to the move to Vienna, he had composed a respectable 10 piano concertos, but in the next 10 years, up to his death in 1791, he would compose a further 17.

Mozart’s piano concertos, more than any other type of work he wrote, highlight his development as a composer. They are often said to form the backbone of his output: he wrote his first when he was 17 and continued composing new one right up to the year he died. Generally, his piano concertos were written for him to perform himself and the early ones, while displaying flashes of genius, reveal someone very keen to show off his keyboard skills. By the time we reach the later concertos, Mozart’s musical thinking is on a whole new level.

Listening to them, especially the later ones, you can feel what an amazing player he must have been – and how much he must have enjoyed dazzling people with his brilliance. If he felt that someone was really appreciating him, he’d be happy to play for them for hours. But you also hear how unbearably sad he must have been at times and it’s often that feeling that stays with you the longest. Like Piano Concerto no 23. The three movements are completely different from each other, yet somehow make up one satisfying story. The first movement is so elegant, it’s as if we have been transported to a perfect world; in the third it seems as though we can hear people laughing and dancing. It’s the second movement though, the slow movement, that is the heart of the work; it is so sad that we feel we’re looking into a river with no end to its depths. Its beauty is truly magical. His last public performance was of his Piano Concerto no 27.

In Mozart’s piano concertos there are passages where the hand stumbles, even after patient rehearsal. It is not a matter of their being badly written for the piano, because they aren’t. Indeed the composer himself was a virtuoso performer, who played all these works and adjusted anything which he found awkward. There seems to be something challenging about Mozart which demands constant alertness, even years after learning the music. Performing his music one feels both very happy and very exposed. There is nowhere to hide, because he is one of those rare composers who writes no more than he means to say.

Mozart’s symphonies 39, 40 and 41 were all written in less than two months, which is an outstanding achievement. The last symphony, Jupiter, is a feast of golden brilliance. The music has an imperial feeling to it – just as you would expect the king of the gods to sound. Symphony no 40 has a sadness about it, but despite that feeling of melancholy, it has steadfastly remained the most popular of all his symphonies.

The Requiem is totally glorious and tragic. It is one of the greatest requiems ever written. Mozart didn’t manage to finish this piece. In fact, it was still being rehearsed by his bedside the night before he died. It was as if the great man were writing his own tribute to himself.

Mozart’s pianist / composer son, Franz Xaver Wolfgang, who was only five months old when his father died, was very talented – but the shadow of his great father loomed so large in his life that he never really dared to make the most of his talents; he was always worried about letting down the family name. It’s sad that so many people connected with Mozart suffered from being close to him – perhaps they got burned because they got too close to the sun! We’re luckier; today we can just bask in his glorious rays. And three cities – Salzburg, which he tried to ignore, Vienna, which tried to ignore him and Prague, the one place where he was truly appreciated in his own lifetime – all make a fortune today from the tourists who flock to any historic building associated with Mozart.

On January 27, 2006, the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mozart, all 35 churches of Salzburg rang their bells a little after 8pm (local time) to celebrate the occasion. Major celebrations took place throughout the year. Apparently not all the exhibitions and celebrations were successful and Salzburg made a mess of a few of them. Oh well, the proverbial happens. In another 250 years it will all be forgotten. It might take longer however to forget the ridiculous rivalry between Vienna and Salzburg. In Vienna there were signs proclaiming “Don’t go to Salzburg – Mozart hated Salzburg!” while in Salzburg there were signs proclaiming “Don’t go to Vienna, they killed him!”

You’ll get a double dose of Mozart in Salzburg, the Mozart Birthplace and the Mozart Residence. The house where Mozart was born is also where he composed most of his boy-genius works. Today it’s the most popular Mozart sight in town. You can peruse three floors of rooms with exhibits displaying paintings, letters, personal items, and lots of facsimiles, all attempting to bring life to the Mozart story.

Mozart Birthplace, Salzburg
Mozart Birthplace, Salzburg

The Mozart Residence, the home where his family moved when he was 17, is less interesting than the house where he was born, but it’s also roomier, less crowded, and holds a piano that Mozart actually owned. It also comes with an informative audioguide and a 30-minute narrated slideshow.

Mozart Residence, Salzburg
Mozart Residence, Salzburg
Mozart Birthplace, Salzburg
Mozart’s piano in the Mozart Residence, Salzburg

Mozart’s family is buried in a small church graveyard in the old town at St Sebastian’s Church.

The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music

Nannerl, his sister, is not buried with the family, as Constanze is. She asked to be buried at St Peter’s, the thought of spending eternity with Constanze (Mozart’s wife) being too much for her.

We know where Mozart’s coffin was last seen, there is a plaque at St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna marking the place, but it is presumed buried in a mass grave. For the 2006 celebrations, scientists tried to identify Mozart’s bones using DNA analysis, but were not successful.

While in Salzburg, we went to a performance of the opera Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail, or The Abduction from the Seraglio, as we know it. Mozart completed the opera in 1782 and it premiered on 16 July 1782, at the Burgtheater in Vienna, to enormous acclaim. By then, a hundred years after the Turks ceased to be a clear and present danger to the Austrian Empire, the Turkish motif had become extremely fashionable, and the opera was inspired by a contemporary interest in the perceived “exotic” culture of the Ottoman Empire. The work was soon being performed “throughout German-speaking Europe”, and fully established Mozart’s reputation as a composer.

A production of The Abduction from the Seraglio, not the one in Salzburg
A production of The Abduction from the Seraglio, not the one in Salzburg

The music includes some of the composer’s most spectacular and difficult arias. Osmin’s Act III aria “O, wie will ich triumphieren” includes characteristic 18th century coloratura passage work, and twice goes down to a low D, one of the lowest notes demanded of any voice in opera. Perhaps the most famous aria in the opera is the long and elaborate “Martern aller Arten” (“Tortures of all kinds”) for Konstanze, an outstanding challenge for sopranos, as it requires the ability for a natural E. Konstanze sings in a kind of sinfonia concertante with four solo players from the orchestra; the strikingly long orchestral introduction (64 bars), to give the soprano time to recover from the previous aria, without stage action, also poses problems for stage directors.

The virtuosity of these roles is perhaps attributable to the fact that when he took up the task of composing the opera, Mozart already knew the outstanding reputations of the singers for whom he was writing, and he tailored the arias to their strengths, as was the custom in the 18th century. The first Osmin was Ludwig Fisher, a bass noted for his wide range and skill in leaping over large intervals with ease. Similarly, Mozart wrote of the first Konstanze, Caterina Cavalieri, “I have sacrificed Konstanze’s aria a little to the flexible throat of Mlle. Cavalieri”, to give her the opportunity to display her vocal virtuosity.

Caterina Cavalieri
Caterina Cavalieri

Fischer could sing from a low D to a high A, and he controlled this extraordinary range with unusual lightness, purity, and precision. It was said of his voice that it displayed “the depth of a cello and the natural height of a tenor.” Cavalieri made her debut in 1775 and was one of the finest singers of her day, especially in German opera. She was renowned for her fioratura abilities. Mozart wrote memorable music for her. Apart the role of Constanze in The Abduction from the Seraglio, she also sang Donna Elvira in the premiére of Don Giovanni in 1788.

The opera is a Singspiel, which is a bit like a mocha, neither one thing nor the other 🙂 a play with music – everyone stops for a song, then carries on. Some characters don’t sing at all. The work is light-hearted and frequently comic with little deep character exploration or the darker feelings found in Mozart’s later operas. The action is carried forward by spoken dialogue and the Salzburg production used narrators which was a novel approach. They also looked absolutely gorgeous and were perfect eye candy 🙂 I didn’t understand a thing they were saying as there were no subtitles, surtitles or any other titles, but the cheekiness came through and the only way I can describe the production and the performance is adorable.

There is a well-known tale about the opera. The Emperor Joseph II commissioned the opera, but when he heard it, he complained to Mozart, “That is too fine for my ears — there are too many notes.” Mozart replied, “There are just as many notes as there should be.”

Mozart produced operas in each of the prevailing styles. The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi fan tutte are opera buffa. The libretto for all three was written by Lorenzo da Ponte. Opera buffa is more of a cappuccino: frothy, light and with lots of sweetness sprinkled on top. The term was at first used as an informal description of Italian comic operas. It is especially associated with developments in Naples in the first half of the 18th century, from there its popularity spread to Rome and northern Italy. Mozart composed increasingly more complex operas, and the delay of the premiere of Don Giovanni in Prague was also due to the fact that the singers found it more difficult to perform and memorize their roles and preparations took longer.

He also composed opera seria, one example being La clemenza di Tito, the last opera he composed, for Prague, barely three months before his death. Opera seria is like an espresso – a serious, strong opera.

By and large, composers tend to be a rather fickle bunch and never miss an opportunity to stab one another in the back. However, many of the greatest composers through classical music history have been completely united in their praise for Mozart’s music.

One such composer is Haydn. Mozart met Joseph Haydn in Vienna, and the two composers became friends. When Haydn visited Vienna, they sometimes played together in an impromptu string quartet. Mozart’s six string quartets (K. 387, K. 421, K. 428, K. 458, K. 464, and K. 465) date from the period 1782 to 1785, and amount to a carefully considered response to Haydn’s Opus 33 set from 1781. He stood in awe of Mozart, whose sister recorded that in 1781 Haydn told the visiting Leopold: “I tell you before God, and as an honest man, your son is the greatest composer known to me by person and repute, he has taste and what is more the greatest skill in composition.”

The Deep End

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.

Demel Kohlmarkt 14 A-1010 Vienna http://www.demel.at/en
Demel
Kohlmarkt 14
A-1010 Vienna
http://www.demel.at/en

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.

Demel Interior
Demel Interior

The apfelstrudel is the best!

The Deep End

And the candied violets are irresistible!

The Deep End

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.

Vienna State Opera
Vienna State Opera
Vienna State Opera, Main Staircase
Vienna State Opera, Main Staircase
Vienna State Opera, Interior
Vienna State Opera, Interior

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
Franz Welser-Möst

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.

Vienna State Opera Hall
Vienna State Opera Hall

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.

Das Rheingold, Vienna, 2009
Das Rheingold, Vienna, 2009

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.

Richard Wagner in 1871
Richard Wagner in 1871

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)
Siegfried
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!