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Monday, October 17, 2011

Blues for a Monster

(or, when Wagner meets Star Trek.)
A view of the space entity "V'Ger" from Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Image © 1978 Paramount Pictures.
The second act of Wagner's Siegfried, (the third opera of the Ring Cycle, opening at the Met on Oct. 27) starts with a long, dark prelude, depicting the dark forest cave ("Neidhole") that is the resting place of the dragon Fafner. The prelude was dubbed  "Fafner's Repose" by musicologist Ernest Newman in his invaluable book The Wagner Operas.

A slow tremolo in the 'cellos and basses, and the timpani player taps out a dark, five-note theme representing the dragon. This is followed by a taxing contrabass tuba solo that pushes player and instrument to the utmost. This solo takes tremendous skill and breath control.

The curse theme (first heard in Das Rheingold) rings out in the bass trumpet and then gets a thorough working-out in the bass trombones. The timpani rhythm returns, setting the stage for the coming battle between the Wurm and the title character.

Here's what's going on in the scene: Fafner possesses the Ring of the Nibelung, and has done so for at least 40 years (counting from the birth of Siegmund and Sieglinde before the last opera Die Walküre.) Transformed by the Tarnhelm into a fearsome dragon, the ex-giant spends most of his time sleeping in a cave, contemplating the fact that he achieved ownership of the Ring, Tarnhelm, and Nibelung hoard by killing his brother.

Here's the music:

This  prelude was echoed, 100 years later, by Hollywood composer Jerry Goldsmith in his score for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In the scene (depicted below) the Enterprise has its first close encounter with V'Ger, the 59-mile-long alien spacecraft that is threatening Earth.

Watch the scene below:

The Trek score makes use of similar orchestration, dark, growling strings and a lung-busting tuba solo that lets the viewer know what a majestic and totally badass Alien Entity this is. It also makes use of the Blaster Beam, a 20-foot long electric instrument (like a giant pedal steel guitar) that is either struck or played using an artillery shell as a slide.

Like the Wagner score, Jerry Goldsmith's music for V'Ger has a quality of dark loneliness brought on by absolute power. There is a grim, uncertain yearning in this music that makes it among the younger composer's best work.

V'Ger has travelled across the galaxy in search of its "creator." The giant craft, which obliterates everything it encounters (digitizing ships, space stations and whole planets as "data storage") lives in a giant "power cloud" twice the size of the distance from Earth to the Sun. 

Yet for all its impressiveness, V'Ger proves to be cold and empty inside. Both pieces, with their majestic but mournful tuba solos, do not inspire dread but a very human pity for the creature, hiding in the dark.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.