About Superconductor

Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Who Wants to Be a Wagnerite?

or...Happy Birthday, Richard Wagner!
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Ernestine Schumann-Heink as Waltraute in Götterdämmerung.
Original photograph © Bettmann/Corbis. 
Festive birthday cupcake added by the author.
Today is Richard Wagner's 200th birthday, and rather than give you a listicle full of dubious recommendations for the best Ring Cycle or another review of a new recording of Die Walküre, I thought I'd talk about something important.

Wagner takes patience. Endurance. Commitment. And yes, it takes a certain degree of physical (and possibly emotional) masochism to sit through the Waltraute scene from Götterdämmerung or the marathon first act of Parsifal. Don't get me started on Die Meistersinger, a six-hour comedy that ends with the public humiliation of the local bureaucrat and a speech on the importance of "holy German art."

That's another column.

From the very beginning, Wagner planned to be the biggest thing in the world. After a few false starts, the composer created Rienzi and soon after, Der Fliegende Holländer. That opera seized the imagination with its orchestral evocation of salt spray and ghost ships. Tannhäuser followed, a conflation of two German medieval tales with a heavy dose of Dresden-style liturgical music. Next came Lohengrin, the opera whose dubious cultural legacy includes phrases like "Sieg heil" (it's in the first act) and inspired Hitler to take the title of "Führer." That said, its Act III "Bridal Chorus" continues to be the soundtrack for most weddings in the Western world under its English title: "Here Comes the Bride."

As he created these works, Wagner lived a vagabond life that would be the envy of any modern Hollywood celebrity. With his first wife, Minna, he bounced around Europe, looking for acceptance of his works. He settled in Dresden, only to get kicked out of that city for aiding an uprising in that city's streets. He fled to Switzerland and found shelter with Otto and Mathilde Wesendonck, only to lose it again when his love for Frau Wesendonck came to light. (That was the inspiration for Tristan und Isolde.) Finally, he ditched Minna and fell in love with Cosima von Bulow, the daughter of Franz Liszt and wife of conductor (and Wagner supporter) Hans von Bulow. Yeah, Wagner was kind of a jerk.

To create the Ring, Wagner cheerfully bastardized the mythology of northern Europe, creating a hybrid saga that has effectively eclipsed the mythos on which it is based. To perform his four-part story, he demanded the construction of special instruments, stage props, and even a festival theater to house the whole megillah. (In doing so, he may have invented the practice of trekking out to the countryside in the summer to hear classical music and opera, thus making sure that we critics have employment in the hottest months of the year. Maybe he's not all bad.)

At that theater, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, Wagner demanded total, almost slavish concentration on the music or the stage action that was being presented. He took steps to ensure that audiences in his new theater paid attention. He encouraged the practice of turning the lights down in theaters playing his operas, making the hand-held opera libretto an item of limited usefulness. And his opera acts that are played attacca, without pauses for the audience to applaud a fine singer or chorus until the lights came back on. That includes the two-and-a-half hours of Das Rheingold and the marathon first acts of Götterdämmerung and Parsifal which can easily stretch past the two-hour mark.

With Parsifal, he attempted to ensure that this "stage-consecrating festival play" would only be performed at Bayreuth, an embargo that held until the Metropolitan Opera broke it in 1903. (The United States had not signed the relevant copyright agreement.) He also encouraged a cult of pseudo-religious devotion around this particular opera, adding to its mystic appeal while churning out pseudo-philosophical claptrap like Judaism in Music and Religion and Art. (To paraphrase Mark Twain, Wagner's music is much better than his prose.)

Despite all these issues (and that's not even mentioning Wagner's repellent anti-Semitism or the appeal of his philosophical ravings to a young Austrian house-painter) there remains a seductive, undeniable pull when you listen to or watch one of these operas. The sound of a giant orchestra in full flight, supporting eight blood-thirsty Valkyries still makes the blood race. Despite Hans Sachs' German-nationalist blather, the third act of Die Meistersinger is both brilliant and moving. (But boy it's long!) The high, divided strings of the Lohengrin Prelude inspire hope for the arrival of a (literal) knight in shining armor. And the mysteries of Parsifal continue to inspire and confound conductors, who struggle to put their stamp on this strangely amorphous score.

So it's Richard Wagner's 200th birthday. Freulichte Gebürtstag, Meister. I'm going to go back to watching Die Walküre.

Post a Comment


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

My photo

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.