Sunday, August 23, 2009

BMF: Engineering the Triumph of Wagnerism

This month I've been writing about my time at Bard College for their annual Summerscape festival which culminates in the Bard Music Festival, "part boot camp for the brain, part spa for the spirit" (New York Times).

We are in the middle of the final day of the second weekend of "Wagner and His World." I've already written about the first weekend, and the two major works that framed the festival the first week of August.

I left off with Wagner's apprenticeship in Paris, and so I'll pick up with a program that featured a good dose of (French, German, and English) operetta, some imitating and some spoofing Wagner. Amy was joined by Jennifer Rivera, Jon-Michael Ball and Jonathan Hays for an enjoyable recital entitled "Bearable Lightness: The Comic Alternative." My friend and colleague, James Bassi, directed the musical shape and pace of the program from the piano. The composer and professor Richard Wilson provided droll and insightful commentary between the sets of songs, arias, and enembles.

Arthur Sullivan (the musical half of Gilbert & Sullivan), famously dismissed Wagner's music as "intolerably dull and heavy, and so undramatic." Yet one of his most sophisticated scores, "Iolanthe," betrays a heavy debt to Wagner. Amy and Jon-Michael sang an energetic love-duet, Jennifer was an impassioned Iolanthe, and Jonathan stole the scene with one of the cleverest of the G&S patter songs, "Love Unrequited, Robs Me of My Rest."

This was preceded by a set of Chabrier songs that featured both sides of the "light" response to Wagner's music in Paris. "The ballad of the fat turkeys" and "Villanelle of the little ducks" were comic character songs (engagingly sung by Amy and Jennie, respectively). In between the caricatures, Amy offered a beautiful, Tristan-tinged "L'ile heureuse" (the happy island).

If Chabrier wavered in allegiance to Wagnerism, Jacques Offenbach was one of Wagner's most visible Parisian critics. He turned to operetta as a melodic and immediately appealing alternative to Wagner's "music of the future." I am indebted to the excellent program notes by Byron Adams for the quotes herein; here is one from Offenbach: "to be erudite and boring isn't art; it's better to be pungent and tuneful."

The beautifully simple & tuneful duet opera lovers know as the "barcarolle" from "The Tales of Hoffmann" first appeared in Offenbach's Rhine-inspired opera, "Die Rheinnixen." Despite the fact Offenbach could not have known Wagner's "Das Rheingold," the fortuitousness of the pairing is deliciously ironic.

The program also included piano music by Faure and his student, Andre Messager, as well as music from German operetta. Suppe's "Lohengelb" IS a deliberate spoof on Lohengrin, as Oscar Strauss' "The Merry Nibelungs" is on Wagner's Ring cycle.

The Ring Cycle was the theme of Saturday night's concert, "The Selling of the Ring." As I mentioned in a previous post, the festival is programming excerpts from the operas Wagner himself arranged and conducted. His practice was to select the most accessible and extractable passages (no mean feet in the "unending melody" of operas whose individual acts last 1 1/2 hours alone) and close with the overture.

Since the Ring tetralogy dispenses with the traditional overture, this program featured orchestral excerpts from within the operas themselves. (Das Rheingold does open with a 136 bar prelude that is a study itself in Wagnerian unfolding--the spinning out of a single idea over a length of time with accumulating motion & force. In this case, a single E-flat chord is repeated and varied, gathering momentum over nearly five minutes of scales and arpeggios until it spills seamlessly over into the opening scene of the Rhine Maidens swimming in the Rhine with their gold).

The concert did not feature the prelude but rather the other bookend to Das Rheingold, "The Entry of the Gods into Valhalla." The unfolding technique is used in this scene as well, which begins with Donner using his hammer to evoke the thunder and lightning and literally clear the air. He urges his brother, Froh (the part I sang) to build a bridge to lead into their new fortress (Valhalla). 12 bars of shimmering G-flat, accompanied by the harps and strings, feature a rising Valhalla-inspired motive that is introduced by the lower strings, winds and horns. Though I only sang one page of Froh's music, it was a glorious page to sing. Wotan and Loge finish the scene, though they are interrupted by the complaining Rhinemaidens (who's stolen gold Wotan promised to return--the god of contracts is notorious for breaking them in Wanger's cycle).

Das Rheingold was the first of the tetralogy to be composed, but the last "poem" to be written. Wagner thought of his libretti as independent poetic dramas and published them separately, ahead of the operas, for commercial, promotional & aesthetic reasons. He started with "Siegfrieds Death" which became "The Twilight of the Gods." Then he wrote a prelude to it describing the life of his hero, "Siegfried." Then he decided he needed a prelude to explain Siegfried's background and wrote the story of "The Valkyries." Finally, he decided to append a prelude to contextualize the trilogy, and wrote "The Rhine-gold." Oy.

After finishing the scores of the first two operas, and realizing his epic efforts would yield scant compensation in their gestating state, he paused. "Tristan und Isolde" and "Die Meistersinger" (originally intended to be short operas on tragic and comic subjects, respectively) were composed in the late 1850's in the hopes of immediate success and multiple productions that would bring the struggling composer some much-needed funding. The final two operas of the tetralogy were completed in the 1870's. The decade-wide gap between "Die Walküre" and "Siegfried" & "Götterdämmerung" is an especially wide one, even more so considering the intricate motivic integration of "Der Ring des Nibelungen."

Much ink has been spilled on the gap in Wagner's style as a result of both the long lapse, and the stylistic evolutions of Tristan and Meistersinger. I think this point is exaggerated. Already in Act 1 of "Die Walküre" we hear the musical evocation of love & desire that would perfume the 4+ hours of "Tristan und Isolde." Once Wagner hit his stride with the Ring, his style was achieved. And though the inflection of his voice may evolve from opera to opera, it remains the same expressive voice.

I had the extraordinary opportunity to apprentice at the Young Artists Festival in Bayreuth in 1996, and return in 1997 as an assistant professor. Within a span of 8 days in August of 1996, I saw the Ring Cycle, Heiner Müller's stunning, instant-classic-upon-its-conception production of "Tristan & Isolde" (and now available on DVD), and "Die Meistersinger." The following year I repeated the experience of seeing my two favorite Ring operas, "Die Walküre" and "Götterdämmerung," "Tristan" & "Meistersinger" and added Wagner's sublime final opera, "Parsifal" to the docket. These were--and remain--overwhelming and unforgettable experiences. I was unprepared for Wagner's impact. Having long been an admirer of the generation of composers he influenced (namely Mahler and Richard Strauss), I never really "got" Wagner. And what I read about his life, and the infamous association of his works with Nazism, only reinforced that predisposition.

This brings to mind one of the best lessons my undergraduate mentor, "Daddy" Dave Watkins taught his students: you can not judge a work until you really know it. This is true in the music of Wagner, even more so for the retroactive guilt to which modern history has subjected him, given the coincidence of his racist views with Nazism. I'll write more about that later. For now, I will repeat what I've said before, that one judge the work on its merits, and the life on its terms. When the two intersect, collide and/or explode, then the makings of contentious symposia (like "Wagner and the Jewish Question") is engaging and worthy grist.

Amy, who has had little experience with Wagner live, was completely overwhelmed by last night's concert, as I expected she woud be. She also agreed with me with her two favorite operas. "Die Walküre" includes some very appealing excerpts. Siegmund's "Love Song" and the famous "Ride of the Valkyries" and Wotan's powerful "Farewell" to Brünnhilde make the second opera in the Ring cycle the most popular, and among the most beloved. Gary Lehman and James Johnson were both outstanding as Siegmund & Wotan. What a thrill to share the stage with such distinguished Wagnerian singers!

"Götterdämmerung" has a pair of great orchestral excerpts--Siegfried's "Rhine journey" and his death and "Funeral music." The closing "Immolation" scene with Brünnhilde features a crash-course of intermingled Leitmotiven (leading motives) that encapsulate the entire cycle. "Wagner thus recreates a musical ring" (the annotator Christopher Gibbs noted), as the epic 18-hour tetralogy comes full circle to close.

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