Saturday, August 15, 2009

Wagner and His World: The Fruits of Ambition

I am in the middle of the Bard Music Festival's annual "Rediscoveries" series. "Wagner and His World" is the 20th annual festival devoted to a composer and his milieu. The festival "has established a unique identity in the classical concert field by presenting programs that, through performance and discussion, place a selected work in the cultural and social context of the composer's world." In addition to the centerpiece orchestral concerts (many featuring soloists and chorus), chamber concerts, recitals, lectures and symposia frame two weekends of programs that are also commemorated in an annual companion publication by Princeton University Press. These books of essays, commentary, and historical documents have become standards in the field of music research and in the wider culture of music criticism and appreciation. The festival takes place on the beautiful Bard College campus, in the Catskills/Hudson River valley region of NY state. The Frank Gehry designed Fisher Center for the Performing Arts is a magnificent concert hall and one of THE destinations for classical music in the country. (For more info see:

I have already written about my experience performing in Mendelssohn's Paulus (St. Paul) and attending Meyerbeer's grand opera, Les Huguenots. These were two works Wagner singled out for initial praise in the late 1830's and early 1840's, before finding his voice--both musical and polemical--and turning against these two composers in his anti-semitic writings first published in 1850.

The festival is programmed around two weekends of events. We are in the middle of weekend one, "The Fruits of Ambition" and I am preparing to sing on tonight's orchestral program of early Wagner, provocatively titled "The Triumphant Revolutionary." On Sunday I will sing a Meyerbeer chamber work for voice, clarinet, and piano (a cousin of Schubert's "Shepherd on the Rock") on a program of "Wagner in Paris." I'll write about those concerts later. For now I want to share some thoughts and quotes about the opening program, "Genius Unanticipated."

If there is a composer with a wider quality gap between his juvenalia and mature works, I am at a loss to name one. Unlike Mozart, Mendelssohn, or closer to our day, Britten, Wagner was no prodigy. Composers like Beethoven, Verdi, and Debussy (an unlikely trio) all took time to find their distinctive voices. Leon Botstein (co-artistic director of the festival, president of Bard college, and music director of the American Symphony Orchestra) joked in rehearsal this week that the distance between Wagner's early and mature works is so great we could rightly suspect him of having used a ghost-writer!

This opening concert offered several angles from which to view such a prospect. The concert opened with the first of Wagner's operas whose excerpts have entered the repertory. The overture of Rienzi (1840) offers a few glimpses of the Wagner to come, while displaying his debt to the French grand opera of Meyerbeer and the German romanticism of Weber. The bel-canto modeled scenas from his first two operas, Die Feen (1833) and Das Liebesverbot (1834-35), however, are curiosities only. It has been a privilege for me this week to sing in rehearsals with one of the finest young dramatic sopranos around, Christine Goerke. In a piano rehearsal at Mo. Botstein's house earlier this week, I had the unenviable task of following Christine's ravishing "Liebestod" from Tristan und Isolde! Christine was valiant in the awkwardly written dramatic coloratura of Wagner first opera, and Daniel Mobbs was in outstanding voice in Wagner's 2nd opera, an adaptation of Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure." In both excerpts, I know I was not alone in admiring the artists and their artistry over the art itself.

The next work was a fragment from a larger, unfinished symphonic work. Wagner's Faust Overture (1839-40) again shows seeds of his original voice. It also betrays the gap between his imitating Beethoven and assimilating the dramatic narrative style of this greatest of 19th century composers. Indeed, it is that gap between Beethoven's knack for development--for modulation & variation that propels the movements of his symphonies inexorably forward--and Wagner's lack of this compositional skill that was so glaringly obvious in this music. No wonder Wagner was so hostile to Brahms--the real heir to Beethoven's symphonic style. The Faust Overture--indebted to Berlioz and the romantic penchant for colorful dramatic effects in the orchestra--was interesting, but sounded like a series of moments and episodes rather than an integrated and cohesive piece of orchestral music.

That overture was rendered even more hollow by its juxtaposition with music from Wagner's last opera, Parsifal (1882). The program certainly lived up to its title of "Genius Unanticipated" in this instance. Parsifal contains some of the most sublime music Wagner penned, and raises unanswerable questions concerning the relationship of the work and life of the artist. How could so despicable a human being compose such beautiful music? Is the through-line of the power of redemptive love--more explicitly present in Parsifal than in any other opera--the expression of the composer's sub- or unconscious wish/need for salvation/redemption?

The second half of the program openend with Wagner's nearly forgotten (and forgettable) Symphony in C (1832). I have to disagree with scholar Thomas S. Grey's assessment that this is "a highly creditable amalgam of middle-period Beethoven with touches of Schubert." An amalgam, yes; highly creditable, no way. Nowhere is Wagner's lack of Beethovenian development more apparent than in the four movements of this symphony of dead-ends & unvaried repetition. It was if this self-forming composer listened and culled and imitated, workshopping his way through a series of derivative apprentice works, until he found a way around his limitations and forged an individual voice unlike any other.

That voice is most famously present in the opening, tonally ambiguous strains of the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde (1857-1859). While Wagner's debt to Berlioz (especially the love-themed adagio from Romeo et Juliette) is clear, the style Wagner fashioned was entirely his own: "unending melody" via long, chromatically winding phrases, the integration of the different sections of the orchestra into a unified canvas of sound, and the elevation of the "leitmotiv" from signifier to the substance of both the individual characters and the character of the works themselves.

Tristan ranks as one of the greatest works of classical music from any period, and remains one of my favorites. Listening to the fluid and sweeping strains of the Prelude last night, on the heels of the derivative and formally vacuous symphony, I was struck by how effective Wagner was at manipulation. The music of Tristan doesn't "go" anywhere: it's repeated and varied through color & dynamics, not (harmonic) modulation or (symphonic) development. Maybe it is to music what the stream-of-conscious style is to narrative fiction. Interesting and engaging, but best appreciated on its own terms. Regardless, it can be mesmerizing & intoxicating, which are at least a couple of the effects the composer wanted.

If my take on Wagner's development vis-a-vis his early style seems harsh and polemical itself, perhaps some quotes from the modernist scion of criticism, Theodor Adorno, are in order. I have been reading his engaging set of essays "In Search of Wagner" written amidst the rise of Nazism. This work was a major factor in the reevaluation and criticism of Wagner that reached a fevered pitch in the wake of WWII, and from which it has not since waned.

Adorno's polemic shoots holes in the "Revolutionary" Wagner's "Music of the Future" claims by dissecting the very features that distinguish his art. He attacks the leitmotiv as "commodity-function" likening the identifying motives as an "advertisement" it is "music intended for the forgetful." In the context of examing the leitmotiv or musical "gesture" he hits upon the difference between Wagner and Beethoven, say, argued less forcefully above by yours truly (the quotations are from the Verso paperback (c. 2005, reprinted 2009) translated by Rodney Livingstone).

"Faults of compositional technique in his music always stem from the fact that the musical softened up and replaced by a sort of gesticulation, rather in the way that agitators substitute linguistic gestures for the discursive exposition of their thoughts. It is no doubt true that all music has its roots in gesture of this kind and harbours it within itself. In the West, however, it has been sublimated and interiorized into expression, while at the same time the principle of construction subjects the overall flow of the music to a process of logical synthesis; great music strives for a balance of the two elements. Wagner's position lies athwart this tradition."

Put another way, "his aim is to reconcile the lack of development in the gesture with the unrepeatable finality of the expression...the eternity of Wagnerian one which proclaims nothing has happened."

The leitmotiv "leads directly to cinema music where the sole function is to announce heroes or situations so as to help the audience orientate itself more easily." He's on to something here. Even if he treats one of the defining features of Wagner's genius dismissively. Lesser composers would demean the leitmotiv of the "Gesamptkunstwerk" (total-work-of-art) into the derivative and merely descriptive function of much film music.

Adorno goes on, and it is an entertaining and intellectually stimulating screed. Keep in mind this is from the critic who famously claimed that "after Auschwitz, there can be no poetry." His post-modern, Marxist criticism paved the ground for the anti-Wagnerian, anti-Romantic avant-garde that embraced the serialism of Webern and led to the gulf between the composer and the public that still haunts contemporary classical music. It is supreme irony and/or poetic justice that Adorno tempered his view towards an appreciation of Wagner later in life. The Master of Bayreuth could certainly cast a spell.

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