Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Wagner: The Triumphant Revolutionary

In my last post I wrote about the Bard Music Festival in general and this year's specific programs devoted to "Wagner and His World." If the opening concert exposed how far the journey was from derivative apprentice composer to "Master of Bayreuth" some 50 years later, Saturday night's concert traced a more logical line in this development.

"The Triumphant Revolutionary" was the fourth concert of the festival's opening weekend, and it opened with music Wagner wrote to be inserted into other composers' works. I wrote about 19th century Italian opera in the context of Verdi's world last month. A comparison of the lives of these two exact contemporaries is not necessary here. Verdi deplored the practice of these "substitution" pieces (at least in his operas). It is interesting how later in life Wagner (and his heirs) would exert such control over the sacrosanctity of his scores. It did not prevent him as a young composer, however, from literally inserting himself into the works of others.

The curtain rose, figuratively speaking, on what sounded like a circus chorus from a French operetta. Indeed, "Descendons gaiement la Courtille" (1841) was written to be inserted into a vaudeville show, while the struggling young composer was down and out in Paris. Those struggles, moreover, would be repressed, only to resurface as bile when Wagner dismissed his earlier admiration for Paris in diatribes about Meyerbeer and the "effects without causes" of French grand opera (more on "Wagner in Paris" below...)

Following the festive opening, I sang what was one of the most exhilarating arias I've ever attempted. Heinrich Marschner was the most famous German opera composer of his day, a highly successful early romantic composer following Beethoven and Carl Maria von Weber. His opera, Der Vampyr (yes, The Vampire) is based on a Byron sketch. Wagner wrote a new allegro to be performed following a bucolic andante in Act II of the opera. The lead tenor is Sir Aubry, who has sworn to protect his friend Ruthven's identity for 24 hours. Ruthven is, you guessed it, the title character. Unbeknownst to Aubry, the Vamp needs to find 3 more victims in this time, and of course chooses Aubry's love, Malvina, as one of them. Aubry will turn into a Vampire himself if he breaks his promise, so he is somewhat distraught at the thought of his beloved becoming his friend's next victim. He sings a beautiful, Mozart inspired andante about Malvina's beauty and their (soon to be lost) love. When he confronts the literal horror of the situation, Wagner interrupts with a crazy sturm und drang (storm and stress) allegro with an original text and 28 high a-flats. They would not be so difficult were they not so close together and in the middle of cascading coloratura runs that span an octave & 1/2 range! So, when Mo. Botstein took a faster tempo in the concert, it was a wild ride, and like Little Red Riding Hood in Into the Woods, I was excited, "well, excited AND scared." The audience appreciated the accomplishment, and it was the first time in my career I've been encored back to the stage during the first half of a program. In fact, at dinner the next night, as I was excusing myself before settling the bill, the couple at the table next to ours said (within earshot of Amy, who responded) "I think that's Scott Williamson." It was surreal. They had attended the concert and we ended up having an enjoyable conversation about it and the festival in general. If my proverbial 15 minutes of fame don't surpass the 6 minute Marschner-Wagner Vampire aria, so be it. I'll keep enjoying the ride.

The ride of this particular concert continued with a great bass aria Wagner wrote to be inserted into Bellini's masterpiece, Norma. The bass for whom it was written declined to perform it, but it is worth hearing, especially by a singer of Daniel Mobbs' calibre, and it offers another window into Wagner's assimilation of the styles of his day. As the festival's co-artistic director Christopher Gibbs points out (in his illuminative program notes), this aria "must be regarded as an attempt to 'out-compose' the Italian with his own musical language."

Wagner finally found his own style with his fourth opera (the first "staple" of his in the repertory) The Flying Dutchman (1841). Many of the seeds that would germinate over the next two decades to appear in glorious blossom in Tristan and the Ring cycle are here. The searching chromaticism, the recurring use of motives to identify both character and emotion, and the large-scale canvas of the score's sound-world first emerge from the mist of Dutchman. Verdi conjured storms in his operas, from the "mad scene" in his first operatic hit, Nabucco, to the famous trio near the tragic end of Rigoletto, to the marvelous opening of his final tragedy, Otello. The Flying Dutchman's storm music--so "Wagnerian" from the opening of the fiery overture--would reappear with volcanic force in Die Walkure. Although the Ring cycle contains very little for chorus--a medium the composer professed to disdain--Wagner learned his lessons from Meyerbeer and the Italian bel canto composers and wrote rousing choruses. The sailors' chorus from Dutchman was described by one of my friends and colleagues (who shall remain anonymous) as an "anti-semitic show choir." It is actually the final solo and chorus from Die Meistersinger that make most post-WWII listeners uncomfortable, but I am a few programs ahead of myself. "Wagner and German Nationalism" is the 12th and final program Sunday afternoon, following a symposium on "Wagner and the Jewish question." Back to "the triumphant revolutionary."

If I had a great time singing my little insert aria, I was only part of the opening act for the queen of the evening, Christine Goerke. Christine outdid herself Saturday night, in excerpts from not only Dutchman, but the second half of the program's selections from the next two operas, Tannhauser (1845) and Lohengrin (1848). We bantered backstage about whether my Vampyr aria was more awkward than hers from Die Feen. No matter, from his first great dramatic soprano roles--Senta, Elisabeth and Elsa--Wagner displayed his hard-won gifts for writing engaging & inspired vocal music.

(for the NY Times review of weekend one, see:

Excerpts from Tannhauser offer an ideal entry into the Wagnerian world. From the overture to Elisabeth's "entrance" aria "Dich teure Halle" and (among others), the beautifully lyric baritone soliloquy, "O du mein holder Abendstern" this triptych of excerpts are immediate in their appeal. I have the privilege of playing John Hancock's brother (Froh to his Donner) in a brief Rheingold excerpt this weekend (the 10th program, "The Selling of the Ring" to be discussed later). John was wonderful as Wolfram in the "Song to the Evening Star" (which was how the famous baritone aria was listed in the program book).

All of the "suites" of excerpts from the ten mature operas are being presented in concert formats Wagner himself programmed, with the titles he assigned. Thus, without mounting a single Wagner opera (or even an entire single act) this festival is offering a unique view of the composer's world. Wagner was perhaps the most shameless--and ultimately successful--self-promoter in music history. For these concerts, he lifted the best-suited arias, often wrote new endings or arrangements to tailor them to the concert setting, and ended the excerpts by placing the overture last. Not so far off from the movie trailor format--just extended from 20 seconds to 20 minutes, with the theme music the closing punctuation of the image. Adorno (see previous post) would surely approve of the analogy, since he viewed Wagner's pervasive influence on film music so dismissively. Perhaps such disdain arises from the deflating sensation of having the suspension of one's disbelief itself suspended. Like a child who resents the magician after he figures out the tricks aren't magic but simply technique, craft, and talent.

There was certainly a lot of craft and talent in Paris in the early 19th century, making it one of THE cultural centers of the world. Home to a leading conservatory and arguably the best opera house of the day, Paris was a center for all of the arts. No wonder composers from Chopin and Liszt to Rossini and Verdi had extended residencies there (even if they made the complaint, still heard today, that "the only problem with France is the French!"). Wagner hoped for an apprenticeship with Meyerbeer, and lived in Paris from 1839 to 1842. I wrote about the latter's grand opera Les Huguenots in an earlier post. Sunday's concert, "Wagner in Paris" featured works written by Wagner, but more importantly by Parisian composers and transplants whose music thrived in the French capital while the young German composer struggled for a foothold that did not materialize. The brilliant young coloratura soprano, Erin Morley (the outstanding Queen Margeurite in the Meyerbeer opera) sang some of Wagner's early french songs and a Bellini aria. Chamber music by Cherubini, and Meyerbeer's grand opera colleagues, Auber and Halevy offset the solo vocal selections. My contribution was in a Meyerbeer chamber trio for voice, clarinet and piano. Modeled on Schubert's "Shepherd on the Rock," Meyerbeer's "Hirtenlied" (Shepherd Song) is a beautiful scena-like setting of the German romantic poet and critic Ludwig Rellstab. Most famous for the poems Schubert set in his posthumous song-cycle, Schwanengesang, Rellstab's poem is an idyllic landscape where the sounds of nature and the shepherd's pipe coexist in imperturbable harmony. The composer writes lyrical and playful duets for the voice and clarinet, and I thoroughly enjoyed rehearsing and peforming the charming piece with the ASO's principal clarinettist, Laura Flax, and the excellent British pianist, Danny Driver. Speaking of excellent pianists, the headliner on the program was Jeremy Denk (equally well known as Joshua Bell's collaborative pianist) who rocked on a Chopin Polonaise-Fantasy and tore up the stage with Liszt arrangements of Berlioz and Meyerbeer.

Wagner didn't achieve the success in Paris Meyerbeer did. But his older German-born colleague did help the struggling young artist procure a conducting post in Dresden, where Wagner was able to successfully mount, among others, The Flying Dutchman and Tannhauser. He was forced out of that position and into exile for his participation in the revolutionary uprisings of 1848. "The triumphant revolutionary?" Indeed.

No comments: