How To Be A Perfect Wagnerite: Apologies to George Bernard Shaw

by Lorna Salzman

An epic adventure in blazing color in a deep dark forest, with a helpless enslaved bride, steamy illicit desire, a rebellious defiant daughter, a ball-breaking wife, a libertine husband, a noble warrior with magical power, a duel to the death, loving father and daughter parted forever. Pirates of the Caribbean? Harry Potter? Not. Richard Wagner's Die Walkure, second in his epic Ring of the Nibelung.

My mother loved Wagner. She played short excerpts on our parlor organ. I never had any problem listening to him and my enjoyment gets greater the more I hear him. A lifetime is not enough to discover the the complexities of Wagner. A Perfect Wagnerite can never get enough.. Most people don't know how to listen to Wagner. They don't like the German language, which is admittedly harsh as opposed to Italian and French, and they don't like the badly directed bombastic over-productions that were the norm until later in the 20th century. For them, Wagner is represented by helmeted yelping Valkyries on horses or knights in fanciful castles. Yet they will readily accept the most degraded imitations of Wagner in the worst movie music, dripping with sentiment and devoid of musical ideas.

If you focus alternately on Wagner's melodic lines and statements, and then on the orchestration, you will see the origin of the former in German lied (Schubert and especially Schumann in his Scenes from Goethe's Faust and Paradise and the Peri, arguably his masterpieces) and the lightness and delicacy of the orchestration. Early Wagner even has traces of Bellini voacl lines. In most of the operas, the vocal line is usually accompanied by only a few instruments, never the full orchestra. Properly conducted, as James Levine did with the Met Opera orchestra, the orchestral score is supportive, not dominating, resulting in amazing clarity. Walkure in the Met's latest production is a model of clarity and balance, a fitting accompaniment to the incomparable cast (Voigt, Blythe, Terfel , et al) and the dramatically and musically respectful, even gentle, staging of Robert LePage (though not all agree on this).

The lush romantic overpowering string music we associate with romantic composers such as Strauss, Mahler and Brahms exists but is never overbearing in Wagner, but for some reason (perhaps poor orchestral performance and direction) people think of Wagner's music as heavy and overwhelming. It isn't, not at all. I think the quite radical use of recitative, with its long conversation-like lines, with few actual "songs" or arias, , is what people find difficult because of their expectations inherited from the rest of 19th century opera. Think of his recitative as spoken conversation being sung, because that's what it is. Of course the form of recitative and aria came long before Wagner and even Mozart; it is used, along with choruses, in the great Bach and Handel oratorios. Much as we think of Wagner as a radical avant-gardist, he is an accumulation of what came beforeā€¦as is all music. Cultural appropriation is the life blood of music composition.

But once you accept this concept, you can start to enjoy it, as is true with other unfamiliar styles...such as Shakespearean English for example, or Debussy impressionism or Schoenberg atonality. No new language should be rejected out of hand. Listeners shouldn't think they can lie back and just have music offered to them on a platter. We don't have this attitude towards other composers, or writers (Joyce for example) or modern painters (abstract impressionism, cubism, etc.). We make an effort to understand Shakespearean English. Why won't we make the effort for new modes of music?

In all likelihood it has to do with the pervasiveness of tonality, the familiar syntaxes and conventions that grew out of tonality, structure and harmonies that distinguish all western music from the Renaissance and Baroque era down to today. We are acculturated to these from our earliest childhood, starting with nursery rhymes and folk songs, and they are readily absorbed by our brain, committing us to a very narrow and fixed way of listening to music. When these factors are offered to us in all the music we hear or play, we unconsciously absorb the protocols, the idiom or "style", and our expectations of how the musical line or harmony will proceed are also fixed. (That's why we can enjoy PDQ Bach, because we have absorbed the baroque and classical conventions). Modern music shattered these expectations for most people. For this reason, many people cannot tell bad classical music from good, much less bad contemporary or experimental music from good. Because classical music follows familiar conventions, listeners accept it readily with uncritical ears and the usual expectations. Thus, second rate music is rarely perceived as such.

In fact similar acoustic and structural principles are at work in both classical and contemporary music. The composer makes or should make a musical statement or idea and put it in a coherent form in which the parts connect to each other convincingly, so that they make sense in the context of the whole work. Melodic or rhythmic themes , harmony, timbre, articulation, development, repetition, modulation...all these become relevant to whether the composer succeeds in doing what she intended to do. All music of all periods, whether tonal or atonal, can be and should be judged by these same criteria, provided the listener is willing to actually listen for these things and not expect "classical" or "romantic" outcomes.

Wagner's music has to be listened to for what it is: remarkable and original voice writing, a muscular sense of drama, chromaticism, as well as magnificent musical ideas. To see a Wagner opera (he called it "music drama" in person is to be part of an audience of Perfect Wagnerites, of which George Bernard Shaw was one, an audience in complete transfixed silence before genius and unmatched musical beauty. If you are lucky enough to get a ticket to the Wagner shrine, Bayreuth, (which is usually fully booked ten years in advance), you will see that the hall, designed by Wagner with the orchestra underneath the stage, has only two aisles: one on the left and one on the right. None in between. Once you are in your seat, there's no getting up. But no one wants to. I truly detest intermissions in Wagner operas, but they do have them there.

While Wagner, like Beethoven, had no imitators, except possibly Humperdinck, he had followers, primarily Richard Strauss. Wagner was the culmination of romanticism, not avant garde as we define it (actually Brahms has some claims to this; his String Sextet in G major inspired Schoenberg's Verklaerte Nacht), but Wagner's music dramas were as influential as Beethoven in opening up new doors of musical expression. No one escaped his influence, not even today.....recitative, chromaticism, motivic structure, long extended musical phrases and paragraphs and above all his use of leitmotivs or short themes for each character or situation which appear throughout the operas, forming a musical connective tissue for the whole work and engraving themselves in the memory of the listener ....sheer important to music as Darwin was to science.

Mark Twain reportedly said that Wagner's music is better than it sounds. I am not sure how to interpret this comment; you could say it reflects more on the unschooled listener than on Wagner's music. The same comment could be applied to the music of Schoenberg and his school. In the end it comes down to a matter of musical syntax and the fact that most musical education fails to teach people how to listen to music or expose them to new syntaxes. If teachers of English literature had taken this attitude towards Chaucer or Shakespeare their writings might also been stuffed away where only the most dedicated scholars could find and analyze them.

Wagner's Greatest Hits and Where to Hear Them:

You can google almost any Wagner excerpt and singer and you will get via YouTube the most amazing old recordings and videos of the greatest Wagnerian singers of the 20th century, singing the most famous and most beautiful scenes from all of the operas. If you are still timorous about listening to a whole opera, I heartily recommend that you listen to these excerpts. They have the advantage of being not only short but up close and personal.

Some of them are very old studio recordings, with old photos in the background, but many are of actual performances (some quite funny or awkwardly staged or with pathetic stage sets; one scene of a Meistersinger chorus showed a huge beer barrel behind the singers), or of more recent recordings done soon after the live performances, including many from Bayreuth itself. For an introduction to what I personally consider the most beautiful parts of Die Meistersinger and Die Walkure, my two favorites, here is what I suggest you google:

  • Lauritz Melchior and Lotte Lehman as Siegmund and Sieglinde, the incestuous twins, fathered by Wotan, in Act I of Die Walkure, one of the most intensely passionate scenes ever written. Melchior is AMAZING!
  • Hans Hotte and Birgit Nilsson in Act 3 of Walkure. This is the heart-rending anguished farewell of Wotan (Wotans Abschied) to Brunnhilde. She doesn't sing here but you can probably google her in a scene earlier in the act when she is arguing with Wotan but finally capitulates. This situation is actually a lose-lose situation for them both. His farewell is a soothing lullaby where Wagner puts together three or four melodic lines in an amazing counterpoint as he puts her to sleep on the mountain, and then the Magic Fire Music takes over. Get a handkerchief.
  • Lauritz Melchior again as Walther von Stolzing in Die Meistersinger, singing THE MOST BEAUTIFUL SONG EVER WRITTEN: the Prize Song
  • (Morgenlich). You can google either the earlier scene where Walther sings his song to Hans Sachs who transcribes it, or the final scene of the last act when Walther sings the completed longer version in the contest. Or both. I listened to this one after listening to three or four other tenors doing this song on other videos. No contest. Melchior is The Voice, a heldentenor comparable in voice and interpretation to baritone Bryn Terfel who is Wotan in the Met's last Ring cycle. If you can get to a high definition screening of the Met's Walkure, you will be privileged. You may never recover.

© 2017 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.