Saturday, May 18, 2013

Happy 200th, Richard Wagner

Wednesday, May 22nd is the 200th anniversary of the birth of composer Richard Wagner, whose music I associate with a lovely time in my life.

Immediately following my seminary program, I was pastor of three small churches for two years. The churches were located fifteen miles from the nearest village with a grocery store, about a half-hour from more substantial towns with hospitals and larger retail stores. “Why don’t you move to the country?” a visiting friend teased. I had a six-room parsonage to myself, with a pretty fence row, a silver-blue propane tank beneath which rabbits napped, a lawn large enough for two or three hours of push-mowing, tall shade trees which let through the light, and steep concrete steps where I could sit and look at my neighbor’s white-faced cattle, his pastures, and the larger of the three churches (and its great old tree). I heard birds call in the early morning and cows bawling late at night, and sometimes a coyote.

It was a lonely time, but I was busy with pastoral tasks. I found an enjoyable hobby: collecting classical recordings, especially opera. In Willa Cather’s story “The Wagner Matinee,” a farm lady is taken by her nephew to a Boston concert of Wagner’s music and, afterward and deeply moved, she couldn’t bear the thought of returning to her everyday rural life. I understood the feeling but since I had the benefit of recorded music, my rural life and my new passion for music enriched one another.

My best friend in seminary had been a church organist student who disliked Italian opera, like Verdi and Puccini and Rossini, but he loved English music, Mozart, and Wagner. He introduced me to these. Following his advice, I visited the record store in the corner of the local mall (, where I purchased Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, conducted by Karajan, and Don Giovanni, conducted by Karl Böhm. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that Mozart interested me because my favorite theologian, Karl Barth, played Mozart every day; checking out Mozart for that reason seems like such a dumb-graduate-student thing to do.

My friend also introduced me to Wagner, beginning with the opening bars of Tristan und Isolde, turned up to Led Zeppelin level, where the themes of romantic passion and death are established in the unresolved dissonances of the music and the use of harmonic suspension. He went on to inform me about the innovativeness of this particular chord (difficult to assign to a particular key), and about Wagner’s advancements in tonality and chromaticism, and the way he used fragments of melody to depict psychological states and themes of an opera’s plot, so that whenever someone sings, the orchestra establishes more about them than the actual words sung. (If I remember correctly, it was my friend who identified motifs from Tannhäuser and Die Walküre in the cartoon “What’s Opera, Doc?”)

I found this all fascinating and wanted to discover more. Once graduated from seminary and established at my small churches, I read up on music and acquired several recordings. I browsed mall stores, record shops, and mail order brochures. I purchased Böhm’s recording of Le Nozze di Figaro but diverted from my friend's tastes when I found some Verdi in used LP stores and mail order outlets: Rigoletto (with Sutherland, Pavarotti, and Milnes), Toscanini’s Falstaff, and Otello with Jon Vickers. I also bought an old set of Ponchielli’s La Gioconda and Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle. At that time, I passed over a LP set of what later became a favorite: Puccini’s Turandot with Sutherland, Caballé, and Pavarotti. One day at the parsonage I had Marriage of Figaro turned up loud so I could listen as I raked leaves outside. The first act concluded with the aria “Non piu andrai, farfallone amoroso,” where Figaro sends the annoying Cherubino off to “victory and glory in war!’ Just then a long V of geese flew over, making their own victory sign.

I also found some classic Wagner. First I bought a 2-LP set of Wagner overtures and preludes, conducted by Bernstein, and an LP of orchestral selections from Der Ring des Nibelungen conducted by Klaus Tennstedt. It’s trite to say I was overwhelmed by the music, but I really was; one writer, Bryan Magee, commented that, as Wagner was a notoriously strong willed person, his music grasps you as if it, too, was “will in sound.”

Subsequently (and with some advice from my friend) I found used or discounted LP sets like Tristan und Isolde conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, Wagner’s Die Meistersinger conducted by Rudolf Kempe, Otto Klemperer’s recording of Der fliegende Holländer. In fact, I began collecting at least one recording of all of Wagner’s operas. I didn’t purchase the two early operas, Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot, but I did purchase the Sawallisch-conducted Rienzi. I found the Karajan Parsifal, the Solti Tannhäuser (Paris version), Kubelik Lohengrin, and the 1950 Furtwängler Ring, with its terrible sound quality but outstanding singers (Kirsten Flagstad, Set Svanholm, Ferdinand Franz).

By the end of my pastorate I’d also found recordings of the 1953 (but then newly released) Ring conducted by Clemens Krauss, now recognized as one of the greatest versions. But meanwhile I also collected the Solti Ring, one opera at a time. I wanted to purchase the big box set (shown here, acquired many years later on ebay) but I was purchasing these treasures on a budget. (A record store at a nearby shopping mall sent me a post card to let me know that the record I'd ordered, "Gollerdamdung," had arrived.) I liked to play entire operas over periods of days, although in my loneliness, I sometimes found Wagner emotionally draining.

I had favorite passages, for instance, the orchestral depiction of the bellows and flames of Siegfried’s forge, more self consciously dramatic in the Solti recording than others. Similarly, the orchestral conclusion of Götterdämmerung. There are other selections that remind me strongly of this special time in my life, like the “Pilgrim’s Chorus” from Tannhäuser.

Der Gnade Heil ist dem Büsser beschieden,

er geht einst ein in der Seligen Frieden!

Vor Höll’ und Tod ist ihm nicht bang,

drum preis’ ich Gott mein Lebelang.

Halleluja in Ewigkeit!
(The grace of salvation is granted to the penitent,
 who shall enter into the peace of heaven!
 Hell and death cannot frighten him,
 therefore will I praise God all the days of my life.
Halleluja for evermore!)

Also, the end of Die Walküre in the Krauss recording (with Hans Hotter as Wotan), Wotan’s heartache:
Hans Hotter as Wotan

Denn einer nur freie die Braut,

der freier als ich, der Gott!  
(For only one shall win the bride, one freer than I, the God!)

….and his threatening authority, in the closing words:

Wer meines Speeres
 Spitze fürchtet,

durchschreite das Feuer nie!
(Whoever fears the tip of my spear shall never pass through the fire.)

I liked the Saturday broadcasts from the Met. These were my own "Wagner matinees." I liked Fr. Owen Lee’s commentaries and wondered if I might ever become so knowledgeable. (The answer is “no,” but I still enjoyed his insights!) Back then I had a reel-to-reel tape recorder and a receiver from which I recorded some operas like Parsifal. 

Parisfal was fascinating to listen to. I waited for the last chord of the prelude to resolve, but next comes Gurnemanz—

He! Ho! Waldhüter ihr,

Schlafhüter mitsammen,

so wacht doch mindest am Morgen.
(Hey! Ho! Forest guardians you, and sleeping guardians at that.  At least wake up with the morning.)

The prelude ends on a chord that does not resolve. Of course, I thought of my friend and his explanation of Wagner’s innovations in tonality. The desolate third-act prelude is, he told me, even more tonally innovative.

One year, the Met’s Saturday matinee broadcast was Tristan und Isolde—but it was Christmas Eve, and I couldn’t yet be with my family because I had to preach the next morning. I don’t know why I listened to the opera anyway, since I was already blue. It seems like Figaro or one of Donizetti’s comedies would’ve been a cheerier choice for Christmas Eve… but, as they say, nobody asked me about it beforehand.

I loved my work at the parish and the dear people. They were a big influence on the decision I made, later on, to devote my writing for the benefit of the laity, rather than academic audiences. But I disliked living alone, and I missed my seminary friends who, like me, had scattered around the country. Somehow a “journey” of musical discovery helped me deal with my loneliness. When I started dating an old friend in another town and then when we became engaged, the loneliness grew more deep and urgent, and so the music became more comforting and interesting.

But I also wanted to learn; learning for its own sake was important to me then and now. Discovering (to me) new kinds of music, broadening my taste so to speak, was important as I simultaneously learned to be a good pastor and caught up on reading delayed by the busyness of my seminary program. I might have waited a few years and purchased operas on CDs, recently introduced at that time, but I liked vinyl, and still do.

I still like to read about Wagner. Some time ago I found the book The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy by Bryan Magee; if I’d had this fascinating book at my little parish, I might’ve gotten nothing else done! He does an excellent job discussing Schopenhauer’s philosophy and showing how Wagner’s artistic development became influenced by his grateful discovery of Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung. Magee also does a good job explaining (but not justifying) Wagner’s antisemitism, the appeal that Wagner had for the Nazi regime, and the difficult relationship between Wagner and Nietzsche.

This month’s Gramophone magazine (May 2013) has a good article about Wagner’s operas and roles. While Der fliegende Holländer had taken a step away from the grand opera tradition of Rienzi, Tannhäuser (the original Dresden version) had been a return to that tradition. On the other hand, the opera is an advancement in that Tannhäuser himself reflects Wagner’s growing interest (explored later in Die Meistersinger): the artist’s role in society. But neither Rienzi (a portrait of political ambition), nor Tannhäuser nor the next great male role, Lohengrin (a portrait of nearly divine assurance) are characters who come to good ends. Their respective tragedies are commensurate with another interest of Wagner’s, which he continues to explore in the Ring: flawed heroism (p. 27).

The author (Anrold Whittall) comments that among the great bass-baritone roles, there are similarities in performances between Alberich and Wotan: both characters, after all, can be devious and villainous. On the other hand, the two roles are scarcely interchangeable, because Wotan is also capable of tenderness that Alberich cannot show. Comparing Hans Sachs with either of these characters (imagining one singer who might tackle all three roles), the very complex Sachs would need to be closer to Wotan than to Alberich.

Deborah Voigt as Isolde
Whittall draws other interesting contracts among Wagner’s characters. While both Tristan und Isolde and Götterdämmerung end with deeply moving soprano solos (Isolde and Brunnhilde, respectively), the more disturbing conclusion is that of Tristan und Isolde, partly because Brunnhilde's self-sacrifice leads immediately to Götterdämmerung's orchestral finale as Walhalla burns, while Isolde’s transfiguration---her dying words---are carried by sweet, light-filled music that contrasts with the four previous hours of torment and tragedy.

He comments that although seductiveness are aspects of the characters of both Brunnhilde and Isolde, it is a different kind of seductiveness than of Venus, Ortrud, and Kundry. But unlike Venus and Ortrud, and like Isolde (and also, one can add, like Amfortas), Kundry experiences her own transformation and release---even if Kundry’s music is not sweet like the “Liebestod.” One can also find parallels with Wotan and Kundry; as Wotan is deeply present in the Ring’s last opera even though his character never appears, so Kundry has a largely tacit but influential role in the last act of Parsifal (p. 29). One can add that the curse of recurring life, which find release in death, is a theme one can draw from Kundry back to the Dutchman.

An opera book I’ve enjoyed over the years is Wayne Koestenbaum’s The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire, and Koestenbaum’s interesting connections of identity, desire, and music. An important aspect of my “quest” for music has always been the sense of place, one of my own strong sources of desire and identity. I’ve written about that sense in some of my other essays, but I should think about that more. Are there cognitive and neurological insights that link music, emotion, companionship, and the feeling of being at home? I don’t know, but I’ll try to find out–and so these thoughts are, in pale reflection of Wagner’s mastery, unresolved and developing.  But I know that the music I’ve mentioned here never fails to take me back to that time in my life when I lived in a little parsonage along the state highway, way out in the country, when so many good things in my life were just beginning.

No comments:

Post a Comment