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Continuing where we left off three weeks ago with our exploration of the music of Richard Wagner.  We had a blast analyzing the Tristan Chord, the world's first bisexual chord, didn't we?  In fact, we had so much fun with it, we didn't get to spend much time just groovin' to all the beautiful Wagnerian blood and boots and chicks wearing horned helmets and evil rings of power.  Time to make up for that!

And a good thing it is, too, since I have only one hour to write this diary and I'm in no mood for a music theory lesson.  Luckily for me, I have a number of links saved up.  There is so much good Wagner out there, let me encourage you to find some more and embed it in comments below

Act III of Die Walkure, the Ride of the Valkyries

[IMPORTANT NOTE: Last week's diary was published on Wednesday, so you may have missed it.  Classical Music Blogging Opus 22: Beethoven's Hymn of Thanksgiving]

My only regret is that they aren't wearing those funky Mighty Thor helmets in the above video, although the champagne bottles are a nice touch.  Of course, you remember hearing this music in Apocalypse now.  "You either fight, or you surf!"

Honestly, I can't remember what they are singing about.  It's in the subtitles there, somewhere.  Die Walkure is part two of a four part opera series, The Ring of the Nibelungen, Wagner's own Lord of the Rings, in a way, although it predates Tolkien's trilogy by about 80 years.  Fifteen solid hours of music, too much to condensev very easily.  There are dwarves and naiads and giants and dragons and magic swords and an evil ring of power that makes the wearer invisible... uh, yeah, it is a lot like Lord of the Rings.  Possibly because Tolkien and Wagner both drew upon pre-Christian European mythology for their story inspiration.

Another great clip, here, the finale of the fourth opera, Gotterdamerung, the Twilight of the Gods, the conclusion to this four night long opera, where the home of the Gods, Valhalla, goes up in flames, and Brunhilde, the heroine, immolates herself in its pyre along with her magic horse and the body of her beloved Siegfried.  And as it goes up in flames, the Rhinemaidens reclaim the magic ring which was stolen from them in the first opera.

Hildegard Behrens in Gotterdamerung, Twilight of the Gods, Act III, the Immolation Scene

If the music from this sounds similar to some of the music in the first clip, there is a reason.  Richard Wagner introduced the idea into opera of the leitmotif, even though he never gave it that name.  A leitmotif is a recurring theme associated with a character or an event or a force.  

It may sound like an obvious concept to us, today, because it's the basis of most modern film music.  As famous MGM film composer Max Steiner once said (back in the thirties), if Wagner were alive today, he'd be the hottest composer in Hollywood.

Hugh Downs explains Wagner's Leitmotifs

For those that really love Wagner and want to get under the hood, you can get a full lesson in the Leitmotifs of the Ring Cycle here, including examples.

About those Valkyries...  You may also remember The Valkyrie as a recent film starring Tom Cruise as a German dissenter trying to assassinate Hitler.  In the film, Hitler tells his soon-to-be-almost assassin, "To understand National Socialism, one must first understand Wagner," an actual true quote of Hitler.

The whole issue of Hitler and Wagner is rather fraught with peril for timid little diarists like me, so I'll punt most of this over to Wikipedia's entry on Wagner Controversies for those that want to dig deeper.  

But I'll express my own POV of this, and it's only mine, and nobody is obliged to agree: Wagner was a great composer and also a pretty despicable man, a rabid antisemite and author on the subject.  Strong elements of that are detectable to me in his music, in particular in The Ring Cycle, but that's a huge area of discussion and there are tons of books on Amazon about it that cut both ways.  However, Wagner was not Hitler, and as much as the Nazis may have seen the inspiration for national socialism in Wagner, his writing and his music, Wagner himself never got a say in that, him having been many years long dead by then.

Perhaps he would have been eager to leap aboard the Heil Hitler train.  Who knows?  We don't know.  But still, Wagner was not Hitler.  He was his own kind of villain, and a much lesser one for sure, deserving a separate trial.  If in the hearing of Wagner's music today, we hear the faint strains of Nazi hero worship and Aryan myth-making, it's a backward projection, not a forward one.

And even if Wagner had been a card-carrying member of the Nazi Party, it still would be irrelevant to the central fact of his music -- that it's great music, apart from all the historical context that we can try to heap on it.  We can judge the music and the man separately, and I have no problem doing so.  In fact, knowing that Hitler loved Wagner's music only makes it more interesting.  It tells us, for one thing, that Hitler at least had good taste in music, despite whatever he chose to hear in it.

Hitler had this in common with notables such as former President Jimmy Carter, and physicist Stephen Hawking, both of them avid Wagnerophiles.

I didn't realize before writing this that Wagner's opera, Parsifal was actually banned at Bayreuth, the ground zero of Wagnerian opera, during the Nazi era.  How strange.  

The selection below is a recording from the forties of the famous tenor Lauritz Melchior singing Nur eine Waffe Taugt from Parsifal, Act III.  If I'm doing a Wagner diary today, it's primarily because of this one clip, which I had to share.  I plowed through a great many Parsifal clips of this same piece, many of them very boring and uninspired and almost skipped it until I found this one, which, even after all the previous clips, brought me suddenly to tears.  This is a great singer.

Lauritz Melchior singing Nur eine Waffe Taugt from Parsifal, 1938, Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra

Lauritz Melchior is an example of a rare breed, the Heldentenor, a tenor with a pure, penetrating voice, better explained through the link than by me.  It is best understood by listening to it.

Parsifal, Wagner's last opera, is separate, not a part of The Ring Cycle, that tells the story of the search for the Holy Grail.  Parsifal, himself, is notably pacifist, something that may have made him less endearing to the Nazis than Siegfried with his big swingin' magic sword.  Although Wagner never mentions the name of Christ once in the opera, it is still seen as a Christian opera, a fact which disappointed many of Wagner's contemporary fans that saw significance in the primitive appeal of The Ring's Germanic gods and goddesses.

But even this is an area of controversy.  Here is Parsifal interpreted as the most Nazi of Wagner's operas:

And here, the finale of Parsifal.  Sadly, there aren't as many good video clips to choose from of this.  I chose the most dramatic one rather than the cleanest sounding one.

Parsifal has returned the sacred spear back to the community of Grail Knights, proving he is the 'innocent fool' of Gurnemanz's prophecy. Parsifal uncovers the grail, the knights announce their "redeemer redeemed" and the opera closes with some of the most beautiiful and powerful music ever written.

Parsifal, Act 3 Finale, Poul Elming as Parsifal, conducted by Sinopoli, Bayreuth

I'll round off this diary with some more Tristan, my favorite of the Wagnerian operas.  I promised last week that I would finish off with the Liebestodt (Love-Death) from the end of the opera, Tristan und Isolde, and here it is, my favorite clip of it.

Tristan und Isolde, Liebestodt, sung by ...

Tristan und Isolde is probably one of the sexist operas of the 19th century, which may not say much by our standards, today, but it was very shocking then.  In the finale, Isolde, holding the body of her dead lover, Tristan, (who is also her brother-in-law, so that's incest), singing an intensely passionate love song with music that is an obvious interpretation of the sexual act and orgasm through Wagnerian harmony.

I'm going to refer back to my diary about Wagnerian harmony for a second here.  The Liebestodt theme itself is based on the same four notes that began the Tristan Prelude that we analyzed three weeks back.  But unlike the Prelude, which teased us mercilessly with cadences (recall that term?) that never came, in the Liebestodt, they do come, oh do they.  At 5:24 in the clip to be exact.  Right at the very end, the cadence of all cadences, expressed as sexual climax.  And, please, watch the clip, just to see the facial expressions of the beautiful Waltraud Meyer as she sings of her "...utmost rapture."

"How softly and gently he smiles,
how sweetly his eyes open –
can you see, my friends,
do you not see it?
How he glows ever brighter,
raising himself high amidst the stars?
Do you not see it?
How his heart swells with courage,
gushing full and majestic in his breast?
How in tender bliss sweet breath
gently wafts from his lips –
Friends! Look!
Do you not feel and see it?
Do I alone hear this melody
so wondrously and gently
sounding from within him,
in bliss lamenting, all-expressing,
gently reconciling, piercing me, soaring aloft,
its sweet echoes resounding about me?
Are they gentle aerial waves
ringing out clearly, surging around me?
Are they billows of blissful fragrance?
As they seethe and roar about me,
shall I breathe, shall I give ear?
Shall I drink of them, plunge beneath them?
Breathe my life away in sweet scents?
In the heaving swell,
in the resounding echoes,
in the universal stream
of the world-breath –
to drown, to founder –
unconscious –
utmost rapture!"

Next week: Not sure yet, but I think it will be Richard Strauss's Don Juan.

Originally posted to Dumbo on Thu Dec 02, 2010 at 05:48 PM PST.


My favorite Wagner opera is:

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Comment Preferences

  •  If i listen to this music (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dumbo, ExStr8, sandav

    will it send esubliminal messages about much Obama sucks....?


    Love this music.  Thank you for this diary.

    RIP Pike Miners We will never forget

    by GlowNZ on Thu Dec 02, 2010 at 05:54:52 PM PST

  •  After Watching The First Wagner Clip (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dumbo, ExStr8, allep10

    why do I get the feeling there might have been an orgy or two in one of his homes. You know, just saying.

    "In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." - George Orwell

    by webranding on Thu Dec 02, 2010 at 05:55:29 PM PST

    •  Yeah, I can see Wagner as the orgy kind of guy. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      ExStr8, webranding, allep10

      He'd probably have some big bullshit philosophical justification for it, too.

      •  My Knowledge Of Classical Music (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Dumbo, ExStr8

        is so very lacking next to you. I don't know that much about it (why I like your Diaries BTW), even though I have dozens and dozens of CDs. I just know I like a lot of it. I have always loved Wagner, even with his ties to Hilter. I am kind of like you, I can divorce his music from his beliefs.  

        "In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." - George Orwell

        by webranding on Thu Dec 02, 2010 at 06:05:39 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Well, don't overestimate how much I know. (0+ / 0-)

          I know enough to pull Youtube clips out of my ass in a heartbeat, and how to explain basic Wagner in terms of basic garage band chords.  But the serious Julliard grad Kossacks reading this can tell the difference.

          Having said that, though, I think there's some benefit to explaining this from a fan level rather than a pro level.

      •  In his big theoretical work on opera, (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        "Opera and Drama" there is a paragraph that in its entirety reads "Music is a woman."

        The following section goes into how the (presumably male) text fucks her.  

        It's not the first time in history that the music/woman association's been made.  There's a very good analysis of a well-known music theoretical debate from around 1600, "Gendering Modern Music" in the 1993 Journal of the American Musicological Society - the author is Suzanne Cusick, who more recently applied gender analysis to Music as Torture.

  •  Oh, dear! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dumbo, ExStr8

    I missed your first diary on Wagner and will have to now go back and read.  Someday, I would love just to listen to the Overtures of his operas.  For instance, Parsifal (which I still find difficult) has a gorgeous Overture:

    I love the Solti opening to Das Rhinegold.  The first notes hit you in the chest.  Thank you so much for this diary.

    My dear friend, now a retired professor, has written and lectured extensively on Wagner and G.B. Shaw.  Shaw wrote the first biography, I believe. The Perfect Wagnerite.

    " My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total." Barbara Jordan, 1974

    by gchaucer2 on Thu Dec 02, 2010 at 05:59:51 PM PST

  •  Well, that was a tough poll (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dumbo, Demi Moaned

    I chose Das Rhinegold because I adore Alberecht.  But I also love Mime -- and much (but not all) of Siegfried. And then there's the Funeral March in Gotterdammerung.  And I love all of Lohengrin and have yet to see The Flying Dutchman.

    " My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total." Barbara Jordan, 1974

    by gchaucer2 on Thu Dec 02, 2010 at 06:14:42 PM PST

    •  I haven't really seen ANY of these. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I've heard them all on the radio, and that's about it.  I've never attended any Wagner opera.  

      The Flying Dutchman is cool.  Here's a clip I posted a while back of the Sailor's Song from it.  Notice how the dancers do the "Stirring the Pot" dance while the men wave aluminum beer cans around in the air.  Nice touch, that.

      •  It is so much easier now with (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Dumbo, mr crabby

        the Met's simulcasts at theatres all over the country -- and a hell of a lot cheaper.  I've seen The Ring in Seattle once and 3 times at the Met (once was hideous -- it was in the summer and was the Kirov production).  I think the theatre viewing is terrific because it feels like a movie and you get to see the interviews during the intermissions.

        Thanks for this series -- sometimes I catch up on your diaries weeks after you've written them.  They are a marvelous tonic for the soul.

        Thank you for that great clip.  I love it.

        " My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total." Barbara Jordan, 1974

        by gchaucer2 on Thu Dec 02, 2010 at 06:30:16 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  Solti vs. Karajan (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Dumbo, gchaucer2

      Have you tried the Karajan Ring? They were all new recordings during the first years I became interested in opera and I bought them all as they came out.

      His readings are so lyrical. The Solti Ring has its strong points, but the Walküre is a total bust, IMO. Solti is just not in rapport with his singers.

      "The smartest man in the room is not always right." -Richard Holbrooke

      by Demi Moaned on Thu Dec 02, 2010 at 06:43:01 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Does Barenboim have a recording of the Ring? (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        I have fallen in love with his conducting of Wagnerians, like Mahler.  He seems to get it, and he's not timid about inserting himself into the music the way some of the standard bearers are.

      •  I have both (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Dumbo, Demi Moaned

        and love them for different reasons -- but I still prefer the Solti Das Rhinegold.

        We have a tiny radio station in Monroe, CT (WMNR) which plays opera every Tuesday evening and an elderly gentleman does the commentary.  Last summer, they gave him the whole week and he played the entire Ring -- but used different productions for each Act.  It was astonishingly wonderful.

        " My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total." Barbara Jordan, 1974

        by gchaucer2 on Thu Dec 02, 2010 at 07:16:19 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  A production of the (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Dumbo, Demi Moaned, gchaucer2

      Flying Dutchman began with a black boat being carried in by the sailors.  When they put it down, the Dutchman rose from his coffin boat dressed in black rags. The sailors reclothed him in better tailored black.

      The soprano was Wagnerian in body style, but when she sang of her desire for the Dutchman, two beautiful dancers, male and female did a short mating dance high above her with Foy flying.  Their diaphanous costumes fell off mid flight and the stage darkened. Wondrous.

      Porn?  You should study opera producers.

      No EXTRA tax cut for the wealthy!

      by ThirtyFiveUp on Thu Dec 02, 2010 at 06:50:18 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Overtures and orchestral pieces / highlights (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    for me!

    Stonewall was a RIOT!

    by ExStr8 on Thu Dec 02, 2010 at 06:14:49 PM PST

  •  Chose Tristan - (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    but if I had the option of choosing the Ring in its entirety as a complete work, I'd go with that one.

    Also love Parsifal and Tannhauser.

  •  You left out the work that (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dumbo, dirkster42, Demi Moaned

    would probably get my vote for favorite - Die Meistersinger.

    Better beans and bacon in peace than cakes and ale in fear... Aesop

    by mr crabby on Thu Dec 02, 2010 at 06:28:22 PM PST

  •  Parsifal is Arthurian. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dumbo, Demi Moaned

    Remember Sir Percival?

    There you go.

    And interestingly, the sequel came first.

    Lohengrin is the SON of Parsifal.

    "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." --M. L. King "You can't fix stupid" --Ron White

    by zenbassoon on Thu Dec 02, 2010 at 06:49:48 PM PST

    •  I haven't looked into the whole (0+ / 0-)

      family tree of Parsifal versus Percival, but there are some small but significant differences in the way it's told in Parsifal from the classic French Mort d'Artur version that we all know.  It sounds like they both derive from a single pre-Arturian source.

    •  Correct. And Wolfram von Eschenbach ... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      who wrote a Parzival around the turn of the 13th century is a character in Tannhäuser.

      Parzival had a greater scope "than that of any medieval literary work except Dante's Divine Comedy", the two being perhaps the noblest literary achievements of the middle ages. Parzival is a more modern tale however, showing the inner development of the hero Parzival. It treats love in marriage with great tenderness. The Grail circle is not separated from Arthur's world, and these two world's constantly intermingle. Children are portrayed sympathetically, for example Obilot and Loherangrin.

      "The smartest man in the room is not always right." -Richard Holbrooke

      by Demi Moaned on Thu Dec 02, 2010 at 06:55:36 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  For the BEST analysis of Das Ring, let us turn to (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dumbo, chingchongchinaman, grada3784

    the Great Anna Russell

    "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." --M. L. King "You can't fix stupid" --Ron White

    by zenbassoon on Thu Dec 02, 2010 at 06:57:21 PM PST

    •  There was a GREAT video at one time... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      It might even be on Youtube, but I can't recall the title.  It was something like OPERA IN SIXTY SECONDS.  It ran through all the great operas lickety split with a little puppet show, counting off the number of deaths and suicides and acts of incest in each one.

    •  well, the funniest, at least (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Robin Holloway covers Twilight of the Gods with rather less snark, in a book of RH's writings that I have somewhere.

      "It's only in books that the officers of the detective force are superior to the weakness of making a mistake." (Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone)

      by chingchongchinaman on Thu Dec 02, 2010 at 09:17:31 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Great diary (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    You really capture the excitement that made Wagner such a sensation.

    I really like this intro in Lohengrin as much as the Ride of the Valkyries which I also love. (The teflon hero, Lohengrin floats back in his swan boat to Monserrat to  his father Parsifal because Elsa asked him his name(good reason!) just as King Henry rallies his army to fight the invading Hungarian horde and nobody is the slightest upset.)

    I believe Verdi wrote Aida, another terrific opera, right after he heard Lohengrin at La Scala.
    For one composer to inspire another is quite a tribute.

    And we can't forget Siegfried's Rhine Journey in Gotterdammerung(as conducted by that fearless anti-fascist Arturo Toscanini)
    when Siegfried leaves Brunhilde's bed on the Mountain of Fire for a life of adventure(and his doom).

    In the finale of the 1st Act of Die Meistersinger
    the outsider, Walter has his first(and probably last)impromptu audition before the hide-bound conservative Meistersingers as he's slammed by the corrupt Beckmesser clutching his precious chalkboard of 'mistakes'. Meistersinger includes some of the best part singing(sextet?) in all opera. Wagner 'reverted' to this style because his critics said he couldn't write quartets,etc.

    Walter's song soars above the chaos in an amazing finale, IMO. Whenever I feel 'defeated'/put down by the system I think of this finale.

  •  I saved this in "Read Later" (0+ / 0-)

    and came back to it today.  Takes some serious attention span that I'm not used to any more.  Too many years out of a classroom, too much listening to sound bites and reading pithy commentary I guess.  

    Anyway I thoroughly enjoyed this.  I've long loved classical music and  I know just enough to get most of what you're talking about, so the level is just right for me. I've never really been exposed to music theory, so this is not only illuminating, it makes me appreciate what I'm hearing more.  I went back to the prelude to Tristan and heard it in a much different way.  Thanks!

    Frankly, I blame everything on Nixon.

    by J Orygun on Wed Dec 08, 2010 at 02:02:03 PM PST

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