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