Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Thoughts on Wagner

Just caught a glimpse of the genius of Wagner last week. Someone once compared the intelligence of Daniel Barenboim, when he expounded on Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, with that of current political leaders and found him to be much more superior than them. What do we say of Wagner then, who has written the opera, libretto and music all by himself? How can anyone come close to him in terms of depth and musical ideas in their operas? It's unfortunate that some people don't have the aptitude to see past the superficial themes which Wagner had used in his operas. With just a bit more, they could delve right into this rich and profound world of this master. How can one sit through his operas and remain the same person as he was before?

Musical ideas aside first for now, let's just touch on his libretto for Der Ring des Nibelungen. Charged with revolutionary political ideas, profound philosophical ideas, this epic had managed to get past the censors during Wagner's time. Such ideas subtly permeates the entire Ring cycle and other operas which were done after the influence of Schopenhauer. Nope, trying to give a summary of his ideas would result in me writing a book, of which books with such content are already flooding the market. I'll just talk about my personal brush with Wagner from the performance of just the first act of Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) by SSO last Saturday.

One can see the gradual transformation of this great master in his philosophical and musical ideas from Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold) to the Die Walküre (The Valkyrie). Music, once subservient to the rhetoric, now moves ahead of the words. As the story unfolds, the psychology and inner world of each character at every point of time, is reflected in the music, even and especially, at those moments when the characters are putting on a facade. The hidden, internal psychology of the characters are brought into the foreground only by the music, when the libretto doesn't reveal anything regarding it.

I guess the main reason why Wagner had insisted to write his own libretto was because of his need to hide those powerful yet subtle political undertones beneath the apparent light-hearted mythological storyline. Which other predecessor or contemporary had written their own libretto for their own opera? Richard Strauss and Michael Tippett had written their own libretto, the former having just done one and the latter for all his operas. Fairly successful, but how could their operas stand at the same level as those by Wagner? No one comes close to his capability to write their own libretto for their own operas.

One of the many parts which caught my attention was to the scene when Siegmund and Sieglinde expressed their love for each other. They sang of the arrival of spring (as in the libretto), but the music was distinctively done in the operatic style of Mozart. A superficial caricature and showcase of Wagner's skill in reproducing the operatic compositional style of another? It seems much deeper than that. What happened in the next act? As usual, Wagner killed Siegmund and erased him for the rest of the Ring cycle. That naivety and innocence of the Mozartian style was ridiculed and mocked! At the same time, it, too, exposes the philosophies of Wagner regarding love, the social classes (humans being controlled by gods as an allusion to the social classes during Wagner's society) etc. Just the tip of the iceberg of Wagner's ingenuity and intelligence.

Gesamtkunstwerk. It pretty sums it up everything. It suggests the totality of the artistic merging of subject and object. Wagner not only pulled it off, but had done so in a sublimal way. Despite it being an average, or even below average performance to some, of just the first act of Die Walküre, Wagner's genius is still evident in that evening of Wagnerian music.

As for the evening of Wagner music by SSO, though it consisted an ambitious and large-scale work, it wasn't well programmed. It was served with Siegfried Idyll as an unsuitable appetiser. The Siegfried Idyll is an introduction of the themes from the third act of Siegfried in a chamber music setting. Nothing in relation to the music which comes after the interval. The mere similarity in the transparent orchestration, distinctive of Wagner and shows Wagner's preference to get the musical events clearly to the audience instead of overwhelming them with a colourful blend of tonal and orchestral colours, was what one could draw from the programme. Other than this mere similarity, whereby any other work by Wagner would suffice, both weren't suited for a programme. If I were to choose a complementary piece to introduce just the first act, I would believe that an orchestral or even chamber arrangement of Ride of the Valkyries from the third act of the same opera would be appropriate. At least it would gel with the main programme as it's taken from the same opera, though much wilder after Wagner's influence by Schopenhauer.

As for how Siegfried Idyll had gone, it wasn't their musicans at their best. It's just strange when, after the concert, you get to know the musicians were unhappy and attributing the fault to a particular player. But well, I'm digressing. That'll be another story.

I guess for the main programme, they pulled it off well, given the fact that the work really wasn't easy. The conductor gave me an impression of being more jittery and rigid as compared to his usual flowery style (as a fellow musician friend of mine put it). On the whole, I was pleased with how the entire programme had gone.

This work was premiered in the mid 1800s. More than a century old work. Upon reading reviews and comments of this work, I lament the listening abilities of today's audiences. Over all these time, our senses seemed to have dulled instead of being able to comprehend the music of this great master. There's still this deplorable passivity in the modern day audience, leading to an unwillingness to understand the music, as well as art, and life itself.

I shall end this off with a statement by Theordor Adorno, despite it being made a couple of decades ago, still applies today.

Ambivalence is a relation toward something one has not mastered; one behaves ambivalently toward a thing with which one has not come to terms. In response to this, the first task at hand would be, quite simply, to experience the Wagnerian work fully -- something that to this day, despite all the external successes, has not been accomplished.

1 comment:

nat* said...

Ahh Jeff, you can submit this to the ST and get that music critic fired :P

I agree that the Ride of the Valkyries would have made a better prelude to the concert, but just think.. That would have raised the excitement level of the audience, and they probably wouldn't be able to appreciate the intense tone of the prelude to the opera after that. Siegfried Idyll was actually a nice piece and it would have provided a beautiful serene start to the evening (if not for some musicians), and it would also set the quiet tone for the Prelude to act 1 that was to follow after the intermission. Perhaps the only connection was the character of Siegfried and that of Wagner's son Siegfried? (i'm not even sure if they took that into consideration while planning the programme). Oh, and a chamber arrangement of Ride of the Valkyries? Don't even think about it. That work needs a full orchestral sound (yes, including all those blast players) :)

Really interesting thoughts you've got there. Perhaps the staging was also quite a distraction from the music for some, with all the drama and the props.. But it helped to a certain extent - to keep audience entertained and to "mask" the orchestra :P

Apologies if my comments are abrupt, it's really late (or should i say, early in the morning) and since i've not been working much since graduation i guess the cranial activity in my brain is slowing down rapidly >.<