Friday, June 22, 2007

The Big Guy

Sooner or later we find ourselves facing Richard Wagner. He really was the big guy among composers, and his music is the big music.

Most of the pieces we shall be playing in our concerts this summer last somewhere between 2 and 10 minutes. But Richard Wagner wrote a piece of music that lasts 15 hours! Yes, hours. Of course, you can neither play, nor listen to, a 15-hour piece all in one go. The human body is just not equipped to cope with that, even if our fanatical minds might be. So Wagner conveniently equips the piece with breaks for eating, excreting, sleeping, and just plain recovering. Ideally, this piece of music, called The Nibelung’s Ring is performed over a period of about a week, occupying four evenings. Monday is the first chunk, for 2 1/2 hours without a break, Tuesday is the first full evening, with a three-act opera; chunk three coming on Thursday gives the singers a chance to recover from Tuesday and sing another three-act opera. Then on Saturday night there is yet another three-act opera that even has a rather large prolog before the first act even begins! I’ve been to see/hear this full cycle several times. I was rather daunted by the idea before I first did so, and proclaimed with some pride that I had no intention of going to Wagner’s Ring. It just seemed too much of any sort of thing. But it is terrific, and I heartily recommend it.

We are, obviously, not playing a 15-hour piece of music during our roughly 2 hour concert! But we are going to play an 8-minute excerpt from it. It comes from the prolog I mentioned - the bit of the last big opera that comes before the first act proper gets started. In fact it is the end of the Prolog. So if you like it, be aware that, when we stop, that is when the real story begins!

Is it foolish to suggest that a set of operas spread over a week is a single piece of music? Not really. Much shorter pieces get broken up, so there is nothing odd about that. Sergeant Pepper breaks up into tracks, yet we still think of it as a single musical “thing.”

But how is it possible for a piece of music to last for 15 hours, and hang together as a single entity? Ah! There lies the question! And it is the solution to that problem that was Wagner’s task in life, the inspiration behind what he did, the reason his music is so great, and also the reason why some people have a hard time getting into it. But have no fear - intrepid concert-goer - I shall give you the key, and our 8-minute excursion will give you a glimpse of the glories that are there for the taking.

You might think I’m getting a bit pompous with all this stuff but, hey, it’s Wagner I’m talking about, and if anyone could get way serious it was Wagner. But the principle is quite simple, and it has to do with Beethoven, and the way music and words relate to each other.
Wagner was hugely impressed, as we all are, by Beethoven’s 9th symphony - the choral symphony. And the thing that struck Wagner about that particular piece was the way in which it solved some of Beethoven’s own problems about range and size and what the limits of music might be, and how to overcome them. Beethoven had hit a wall in terms of what his music could express, and his solution was to turn to words, to Schiller’s Ode to Joy to increase the power of music. But an odd thing struck Wagner. When you listen to Beethoven’s 9th, you can’t really hear the words at all. A lot of the time a large chorus is singing fugues and counterpoint, and trying to make the words audible is a waste of time. So how can we say that the words helped? After all, the standard party line is that music is much more emotionally powerful than words. “Music begins where words leave off” as Mendelssohn had said.

But what words can do is to put an idea into your mind while you are listening to the music. Music is terrible at suggesting, say, a rose. How can you tell if the music is about a rose or a daisy or a bird or a river? You can’t. So if you use music to enrich an idea, it is very poor indeed. Music that is set to words, used for instance just to support the words of a really corny opera, that sort of music does a very poor job, and Wagner hated that stuff. But what if you do it the other way round?

Instead of “setting words to music” - using music to express the meaning of words - how about if you “set music to words?” In other words, you don’t make the music form itself around the words, but you use words to point out the extraordinary power of the music. Have you noticed how very often, a piece of music that you already know seems hugely more powerful when it is used in a movie? Somehow, the fact that you have pictures, and a story-line at the same time, enables the music to get under your skin much more strongly. Music gives us emotion without any reason. So we often don’t easily give in to it. But suppose that we have words, a dramatic structure, that serves to indicate what sort of emotion the music is pursuing, that gives us, as it were, permission to feel about situations of the utmost extremity while we listen to the music, situations of the most intense passion, despair, aspiration, desire? This is what Beethoven did: he added to his music the hint that you should think about the power of joy while the symphony is going on. And Wagner took the hint, and used the suggestive power of myth and vast tragic dramas to release the power of music as never before.

But it is a Faustian deal. The music becomes more powerful, but it also depends somewhat on the words and ideas and dramas that have released it. This is why some people find Wagner tough. If you just listen to it as music, it is so extreme that it almost breaks. So you have to do a little bit of homework, and know what he is getting at before you hear the music, or watch the opera. Idea plus music is a powerful concoction, but if you only swallow the music, and ignore the idea, it can seem rather strange.

In a future post I’ll let you know exactly what the ideas are behind the little 8-minute excerpt we are going to play, Siegfried’s Journey to the Rhine. It is so short and simple that I shall explain it from the stage too. In essence:

Siegfried wakes up beside the woman he loves;
they sing of their love;
he sets off on an adventure;
you hear him blow his horn;
he travels along the river Rhine and
arrives at a castle.

That’s it. But we know who he is, and that this castle is going to be his doom. He will be murdered there. More next time. It may sound like a dumb story, but it’s not there to be a good story, it’s there to indicate the passion in the music. As long as it makes musical sense, it makes dramatic sense.

Heck, the 1812 is much better with fireworks, and fireworks are much better with the 1812. It’s the same sort of thing really. We’ll give you just a taste of the magic that Richard Wagner weaves.