Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Alex Ross wrote an essay for this week's New Yorker about 10 measures in Wagner's Die Walküre. I have a tape of it somewhere. You know, the one with Jessye Norman as Sieglinde. Perhaps I'll look it up.

I'll never be a regular writer about music because I always hear it as music. Maybe it would help never to have gone to school. For instance, never once does he mention that a phrase is supposed to be 8 measures, not 10, and therefore some kind of extension must be going on.

I see Wagner as the child of Berlioz, for it was he who invented the Liedmotiv, calling it an idée fixe. It was an idea used in instrumental music, particularly the Symphonie fantastique.

It is Wagner who took an independent medium--opera--and subsumed it within the forms and content of the symphony. My problem is that I like opera the way it was.

I see Wagner as the child of Liszt, his father-in-law and contemporary. It was Liszt who could not tolerate the boundaries of symphonic form and invented the unstructured symphonic poem. Berlioz tried always to fit his new ideas into the old structure, but Liszt saw no need. He wanted to be guided by a more poetic muse.

I see Wagner as the child of Meyerbeer, the ultimate practitioner of French Grand Opera. He reached for the grand and inflated emotions that are the essence of Wagner.

I see Wagner as the ultimate exploiter of tonality. It took 200+ years to create the expectations that are the tonal expression of Wagner's youth. For me he is the great manipulator of expectation. Except for the extended overture of Rheingold, he hardly waits to establish a tonal center before he goes flying off in another direction. This can be exhilarating or merely annoying, depending. When talking about this, I usually say, "If only he didn't modulate all the time." Or something like that.

I see Wagner as the destroyer of worlds. First Verdi succumbed, then all the Italians followed, leading inexorably to the death of Italian opera. When Alfano traveled to Germany to study, it was over.

It wasn't tonality itself that led to modernism, but I am convinced the all too skillful manipulation of emotion through modulation found in The Ring that inevitably led to the desire to destroy its power. I see Wagner as the destroyer of worlds, worlds right here and not in the clouds.

Which doesn't mean I can't enjoy a nice Wotan's farewell now and then.

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