The elephant in the room

Notes from a lecture by J.K. Holman, author of “Wagner’s Ring — a listener’s companion and concordance” and founding Chairman of the Wagner Society of Washington DC, on 7th April 2003. (Mr. Holman last addressed the Society in 2001)


Digest prepared by Iain Scott.

(the magazine of the Toronto Wagner Society)

Most commentators on Wagner focus on “the man”, or on “his impact”, or on “the meaning of his operas”. Tonight’s focus will be on an obvious, but seldom noted aspect, – “the elephant in the room” – his prodigious musical craftsmanship.

All Wagnerians are in awe of his ability to create magic moments, those musical passages when we hear something which opens a new world for us. Father Owen Lee has written eloquently of his first encounter with the second sixteen chromatic bars of the overture to Tannhauser, and how they changed his life.

As Wagner developed and evolved, we can trace how some of his musical ideas recur in transformed ways. Everyone is aware of the musical depiction of the swan in Lohengrin and its transformed reappearance in the story of Parsifal, his father. We can similarly trace a phrase in the Rome narrative of Tannhauser, a musical depiction of hopelessness, which metamorphoses into the Dresden Amen in Parsifal 30 years later. Again, as the Minstrel returns, we can identify a four note chromatically rising theme which reappears in the Tristan prelude and then opens the third act of Tristan. A fourth example, this time depicting rage, is the descending arpeggio accompanying the Pope’s message to Tannhauser that he is eternally cursed, which is used again for Alberich’s curse.

This evolutionary creative process, which combines the thematic, the psychological, and maybe the psychotic, has been identified by Carolyn Abbate as metempsychosis — an obsession with the eternal return. We can hear echoes of the soul’s travels from body to body when Venus returns as Kundry, and again in the Good Friday music — a prelapsarian moment, manifest, captured, then lost.

Did Wagner, the prodigious musical craftsman, ever write any bad music? Many would cite the castanets section of the Paris Tannhauser overture, or perhaps the sword fight in Lohengrin, but there may be a pattern to commentators’ concerns. Certain seemingly uninspired passages, for example when Siegfried and the Dragon fight, or when Siegfried wrests the ring from Brunnhilde, are all depictions of physical violent action. Perhaps his music was better in depicting emotion and ideas than action.

Wagner’s craftsmanship can at times become so brilliant that it merits the term virtuosity. Sections of the Meistersinger overture, for example, are an overt celebration of the art of music itself. After Tristan, Wagner’s music had been criticized by traditional musicians as “wrong”. In Die Meistersinger, he demonstrated how equally adept and brilliant he could be in manipulating traditional counterpoint and polyphony.

Wagner believed that the mark of a musical craftsman was “the art of transition.” This includes not only music to accompany and depict scene changes, but also subtle transitions of mood, such as in Eva’s delightfully complex first interview with Sachs.

One transitional technique in which he demonstrated special mastery was the use of “the deceptive cadence”. Among many examples, note the shock of Ortud’s intervention after the five minutes and fifteen seconds of Elsa’s procession to the Cathedral. Or hear the musically shock of the moment when Gunther announces Siegfried’s betrothal to Gutrune in front of Brunnhilde.

Wagner is perhaps most famous as a virtuoso of leitmotifs. The practice of labeling these musical motifs is fraught with danger. Last time I addressed this Society, I unfurled a multipurpose, ironic banner, reading “at this point, he might be talking of some aspect of…” Wagner’s leitmotifs are deliberately unstable, plastic, changing. They do not necessarily tell of the intentions of characters, nor do they give meaning to his music dramas. They do, however, always evolve. For example, see how the rising four note theme at start of Tristan Act 2 returns as Isolde extinguishes the torch, as the lovers sink down from the phenomenal to the noumenal world in the core passage of their duet, and again, transformed, to accompany their death and annihilation at the end.

Another aspect of Wagner’s craftsmanship is his technique of foreshadowing. In traditional symphonic music, a statement is made, fragmented, then modified. Wagner reverses this process. He foreshadows a motivic element, then gives it a definitive statement. Hear how, in the second scene of Rhinegold, when Wotan is reminded he has pledged Freia for the building of Walhalla, a theme evolves into Wotan’s prevention of violence from Donner and Froh towards the Giants, again evolves into his Spear music twists in an expression of his frustrated will, and finally into Brunnhilde’s “War es so schmählich” music. My favourite example of foreshadowing comes in Sachs’s great “Jerum!” song. Listen to the counter melody in the third verse, played by horns and winds, which foreshadows the great theme of resignation or relinquishment that opens and inform the third act.

Wagner was equally a master of instrumentation and the use of rhythm. Listen to the orchestration as Isolde listens to the hunting party going off in Act 2. As the horns become woodwinds, she enters a noumenal world, hearing not horns but water flowing in a garden. A great example of rhythm is Tristan’s arrival. Here, a four note theme is repeated eighty four times! This clearly reinforces the manic resolve of lovers, beyond rational control. Another example is the greeting and pledge of friendship of Gunther and Siegfried. Here, suggestive motivic fractions abound. There are more than 20 of them, all intuitive subconscious reminiscences, telling us of their good intentions, their compromised nobility, and their slide toward treachery.

In summary, Wagner’s seemingly obvious, but so seldom discussed, musical craftsmanship and musicianship continue to create awe and amazement. Of course Wagner’s art is more than music alone – it is his combination of words, dramas, and meaning which makes him endlessly fascinating. Like Velasquez, his work is nothing less than “life perpetuated”. In the final analysis, however, as Father Lee says of the Carmelites, “it is the music which says what we must know.”