Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Brief programme note for Wagner Preludes

(originally written for part of a programme note for the 2013 Salzburg Festival. Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra performed orchestral preludes and overtures by Wagner and Verdi, as well as two new works.)

Richard Wagner (1813–1886)
Prelude to Act One of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Not the least remarkable thing concerning the Prelude to Act One of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is when Wagner composed it, as he wrote in Mein Leben.

During a beautiful sunset which transfigured the light I contemplated a splendid view of “Mainz the Golden” and the majestic Rhine streaming past it, the prelude to my Meistersinger […] returned suddenly clear and distinct to my soul. I set about putting the prelude on paper and wrote it down precisely as it is in the score today, with all the main themes of the whole drama already definitively formed.  

In this Prelude, we hear five of the work’s principal motifs adumbrated, three of them combined in brazen contrapuntal mastery at the moment of return to the work’s deceptively wholesome and anything but straightforward C major tonality. That moment is famously, humorously, signalled by a triangle stroke. We are introduced to the Mastersingers, to Walther and his impetuous ardour and to the darker, contemplative, Schopenhauerian tendencies of the opera before the curtain rises – all before the music to which this overture apparently refers had been composed. Wagner’s counterpoint, like his character Walther von Stolzing, disregards tradition. Increasing reverence for Bach notwithstanding, this is no pastiche, nor even Brahmsian revival. Strauss and Mahler would admire Wagner’s practice for the same reason the reactionary theorist Heinrich Schenker would deplore it: themes are yoked together out of ‘dramatic’ rather than ‘purely musical’ necessity.

Richard Wagner (1813–1886)
Prelude to Act One of Parsifal

Parsifal is a markedly different from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Wagner’s unwieldy designation of Bühnenweihfestspiel (stage-festival-consecration-play) hints at its distance from anything redolent of the opera house. We no longer consider it desirable to restrict performances to Bayreuth, yet something of the mystery play remains. The first act Prelude prepares us admirably. In its opening bars, we hear presentiments of that love symbolized in Christ’s body given for us, of Amfortas’s fallen suffering, of the Grail (the ‘Dresden Amen’), and of that redemption whose substance provides the greatest of Parsifalian enigmas. Wagner summarized the progression to King Ludwig II as love, faith, hope. Moreover, as Theodor Adorno would observe, Parsifal exhibited both Wagner’s ‘late style’ and the ‘still disconcertingly new’; we stand but a stone’s throw from the opening Adagio of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. ‘Lugubrious dimming of sound’, as Adorno again describes, moves us closer still to Schoenberg. Brass-choir religiosity both suggests the church and has us, Amfortas-like in our agony, doubt whether its truths still hold. Some have wished to identify Parsifal as Christ; Wagner and we know that we cannot.

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