Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Stravinsky demeure

On the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Igor Stravinsky. Do any composer's oeuvre and 'voice' take in quite so much of the twentieth century and much else besides, whilst ever remaining itself? Petrushka or Movements? The Rake's Progress or Les Noces? Why choose? Stravinsky did not. And the more one listens, the more they have in commonuntil suddenly once again they do not, snarling and glistening in mutual opposition as dialectical as anything in Schoenberg, yet differently, if only for a moment. In this 'reliquary', furnished from fragments Stravinsky had left behind, Charles Wuorinen (re)constructs, varies, laments, and returns: much as Stravinsky himself might have done, and yet not. As one of Stravinsky's greatest interpreters and antagonists famously put it, 'Stravinsky demeure'. 

Sunday, 7 March 2021

One year on

One year on. Arguably not: it is one year on, or will be this evening, from the last full-scale, fully-staged opera I saw in the theatre, Carmen at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden. Since then, there has not quite been nothing, even in the operatic field, though nothing quite on that scale. (HGO’s outdoor, one-act Sav­ītri broke the drought; the newly formed London Opera Company’s heroic concert Tristan with piano trio accompaniment; even a short new opera, Blue Electric, at the Playground Theatre: these have all been lights to lighten the darkness.)  Moreover, there have been concerts here and there, for which I am incredibly grateful, whether in London or on a carefully timed visit at the end of August back to Berlin for its Musikfest. I still had one left, the following day, in Berlin: Daniel Barenboim and Pinchas Zukerman completing their three-concert survey of the Beethoven violin sonatas. (Beethoven Year: remember that?)


However, it was the beginning of the end for anything remotely akin to the life I knew. I had no idea at the time, none whatsoever. The virus was spreading across Europe. Plans for a research visit to Milan had been cancelled; more importantly, pictures and reports we received from there were horrific. Yet there seemed little reason, at least to those of us in the dark with little or no scientific knowledge, to think this would happen in Berlin or London. Three days later, the announcement came that theatres and halls (initially of a certain capacity, but in practice all of them) would close until after Easter, which was in any case when I should reluctantly have to return to London, find somewhere to live, and return to work on campus, research leave having come to an end. Less than a week later, I boarded a flight out of Tegel, hurriedly booked ‘before it is too late’, and arrived back in this country, homeless. I stayed a night with friends—that was still possible here—and went up to Yorkshire, to my brother’s house. I had no idea, none whatsoever, and would probably not have agreed to go if I had, that I should be staying in his spare room for more than three months, forbidden by law to leave to find somewhere to live, let alone to hear music or see theatre.


Where are we now? There is vague talk of some performances from the middle of May. Who knows? We have been there before. One would have to be insane to believe a word delivered by this ‘government’ of thieves and liars. For Friends of Dido Harding, this has been one long excuse to steal, to profiteer, to repress, to laugh all the way to Barnard Castle and beyond, and not least to put sectors of dissent—education, the arts, the NHS and other public services—firmly in their place. Welcome to the endless ‘war on woke’, the true threat to ‘free speech’. ‘Art for art’s sake’ is a slippery beast, both justifiable and unjustifiable. It depends what one means. None of us wants art to fail to engage with questions in the world around us. By the same token, none of us wants theatre, should it ever return, to be nothing but masks, respirators, and—God help us—Microsoft Teams.

Right now, however, the fight is to retain any space for art, for criticism, for resistance, whether in a narrow or broader sense: any space, essentially, for life, for what makes us human. That can be a Haydn quartet, or a hug from a friend; it would be doubly welcome, were it to involve both. Of the many unforgivable aspects of this tragedy and its handling—let us never forget one of the highest per capita death tolls in the world, yet ‘Boris’ (sic) must ‘save Christmas’—has been refusal to acknowledge that for many of us, whether in single-person or larger ‘households’, our life-giving, life-protecting support networks depend on people and activities beyond where we live. Many of us live alone; many of us are separated from our loved ones; many of us do not have gardens; even for many of those who do, they are not remotely enough. If what matters most of all to you is your nuclear family, good for you; none of us begrudges you that. For others, though, life itself has been constructed beyond that, be it in complement or opposition to it. We do not want to watch streaming opera; that is not what opera is for us. For one thing, we spend far too many of our waking hours toiling away on screens as it is. For another, we need human contact; we need the business, the surprise, the joy, even perhaps the infernal coughing of the theatre and the concert hall. Many of our friends have lost their livelihoods, much of their entire purpose in life. This is our ‘family’; this is our life.


Or it would be, were we permitted a family and life. Halls and theatres have been made ‘Covid-safe’. They need not spread the disease, unlike certain ‘priority’ activities that shall remain nameless. Reopening would help so many in so many different ways. We know why they are closed. We know the indifference and downright hostility toward anyone who dares to be different, to be vulnerable, to be human. One year on, it is time to fight in earnest—for life itself. Fidelio, aptly enough, was to have been my last opera in Berlin.

Monday, 15 February 2021

Musical mysteries: melodies lost and found - works by Ligeti, Schubert, Dowland, and Kurtág, and Byzantine Chant


(This essay was originally published in a 2020 Salzburg Festival programme for a concert by Camerata Salzburg and Patricia Kopatchniskaja.)

GYÖRGY LIGETI: Concerto for violin and orchestra
ANONYMOUS: Byzantine Chant for Psalm 140 (arranged for violin and string orchestra by Patricia Kopatchinskaja)
FRANZ SCHUBERT: First movement (Allegro) from String Quartet no.14 in D minor, D. 810 – ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’ (arranged for string orchestra by Patricia Kopatchinskaja)
FRANZ SCHUBERT: Der Tod und das Mädchen, D. 531 (arranged for string orchestra by Michy Wiancko)
FRANZ SCHUBERT: Second movement (Andante con moto) from String Quartet no.14 in D minor, D. 810, ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’
JOHN DOWLAND: Pavane ‘Lachrimæ Antiquæ Novæ’ for string quintet from Lachrimæ, or Seaven Teares
FRANZ SCHUBERT: Third movement (Allegro molto) from String Quartet no.14 in D minor, D. 810, ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’
GYÖRGY KURTÁG: Ligatura-Message to Frances-Maria (The answered unanswered question), Op. 31b
GYÖRGY KURTÁG: ‘Ruhelos’ from Kafka-Fragmente, Op. 24
FRANZ SCHUBERT: Fourth movement (Presto) from String Quartet no.14 in D minor, ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’, D. 810


Ligeti: Anxiety and Transformation of Influence

Ligeti’s Violin Concerto stands as a truly indispensable work in its genre and a key musical work of the late twentieth century. Initially composed in 1989 and 1990, it underwent significant revision during which composer and work alike moved, so it seemed, towards a Platonic ideal, its sources lost, found, varied, and rediscovered.

During hospital convalescence, the composer engaged in intensive study of Haydn’s late quartets, which seems strongly to have influenced ensuing process of clarification. ‘From Haydn,’ he told his assistant, Louise Duchesneau, ‘you can learn how to achieve the clearest effect with the simplest means.’ When choosing ‘between a more ornate structure and a skeleton, Haydn always chooses the skeleton, never using one note more than he needs. I applied this principle of avoiding unnecessary complexity … and thought that it brought me closer to my ideal.’ Ligeti worried, however, that he had veered too close to Hungarian, especially Transylvanian, folk music, replacing the first movement entirely. He also revised and reordered the other two in an expansion to five movements that yet never reached his originally anticipated eight. The version the work’s dedicatee, Saschka Gawriloff, premiered in 1990 with Gary Bertini and the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra was always considered incomplete. Gawriloff and Ligeti employed material originally intended for movements never completed for the fifth-movement cadenza; Kopatchinskaja will play her own.

Ligeti’s interest in different systems of tuning is very much in microtonal play. With a few exceptions marked in the score, the soloist plays at concert pitch. Things are difficult enough for her already with virtuosic writing, according to the composer, born of models such as ‘Paganini, the Bach solo sonatas, Ysäye’s solo sonatas, Wieniawski, and Szymanowski’. However, the concertmaster – one of only five orchestral violins – and first viola – one of three – must play in scordatura, tuned to the seventh harmonic partial of the double bass’s first string and fifth of its third string respectively. Brass too offer natural harmonics, while use of ocarinas, slide whistles, and harmonica both subverts and expands our field of listening. By combining these ‘out of tune’ notes and harmonics with those of the normally tuned strings, Ligeti sought to ‘build a number of harmonic and non-harmonic spectra,’ such conflict between overtones resulting in a veritable voyage of harmonic exploration. The more Ligeti listened to non-Western music, the less he could allow himself to be constrained by equal temperament. ‘It almost hurts’, he said.

The opening is likewise elemental, alternating open A and D strings in lightning succession, furthering Ligeti’s desire for a ‘glassy shimmering character’. In this first movement, ‘Praeludium’, the solo line gradually distinguishes itself from an apparent multitude of other solos, emerging as a well-nigh traditional, first-among-equals virtuoso. Its magic can be tender too, though, as in the violin’s duetting with an array of tuned percussion.

Polymeters run riot, as they will too in the finale, much of whose folk material and allusion Márton Keréfky has discovered to have been reused, ‘albeit embedded in a totally new context’, from the discarded original first movement. The impression of ideas, remembered or misremembered, from earlier movements piling upon one another affords reinvented climax, never quite as we have known it. Listening to Thai, Khmer, and Laotian music afforded inspiration and example for Ligeti’s consciously seeking ‘for a new kind of way of building a melody’. So too did continuing influence from his Transylvanian heritage.

The second movement, ‘Aria, Hoquetus, Choral’ opens with a low solo, G-string adaptation of a melody from Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet, and thus ultimately from his still earlier Musica ricercata for piano, the former being a transcription of six movements of the latter. The movement seems to aspire to rootedness, be it folk- or chant-like – are the two ultimately so different? – yet to find its way thwarted, ‘continually splintering’, in Seth Brodsky’s evocative phrase, ‘into weird ironic homelessness’. Such weird irony and modal aspiration are only heightened by a quartet of woodwind pied pipers taking up their ocarinas for the chorale. High, fantastical writing in the central Intermezzo has any number of parallels in other violin concertos, yet can never be assimilated to their party. The Passacaglia makes play once more with time-honoured form, riveting in its never-quite-expected progress. Here beats the heart of the work and of Ligeti’s generative anxiety of influence.  

Byzantine Chant: To the source?

A chant-like, even ‘mediæval’ quality has been remarked on in Ligeti’s second movement. We now move closer to the elusive (illusory?) source, nonetheless mediated. Travel through musical history and you will find any number of instrumental works or movements based on song melodies. Such tended to be the practice in the writing of Byzantine chant. A text, in this case that of Psalm 140, ‘Deliver me, O Lord, from the evil man’, would be set to a traditional melody and subsequently shaped – or not – to requirements of the verse. This tradition’s characteristic ‘four-element syllable-count cadence’ – four final syllables of a line, regardless of word accent, tied to four fixed, stylised cadential elements – has suggested to scholars an earlier psalmody than its Gregorian counterpart. To indulge in wild anachronism, is this also an early anticipation of modern clashes between words and music, given a further twist by arrangement for instruments alone?

Touched by Death

Schubert set Matthias Claudius’s Der Tod und das Mädchen in February 1817, two years after Claudius’s death. Here death approaches in instrumental sombre D minor. The Maiden vocally resists, bidding him not to touch her. He has his way, though, also vocally; he is not fierce and will have her sleep in his arms. The song closes with a foreshortened reprise of the introduction, albeit in an equally sombre yet peaceable D major. The manuscript might not have survived, having been cut into pieces by Schubert’s half-brother Anton, the Benedictine Father Hermann, yet was eventually reassembled. (It had in any case been published.) Ludwig Wittgenstein would muse on its fate more than a century later:

Recall that after Schubert’s death his brother cut some of Schubert’s scores into small pieces and gave such pieces, consisting of a few bars, to his favourite pupils. This act, as a sign of piety, is just as understandable to us as the different one of keeping the scores untouched, accessible to no one. And if Schubert’s brother had burned the scores, that too would be understandable as a sign of piety.

Showing the dead respect takes many forms.

Touched by Life

If the song is one of Schubert’s most celebrated, so too is the March 1824 string quartet taking its nickname and the theme of its second movement from it, touched by life rather than death. It stands as tall in its genre as Ligeti’s concerto in its. Resist undue romanticisation as we might, it is difficult not to think at least in partial relation to Schubert’s own coming appointment with the grim reaper. This was, however, the very time his friend Franz von Schober reported Schubert believed new medication had cured him. Either way, an artwork should not be reduced to biography, however tragic.

Tragedy is nevertheless present, vehemently so in the first movement, its second thematic group sweetly lyrical yet undoubtedly in the shadow of a furious D minor daemon not so very different from that which had captivated Mozart. The number of fortissimo and still more sforzando markings might visually suggest a score by Beethoven, although the triplet writing could not be more characteristic of Schubert: both in itself and for the particular variety of propulsion it offers. Such prospects of peace as there are, for instance a shift to D major during the recapitulation, find themselves swiftly, even brutally undercut. The uncertainty of where the coda will lead till it breathes its last offers an apt summation of tensions and overall tragedy in the movement as a whole.

We move to G minor for the Andante con moto theme and variations, five of them. Neither the first violin’s flights of fancy in the first variation nor the cello’s rapt lyricism in the second can forestall the pent-up fury unleashed in the third. If the penultimate variation, as might be expected, shifts to the tonic major and the final variation concludes likewise, this is as resigned, even exhausted a close as that to the original song. Only in the third movement trio, that Schubert can present a (relatively) sustained vision of major mode utopia. Sandwiched as it is, however, between the rhythmic insistence and almost bewildering syncopations of the scherzo itself, we know that it is too late. Is it fanciful to consider the rondo finale a Totentanz, a dance of death? Hardly, for this Romantic tarantella leaves us in no doubt as to the work’s ultimate destination, fury once more and now decisively winning out over resignation. Having the coda open in D major only prepares the way for the final nail in the coffin. Neither hope nor forgiveness is to be had; nor is it sought.

Old Tears New

John Dowland’s 1604 Lachrimae or seaven teares figured in seaven passionate pavans takes as its theme and first pavan Dowland’s existing song and lute solo, Lachrimae antiquae (‘Old Tears’). We hear here its immediate successor variation, ‘Lachrimae antiquae novae’ (‘Old Tears New’), its melodic melancholy and harmonic intensity both related to and a development – to borrow from the Viennese Classical future – of its thematic model. What Thomas Morley in his influential 1597 Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke had held necessary for expression of ‘a lamentable passion’ may be heard immediately: ‘motions proceeding by halfe notes. Flat thirds, and flat sixths, which of their nature are sweet’; semitones or ‘accidentall motions’ that will ‘fitly express the passions of griefe, weeping, sighes, sorrowes, sobs, and suchlike’. And yet, Dowland noted in his dedication to Anne of Denmark that tears differ in cause and effect. ‘No doubt pleasant are the teares which Musicke weeps, neither are teares shed always in sorrow but sometime in joy and gladnesse.’ Music mirrors yet relieves man’s fallen condition.

Kurtág’s re-enchantment

Two short pieces by György Kurtág ask further questions ‘answered’ and ‘unanswered’, perhaps even unanswerable in the case of Ligatura-Message to Frances-Maria, written in 1989, the year Ligeti began his Violin Concerto; and, in the excerpt from his Kafka-Fragmente, to continue the restless (‘Ruhelos’) Schubertian wandering that is our fallen lot. Solo strings and celesta in the former suggest re-enchantment of the traditional quartet, in a slow processional offering neither comfort nor discomfort but something beyond, magically or materially, even a foundational melody yet to be found. The latter piece’s whispered confidences and sudden eruption from intimate theatre into something finely balanced between cruelty and the absurd likewise seem beyond our ken, stretch our ears as we may. Like Ligeti’s Haydn. Kurtág never uses ‘one note more than he needs’. Musical mysteries endure.

Saturday, 13 February 2021

Cambridge Companion to the Ring: interview with Catherine Kustanczy


An interview Nicholas Vazsonyi and I had with Catherine Kustanczy, about our Cambridge Companion to Wagner's 'Der Ring des Nibelungen', and, more broadly, staging Wagner and Wagner in a time of pandemic. Click here.

Friday, 12 February 2021

For Palindrome Day

Today is a palindrome day: 12-02-2021. Herewith what is surely the most beloved of musical palindromes, followed by bonus intervention from clever audio software to play the entire sequence in reverse, offering a double palindrome. As noted by the mind behind this, Jason Haaheim, the only differences lie in attack and dynamics.

Saturday, 6 February 2021

Haydn's Creation: Chaos and Light


The ‘Representation of Chaos’, with which The Creation opens, is justly the most celebrated number in the oratorio, and it is clear from the sketches that Haydn took unprecedented pains over its composition. Heinrich Schenker wrote of Haydn ‘stretching and straining’ his musical means, to recall in its mysteries ‘the mysteries of Chaos’. Without the aid – or constraint – of a text, the composer depicts the universe prior to the Creative act, whilst also prefiguring that act. This movement does not begin in C minor; it opens with an emphatic unison C, of indeterminate length and indeterminate tonality. As Hegel would point out in the second chapter of his Logic, an absolute – that is, a true beginning and basis for all subsequent determinations – cannot in itself be determinate.              


From the outset, Haydn evolves his tonality, but he does not immediately introduce a tonic chord of C minor. When the music first seems to be heading that way, he substitutes an interrupted cadence for the expected full close (bars 4-5). The cosmos does not evolve in a few seconds, even in Haydn’s concentrated chronology. As the musical conception develops, so do intimations of life. The very slow, swirling mass of nothingness – ‘the earth was without form and void’ – is breached first by a triplet figure (bar 6), and later by another sign of organized motion in chaos, a double dotted figure. Lawrence Kramer writes: ‘From a scientific standpoint, the … structure effects a heroic reduction of chaos to lawlike, quasi-mathematical regularity.’ Surging dynamic marking evokes the ebb and flow of the first tides, for it is from the oceans that the first life-forms will emerge. This was recognized in contemporary reviews, for example that in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung of 21 January 1801: ‘… single notes come forth, spawning others in turn … Movement begins. Powerful masses grate against each other and begin to gestate … Unknown forces, swimming and surging, … bring tidings of order.’ As the Spirit of God moveth upon the waters, the life figurations multiply and subdivide themselves, and the seeds of order are sown, before we return to the void whilst awaiting the first words of this sacred drama. There had been some precedent for this in the germinal introductions to Haydn’s London symphonies – at any rate, all but no.95, which ironically is in C minor – but, harmonically rich though they be, this is an introduction of another magnitude, as befits an introduction preparing the way for the specific musical and verbal drama of Creation.


Donald Tovey points out that the ‘Representation of Chaos’ harmonizes well not only with the Biblical account of Creation, but also with the work of Pierre-Simon Laplace and Kant. In his Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens, disseminated widely since the 1750s, but even more widely during the 1790s, Kant had voiced the traditional Christian doctrine of Creation in space and time (whose validity would be both proven and denied in his subsequent, critical philosophy.)  He had argued that ‘there is a God precisely because Nature can proceed even in Chaos in no other way than regularly and orderly.’ Haydn, Tovey remarks, ‘did a certain amount of dining-out in fin-de-siècle London, [and] was as likely to have heard of the Nebular Hypothesis as a modern diner-out is likely to hear of Einstein and Relativity’.


Replica of Herschel's telescope, Bath

This is supported by Haydn’s visit to the astronomer (and amateur composer) Sir William Herschel at his home in Slough on 15 June 1792. There Haydn was able to look through the telescopes of the man who, to all intents and purposes, added nebulae and the Milky Way to the scientific map and was the first man in modern times to discover a planet, Uranus. Unfortunately, Haydn’s notebook tells us very little about what he actually saw, save for the length of ‘the great telescope’, nor of what they said to each other. But a visit to this site of scientific pilgrimage – the King of Poland sent Herschel his portrait, and Catherine the Great requested specifications of his telescopes – would perforce have made a great impression upon Haydn. Science and religion did not stand mutually opposed; indeed, their close relationship is a key feature of Enlightenment theology. Thus Joseph Addison could write, in the early eighteenth century: ‘Natural philosophy quickens this Taste of the Creation, and renders it not only pleasing to the Imagination, but to the Understanding. … It heightens the pleasures of the Eye, and raises such a rational Admiration in the Soul as is little inferior to Devotion.’ Kant likewise emphasized the ‘harmony between my system and religion,’ which heightens his confidence in the veracity of his writings. And Herschel himself, in a rare clue as to his religious sentiments, wrote in a letter of 1794: ‘It is certainly a laudable thing to receive instruction from the great Workmaster of Nature, and for that reason all experimental philosophy is instituted.’          


Nevertheless, God’s image has not been explicitly evoked in the ‘Representation of Chaos’. Its closing bars, therefore, mark a return to the mood of the opening, the pathos underlined by the descending flute solo and Neapolitan harmony. In a sense, then, the next section of the introduction renders explicit through words that which has gone before. The double dotted figure is hinted at following Raphael’s ‘In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the earth,’ and is soon stated most clearly (bars 69-71). But the explicit presence of God and His act of Creation make events take a different turn; this is not evolution in an eighteenth-century, let alone a Darwinian sense. Haydn’s outlook stands closer to that of Moses Mendelssohn’s Morning Hours or Lectures on the Existence of God, which we find in the composer’s library. This popular philosophy, derived to some extent from Leibniz’s rationalistic deism, has at its heart the necessity of God’s existence and rejection of Spinoza’s – and Lessing’s alleged – pantheism. An absolute, eternal mind is quite certain, since the testimony of the senses to an external world would be unthinkable without a necessary, extra-worldly being.


Portrait by Bernhard Rode, c.1770

A generation earlier, the Swiss æsthetician, Johann Georg Sulzer,
had written of the sublime (Erhaben), in his influential Allgemeine Theorie der schönen Künste:

We are moved as little by the wholly inconceivable as if it never existed. If we are told that God created the world ex nihilo … we experience nothing at all, since this lies totally beyond our comprehension. But when Moses says, ‘And God said: Let there be light; and there was light,’ we are overcome with astonishment because we can at least form some idea of such greatness; we hear to some extent words of command and feel their power.

Though Sulzer’s work was considered dated by some even at the time of publication (first edition, 1771-4), his is a typical view for eighteenth-century readers, writers, and listeners. It illuminates the importance of the word in Haydn’s Creation but also impressed upon us the magnitude of Haydn’s achievement in the ‘Representation of Chaos’. There, despite what many would have thought, he has shown that the apparently ‘inconceivable’ can be conceived and received in the sublime manner. Nevertheless, the sotto voce chanting of the chorus (‘And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters’) engenders a sense of expectation and tension, heightened following the words, ‘and God said: Let there be Light.’ Here, a generation before the choral finale to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, we have impressed upon us the necessity of the word – and the Creator’s primal, enlightening word at that, which confers retrospective meaning and direction upon Haydn’s preceding symphonic chaos.

Thus is the groundwork prepared for Haydn’s greatest coup de théâtre, ‘… and there was Light.’ This conception of courageous simplicity, the famous fortissimo C major chord, is entirely Haydn’s own: he ignored his librettist Gottfried van Swieten’s advice that the darkness should ‘gradually disappear’. It is a passage whose stunning effectiveness has never palled. Of the London première (28 March 1800), Charles Burney observed that ‘the generality of the subscribers were unable to disentangle the studied confusion in delineating chaos.’  Yet ‘the composer’s meaning was felt by the whole audience in this passage; there followed an instant interruption of rapturous applause.’ Haydn’s was a language that could speak across national boundaries. As late as the 1830s, when, as James Webster points out, Haydn’s music was ‘rapidly becoming passé,’ the æsthetician Gustav Schilling would write: ‘there is still no music of greater sublimity than the passage “And there was Light”, … in Haydn’s Creation.’ This entailed connecting ‘the finite and phenomenal … with the infinite and divine’. Such connection is precisely what the act of Creation is.

Light was a symbol that few in Haydn’s first audiences would have fail to recognize at some level; it was not simply or primarily a representation of the sublime, but was above all the quintessential symbol of Enlightenment.  Swieten had written to the Austrian Chancellor Kaunitz in 1774 of the need for ‘light’ in politics; a ‘blind’ people could readily be put to bad use. More generally, he had tirelessly urged the cause for a religious enlightenment of the people, that their faith might be grounded upon rational conviction. Joseph Anton Gall, a colleague of Swieten’s during the 1780s, and subsequently Bishop of Linz, explained that the Redeemer had returned the world to a semi-paradisiacal condition, that is, restored ‘Light’ to the world, since God in His goodness could not bear to leave man in his fallen state. In Leibniz’s Monadology (first published in German in 1720), monads are portrayed as simple, windowless entities, which, through the process of entelechy, strive towards greater and greater brightness until united with the brightest and most enlightened monad, God Himself. However it was interpreted, the symbol of Light was always on the side of the angels so far as men of the Enlightenment – be they Protestant, Catholic, or Deist – were concerned. Light had shone brightly from behind the dark clouds of superstition on the title page of the first major book written by Christian Wolff, Rational Thoughts on God, the World, and the Soul of Man. The Revelatory dazzling brightness of Haydn’s fin-de-siècle primæval Light shines all the more clearly.

(Extracted from 'Haydn's Creation and Enlightenment Theology,' originally published in the Austrian History Yearbook, 39 (2008), 25-44.)

Tuesday, 26 January 2021

Three million...

 ... page views. I am not quite sure how or why, but thank you to all who have visited over the years. I may be posting less at the moment, for obvious reasons, but I hope that will change soon.

In the meantime, a few pictures revealing Bernie Sanders's secret career:

Thursday, 21 January 2021

Zemlinsky, Die Seejungfrau

Zemlinsky and Schoenberg, Prague, 1917
Image: Arnold Schönberg Center, Vienna

‘I have always thought and still believe that he was a great composer. Maybe his time will come earlier than we think.’ Arnold Schoenberg was far from given to exaggerated claims for ‘greatness’, yet he could hardly have been more emphatic in the case of his friend, brother-in-law, mentor, advocate, interpreter, and, of course, fellow composer, Alexander Zemlinsky. Ten years later, in 1959, another, still more exacting modernist critic, Theodor Adorno, wrote in surprisingly glowing terms. Zemlinsky had ‘made more of the compromises characteristic of an eclectic than any other first-rate composer of his generation. Yet his eclecticism demonstrated genius in its truly seismographic sensitivity to the stimuli by which he allowed himself to be overwhelmed.’ We perhaps look more warily than Adorno or Schoenberg upon Romantic notions of genius, even as our concert halls, opera houses, and much popular discourse cling to them. Has Zemlinsky’s time come? Or is the question now beside the point?

In that Romantic vein, the Lyric Symphony remains Zemlinsky’s ‘masterpiece’: frequently performed, recorded, and esteemed. His operas are now staged more often, at least in Germany. In that same 1949 sketch, Schoenberg praised Zemlinsky the opera composer extravagantly, saying he knew not one ‘composer after Wagner who could satisfy the demands of the theatre with better musical substance than he. His ideas, his forms, his sonorities, and every turn of the music sprang directly from the action, from the scenery, and from the singers’ voices with a naturalness and distinction of supreme quality.’ What, then, of the invisible theatre of the symphonic poem, historically related to Wagnerian drama from Liszt onwards – as indeed in the œuvre of Richard Strauss? There are no voices, nor is there scenery. But what of ideas, forms, sonorities, and action? Die Seejungfrau (‘The Mermaid’) is Zemlinsky’s sole essay in the genre and now his most widely esteemed non-vocal work. 

Image: Arnold Schönberg Center, Vienna

It was not always so. After only three performances, in Vienna, Berlin, and Prague, Zemlinsky withdrew the score. The first performance on 25 January 1905 was also noteworthy for the premiere of Schoenberg’s tone poem, Pelleas und Melisande, and for being the final concert of the Vereinigung schaffender Tonkünstler (‘Society of Creative Musicians’), founded by Schoenberg, Zemlinsky, and fellow conductor-composer Oskar Posa only the previous year. It had already performed Strauss’s Sinfonia domestica and the Vienna premiere of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. Here each of the founding members conducted his own premiere, five songs for baritone and orchestra by Posa given between Zemlinsky and Schoenberg’s symphonic poems.

The audience did not react kindly to Pelleas, which had most likely been poorly performed (and conducted). Schoenberg would subsequently recall that ‘reviews were unusually violent and one of the critics suggested to put me in an asylum and keep music paper out of my reach’. That is what musical history has tended to remember. However, Zemlinsky’s piece, although misunderstood as merely ‘charming’, even in one review ‘heart-warming’, was received with greater enthusiasm. Such misunderstanding is nevertheless understandable, given that Zemlinsky’s aesthetic would always remain attached to an old-fashioned notion of ‘beauty’. In a 1902 letter to Schoenberg, he declared: ’A great artist who has everything required to express himself meaningfully, must observe the boundaries of the beautiful, even if he should stretch them further.’ To do so, he continued, would have a trained ear, ‘our era … yours and mine,’ hear mere ugliness. For him, Strauss crossed that line in Ein Heldenleben. Such would not be the path taken in the ‘symphonic poem, Das Meerfräulein, by [Hans Christian] Andersen,’ soon renamed Die Seejungfrau

Marie Pappenheim, oil painting by Schoenberg, 1909
 Image: Arnold Schönberg Center, Vienna

It is uncertain why, following those three performances, Zemlinsky suppressed the work. He did not even mention it in a 1910 worklist he sent to Universal Edition. It appears he may have come to regret the persistence of elements of less-than-symphonic repetition, which he saw as more at home in the Viennese operettas he conducted to earn a living. The unpublished score was divided, the first movement given to Marie Pappenheim, a friend of Zemlinsky, now best known, alongside achievements as dermatologist and sexual liberationist, as Schoenberg’s librettist for Erwartung. Zemlinsky retained the second and third movements, taking them with him when he fled Europe for the United States in 1938. Only in the early 1980s did scholars come to realise that the three movements belonged together. Die Seejungfrau was finally published, receiving its first ‘modern’ performance, conducted by one of those scholars, Peter Gülke, in 1984.

In the letter to Schoenberg quoted above, Zemlinsky outlined his plan:

Part I a: At the foot of the sea (entire exposition) b: Mermaid in the human world, storm, the prince’s rescue.

Part II a: The mermaid’s longing; with the witch. b: The prince’s wedding and mermaid’s demise. Thus two parts, but four sections.

As work progressed – Zemlinsky wrote far more slowly than Schoenberg – the four sections remained, yet spread across a ‘fantasy in three movements for large orchestra’. The shift to three movements speaks of developing symphonic ambition; ‘symphonic poem’ is how Zemlinsky persistently referred to it in correspondence with Schoenberg. Even the narrative and pictorial ambition of the first movement, its storm included, are bound together by a Brahmsian mode of thematic working. ‘I had been a “Brahmsian” when I met Zemlinsky,’ Schoenberg recalled; ‘his love embraced both Brahms and Wagner and soon thereafter I became an equally confirmed addict.’

The scherzo has less in the way of narrative; it is more of a symphonic movement ‘after’ Andersen. Not for nothing do the waves of La Mer, Debussy’s three ‘symphonic sketches’, come to mind at its opening. The third movement too proceeds in notably symphonic fashion, earlier music revisited and transformed. It may ultimately offer a hymn to ‘man’s immortal soul’, yet far from dependent upon a programmatic idea, let alone a detailed narrative. We should not push such claims too far. Zemlinsky’s themes are motifs, associated with objects, ideas, emotions, as that ‘New German School’ of Wagner, Berlioz, Liszt, and even their successor Strauss would have understood. ‘Home’, ‘joy’, ‘despair,’ seabed, mermaid, ‘human world’, and many others speak of a conceptual dramaturgy extending beyond ‘absolute’ music, even if it eventually returns us to that realm. An age old problem of ‘programme music’ – do we need the ‘programme’ or not? – is resuscitated in a tale of neither fish nor fowl that, both in subject matter and in aesthetic controversy, redramatises and rephrases that very same problem.

Routledge translation, 1883

It is generally wise to beware reading autobiography explicitly into music. In this case, however, the romantic ardour Zemlinsky had felt prior to rejection by his pupil, Alma Schindler (subsequently Mahler) seems unavoidably related, at least in generalised fashion, to the work’s subject matter. Such would be the case more specifically in two operas, Der Traumgörge (‘Görge the Dreamer’) and Der Zwerg (‘The Dwarf’). The history and hysteria of the merwitch music, ‘bei der Meerhexe’, cut by Zemlinsky and only latterly restored in Antony Beaumont’s critical edition of the original version, tells its own bitter story. Dark brass writing at the opening proves unsurprisingly Wagnerian, although Strauss may be just as relevant. Disentangling the two hardly seems relevant. Haunting string chords, woodwind solos too, suggest Mahler’s early cantata, Das klagende Lied, which had finally received its first performance in Vienna, in 1901, albeit in heavily revised, truncated form. We might continue, isolating affinities with Till Eulenspiegel, Tod und Verklärung, and so on, yet what would be the point, without broader critical observation? Affinity is not necessarily influence; even when it turns out to be, there remains the question: ‘so what?’

Perhaps we come closer to appreciation of the work’s particular qualities when we recall that Zemlinsky, like Mahler and Strauss, yet unlike Schoenberg, was also a conductor of the first rank. The detail of his orchestral scores is noteworthy in itself and for its practicality, born of experience. That is not to say that he does not make strenuous demands; however, they are never absurd. (One might draw a comparison with, say, Liszt in his piano writing.) Beaumont identifies in this work the birth of an especially ‘singular aspect of Zemlinsky’s art,’ namely his ‘exploitation of the glissando,’ as opposed to Mahlerian portamento, ‘as an expressive device in its own right’. It could hardly have been signalled more emphatically, nor indeed originally, than in the scherzo: four unison trombones at fortissimo. Beaumont rightly acknowledges one contemporaneous usage: Schoenberg’s Pelleas, which requests muted trombones at ppp. Mere coincidence is unlikely. Who influenced whom? We shall probably never know – although Schoenberg’s greater speed at writing may just give him the edge of probability.

At any rate, as Adorno realised, Zemlinsky’s voice, impulse, and general priorities were more typical for ‘Vienna 1900’ than Schoenberg’s. Erik Levi has astutely described Zemlinsky as ‘very much a child of his time, a composer who enthusiastically absorbed a wide array of contemporary cultural influences, but whose distinctive voice only emerges after sustained exposure to his music.’ We stand in a better position to receive and learn from such exposure than previously; indeed, we have now for a little while. Zemlinsky’s time may have come upon us earlier than we knew.

(This essay was first published to accompany the Pentatone recording of Die Seejungfrau by the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra and Marc Albrecht. See below.)

Saturday, 9 January 2021

Tally of performances attended in 2020

An odder year than ever before and, let us hope, than ever again. I heard no composer of opera more than once; there was no Fidelio, even in Beethoven's anniversary year. Beethoven would surely have emerged considerably further ahead had that year truly got going. As it was, he squeaked past Mozart in the concert tally, while the two composers both received eleven in the final reckoning. (As ever, this is scored per concert/event rather than per piece; i.e. Igor Levit playing four Beethoven sonatas in the same recital counts as one, not four.) 

Looked at another way, though, I still managed to hear music by a range of composers, from Abrahmsen to Zimmermann, a good number of contemporary composers amongst them.


Beethoven 11

Mozart 10

Bach 5

Haydn, Ravel, Stravinsky 3

Berg, Schumann, Bernd Alois Zimmermann 2

Hans Abrahamsen, Georges Aperghis, George Benjamin, Boulez, Brahms, Busoni, Isaac Cooper, Copland, Elgar, Samantha Fernando, Francesco Filidei, Franck, Saed Haddad, Hindemith, Johann Casper Kerll, Janáček, Christian Jost, Lachenmann, Mahler, William Marshall, Georg Muffat, Isabel Mundry, Mussorgsky, Olli Mustonen, Nielsen, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Jean-Féry Rebel, Wolfgang Rihm,  Frederic Rzewski, Rebecca Saunders, Schnittke, Schoenberg, Sibelius, Strauss, Wagner, Webern, Jörg Widmann 1



Bizet, Cherubini, Debussy, Beat Furrer, Holst, Humperdinck, Janáček, Mozart, Meyerbeer, Annelies Van Parys, Tom Smail, Wagner 1



Beethoven, Mozart 11

Bach 5

Haydn, Ravel, Stravinsky 3

Berg, Janáček, Schumann, Wagner, Bernd Alois Zimmermann 2

Hans Abrahamsen, Georges Aperghis, George Benjamin, Bizet, Boulez, Brahms, Busoni, Cherubini, Isaac Cooper, Copland, Debussy, Elgar, Samantha Fernando, Francesco Filidei, Beat Furrer, Franck, Saed Haddad, Hindemith, Holst, Humperdinck, Johann Casper Kerll, Christian Jost, Lachenmann, Mahler, William Marshall, Meyerbeer, Georg Muffat, Isabel Mundry, Mussorgsky, Olli Mustonen, Nielsen, Annelies Van Parys, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Jean-Féry Rebel, Wolfgang Rihm,  Frederic Rzewski, Rebecca Saunders, Schnittke, Schoenberg, Sibelius, Tom Smail, Strauss, Webern, Jörg Widmann 1

Tuesday, 15 December 2020

Friend/Maxwell Quartet - Haydn, Scottish folk music, and Mozart, 13 December 2020

St John’s, Waterloo

Image: Matthew Johnson Photographer

Haydn: String Quartet in C major, op.74 no.1
Scottish folk music
Mozart: Clarinet Quintet in A major, KV 581

Anthony Friend (clarinet)
Colin Scobie, George Smith (violins)
Elliot Perks (viola)
Duncan Strachan (cello)

A highlight of my (late) summer was a visit to the Bandstand Chamber Festival in Battersea Park. For the dark nights, in every sense, of December, artistic director Anthony Friend has had the festival decamp a little further down the Thames to St John’s, Waterloo under the new guise of ‘Spotlight Chamber Concerts’. Very apt, too, the church in darkness, musicians spotlit in front of the altar steps.

The Maxwell Quartet’s concert (later joined by Friend on the clarinet) opened in arresting fashion, thanks to Haydn’s grand gesture—a simple perfect cadence, and yet…—to open his op.74 no.1. It is very much a ‘London’ quartet, written for the same public as those astonishing final dozen symphonies, and there seemed in these darkest of times something special indeed to hearing it in a city that has suffered so greatly not only this year but ever since Cameron’s infernal referendum. Keenness of playing encompassed civilisation and rusticity, detail and longer line, Haydn’s vision of humanity thus diverse and reconciled: a European union. I was struck by the concision of the whole, nowhere more so than in a development that, in performance as on the page, changes everything and yet has us return. The surprises, well-nigh Beethovenian, of the recapitulation, if we may call it that, afforded both delight and imperative to listen.

Cultivated innocence characterised the Andantino grazioso. Such dialectical reconciliation—not for nothing was Haydn Beethoven’s teacher—did not efface but rather brought into relief both the movement’s darker movements and the composer’s ever-astonishing powers of invention. Speaking of invention, what an extraordinary movement the Minuet is, here relished and communicated as such with evident love and understanding. Its swing said so much, as did the relaxation, finely judged, of its A major Trio. The finale fizzed with character, connoisseurship, and yes, invention. As in the first movement, performance made clear the richness of use to which Haydn puts his material. It was, again like the opening, impressive in a frankly symphonic sense that remained true to this mesmerising chamber music for Johann Peter Salomon, an earlier ‘citizen of nowhere’.

There remain—dare one even use that verb any more?—other unions for our political masters to break, not least that with us since 1707. At least for this evening, though, that could be postponed, the Maxwell players rewarding us with a little Scottish folk music, as arranged by fiddlers William Marshall and Isaac Cooper. In excellent command of the idiom, the players built and shaped both selections finely.

We were left in no doubt from the opening bars of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet that here was a very different composer from Haydn, or indeed his eighteenth-century Scots counterparts. Lyricism of a quality it is difficult not to think divine—and why would one try?—is the order of the day, and so it sounded, Anthony Friend’s liquid tone just the tonic for cares we had (almost) left without the church. Distinction of method in so many ways was communicated with an effortlessness, however apparent, however illusory, that remains nonetheless crucial to so much Mozart. The development sounded every bit as exploratory as Haydn’s, the recapitulation both returning and venturing into new, Così-like territory. That sense was furthered in a reading of the Larghetto of rare hushed intimacy, clarinet first among equals—until another instrument was. The Minuet brought ebullient contrast that yet already hinted at a vulnerability, even anguish, given fuller voice in the first trio. The second trio’s serenading chimed with both tendencies. Both uniting and providing new points of departure, Mozart’s finale once again proved the very model of Classical variation writing, transformative in a fashion difficult not to consider operatic. For, in those most European of music, wistful and joyful, we both recognise ourselves and a world now sadly, even tragically, unattainable.

Hopes to attend the final two concerts in this series, scheduled for later this week, have now been dashed by the latest preposterous restrictions. Shops, gyms, even saunas remain open; a Christmas massacre looms; yet Covid-secure chamber concerts are once again forbidden. However, there is spotlighting at the end of the tunnel; Steven Isserlis and Angela Hewitt will reschedule their recitals. Perhaps it was too much to hope that my final concert music of 2020 would be Beethoven’s opp.110 and 111. As I have recently written elsewhere, this virus-ridden world remains obstinately deaf to the music it most needs to hear. If anything can have us retain hope, it is the composer of the Ninth Symphony, with which I heard out 2019. Let us hope; let us pray. 

Wednesday, 9 December 2020

ASMF/Wigglesworth - Sibelius, Nielsen, Wagner, and Mozart, 5 December 2020

St Martin-in-the-Fields

Sibelius: Belshazzar’s Feast: ‘Nocturne’
Nielsen, arr. Hans Abrahamsen: Three Piano Pieces, op.59, recomposed for ten instruments
Wagner: Siegfried-Idyll
Mozart: Symphony no.34 in C major, KV 338

Academy of St Martin in the Fields
Ryan Wigglesworth (conductor)

‘Awakening’, aptly enough, was the theme of this post-lockdown concert from the Academy of St Martin in the Fields in the church where, for this orchestra, it all began. I only noticed that after the event and confess to having been thinking in different, if far from opposed, terms, related to the theatre. Music means many things at different times, to different people—and surely all the more so in times such as these. At any rate, a sign of musical light in London at the close of the first week of Advent was welcome indeed, not least given the typical accomplishment of the Academy’s playing, this time under Ryan Wigglesworth.

As a heretic who has always preferred Sibelius’s smaller pieces to his symphonies—perhaps one day they will ‘click’ with me—I was delighted to hear the ‘Nocturne’ from his incidental music to Belshazzar’s Feast in a spacious performance well judged for the church acoustic. One heard from the outset coolness and warmth in the Academy’s sound, both in timbre and harmony. Such balance was typical of the performance as a whole, Tchaikovskian inheritance apparent, yet neither overwhelming nor overwhelmed by Sibelian distinctiveness of voice. Scalar orientalism may have charmed, yet sounded rightly incidental (in the other sense). Here was a Nordic heart beating through out.

Hans Abrahamsen’s ‘recomposition’ of Carl Nielsen’s Three Piano Pieces had no intrinsic connection with the stage, yet sounded here very much as if it had. The first piece set the scene for quite a journey within only a few minutes. Quirky, colourful, yet with enough disorientation to retain a welcome enigmatic quality, it proved neither one thing (Nielsen) nor the other (Abrahamsen), albeit in a positive, alchemic sense: if not quite the magic of theatre, then certainly of performance, the latter here one of sensitivity and verve. The second proved similar yet different, a second act in miniature. Here a sense of kinship with Maskarade seemed stronger, but likewise tendencies in another, re-composer’s direction. Likewise, still more, in the third: whether that were a matter of work, performance, or my listening, I am not entirely sure. And does it matter? Some wind sounds, perhaps inevitably for such an ensemble, echoed Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony; by the same token, some emphatically did not. Music guards its mysteries.

Wagner’s Siegfried-Idyll is music with a complex relationship to the stage: it precedes the composition of the section of Siegfried from which it seems to ‘come’, written for a domestic stage—and a domestically staged event. To accord it its full title: ‘Tribschen Idyll with Fidi-Birdsong and Orange Sunrise as Symphonic Birthday Greeting Offered to his Cosima by her Richard, 1870.’ This lullaby of peace, joy, and world-inheritance, to employ the conventional leitmotif references from the opera yet ‘awakens’. It certainly did here, in a reading brisk and unsentimental which, at start, sounded a little as if Wigglesworth were trying to force Wagner’s melos into pre-conceived moulds. In truth, the opening is very difficult indeed to bring off; it takes the most experienced of Wagnerians, whether a Furtwängler or a Boulez, to do so with the ease it seems to demand. There was no denying, though, the excellence of the ASMF’s instrumental playing, nor later on of Wigglesworth’s shaping of Wagner’s climaxes, always more economical than one expects and all the more telling for that. There was, moreover, an almost Straussian after-glow to the final minutes; it would always have been welcome, but was all the more so set against the cold frigidity of the pandemical world outside.

Finally came Mozart: ever poised between concert hall, theatre, and indeed church. His Symphony no.34 opened with festal swagger that did not preclude relaxation. If anything, I felt Wigglesworth offered too much of the latter later in the first-movement exposition, somewhat losing momentum. It remained a joy, however, simply to hear this music once again. There was throughout a keenness to the woodwind that spoke, or better sang, of the opera house, leading to a coda to lift the darkest of spirits. Sometimes—often, with Mozart—C major can prove just the tonic. The Academy’s small forces reinforced the slow movement’s lineage in Salzburg serenades. Wweetness of string tone was especially welcome given the perversities we often suffer nowadays in this music. Polish and fire marked the finale: a Catherine wheel in the Salzburg night sky I missed so much this summer. There was, thank goodness, no fussiness to Wigglesworth’s direction, nor to the playing. And what playing it was!

Tuesday, 8 December 2020

Beethoven and Nature: Exploring the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony


The British Library has launched its online exhibition to celebrate Beethoven’s 250th anniversary with a new Discovering Music space on the nineteenth century. I am delighted to have contributed, alongside such excellent scholars as John Irving, Laura Tunbridge, Barry Cooper, David Wyn Jones, Leanne Langley, and Wiebke Thormählen. My own contribution, drawing on a sketchbook and other of the Library’s holdings, is on the Pastoral Symphony and Beethoven’s relationship to Nature. Please click here.

Tuesday, 1 December 2020

My Beethoven

 What a year, and it is not yet over yet. It was to have been Beethoven's, of course, and still was in its way. To celebrate as well as to mourn that, I wrote a piece on 'My Beethoven' for Frances Wilson's excellent Cross-Eyed Pianist blog: click here.

Sunday, 22 November 2020

Wotan: A Character Sketch


Donald McIntyre in Patrice Chéreau's Bayreuth Centenary Ring

“In the cloudy heights / live the gods,” Wotan, in earthly disguise as the Wanderer, tells Mime; “their hall is called Valhalla.” So it is, but such has not always been the case; indeed, it is a recent development. Wotan, at any rate, “reigns over” this Schar: a word that may be understood militarily or angelically (host), socially (company), or in a pastoral, religious sense (flock). That is part of the point. Wotan’s, more broadly the gods’, dominion is priestly. The priesthood, as actually existing priesthoods tend to be, is both religious and political; it relies upon tradition, custom, belief, and ultimately – although Wotan is cagey about this – upon force. “Not through force,” he tells his fellow god Donner, with his hammer; if only to sustain the illusion (Wahn), there should usually be another way.


Yet force, that primeval sin against Nature, is how Wotan’s – the gods’ – rule has come about, as we learn in the Norns’ Scene. An “intrepid god” came to the spring of the World Ash, drank its cooling waters of wisdom, paid the price. For, Wagner tells us, there is always a cost, be it political, religious, economic, ecological, metaphysical. Paying with one of his eyes, hence the eye-patch, Wotan broke off a branch; he hewed from it the shaft of his spear, the violence of that deed brought home by the spear motif’s abrupt upward leap of a major seventh in the orchestra.

Spear motif

Violence of spear creation

That that was more than the tree could take, more than Wotan should have done, is symbolized by the tree’s withering and its death, the poisoning of its spring. Yet with that deed of brutal, poisonous violence, Wotan became ruler of the heavens and thus ruler of the world. Wagner had learned much from his study of the philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach, as he acknowledged by dedicating to Feuerbach one of the major theoretical essays accompanying the Ring, The Artwork of the Future, echoing Feuerbach’s Principles of the Philosophy of the Future. Perhaps the most important lesson learned and extended was that human beings (for that matter, giants, dwarves, heroes too) have a psychological tendency to ascribe their positive qualities, above all their capacity to love, to an exterior being or beings. In that process, not only do they deprive themselves of those positive qualities; they thereby  invite, permit, enable that external force’s dominion (Herrschaft) over them.


Throughout the tetralogy, there is something ominous, indeed dominating, to the spear motif, closely associated with its creator and owner. It holds its own until finally Siegfried shatters it, scenically and musically. Wotan inscribes on it runes of law, with which he and the alien force of law rule over men, women, and their lives. His intentions have certainly not all been ignoble; he is a dreamer, with the advantages and disadvantages that entails. However, to inscribe them, literally, in dead wood is forcibly to perpetuate arrangements that have had their day. He must learn otherwise, and eventually does, but not before having fulfilled his dream of Valhalla, a sacerdotal fortress in the sky where, as he greets it, “safe from fear and dread,” the gods will rule in eternity. (That they need to be safe from fear and dread suggests that, at some level, Wotan knows they cannot be, that there is no eternity, especially when it comes to rule.) And so, he involves himself in a bargain with the giants, his builders, which he cannot keep; that is, he cannot keep to his own laws, his own runes. As the anarchist Wagner, friend of Bakunin, would tell you, such is the way of law, of political and religious power, of power relations tout court.


The Valhalla motif, the other principal theme associated with Wotan personally, is first heard softly, dreamily, as the young(ish) god imagines it, although even then, it has already been revealed, during the interlude between the first two Rheingold scenes as the other side of the motivic coin to Alberich’s curse, the latter’s B minor paralleled by the relative major, D, of Valhalla (in which both Das Rheingold and the Ring as a whole will conclude).


What a later, serialist generation, heavily influenced by Wagner and successors such as Debussy, would term all musical “parameters” – melody, harmony, rhythm, and timbre – cooperate in the transformation. The Ring’s baleful song is voiced by cor anglais and clarinet reeds – the future of Tristan und Isolde not so distant – as scenically, if only in our heads, Rhenish tides at horizon become clouds. Harmony shifts, shedding dissonance and pungency of timbre as one. Softer-grained violas come to the fore, paving the way for the rhythmical transition towards Valhalla. That first soft, dream-like statement of the Valhalla motif proper is heard almost before our ears and mind realize any transformation has taken place. Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, another dark tale of a castle fortress and doomed inhabitants, may have been born here in this transition, a process Wagner more generally and, in my view, quite rightly termed his “most delicate and profound art”.


By the time that Wotan has paid the giants, through deceit and brute force, “through theft” – as Loge has told him he must, in order to survive – and thereby enabled the gods’ entrance into Valhalla, both motif and orchestration have hardened. They dazzle, a little too brazenly. Dreamed horns (Wagner marks them weich, or “tender”) have been transmuted into the public display – almost “trespassers will be prosecuted” – of fortissimo full orchestra, at which the Rhine maidens’ sung accusations gnaw away: “false and cowardly” are the revels above, a charge underlined by chromatic C minor chords, piercing a diatonic rainbow bridge and fortress that are simply too sure of themselves. However, Wotan knows, even if he will not admit it, even if the other gods do not know it, that the gods’ rule, even at its apparent zenith, is now doomed.


Thus, when we see Wotan next, in the second act of Die Walküre, he is a man who has begun to change. He has sired a good number of children from women other than his consort – for Wotan and Fricka, read Zeus and Hera – but that is what patriarchs do. More importantly, encouraged by Erda’s words, he has begun to reflect upon his and the world’s predicament. The children of whom we know, and whom we meet, are the Volsungs – Siegmund and Sieglinde, from a mortal woman, unnamed – and the Valkyries, from Erda. Earthly heroes and the Valkyries who take them to (supposed) immortality in Valhalla serve one purpose for Wotan: to protect him and the gods, above all from Alberich. Siegmund is even intended – as ultimately is Siegfried – to win back the Ring from Alberich. Valhalla thus proves anything but “safe from fear and dread”; instead, it intensifies those feelings. As well it might, for, as Fricka’s ruthless logic points out, the tragic dilemma is entirely his own: like that of the modern political and religious order he symbolizes.


For, as Wagner wrote in a celebrated letter of 1854, immediately prior to starting work on the score of Die Walküre, Wotan is the “sum total of present-day intelligence,” not only an individual character. He is, essentially, where the world is, nowhere more so than in his second-act scene with Brünnhilde. In the course of this self-torturing monologue, in which Brünnhilde serves only as a foil, Wotan truly discovers for himself the impossibility of his situation and thus wills “the end.” He needs a free hero to rescue the order he has created, yet he also needs to control that hero’s deeds, thus removing his – “her” would be incomprehensible to Wotan and Wagner alike – freedom. Not for the last time in the Ring, though, Wagner the dramatist knows better than Wagner the theorist or Wagner the man-in-real-life, for Brünnhilde (see below), if incapable of nominal “heroic” status, nevertheless becomes indispensable to this process. Dramatic irony indeed. Faced with his insoluble dilemma, Wotan instead comes to will oblivion: first political, eventually metaphysical. We hear not merely repeated but developed, in well-nigh Beethovenian fashion, a motif that has since been named – not by Wagner, though – “Wotan’s frustration.”

'Wotan's frustration'

Itself born of the spear motif, it points to the source of Wotan’s problems: pursuit and exercise of power. Its developmental recurrences seem to hark back to an older operatic tradition, punctuating, as it were, recitativo accompagnato with something equating structurally to ritornello. (If only Wagner had known Monteverdi’s music; he is certainly inspired here by Gluck and Mozart.) “I, lord of contracts,” he declares, “am now a slave to those contracts.” That, then, marks the start, if only the start, of Wotan’s conversion to the pessimistic idea of the nullity of human existence. Via his reading of Arthur Schopenhauer, Wagner had grown increasingly convinced of that since completion of the text of the Ring poems and the composition of Das Rheingold; the idea would permeate ever more strongly the music of those dramas to come. Returning to the phenomenal world, Wotan must, quite against his inclination, either as god or father, sacrifice his own son, Siegmund. Only then will Fricka’s wrath (on which, see below) be appeased; only that way will the rule of the gods be maintained.


When, a generation later, we see – we hear too, with wondrously floating, “wandering” chords – Wotan as the Wanderer, conversion has progressed. The idea of the Wanderer had already a considerable German Romantic pedigree. Think of Schubert’s song, closing “There where you are not, there is happiness,” or Caspar David Friedrich’s painting, Wanderer above the Mist. There are, however, wanderings aplenty throughout the whole of the Western tradition, Homer’s Odyssey a case in point. In his essay A Communication to My Friends, Wagner had already drawn connections between Odysseus and earlier alienated, wandering characters in search of redemption: the Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin. Wotan takes his place here in a development of so many earlier tendencies, within a more pessimistic, Schopenhauerian context. For the resigned Wotan as Wanderer takes his leave not from Odysseus’ return to his beloved Penelope – Wotan and Fricka have no issue and never will – but to Schubert’s and Friedrich’s antihero: resigned, unwilling to act, awaiting the end. Following their riddle contest, Mime’s head is his, yet he leaves it – not without malice – to Siegfried. He wins the upper hand in his final confrontation with Alberich by declining to engage. Alberich may still lust after the Ring of power; Wotan has (partly) learned.

In the momentous first scene of Siegfried's third act, its Prelude having prepared the way for the perepiteia (turning point in ancient Greek tragedy) as a whole, Wotan may now reject Erda and her dictates of Fate. There may be an element of chauvinism, even misogyny, in the speed of transformation from “All-knowing! Primordially wise!” to “Unwise one,” but it is more than that. “What once I despairingly resolved in the wild anguish of internal conflict,” the conflict of family, society, and politics, “I shall now freely accomplish, gladly and joyfully.” And yet, while, having shed himself of the burden of that care – or so he thinks – Wotan cannot bring himself to acquiesce before Siegfried. The young Wotan is not entirely dead; nor will he ever be. Characters develop. Rarely, however, in plausible dramas, do they become something entirely different, any more than the head of an old political order will plausibly lead a new, revolutionary order. Here Wagner the dramatist, who had lived through the actual, political challenges of revolutionary defeat, knew better than Wagner the younger theoretician, who had called upon the king of Saxony to lead a “republican monarchy” and who had initially intended, in Siegfrieds Tod, to have the rule of the gods continue, purged and purified by the arrival of Siegfried in Valhalla. That had been almost a reversion to the old operatic necessity of a “happy ending,” the lieto fine. Neither life nor politics worked like that, however. At a dramatic level, Wagner had known that all along – as seen in Rienzi, The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin.


A Wotan philosophically converted yet not entirely transformed must still fight, must still have his spear shattered by the young hero’s sword. There is no avoiding the moment of the revolutionary deed, however bitter its consequent disappointments. Moreover, when Waltraute visits Brünnhilde in the first act of Götterdämmerung, we learn that Wotan in Valhalla continues to behave with fear and dread, not with the joy of which he spoke to Erda. Despondently, he awaits the end; even that is more difficult than he had assumed. Gloom and foreboding, of Wotan and the world he has in good part created, pervade the score of Götterdämmerung, even if he never sets foot on stage. It is arguably more “his” drama now than ever before. The most difficult lesson to learn – arguably he never does – is to await the acts of others. When Valhalla burns, a release both personal and political, it is at a moment of someone else’s choosing. Had Wotan asked himself riddles with the skill he did Mime, he might have learned that. Who, however, as even the Sphinx never asked, does that?

To read more on 'Characters in the "World" of the Ring,' see my chapter so entitled in the new Cambridge Companion to Wagner's 'Der Ring des Nibelungen', co-edited by Nicholas Vazsonyi and me, published this autumn.