Saturday 31 January 2015

From Wagner's Ring to Moses und Aron and Stockhausen

I was asked by Brian Wise of WQXR to contribute to a series in which the station took pieces from its Classical Countdown, its year-end listener survey, and gave recommendations for 'next step' pieces. I took on Wagner's Ring - surprisingly enough! - here, with excerpts. A slightly longer version of what I wrote, which had to be cut for reasons of space, is reproduced below:

Wagner’s Ring, a tetralogy – strictly speaking, three ‘days’ and a ‘preliminary evening’ – containing, as he wrote to Liszt, ‘the beginning of the world and its destruction!’ remains perhaps the greatest challenge, and the greatest reward, for our opera houses to stage.  It may not be perfect; if any work by Wagner merits that epithet, it would surely be Tristan und Isolde. But its monumentality sums up the aspirations and the conflicts of the nineteenth century as no other artwork can. The need for a new theatre – and a new, post-revolutionary audience – is not the least of its demands, and the Bayreuth Festival has, over its history, set new standards and, latterly, theatrical challenges to an operatic world always prone to treat musical drama as a collection of museum pieces. No serious composer of opera, and indeed few serious composers of any description, was unaffected by Wagner’s legacy, even if some, such as Ferruccio Busoni, came to regard him as the end of a line rather than a new dawn; Stravinsky’s anti-Wagnerism was just as much a consequence as Schoenberg’s devotion.

Schoenberg’s own unfinished operatic masterpiece, Moses und Aron has as strong a claim as any to follow in Wagner’s footsteps. It even employs compositional technique directly descended from Wagner’s own motivic writing, albeit with more than a little Brahms mixed in. Moses, as befits Schoenberg’s post-Wagnerian vision of the composer as prophet, challenges the audience, the performers, and indeed the very conventions of what might actually be represented on stage. It asks difficult questions about the easy idolatry of art and mass communication, symbolised by the contrast between Moses, who may be right but whom his people cannot understand, and his brother, Aron, whose twelve-note bel canto leads them astray. The Orgy around the Golden Calf is a musical riot to rival that of The Rite of Spring; it has even been described, in knowing reference to one of Wagner’s greatest bêtes noires, as ‘twelve-note Meyerbeer’. And yet, when it subsides, Moses having descended from Mount Sinai, the message seems bleak: Moses lacks the ability to communicate. Does modernist opera too?  Growing acceptance, even idolatrous following, of Schoenberg’s work answers with a resounding ‘no’.

The same answer echoes perhaps more resoundingly still with an heroic 2012 opera production in Birmingham: the first complete performance of Stockhausen’s MITTWOCH (Wednesday) from his vast LICHT cycle. That series of seven operas stretched still further the bounds of the operatic – and with unabashedly neo-Wagnerian ambition. Each of the seven works treats with one of the days of Creation, though not as mere earthlings might know it. (Stockhausen came to believe that he was of extra-terrestrial provenance.) Lasting twice as long as the Ring, Licht’s equivalent to Wagner’s Nibelungenlied was the mysterious Urantia Book. Some find it difficult to take the composer’s cosmogony seriously. However, the imagination that brought extraordinary scenes such as ‘World-Parliament’, in which delegates from across the universe debate in invented languages the meaning of love, and the celebrated ‘Helicopter String Quartet’, the theatricality of the players’ four helicopters perhaps obscuring the typically tight-knit musical ‘superformula’ organisation, let alone the appearance of Lucicamel, the dromedary ‘emanation’ of Lucifer elected as focus of cosmological solidarity…: that is an imagination that demands our attention. Like most performances of the Ring, the premiere performances of MITTWOCH  sold out immediately, some Stockhausen disciples travelling across the world to attend, in homage, conscious or otherwise, to the first, 1876 Bayreuth Festival, to attend all four. 

At any rate, I was delighted to be able to get some Schoenberg on air!