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8.550498 - WAGNER, R.: Orchestral Highlights from Operas
Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883)
Richard Wagner inspired in his contemporaries extremes of reaction. For some his music seemed as misguided and repulsive as his anti-Semitism, while others were overwhelmed by the size of his ambition and achievement, to which everything had to be sacrificed. Wagner's career was in many ways thoroughly discreditable. He betrayed friends and patrons, accumulated debts with abandon, and seemed, in pursuit of his aims, an unprincipled opportunist. Nevertheless, whatever his defects of character, he exercised a hypnotic influence over his immediate followers, while his creation of a new form of music-drama, in which the arts were combined, and the magnitude of his conception continue to fascinate.
Wagner's early career was as a conductor in the minor opera-houses of German-speaking countries, followed by an unhappy period in Paris. His first real success was in Dresden, where Rienzi was staged in 1842, followed by The Flying Dutchman and Tannhauser. In 1849 he was obliged to leave his position as conductor at the opera in Dresden in some haste, having rashly supported the rising against the King in that year. Taking refuge in Switzerland, he was able to continue work on his great tetralogy, The Ring, eventually completed in 1872 and first performed four years later.
In Switzerland Wagner received help from the banker Otto Wesendonck and his love affair with Wesendonck's wife Mathilde, finally exposed by Wagner's wife Minna, was in part behind the composition of the opera Tristan und Isolde, a story of illicit love, in which the hero Tristan betrays his master, King Mark, by his love for the royal bride, Isolde.
It was at the same time that Wagner made his first sketches of the text for the opera Parsifal, completed only in 1882 and performed at the new Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, itself a monument to Wagner. The opera, described as a Buhnenweihfestspiel, a sacred festive drama, deals with the knight Parsifal's mystical search for the sacred spear that will heal King Amfortas and, through his purity, bring his eventual accession as King of the Holy Grail. Bayreuth had been made possible through the help of the young King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who was infatuated with the composer, and ready to offer every assistance in the staging of Wagner operas in Munich, where Tristan und Isolde was first performed, in 1865, and in the establishment of a festival theatre in Bayreuth, where Wagner moved in 1872. The new theatre opened with The Ring cycle in 1876 and the deficit on this first Wagner festival was eventually made up by King Ludwig. No further festival took place until the staging of Parsifal in 1882. Wagner died, during the course of a winter stay in Venice, in February 1883.
Wagner's opera, based on the unreliable scholar Wagenseil's Buch von der Meister-Singer holdseligen Kunst Anfang, Fortubung, Nutzbarkeiten, und Lehrsatzen, published in 1680, elevated the art of the Mastersingers of Nuremberg into a paean in praise of German art. Wagner's work tells of the efforts of the outsider, the knight Walther von Stolzing, to win the hand of Eva, daughter of the goldsmith Pogner, by victory in the song contest of the Mastersingers, in which his rival is the town clerk, Beckmesser, a stern and conservative critic, a caricature of the distinguished Vienna critic Eduard Hanslick. The opera was first performed in Munich in 1868, conducted by Hans von Bulow, whose wife Cosima, illegitimate daughter of Liszt, had already born Wagner two daughters, Isolde and Eva. Wagner was in the royal box by the side of his young friend and patron King Ludwig. The Prelude to Act I weaves together many of the Leit-motifs of which the fabric of the music is formed, each associated with some idea or character. The melody of the Mastersingers is followed by that of Walther's love, of the Guild of Mastersingers, of conventional art and of youthful ardour. Motifs of love and passion lead to the theme of the Mastersingers at double speed, for their apprentices, a rapid version of part of the passion motive and another of gaiety. The motifs of the Mastersingers, the Guild and love are played at the same time, as the Vorspiel comes to a climax.
The Prelude to the first act of Tristan und Isolde, which itself had a profound influence on harmonic development, again brings together leading motifs of longing, mystery, of Tristan and of the look that the lovers exchanged, as Tristan escorted Isolde over the water to the kingdom of King Mark. Their love is awakened by a love potion, yet another motif, ending in a potion of death. These melodies and melodic fragments come together, with motifs of intense yearning, to form remarkably evocative music. All ends in tragedy, with the death of Tristan, followed, as the drama comes to an end, with that of Isolde, in the pages of the score that Liszt first called Liebestod - Love Death.
The Siegfried Idyll is a much more personal and private composition, intended as an Aubade for Cosima, whom he had eventually married in the summer of 1870. Minna Wagner had died in Dresden in 1866, and Wagner had rented a villa at Tribschen in Switzerland. Here he was joined by Cosima von Bulow, with the two of her children that Wagner had fathered. A third child, a son, Siegfried, was born in June 1869. The Siegfried Idyll was a surprise birthday present for Cosima, played as a Symphonic Birthday Greeting, and weaving together musical references to the opera Siegfried and to the couple's son. Such birthday presents had their precedent at Tribschen, where Wagner had already been awakened on his last two birthdays in less romantic fashion, in this year by a military band playing his Huldigungsmarsch at eight o'clock in the morning.
The Twilight of the Gods (Gotterdammerung) was the last opera of The Ring, reaching a climax in the final funeral pyre of the hero Siegfried, joined in death by the Valkyrie Brunnhilde, and culminating in the final conflagration that overwhelms Valhalla, represented in music by motifs from earlier in the whole cycle.
The Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestra of Katowice
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