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8.570293 - WAGNER: Symphonic Syntheses by Stokowski
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Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977): Symphonic Syntheses


Richard Wagner wrote to King Ludwig of Bavaria: "I send you these tears of heavenly emotion to tell you that the marvels of poetry have come as a divine reality into my poor, love-lacking life, and that life, its final poetry, its last tomes, belongs henceforth to you, my gracious king: dispose of them as your own property." Their relationship is well documented. Ludwig's protégé had to live with the envy and intrigues of jealous contemporaries, but the exchange of letters between the two ignored them. Ludwig wrote: "Fate has called us to do great work; we have come to the world to testify to the truth. To you I owe everything! Hail German art!" Wagner replied: "You are the rescuer, the redeemer! I am speechless, at your feet!" Munich witnessed the first performances of Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger.

From the start of his career, Leopold Stokowski was a great advocate of Wagner's music, which he conducted and recorded very often, and with which he had a special affinity. Tristan und Isolde was one of Stokowski's favourite works. He wrote: "All through the three acts of Tristan, there is the sound of the despair and the ecstasy of love, but its supreme expression is in the garden scene in the second act and in the final scene of the third act. Wagner created a new style, a new technique, new harmonic sequences, new combinations of timbres, and a new orchestral palette for Tristan. He conceived of sound in a new tonal perspective, so that we hear the hunting horns so far away that they are merely a suggestion of harmony and rhythm. Nearer we hear the sounds of the trees swaying in the forest during the Liebesnacht. At other times, the music leaps towards us like a flame with burning impulsiveness. It mounts up into great climaxes of sound. The tempo is always agitated - always changing - and yet an unbroken line passes through every impulsive phrase and unifies the seemingly improvised tonal design. This love music continues its over-powering eloquence when words cannot continue, when even life cannot further express itself. It is the supreme and ultimate of the poetry of love."

Stokowski's "symphonic synthesis" consists of Wagner's own concert version of the Prelude and Liebestod, interpolating between them music of the Liebesnacht from the second act. His intention was not to create a suite, but an extended symphonic poem, with the several sections moving seamlessly from one to the next, harmonically and thematically. Stokowski did not alter Wagner's scoring but limited his input to replacing the vocal lines with instruments, such as the cellos performing Tristan's lines at the start of Liebesnacht and the violins taking up Isolde's. At other times, Stokowski leaves Wagner's orchestral music alone, without the vocal lines, as Wagner himself had done in his own orchestral versions of scenes from his operas.

In spite of his life-long championship of Wagner, Stokowski conducted only one Wagner opera in its entirety, a concert performance of Parsifal in three consecutive evenings during Easter 1933. That experience moved him to devise a symphonic synthesis from Act 3, performed in Philadelphia the following year. Stokowski wrote about his synthesis, "I have tried to follow the development from the time when Parsifal receives enlightenment and initiation from Gurnemanz. From that moment on, I have tried to continue the idea of a more complete and profound perception on Parsifal's part of the mysteries of which the Holy Grail is a symbol, and of which the outward manifestations are, first, Parsifal's initiation, and then his acceptance by the Knights, and finally the acknowledgement of him as their leader."

Stokowski's Symphonic Synthesis of Act 3 includes the transformation music from the conclusion of the final scene and the final moments when Parsifal heals Amfortas's wound by touching it with his spear. Stokowski excluded the Good Friday Spell music from his version because Wagner himself had already made a concert version of it. While Parsifal was Wagner's last music drama, he had worked on it for almost four decades, and it was finally given its première in Bayreuth in 1882, a few months before the composer's death. Bayreuth held the exclusive rights, and it took twenty years for the Metropolitan Opera to obtain the rights for the first American performance, on Christmas Eve 1903.

While Stokowski put together symphonic syntheses of sections from Tristan and Parsifal, the remaining works in this recording are symphonic fragments from The Ring. For these particular excerpts Stokowski enhanced existing published scores with his own special brand of magic. Das Rheingold forms the basis for the entire cycle of The Ring. The final scene, the Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla depicts the mighty god Wotan hailing Valhalla with delight, as he leads the procession of gods and goddesses towards the bridge and into their home, the castle in Valhalla. As the curtain falls, the gods enter Valhalla by a rainbow that has been thrown across the valley of the Rhine. Here Stokowski used the edition prepared for concert use by the ardent Wagnerian conductor, Hermann Zumpe, further enriching the brass and percussion with vivid effect. In addition, for this recording, the anvil stroke required by the scenario at the start of the scene has been reintroduced from the full opera score.

The Magic Fire Music, the ending of Die Walküre, is one of Wagner's great accomplishments. Wotan, the head of the gods, in pursuit of Brünnhilde, reaches the mountain summit. He has decided that Brünnhilde should be stripped of her Valkyrie status and become a mere mortal. In vain her sisters plead with him to spare Brünnhilde. He threatens them unless they cease their interference and they depart with wild cries. Brünnhilde seeks to justify her action as she addresses Wotan in the passage beginning Thou, who this love within my breast inspired. But the law of the gods has to be obeyed and Wotan must punish his favourite daughter for her transgressions of Valhalla's code. He places Brünnhilde on a rock and bids her a heart-breaking farewell: she is to remain asleep on the rock and shall fall prey to the first man who finds and awakens her, now a mere woman and no longer a Valkyrie. Wotan kisses her eyelids and as she falls into a permanent sleep he summons the god of fire, Loge, to provide a curtain of fire around Brünnhilde. She had begged Wotan for this protective wall of fire so that only a real hero would dare to penetrate it and save her. Again Stokowski enhances the orchestration and transfers Wotan's vocal lines to solo instruments or full orchestral sections.

The Ride of the Valkyries opens the third act of Die Walküre. In colourful orchestral strokes Wagner paints the wild ride of the warrior maidens through lightning and storms, carrying the bodies of dead heroes into Valhalla. Stokowski simply added some of his own very colourful "tricks", such as doubling some of the violin runs with the piccolos, so they can sound even more brilliant and striking, and in other places removing some "padding" to enable inner voices to be heard more clearly. He made these alterations minimally and, with Wagner's sound and effects in mind, achieved dramatic and highly effective results.

© 2007 José Serebrier



Stokowski's Sound

The sound of the orchestra would change within moments of the first encounter with Stokowski. There was nothing that he had said or done to make such an obvious change, other than to start rehearsing after a minimal greeting. One explanation could be that Stokowski had a special sound in his mind, and his gestures and facial expressions had the ability to communicate this sound to any orchestra. This was not a talent unique to Stokowski, and we have noticed it also in different conditions. It is not unusual for the sound of a professional ensemble to acquire some of the characteristics of a student group after it had spent some time working under the direction of a school orchestra conductor. This has nothing to do with the technical aspects of performance. It has to do with the sound the conductor has in his ear, and the conductor's ability to produce that same sound quality from any orchestra. Almost every conductor has that ability. The degree to which that produces a dramatic influence is related, partially, to the sound that has become imprinted in the conductor's memory. It seems logical that if a conductor who has spent years directing the Vienna Philharmonic has an encounter with a school orchestra, this group will soon sound smooth and refined. While it can be argued that the students would sit up, concentrate, and do their best when confronted with a known personality, the change in the actual sound quality they produce would be involuntary. It would be a natural reaction to the conductor's idea of sound, acquired after years of listening to a specific quality of sound.

This theory works in both extremes and also in the present reality of music making around the world. There was a time when orchestras had a distinctive quality that set them easily apart. These differences were partially the result of conductors spending long decades with their orchestras. But conductors were not the only decisive factors. Some ensembles, such as the Philadelphia Orchestra, had very few changes in personnel, and a vast majority of the musicians had been trained by the same teachers, in the same school. Sadly, most orchestras today have acquired a similarity of sound. While technique and performance standards seem to have improved, there is a world-wide unanimity of approach that makes many performances redundant copies of each other. What has happened? Do performers listen to each other's recordings and unconsciously imitate one another? Are today's performers afraid to take chances, and want to be literal to the point of excluding personal sensibility? Why has the sound quality of many orchestras become so similar?

Stokowski's idea of sound was so unmistakable, and so special, that it remained with the Philadelphia Orchestra for many decades after Stokowski's departure. It became known as the "Philadelphia sound". In fact, with Eugene Ormandy, this sound continued in the same tradition, but naturally acquired some changes over the many years. Part of what Stokowski did to obtain his kind of sound must have been unconscious, a reflection of his gestures and approach. But he also made conscious efforts to request specific playing from his orchestras to shape the over-all sound. One of his most famous habits was to demand that the strings play with free bowings. When guest-conducting, this request caused orchestras the greatest grief and displeasure. I remember Stokowski's rehearsals with some famous orchestras, both in the United States and in Europe, and the resistance he encountered when requesting each stand of strings to play with opposite bowings, and not to write bowings down. Orchestras such as the Philadelphia, and later on the Houston and the American Symphony, which played all the time with Stokowski, understood the principle and learned to use this technique to advantage. Stokowski's explanation was rather simpler than the fact, but it helped the string musicians to realize there was a method at work. Because bows naturally lose in power as they descend, and similarly gain in power as they ascend, combining bows simultaneously in both directions would in principle produce a more even sound. In my opinion, Stokowski carried this good idea too far, using it in every instance rather than for specific effects or particular passages. In any case, it did play a great part in obtaining a lush, powerful and unmistakable string tone. Balancing the woodwinds was another Stokowski landmark. As Rimsky-Korsakov had noted in his orchestration book, a flute or an oboe have a hard time competing against sixty strings. Stokowski experimented with changing the traditional placement of woodwinds to try to enhance their volume, and to make the performers more visible. He felt that having to play behind the large body of strings, the winds were hidden to the audience, and their sound had to pass across the string barrier. For a while Stokowski experimented by placing the woodwinds to his right, in place of the cellos or violas. This drastically changed their sound, and the over-all balance. Sometimes Stokowski lined up the basses at the back of the stage on high podiums, with the horns directly in front, to produce a soundboard for the horns and for the entire orchestra. It also gave the basses an organ-like quality. Stokowski would constantly make the brass softer than indicated in the score, in order to balance the strings and winds. This, added to his specifications not to use podiums for the brass, contributed in large measure to form the smooth "Philadelphia sound", with a glorious string tone and audible woodwinds. Stokowski made sure that the sound had beauty, sometimes by smoothing the edges. There was logic to everything he did to obtain a rounded, warm tone from the orchestra. Some of it can be explained, but much of it can only be called magic.

© 1997/2005/2007 José Serebrier



Stokowski and Wagner

When Leopold Stokowski began his conducting career with the Cincinnati Orchestra in 1909, the music of Wagner featured in his very first concert with performances of the Siegfried Idyll and The Ride of the Valkyries. Wagner was to remain close to Stokowski's heart for the rest of his life and he was still conducting the German master's music many years later as a nonagenarian. In those early days, like many great maestros of his time, Stokowski brought Wagner's finest pages to audiences when accessibility to the sung music dramas was less widespread than it is today. In particular, it was through the medium of the gramophone that he and the Philadelphia Orchestra introduced Wagner to a much wider public with a series of 78rpm sets. These derived from several great Wagner operas in which extended orchestral excerpts were woven together in the form of richly conceived tone poems and given the overall title of "Symphonic Syntheses".

In a sense, concert hall performances of orchestral excerpts from Wagner's operas were by no means new since the composer himself had presided over just such programmes of highlights during his London concerts of 1877. Stokowski, however, with his flair for recognising the quasi-symphonic aspect of much of Wagner's music, often went further than purely presenting standard selections. As will be heard in the present performances by José Serebrier and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, these Symphonic Syntheses have a unique sumptuousness of sound that is truly Stokowskian. As with the Bach Transcriptions previously recorded by José Serebrier and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in this series, Wagner's original music-dramas are nowadays readily available to the opera lover. But for those who love this music transformed into beautifully evocative and gloriously played tone poems, there is much to ravish the ear.

Edward Johnson
The Leopold Stokowski Society


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