About this Recording
8.572768 - WAGNER, R.: Orchestral Excerpts, Vol. 2 (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)

Richard Wagner (1813–1883)
A Faust Overture • Excerpts from Lohengrin and Parsifal


Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig in 1813, the acknowledged son of a Government official Carl Friedrich Wagner, and his wife Joanna, but apparently fathered in fact by the actor Ludwig Geyer, who was to marry Joanna after Carl Friedrich’s death. Wagner’s education was an intermittent one, much of it in Dresden, where he fell under the spell of Weber and Der Freischütz, the first great German romantic opera. Returning to Leipzig he was to profit more from contact with his uncle Adolf, a widely read scholar, with a knowledge of Greek tragedy, as well as of the classics of Italy, the works of Shakespeare, and of course, of the literature of his own country. In Leipzig Wagner took the opportunity of furthering his own interests in music, stimulated by the performances of the famous Gewandhaus Orchestra and Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, which he heard in 1829. He borrowed books from the music lending library of Robert Schumann’s future teacher and father-in-law, Friedrich Wieck, and took private music lessons at the Thomasschule, where JS Bach had been employed a century earlier.

The later career of Wagner was a turbulent one. His income never matched his ambitions, and he was driven on by an aggressive and ruthless urge to create a new form of music, the music of the future, particularly in the conjunction of all arts in a series of great music dramas. He worked first as conductor at the undistinguished opera-house in Magdeburg, married a singer, Minna Planer, moved to Königsberg and later to Riga. From there, pursued by creditors, he sailed for England, and thence, a week later to Paris, where success continued to elude him. Recognition was finally to come from his native Saxony, with a production for the opera Rienzi in Dresden and an official appointment to the royal court. His own tactless espousal of revolutionary notions led to his flight from Saxony in 1849, at first to Liszt in Weimar, and then to Switzerland. Further troubles were to follow as the result of the political suspicions he had aroused, the constant attention of creditors and his selfish unscrupulousness in his relations with women. The protection later afforded by King Ludwig II of Bavaria allowed some respite from difficulties, but his liaison with Liszt’s daughter Cosima, wife of the Bavarian court conductor Hans von Bülow, and his unpopularity in Munich led to a further period of exile in Switzerland. His final relative triumph in the establishment of a Festival devoted to his work in Bayreuth was accomplished again with the encouragement of King Ludwig. The first festival took place in 1876, but did nothing to reduce his increasing personal debts.

Wagner died during the course of a visit to Venice in 1883. In his life-time he had inspired equally fanatical devotion and hatred, both of which continued after his death. His principal achievement must be seen in the creation of massive and stupendous masterpieces for the theatre, such as his German epic cycle The Ring of the Nibelungen, and his expansion of traditional harmonic and constructional devices in music.

Respect for Goethe, shared by his contemporaries and following generations, led Wagner to an attempt in Paris in 1840 to write a Faust Symphony, under the influence of Berlioz. The original overture, the first movement of the proposed work, was re-orchestrated a few years later, and Liszt, who had received a visit from Wagner in 1848, played the work in Weimar. It was presumably Liszt’s Faust Symphony that persuaded Wagner to revise the overture to offer a fuller view of the drama. The revised work was completed in 1855. It opens in the old scholar’s study and reflects, in its course, the interventions of Mephistopheles and its consequences.

Wagner’s romantic opera Lohengrin was first performed at Weimar under the direction of Liszt, after Wagner, having sided with the revolutionaries in Dresden, had taken refuge in Switzerland. The work makes use of the technique Wagner had now more fully developed of leitmotifs, leading motifs associated with ideas or characters in the drama.

In tenth century Antwerp King Henry urges the support of Brabant against Hungary. Friedrich von Telramund accuses Elsa of having killed her brother in order to usurp the dukedom that he now claims for himself. The matter is to be settled by combat, and Elsa now prays for her champion to come forward in answer to the Herald’s challenge. The mysterious knight Lohengrin appears, in a boat drawn by a swan, and, making Elsa promise never to ask his name or origin, defeats Telramund, sparing his life. Ortrud and Telramund now plan their revenge, planting the seeds of doubt in Elsa’s mind. The Herald announces the banishment of Telramund and the assumption of the title Protector by the unnamed knight, who will that day marry Elsa, whose doubts now grow, with Telramund accusing Lohengrin of sorcery. Finally, in the bridal chamber, she asks him the question. Telramund bursts in, and is killed by Lohengrin, who then agrees to answer Elsa’s question in the presence of the people. Before the King’s judgement seat he reveals his name, Lohengrin, his parentage, as a son of Parsifal, and his rôle as a servant of the Holy Grail, with power that depended on not revealing his name. He tells Elsa that her brother would have come back to her, after a year together, but now he must go, as he came. The swan that draws his boat is revealed, however, as is Gottfried, bewitched by Ortrud, and restored to life again as Duke of Brabant. Elsa now falls back dead in her brother’s arms.

The Prelude to Act I is based on the motif of the Holy Grail and Elsa’s Dream, Einsam, in trüben Tagen (Alone in troubled days), tells how she sees a vision of the knight who will save her. Some of the best known music is found in the Prelude to Act III, depicting the festivities for the wedding of Elsa and Lohengrin, leading to the very well known Wedding March.

Various interpretations have been put on Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal, a work specifically and for some time exclusively designed for the consecration of the festival theatre at Bayreuth, where it was first performed in 1882. At the most obvious level Parsifal may be taken to represent Christianity and the wicked magician Klingsor the pagan world.

The Prelude to Act I uses motifs of the Last Supper, the Holy Grail and Faith, interwoven with a sorrow motif and part of a motif associated with the torment of sin. Gurnemanz and four esquires, sleeping in a clearing in the woods, waken and make ready for the bath of the sick King Amfortas, balm for whose pain can only come from one person, a blameless fool. Kundry, who now arrives, exhausted, brings balm for the King. The mysterious nature of Kundry is discussed and the good fortune she brings. Gurnemanz explains the entrusting to Titurel of the Grail, the cup used at Christ’s last supper, a vessel that caught his blood, with the spear that caused the wound in his side. The magician Klingsor was refused admission to the temple Titurel built and in revenge created a garden with maidens of seductive beauty, a lure and temptation that led to the downfall of many knights. Amfortas had been wounded attacking Klingsor’s castle and had lost to him the Holy Spear. Parsifal enters, having shot a swan, a deed he now regrets. He knows little of his past, except that his mother was Herzeleide, Sorrowful Heart. Kundry explains further that his mother had died when he deserted her. Kundry sinks to the ground, her task fulfilled. The scene changes to the temple of the Grail. Titurel, now too weak to officiate, asks Amfortas to display the Grail, but he refuses, since the sight of the holy vessel makes his wounds bleed the more, as a sinner. Eventually he carries out his allotted task and the sacred bread and wine are given to the assembled knights. Parsifal stands fascinated at what he sees, but says and does nothing to alleviate the suffering of Amfortas. In his castle the magician Klingsor sees in his magic glass the fool approaching. He calls up Kundry, an unwilling instrument of his desire to destroy Parsifal, the blameless fool, whom he now sees attacking his knights. The scene is transformed to that of a magic garden, where the flower maidens attempt to charm Parsifal. Kundry, now in more seductive guise, sends them away and tells Parsifal of his mother. As their lips are about to meet, Parsifal comes to his senses and breaks away, feeling the pain of the wound of Amfortas, which he now understands. Kundry begs him to save her from the curse under which she has laboured since she laughed at the crucifixion of Christ. He understands her wiles and her possible salvation, rejecting her advances. Klingsor hurls the Holy Spear at him, but it remains suspended above his head. He seizes it and makes the sign of the cross with it, at which the garden and castle disappear. The Prelude to Act III shows the Kingdom of the Grail in desolation, the knights living on roots and herbs. Gurnemanz finds Kundry, dishevelled and weary, as in the first act, but her face is transformed. A knight approaches, Parsifal, holding the Holy Spear, which he venerates. Kundry and Gurnemanz bathe and anoint Parsifal, who baptizes Kundry, and sees the beauty of his surroundings in the Good Friday Spell. This is a time, Gurnemanz explains, when nature rejoices with man at his salvation. The scene changes to that of the temple, where Amfortas will perform the ceremony of the Grail for the last time, to atone for the death of his father Titurel. Parsifal enters the temple, with Gurnemanz and Kundry, and heals the wound of Amfortas with the touch of the Holy Spear, which he presents to the company. It is Parsifal who now must perform the ceremony of the Grail, which he does as a Holy Dove appears above his head and Amfortas and Gurnemanz acknowledge their new king.

Keith Anderson

Close the window