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8.572769 - WAGNER, R.: Orchestral Excerpts, Vol. 3 (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Excerpts from Tannhäuser, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Tristan und Isolde


Richard Wagner inspired in his contemporaries extremes of reaction. His 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. His creation of a new form of music-drama and the magnitude of his ambitious conception continue to fascinate.

As a boy in Leipzig, Wagner was inspired by the example of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, while his literary ambitions drew strength from reading Shakespeare. Study of music in Leipzig was followed in 1833 by appointment as chorus master at the opera in Würzburg, through the agency of an elder brother, a principal tenor there. The next year he became music director to Heinrich Bethmann’s theatre company and moved with it to Magdeburg, largely at the insistence of the actress Minna Planer. In 1836 he followed her to Königsberg, marrying her there in November of that year. The following spring saw him as music director to the Königsberg theatre and in the summer he took up an appointment as music director in Riga, where he was joined again by Minna, who had earlier deserted him for other lovers. Wagner’s employment in Riga ended in March 1839 and debts now forced him to take flight; he sailed to London, but finally found refuge and a possible realisation of ambitions in Paris.

While the French capital offered experience that proved fruitful, there were practical difficulties in earning a living. In 1842, however, Wagner succeeded, with the help of Meyerbeer, in securing a staging of his opera Rienzi in Dresden, followed by Der fliegende Holländer and appointment as music director at the court opera. He held this position until involvement with revolutionaries in 1849 forced him to seek refuge in Switzerland. Years spent there, interrupted by periods in Paris, Venice and Vienna, brought growing achievement as a composer and the patronage of King Ludwig II of Bavaria in Munich, where the great music dramas of his maturity were staged. Rivalries forced his departure, again to Switzerland. There, on news of the death of his wife, who had remained in Dresden, he was joined by Liszt’s illegitimate daughter Cosima, the wife of the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow. A year before her divorce from von Bülow, she bore Wagner a son, Siegfried, and brought with her two daughters that Wagner had fathered. The couple married in 1870 and the following year Wagner turned his attention to the building of his own opera house in Bayreuth, with further support from King Ludwig, from whom Wagner had been estranged for some years. It was in the new theatre that the first complete performance of Der Ring des Nibelungen was performed in 1876, to be followed in 1882 by the first staging of Parsifal. Over the years Wagner had generally spent the winter in the warmer climate of Italy. He died in Venice in February 1883.

Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg (Tannhäuser and the Singing Contest on the Wartburg) was first staged in Dresden in 1845 and Wagner unsuccessfully mounted a revised version in Paris in 1861.

The opera is based on the Minnesinger of the title, torn between the sensual attractions of Venus and religious duty, coupled with pure love for Elisabeth, niece of the Landgraf of Thuringia. Tannhäuser seeks redemption in a pilgrimage to Rome. This denied him, he returns, now impenitent, to be redeemed by the prayers of Elisabeth in death. The Overture opens with the motif of salvation, associated with the pilgrims returning from Rome and from the cellos the motif of repentance. As the pilgrims’ march dies away, new themes appear, associated with the temptations of the Venusberg, although the pilgrims finally triumph, at least in the Dresden version of the opera. The first scene is set on the Venusberg. Venus herself lies there with Tannhäuser half kneeling, his head in her lap, while nymphs dance in a scene of sensual beauty.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg) was first staged in Munich in 1868. Set in Nuremberg in the mid-sixteenth century, the opera deals with the love of the knight Walther von Stolzing and Eva, daughter of the goldsmith Veit Pogner, whose hand is pledged to the winner of the forthcoming song contest. Walther becomes a competitor, in spite of his ignorance of the necessary conventions of the required song, and with the help of the wise cobbler and poet Hans Sachs defeats his ridiculous rival, the town clerk Bechmesser, and satisfies the judges. On Walther’s initial rejection of the rank of Mastersinger, Hans Sachs praises the importance of true German art, and Walther accepts the honour and the hand of Eva.

In the Prelude leitmotifs are heard, including those associated with the Mastersingers, Walther’s love, the Mastersinger Guild, conventional art, youthful fervour, and love and passion, some finally combining. The final scene is set in an open meadow by a stream, with a raised platform for the Mastersingers and guests. The apprentices, with David, Hans Sachs’s apprentice, dance around the girls to the sound of the town pipers, while the journeymen try to interfere and seize the girls for themselves. Finally the Mastersingers, their entry heard in the motif associated with them, form their procession and march in, followed by Pogner and Eva. One of the Masters carries a banner, showing King David with his harp, greeted with joy by the people. After this the apprentices call for silence; now all have taken their places and the contest begins.

After his escape from Dresden in 1849, Wagner had been helped in Switzerland by the banker Otto Wesendonck, with whose wife the composer established a relationship, finally exposed by Wagner’s wife Minna. This domestic intrigue lay, in part, behind the story of doomed lovers in Tristan und Isolde, in which the hero, Tristan, betrays his king and benefactor, King Marke, whose bride, Isolde, he has escorted over the water to her new husband. Their love is brought about by a love potion, administered, during the course of their journey, by Brangäne, Isolde’s servant.

The Prelude to Act I opens with motifs associated with longing and mystery, the love of Tristan and Isolde, to be realised only in death. Tristan’s motif is heard and the thematic element associated with their gaze, as they look at one another in love and not enmity. The Prelude weaves into its texture also the love potion and death potion motifs, the potion administered by Brangäne that is the cause of their love.

The second act of the opera is set in the grounds of King Marke’s castle in Cornwall on a summer night. The garden is surrounded by high trees, with steps leading up to Isolde’s chamber. There is a torch burning by the open doors. The King, himself has just left on a hunting expedition and the horns are heard in the distance. Brangäne, standing on the steps, looks towards the departing huntsmen and then back at the chamber, from which Isolde emerges. Isolde listens to the sounds of the night, oblivious to Brangäne’s concern that the hunt is still within hearing and ignoring her claim that her mistress should beware of Melot, a treacherous friend of Tristan, who has organized the King’s night-time expedition as a ploy to catch the lovers unawares. Tristan and Isolde are together, their love only interrupted by the sound of Brangäne’s warning, as she watches from the tower for the return of the King. The return of King Marke, with Melot and his men, leads to the fatal wounding of Tristan. The Prelude to Act III suggests the despair of Tristan, awaiting death, with motifs of languid suffering and empty loneliness. The final scenes of the opera bring the death of Tristan, who dies in Isolde’s arms. She falls insensible to the ground, and later, as she wakes, Brangäne tells her that she has revealed the truth about the love potion to the King, who forgives his intended bride. It is to no avail and in her mystical farewell, Isolde, disregarding all else, wishes only to join Tristan with love in death. Her hope is fulfilled as she sinks slowly onto her lover’s body.

Keith Anderson

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