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  Is Wagner the answer? [Then what is the question?]  Misuc at 18:28 on 11 June 2010

They just broadcast 'Tristan & Isolde' - a sort of 'pot-pourris' of little isolated fragments of unfinished tunelets strung together by that once fashionable compiler of would-be grand operetta: Richard Wagner.

What it tries to be is so overbearing and haunting, so obtuse and excruciating, so vain, trivial, universal, mundane and tortured that you can only be saved by laughter: but bitter, cynical laughter is the only reaction. Nothing works. It is a series of motiveless bumps: effects without a cause. Having reached the heights of ecstatic interrupted cadence (= coitus interruptus within the first 30 seconds he has nowhere else to go for the next three hours.

[When I saw it at the Opera House, Tristan had to go home with hay-fever half way through, and they would not pay for a [silent] understudy for the last act, so poor Isolde had to make love to thin air in her famous final Liebestodinstead of the required dead body. That performance saved us all from the misery Wagner intended through substituting the acute torture of a fat soprano half-a-semitone flat throughout. I was a reviewer in those days and got into the bankers' private showing - the first night (the season was sponsored by a famous and now thankfully collapsed bank) The talk in the bar was not of love and death or of Wagner's loathing for bankers and the art-form: opera they had created(He claimed that he wrote music-dramas): they weren't even complaining about (or praising) the out-of-tune singing. What I heard were just two snatches of conversation: one went: "5% I said, and not a penny more!" (or was it less?) the other went: "Yes we just got another property in the's nice down there..." I swear I am not exaggerating]

The broadcast was much better sung and played. Despite all that I have said, the sheer imagination of the man startles and stirs you at every moment - or at least at a thousand moments. Somehow at some of these moments he almost manages to persuade you there is a plan (there isn't - or at least not a coherent dynamic working out of the consequences of an idea or ideas. What there is is thousands of ideas for ideas: like his political actions during and after the 1848 revolution: extravagant, inspired but empty gestures directed at random whimsical targets, like his infamous successor Adolf - radical in tone , but in practice conformist and obsequious to authority to the most extreme degree possible.)

What he was trying to do was immense - and it is the same thing contemporary composers have to try to do. To show what I mean I'll have to go back to Haydn for a moment. I have recently becoming even more 'knocked out' by Haydn - quartets especially, many of which I had not heard before - some heard but not listened to. There is no innovation, no quasi-atonal chord sequence in Wagner which does not feature somewhere in Haydn. Really. It is much more extraordinary than you might think. What makes the Haydn work as the Wagner does not is the way in which each new idea is a summation of previous ideas. The way for this was prepared by the 'norms' of 'classical' music of course, but you don't get this consequentiality in other compsers of the period - even Mozart: this ability to cope with and incorporate extraneous material. [C.P.E. Bach was the master here of course. How sad the two never met! When Haydn was finally released by an ungrateful Duke, he traveled the length of Germany to see CPE only to find he had died seven years before]

Wagner, like us, has to try to launch fragments and wishes for ideas on a huge ocean which he cannot navigate. I often explain the function of the Dominant key-relationship to my child-pupils by saying that it is like swimming out to sea: the dominant is like an island - a home-from-home etc. etc. Once this is gone then we are always at sea. Liszt tried - and was almost able in a limited way - to invent forms based on perpetual transition.Wagner never quite got the point. All he could do is ride the huge crests and troughs of the waves and hope to stop himself drowning by repeating what he has done before at a higher pitch collapsing again, riding a new wave repeating the same mantras, prayers and reminiscences over and over.... At its best it aspires to be the musical equivalent of his follower: James Joyce, in literature - a sort of continuous stream-of-consciousness, mixing up the trivial, the heroic and the archetypical - but Wagner lacks the intellect and the playfulness and intense sociability, alertness and responsiveness to other people that Joyce had.

....and yet, our musical language is not developed enough again yet to create new Haydns, but things Wagner tried could be taken up and extended.

I was partly provoked into writing this by some new works by - I suppose - young composers commissioned to write Mahler-inspired compositions to go along with a complete cycle of his symphonies. [Mahler is one of my all-time favourites, but I won't go on about all that just now]. It was obvious that these 'composers' have never listened to any classical music at all. One of them succeeded in producing a really nice Mahlerian orchestral sound for one chord and then could think of nothing to do with it but repeat it endlessly. This is very very sub-Wagner. Mahler found a devastating way of incorporating diverse ideas: 'the whole world'. These people have no idea of what the question is,never mind the answers, and little interest in the world.


Of course there are parts of Tristan (e.g. the cor anglais bit) that are contemporary - that are more experimental, exciting, disturbing and 'modern' than anything Adams, Reich, Nyman etc. could have sucked out of their 6 impotent thumbs.

  Re: Is Wagner the answer? [Then what is the question?]  MartinY at 07:52 on 14 June 2010

I will have to have a longer think about Misuc's post, though a few things came immediately to mind. One is I am old enough to be totally fed up with hearing the story that the Tristan chord led to the undermining of tonality and therefore onward to the whole of 20th century music. I do find it quite incredible though that Debussy won a bet that he could play the whole of Tristan on the piano from memory.....

Now Haydn, I play 'cello in a Haydn quartet every week and still can't decide how some of the themes ought to go, their potential is so open. There are obviously never arguments over whether the music is worth playing though this frequently happens with other composers from that time, (even Boccherini, whose music can be fantastic), though I think all Haydn's contemporaries are worth a look at, even though they do not have his genius, as you need to keep things in perspective. (Old editions of Grove have comments to the jist of X is a rubbish composer because he disippated the inheritance of his teacher Y.... Is this really true?)

C. P. E. Bach I am still coming to terms with, playing his marvellous trio sonatas. (Keyboard players have both the advantage and disadvantage that they can get deeply inside a piece by actually playing it without having to involve other people.......)

So - I must think - what does Wagner's music mean to me today, probably something different to what it did yesterday.........