Introduction To Wagner

Note: Videos are meant to be played from beginning while reading text immediately below them, unless otherwise indicated. Apologies for it being a bit labor-intensive.

This should be fun; a little game to test your descriptive skills. Listen to the following clip from 4:35 to 4:55 — try to be as exact as you can with the timing — and describe what you hear in a single word. I’ll play too. Ok, go.


“Impressive?” Maybe just “loud.” “Uh… big?” Or, if you were watching the singer and allowed yourself two descriptive words, “sartorial nightmare.” Now try again, but this time rewind 20 seconds to 4:15 and end again at 4:55. Listen for what changes.


The climax at 4:45 suddenly takes on an entirely different character. It’s not just a high note, but an arrival. “Satisfying,” to describe the whole. “Forward-moving,” or “goal-oriented,” to fudge the rules of our game a little. But the most noticeable difference is the appearance of a clear trajectory. You sense the end of the singer’s line coming and are pleased when she does… come. The gown is still a disaster, though. Alright, last time. Another 20-second rewind, to 3:55.


Well now the game is easy. “Magnificent,” “rapturous,” “painful,” “heaving,” “cathartic,” “passionate,” “expansive.” Or my favorite: cumulative. The singer and the orchestra merge into unending waves of sound, building upon one another as they rise toward the shore. It’s torturous. The strings play the same figure, again and again, each time ramping up, twisting the screw, becoming more tightly packed. And you can hear the end coming the whole time. You know exactly where it will be and you want it. Even though the high note isn’t a surprise, when it arrives the relief is incredible. The hurts-so-good tension immediately falls away, and you feel at home and complete. And all of that kinetic stress in just a minute of music! In a typical performance of this opera, you’d wait around four hours for that final chord.

But that’s the trouble with Wagner, isn’t it? Four hours? Rossini summed it up: “Wagner has wonderful moments, but dreadful quarters of an hour.” And it’s this perception that keeps Wagner consigned to the initiated, the cognoscenti, the highest of high brows — which is unfortunate, because Wagner’s art is anything but exclusionary. Rossini’s quip is cute, but it misses the point: Wagner, more than any other composer, is so much more than the sum of his (often difficult) parts. You will indeed find “wonderful moments,” but short-lived, momentary entertainment is not why Wagner put pen to paper. What he was going for was transcendence: Art-with-a-capital-A as no less than a means of personal improvement and spiritual growth. This sublime effect could only be achieved, Wagner thought, using a complex system of musical tension and release, a stacked hierarchy of goals that adds up to a final brilliant conclusion. Put another way: grandeur takes time.


Again, though: four — sometimes five — hours? As we all know, time doesn’t necessarily add up to greatness (see: Titanic).

But this clip helps illustrate my point. This duet lasts around 45 minutes, but any consciousness of time is forgotten in the tidal movement of the music. It’s in a continuous state of advance and retreat. Wagner crafts the music so that even the basic beat is obscured; you can’t have a conception of time going by when time is effectively stopped. It’s a wonderfully manipulative effect: you become lost in a constant pulse of sound. Carried along by the lazy current, you suddenly reach one of the “goals” (at 2:30, for example) without any idea of how you got there. If you’re like me, you even experience a kind of physical sympathy with the music: your breathing slows and deepens, your torso rocks slightly back and forth, not in sync with the beat, but with the arches of feeling in each phrase. Your chest heaves as the music reaches for each climax, and then falls as the sound languidly ebbs away again. It’s exquisite, like being in slow motion.

And you certainly don’t have to be told what they’re singing about. Anyone who’s had even remotely meaningful sex knows what’s going on. Wagner, who wrote his own librettos, was a much better composer than he was a poet, so in a lot of ways I prefer not to know what’s being said anyway.

I mentioned earlier that Wagner does have his “moments,” and there’s an excruciating one at the end of the clip you’re listening to now, starting at 21:45. You’ll notice it’s the same music from the first video, but that final marvelous satisfaction is very rudely stolen from you. Coitus interruptus. You can imagine how this makes the eventual resolution all the more gratifying.


[Start at 1:35] When Wagner’s Tannhäuser premiered in Paris in 1861, opera-going in the French capital was a contact sport. The Paris Opéra, although the epicenter of the art form at the time, was as much a social zoo as it was a performance venue. The theater at the premiere would have been strikingly well-lit, the better to view the fashionable and famous by. The object was to see and be seen. The boxes closest to the stage, in fact, afforded terrible views of the action, but were superbly placed for personal display. And through the entire production, there was non-stop talking. Fashions became customs, customs became unwritten laws: a ballet was required, preferably having only a passing relationship to the plot, and it had to appear in the second act, allowing the members of the exclusive Jockey Club time enough for a leisurely dinner before making an appearance at what was hopefully a delightfully frothy and not too mentally taxing show. The terminally serious Tannhäuser bombed in Paris.

And you can hear why in the music. This is the sound of solemnity. The simple melody could come straight out of a Lutheran hymnal. It is broad and tuneful, with solid, brick-built harmonies. The chords encase you in a fortress of woods and brass, sheltering you from the storm of strings that lashes across the windows. Your innate human nobility as a bulwark against frailty and temptation. You err and you fail, you hurt and you despair. But despite all your stupid mistakes, and all your stupid attempts to find happiness in the transitory and the tangible, as long as you can find just one person to say, “I forgive you, and I love you,” you’ll be redeemed. It may literally break your heart, that unconditional redemption, but it will save you.

Most great composers are remembered and recognized for their influence on future generations, for how they refined and then changed the music-making of their time. Wagner’s operas were so new that they changed not only how music was written, but even how it was consumed. These changes were far-reaching enough to still be felt today. He is the reason the lights are dimmed before a movie starts. He’s the reason there’s egalitarian seating in theaters. The “laws” of the Paris Opéra simply weren’t suited to his art. So like all good revolutionaries, he abandoned them, and wrote his own.


[Start at 1:30] In a very fun piece of musical fan writing, New York Times chief music critic Anthony Tommasini attempted last year to come up with a Top 10 list of the greatest classical composers. He found himself stuck at Verdi and Wagner, unable to decide which of the two masters of 19th-century opera should rank higher. His terse solution: “Wagner was an anti-Semitic, egomaniacal jerk who transcended himself in his art. So Verdi is No. 8 and Wagner No. 9.”

Wagner is remembered (and reviled) for more than just his musical and theatrical innovations, and without a doubt he wins the title of Music’s All-Time Greatest A-hole. He was petty, jealous, adulterous, staggeringly self-important, callous, and racist. As a lover of his music, I’d probably add “tragically short-sighted” to that list: as Tommasini points out, Wagner was so dreadful a human being that his foul personality is as well-known as his music, and his reputation has been irreparably damaged as a result. His most (in)famous prose writing is an essay titled “Jewishness in Music,” which is little more than a petulant rant directed at composers Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer, who were (at the time) far more famous and successful. It’s hard to think of anyone else who was both a rare genius and a complete dickhead to such high degrees.

Less trivial, of course, is the issue of Wagner’s association in many people’s minds with Nazism. The music you’re listening to now was the soundtrack to numerous party rallies and ceremonies. Nazis convened in Nuremberg to the strains of “The Mastersingers of Nuremberg” before later being executed, some of them, at Nuremberg.

This grand music is how Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Wagner’s three-act love letter to “sacred German art,” begins. The sharp, punctuated rhythms give the ceremonial march an almost Baroque sense of splendor. Whoever is being honored at such a ceremony has done something to merit extreme adulation. But it’s more than just pomp and circumstance; there’s an emotionalism here (3:15-3:30, for example) that signifies something truly remarkable has been achieved, after long periods of sacrifice and many disheartening defeats. For both musical and dramatic reasons, I’m always reminded of the final scene of the original Star Wars. Whatever deed this music is celebrating was no mean feat — this march would seem ridiculous at, say, a high school graduation.

In fact, Wagner was touting the arrival of what he saw as the apex of human artistic achievement, namely, “true German art” (whatever that means — like many glittering slogans, it sounds so significant but is ultimately meaningless). You can see how easily this was appropriated by the Third Reich: just replace the “triumph of German art” with the “triumph of German nationalism.” Not surprisingly, attempts at performing Wagner in Israel have been met with literally violent hostility.

But is that fair? Was Wagner a proto-Nazi? Can one listen to his music, especially this piece, in good conscience? Honestly, I struggle with this. I wonder how music so powerful and moving and universally heart-swelling as this is could have been the result of such narrow inspiration. Is it justifiable to make a distinction between his silly essays and his glorious music? Is “hate the man, love the music,” an approach which I find valid and useful, every bit as sophistic and dangerous as “hate the sin, love the sinner,” which I find repugnant? I don’t know. I’m somewhat comforted by the thought that the narcissistic blowhard probably would’ve thought far too highly of himself and his work to let it be claimed exclusively by something as mundane as a political party.


[Start at 3:45] So what’s his appeal? What’s so fantastic about his music that it persists despite his unfortunate reputation (and 150 years of evolving musical taste)?

For one thing, his spot-on portrayals of the most complex emotions are undeniable. Despite his self-centeredness, he clearly had uncommon depth of feeling. His very best music, his keenest talent, he saved for describing those moments and sensations that are immune to poetic description. What do you call it, for instance, when generosity overwhelms you? When there’s too much joy? What’s the feeling you get when you finally allow yourself to amend your dreams, or even let them evaporate away?

Wagner’s favorite theme was redemption, usually through love or sacrifice. It’s one of my favorite ironies in music history, that the composer who focused most on forgiveness turned out to be the one most in need of it. From the same opera whose overture was used to lead in storm troopers and score Leni Riefenstahl movies comes this poignant, gracious, compassionate music. It doesn’t absolve Wagner, but it does humanize him for me, to hear his cup running over.


[Don’t start this one just yet.] Another key to Wagner’s continued popularity is actually something of a side-effect of his compositional style. Most of his operas are vast, epic tales, stories taken from legend and mythology. To tell these stories musically he needed orchestras of unprecedented size. As a result, Wagnerian singers, to be heard over such large ensembles, necessarily have massive, steel-reinforced voices. The athleticism required to sing this music is often as much a draw as the music itself. Listen to (and definitely watch) this clip from 1:20-2:15.

Don’t bother eating your heart out, Jennifer Hudson. This woman is clearly going to do it for you.

When you consider the music — and the plot — you realize this bit can only be sung by a voice with that much horsepower. This character has just been told by a goddess of war that she is pregnant, and that the child she carries will one day redeem the entire world. (Ring a bell?) Listen to it again.

For me, this is a musical summation of what it means to be a mother: sorrow and euphoria and physical agony in equal measure; that rapturous moment of suddenly understanding what it means to love something more than your own life. It’s the most perfect musical depiction of hope I know about — who else could sing it but a human THX system?


“Now it’s on to Chicago — and victory!”

Robert Kennedy left the podium at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles to the ecstatic cheers of a young, electrified crowd. My 14-year-old father, along with his mother and younger sister, were among them. “It was overwhelming,” my dad recalls. “Mom said he was as exciting and inspiring as his brother had been.”

And he seemed poised to win the nomination. He had just won the California primary, a major victory which essentially put Eugene McCarthy out of the race. That left Vice President Hubert Humphrey and a 1968 Democratic convention that would’ve been much more of a showdown than today’s polished formalities. The charismatic Bobby was going to close that relentlessly sad decade with rocket-fueled optimism, just as his brother Jack had opened it. “He left the platform and went out through a back door of the ballroom. It was going to take a while for everyone to file out the front, and we were all so jacked up after the speech that no one wanted to leave anyway. So we hung out there. We’d just seen the next president up-close. Amazing.”


[Start at 2:25] Kennedy walked into the hotel kitchen and was confronted by Sirhan Sirhan, who shot him three times at close range. “Is everyone alright?” he asked as a hotel employee slipped a rosary into his hand. He died the next day.

“We didn’t hear the shots, but people started saying from the back of the ballroom, ‘He’s been shot! They shot Kennedy!’ The room was full of balloons, and Mom figured they’d just popped and startled the charged crowd. But then the TVs — there were a ton of them set up in the room — started showing newsflashes, and we knew. But we couldn’t believe it. Everyone was wild-eyed, but the panic was subdued. No way it could happen to another Kennedy. And just months after Martin Luther King. There was almost hope in the impossibility of the situation.”

In April that year, Kennedy had scheduled a speech in Indianapolis on the night of — as it turned out — King’s murder. In a scene impossible to imagine with today’s instant connectivity, Kennedy actually broke the hours-old news of the assassination to the gathered crowd. His words were beautiful, especially considering he was speaking off the cuff. At one point, when attempting the very human and often very futile task of finding a silver lining in senselessness, he quoted Aeschylus.

“Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

Now that you’ve played out the above scenes like a movie in your head with musical accompaniment, can you imagine them without music?

Film — the most important art form of the 20th century — could never have existed as we know it today without the orchestra — arguably the most important artistic tool of the 19th century. And Wagner gave the orchestra a richness, an artistic versatility, and a prominence that it hadn’t known before him. Wagner’s orchestra is as much a character in his dramas as the figures on stage. It weeps and sighs and waxes eloquent with a subliminal effectiveness not available to those encumbered with text. It’s not a stretch to call Wagner the world’s first film composer.

James Horner’s sweeping musical vistas, Danny Elfman’s quirky sound worlds, certainly John Williams’s hummable leitmotivs; they’re all impossible without Wagner’s innovations in orchestral storytelling. If you’ve been to a movie, you’ve been to a Wagner concert.

Because of this, he is a part of our culture — a part of us, whether invited or not. I resisted Wagner for years, until I realized I’d been listening to him in one form or another my whole life. That his flaws are all-too-human makes his music all the more meaningful to me. Taken as a cumulative force — as a living expression of all the passion, inwardness, longing, and yes, nationalistic fervor that characterizes German Romantic thought — Wagner is an inexhaustible, rewarding challenge. And why shouldn’t great art be a little challenging? Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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