The New York Philharmonic is giving the East Coast premiere of Magnus Lindberg's spectacular noise symphony Kraft next week. In preparation, the composer recently joined members of the Philharmonic percussion section for a visit to Edkins Auto Scrap, on Staten Island, collecting suitably percussive junk-metal parts. For more, see the Philharmonic on Tumblr.
Previously: Kriikku's Kraft.
When I wrote about the Mendelssohn anniversary last year, I commented on the music of Fanny Hensel, Mendelssohn's sister, who showed great talent in her youth but suffered from the usual bias against female composers. "Music will perhaps become [Felix's] profession," her father wrote to her, "whilst for you it can and must only be an ornament, never the ground bass of your being and doing." Happily, over the next few days the Juilliard School will be correcting the injustice and giving attention to Hensel's work. The series is curated by Larry Todd, who wrote the definitive English-language life of Mendelssohn and recently produced a Hensel biography, from which I quote above. Tonight in Paul Hall, the Avenue 9 Trio will perform Hensel's Piano Trio in D Minor, which is the technical equal of her brother's chamber music and is in some ways more emotionally unrestrained. As Todd says, “There is the spark of genius in this music, marking her as a composer we should now recognize and celebrate.” Here's an excerpt from the Atlantis Trio's recording of the Trio:
Without giving away anything from my forthcoming New Yorker review of Rheingold at the Met, I'd like to join the chorus of praise for the bass-baritone Eric Owens, who, on Monday night, gave a tremendous performance as Alberich, lord of the dwarves. So, how does a man unwind after forging the dread ring that masters the world and enslaves its wearer? The video above tells all. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call range. (Via Amanda Ameer, Mr. Owens's publicist.)
September 29, 2010 | Permalink
My long-awaited second book, Boozehound, is now in stores. No, wait, mine is Listen to This. Today is the official release date, and I will celebrate, as is my long-standing custom, by placing a signed copy of the book in a little handmade boat in the shape of a swan and setting it loose in the waters of the Hudson River. Actually, I have never done any such thing, and am unlikely to do so now, but I like the image. I'm pleased to be featured today on Largehearted Boy. On Sunday I'll do a signing at McNally Jackson bookstore (2PM) and give my chacona talk (4PM); next week I appear at Labyrinth Books in Princeton (Oct. 5) and 192 Books in Chelsea (Oct. 7). A series of West Coast events begins on Oct. 12, in Seattle.
September 28, 2010 | Permalink
I'm incredibly pleased to see that Sebastian Ruth, whose project Community MusicWorks I wrote about in 2006, has been named a MacArthur Fellow. My article on music education and Ruth's initiative is reprinted in Listen to This.
September 28, 2010 | Permalink
Searching for Silence. The New Yorker, Oct. 4, 2010.
The magazine is making its official iPad debut this week, and in the iPad version of the piece we've inserted a multimedia excerpt—an excerpt from the film of Cage's Variations VII. There are more Cage extras on the New Yorker blog, including, of course, the "I've Got a Secret" video. Mode Records's Cage Edition now runs to forty-two volumes: Philipp Vandré's CD of the Sonatas and Interludes would be a fine place to start.
September 27, 2010 | Permalink
I'm on a brief tour of lakeside orchestras — Muti and the Chicago, Edo de Waart and the Milwaukee. I'll report in the New Yorker soon. This weekend I have a piece on the New York Times op-ed page, and coming on Monday is a long-brewing essay on the life and work of John Cage.
Footnote: If anyone is wondering about my assertion, in the Times piece, that going to the Met costs the same as going to see the Rolling Stones, my source is this 2006 article. The average ticket price for the Met's current season is $138; for the Stones in 2006, it was $136.63. (Barbara Streisand's average was $298.36.) Even more "elitist," in some ways, is NFL football. The average price for a non-premium ticket to the New England Patriots is $117.84; the premium ticket average is a whopping $566.67. And that figure does not include luxury suites. Worth reading is this recent Times piece on how New Jersey residents are still carrying $110 million in debt on the now defunct Giants Stadium. The new stadium cost $1.6 billion. Sure, more people care about football than they do about opera. But why should those who couldn't care less have to pay for it?
September 25, 2010 | Permalink
Did I mention that I have a new book, Listen to This? It arrives in stores and on the Internet next Tuesday. Björk.com declares it "probably the 'must' read of the autumn." The basic information is here. I've more or less finished the audio guide, though I will keep adding material. (The photograph above appears to show President Obama enjoying a chacona, although I admittedly lack precise confirmation.) I've also published an iTunes playlist. The audiobook version, which I recorded myself, also arrives next week. It will have more than thirty musical examples. I hope y'all enjoy the book!
September 23, 2010 | Permalink
The mail brought a copy of Mahler's Concerts, a new book by Knud Martner. It's a scrupulously annotated listing of every concert that Mahler participated in or conducted over the course of his career, from Iglau to New York. The publisher is the Kaplan Foundation, which earlier presented such delightfully obsessive tomes as The Mahler Album — every known photograph and drawing of the man — and the Mahler Discography (now a website). Looking at the listing for Mahler's final concert, with the New York Philharmonic on Feb. 21, 1911, I was seized with a desire to hear the last number on the program: Marco Enrico Bossi's Intermezzi goldoniani. With what music did the musician Mahler bid farewell? As it turns out, with this brisk example of incipient neoclassicism:
From Serenata Italiana, I Musici, Fonè Records 063.
The image above comes from the New York Times of Feb. 21. Underneath the ghastly, ageless headlines — "Shot Wife to Death, Then Drank Poison," etc. — you find this motley list of entertainments, with Mahler's final concert at the bottom:
Sentimentalists might wish that Mahler had gone out with the Liebestod of Tristan or some other über-Romantic cry from the heart. But fate had other ideas in store. And it's fitting to be reminded that Mahler did, after all, live in the modern world, with its random violence and myriad distractions. What will it be tonight, the motor-boat show or Gustav Mahler?
The author Steven Johnson, whom I've known for around thirty of my forty-odd years, has a bracing new book entitled Where Good Ideas Come From. Somehow, Steven has managed to write seven books in about the time it has taken me to write two, but I won't hate him for that. I thank Steven at the back of my new book, Listen to This, because sometime in the mid-nineties he got me hooked on Radiohead. I ignored the band when "Creep" appeared, but Steven made me realize that something had gone beautifully askew in the harmonies of The Bends. He also introduced me, for better or worse, to the Internet; "Anything Can Happen," my essay on New Zealand rock, appeared in the first incarnation of his and Stefanie Syman's pioneering web zine Feed (fl. 1995 – 2001).
For some years Steven has been talking about the "long zoom" — a concept that has influenced my way of writing about music. He got the idea when thinking about the cosmic self-positioning of the young Stephen Dedalus, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: "Class of Elements / Clongowes Wood College / Sallins / County Kildare / Ireland / Europe / The World / The Universe." In The Invention of Air, his book about Joseph Priestley, Steven defined long-zoom thinking as a manner of analysis that "jumps from scale to scale, and from discipline to discipline, to explain its object of study." In seeking a full explanation for any significant cultural or historical phenomenon, he says, you need to take into account various layers of explanation, none of which should dominate the conversation: neurochemistry, biography, social networks, information networks, technological platforms, political regimes, economic modes, and settlement patterns. Major events rarely unfold within a single layer, he writes. I see the Long Zoom as a practical application of pragmatist philosophy — a search for a language that reaches, wherever possible, outside of strict ideologies and specialized fields.
Sometime in Year 3 or Year 4 of writing The Rest Is Noise, when I felt overwhelmed by my subject, I had a long conversation with Steven about his Long Zoom idea, and it had a liberating effect. I realized that I could encompass the mass of material not by trying to subdue it under a single conception but by following the intersections of the layers. The zoom metaphor allowed me to make sudden shifts without unduly agonizing over them: if I moved from musical analysis to personal biography to political history to narratives of technological or social change, I was staying true to the intricacy of music’s engagement in the world. Indeed, that darting movement might reveal something that a fixed perspective might miss. As Steven says in his new book, "seeing the problem of innovation from the long-zoom perspective does not just give us new metaphors. It gives us new facts." For that insight, much thanks.
— Stile Antico, Puer natus est (Harmonia Mundi)
— Nico Muhly, A Good Understanding (Decca)
— Antony and the Johnsons, Swanlights (Secretly Canadian)
— Marc-André Hamelin, Études (Hyperion)*
— The Bad Plus, Never Stop (E1)
— Ives, Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2, Jeremy Denk (Think Denk Media)
— Steve Reich, Double Sextet and 2x5, Eighth Blackbird and Bang on a Can (Nonesuch)
Now playing at the Quad Cinemas in New York — with an engagement to follow at Sunset 5 in Los Angeles — is Owsley Brown's documentary film Music Makes a City, an absorbing study of the Louisville Orchestra's great campaign on behalf of contemporary music from 1948 onward. Robert Whitney, the orchestra's scrappy young music director, undertook the seemingly suicidal scheme of presenting a new work on every subscription program. Crucially, he had the support of Louisville's benevolently authoritarian major, Charles Farnsley, who had a peculiar love of living composers, and who emerges in the documentary as a fantastic character in his own right. Within a decade, the orchestra had commissioned more than a hundred works and recorded the vast majority of them, with the help of a $400,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. The Louisville also began issuing previously unrecorded works on its First Edition label — a prolific series that I consumed avidly in my college days. The film brings fascinating insights into the cultural life of an American city, and perhaps the most important lesson to take away from it is that through sheer conviction Whitney was able to carry his audience with him.
Here's video from Riccardo Muti's outdoor debut as the music director of the Chicago Symphony, yesterday at Millennium Park, before a crowd of twenty-five thousand people. After the explosive finale of Respighi's Pines of Rome, Muti did some deft stand-up: "Conductors should never speak.... After a few words, conductors say nonsense. È vero?" Andrew Patner, John von Rhein, and Wynne Delacoma have turned in glowing reviews.
by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, April 25, 2011
Act II Scene 1 of Die Walküre, from Bayreuth, 2000.
Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung is noted for being very long and very loud. The score, which consumes more than two thousand printed pages, has parts for thirty-four characters and requires a monster orchestra that includes three steer horns, six harps, and eighteen anvils. If the four parts of the Ring — Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung — were played from beginning to end, they would last from morning until midnight. An intricate saga of the Norse gods and a veiled assault on plutocratic capitalism, the Ring is, arguably, the most ambitious work of art ever attempted, and, unless human civilization makes an abrupt swerve back toward bourgeois grandeur, it is unlikely to have future rivals. The Metropolitan Opera is carrying on the Wagner tradition by unveiling, in stages, a new production that costs at least sixteen million dollars and features a mechanical apparatus weighing forty-five tons.
Yet Wagner’s reputation for gigantism misses the mark. The Ring is big, no question, but it is made up of hundreds of intimate moments, through which the mythical squabbles of gods, dwarves, and men take on an almost uncomfortable immediacy. It is an affair of sidelong glances, compassionate shrugs, paralyzing hesitations, callous joys, comforting sorrows, and, beneath it all, endless yearning. Nietzsche, who initially worshipped at the Wagner shrine and then made a show of renouncing it, called Wagner “our greatest miniaturist,” one who “crowds into the smallest space an infinity of sense and sweetness.” The remark had a sardonic edge, for Nietzsche went on to castigate Wagner’s feats of spectacle, the “circus of Walküre” included. Yet, as Nietzsche well knew, the man who hammered out the “Ride of the Valkyries” also created the piercingly tender final scene of Walküre, in which Wotan, chief of the gods, bids farewell to his daughter Brünnhilde, having been forced to punish her for passionate deeds that he wishes he himself could commit. Indeed, Wagner might have forged the steely Valkyrie music as a foil for the heartbreak to come.
The usual way to write about Wagner is to proceed from the world-historical level, musing on some combination of Aeschylus, the Icelandic sagas, Shakespeare, Faust, Beethoven’s Ninth, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, George Bernard Shaw, Theodor Herzl, Adolf Hitler, Apocalypse Now, and Bugs Bunny. It is an absorbing game, although at the end of the day it leaves little space for the music, which is the ultimate source of the spell that Wagner continues to cast upon the world.
Recently, I decided to look closely at one of those miniaturist moments: a short passage in Walküre, at the end of the first scene of Act II. It comes at a crucial juncture in the Ring. At the outset of the act, with the Valkyrie motif blaring in the orchestra, Wotan is plotting to regain the all-powerful ring that the dwarf lord Alberich forged from magic gold in Das Rheingold. In the final scene of that work, Wotan took the ring from Alberich and then reluctantly surrendered it to a pair of giants, as compensation for the building of Valhalla. The treaties etched on Wotan’s spear prevent him from reneging on the deal, but he believes that he has found a loophole: with a mortal woman, he has sired Siegmund, who, acting independently of his father’s will, can win back the ring.
Enter the goddess Fricka, Wotan’s embittered wife. She picks apart his scheme, pointing out that Siegmund is Wotan’s pawn, not a free agent. Fricka also laments that Siegmund has committed an outrage by sleeping with a woman—Sieglinde—who is not only another man’s wife but also his own twin sister. Wotan acknowledges that he must step aside and let Siegmund die for his transgressions. And, in abandoning his master plan, he realizes that the curse of the ring is upon him, that the twilight of the gods is at hand. He goes into the most spectacular psychological tailspin in the history of opera—a twenty-minute monologue that begins with cries of “Endless rage! / Eternal grief! / I am the saddest of all living things!” and culminates with a quiet rasp of “Das Ende!” Wagner was in the final years of his youthful revolutionary phase when he wrote the libretto for the Ring—the text was finished in 1852—and Wotan served as a metaphor for those arrogant potentates who had subjugated humanity through a system of laws and dogmas.
Just before Wotan falls to pieces, the orchestra plays a brief interlude—more a “microlude,” to borrow a term from the Hungarian composer György Kurtág. It is couched in E-flat major, which, significantly, is the key in which the Ring commenced, the primeval harmony of the Rhine. It consists of a single upward-arcing, gently aching phrase, lasting ten bars and around thirty seconds. It is not part of Wagner’s leitmotif system, the network of themes representing characters, objects, and ideas. It appears just this once, a solitary spasm of regret.
I have cherished the passage as long as I’ve known the Ring. Each time I hear the opera, I wait for it, and try to grasp it as it unfurls. It seems to communicate some essential wisdom that the characters cannot put into words. So I dug into those ten bars—studying the score, reading the literature, talking to musicians—in the hope of gaining a perspective that might elude me if I started with Antigone or Colonel Kilgore. There are, of course, no final answers in the Ring, a behemoth that whispers a different secret into every listener’s ear. But I suspect that Willa Cather, in her operatic novel The Song of the Lark, was onto something when she had her heroine say, “Fricka knows.”
Wotan is irresistible. Even at his self-pitying nadir, he remains hugely charismatic—a swaggering autocrat who has seen the error of his ways. His soliloquy movingly presents the crisis of someone who is facing, for the first time, the inevitability of death and the futility of egotistical designs.
Not everyone loves Fricka; at first, she seems a scold, even a shrew. When Schopenhauer read the libretto of the Ring, he wrote in the margins of the Wotan-Fricka exchange, “Wotan under the slipper.” The mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, who is singing Fricka in the Met’s new Ring, told me, “Whenever somebody asks me what I’m doing next, and I say that I’m doing Fricka, the first thing out of their mouth, ninety per cent of the time, is ‘God, what a harpy. What a horrible woman.’ I have never had to defend a character as much as I’ve had to defend Fricka. And I am very keen to defend her, because I think she is an extraordinary character. Like all of Wagner’s people, she is so beautifully delineated.”
When Wagner, in the early eighteen-fifties, set about writing the Ring, he, too, was caught in a dying marriage. Minna Wagner, not unlike Fricka, regularly upbraided her husband for his profligacy and inconstancy. In Act II, Wagner’s sympathies plainly lie with Wotan, who becomes a mouthpiece for the composer when he says, “Age-old custom is all you can grasp: but my thoughts seek to encompass what’s never yet come to pass.” They are arguing over the adulterous, incestuous love of Siegmund and Sieglinde. Fricka upholds traditional morality while Wotan looks ahead to a bohemian utopia where desire makes its own laws. In 1857, in the throes of an affair with the poet Mathilde Wesendonck, Wagner broke off composing Siegfried to write Tristan und Isolde, the supreme erotic drama of the nineteenth century; but Walküre, whose first act seems to end mid-orgasm, is similarly charged. Laurence Dreyfus, in his revelatory new book Wagner and the Erotic Impulse, notes that the composer quickly became a beacon for advocates of sexual liberation, notably for early campaigners for homosexual rights. Any gay man or woman trapped in a sham marriage would have thrilled to Wotan’s line “Unholy I deem the vow that binds unloving hearts.”
Nevertheless, Wagner lets Fricka speak for herself. Much as he may dislike her adherence to propriety, he understands the pain of her position, especially with respect to the infidelities of Wotan, whose strategy to save the gods involves a lot of extramarital sex. There are very few absolutely unsympathetic characters in Wagner, and Walküre is an opera without a villain, unless it is Wotan himself. In Rheingold, Fricka cries to her husband, “What is still sacred and good to your hearts when you men lust for power?” In Walküre, where she appears only in the first scene of Act II, she intensifies the attack, portraying Wotan’s waywardness not simply as a personal betrayal but also as a dereliction of godly values. In one draft of the libretto, she says, “If mindless destruction is smashing its way through the world, wild and defiant, who but you, violent Wotan, can bear the blame for the calamity? You never shield the weak, you stand only by the strong.”
Wagner cut those lines, but Fricka is still given plenty of intellectual ammunition. At the end of the scene, once Wotan has lost the argument (“He sinks into a feeling of powerlessness,” the libretto says), she sings a stately arioso in which she reasserts her jurisdiction over marital matters, declaring that Siegmund must not be protected from the wrath of Hunding, Sieglinde’s husband: “We gods would go to our ruin were my rights not avenged, nobly and gloriously”—in German, “hehr und herrlich.” Her music, in a decorous triplet rhythm, is rather old-fashioned, as the Wagner scholar Thomas Grey commented to me; it’s reminiscent of Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, Wagner’s early Romantic operas. Barry Millington, the British Wagner authority, says that it reminds him of a Schumann Lied.
Margarete Klose, Bayreuth, 1940, with Franz von Hoesslin conducting.
To whom, though, are these words addressed? Wotan, sinking into his colossal funk, may no longer be listening to Fricka. Perhaps she is really speaking to Brünnhilde—the child of Wotan and the earth goddess Erda—who has just galloped into view, her Valkyrie cry faltering when she perceives that something strange has happened between Wotan and Fricka. (Wagner’s music can have incredible specificity; here it means “Oh, wait.”) Patrice Chéreau, in his legendary 1976 staging of the Ring, at Bayreuth, beautifully captured the dynamic between the two women: Fricka, dressed as a pillar of the haute bourgeoisie, keeps glancing in Brünnhilde’s direction while singing of nobility and glory. Fricka has Wotan under control, but she knows that Brünnhilde is susceptible to human passions and may goher own way. Her fears are soon realized. Later in the act, Brünnhilde becomes so entranced by the crazy love of the siblings that she defies Wotan and makes a failed attempt to save Siegmund’s life. Then she rescues Sieglinde, who has become pregnant with the future hero Siegfried. At the end of Götterdämmerung, Brünnhilde resolves the crisis by riding into Siegfried’s funeral pyre with the ring on her finger, whereupon Valhalla goes up in flames, the Rhine overflows its banks, and the Rhinemaidens regain their gold.
When Fricka’s arioso is over, the motif of Wotan’s Spear sounds in quiet resignation alongside a morose theme representing powerlessness. Wotan swears to Fricka that Brünnhilde will uphold Fricka’s values, saying, “Nimm den Eid” (“Take the oath”). The ten-bar orchestral passage, the microlude, now unfolds. One clue to its meaning can be found in the diaries of Cosima Wagner, who succeeded Minna as Wagner’s wife, and had a somewhat happier time of it. She wrote in 1878, “Over coffee in the summerhouse R. quotes ‘Nimm den Eid’ and recalls the feeling of satisfaction which then imbues Fricka with dignity.” Not stiff or self-consciously grand like the preceding arioso, the music moves with an easy, striding rhythm. It is notable for its wide range: crossing two octaves, the phrase keeps opening up, spreading its wings. At the top, though, it hits a snag: sharp rhythmic figures in F-flat major—sounding like E major—collide with the columnar E-flats sounding below. We instinctively feel the dissonance as a pang, a twinge. What might have been is set against what is.
I asked several conductors for their impressions of the passage. The English conductor Justin Brown, who was presenting a Ring in Karlsruhe, told me, “You feel as if you’ve known this phrase since before you were born. I hear it as a summation of Fricka’s character and state of mind at the moment of victory—a victory which, while not exactly Pyrrhic, is certainly not a happy one.”
Simone Young, who had recently finished leading two complete Ring cycles at the Hamburg State Opera, sees the microlude as an encapsulation of the scene, with Wotan’s song of sorrow interrupted by the snapping figure, which throughout the scene has been associated with Fricka’s complaint. To bring out the melancholy, Young asks the orchestra to hold back a bit. “The strings will want to play it with too Romantic a vibrato, the horns will want to sound too heroic,” she said. “The beauty is very seductive but is false.”
James Levine, too, senses a darkness in the music. “She has sacrificed her relationship to him for the principle,” he told me, after a long day of rehearsal at the Met. “What is left of that relationship, which, admittedly, wasn’t much, she has now killed. He won’t be able to look her in the eye again, because the consequence of what she demands is unbearable. When she leaves, I always have this feeling that she vanishes from functional existence. This little passage has a sort of amazing juxtaposition of triadic motifs”—the “natural” tones of E-flat major—“and stepwise ones. What makes it so hopeless and so tense and so haunting is something about the relationship of one sequence to the next being removed by only half a step.”
Simon Rattle, who conducted the operas of the Ring in Aix-en-Provence and Salzburg between 2006 and 2010, gave a wistful laugh when I queried him about the microlude. “It’s the end of the world, isn’t it?” he said. “It’s extraordinary how Wagner chooses to paint total collapse. This music is a kind of magical doorway into Wotan’s monologue, his confession full of violence and terror. In the bass you hear Wotan, ‘throwing himself on his rock in misery and anger,’ as the score says. Above that you hear Fricka—Fricka and the truth. She is the only one who constantly tells the truth.”
When directors stage the passage, they often use it to give a final glimpse of Wotan and Fricka’s marriage. Singers routinely perform a gesture of reconciliation. Christa Ludwig, in the video of Otto Schenk’s old production at the Met, reaches out to Wotan and then pulls away, resuming an icy attitude. (Ludwig’s Fricka is the richest portrayal on modern recordings; on earlier disks, the standard is set by Margarete Klose, precise in diction and acute in expression.) In the film of Harry Kupfer’s 1988 production at Bayreuth, John Tomlinson, delivering a Wotan of alarming intensity, angrily rejects the Fricka of Linda Finnie when she takes his hand. In Jürgen Flimm’s 2000 Bayreuth production—a memorable staging in which Wotan had the look of a compromised C.E.O., cowering in a Bauhaus-style office suite—there was a brief kiss of reconciliation between god and goddess. Blythe, who first sang Fricka at the Seattle Opera, in 2000, likewise seeks a moment of intimacy with Wotan, although with the tragic awareness that it will be the last.
At the same time, the microlude is part of a mostly silent negotiation between Fricka and Brünnhilde. The accompanying stage direction is this: “Fricka strides upstage; there she encounters Brünnhilde, and halts for a moment before her.” Fricka then says, “The Lord of Battles awaits you: let him explain the fate he has chosen!” And she departs, never to reappear in the cycle. The ardor emanating from the orchestra may hint at a subtext to Fricka’s seemingly cold, clipped message: perhaps she is aware of the fate that awaits the gods, and perhaps she senses that Brünnhilde has a crucial role to play in it. (In the Icelandic Edda poems, one of Wagner’s chief sources, the goddess Frigg knows all but says nothing.) This music might even be a kind of secret blessing. “Fricka does not like Brünnhilde, but she respects her,” Blythe told me. “She calls her a ‘valiant maid.’ She trusts her to act rightly.” As Fricka exits, three trombones intone the terrible motif of the Curse. It is sounding for the first time since Rheingold. (“Let the coward be chained to fear . . . the lord of the ring as the slave of the ring.”) It has much the same striding rhythm as Fricka’s music, and it, too, unfolds over an unvarying E-flat. Blessing and curse are bound together.
The microlude marks the moment at which women begin to take charge of the Ring. Wagner was no feminist in the modern sense, but he did cultivate a kind of androgynous philosophy, as the musicologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez has proposed, and he expressed his disdain for conventional masculinity by dressing in sensuous silk and satin. In 1851, Wagner praised “that true womanliness, which should one day bring redemption to me and to all the world, after male egoism, even in its noblest form, has obliterated itself before her.” The obsession continued to the end: on the day he died, in 1883, he was working on an essay titled “On the Womanly in the Human.”
Brünnhilde is the true hero of the Ring, the one who destroys the illusions of male egoism. In Act III of Walküre, after Brünnhilde saves Sieglinde from Wotan’s fury, Sieglinde hails her with the words “O hehrstes Wunder! Herrliche Maid!”—“O noblest wonder! Glorious woman!” Sieglinde’s majestically wheeling melody is heard again in the coda of Götterdämmerung, surging above the fires of Valhalla. Wagner called that motif the “glorification of Brünnhilde.” The Ring is, in the end, the glorification of a woman who, as Blythe says, “acts rightly.” And the words that honor her—hehr and herrlich— are those which Fricka uses when she pleads with Wotan to restore dignity to the gods. There are musical similarities, too: echt-Romantic harmonies, downward-gliding sevenths, gracious triplets. Brünnhilde achieves a transfiguration of Fricka’s sense of justice. Wotan simply disappears.
Astrid Varnay at the Met, Dec. 6, 1941, with Erich Leinsdorf conducting. Go here for a further discussion of this passage.
“It’s not a nice thing to discover that you don’t have power anymore,” the German conductor Christoph von Dohnányi told me, poring over the score of Walküre in a hotel lobby on Central Park South. At the age of eighty-one, with a shock of white hair framing a hawklike face, Dohnányi looked like the embodiment of prewar German Kultur. It has been some years since he conducted Wagner in the opera house, but the music is still on his mind. “This is the Wendepunkt, the turning point,” he said, examining the passage that I had singled out. “Fricka makes Wotan see the future.”
We moved past the Fricka scene to the first part of Wotan’s monologue: the clawing lines of bassoons, bass clarinet, and cellos evoking Wotan’s sensations of humiliation and dejection; the jagged falling intervals—octave, major seventh, minor seventh—to which the god sings of his rage and grief; the extreme dissonances that erupt over an abyssal C. (If you shrank one of those harmonies to minimum space on a piano keyboard, it would contain a four-note cluster—what you might get if you tried to hit a C with your fist.) And this fortissimo freak-out is just the beginning. The fundamental note keeps moving down, one false bottom giving way to another, until we reach the basement of the world. Wotan proceeds to retell the story of the Ring with a clear view of his own guilt: “I longed in my heart for power. . . . I acted unfairly. . . . I did not return the ring to the Rhine. . . . The curse that I fled will not flee from me now. . . . Let all that I raised now fall in ruins!” Finally, he emits two cries of “Das Ende!”—the first loud and the second spookily soft, like a negative epiphany, a shuddering acquiescence. The soliloquy undercuts everything that is popularly associated with the term “Wagnerian.” It is a deconstruction of power, a dismantling of grandeur.
Dohnányi brought up a contradiction that every historically aware operagoer must register: the Ring delivers a sweeping critique of the urge to dominate others, but it was the creation of a domineering man, and it drew the worshipful admiration of Hitler, the most frightening of megalomaniacs. The main continuity between Wagner and Hitler was, of course, the composer’s anti-Semitism, which disfigures his writings and lurks behind his later operas. Wagner once called the Jews “the plastic demon of the ruin of mankind”—a line that Joseph Goebbels used many times in his speeches. “If you have experienced recent German history, you must think about it,” Dohnányi said. “Was Wagner somehow the source, or one source, of what happened?”
I sought out the conductor in part because he had experienced that history at close range. His father was Hans von Dohnányi, a lawyer and a military-intelligence officer who played a leading role in plots to assassinate Hitler. In 1943, Hans von Dohnányi was arrested, alongside his brother-in-law, the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer; the two men were executed in April, 1945.
“I don’t blame any Jewish person, not any, who would say, ‘Wagner’s music might be great, but I don’t want it,’ ” Dohnányi told me. “My father was in a concentration camp, and they played Wagner when they put them in the gas chamber. And even before, many gebildete people—educated people—did not care for Wagner because he stood for something ugly. My family loved Bach, Beethoven, Brahms. When I first conducted Wagner, my mother said, ‘I only come because you do it!’ ”
Dohnányi paused. “But when I really think about Wagner I don’t discover anything that had to lead to Hitler. And what happens here”—we were looking at Wotan’s cries of shame—“is not something that any Fascist could have written. Because it is not simplifying. It is a ‘giving up’ thing. Wagner abused power but hated the state. And that hatred is at the heart of this huge intellectual conception of absolutely Shakespearean genius.”
Wagner’s music is marked by a constant tension between a will to power and a willingness to surrender. The contradiction is not one that we should seek to resolve; rather, it is integral to the survival of the composer’s work. Because we can no longer idealize Wagner, he is more involving than ever. This idea animates Five Lessons on Wagner, a recent book by the philosopher Alain Badiou, with a long afterword by his colleague Slavoj Žižek. The latest in a long line of thinkers who have tussled with Wagner, Badiou and Žižek try to revise the prevalent picture of the composer as a proto-Fascist—the phrase was “virtually invented to describe Wagner,” Badiou says—by heightening his paradoxes. In Wotan’s monologue, Badiou sees a pivotal moment in which “power and impotence are in equipoise”; that paralysis creates the possibility of a different world. He goes on to paint the Ring as a mythological tale that annuls, one by one, the consolations of mythology. Žižek sees in Brünnhilde’s sacrifice the hope for a new kind of politics—a space of selfless action beyond the failed ideologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Wisely, Žižek does not spell out what those politics might be. The music offers hope, nothing more.
“All things, all things, all things I know,” Brünnhilde says in her final monologue, without quite divulging what she has learned. The perennial trouble with Wagner is that he creates ambiguity and certitude in equal measure. His music somehow instills a sense of knowing all, each listener utterly sure of his or her response. No artist is more fanatically loved or more fanatically hated; few people think that Wagner is merely pretty good. Ultimately, the bond that he forms with his listeners is one of pure, wordless emotion, and his gift for capturing the nuances of human feeling constantly complicates our response—as when that great rising melody for Fricka darkens at the top and then vanishes from the world.
I keep thinking of something that Blythe said of the microlude, when we spoke between rehearsals at the Met. “Yes, it’s gorgeous,” she told me. “And that’s why Wagner made it so short. This”—she tapped the corresponding page in her well-thumbed vocal score—“this is something we try to get hold of. And by the time we get there it’s gone.”
Like many deskbound Manhattanites, I take a slightly desperate pleasure in exercise — in my case, jogging along the Hudson River. I'm savoring the last warm days of summer before the chill sets in and I resort to the treadmill. (Cold-weather jogging seems to annoy my lungs.) The waterfront has grown dramatically more attractive in the nine years I've been living in Chelsea. I particularly love the short stretch of beachy boardwalk that goes south of the Holland Tunnel pier. As Justin Davidson wrote in New York last year, these parks are beautifully suited to people who actually live in the area; the fussily curated High Line, by contrast, seems geared more toward tourists. A few quick photos below, ending with a shot of some promising new titles in the window of 192 Books.
Maria Callas died on Sept. 16, 1977. What happens at 3:30 is, for me, one of the great moments in recorded music. I write about it in the Verdi chapter of my new book:
"Love me, Alfredo, as much as I love you. Goodbye!" ... In the tense passage leading up to the outburst, the soprano adopts a breathless, fretful tone, communicating Violetta’s initially panicked response to the situation — vocal babbling, the Verdi scholar Julian Budden calls it. Then, with the trembling of the strings, she seems to flip a switch, her voice burning hugely from within. When she reaches up to the A and the B-flat, she claws at the notes, practically tears them off the page, although her tone retains a desperate beauty. Her delivery is so unnervingly vehement — here is what Björk, in her discussion of Callas, called the “rrrr” — that it risks anticlimax. Where can the opera possibly go from here? When you listen again, you understand: Violetta’s spirit is broken, and from now on she will sing as if she were already dead.
September 16, 2010 | Permalink
Possible Futures, an Atlanta foundation, has given $30,000 to ArtsCriticATL, the estimable online arts site that has filled the void created by the decimation of arts coverage at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.... A bit of controversy has flared up around Project 440, a competition for emerging composers that is co-presented by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and WQXR; some have dismissed it as a popularity contest and/or festival of networking ability. The comments sections have inevitably created a bad vibe, but the profuse audio examples allow you to catch up with a diverse group of composers.... Seated Ovation, aka Will Robin, is now reporting from Berlin.... In what may be a first, Ethan Iverson photoblogs the Music Division at the Library of Congress. The new Bad Plus album is tremendous, by the way.... Last Sunday was the first installement of the Lunar Movements series, the Argento Chamber Ensemble's multi-part study of Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire. The concerts are on Sunday afternoons at the Austrian Cultural Forum. The Argento is doing remarkable work.
September 16, 2010 | Permalink
Sibelius in 1939. White cat not pictured.
The Guardian's Tom Service has noticed that the opening bars of Sibelius's 1904 piece Cassazione bear a curious resemblance to the original James Bond theme, as composed by Monty Norman. For the benefit of Americans and other backward souls who lack access to the Spotify service, I've uploaded an excerpt from the Sibelius (first version), with the Bond theme following, in the brilliant arrangement by John Barry:
Osmo Vänskä conducting the Lahti Symphony, BIS CD-1445; iTunes Essentials: John Barry.
To be honest, Monty has a leg up on Jean here: his principal theme is a lot more interesting than the brassy statement that Sibelius places over the chromatic rising-and-falling figure. You can read about the origins of the Bond theme at Norman's site. You can also read a summary of a lawsuit that Norman brought against the Sunday Times when that paper named Barry as the composer of the theme. None other than Stanley Sadie, the great, late editor of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, was brought into testify. The "Sibelius" figure was labeled "the vamp." In the lawsuit, the defense pointed out that the vamp is essentially the same as one that appeared in Barry's 1960 song "Poor Me," a UK hit for Adam Faith:
Norman's team answered that the vamp was hardly unique to Barry, and that it had earlier appeared in Kurt Weill's "Lonely House," from Street Scene, here sung by Lotte Lenya:
And, before that, in "Nightmare" by Artie Shaw:
They might have mentioned "Aquarela do Brasil," aka "Brazil," or Pixinguinha's fabulous "Carinhoso" (1916-17):
The true inventor of the vamp may never be known. I, for one, hear the germ of it in the double basses at the end of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony....
September 15, 2010 | Permalink