Magic Fire

WalkureMusic critic Deems Taylor (1885-1966), who composed operas himself, once said of Richard Wagner that “There never lived a composer who was more ready with copious and articulate explanations of what he intended to do in his music—or more certain to do something quite different.”

For example: “He fulminated against the absurdity of the operatic aria, and wrote Siegmund’s Love Song; he excommunicated the operatic duet, and wrote the second act of Tristan and Isolde; he cursed the operatic ensemble number, root stock, and branch, and wrote the quintet from Die Meistersinger.” Continue reading Magic Fire

Wagner’s Dead Elephant

Richard Wagner Richard Wagner, the great German composer, was born two hundred years ago on May 22, 1813. Wagner was one of the most stupendous musical geniuses who ever lived. He was also a notorious anti-Semite. Even on his two hundredth birthday, there is no ignoring the dead elephant in his living room.

At the same time, to say that Wagner was an anti-Semite, and to say no more than that, is too simple. It is too simple because Wagner was very much a self-contradictory genius, and his contradictions extended to his attitude toward Jewish people.

In other words, Wagner was an anti-Semite, but… And the but was not inconsequential. Continue reading Wagner’s Dead Elephant

“Tristan” in Houston

Tristan und Isolde 1865 In June of 1857, Richard Wagner reluctantly suspended work on Der Ring der Nibelungen, his projected cycle of four operas based on Norse mythology. As usual, he was having money problems. The Ring would have to wait. Meanwhile, he would compose a potboiler—a simple love story with a small cast, modest scenery and costume requirements, easy to stage. In short, wrote Wagner, “a thoroughly practicable work” that “will speedily yield good revenues, and help keep me afloat for awhile.”

Poor Wagner. Did he really think that he was capable of composing opera on a small scale? The “thoroughly practicable work” he envisioned soon morphed into Tristan and Isolde, a four-and-a-half-hour-long epic music drama that made such unheard-of demands on both the singers and the orchestra that it was widely dismissed as unperformable. Continue reading “Tristan” in Houston