Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Richard Wagner Turned 200 Today

Today marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of German Romantic era opera composer, Richard Wagner.  The most influential musician of the second half of the 19th Century, Wagner's approaches toward operatic structure, chromatic harmony and the use of themes to portray characters in his music dramas and their feelings, influenced hundreds of composers, and countless other artists.

He was an extremely egotistic person, quick to ask for gigantic favors from friends, and slow to forgive even the slightest criticisms of his music, polemical writings, personal affairs or involvement in German intellectual circles.

Since 1933, Wagner's anti-Semitism and Nazi appropriation of his art have created an image of the man that even carries over into regard for his music.  His music, played often by the predominantly Jewish Palestine Symphony Orchestra before 1938, disappeared entirely from their repertoire after Kristallnacht, and wasn't played again in Palestine or Israel until 2000, "when the holocaust survivor Mendi Rodan conducted the Siegfried Idyll in Rishon LeZion."  None of his operas have been performed in Israel.  In 2012, an orchestral concert of his works was announced and scheduled, then cancelled.

Wagner wasn't the only composer the Nazis appropriated for their own use.  One who would have shuddered at such misrepresentation was Austrian symphonist Anton Bruckner, whose sweeping vistas were often played on German propaganda radio, throughout the Nazi era.  German composer Richard Strauss, who was heavily influenced by Wagner's art, lived through the 3rd Reich, but backed out of his early role as a ceremonial cultural figure of the Nazis, retiring into seclusion.

Here's an example of the Nazi regime using Wagner's music.  In this case the Berlin Philharmonic is filmed giving a concert at the Berlin-Gesundbrunnen AEG [Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft] plant.  During World War II, AEG extensively used slave labor, and they provided the electrical power plants for all the Nazi extermination camps.  Wilhelm Furtwängler conducts the Overture to the opera Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg:


Here, from a happier time is a superb concert performance of Walther's Prize Song, from the 3rd Act of Die Meistersinger, sung at the London Symphony Orchestra Proms. Raymond Verry sings Walther:


And here is the opera's Finale, staged at the Metropolitan Opera, twelve years ago:

Finally, here is a performance of one of Wagner's rare chamber orchestra works, Siegfried Idyll, at a Proms concert last year, performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony, conducted by Donald Runnicles:

Wagner's music inspired me when I was a teenager, just beginning to write my own music.  However, I never tried to emulate any of what he does in his craft, choosing examples for models from other composers.  I've only performed in a few of his compositions over the decades, and never conducted his work. As this 200th anniversary approached, I have found myself listening to and reading through the orchestral scores of Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg, and Tristan und Isolde.  Rich stuff.

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