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Ring of Truth

The Metropolitan Opera’s new Siegfried, part of its ambitious Ring cycle, exposes the greatness—and the limitations—of Wagner and his admirers

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Jay Hunter Morris as the title character in the Met’s new Siegfried. (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

If Wagner did nothing better than this, we would laugh off his music as a curiosity. But he was far cleverer than the musicologists. His musical aim is to subvert our sense of purpose. Part of this he accomplishes through what he calls “endless melody,” in contradistinction to classical form. The trouble is that if a melody has no end, it doesn’t have a middle, either, or any intermediate parts. “Endless melody” risks becoming an endless blah; Nietzsche wrote that the technique leads to “the complete degeneration of rhythmical feeling” and “chaos in the place of rhythm.”

But Wagner, again, is cleverer than this. He stitches together short musical numbers that point to a tonal goal, but he changes track before the goal is reached and heads in a different direction. Wagner, that is, creates expectations in the way that an audience familiar with classical form had come to expect, but artfully subverts them. To succeed, Wagner’s manipulation of musical time requires an audience that knows classical form.

A canny conductor maintains a high degree of metrical flexibility throughout, a sense of rhythmic ambiguity such that the Wagnerian change-up pitch appears as a smooth transition. Luisi, newly appointed the Met’s principal conductor, seemed uncomfortable with the score, especially in the first act. He conducted each segment with metronomic regularity, shifting abruptly into the next one; perhaps he was afraid of losing control of the orchestra and hung on to the beat all the more tenaciously. The overall effect resembled a potpourri of incomplete waltzes, polkas, foxtrots, and tarantellas more than endless melody. Luisi relaxed a bit during the second and third acts; this was the opera’s opening performance on Oct. 27, and the Italian conductor, replacing the great Wagnerian Levine, might have been nervous.

The Ring cycle’s pivotal moment comes when Siegfried shatters his grandfather’s spear, traverses the magic fire, and awakens the sleeping Brünnhilde. “The whole world exists just to ensure that two such beings may gaze on each other,” the composer wrote, and the cleverest music in the cycle is reserved for their first encounter.

Siegfried’s kiss is accompanied by a grand orchestral gesture on a B-major 7th chord, preparing a quite conventional resolution to E minor, that is, the sort of cadence from the 5th scale degree to the tonic that we hear in every piece of Western music. But Wagner has a trick up his sleeve: The E-minor chord, blown in a grand fortissimo by a steroidal brass section, isn’t a resolution at all. The top note of our E-minor chord in the brass choir resolves upward to C (pianissimo in the strings with harp accompaniment), so that we hear the E-minor triad not as a tonic chord, but as passing motion to C major. (Click here for my audio explanation with musical examples at the piano. Readers unfamiliar with musical terms might skip the explanation below and listen to the audio example instead.)

That is a piece of musical sleight-of-hand worthy of Siegfried and Roy. After first hearing it, we reinterpret what we have heard; the E-minor triad was not a point of resolution, as Wagner had tricked us into hearing, but only the preparation for something else. The real tonal goal, C major, is announced grandly in arpeggios in the harps (Wagner wanted six; the Met had four).

In Western music, we expect the leading tone (the 7th step of the scale) to rise to the topic (“si” rising to “do”) to achieve stability. Reversing the direction of the leading tone (with “do” falling to “si”) is a conventional gesture in popular music. We hear it in songs like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “Puff the Magic Dragon,” and “Both Sides Now.” It evokes nostalgia; instead of “going home” to the tonic as “si” rises to “do,” we move away from home, so to speak.

music from ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ and ‘Siegfried’

Wagner’s climatic gesture is something like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in reverse. We thought we had arrived at one tonal goal (E minor), but to our surprise, we find ourselves in a different place altogether. Wagner evokes in purely musical terms a sense of waking from sleep. As the leading tone rises to the tonic in its delayed resolution, we return from dream to reality.

Wagner’s grandiose gesture, laboriously prepared, twice repeated, and underscored by the full resources of his orchestra, stops time dead in its tracks: At the C-major tonality on “Sonne,” we have to stop and reinterpret where we are. Exultation in the moment replaces dedication to a goal. Of course, Wagner had to cannibalize the musical techniques of goal-oriented music in order to subvert it.

Siegfried and Brünnhilde have something in common with Siegfried and Roy: Once you know how the trick is done, it’s much less fun to watch. The better I understand Wagner’s music devices, the less I want to hear the music again, and I present this brief example in the hope that it will spoil your appetite as well.

Why, then, did the young Mahler and so many other arbiters of culture get so gooey over Wagner? The young Mahler felt his life changed; the mature Mahler said, “There is Beethoven and Richard, and after them, nobody.” W.H. Auden called Wagner “perhaps the greatest genius that ever lived.” And Wagner’s great apostle in the English-speaking world, George Bernard Shaw, said, “Most of us are so helplessly under the spell of his greatness that we can do nothing but go raving about the theater in ecstasies of deluded admiration.” Hitler had a lot of company. One can sit such people down at the piano and show that a single late Schubert sonata has more tonal originality than the whole Wagner corpus, to no avail. They will continue in their ecstasies of deluded admiration.

The reason so many clever people adore Wagner, I suspect, is the same reason that I raved about him as an antinomian adolescent: Wagner makes sensuous their desire to be free of the constraint of covenants, to give themselves to the moment rather than dedicate themselves to goals. In that sense Wagner is far more revolutionary than Marx, who read Aeschylus and Shakespeare at home: Wagner asserts the right of strength to remake the world according to caprice. Wagner delivered the cultural message of the 20th century more vividly than anyone else. That is why you should not miss the Met’s brilliant Ring cycle. But try not to enjoy it.

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Dear Mr. Goldman:

I greatly enjoyed your article, in spite of being one of those mortals “deluded” by Wagner’s magic (his artistic magic, mind you, not political magic).

I would only suggest you not strive so hard to dislike RW.

In any case, if you find the opportunity to familiarize yourself with my interpretation of Wagner’s “Ring” posted at http://www.wagnerheim.com, you may come to doubt at least some of your assumptions about the overall purport and meaning of this work, and perhaps even your take on some of Wagner’s fancy tropes.

Your new friend from Wagnerheim,

Paul

David P Goldman says:

Dear Mr. Heise,
I am familiar with your excellent site and in fact linked to it in this article. What counts for me first is the music, in purely functional terms, and the plastic representation of time. And that is where (after half a century of listening and study) I have come to truly dislike what Wagner is doing.

Dear Mr. Goldman:

Yes, and I can’t thank you enough for providing those links to my site.

But the question arises (and of course it’s purely a thought-experiment) whether you would have had those same objections to Wagner’s musical procedure had Wagner not been the anti-Semite that he obviously was.

I ask this question for the following reason: when I lived for 12 years in Florida I became very close to a Jewish physician who enjoyed many hours of music-listening and discussion with me. But when it came to Wagner’s music, he would say, over and over: “Well, Paul, it’s often attractive, but it never really transcends.” So, wallowing in my deceitful soul, I slipped in some comparatively obscure excerpts from some of Wagner’s mature music-dramas among some other neutral pieces of music I’d chosen for him one evening. He pronounced them all “transcendent,” and then inquired, “Who was the composer.” When I revealed the bitter truth, he almost skinned me alive. Of course, we had a wonderful laugh about it later, but in his heart of hearts I fear he never forgave me.

Your friend from wagnerheim,

Paul

Funny; for me, listening at home, usually to Solti, Wagner’s continuous melody still strikes me as episodic, and even choppy at times. A familiar bit, trailing off…another familiar bit, trailing off, ad nauseum, periodically attaining a kind of dramatic and musical climax. But a lot of it does seem like filler sometimes.

In fairness, the only performance I’ve seen was Barenboim’s concertized Tristan, with the Chicago Symphony, and he was great.

But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a collection of preludes and other excerpts.

The image Wagner now connotes for me is James Mason and Gregory Peck, listening to the Siegfried Idyll, somewhere in the Amazon, in The Boys from Brazil.

Dear Roy:

The solution to the Wagner music problem can generally be found in following along with the verbal text, the libretto, since his music is inextricably linked to it. What seems episodic and disjointed when considered only as music (i.e., when only 1/2 of the affair is being considered) is often quite fluent and natural when considered as part of the drama.

Your friend from http://www.wagnerheim.com,

Paul

Understood Paul, and I have ransacked a lot of the literature, and even own a comic version of the Ring. I may be one of those people who enjoy the music, without quite responding emotionally. It’s not the length, per se, because I’m actually a Bruckner fan. More the melodramatic aspect of it. To be fair, that is my reaction to opera generally.

Regarding your question about the antisemitism, Wagner is rather more than noxious, even in the company of other artistic figures with similar proclivities, and I am inclined to believe it stemmed in part from his anxieties about his own obscure origins. Had this been confined to his private life it would be on thing, but it became doctrinal for him, and something he expounded in an extra-musical capacity.

And I’m aware of the exculpatory anecdotes, but the betrayal of some of his early supporters, including Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn is hard to overlook.

Someone once wrote that it is important to take an inclusive view of the man and his work, including the antisemitism, because that is how he insisted on being understood.

Dear Roy:

There are Wagner scholars other than myself who know a hell of a lot more about Wagner’s anxieties re his origins than I do, but it’s my impression from what I’ve read that this alleged issue has been more or less entirely invented.

Though I know that Wagner’s racism and specifically his anti-Semitism was to a certain extent common to a large number of Europeans of his period, even among intellectuals whom one might have expected to know better, given what else I know about Wagner and admire about his art, his particular obsession with this issue is hard for me to grasp. In http://www.wagnerheim.com I’ve presented a hypothesis about Wagner’s somewhat idiosyncratic anti-Semitism which I think is of merit but is too involved to present here. In any case, it’s Wagner’s fault that it’s been so hard for so many to accept his art as part of the canon, but it surely belongs there.

A Wagner scholar named Derrick Everett pointed out some years ago that Wagner wrote glowingly of the authentic inspiration of another Jewish opera composer, Halevy, and so far as I know he never subsequently betrayed this opinion. It’s strange but somehow unsurprising that a charge Wagner laid on Mendelssohn, of being facile, Wagner’s critics now lay on him, partly at least because of his anti-Semitism. For me, Mendelssohn falls entirely within the mainstream of the great classical music tradition of the Western world, as Wagner himself admitted on several occasions.

David Goldman says:

My training is Schenkerian (with Carl Schachter and Charles Burkhart and CUNY), and I begin and end with the score. Symbolism doesn’t interest me much; Bach, for example, is full of number symbolism, but that is inside humor. I care about musical function, that is, what the music does in strictly musical terms. Wagner does something quite different than, say, Schubert. That does have broader cultural significance, though. I’ve written about this at more length here:
http://www.firstthings.com/article/2010/11/why-we-cant-hear-wagnerrsquos-music

Therry Neilsen-Steinhardt says:

Sorry to be so antinomian about it, but I do enjoy it. Wagner may be a cheap date, but he does deliver. Methinks the commentator is so condescending as to show a bit of the green in his eyes.

Dear David and Therry:

I just read David’s very interesting article whose link he posted above, and in all due respect I can only say that the Wagnerian experience he describes does not correspond with my own. I don’t mean in saying this that he isn’t correct in his local musical analysis of certain moments in Wagner’s works. But that’s beside the point, for the following reason:

Anyone who has experienced the Wilhelm Furtwaengler RAI mono recording of Wagner’s “Ring,” or his “Tristan” with Kirsten Flagstad and Ludwig Suthaus, as I have, knows that Wagner creates a musico-dramatic propulsion, a feeling of teleological necessity, which is virtually unprecedented in dramatic art, and this is as much due to Wagner’s musical construction as to his dramatic construction, which work in tandem. Local analyses of moments in which Wagner seems to halt the propulsion to create a feeling of timelessness bespeaks one of Wagner’s many virtues, and is actually the contrary of a critique. Wagner was able to do both at once.

But David seems to insist on doing purely musical analysis without even taking account of the role the music plays within the dramatic framework, and seems to dismiss Wagner’s drama as a sort of extraneous symbolic component like Bach’s number symbolism, which, I agree with him, is wholly irrelevant (in Bach) to our appreciation of Bach’s music. To compare the dramas for which Wagner wrote his music to Bach’s insider number symbolism bespeaks a critical philosophy which is inherently incapable of assessing Wagner’s achievement at its true worth. In truth, Wagner on his own terms bores David, which is why he can only justify a few chosen bleeding chunks out of Wagner’s otherwise allegedly tedious dramaturgy. No amount of local musical analysis, however well informed, can compensate for a musico-dramatic deficit which seems to be fatal.

In sum, I can’t even recognize the Wagner I’ve known for 40 years in David’s description.

Paul, you’re looking at the body of Wagner’s work globally, which entirely appropriate but doesn’t invalidate the kind of criticism David engages in. In point of fact, the two ways of listening are not entirely disjoint; if you believe that some of the musical effects Wagner achieves border on the meretricious, then it’s apt to undermine your faith in the message as well. In any case, a lack of sympathy for Wagner’s larger purpose is not a failing, it’s a point of view. I’m reminded of a passage in Anna Karenina where Tolstoy, the greatest of novelists, mocks the entire conceit of opera as something ridiculous. He was hardly insensitive to the nuances of drama, and was not indifferent to music either–witness the Kreutzer Sonata.

Respecting Schubert, I highly recommend my father-in-law, Todd Crow’s recordings of the sonatas. Fanfare rates him alongside Lupu, Pollini, et al.

David P Goldman says:

Wagner is capable of composing with long-range tonal goals; the “Immolation Scene” in Goetterdaemmerung comes to mind. And I agree that Furtwaengler is the great interpreter of the past century. But Wagner is also guilty of some dreadfully mediocre moments (the “Forging Song” is probably the worst — “Siegfried Fit the Battle of Jericho”), and of just-too-clever tricks that get old fast. Perhaps we can agree that there is a fundamental difference between the experience of hearing Wagner vs. Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, and then try to specify what the difference might be.

Dear Roy and David:

Point well taken: there is much room for fruitful discussion here. What I was suggesting is that if one remains stuck looking at the trees one may never realize there is a forest. Also, I’m not sure in what sense one can say that a musical expression is meretricious.

I agree that the forging song taken in isolation is not very impressive, but taken in the entire musico-dramatic context (see my interpretation) is far more impressive than meets the ear. To Tell you the truth, one of the few moments in all of Wagner that I find oppressive and wish to get over with fast is Siegfried’s fight with Fafner. Actually, this is true of all the fights Wagner had to stage: it comes with the territory.

I concur, and happily concede Wagner’s seat in the pantheon of immortals. Oddly enough, it’s probably some of the music in Parsifal I find most compelling, again in an almost symphonic way. Before I had children, and had time, I was often content to listen to to the von Karajan version in its entirety. But this is probably why I like Bruckner–some of the same tonal qualities, without the overt emotionalism, but with the added structure.

I am now reminded–and this maybe from Harold Schoenberg–of Mahler’s statement that there is no such thing as absolute music, and that every piece has its narrative, even if it is only privy to the composer.

David P Goldman says:

Aw…Mahler was just jealous. I find Mahler boring. He’s discursive and undisciplined. The songs are all right, but when he pumps “des Antonius zu Padua Fischpredigt” full of air for the 3rd movement of the 2nd symphony, I yawn. I don’t want to hear his spiritual biography. I’m just not that interested (probably why I don’t like Anna Karenina, either).
By contrast: Mozart isn’t writing his spiritual biography: he’s playing with YOUR head.

Eddie Lew says:

Sir, very interesting, and I was fascinated by your assessment of Wagner’s art, of which, like Mahler, I am a “victim.” But you also have a responsibility to assess the singing, as lucidly as you do the aesthetic and philosophy of Wagner’s music dramas. With all due respect, you have a tin ear when it comes to singing; Deborah Voigt was totally inadequate. Listen to her without the benefit of sight; she can not sing in tune and has no breath control. Compare her to Flagstad, Nilsson, Varnay, or Grob-Prandl. There are standards to uphold and you should listen as critically to the singing as you focus on the piece with intellectual insight. The rest of the cast was wonderful though.

I won’t disagree with you, David; I don’t think any of Mahler’s symphonies are without their longuers, especially the noisy, village-band schtick that Shostakovich pilfered and Debussy derided. That’s why I’m more of a Brucknerian.

That said, some of the Mahlerian movements are sublime, interspersed though they are with the more rambling material. Even the old Nazi, von Karajan, made the Mahler 9th his swansong. More recently, Boulez has brought some discipline to the works in his recordings. I think they benefit from his more disciplined touch.

Spiritual biography versus playing around–do I detect a hint of Bernstein’s Unanswered Question series?

Brahmsian says:

Theodore Herzl attended, I think it was Parsifal, shortly before siding with Zionism (see Carl Shorske’s essay on Herzl) – the liberation from the liberal culture of law to the pursuit of impulse and dream did not mean forsaking purposive action for Herzl, and I daresay it did not for most people influenced by Wagner. One does not have to agree with the idealization of human nature (and thus, human impulse – the idealization itself if are older than Wagner, going back to Rousseau) to find the obsession with it as the root of some decline of the west tiresome. I vaguely recall “spengler” from columns in the asia times, and I recall them as about as cranky and sophmoric in their political analysis as this.

David Goldman says:

Mr. Lew, did you hear Voigt on Oct. 27? I heard Nillson two dozen times in person and know the others from recordings quite well. I thought she did splendidly. And I thought that I was choosy…
Brahmsian, it was Tannhaeuser, not Parsifal. Herzl was a great man. Nobody’s perfect. And as I wrote: Wagner didn’t invent the idea, but he made it sensuous as no-one else did.

While I disagree with your assessment of Wagners work, it’s merit’s, Wagnerians (Wagnerians as rebellious teens? Well, while pop psychology at its worst it was at least amusing and I suspect slightly tongue in cheek?) and also much of your thoughts on the METs production, I could not possibly argue with your assessment of Luisi’s handling of the score – and this continued beyond the opening night.

From interviews, I have begun to deduce this was less to do with “nerves” and more (at the risk of putting words in his mouth) taking Wagner away from the German Romantic Movement (to which he more than anyone clearly belongs) and placing him in the Classical soundscape of Mozart (of who’s operas of course Wagner greatly admired). Like Karajan with his studio Ring he wishes to “make” Wagner (and I use his words) “lighter” to “bring out its lyricism” (as if it needed to be wrenched kicking and screaming from the score like a fan of Puccini to a production of Parsifal). Line, line and more line one suspects. Levine’s (who’s, coincidentally, excellent Mahler 10 I am presently listening to) expert Wagnerian hands were and continue to be sorely missed.

By the way, as an aside I greatly enjoyed your “Why We Can’t Hear Wagner’s Music” when I first read it and was glad to be reminded of it.

ReactionaryMusician says:

I like Rachmaninoff, is that OK? I’m tired of musicologists and music theorists and various snobs trying to push Wagner and his progeny as the best things because they’re so “innovative” and progressive, while ignoring Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff as “not interesting.” What? Real, actual musicians, pianists for example, as well as the public, love Rachmaninoff. He is amazing. He is not boring or long-winded. The emotion is overwhelming and uncontrolled, like Wagner tried to be, but he keeps your attention. He was a deeply religious aristocrat who evoked actual nostalgia, and actual romantic passion, without boring you with this rhythm-less stuff. Let us celebrate Rachmaninoff as the last real musician and forget Wagner and his modern progeny, who just bore us!!

Wagnerians and modernists and Mahler and people like that “look down” on Rachmaninoff, but who cares!!! Real musicians love Rachy.

(Yes I know there was a cult of Wagner, but so what, its most important disciple saw through it a long time ago).

David P Goldman says:

Reactionary,
My teacher, Carl Schachter, once interrupted a class on a different topic and give a spontaneous lecture on why Tchaikovsky was a better composer than Mahler. I don’t mind Rachmaninoff, but Tchaikovsky is in a different league; better organized, less episodic, more inventive.

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Ring of Truth

The Metropolitan Opera’s new Siegfried, part of its ambitious Ring cycle, exposes the greatness—and the limitations—of Wagner and his admirers

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