Daniel Barenboim In Conversation: Wagner & Ideology

Written By The Wagnerian on Saturday, 18 May 2013 | 10:00:00 pm

We could not recommend this enough - if for nothing else than for Barenboim's discussion
about conducting Wagner. 

The following is an edited conversation about Wagner that took place between Edward Saïd, and Daniel Barenboim at Columbia University, where Mr. Saïd is Professor of Comparative Literature and English. The conversation appeared in full in the Spring 1998 issue of Raritan, a quarterly publication of Rutgers University and at Barenboim's website here.

ES: Wagner is a composer who, unlike almost any other composer, lends himself to conferences and discussions. And, of course, associated with the name of Wagner are a series of adjectives -there's Wagnerism, there's Wagnerian, there's a Wagnerite. What is it that causes this extraordinary interest and devotion to Wagner?

DB: I think that the reasons are manifold. They stem from Wagner’s musical personality; they stem from his personality outside music; they stern from the fact that he not only wrote music and the librettos to his own operas, but tried to revolutionize opera and to create the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk. We can't really talk about Beethoven and the consequences; we can only speak about Debussy and the consequences in a very limited sense. But when we discuss Wagner and the consequences, we have to ask, did he have any influence -and if so, what kind of influence - on the way people viewed the music that preceded him? Did he have any effect on the history of the development of interpretation of the great classics, Mozart, Beethoven, etc.? And what influence, if any, did he have on the music that came after him? On the purely musical side of the twentieth century?


I think that if you examine these questions carefully, and you examine his writings about music (especially his book on conducting, which I have found not only interesting, but very useful), you will find a number of influences on music and performance. First of all, Wagner had a great understanding of, or intuition for (or perhaps a combination of the two), acoustics. He was the first person to have that, I think, except perhaps Berlioz, and in a certain way Liszt, although Liszt was more limited to the piano. By acoustics I mean the presence of sound in a room, the concept of time and space. Wagner really developed that concept musically. Which means that a lot of his criticism of performances of his own time, conducted by Mendelssohn and other people, was directed at what he considered a very superficial kind of interpretation, namely, an interpretation that took no risks, that didn't go to the abyss, that tried, in other words, to find a golden path without having the extremes. Of course, this is an impossibility and can inevitably lead to superficiality. This also had an influence on the speed at which the music was performed, because if the content was poor, the speed had to be greater. Therefore Wagner complains bitterly about Mendelssohn's tempi.

How did he propose to fight that superficiality? In two ways. One, - with his developing the idea of a certain necessary flexibility of tempo, of certain imperceptible changes within the classical movements. (I'm talking now about his ideas about Beethoven, not about his own music - I'll come to that later.) In other words, every sequence - every paragraph if you want to speak in literary terms - had its own melos and therefore required an imperceptible change of speed in order to be able to express the inherent content of that paragraph. All of these, of course, are concepts that are still being debated today. That these changes have to be imperceptible is evident, otherwise the form would break. But what Wagner really maintains is that unless you have the ability to guide the music in this way, you are not able to express all that is in it, and therefore you remain on the surface.


He was diametrically opposed to a metronomic way of interpreting music. He had this idea of zeit und raum, time and space. Obviously tempo is not an independent factor: in order to sustain a slower tempo, which Wagner considered necessary for certain movements (not everything had to be slow, only certain movements and certain passages), for instance, he considered it an absolute necessity to imperceptibly slow down the second subject in a classical symphony where the first subject was dramatic - masculine, or whatever you want to call it - and the second was a contrast to that. But in order to make the slightly slower speed not only workable, but to allow it to express the content of the paragraph and to keep it within the context of the movement, of course there has to be some tonal compensation. This is how he came to the concept of the continuity of sound: that sound tends to go to silence, unless it is sustained. From this came the whole concept not only of the color of sound - which is what so many people talk about today and which has led to (to my mind) superficial ideas about the "international sound of orchestras" - but of the weight of sound. And Wagner was more interested in the weight of the sound.



Of course, it was easier for him to deal with that concept then, because the minute you talk about weight you also talk about harmony. And since this was all pre-atonal music, the harmonic fundamental was much stronger than it is now. And therefore, tied to the gravity of the harmony, he was able to create more and more tension through the continuity of sound, and this imperceptible slowing down of the tempo went practically unnoticed. Then somehow at the end, in an unnoticeable way, you came back. These two words, imperceptible and unnoticeable, are very important because this is the art of transition. What I'm trying to say by this is that, through these two concepts, Wagner influenced the way the whole world, without exception, looked at the music that had come before him, the classics, mostly German or middle or central European music - Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, etc. - without mentioning that of his contemporaries.

Therefore, until the Second World War, you couldn't ignore Wagner's ideas, whether you knew that they came from Wagner or not. They just became tradition. And whether the conductors were Furtwängler, Weingartner, Bruno Walter, or even, in a way, Toscanini, who obviously went absolutely against all these ideas, they could not refrain from occupying themselves with these principles. The same goes for the instrumentalists, not only for orchestras, but for people like Bülow and D'Albert. And this we know not from hearsay, nor even from the relative perfection or precision of recordings, but from the editions they made of the Beethoven sonatas, for instance. I've studied them very carefully, both the Bülow edition and the D'Albert edition, and you see all these principles of the slight modification of tempo, on through Schnabel, Edwin Fischer, Backhaus, etc. All this would have been unthinkable without Wagner's ideas. So, in this way, he influenced a whole history of interpretation of music. To the point that the reaction that came in this century - the sort of new objectivity, the "die neue Sachlichkeit" it was called in Germany, was an attempt to fight this. What we are experiencing now, in the last whatever number of years, with the revival of historical practices and playing of period instruments, is also, in fact - whether knowingly or not - a reaction against this Wagnerian concept of the continuity of sound. The principle of these instruments and this way of making music is precisely to articulate more and to be able to cut the sound and to cut the harmonic pressure of the music.

When he came to write his own music, he developed all these principles to the extreme. In fact, Wagner, to my mind, developed each expressive element, in sound production and musical expression, and to its extreme -like an elastic that is stretched to its extreme. He created a form in the operas that did away with the separation of musical numbers, arias, etc. and with continuity. In other words, he continually worked with continuity. He developed harmony in a very, very personal way, and in many directions. One always talks in general about Wagnerian harmonies, but Tristan und Isolde is one world, Die Meistersinger is a completely different world, and to my mind Parsifal is yet another world.

ES: But even though Wagner's concepts of sound and transition - which are the essence of the music - had this extraordinary widespread influence, there are nevertheless quite different-sounding schools of Wagner conducting, Wagner interpretation.…

DB: The development of the interpretation of his own music - and this is pure intuition and feeling, I have no proof of this - I find is tied much more to the spirit of the time, to the zeitgeist and to the nonmusical ideas that preoccupied people. And you find, in a lot of the performances from the 1920s until after the Second World War, something which I find has much in common with Nazi monumentality, which is also evident in architecture and in the other arts. There is something bombastic, loud, uncouth, not very refined or subtle, in the colors and in the balance.

In fact, the first conscious preoccupation with the balance and with the strict adherence to the dynamics of the works came from people like Rudolf Kempf, who was to my mind a very underrated German conductor who had a great feeling for sound and for balance, and then, of course, Pierre Boulez in his by now famous Ring with Chéreau in 1976. I think that this is what demystified the musical aspect - I'm not talking now about the world of ideas. And, as in all other music, I find Furtwängler's interpretation of Wagner not only in a class of its own - this is a matter of taste - but on a path of its own, where even in the most obvious, open moments, like in the Die Meistersinger overture, there is an uncanny and unlimited strength in the search for understanding.

ES: Do you think there is a tendency in Wagner's work - let's say in Tristan and even, to a degree, in Parsifal - to move towards not just the notion of flow and transition and becoming, but also a kind of indeterminacy which, in a certain sense, prepares one for atonality?

DB: I don't think so. I think that Wagner knew exactly what he wanted, and what effect what he wrote would produce, and I don't mean effect in the superficial, banal way, but in the deepest sense. Maybe part of his mistake is that he tried, in a slightly over-Teutonic way, to systemize something that has to do more with the realm of feeling in music: that absolutely necessary relationship between manipulation and yielding, which to me is the basis of all music-making, in fact, of human existence. So when he leads us into a blurred, indefinite area, I think then he is manipulating. I think he knows perfectly well what he is doing...

ES: You're a conductor who lives in Wagner, in a sense; you play him, you think about him; where do you feel the limits of your freedom are with Wagner? In other words, do you feel that you can, as Toscanini did, double parts that are not written that way, or add and subtract from what is given? Or do you feel that you are guided by a literal approach to the text, where perhaps the thing is the balance between what you think of as the spirit of the work versus the literal manifestation of the work on a piece of paper, which is the score, after all. The third element, of course, is tradition. Tradition could just be the last bad performance that was done, but it also means that you've obviously benefited from what you've listened to, and you are in a line with a number of conductors, which is an element, too, in the interpretation.


DB: I think that when one speaks about a literal understanding of a work of music, one has to be very specific about it, because nowadays when one talks about music performance, one talks mostly about tempo. Is he free? In other words, does he take liberties with the tempo or does he play like a metronome? I'm oversimplifying it, obviously, for the sake of the clarity of the argument. But I think that, in a way, so many concepts have become superficial through overuse. They are blurred. Literal to me means that you do what is written, but you do all of what is written, not only the part that is easy to judge. In other words, if there is a phrase that is very difficult, almost impossible, to play legato, that has no break in it, that is seamless and has a tremendous intensity, and you do not play it that way, that for me is not literal. In other words, literal has to be adjusted from the line of least resistance to the line of most resistance. In music-making, the only line that is valuable is the line of most resistance. Therefore, when you talk about literalness, you have to talk about changing text orchestration; you have to talk about tempo; you have to talk about dynamics; you have to talk about balance; and you have to talk about the length of the notes. The only work of Wagner where we know that he wanted to make alterations in the orchestration is The Ring for the simple reason that The Ring, although it was first performed in complete form in Bayreuth, was not written for the house in Bayreuth. The only work of Wagner that was written for that house was Parsifal. And Wagner himself, who was present at all the rehearsals of Parsifal, learned from the accoustical experience and had in mind to make slight changes in the orchestration of the Ring.

ES: For Bayreuth.

DB: Yes. I think other than that Wagner's mastery of instrumentation - and of the varying levels of volume and density of sound that are created by the different instruments of the orchestra - is so masterly that there is no need to even think about changing it. There is always something that has to be done to the sound so that it does produce the necessary effect as it is written.

ES: That's true principally of the works performed in Bayreuth. If you were to perform, let's say, The Ring in Bayreuth, as you have, or Tristan, or Parsifal, then a different set of practices obtains.

DB: I have conducted Tristan for many, many years in Bayreuth. I have also conducted Tristan with an open pit. I have conducted the second act of Tristan, often in concert form. I've conducted Parsifal and Walküre and Siegfried, also in an open pit at the State Opera in Berlin. So I have had the opportunity to compare the two. I think the main difference, of course, is the balance between orchestra and stage: in Bayreuth, you can really play the loud passages full out, which you cannot do in an open pit.

ES: Can you describe what it's like to play in Bayreuth as opposed to somewhere else?

DB: As you know, the pit in Bayreuth is mostly covered, and it goes down in steps, so that you do not get, as you do in an open pit, the sound directly from the pit to the audience. And therefore you, as a listener, do not have to mix it with the sound that you get from the singers on the stage. You get it already mixed, and this is why it is often so mellow, so round, and so creamy. The pit itself, acoustically speaking, is very resonant; it has a tendency to be too loud, and therefore the reaction when you first start playing there is to try and play too softly, because you think it's too loud, and it takes some time to get used to it. I would compare the pit at Bayreuth to deep-sea diving. When you are underwater and you have a problem with your equipment, you can really use only your brain and some movements to get out of the difficulty and to climb to the surface. You don't get anywhere with aggression, with elbow-pushing, because the water is much too strong. And, in a way, the Bayreuth pit is like this, too. The moment there is slight difficulty with the precision, there is no point in trying to beat angularly in the hope that everybody will count to that, because it doesn't happen. It's a question of giving an idea of when the next important moment is coming, and then everybody assembles. In other words, it is a question of not going to the musician or the section in question and beating angularly in his eyes, but rather of bringing him to you. And all kinds of round movements can help you do that.



DB: Yes. And in fact the conductors who have had difficulties acoustically in the pit at Bayreuth have been conductors who have a very angular way of conducting. Wagner had a preoccupation with everything that was round, and I think this is part of his whole personality: he hated anything that was angular or clearly defined.

The main difference between conducting in the pit at Bayreuth and at the State Opera pit in Berlin is that, at the State Opera, you have to start all the crescendos a little later than you would in an open pit, because otherwise you get too loud too soon; and you must come down with the diminuendos obviously a little quicker, and you cannot sustain loud chords in the brass as long as you can in Bayreuth. At first sight, this might seem like a thinning out of the musical material, but it doesn't necessarily have to be like that. Because, on the other hand, you get an orchestral presence; you get an active participation from the orchestra in an open pit, which you cannot get in Bayreuth. In a work like Parsifal, it makes no difference. On the contrary: I think that anybody who conducts Parsifal and has not conducted it in Bayreuth has not conducted Parsifal. It was written for that acoustic, for that place, and it needs to be done there. But even in The Ring, I think that you have to be very open and see that there are advantages and disadvantages in both.

ES: Bayreuth is obviously a place you like to conduct in.

DB: Oh, for these works it is absolutely a necessity. It is another level.

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