Review: DVD Set: Wagner's Ring - A Tale Told In Music

Written By The Wagnerian on Saturday, 1 February 2014 | 9:30:00 pm

Originally published in January's Wagner News (issue 2012) the official publication of the Wagner Society Of England. Editor Rodger Lee reviews Heath Lee's ambitious project, "Wagner's Ring - A Tale Told In Music


Retired Professor of Music and Wagner specialist Heath Lees is a well-known broadcaster in Australia and New Zealand. These four 40 minute TV programmes were filmed in Melbourne, Bayreuth, Lucerne, Zurich and Munich with the musical examples played by Lees himself on the piano and the Clemens Krauss recording of the 1953 Bayreuth Ring when a full orchestral sound is required. Clever animation brings illustrations by Arthur Rackham and Hugo L Braune to life to provide very effective visual effects.

For a music lecturer there is nothing quite like being able to demonstrate your point on the Steinway, and as well as using the instrument to give his explanations clarity for all viewers he provides a number of singers with a most able accompaniment. Prominent among these is the very versatile Merlyn Quaife who can perform in all three female voices, singing as Brünnhilde, Fricka, Sieglinde, The Woodbird, Gutrune and, yes, Erda.
This is quite simply the best account of the motivic architecture of The Ring since that of Deryck Cooke  

We get no dead-eyed autocued delivery from Heath Lees but a genuine sparkle of enthusiasm throughout, and the chuckles are quite obviously spontaneous too! We move rapidly from the Melbourne Recital Centre recording studio to the Bayreuth Festspielhaus and so on, enj oying those animated images when it is our j ob just to listen. Lees’ aim is to deliver a synthesis of education and entertainment which shows how Wagner brought language and music together to tell his story.

This is quite simply the best account of the motivic architecture of The Ring since that of Deryck Cooke. He had the benefit of the Solti / Vienna Philharmonic recordings whereas Lees’viewers have the advantage of his playing the illustrations live in a medium which provides images as well as sound. Let us right away address the question as to whether this set offers as much to Wagner lovers who make no claims upon musical literacy as for those who do. Terms such as “chromatic scale” or “diminished chord” need be no problem for any viewers because they are all clearly demonstrated on the piano. Musical terminology is used sparingly so
as to be nae bother (as they say in Heath Lees’ native Scotland) to any viewer.

Other musicians are brought in such as conductor Asher Fisch and cellist Zoe Knighton. To illustrate the change in musical style from that of Das Rheingold to the more emotionally expressive “human music” which draws you into Die Walküre she shows how Siegmund’s sorrowful descending theme becomes completed by Sieglinde’s, as though they were two halves of the one personality, fusing into that love theme on the solo cello. From the point at which Siegmund and Sieglinde have fallen in love, instead of just telling the tale, the music has now become the tale.

Lees loves to show how the integrity of the music of the Ring is maintained from the beginning to the end by means of its motivic development. When we come to that “love theme” for example, he explains how one reason we are seized immediately by that music is because we have heard it before. It is derived from Freia’s music in Das Rheingold. “The reason we immediately associate the theme with falling in love is that Wagner has planted the idea in our minds already.”
We go to Zurich to be appraised of the influence of Mathilde Wesendonck. “One reason why this music is emotionally tingling is because Wagner had fallen in love.” We are  shown    some   of  the  coded    messages    to  Mathilde   which   appear    on  Wagner ’s manuscripts such as LDMM ? (Liebe du mich, Mathilde?) which Lees sings to demonstrate how  well  it  fits  with  the  love  theme  at  that  point in  the score.  He  argues  that  the significance of the fact that the piano sonata which Wagner wrote for her begins with a tune almost the same as that of the Todesverkündigung theme is that, deep down, he knew that, like the love between  Siegmund and Sieglinde, his love for Mathilde was doomed. Among the musical inventions which appear in “Wotan ’s Farewell” we are shown a new type of cadence whose two chords carry the three-note “Destiny” motive on their backs. For  Lees  the  fascination   of  this  musical scrap  is  that  it  is  linked  back  to  Mathilde Wesendonck.  Mathilde  becomes  Isolde  and  the  “Destiny”  chords  of  Die  Walküre  are embedded  in  the  opening  chords  of  Tristan  und  Isolde.  (Of  course  this  needs  to  be
demonstrated    at  the  piano  to  become   convincing.)   So,  according  to  Lees,  Wagner ’s renunciation of Mathilde stands behind Wotan ’s renunciation of Brünnhilde: “This utterly personal involvement is what moved Wagner into writing such amazing music for Wotan ’s Farewell and indeed for the whole of Die Walküre.”

The “Siegf ried” programme starts with “Forest Murmurs” which Lees describes as “the crossroads of The Ring .” We go off to Lucerne to discuss that 12 year hiatus in its composition from 1857 to 1869. One of the reasons which Lees suggests for this is that, at the peak of his infatuation with Mathilde Wesendonck, Wagner was desperate to write Tristan. Among the influences which helped Wagner to restore his libido for the Ring j ob was Schopenhauer ’s idea that, of all the arts, music is the richest, the most direct and the most transforming, taking immediate possession of one’s imagination. For him music is not the representation of an idea but the idea itself. Wagner was beginning to let the music be the story and was ready to free his music from absolute obedience to the drama. Instead of themes as signposts they would now become more independent, more obviously musical. From this point on he allowed himself to write passages of symphonic music.

And so we are guided through the first Ring music for 12 years: the Prelude to Act III of Siegfried with its dozen themes arising from the “galloping” motive from Die Walküre. Lees demonstrates how Wagner underlays this with “Erda”, grafts on top the theme for “The Need of the Gods”, yielding place to a desperate form of Wotan’s “Spear”, turns the “Rhine” music around to become “The End of the Gods”, introduces the crushed “Rheingold” semitone, brings in a bit of Brünnhilde’s sleep motive, and so on.… It may not mean much here on page, but it all becomes wonderfully apparent when those links which you will have intuitively recognised are made abundantly clear as Lees demonstrates his points at the piano in support of his argument that no-one had previously written such a complex symphonic picture to begin an act of an opera: “It’s a new, liberated music and Wagner uses it with enormous skill and exhilaration right through to the end of The Ring .”

We discover how, in the closing pages of Götterdämmerung, Wagner finds a way of elevating his themes so that they gain, according to Lees: “a mythic, almost supernatural power.” Finally, we are shown in detail how the composer reaches back into the four operas and plucks out all the themes that, by now, we know so well. “They provide a majstic summing up of what has happened and the final closing of the circle of the Ring.”

Available from: Wagner's Ring