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Simon Callow On Richard Wagner

Written By The Wagnerian on Sunday 27 April 2014 | 2:07:00 am

Simon Callow on Richard Wagner.

Wagner was not promiscuous, he was serially amorous

An atheist, Wagner immersed himself in the work of Arthur Schopenhauer, who believed that life was essentially an illusion, and that the only contact we have with reality is when we make love. This notion struck Wagner, on the basis of wide personal experience, as deeply true.

He was a sponger and an anti-Semite, an anarchist, a megalomaniac and a serial adulterer.  But German composer Richard Wagner is also considered to be one of the greatest of all time, a man who revolutionised the way classical music, especially opera, was written and performed.

Even now, 130 years after his death, Wagner continues to provoke us, causing more debates than any other composer and dramatically dividing opinion, from Wagnerites like myself who adore his music for its ability to plumb the depths of the soul, to those who despise it for being long, loud and overbearing.

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The Best Of Wagner On Kindle - Part One

Our editor reviews the "best" of Wagner to be found on E-readers. Part Two to follow shortly

I have a fondness for E-readers - and least we not forget there are many more then just Amazon's Kindle. Portability and now much faster responsiveness together with a long battery life and the ever developing technology of back-lighting make them a welcome addition to my library. They are of course not without their annoying "idiosyncrasies": that I can buy some-books in the UK but not the USA and vice versa is a marketing blunder without compare. and let us not get started on the industries paranoia of DRM protection. This last point, meaning that one can buy a book on a kindle but not read it on another device and vice versa , is not only irritating but easy to workaround if one knows how - and thus negating its supposed intention of preventing "piracy". But one assumes this is what happens when an industry is lead by people that clearly cannot operate their computers with much efficiency.

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Megadeth's Dave Mustaine 10, Wagner 0

Written By The Wagnerian on Wednesday 16 April 2014 | 7:07:00 pm

Don't tell anyone but we like a bit of Megadeth - honest. However, we do feel that no matter how much Wagner/Mahler/Strauss influenced a fair bit of "heavy metal",  when the genre attempts to interpret its "classical" German sources directly there is only ever one winner and in that "fight to the death" it is rarely Wagner.

And as if to prove it, you can hear a snip-it of Mustaine - along with the San Diego Symphony - slaughtering Wagner below.

All part of a "Symphony Interrupted", which saw Mustaine perform Richard Wagner's "Ride Of The Valkyries" with the orchestra, as well as solos of Vivaldi's concertos from "The Four Seasons", plus Bach's classic "Air".
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New Book: Absolute Music: The History of an Idea - Mark Evan Bonds

Written By The Wagnerian on Tuesday 15 April 2014 | 11:08:00 pm

Extensive Preview Below

What is music, and why does it move us? From Pythagoras to the present, writers have struggled to isolate the essence of "pure" or "absolute" music in ways that also account for its profound effect. In Absolute Music: The History of an Idea, Mark Evan Bonds traces the history of these efforts across more than two millennia, paying special attention to the relationship between music's essence and its qualities of form, expression, beauty, autonomy, as well as its perceived capacity to disclose philosophical truths.

The core of this book focuses on the period between 1850 and 1945. Although the idea of pure music is as old as antiquity, the term "absolute music" is itself relatively recent. It was Richard Wagner who coined the term, in 1846, and he used it as a pejorative in his efforts to expose the limitations of purely instrumental music. For Wagner, music that was "absolute" was isolated, detached from the world, sterile. His contemporary, the Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick, embraced this quality of isolation as a guarantor of purity. Only pure, absolute music, he argued, could realize the highest potential of the art.

Bonds reveals how and why perceptions of absolute music changed so radically between the 1850s and 1920s. When it first appeared, "absolute music" was a new term applied to old music, but by the early decades of the twentieth century, it had become-paradoxically—an old term associated with the new music of modernists like Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Bonds argues that the key developments in this shift lay not in discourse about music but rather the visual arts. The growing prestige of abstraction and form in painting at the turn of the twentieth century-line and color, as opposed to object-helped move the idea of purely abstract, absolute music to the cutting edge of musical modernism.
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New Translation Of Richard Wagner's "Beethoven" - Roger Allen

Available October 2014.

Despite the enormous and accelerating worldwide interest in Wagner leading to the bicentenary of his birth in 2013, his prose writings have received scant scholarly attention. Wagner's book-length essay on Beethoven, written to celebrate the centenary of Beethoven's birth in 1870, is really about Wagner himself rather than Beethoven.

It is generally regarded as the principal aesthetic statement of the composer's later years, representing a reassessment of the ideas of the earlier Zurich writings, especially Oper und Drama, in the light of the experience gained through the composition of Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and the greater part of Der Ring des Nibelungen.

 It contains Wagner's most complete exegesis of his understanding of Schopenhauer's philosophy and its perceived influence on the compositional practice of his later works. The essay also influenced the young Nietzsche. It is an essential text in the teaching of not only Wagnerian thought but also late nineteenth-century musical aesthetics in general.

 Until now the English reader with no access to the German original has been obliged to work from two Victorian translations. This brand new edition gives the German original and the newly translated English text on facing pages. It comes along with a substantial introduction placing the essay not only within the wider historical and intellectual context of Wagner's later thought but also in the political context of the establishment of the German Empire in the 1870s

The translation is annotated throughout with a full bibliography. Richard Wagner's Beethoven will be indispensable reading for historians and musicologists as well as those interested in Wagner's philosophy and the aesthetics of music. ROGER ALLEN is Fellow and Tutor in Music at St Peter's College, Oxford.


First Published: 16 Oct 2014
13 Digit ISBN: 9781843839583
Pages: 256
Size: 23.4 x 15.6
Binding: Hardback
Imprint: Boydell Press
Subject: Music
BIC Class: AV

1 Introduction
2 Richard Wagner's Beethoven[German text and English translation]
3 Appendix: 'Beethoven u[nd] d[ie] deutsche Nation [German Text]
4 Select Bibliography
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Alex Ross On Interpreting Wagner

The always worth reading Alex Ross in discussion with Todd Morman at the Indy Week.

Ross has been exploring Wagner's deep, broad cultural influence—he pays close attention, for instance, to what he calls "Black Wagnerism," the affinity felt by people like W.E.B. Du Bois for Wagner's work. The INDY spoke with Ross about Wagner, race and modern opera; an edited transcript is below.

TODD MORMAN: Let’s start with this: What exactly is Wagnerian about W.E.B. Du Bois? 

ALEX ROSS: Well, Du Bois was fascinated by Wagner, going back to his period when he was studying in Berlin in the 1890s ... He also went to Bayreuth in the year 1936, the summer of the Nazi Olympics. He spent several months in Germany undertaking a complicated project which ostensibly has something to do with industrial education methods, but the rationale for the grant he received from a German-American foundation was for studying racism in Germany and racial attitudes in Germany.

He was horrified by anti-Semitism but said that he himself was treated respectfully when he traveled and did not experience racism firsthand. You can take that at face value or not. But Du Bois said, going back to those days in the 1890s, when he came to Germany this was the first time in his life that he felt that he was being treated respectfully as a black man, and that he felt more or less on equal terms with those around him. The point is that Du Bois had this great veneration for German culture, German philosophy and literature and music. He detected in it this powerful idealistic energy that he felt could be translated into any context. He felt that it could in fact have great meaning for African-Americans, and that African-Americans specifically have something to learn from Wagner.

Again, we think of Wagner as this completely nauseatingly racist man and thinker, but it’s a little more complicated than that. He was unquestionably an anti-Semite. In terms of his attitudes toward people of color, there’s much less evidence. It just wasn’t something he spent a lot of time thinking about and being concerned with. You actually find a mix of opinions in his second wife’s diaries, which record everything that came out of his mouth in the last year of his life. But Du Bois himself found Wagner inspiring; In this remarkable story, “The Coming of John,” the music of Lohengrin is this gleaming, distant image of beauty and freedom and possibility, sort of a mirage of a perfect world.

Given a few more fascinating stories like that, I can see how the idea of a book about Wagner popped into your head.

Really, the core of the book is to describe this phenomena that many people may have forgotten about or not been aware of: how widespread Wagner’s influence was on the arts and on literature. It was absolutely enormous. He influenced this really endless list of major writers and thinkers—Nietzsche and Baudelaire and Mallarme and Proust and a very long list of French writers. You have Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Willa Cather, Thomas Mann … in a lot of these writers very often you find there was ambivalence, or early infatuation followed by later rejection; Joyce I think falls into that category. Even that is an important influence, the overcoming of an early infatuation with Wagner. 

For the Modernist generation, Wagner was associated with this very heavy, foggy, sort of perfumed fin de siècle aesthetic, he was associated with Impressionism to some extent, symbolism and decadence. So the next step was to banish the murk and then present something much sharper and more objective, or more harshly realistic—the whole gamut of ideas associated with modernism.

The question of Wagner’s personality, his personal traits, his beliefs: In that period there wasn’t so much focus on that, I don’t think it was until later in the 20th Century that we came so consumed with the issues of Wagner’s biography and his influence on Nazism was something that really came to the fore after World War II. That has come to almost dominate the picture of Wagner.

You yourself say he made “a number of absurd and repulsive pronouncements on all matter of topics,” right? It’s an obvious question, how do you separate that out from the positive influences? What would you consider the negative influences?

I don’t consider “are these positive or negative?” but as a historian I want to describe this phenomenon year by year and let the reader decide. 

[Laughs] Good luck with that. Everyone’s gonna want to know your opinion. 

I know. But what I really want to do is simply show the breadth of the influence. I do think it’s very important to establish Wagner’s quite powerful influence on the anti-Semitic movement. For a long time in the Wagner world there were attempts to sort of brush that under the rug. In the ’50s and ‘60s, when the Bayreuth festival got going again, there was this attitude of ‘let’s not concern ourselves with politics, we’re talking about music here.’ 

There’s kind of a deep politicization that has happened there. A lot of very good scholarship has been done on Wagner’s influence and the quite crucial role that his ideas played. His family was increasingly snarled in these movements and eventually formed a relationship with Hitler himself. So yeah, this has been established and it’s very important. There will be what I anticipate will be a quite frightening chapter at the heart of the book where I confront all of that. But what concerns me is when the focus on the Nazi Wagner excludes the rest of the picture. If the average person was asked, ‘who was Wagner?’ you get, ‘Hitler’s favorite composer.’ For me, that’s a very dissatisfying answer, and I’m afraid that it actually gives a little too much credit to Hitler. It’s a minor victory for Hitler, I’m afraid, if we let his taste for Wagner become and remain the defining one. And there’s simply a very big loss that happens if you look at Wagner that way, because you are ignoring the side of Wagner that was some sort of anarchist who was a determined opponent, most of the time if not all of the time, of state power, a man who hated authority. He had this capacity, despite all of his horrible beliefs, to explore compassion, pity, a sense of identification with the downtrodden. With this book I just wanted to show everything—the whole political spectrum, the whole intellectual spectrum, this mastery of artists—and just set it out there. We’ll see what people make of it.

In terms of breadth and depth of his influence, pre-internet age, on both sides of the Atlantic, can you think of anyone in modern times he’s comparable to?

I think Wagner is a singular phenomenon in music. I don’t think there has been any other figure in the entire history of music who has had an influence of this nature; musical aesthetic across many cultural fields, intellectual, philosophical and political.

So it’s more than enormous fame.

It’s a pretty singular phenomenon, and I don’t know if in other fields, in literature or in painting, it’s also difficult to identify a figure who has had quite this effect. And I don’t mean that purely in a positive sense. Part of what staggers us about the phenomenon of Wagner is the evil that was attached to his name and the negative side of the influence. But, you know, that really adds to the breadth of the phenomenon and makes it something we need to come to terms with.

Two quick questions about modern, director-driven productions: There have been unusual, often-controversial productions—set in concentration camps or the gold mines of California—that put Wagner in odd settings. Have they been successful in helping modern audiences connect with Wagner, or do you prefer more traditional productions? Can you name a production that took some chances that you thought was particularly successful?

I’ve sort of gone through an evolution with these more adventurous styles of opera production. I think earlier I had a more conservative attitude about these productions. But yeah, as I’ve seen more I’ve really come to appreciate the limitation of that more conservative style. I’ve seen some really extraordinary and successful attempts along these lines. I think fundamentally it’s healthy, it’s inevitable; The world that we live in is going to employ directors to direct the operas, we need to give them liberty as artists to express their ideas.

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New Issue Of The Wagner Journal Now Available

Current issue

The March 2014 issue (vol.8, no.1), now available, contains the following feature articles:
• 'Transformation at Tribschen: How a French Literary Trio Became a Wagnerian Musical Trio' by Heath Lees, describing the visits of Judith Gautier and friends to the Wagners in 1869/70
• 'Tracking Träume: The Sources and Sounds of Wagner's Wesendonck Lied' by Peter Bloom on the interlocking of the Wesendonck Lieder and Tristan und Isolde
• 'Wagner Tenors and the Quest for the "Ideal" ' by David Breckbill
• 'Strange and Forbidden Fruits: A report on the conference at Leeds University' by Tash Siddiqui

Plus reviews of:
Parsifal at Covent Garden and the Lyric Opera, Chicago, the Ring in Melbourne and a gruelling Wagnerian extravaganza in Lille
the Ring recorded under Franz Konwitschny at Covent Garden in 1959 and at the Metropolitan, New York, under Erich Leinsdorf in 1961–2
The Rienzi directed by Jorge Lavelli in Toulouse
Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer and Dietsch's Le Vaisseau fantôme conducted by Marc Minkowski; Gergiev's Das Rheingold with René Pape as Wotan; CDs of Wagnerian piano arrangements
new books on Wagner by Martin Geck, Paul Dawson-Bowling and Raymond Furness, and a compilation of Walter Widdop material edited by Michael Letchford

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ROH 2014/15 Season. Verdi V Wagner, The Results: Verdi 50, Wagner 11

Should you have missed it, the ROH ("...under the direction of Antonio Pappano,  one of the world’s leading opera companies" - according to its own description) has announced its 2014-2015 season. Alas very little of surprise from the UK's largest single recipient of Arts Council Funding: A few interesting productions of "lesser known work" tucked away at the tiny Linbury Studio Theatre and then lots and lots - and indeed lots more - of Verdi, Puccini and Rossini. As expected, we are again treated to much Traviata (rather like the ROH's version of "Billy Elliot perhaps?). Indeed, the poor, consumptive lass is being resurrected - Lazarus like - a total of 16 times.

But we do get a little Wagner at lest, with Tim Albery's rather wet and soggy Der fliegende Holländer getting a quick drying out while Christof Loy's land locked "80's chic" Tristan und Isolde is being rolled out like Sade's Smooth Operator for former 80's "yuppies" - the Krug Clos du Mesnil 2000 will be a popping those nights.

Last year Stephen Fry held a Verdi V Wagner debate at the ROH. The results of that was that Wagner "won". However, looking at the number of nights given to each composer's work (Verdi 50 nights v Wagner's 11)  we see a very different result. Oh well, perhaps the next season might see Meistersinger at the Linbury? 

Full details of all of Wagner's 11 nights in London's Royal Traviata House - sorry I mean Royal Opera House,  during the next two years, can be found below.
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Listen Now: Nina Stemme - Wesendonck Lieder

First broadcast on BBC Radio 3, you have exactly 15 days from today to listen to this on demand. Click the link below.

Wagner: Wesendonck-Lieder

Swedish soprano Nina Stemme and pianist Matti Hirvonen perform Wagner's Wesendonck-Lieder live at the Wigmore Hall, London.

Inspired by the wife of one of Wagner's sponsors, Wesendonck-Lieder is said to employ musical material which was later to be fully realised in his opera Tristan und Isolde.

Presented by Sara Mohr-Pietsch.

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LFO Ring Cycle Nominated For RPS Music Award

Longborough Festival Opera announces that its 2013 Ring Cycle has been shortlisted in the Opera and Music Theatre category of the RPS (Royal Philharmonic Society) Music Awards.

The RPS Music Awards presented in association with BBC Radio 3, are the highest recognition for live classical music and musical excellence in the UK.  Awards, in thirteen categories, are decided by independent panels consisting of some of the music industry’s most distinguished practitioners.  The awards honour musicians, composers, writers, broadcasters and inspirational arts organisations.  The list of previous winners reads like a Who’s Who of classical music.  This year’s RPS Music Awards celebrate outstanding achievement in 2013. 
Awards in 13 categories are chosen by eminent independent juries from the music profession and are unique in the breadth of musical achievement they span, from performers, composers and inspirational arts organisation to learning, participation and engagement.  The list of winners since 1989 reads as a roll call of the finest living musicians.  This year’s awards are for achievement in the UK during 2013.  Winners will be announced at the RPS Music Awards ceremony on Tuesday 13 May, with a special RPS Music Awards programme broadcast on the BBC Radio 3 on Sunday 18 May at 10 pm. 

The Opera and Music Theatre award is sponsored by the Incorporated Society of Musicians.

Longborough’s 2013 Ring Cycle
Conductor:  Anthony Negus
Director: Alan Privett
Designer: Kjell Torriset
Lighting Designer: Ben Ormerod

If each of the British country house opera companies has its speciality, Longborough’s has to be its commitment to Wagner.  LFO is the first privately owned opera house to have staged a full-length production  of Wagner’s Ring Cycle.  A new production of Tristan und Isolde in 2015 will be followed by Tannhaüser, Lohengrin and Parsifal  in future years. 
Since 1998, alongside core repertoire, Longborough Festival Opera has steadily built its commitment to the works of Richard Wagner, starting with the CBTO Vick/Dove arrangement of Der Ring des Nibelungen.

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