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October 31, 2005


For many years, Lohengrin, or what little I knew of it, was a hideous mothballed souvenir of Victorian bad taste. It wasn't the silly story or the medieval setting but the earnest piety of the nineteenth-century. By the time I was twenty, Lohengrin  had become a scapegoat, loaded down with the essence of threadbare sentimentality. I had come to music from Mozart and the baroque. Can the argument be made that you can't get further from Vivaldi than Lohengrin?

Ah, the energies that we invest in our youthful dislikes. The joy of disliking what we don't really know anything about! It's the cheapest form of self-definition going.

Eventually, I realized that my dislike of Lohengrin was very old baggage, that ought to be unpacked or discarded. It was the only Wagner opera (aside from Der fliegende Holländer, which still hasn't caught my ear) that I didn't know and like. I decided that I would just listen to it.

It was still pretty Victorian, but enough about me. (Here is a synopsis.)

I find it difficult to write about the music of Richard Wagner. The music itself. Wagner's sense of form was unique. Where other composers assemble the elements of music in discernible structures, Wagner fashions complex molecules that resist analysis. His ideas about "what comes next" struck many contemporaries as simply insane - insane, but effective. There is not a film score today that does not have its origins in Wagner's mastery of controlled abandon. He knew what he was doing, but he had no interest in laying out puzzles for his audience to solve. He seduced his audience into giving up thinking altogether, and simply feeling. Wagner manifests what Plato feared about music - that it could have an irrational purchase on the soul.

Where did Wagner come from. As far as I know, he was the first master composer who didn't do something else musical first. He was no instrumental virtuoso, and thinking about this reminds me that every innovator from Bach to Schumann was a keyboard virtuoso. Wagner erupted fully formed, or so it seems if you limit you attention to the operas that still hold the state. In fact, he rather spluttered, with lots of missteps and forgettable compositions along the way (although I am very fond of the neglected Symphony in C). There is no doubt that he learned much from Beethoven, but in a sort of remix way. Beethoven wasn't teaching the things that Wagner learned from him. Beethoven was one of those "wild men" who is really quite fastidious and conservative. He would never have dared to go where Wagner went, giving musical expression to Eros.

That is what is different about Wagner. Hitherto, love had been rather politely represented. It had worked much better as a sorrow than as a reward, sorrow lent itself to eloquence, while the expression of contentment had to be geared for "family" audiences, and it tended to sound inane. Nobody had the nerve to put the real delights of love - all of them - into music. Throwing out the sonata form, Wagner replaced it with another, one traced from the ebb and flow of assurance and satisfaction that that inflects desire, physical and otherwise.

And then he did something else, and I really don't know quite how to describe it. In the classical style, which prizes balance and lucidity, the themes of symphonic music are distributed evenly throughout the orchestra. That's the idea. Aside from the odd trumpet or horn call, classical music spreads its counterpoint through a band whose violins are almost always going and whose other instruments provide decorous coloration. With Wagner, the dominance of the orchestra by strings comes to an end. They sit mute while the show moves to the brass. Or the brass may drown them out. By Parsifal, Wagner was writing scores that passed insensibly from crashing declamation to chamber music. Well, that's how love be some time.

One consequence of Wagner's innovation is that operas lasting hours fly by much faster that extracts. Götterdämmerung hurtles along like an asteroid aimed at Planet Earth, but, to my ears anyway, "Siegried's Rhine Journey" and the "Death March" always seem to go on forever when played by themselves. Amputated, they may retain some of their original beauty but none of their life. You can't try to take Wagner's music apart. You can break up the drama into scenes, and so forth, but the operatic Act - Wagner's basic unit of composition - has to be taken entire, and this poses a problem for anybody who wants to write about it without spreading scores all over the floor.

Lohengrin is the last of Wagner's operas, however, to exhibit remnants of the traditional, "number-based" operatic style that began, centuries earlier, as a chain of arias separated by filler. It is the last to allow the strings to prevail. It is not as conventional as it may at first sound, but it seems different from Das Rheingold, Wagner's next work and the first member of the Ring cycle, in a profound was, almost as if the composers of each opera were a father and son team, and not the same man. Wagner takes a certain amount of trouble to be formally coherent - and it gets in the way, here and there, of emotional coherence. The action seems fussy and overheated. That the knight who stands up for Elsa in the first act can't reveal his name seems hokey, because Wagner still doesn't know how to persuade us that such mysteries might be real. (He will learn very fast.) Elsa herself is the most pallid of Wagner's heroines, too maidenly by half. The only time that Elsa shows any real spunk, it's because she's concerned about the nobility of her new husband; she brings everything down upon her head by demanding to know what his family connections are. She is always upstaged by the evil Otrud.

Where Elsa shines is in the ensembles, and there are two fantastic ones in Lohengrin. An ensemble is a passage for three or more singers in which the musicians not only have different lines to sing but different things to say. The only way to appreciate an ensemble is to sit down with the libretto and read it through. (Subtitles can't begin to cope - perhaps the principal shortcoming of DVD opera recordings.) Once you have a general idea of what each character is saying, the music will come to life - and you can forget the words. But remember this: the staggering conceit of the ensemble is that none of the characters who are singing their heads off can hear what the others are saying. Dramatic irony, in other words, is a staple ingredient of most ensembles. From Mozart on, most operatic acts end in ensembles, usually with chorus. This, too, would be a convention that Wagner would drop. But not quite yet.

Wagner has composed Lohengrin's ensembles in such a way that Ortrud is usually inaudible, while Elsa's voice gleams innocently at the top. That's why I recommend learning the ensembles of Lohengrin first, instead of beginning at the beginning. (And what a beginning it is, with all that boilerplate from the King.) Turn to the end of the first act, where the King says a prayer before Lohengrin and Telramund do battle. When the King is through, the other principals comment on their feelings, all at once, and presently the chorus takes up the prayer, which rises to a glorious climax. The other ensemble, at the end of Act II, occupies nearly half that act's performance time. It was originally planned as a simple wedding procession, but Wagner opened it up with outbursts from Ortrud and Telramund. The outbursts are solos, but the responses are contrapuntal - that is, in ensemble form. "Monumental" would be the word. Get to know these, and you will encounter most of the opera's thematic material. You will also be roused.

Posted by pourover at October 31, 2005 03:27 PM

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