RIDE OF THE VALKYRIES
DANIEL BARENBOIM, CONDUCTOR
UNCITED PERFORMERS FROM “APOCALYPSE NOW”
I once read, at least thirty years ago, that of all historical figures, the only person to have had more books written about himself than Richard Wagner was Jesus Christ. I don’t know where I read that statistic. I believe my reading it pre-dated my owning my first computer, so I would have no record of it other than the memory. And I don’t know how accurate the statement was. All I know is that it stuck in my head. I do know that quick checks online reveal that many thousands of books have been written about him, not only in German and English, but in other languages as well.
So it is with a little trepidation that I am posting my first post of Wagner.
He was just a composer, how could there possibly have been—why does there continue to be—so much interest in him?—I can hear a fictitious student ask. Obviously, he was more than just a composer, he was intellectually brilliant and a force of nature temperamentally. Compositionally, he WAS in fact second only to Beethoven in his influence on the course of art music—and some would say that is a reversal of the true order.
With Wagner, we’re not dealing with an ordinary man and we’re not dealing with an ordinary composer—even among the great ones.
I always try to create a balance in my posts between offering information about a composer—his life, and how the details of his life impacted the composition of certain works—and offering some information about a particular work in question. With Wagner, that simply can’t be done in a single post. There’s just too much information. Here are some basics, in no particular order, starting with a couple of that you may already remember from your high school world history class:
• Wagner (1813-1883) is continually—and correctly—identified with anti-semitism. His life and his music were later closely identified with Hitler and Nazism.
• He proudly claimed to be the most Germanic of all composers, embodying in his music the very essence of the German people, Germanic history, and Germanic legend.
• His life was as tumultuous as can be imagined, characterized by political exile, turbulent love affairs, and extreme debt while living in opulent circumstances, often provided by others. He was regarded and acknowledged to be the great genius of his time, so it was considered an honor for those with deep pockets—especially King Ludwig II of Bavaria—to support him.
• His reputation as a composer is as a creator of operas. When one thinks of Wagner, one thinks of opera. His concept of opera, known as the Gesamtkunstwerk, revolutionized the form. A Gesamtkunstwerk was a “total work of art,” encompassing not only musical, but poetic, visual, and dramatic arts all rolled into one experience. He combined these elements into the four operas comprising his Der Ring des Nibelungen—the Ring of the Nibelung. In Wagner’s vision of the Gesamtkunstwerk, music was subservient to the drama—the verbal (sung) ideas and the stories they were depicting were the vehicles for the music, not vice versa. Wagner purposefully did not call himself a composer of operas, but of dramas.
• Wagner had his own opera house built at Bayreuth, Germany—built for the sole presentation of his operas, which continues to the present day. Hundreds of thousands of Wagner-lovers—a special category of music lovers, in my mind—have flocked to Bayreuth to hear Wagner operas every summer since the 1880’s. If one heard, at a typical Bayreuth Festival, only the four operas of The Ring, this would entail four days of concert attendance—people plan vacations around the Bayreuth Festival.
• Wagner’s operas number thirteen. Most are lengthy. They range in duration from Das Reingold at two hours and forty minutes to four hours and thiry-five minutes for Die Meistersinger. Attending a Wagner opera often means an earlier start time and later end time for a single performance.
• Musically, Wagner’s music became a pivotal point, a hinge, in the history of music—not just art music. His use of chromaticism and quickly changing tonal centers led to a reconsideration of the way musical form had been regarded and utilized. There would have been no Mahler or Bruckner—or essentially any twentieth century composition—as we now know it, anyway—without Wagner. Tristan and Isolde, a love story based on the Arthurian story, is perhaps Wagner’s most-loved opera with the general public, and is often cited as THE work on which this hinge first moved.
• Wagner’s wife, Cosima, had been both the married wife of the famed conductor Hans von Bulow and the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt when Wagner started a relationship with her. She gave birth to their daughter, Isolde, while still married to von Bulow.
• Both Wagner and Cosima were prolific writers. The strongest literary and philosophical influence on Wagner had been Arthur Schopenhauer, in whose works he identified with a deeply pessimistic view of humanity. Throughout his life, Wagner called his acquaintance with the writings of Schopenhauer the most important event of his life.
These bulleted items are, as you might imagine, only the barest, thinnest outline of this man who became so pivotal in the history of music and the history of Germany—and by extension of both, the history of the western world. And, as is always the case, there is no need to know any of this to appreciate his music. Which brings up my next point.
It will come as no surprise, even to those who know no more about Wagner than what I have just written, that Wagner is a complex personality—regarded by some as despicable, and equally by others as admirable. His life exemplifies the truth—if we hadn’t grasped it already—that we will often find goodness and evil residing in great men, sometimes in equal proportion, just as can be seen as a general characteristic of all people. Part of the experience of growing up—it was certainly part of MY growing up experience—listening to great performances of great music written by great composers—is the gradual, but continual, realization that many of these men had flaws, some them pretty serious. Separating, in one’s mind, a man’s behavior from his abilities is an ongoing—and inevitable—part of music appreciation.
Wagner’s Ring cycle included, as its second opera, Die Walkure—a story that was based on Norse mythology. In Norse mythology, a valkyrie is one in a group of female figures—goddesses—who decides which soldiers die in battle and which live. Die Walküre’s best-known excerpt is the “Ride of the Valkyries”. It is one of a handful of Wagnerian works that have become part of our everyday life, tunes that we recognize but often don’t know why.
But many readers may indeed know why you know this music. You may remember Francis Ford Coppola’s movie “Apocalpyse Now,” one of a number of Vietnam films that came out in the decade after America’s involvement in the war had ended. In it were displayed many horrors of the war, including a particularly brutal American helicopter attack on an innocent Vietnamese village. If you remember this scene, you also remember the music that accompanied it was The Ride of the Valkyries. I’m including a link to that to jog your memories.
Barenboim’s performance with the Berlin Philharmonic is quite exhilarating.