Wagner I I

Sunday, November 9th, 2008 @ 2:15 pm | Music

Again, because this is a blog, I don’t hesitate to publish my thoughts, whether or not they pertain to this site’s theme, abstract art. In the broader sense, this site is about art in general, so let’s elaborate on Wagner a little more.

A  while ago I bought two CD-boxes online, both from Wagner. I got the Ring des Nibelungen (14 CDs!) that is most recommended by Amazon users. I won’t mention the name of the conductor here, because he did such a lousy job, I can’t listen to it and removed the Ring from my MP3 player.

I also got Tristan and Isolde, conducted by Karl Böhm, which I can wholeheartedly recommend. Remarkably, while this recording dates back to 1966, engineers have been able to revamp it, using original image bit processing, or something, such that the result is of truly high, digital quality.

More importantly, the recording (3 CDs) features Birgit Nillson, who had such a thorough and intuitive understanding of Wagner’s music that, without her, for me at least, Wagner’s music wouldn’t be the same.

To me, Wagner’s music is a bigger enigma than Bach’s counterpoint. Bach was able to put so much energy and expression into just a couple of bars of music, an approach which is best suited to relatively short pieces of music, like cantatas and chorals. Longer pieces of music require a different approach in that the composer must mind the piece’s overall architecture, which is probably not just a matter of elaborating on a theme, but the overall form of the piece must be taken as a musical goal within itself. Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion has lots of great music but has the same ailment as most operas: emotional highs are alternated with passages that sound flat and deflated.

So, one of the stunning properties of Tristan and Isolde (abbr. T&I) is its perfect overall design, which made me listen to music in a way I had never done before. While most music is all about “the now”, T&I is just as much about the composition’s past and future.

Also very interesting is the way Wagner uses pre-existing musical clichés, which every composer does, but Wagner gives every reference to past music a different twist, in a uniquely Wagnerian way. In some parts of T&I this sounds like the hare outmaneuvering the fox, with the music constantly being one or two bars ahead of itself.

The parallel with the visual arts is that a painting shouldn’t be too transparent either. As a painter I try to layer ideas in such a way that it confuses the eye in a controlled way, such that it captivates the viewer.

Back to Wagner, Tristan and Isolde is so fundamentally different from any composition by any artist, that in me it reinforces the idea that doing things differently is inherent to great art.

Also, once again I pay tribute to Birgit Nillson. After all, there are a million ways to f**k up a great composition and I’ve seldomly listened to any singer or instrumentalist that had such an understanding of such complicated music as Wagner’s.

For those that want to get taste of Wagner I have inserted a clip from Tristan and Isolde which is 33 seconds long and 5.4 MB big (click here to download .wav file, takes a few minutes). I have chosen this piece because it’s so typical of Wagner: highly dramatic and yet technically disciplined. It’s the ending of the second part of Tristan and Isolde. Endings are tricky, because if there’s something not quite right with the composition, the composer will find it difficult to create a suitable ending. Take Beethoven. Technically brilliant as he was, he often had to beat his symphony to death, dealing one blow after another, like an inexperienced hunter trying to kill a creature that refuses to give up the ghost. Now listen to the clip above and see how Wagner kills both Tristan and Isolde in one swift blow (don’t try this at home).

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