Friday, February 15, 2013

Wagner's Musical Effects 4: Loud, Long, and Boring?

The title of this post is the reputation of Wagner's music, and if you change the middle phrase to longwinded, of the composer himself. I will leave the latter to the posts about his character, but I will take up the issues of his music here.

His reputation in one graphic by André Gill, 1869:
his music assaults the ear.


At this point in time, this reputation is a quite silly on the musical front. In the age of rock and roll, his music cannot be considered particularly loud. And, unlike rock, the musical peaks in orchestral music—including Wagner—are relatively short compared to the consistently high decibel levels at a rock concert. I always use ear plugs at rock concerts and have never felt the need at Wagner operas.  (Though for orchestral players, there is a real problem with the decibel level of the modern orchestras, and Wagner is but one who contributes to that problem.)

The most salient fact is that his music has, like most orchestral music, a very wide dynamic range. Anyone who thinks Wagner is just boomingly loud ought to listen to him in a car, where his music is often maddeningly soft and impossible to hear. It's true that compared to many earlier composers, Wagner's orchestra is much bigger, ergo louder, when he writes a forte. That said, it was Beethoven who expanded the orchestra greatly, and Wagner just followed in that path, as did the vast majority of composers after Beethoven. In fact, the modern orchestra has continued to expanded past Wagner's peaks. So, yes, he and many others can, indeed, be fortississimo. To say that he is particularly so is just nonsense if you base your comparison on composers who came after him.

I think a perfect example of Wagner's musical dynamic range is Siegfried's Funeral March. He may have crescendos that go as loud, but surely none louder (from 6:19-6:40 in the excerpt).  The piece—and this pattern is typical for Wagner's music— starts very quietly, builds and creates a small, but booming, peak, then pulls back. This is repeated until he finally builds to a towering climax, and then resolves quietly. You be the judge if it is “too loud.”  Personally, I love it!

All that said, many do feel that Wagner's music, particularly the singing, assaults their ears, even if it isn't related to decibel level. In a truly wonderful Mark Twain essay from 1891 entitled “The Shrine of St. Wagner”—the shrine being Bayreuth, Wagner's summer music festival— he makes that case, with Parsifal as the object of derision:

The entire overture, long as it was, was played to a dark house with the curtain down. It was exquisite; it was delicious. But straightway thereafter, of course, came the singing, and it does seem to me that nothing can make a Wagner opera absolutely perfect and satisfactory to the untutored but to leave out the vocal parts.

Later Twain goes into some depth on the subject of the singing:

I trust that I know as well as anybody that singing is one of the most entrancing and bewitching and moving and eloquent of all the vehicles invented by man for the conveying of feeling; but it seems to me that the chief virtue in song is melody, air, tune, rhythm, or what you please to call it, and that when this feature is absent what remains is a picture with the color left out. I was not able to detect in the vocal parts of ‘Parsifal’ anything that might with confidence be called rhythm or tune or melody; one person performed at a time—and a long time, too—often in a noble, and always in a high-toned, voice; but he only pulled out long notes, then some short notes, then another long one, then a sharp, quick, peremptory bark or two—and so on and on...If two of them would but put in a duet occasionally and blend the voices; but no, they don't do that. The great master, who knew so well how to make a hundred instruments rejoice in unison and pour out their souls in mingled and melodious tides of delicious sound, deals only in barren solos when he puts in the vocal parts.

What Twain doesn't appreciate is that Wagner uses the voice as a part of the orchestra, much as when a jazz singer scats, her voice becomes part of the ensemble. Twain clearly heard and loved the orchestral music underneath the singing, but was not comfortable with this use of the voice on that initial hearing of the opera. However, he changed his tune by the end of the week at Bayreuth:

I have seen my last two operas... I was supposing that my musical regeneration was accomplished and perfected, because I enjoyed both of these operas, singing and all, and, moreover, one of them was ‘Parsifal.’

Twain, of course, lived in an era in which their were no subtitles, so much of the drama was lost on him. As well, this sort of opera, with continuous music and without the set-pieces de rigueur in opera to this point, was still quite foreign. The reaction to Wagner's music then is much like the reaction of many—my parents for instance— to rock n' roll: it's just noise, and there is no melody. Clearly, with any musical development, to enjoy it one must have an open mind, and gain an ear. I think it is clear that Twain was well on his way to becoming a Wagnerian.


The reputation of Wagner's operas as being long is but an extension of the belief that operas in general are long. However, since operatic lengths vary widely, this is clearly not always the case. Many operas, including Wagner's two shortest (both about 2 ½ hours), The Flying Dutchman and Das Rhinegold are, in fact, shorter than many theatrical productions, concerts and sporting events and, increasingly, movies. For instance, this year, The Hobbit, Les Misérables and Zero Dark 30 were all longer than many operas, including those two by Wagner.

However, the fact is that, in general, Wagner wrote longer operas than most composers, so they are long relative to the standard opera, and long relative to most events with audiences. His longest opera, which is also the longest in the standard opera repertoire, is Die Meistersinger, which is about 4 ½ hours without intermissions.

So, objectively, I concur that they are long. But the feeling of time is subjective. And, to me, when absorbed by Wagner's music dramas, time seems to stand still as I am completely in the moment, and yet when it is over, hours have gone by and I have barely noticed. The conductor Daniel Barenboim makes the same point here about music:

If you are really able to concentrate totally on it, to grab the sound and hold onto it...and if you stay fully attached to the sounds as they develop, as they unfold, you are basically coming out of time. You must be able to do it with all your faculties, physical and psychic, with total concentration. And suddenly, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony takes 33 minutes, and for those 33 minutes you are out of physical reality. Music gives you the physical and metaphysical possibility of totally detaching yourself from the world.

This is why, in 1986, I happily stood to see Die Meistersinger two times in San Francisco, and then flew across the country to see it—again standing—two more times in New York that season. I was entranced all four times, and my feet didn't even notice. However, I remember going to the Mozart opera, Cosi Fan Tutte (three hours with intermissions), around the same time and feeling it was interminable. I kept busily shifting my feet from side to side to create more physical comfort, and was thrilled when the ordeal was over.

When enthralled by one's passion, it is a common experience for time to seem to fly. Did fans of The Lord of the Rings resist the extended version? No, they did not. They were thrilled by more of it! That's the way I think of Wagner's music. Could I hear the extended version, maestro? That said, I don't think you need to be enthralled to be perfectly content at Wagner's operas. You just need to watch, listen and be open to it as a music drama. And eat a snack and use the restroom between acts. I would suggest a matinée.


[Parsifal] is an opera that begins at five-thirty. Three hours later you look at your watch. And it's only twenty to six. (Attributed to critic George Jean Nathan here, page 377.)

Of course, time crawls when something is considered a drudge. Like factory work.  Like a hated class.  Clearly this is completely subjective, and certainly can be related to the length, but also to expectation. If you are sure you won't like something, then that is much more likely to be the case. And the longer the thing goes on, the more boring you are apt to find it. So if you are dragged to a Wagner opera with such expectations, the chances are your expectations will come true: it will be boring.

There are three sorts of Wagner listeners:
  1. Those who think, or assume, he is loud, long and boring and avoid his works. Many of those people, of course, have barely listened, knowing his work only through popular culture. If they are convinced to try a opera of his, trust me, they will not like it.
  2. Those who have listened and do appreciate him in limited amounts. Rossini speaks for these people with his famous quote: “Monsieur Wagner a de beaux moments, mais de mauvais quart d'heures.” (English translation: Monsieur Wagner has some good moments, but some bad quarter of hours. By the way, it is usually translated as “awful quarter of hours!”, which is the translator inserting editorial content via a word change and added exclamation point.  My French professor—and Leslie's sister—confirms that this isn't a translation that should be made.) Those “bad quarter of hours” were in reference to the Wagner monologues—or, occasionally, duologues—that are at the emotional heart of his music dramas, as I described in my three musical effects posts, particularly this one.
  3. The folks who love Wagner’s rich and beautiful orchestration—“the good moments”—but also the deep emotions that come only from opening your heart to those “bad quarter of hours.” The conductor James Levine was asked about these monologues: “I'm crazy about them. I can always feel, as the orchestra settles down and Woton begins the monologue in the second act of Walküre, you can hear all the people who were dragged to the performances turning off and all the Wagnerites turning on.”
In sum: for Wagner’s music, whether you consider the music assaultive or enriching, whether time crawls or flies, whether you are enthralled or bored, it’s all about your perspective. Obviously, to me, it is none of those.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder what Twain would have thought of Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex and the Rite of Spring. I think ears mature in what they find pleasurable with the decades; Beethoven was thought to be barbaric in his early years.