Friday, October 18, 2013

Wagner Potpourri - Audio and Video links

I had a lot going on this week, so I am taking a writing break, and instead consolidating in one post a large number of audio or video links about Wagner.  These are not links to his operas, because those are easy to find with a Youtube search. Instead, these links are to a wide variety of things about or related to Wagner.  Some of them have been elsewhere on the blog, but I wanted to consolidate them here for ease of finding them.  I've embedded my favorites, and given links to the rest.

Musical Commentaries and Spoofs

First up is the most brilliant thing ever done on Wagners anti-Semitism as far as I am concerned. Yes, it’s a repeat from earlier in the blog, but it’s the best!  From the genius of Larry David in the Curb Your Enthusiasm episode “Trick or Treat.” The beginning:

And the denouement:


This next item is from the 1943 film  Hi Diddle Diddle with Pola Negri, with Brünnehilde’s famous bit from Walküre and the Pilgrim’s Chorus from Tannhäuser—to the point of tedium, at least for the Wagners.  Check that out in the trippy wallpaper:

Below is another repeat, Anna Russell’s lecture on The Ring. (The first part is embedded, the second two parts are links.)  But if you havent seen it, it is certainly one of the great comic monologues of all time, and a good introduction to The Ring at the same time:

The second part is here.  The third part is here.

Another introduction to The Ring is below.  It is a serious, but quite good introduction to the mythology and leitmotifs of the work:

There are two 2 1/2 minute introductions to The Ring out there, both worthy of viewing:  Here is one that does it with music and speech balloons; here is another that does it via sketching with narration.  Together, you will have it down!

And then, there is Bugs Bunny in Whats Opera, Doc.  This is a weird Italian version, because Warner Bros. had them pull down the English versions for copyright infringement.  And I would have embedded it, but they didnt allow it.  Damn them. Anyway, here is the link.  For those who don't know the music well, the cartoon uses a fusion of music from Tannhäuser, Flying Dutchman, Rienzi and The Ring.

If you are interested in musical structure, this one is about the Wagners musical language in Tristan und Isolde.  Part two is here.

Another repeat, but one of the best things I have ever heard (or read) on Wagner, is Nicolas Spices lecture entitled “Is Wagner Bad For us.” You can read or listen here.   Or download the podcast here.

Finally, here you can find the original John Culshaw lectures on The Ring, which are excellent (scroll to the bottom of the page). This link gives you more than that, though.  The site by Richard Tryhall also features “The Passion, the Myth and the Mania,” another good radio broadcast about The Ring, among other things.

Biographical documentaries and films

The best documentary about Wagner available online is from The Great Composers series from PBS. There is a lot of nonsense in it, so take the commentary with a grain of salt. For instance, they have a bit from an an Auschwitz survivor who says Wagner was “the person who was the first to preach a separation of the races. The first, in fact, who created the notion of a nation of masters.” This is just utter and complete nonsense; Wagner did nothing close to either thing. So, in this sense, the documentary does the so-called “objective balance” that means quoting “both sides,” but in an uncritical manner. That said, it is fairly interesting and accurate on most biographical details and of high quality.

Here is a shorter (34 minutes) straight-forward documentary biography.  However, see the warning in the comment section below about its (lack of) accuracy.

If you are a silent film fan, watch this 1913 film biography of Wagner.  Its kinda fun. For instance, at 2:50 they had a sequence showing Wagner having nightmares (or hallucinations?) as a child.  Its very funny.

The most prominent film biography of Wagner is the multi-part BBC production starring Richard Burton. While the film quality is high and the music is great, Burton is crap as Wagner. He plays him as unrelentingly dour and insensitive, and that just wasn’t his personality, at least the majority of the time. He was manic, upbeat, fast-talking, full of wit and humor. All the descriptions I have read of his personality bring to mind someone like Robin Williams. Yes, he could be mean, cutting, angry, and hysterical but he was more often sweet, kind, funny and engaging. So, the most essential part of the film is just completely off. I wrote a longer critique of this series at the end of my bibliography here. For those who are, nevertheless, interested, the full series is here. However, I would suggest it would be better to see it in these four parts: One, Two, Three, Four.

Here is a documentary on the making of the the influential Patrice Chereau Ring in 1976 at Bayreuth, including the filming which was shown in the USA on PBS in 1983.  It is immediately followed on the same Youtube broadcast by the Stagehands Ring, about the San Francisco Ring production from a backstage point of view.

This is Stephen Fry’s documentary on his attempt to square his passion for Wagner with his guilt as a Jewish man (with Spanish subtitles!). Part biography, part fan worship, part exploration, it’s interesting and Fry is always charming. This is an oddball thing that doesnt really fit the heading, but Fry hosted a debate” between an advocate for Verdi and an advocate for Wagner as to who was the most important figure, with musical excerpts from both mens works.  It is entertaining though silly in many ways.

For those interested in Wagners benefactor, King Ludwig II, here is a documentary biography.

Musical Style Adaptations and Parodies

The above Happy Birthday to You is Tristan-style.  John Phillip Souza arranges the Star-Spangled Banner, Tannhäuser-style, hereSouza also decided Parsifal could be a march (really??).  Listen here.

Here is Wagner’s Ring on piano for four hands by Gabriel Fauré and André Messager, described as “a satirical set of brief dances on the main themes and leitmotifs of Wagners Ring. Listeners familiar with the Ring Cycle will immediately recognize the melodies being parodied.”  

For jazz adaptations of Wagner, below is Stan Kenton’s orchestra doing Ride of the Valkyries.

Here’s a German brass band doing a Wagner medley, Dixieland style. 

And here is Valery Caper’s “Winter’s Love,” transforming the music of Siegmund and Sieglende into a bossa nova, from the album Wagner Takes the A Train.  The title track, for which I could not find a link, combines 29 Wagner Ring motifs into a cool jazz piece.


  1. Hello. Your blog is great and offers good insights into Wagner's personality and his works.

    I'd like to offer my opinion on the two Wagner documentaries you posted. The first is good when it comes to stuff about his works and original sources. Other then then that, however, it is IMO a standard bash-Wagner fest with the usual suspects being given a free ride.

    The second one is riddled with factual and chronological errors. "Rienzi" premiered after Wagner's Paris sojourn. Wagner only broke with Mendelsohn in the 1840-ties, "Dutchman", "Tannhauser" and "Lohengrin" were by no means immediate and/or universal successes portrayed to be in the film. Then there's the claim of Hans von Bulow being Jewish, WTH???? And there's, of course, the inevitable bash-Wagner diatribe as a testimony to just about every author's compulsion to mount his high horse whenever Wagner is the subject(though, to it's credit, the film does make a fair attempt at contextualization).

  2. Thanks for your comment. I did try to warn folks about the "Great Composers" documentary that it is as you say a "standard bash-Wagner fest." But perhaps not enough. As for the second one, I threw it up there without watching much of it, and that is my bad. My inclination is to take it down. What do you think? Of course, my contention is that most secondary sources—books or film—should not be trusted unless you can confirm whatever they say, which is why I do try to give people footnotes so they can check out my statements. With films that is not possible, of course.

  3. OK, I re-watched it, this time a bit more carefully and here is a somewhat extended, revised version:

    1) The part about "Rienzi" is more badly structured then inaccurate. The way the story was told might give the wrong impression, especially to the less attentive viewer, that "Rienzi" premiered in Riga. On second viewing I'd more quibble about the part where it is said that "Wagner made it for pure commercial purpose and not from the heart". He did make it from the heart but he also had a radical change of it.

    2) The biggest, plainly unforgivable, error is the assertion that Hans von Bulow was Jewish! Again, WTH?????? When that part was rolling I was merely listening to the narrator with an eye on something else and when I heard that I stopped in my tracks and immediately resumed watching my screen!

    3) "The Dutchman", "Tannhauser" and "Lohengrin" got, at best, a mixed reception initially and only after several years, even decades, did they grow on to the public. For details see this:

    4) Wagner did not break with Mendelsohn until just before the latter's death. And Wagner did not despise Meyerbeer and Mendelsohn because he was antisemitic, rather it was the other way around: he became antisemitic because of he was hostile to the two.

    5) The story of king Ludwig imposing Hermann Levi on Wagner is false but it's been around so much I'm almost inclined to forgive the author. What I object to, and strongly, is the characterization of "Parsifal" being "blatantly anti-Jewish".

    The film is not without it's merits, especially the way it contextualizes his antisemitism and how it almost apologizes for his ego-trips, but, since you asked for my opinion, the error on von Bulow alone incurrs a "damnatio memoriae" on my behalf. But, even I admit I sometimes take Wagner too seriously...

  4. I want to take exception with your number 4. While I think it is fair to say he "despised" Meyerbeer, I think his feelings about Mendelsohn were more ambiguous. In Judaism, he treats MendeIsohn as a tragic figure, while all his true animus is aimed at Meyerbeer. I do agree that his anti-semitism grew, in large part, from his antagonism to Meyerbeer as I wrote in my post, "Wagner's Anti-Semitism: Issues of the Mind," but it was certainly more complicated than just that, stemming from other sources as well, which I covered previously in my anti-Semitism series.

    As for the "Parsifal" being "blatantly anti-Jewish," yeah that sort of stuff drives me up the wall. I actually didn't write about that view when I wrote the post about the alleged anti-Semitism in his works because I can't even explain it; it makes so little (emotional and intellectual) sense to me.

    Anyway, thanks for those comments, and warnings, to any viewers. I decided to leave it up but just with a reference to your comments. It is actually instructive to a theme I keep repeating: don't trust anything you read about Wagner unless you have done a lot of homework.