Friday, January 25, 2013

Musical effects, Part 1: Intro and leitmotifs

To me, music is the language of emotion, and Wagner was the master of that language. Other composers make me feel deeply, of course, but neither to the extent nor the degree that Wagner does. When I am one with his music—that is, really listening and feeling, and not worrying about anything but the moment—I regularly experience the deepest and most intimate emotions that I am capable of feeling, from the heights of ecstasy to the depths of seemingly unbearable pain.

I am certainly not the only one to feel intense emotions when listening to Wagner.

For instance, Baudelaire, in writing a fan letter to Wagner, said his music was "rapt and enthralling, something aspiring to mount higher, something excessive and superlative... the supreme utterance of a soul at its highest paroxysm."  (By the way, open that last link for a head scratcher.  I have no idea what bluegrass music has to do with that letter.  Speaking of links, I don't have some for things I quote here, but I can get you to the source material if anyone ever wants something.)

Galina Gorchavova, a current soprano, says this in Diva, the Next Generation: "I am besotted.... there's something heavenly in that music. When I listen to it I feel as if transformed, uplifted. I fly somewhere with it. And the experience is very difficult for me describe in words." 

Hugo Wolf upon hearing Parsifal said "my whole being reels in the perfect world of this wonderful work, as if some blissful ecstasy, becoming ever more enraptured and blessed."

Thomas Mann describes the effects of Wagner's music as: "delicious, sensual-pernicious, sensual-consuming, heavily intoxicating, hypnotically caressing."

Bryan Magee, in his excellent short book, Aspects of Wagner, has a chapter devoted to why Wagner has such a devoted following (and, equally, why some are repelled by the music). He sums up his thesis this way:

My central contention, then, is that Wagner's music expresses, as does no other art, repressed and highly charged contents of the psyche, and that this is the reason for its uniquely disturbing effect. To make a Freudian pun, it gets past the Censor. Some people are made to feel by it that they are in touch with the depths of their own personalities for the first time. The feeling of a wholeness yet unboundedness—hence, I suppose, its frequent comparison with mystical or religious experience. 

Others think listening to his music is like a drug experience. Susan Sontag in her essay "Wagner's Fluids" writes: “It was observed from the beginning that listening to Wagner had an effect similar to consuming psychotropic drug: opium, said Baudelaire; alcohol [ed note: and hashish] said Nietzsche.”

David Bullard, a former columnist for the Sunday Times of South Africa, put it this way: “the incredible power of [his] music to replicate some of the more pleasant effects of drugs or alcohol, but none of the side effects, is only really appreciated by those who have experienced it...Rather as some might pop a mood-enhancing pill, I am now able to select a piece [of Wagner's music] knowing it will have the desired effect, which is probably why I appear to be on a permanent high to many people.” [From his column, "Out to Lunch,"May 18, 2003.]

And, according to one well-known acidhead, Christian Rätsch, “Listening to the Der Ring des Niebelungen is the closest thing to being on acid when you are not on acid, but Richard Wagner is the greatest on acid.” 

Magee also notes that it is therapeutic to some:

This music does for some people what psychoanalysis claims to do for others; it releases radioactive material from the depths of the personality and confronts them with it and makes them feel it and live it through. It also relates all this inner feeling harmoniously to an outer reality. It can thus help people be at one with both their inner selves and the external world: so in a sense it the most whole-making, the most therapeutic art. 

So just what is it about Wagner's music?

Normally, operas were written to highlight the singers via their arias and other set-pieces like duets, trios, etc. In between these pieces, in earlier days, a harpsichord accompanied what is called recitative (which is sung, but patterned after every day speech). The set-pieces had the emotion and the beautiful singing; the recitative carried the plot.  By Wagner's day, orchestras had generally replaced the harpsichord, and there was more emphasis on the dramatic content throughout, but the focus on show-stopping "numbers" was still at the heart of opera. Wagner upended this relationship as he felt that the music must be in service to the drama and not that the drama existed for these numbers. To underscore that he was doing something very different, he termed his work "music drama." (Sorry, Richard, but I will refer to them interchangeably as operas or music dramas.)

Of his ten operas that are in the repertoire,  Wagner set all but one in a mythical context. Bryan Magee summarizes what he was attempting to do with his music drama:

It would be about the insides of the characters. It would be concerned with their emotions, not their motives. It would explore and articulate the ultimate reality of experience, what goes on in heart and soul... In this kind of drama the externals of plot and social relationships would be reduced to a minimum... Myth was ideal for this, because it dealt with archetypical situations and because its universal validity, regardless of time and place, meant that the dramatist could almost dispense with the social and political context and present, as it were 'pure', the inner drama. 

To achieve this, instead of music frequently interrupted by time-stopping arias or other set-pieces like duets, trios, and chorus numbers, Wagner generally wrote continuous, ever-changing and developing music with the aim to express the deep emotions of the characters. The voice served as the characters' conscious thoughts; the orchestra provided the deeper emotional underpinnings, the unconscious or the repressed. 

The music has no conventional structure, which made it quite revolutionary in its time. One of the leading critics of the day, Eduard Hanslick, said, “Wagner's most recent reform does not represent an is, on the contrary, a distortion, a perversion... One could say of this tone poetry: there is music in it, but it is not music.” [Quoted from the Wagner Companion, at 199.] To Hector Berlioz, it was “raucous noise, the abolition of melody, arias, duets, simple harmony, singable roles and so forth.”

There was a huge debate during his time, and it remains to this day, about Wagner's musical structure. Now, I don't give a damn about this debate:  If it is bad structure but I love it, then structure be damned. If there truly is a marvelous structure that just hasn't been appreciated by some musicologists, that's fine too. These sorts of academic debates seem very silly to me.

Anyway, Wagner defenders have landed principally on one of the key aspects of his “endless music,” the leitmotif, to explain the structure. This is, in essence, a short phrase of music associated with something. It could be a person, a thing, a concept or a feeling. Audiences from my generation likely know it at its most simple form from Peter and the Wolf, where each animal has a tune on an instrument. But people now know of leitmotifs in the Wagnerian mode principally from movie music, such as the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings soundtracks.

Wagner himself didn't like the term and called them “motifs of memory,” which works well. One of leading expert of Wagner's system, Derek Cooke, called them “melodic moments of feeling,” which also works.  Cooke put together this analysis (originally for the BBC) with musical examples on the principal motifs and their development. It is  both easy to listen to and yet extraordinarily complex if you are interested in Wagner's system. And here is a fun video from the '90s with Hugh Downs as the host that is a simple primer on Wagner's use of leitmotifs.  If you want to explore the motifs of The Ring, this is a good site. While they existed before Wagner, he certainly used them in a unprecedented, and much more thoroughgoing, way than anyone before him.

Generally, I pay no conscious attention to leitmotifs when I listen to his music (or, for that matter, when I watch Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings). I prefer to let the music wash over me and merely feel, and that works just fine. Wagner's intent, in fact, was that the music work on a non-conscious level, and indeed it does. While I now “know” several of his leitmotifs, they were just absorbed via listening in a emotional, not intellectual, way.  In a 1903 essay by Camille Saint-Saens on Wagner's music, “The Composer as Psychologist,” he describes Wagner's system like this:

Music takes up where speech leaves off, it utters the ineffable, makes us discover in ourselves depths we had not suspected, conveys impressions and states of beings that no words can render. With his ingenious system of leitmotivs (ugly word!), Wagner has extended still farther the reach of musical expressiveness by making clear the secret thoughts of his characters beneath and beyond the words they speak. Take a very simple example, chosen from among a thousand: Tristan asks, “Where are we?” Isolde replies, “Near the goal,” but the music is that which previously accompanied the words, “head destined for death,” which she whispered while gazing at Tristan. The listener understand at once what “goal” she has in mind.

If you read any primer on Wagner's music, you will note that people like Cooke have named his leitmotifs, principally so they can analyze and comment upon them.  Wagner didn't like the leitmotif labeling and refused to do it—his wife Cosima quotes him as saying it was “nonsense” (on 8/1/81).  Indeed, labeling does cause a problem. It tends to reify the music in a very unhelpful way. If you are actually trying to recognize them, or even more so trying to figure out why the one called, for example, "sword of manhood" is being played at a particular moment, that process removes your attention from feeling the music.  Since Wagner considered that the essence of drama was “knowing through feeling,” anything that detracted from that was a negative to him. 

It is very true that there is a Pavlovian dog quality to listening to Wagner's music repetitively, which is why people keep coming back for their treat. Listening to the “motifs of memory” that now have deep resonance to both the story and to my life is a short-cut to activating those intense emotions. Talk about mood music! If I want to feel euphoric or have a good cry or feel deep compassion, I know just which pieces would give me those rewards.

Just because a composer writes leitmotifs doesn't mean, of course, that they work as intended. But Wagner was extraordinarily good at writing music that created the emotions that he wanted his audience to feel.  As noted in the Saint-Saens example above, when that incident happens, the music—whether you remember it consciously or not—does tell you Isolde wants death. The motif itself is dark and ominous. You know immediately the "goal," not through intellect, but through emotional reaction to the music. Whether you consciously recognize it or not, the feeling will be there. The listener might feel more resonance if it—the earlier use of the motif—has already lodged in memory, whether conscious or not. Certainly, if a piece of music is particularly emotional to you and it is later woven into the score, that feeling does reemerge, and often very strongly. The emotional reaction to Wagner's music tends to increase over time as repeated listening reveal ever greater depths of feelings as you relive the musical memories and make seemingly endless connections, both within the story and, reaching out of the story, to your own life.

To continue the Pavlov analogy, here (at 4:48-5:30ish) is one of my favorite musical treats, which always affects me whenever the motif shows up through the rest of the Ring Cycle. It is the initial leitmotif of the music associated with the love of Sieglende (our dog Ziggy's namesake) and Siegmund, from the first act of Die Walküre

I have more to say about how Wagner achieves his musical effect, but right now I have to get back to building my roof. So let me just give a brief preview of the next post:

What is extraordinary to me about Wagner's music is that he really takes you inside a person's head emotionally for an extended length of time. I will write about how he achieves this, with an example from his opera Tristan and Islolde.

And, finally, just a note for those who have never listened to Wagner. It's an extraordinary gift he has, but it does require putting in the time to really listen to his music with attention and, to really get much out of it, listening several times to the same opera. For many people, this isn't what they want from music. They might want beautiful music to relax to or fun music to sing along with or rhythmic music to dance to, and on and on.  Wagner's operas are not a casual listening experience. (I have tried to put the operas on in the background but I find myself yelling to the CD:  "Would you just shut the hell up, Brunhilde!" Or the like...)  However, he did write beautiful orchestral music, and it is quite possible to listen much more casually to his music. For those people who are interested in hearing Wagner but really don't want the opera experience (at least yet), try an excerpt album, like this one.  For actually getting a feel for the full opera to see if it might be to your taste, there is a series by the Dutch conductor Edo de Waart, who essentially creates orchestra “suites” from four of Wagner's operas: The Ring, Parsifal, Meistersinger and, my favorite of the four "suites," Tristan and Isolde. (You must ignore the cover art on the CDs!) These are ways you can put on some Wagner in the background and get a sense of the music without commiting to a four or five hour opera.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, wow, wow. Just getting back to your blog. What an intriguing post. I am a total neophyte but have always been curious about what Wagner/opera was about. You explain it so well and have done so much research. Glad you posted this and look forward to the next--you make it accessible and should think about publishing it beyond the blog.