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Richard Wagner

By Jai Pee
Wilhelm Richard Wagner was born 200 years ago in May 1813 in Leipzig, Germany and he died at the age of 69 in 1883 while on holiday in Venice. He is considered by many people to be “the master of the opera” in that his operas are among the finest ever written. All over the world at the moment, opera houses and concert halls are celebrating his bicentenary by staging full performances of many of his works, or in some cases special concert performances without the staging.

Wagner grew to be an influential composer, conductor, music theorist, and essayist; he is remembered today primarily for his operas (or “music dramas” as he later came to call them). His compositions, particularly those of his later period, are notable for their contrapuntal texture, rich chromaticism, harmonies and orchestration, and elaborate use of leitmotifs - themes associated with specific characters, locales, or plot elements. He transformed musical thought through his idea of Gesamtkunstwerk (“total artwork”), epitomized by his monumental four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelungen) completed in 1876. His concept of leitmotif and integrated musical expression was also a strong influence on many twentieth century film scores. Wagner was and remains a controversial figure, both for his musical and dramatic innovations, and for his anti-semitic and political opinions.
At school he was not a talented musician and preferred drama to learning the piano – however later he enrolled at Leipzig University in 1831 to study music while still harbouring dreams of becoming a playwright. In 1833 he wrote his first opera, Die Feen which imitated the great operas of Weber, but it was not produced until shortly after the composer’s death in 1883. After University, Wagner held brief appointments as musical director at opera houses in Magdeburg and Königsberg, during which he wrote Das Liebesverbot, based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. This second opera was staged at Magdeburg in 1836, but closed before the second performance, leaving the composer in serious financial difficulties. His first marriage was a disaster ending in misery many years later.
While having to flee from huge debts amassed in Riga, where Wagner was the opera director, the couple took a stormy sea passage to London – this was later to become the inspiration for his opera Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), completed in Paris in 1841 along with his third opera Rienzi. In 1842, the couple moved to Dresden, where Rienzi was staged to considerable success. Wagner was appointed the Royal Saxon Court Conductor. During this period, he wrote and staged Der fliegende Holländer and Tannhäuser, the first two of his three middle-period operas. The Wagners’ stay at Dresden was brought to an end by Wagner’s involvement in left-wing politics when the Wagners had to flee again, first to Paris and then to Zürich
Wagner spent the next 12 years in exile as well as in grim personal straits. He had completed his third middle-period opera Lohengrin before the Dresden uprising, and now wrote desperately to his friend Franz Liszt to have it staged in his absence. Liszt, who proved to be a friend in need, eventually conducted the premiere in Weimar in August 1850. While in Zurich he wrote some notable essays one of which was highly anti-semitic, and that, coupled with later statements of an anti-Jewish nature, have led to the Israeli Government banning performances of his works in that country. In the 1850s, Wagner was penning sketches for the great Ring set of operas and Tristan and Isolde. He also had a brief affair with Mathilde Wesendonck, and this led to the writing of a set of songs now often performed – The Wesendonck Lieder – and very beautiful they are too.
In 1861, the political ban against Wagner was lifted, and the composer settled in Biebrich, Prussia, where he began work on Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Wagner’s fortunes took a dramatic upturn in 1864, when King Ludwig II assumed the throne of Bavaria at the age of 18. The young King, an ardent admirer of Wagner’s operas since childhood, had the composer brought to Munich. He settled Wagner’s considerable debts, and made plans to have his new opera produced. After grave difficulties in rehearsal, Tristan und Isolde premiered to enormous success at the National Theatre in Munich on June 10, 1865.
In the meantime, Wagner became embroiled in yet another affair, this time with Cosima von Bülow, the wife of the conductor Hans von Bülow, one of Wagner’s most ardent supporters and the conductor of the Tristan premiere. Cosima was the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt and the famous Countess Marie d’Agoult, and 24 years younger than Wagner. Liszt disapproved of his daughter seeing Wagner, though the two men were still friends. In 1865, she gave birth to Wagner’s illegitimate daughter, who was named Isolde. Their indiscreet affair scandalized Munich, and to make matters worse, Wagner fell into disfavor amongst members of the court, who were suspicious of his influence on the King.
In December 1865, Ludwig was finally forced to ask the composer to leave Munich. Ludwig installed Wagner at the villa Tribschen, beside Switzerland’s Lake Lucerne. Die Meistersinger was completed at Tribschen in 1867, and premiered in Munich the following year. In October, Cosima finally convinced Hans von Bülow to grant her a divorce. Richard and Cosima were married in 1870. (Liszt would not speak to his new son-in-law for many years to come.) On Christmas Day of that year, Wagner presented the Siegfried Idyll for Cosima’s birthday, a piece often performed today in orchestral concerts. The marriage to Cosima lasted to the end of Wagner’s life. They had another daughter, named Eva, and a son named Siegfried.
It was at Tribschen, in 1869, that Wagner met the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and although they became firm friends at first, they later parted company and in 1889, Nietzsche condemned Wagner as decadent and corrupt, even criticizing his own earlier praiseworthy views of the composer.
In 1871, he decided on the small town of Bayreuth as the location of his new opera house, which was opened in 1876 with a premiere of the Ring but only after great problems relating to the finances – once again, Ludwig came to the rescue. The Wagners then moved into their permanent home at Bayreuth. In 1877, Wagner began work on Parsifal, his final opera. The composition took four years, during which he also wrote a series of increasingly reactionary essays on religion and art.
Wagner completed Parsifal in January 1882, and a second Bayreuth Festival was held for the new opera. Wagner was by this time extremely ill, having suffered a series of increasingly severe angina attacks. During the sixteenth and final performance of Parsifal in August, he secretly entered the pit during Act III, took the baton from the conductor, and led the performance to its conclusion. After the Festival, the Wagner family went to Venice for the winter where, on February 13, 1883, Richard Wagner died of a heart attack. His body was returned to Bayreuth and buried in the garden of the Villa Wahnfried. Franz Liszt’s memorable piece for pianoforte solo, La lugubre gondola, evokes the passing of a black-shrouded funerary gondola bearing Richard Wagner’s mortal remains over the Grand Canal.
Apart from being a great opera composer and dramatist (he wrote all the libretti himself) Wagner remains a controversial and enigmatic man. ‘You either love him or you hate him’, a musicologist friend of mine once said. His operas are long – very long - and the Ring Cycle in its entirety – usually performed over 4 nights within a week - lasts for something like 16/17 hours. He made an indelible mark on Romantic music and helped lead music into a new modern era of atonality that became known as the Second Viennese School; he inspired many others in the musical world and continues to do so today – how many of you, for example, had his famous Wedding March from Lohengrin played at your own wedding? And how many of you have fallen asleep during one of his operas while waiting in seeming vain for ‘the fat lady to sing’?
This is the first in a series of articles focusing on the great composers. Chiang Mai has a vibrant classical music scene with concerts at Payap University, AUA and CMU. Jai Pee is an active member of the music scene in Chiang Mai.

 


Life at 33 1/3: Art before Knighthood

The Boomtown Rats: A Tonic For The Troops (Ensign)

By Carl Meyer

Produced by:
Robert John “Mutt” Lange and The Boomtown Rats
Personnel:
Bob Geldof – vocals, saxophone
Pete Briquette – bass, vocals
Gerry Cott – guitar
Johnnie Fingers – keyboards, vocals
Simon Crowe – drums, vocals
Garry Roberts – guitar, vocals

Released in June 1978
(All songs written by Bob Geldof except where indicated):
“Like Clockwork” (Bob Geldof, Pete Briquette, Simon Crowe)
“Blind Date”
“(I Never Loved) Eva Braun”
“She’s So Modern” (Geldof, Johnny Fingers)
“Don’t Believe What You Read”
“Living in an Island”
“Me and Howard Hughes”
“Can’t Stop”
“(Watch Out For) The Normal People”
“Rat Trap”

Bob Geldof never was a credible punkrocker but rather a cunning guy who had learned some moves from the Rolling Stones’ videos, sporting a set of matching botox lips to boot. His voice was no big deal, rather an affected sob going berserk on a trampoline, but it did the job in the theatrical musical environment that the band provided.
Boomtown Rats were an art-pop band, quite clever when they hit the bull’s eye, and this they did for a little while, mostly on this, their second album. It delivers colourful poses in a new-wave clothing.
It is a varied album stuffed with vocal gymnastics and clever twists. Three massive hits are included: The Springsteen-pastiche “Rat Trap” (their first no. 1 in The UK), the brash stammering pop pandemonium “She’s So Modern” and the cynically excited “Like Clockwork” that snatches a phrase from John Lennon’s “God”.
The album’s got more going for it than the hits though. You’ll find just as strong bits in “Living In An Island” (suicide galore!), in “Me And Howard Hughes” (the best imaginary visit to the eccentric recluse Howard Hughes since James Bond gatecrashed him in “Diamonds Are Forever”) and in the priceless “(I Never Loved) Eva Braun” (the happiest Hitler-song ever).
There are fillers of course, but the album is still good. Fresh and energetic, sparkling and bright, and the subject choices of the lyrics are imaginative. Sadly their art-pop genes went amok on the subsequent albums, it was all theatrics and high-and low-bouncing tunes going nowhere fast that made for an exhausting listening experience. Busy stuff short on memorable songs. This is the main reason why Sir Bob mostly is remembered for one song (“I Don’t Like Mondays”) and Band Aid.
But there was a once upon a time - and its name is “A Tonic For The Troops”. Art before knighthood indeed!


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Richard Wagner

Life at 33 1/3: Art before Knighthood