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Wagner: Not to be Ignored

March 21, 2019

by Scott Foglesong

The music of Richard Wagner (1813-83) figures prominently on upcoming San Francisco Symphony concerts: James Gaffigan leads the Good Friday Spell from Parsifal (April 25-27) and Marek Janowski conducts the Overture and Venusberg Music from Tannhäuser and the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde (May 2-4). Next season features Act I of Die Walküre, with Antonio Pappano in his SFS debut, and a semi-staged production of Die fliegende Holländer, led by Michael Tilson Thomas. Here, Contributing Writer Scott Foglesong peels away the mystique to reveal what’s really going on in Wagner.

Hours of lovely moments
The everyday impression of Wagner’s music dramas seems to be big people with big hair wearing big winged helmets on big stages with big scenery and a big orchestra. They stand there and they sing, but they’re not usually singing recognizable tunes. Not much seems to happen and it goes on for hours.

Amid this sense of gigantism it’s easy to forget that Wagner’s music unfolds as a series of lovely moments. And these moments, together with Wagner’s array of musical and theatrical innovations, add up to even lovelier hours. It all depends on what you choose to listen for and the mindset you bring to that listening.

Wagner’s orchestra: the underlying engine
He was among the most influential opera composers of all time, but he was also one of the orchestra’s supreme masters. For Wagner the orchestra was not just an accompaniment; it was absolutely critical, the underlying engine empowering the drama, the narrator and commentator and evangelist all rolled into one. All of Wagner’s operas contain magnificent orchestral essays, some of them the overtures and interludes between acts, but others might be scene changes, ballets, or wordless musings on the issues at hand.

There is no better entry point to the magical world of Wagner than those orchestral works. They have been bedrock symphony orchestra repertory for generations, and with good reason. His richly evocative orchestration evokes the multi-varied world of his operas, whether the unbridled passion of Tristan und Isolde, the fantastical spectacle of Tannhäuser, or the radiant spirituality of Parsifal.

Drama taken to the extreme
It’s really not much of a step from there to the music dramas themselves. Just taken as theater alone they rival Shakespeare in their daring and scope. Throw in Wagner’s astounding music and they become something unique in art history, opera taken to the extreme and then some. Consider the tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen, the nineteenth century’s equivalent of modern blockbusters such as Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, complete with dazzling special effects. Wagner was a good enough dramatist to keep the action on a human level, so people fall in love and they squabble, and a wife is obliged to deal with a philandering husband. Supernatural beings or not, their motivations are human, much like the deities of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

Not to be ignored
Composers are people and they encompass the full gamut of characters and personalities. But Wagner is a class by himself, alternately selfish, avaricious, egotistical, monomaniacal, xenophobic, racist. That Hitler elevated him as the Third Reich’s posthumous patron saint doesn’t help any. Which brings up an issue all too relevant to our present day. Can we value the creations of a reprehensible person? It’s a question we are currently asking about any number of people—actors, musicians, politicians—but in the case of Wagner we are, as usual, dealing with extremes. But that’s Wagner for you. Love him or hate him, there’s just no ignoring him.