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Views And Reviews: “The First and the Third”

Writing with his usual wit and authority Paul Serotsky introducesd works by Richard Strauss and Wagner.

These words were written to introduce a Vancouver Symphony concert.

Strauss, R (1864-1949) – Symphonic Poem: Don Juan
Strauss, R (1864-1949) – Four Last Songs
Wagner (1813-1883) – Overture: Tannhäuser
Wagner (1813-1883) – Prelude and Liebestod, from “Tristan und Isolde”

By dubbing Strauss “Richard the Third” because he thought that “there could be no ‘second’ after Wagner”, Hans von Bülow certainly risked the posthumous wrath of Michel-Richard de Lalande (1657-1726) and Richard Farrant (1525-80), to name but two (go on, name some others!). However, he also ignited a bonfire of inanities, a cascade of often crackpot comparisons that culminated in the supposed correspondence between Strauss’s Nazi sympathies and Wagner’s anti-Semitism.

I say “supposed” because neither case is anywhere near cut-and-dried – yet a few folk, for this very reason, shun Strauss’s music. Wagner is a far more popular target for shunners, seemingly because he was also a far less “savoury” character than Strauss. I wonder, why hasn’t Gesualdo’s music ever been similarly shunned? After all, isn’t murdering your wife a rather more serious sin? If so, then surely it’s all irrelevant to what really matters – the music.

As if to prove the point, here you are, with your prejudices safely tucked away for the night! Compare Strauss with Wagner if you like, but don’t overlook your chance to compare “youth” with “maturity”. In his teens, Strauss struggled to bloom in Schumann’s shadow. Transplanted by Alexander Ritter into the light of the Liszt/Wagner school, he found the fertile field of freedom he needed for his embryonic idiom to flourish. Still only 24 when his “Don Juan” seriously seduced the “serious music” scene, Strauss injected a new vigour, a vitality that scorched the pants off his illustrious seniors – and everyone else within earshot. The day my hackles don’t bristle at the sound of those rampant horns will be the day they cart me away.

Yet, betwixt the freely evolving, frenzied ritornelli representative of the Don prowling for prey lie expanses of that exquisite lyricism that would become his hallmark. In the shock of the Don’s downfall, chillingly realised in both line and colour, the master musical dramatist is already evident, lurking behind the gaudy façade of the youthful orchestral showman . . .

. . . and 20 years later, with the operas “Salome” and “Elektra”, he was shocking the pants off folks (quite literally, in the former!). These marked the climax of an era in which opera gradually superseded symphonic poem as the outlet for his dramatic bent. With Elektra’s deadly dance (which, incidentally, stole a considerable march on Stravinsky’s) came the death of Strauss the Shocker. Backing out of this blind alley, he reverted to good, old-fashioned Romanticism.

Nevertheless, certain characteristics threaded his entire life: his facility for fluent, luminescent melody and love of the silvery soprano voice, served royally in his operas and a constant stream of songs. The “Four Last Songs” (which aren’t, not quite!) also mark the climax of an era, this time one in which the tumult was not of his making, but from which he again emerged into comparative calm. In one way, it’s a shame these weren’t his very last utterance – few are afforded the opportunity of a sunset such as is expressed, through Hesse’s and especially Eichendorf’s words, by Strauss’s achingly serene music. At the end, as we hear the quotation from “Death and Transfiguration”, we can only give thanks that he didn’t waste it.

Wagner had no trouble blooming: he was fertilised by childhood seminal experiences – Weber’s opera “Der Freischütz” and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the latter kick-starting his compositional career. Within seven years, aged only 22, he’d written his first two operas. Another five years on, and he was busy fleeing creditors. This and his infamous sexual shenanigans would become his regular secondary preoccupations.

Hot on the heels of the roaring success of “Rienzi” (1842) and the not-so-roaring success of “Der Fliegende Holländer” came “Tannhäuser”, these latter two consolidating his stylistic break with the tradition of Weber. He would write “Lohengrin”, “Rheingold”, “Walküre”, the bulk of “Siegfried”, and a fair chunk of “Götterdämmerung” before he got to “Tristan und Isolde” (1859) – so you could say that this last is a mature work!

Whilst the plot of “Tannhäuser” concerns a straight shoot-out between the forces of “sacred” Love and “profane” Lust, that of “Tristan und Isolde” is much more a psychological struggle between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” Love (poor old Lust doesn’t really get even a half-decent look in). The binding thread is that for their pains the lovers end up dead. If that seems a bit pointless, remember – this is opera.

In the “Tannhäuser” Overture, Wagner illustrates the “sacred” aspect through solemn, rounded tones of the Pilgrims’ Chorus, and the “profane” through the fiery, sexual shimmering of the Venusberg music (I’m tempted to add, “Choose your poison”!). All very nice, all very exciting – all very obvious. The really neat touch is that he carries through into the return of the Pilgrims a whirring fragment of the Venusberg. That this sounds uncannily like a persistent viral infection is exactly his point, for in the plot this is precisely what brings about the hero’s downfall.

The Prelude and Liebestod are two of Tovey’s famous “bleeding chunks”, chopped from a Wagner opera by Wagner himself. He clearly didn’t share Tovey’s objection, but why did he do it? I suspect that his purpose was commercial. After all, his method maximised his profit potential – nothing wonderful, just a simple “snip of the scissors” to dispense with the intervening (some would add “tedious”) two or three hours.

But the idea of doing it, now – that was wonderful! Whilst lacking dynamic contrast, the two passages beautifully balance “longing” against “fulfilment”. Wagner’s pursuit of the romantic notion of “love-redemption in death” was never more eloquently expressed than in this tale of illicit liaison. The Prelude conveys unrequited longing through harmonic tensions, rising dissonances resolving only onto further dissonances, tensions that are kept from bursting only by sheer physical restraint.

The ecstasy of “redemption” – in this performance utterly uncensored! – is projected with nerve-tingling passion. Arching phrases slide over one another in burgeoning harmonic – and rhythmic – tension. The time for hesitation and restraint is past: the fervently abandoned music rises to a properly brief climax (apposite word!), before dissolving in protracted benediction. The Prelude’s rising dissonance finally finds its heart’s desire – resolution onto consonance.

© Paul Serotsky


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