Archive for Richard Wagner

Trustan with Usolde

Posted in Literature, Opera with tags , , , , , , , , on August 1, 2020 by telescoper

It is, I think, fairly well known that physicist Murray Gell-Mann was inspired to pick the name quark for the name of a type of subatomic particle by a passage from Finnegans Wake by James Joyce:

— Three quarks for Muster Mark!
Sure he hasn’t got much of a bark
And sure any he has it’s all beside the mark.

What is perhaps less well known is the identity of “Muster Mark” in that quote. In fact it is King Mark of Cornwall, husband of Queen Iseult in the legend of Tristan and Iseult. The Iseult in that legend is Irish. She has has an affair with Tristan, nephew of King Mark, with tragic consequences. This legend appears in many literary forms including, most famously, Richard Wagner’s Opera Tristan und Isolde. It also comes up frequently in Finnegans Wake including this passage on the same page (in the edition I have) as the Muster Mark quote above:

That song sang seaswans.
The winging ones. Seahawk, seagull, curlew and plover, kestrel
and capercallzie. All the birds of the sea they trolled out rightbold
when they smacked the big kuss of Trustan with Usolde.

See how Joyce plays with the substitution of “u” for “i” here as in “Muster”. Either that or the “I” key on his typewriter didn’t work properly. Or he had fat fingers and kept hitting the wrong key; U and I are next door on the keyboard.

Incidentally there is a small village in Dublin called Chapelizod which is where a church was built dedicated to Queen Iseult. Whether there is any real connection between this place and the historical Iseult is very doubtful.

Now, where was I. Oh yes. Back to Opera.

Years ago, when I lived in Nottingham, on a warm summer evening I decided to listen to some of the live broadcast on BBC Radio 3 of a performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde from Glyndebourne. I made myself a cocktail and took the radio out into the garden with the intention of listening to a bit of it before going out for the evening. This was back in the days when I actually used to go out on the town on Saturday nights; now I’m too old for that sort of thing.

Anyway, I was hooked right from the Prelude. Act I came and went and I decided to make some dinner in the interval, opened a bottle of wine, and returned to listen to the rest of it. The glorious music washed over me in the sultry twilight. Darkness fell, a second bottle of wine was opened, and still I listened – no doubt to the consternation of my neighbours. The final Liebestod was so beautiful I almost cried. Eventually I retreated to the house having experienced my first all-out Wagner trip.

My enjoyment of that occasion was of course helped by the fact I could get up and walk around occasionally, as well as by the liberal intake of fine wine. Nevertheless I do think Tristan and Isolde works very well on the radio – nothing very much happens on stage anyway (especially in Act II) so you can just let the music work it’s magic.

The reason for all this rambling is that there is a special broadcast of Tristan und Isolde on RTÉ Lyric FM. This performance, recorded in 2012, features as Isolde the celebrated dramatic soprano Miriam Murphy who very sadly passed away suddenly a few weeks ago. Tonight’s programme is a tribute to her memory. I believe Miriam Murphy is the only Irish soprano to have sung the role of Isolde. I’ve heard a few clips from it and her voice sounds amazing.

The Opera is preceded on the radio by a documentary about the production, the first in Ireland for 50 years and the first by a brand new company based in Ireland. I think James Joyce would have approved.

So that’s my Saturday evening sorted out!

Update: I listened to the broadcast and it is an astonishingly wonderful performance by Miriam Murphy.

Wagner & Bruckner at the National Concert Hall

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , on February 22, 2020 by telescoper

I had to brave some very inclement weather on the way to last night’s performance at the National Concert Hall in Dublin for a performance by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Mihhail Gerts (deputising for Natalie Stutzmann who had to withdraw “due to unforeseen circumstances”). The concert consisted of the Prelude to Act I and the Good Friday Music from the Opera Parsifal by Richard Wagner followed by Symphony No. 7 by Anton Bruckner. To my surprise these pieces were performed without a wine break interval.

As was the case a couple of weeks ago for Bruckner 8, a big orchestra was required, including a quartet of Wagnertuben.

While not everyone likes Wagnerian Opera performed in entirety there must be very few people who don’t enjoy the overtures. A programme consisting entirely of Richard Wagner’s Preludes would make for a wonderful concert, and the Prelude to Act I of Parsifal, although very familiar, is so beautiful that it bears repeated listening. Whenever I hear it I can’t help thinking of the poignant last scene of the very last episode of Inspector Morse: `Goodbye Sir’, says Lewis and kisses the dead Morse on the forehead to the accompaniment of this music from Parsifal.

The Good Friday Music occurs at the start of the Third Act of Parsifal so is in a sense also a Prelude. Even out of the context of the Opera, it provides a wonderful opportunity for reflection and contemplation because it is so subtle and understated, somewhat uncharacteristically for Wagner.

These two pieces last about half an hour, and normally one would expect an interval after them, especially since the Symphony is over an hour in duration. I’m not sure what the reason was for playing the Bruckner straight after the Wagner, but it seems to have been a last minute decision. The printed programme contains the usual `INTERVAL_ 20 minutes’ so I had ordered a drink for the interval; nobody had told the bar staff there wouldn’t be one. I got my money back, though.

One positive aspect of the lack of a pause was that it made the connection between Bruckner’s composition and Wagner even more obvious. The radiant first movement of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, with its noble melody soaring over shimmering violin tremolos is very reminiscent of Wagner, as is much of the rest of the Symphony (including the orchestration). Bruckner famously idolized Wagner and this composition is at least partly a tribute to his musical hero. It is said that Bruckner had a premonition of Wagner’s death in 1883 and the cymbal crash during the second (slow) movement symbolizes the moment that he found out that his premonition had come true. That whole movement (marked Sehr feierlich und sehr langsam; very solemn and very slow) is very moving: sombre though not excessively mournful. The third movement Scherzo is marked Sehr Schnell (very fast) but I found the tempo last night rather restrained. I was expecting something a bit wilder. The last movement actually sounded to me more like Mahler than Wagner.

The Seventh is probably Bruckner’s best known and most performed Symphony. It was certainly a big hit for him when it was first performed in 1884. I enjoyed last night’s performance. Usually videos of these concerts are put on the Lyric FM Youtube channel shortly after the performance, but when I looked just now last night’s wasn’t there yet. I’ll put a link up as soon as it appears.

UPDATE: Here, as promised, is the recording:


The picture above was taken a while before the performance and, although quite a few more people came in before it started, there were still quite a few empty seats. The National Concert Hall posted a (small) financial loss last year. I do the best I can to support it by attending as frequently as I can, but I am always saddened a bit to see so many empty seats. Anyway, I shall be back there this evening for a special event which is part of the Beethoven 250 celebrations, so watch this space!

Dinner with Wagner

Posted in History, Opera with tags , , , on October 13, 2019 by telescoper

Before dinner with the RAS Club on Friday evening I was looking through the display cabinets at the Athenaeum and saw this, the record of a dinner involving a member and guests on 23rd May 1877. The member was electrical engineer, businessman and Fellow of the Royal Society Carl Wilhelm Siemens and among is guests was Richard Wagner:

Dinner started early and was evidently a lengthy affair, much like Wagner’s operas!

That reminds me of a famous review of one of Wagner’s operas by a critic who clearly wasn’t a fan.

Parsifal is an Opera by Richard Wagner that starts at half past five. Three hours later, you look at your watch and it’s quarter to six.

P.S. There is a photograph taken of Wagner (whose 64th birthday was on 22nd May) during his visit to London in 1877:


Posted in Music with tags , , , on June 11, 2014 by telescoper

I know this old record is a bit crackly, but just listen to the voice! This is the wondrous Kirsten Flagstad, recorded in 1948 with Gerald Moore on piano, singing Träume, the last of the five Wesendonck Lieder by Richard Wagner.

As a person Wagner was definitely a complete shit, but you have to admit he wrote some beautiful music. Perhaps there really is some good in every person…

The Annunciation of Death

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on June 19, 2013 by telescoper

It’s a lovely day so I thought I’d turn away to the doom and gloom of the ongoing bin strike towards a much cheerier subject: death. In the film about Stephen Hawking I saw last week there was a moving segment in which Hawking sought solace in music after being diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease and given just a few years to live. The specific piece of music he discussed was the Annunciation of Death by Richard Wagner. Not being a Wagner expert I wasn’t familiar with this piece so did a bit of research over the weekend to find out more about it. That turned out to be quite interesting.

The Annunciation of Death turns out to be a leitmotif  appearing in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, often known as the Ring Cycle. Leitmotifs of various types occur throughout this epic series of four operas. Some are associated with individual characters, sometimes present on stage and sometimes absent but relevant to the drama. Other leitmotifs relate to specific emotional states, locations  or even inanimate objects (e.g. a sword).

The Annunciation of Death (in German: Todesverkundigen) makes its first appearance at the beginning of Act II Scene 4 of Die Walkürethe second Opera of the Ring Cycle, when Brünnhilde approaches to tell Siegmund of his impending death. You can see why Hawking thought of this when given his prognosis. This is the leitmotif

What’s interesting about this is that it is formed by the merger of two other leitmotifs, one relating to Erda, the Goddess of earth and the mother of the three Norns, who has the ability to see the future:

and another more generally associated with fate

Doom takes on a very specific manifestation for poor old Siegmund. Here is the leitmotif as it appears in the actual Opera, as part of the instrumental prelude to the glorious voice of the legendary Kirsten Flagstad as Brünnhilde singing Siegmund! Sieh’ auf mich!

I never expected to learn something new about Wagner by watching a film about Stephen Hawking, but there you go!

Lohengrin at WNO

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on June 2, 2013 by telescoper

Yesterday evening I went to the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay to see Welsh National Opera’s new production of Richard Wagner‘s Opera Lohengrin, along with an old friend who’s almost certain to add a comment or two to this post. I had been looking forward to this performance for ages, but my sense of anticipation was enhanced even further by reading the excellent reviews this Opera has been getting in the national newspapers recently. I don’t often agree with the critics, actually, but in this case I wasn’t disappointed. It was absolutely superb.

Lohengrin  is set in Germany in the 10th Century at a time of impending war with Hungarian tribes. In Act I Heinrich, the King, arrives in the province of Brabant in order to muster troops, but finds the place in turmoil because of the disappearance of  young Gottfried, the heir to the Dukedom of Brabant in mysterious circumstances. Telramund, who governs Brabant after the death of the Duke and is also guardian to Gottfried and his sister Elsa, accuses Elsa of having killed her younger brother Gottfried. The King eventually agrees to Elsa’s guilt being decided in a  trial by combat and Telramund prepares to fight Elsa’s champion. But who is her mysterious defender? You can tell that he’s no ordinary Joe because he arrives as if by magic in a boat pulled by a swan…

In this production the swan is represented by a handsome white-clad boy (played by Thomas Rowlands) who propels the boat on stage with sweeping gestures of his arm and the unfurling of a single wing, creating one of the most memorable entrances I’ve ever seen in an opera, but that turned out to be just one of many wonderful moments in this production:


The champion gets out of the boat and, pausing only to fall in love with Elsa and ask her to marry him, he defeats Telramund but spares his life. There’s only one condition to the marriage – Elsa must never ask the champion his name or where he comes from. She agrees.

In Act II, as preparations are being made for Elsa’s wedding, it is revealed that Telramund was duped into making his allegation about Elsa by his evil wife Ortrud. Unfortunately Elsa doesn’t understand the situation and takes pity on Ortrud, who then starts to sow the seeds of doubt about the identity of her champion, the mysterious knight, who has now been declared ruler of Brabant. Near the end of the Act, as Elsa is arriving at the church for her wedding, Ortrud intervenes again, and hatches a plot to reveal the identity of her husband.

Act III begins after the wedding, but instead of being filled with nuptial bliss, Elsa is wracked with doubt. Might there be something sinister about her husband, the knight? To make matters worse, Telramund breaks into the honeymoon suite, attacks the champion and gets himself killed in the process. At this point Our Hero has had enough. He tells Elsa that at dawn he will reveal his identity to the King and the assembled troops, who are preparing for battle expecting him to lead them to victory. However, when the appointed time comes, he explains that he can not after all lead them, but must return where he came from. In one of the most beautiful songs  in all opera, In fernem Land, unnahbar euren Schritten (“In a far-off land, beyond the realm of mortals..”), Lohengrin (for it is he) explains all. He is one of the Knights of the Holy Grail, none other than the son of the legendary Parsifal, licensed to travel about undertaking acts of chivalry and valour, but obliged to return home, licence revoked, whenever his identity is known. The boat (and swanboy) return to take him away, Elsa collapses in despair, and Ortrud is triumphant, but only until it is revealed that the swan is in fact Elsa’s lost brother Gottfried, who is installed as Brabant’s new leader, at which points she collapses too.

It’s an epic tale of, course, unfolding over almost five hours, but at its core it’s really not about swords and sorcery but about the conflicts between love and duty and between trust and doubt; themes that are timeless. I wasn’t particularly surprised, therefore, to see that the design of this production places it somewhere in the middle of the nineteenth century, a setting that works well because that was also avtime of great turmoil across mainland Europe. It is also interesting that the first ever performance of Lohengrin was in 1850. The set is rather spare, and the garb of the soldiers rather drab blue and khaki, with peaked caps and greatcoats. The exceptions are Lohengrin and Gottfried whose pure white costumes pick them out as being not quite of this Earth.

As for the performances, I have to pick out Emma Bell as Elsa. I had read great things about her before this performance, but I still wasn’t prepared for the combination of such a lovely voice and fine acting. Susan Bickley was a splendidly feisty badass as Ortrud, and Matthew Best played Heinrich  with great gravitas. I have to admit, though, that I found Peter Wedd a little less impressive as Lohengrin. He sang well enough, although his voice on a couple of occasions got lost in the orchestra, but I just felt he lacked the imposing stage presence that a Wagnerian hero demands.

Lothar Koenigs is  a particularly fine conductor of romantic music and he had the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera on fine form – there were a couple of ragged moments, but there were enough sublime moments to compensate. I’d pick out: the Prelude to Act I – surely the most beautiful overture in all Opera? – which unfolded in suitably majestic fashion; the Prelude to Act III, a rip-roaring piece totally different in character to that of Act I; and the passage in Act III that leads to the entrance of the King. For that piece, trumpets took up positions at various points around the hall, two of them right next to where we were seated. The effect of the fanfares calling and answering across the theatre was spine-tingling.

Above all, though, I have to take my hat off to the Chorus of  Welsh National Opera. I’ve been to many performances at the Wales Millennium Centre over the last six years or so. Some have been better than others, but the Chorus has always been excellent. Last night was no exception. They got the mixture of passion and control just right, and at times the power they generated was breathtaking.

I’ve tried to explain very often to people who don’t like Opera why I love it so much. That always involves explaining how you can take a piece of drama seriously when everyone is singing all the time. I have to say that somehow the music just creates an alternative universe and you fall into it. Sometimes that takes a while, and sometimes it doesn’t really happen at all. Yesterday, it only took about two bars of the Prelude to Act I to get me hooked and I stayed hooked for the whole performance.

It’s a wonderful thing, Opera. If you haven’t tried it before, you should. If you don’t like, fair enough. But if you never try you might just miss something that will change your life for the better. You won’t find many better productions to start with than this one!

Tristan und Isolde

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , , on May 20, 2012 by telescoper

Regular readers of this blog will know that, although I’m a regular opera-goer, I’m by no means as much of a devout fan of Richard Wagner as many of that ilk, including some of my colleagues. Nevertheless, I have decided to persevere in much the same way as I have done with Brahms. Last night I had an opportunity to do just that by going to the first night of the new run of Tristan und Isolde by Welsh National Opera. I was particularly delighted to see this opera on the WNO schedule for this year, because it is an opera with which I am a little bit familiar, and thus provided me with an excuse to persevere a little bit more, for reasons I shall explain…

Years ago, when I lived in Nottingham, on a warm summer evening I decided to listen to some of the live broadcast on BBC Radio 3 of Tristan und Isolde from Glyndebourne. I made myself a cocktail and took the radio out into the garden with the intention of listening to a bit of it before going out for the evening. This was back in the days when I actually used to go out on the town on Saturday nights; now I’m too old for that sort of thing. Anyway, I was hooked right from the Prelude. Act I came and went and I decided to make some dinner in the interval, opened a bottle of wine, and returned to listen to the rest of it. The glorious music washed over me in the sultry twilight. Darkness fell, a second bottle of wine was opened, and still I listened – no doubt to the consternation of my neighbours. The final Liebestod was so beautiful I almost cried. Eventually I retreated to the house having experienced my first all-out Wagner trip.

My enjoyment of that occasion was of course helped by the fact I could get up and walk around occasionally, as well as by the liberal intake of fine wine. Nevertheless, I took enough out of it to want to see a full performance. Last night was my chance.

I think the first thing to say about Tristan und Isolde is that the music is completely wonderful. Not only ravishingly beautiful, but also haunting and complex. The opening bars establish a vividly chromatic orchestral palette which is used to brilliant effect to create the atmosphere of tragedy that pervades this work. The opening chord, the Tristan chord, is dissonant and its effect is strengthened by its resolution into another dissonant chord.

It’s often been said – probably with justification – that the freedom with which Wagner composed this opera opened up a whole new set of possibilities for Western classical music. It’s also wonderful to listen to.

So as a music drama it scores nearly 100% for the music. As a drama, though, it leaves a lot to be desired. The plot in Act I is absurd even by operatic standards. Isolde plans to poison Tristan and then take poison herself, but her servant Brangäne does a nifty switch of the vials and the two drink a love potion instead. This ignites a mutual desire that had previously been dormant and leads them into a tragic confrontation between love and responsibility. Isolde, you see, is betrothed to King Mark of Cornwall, and Tristan is his most loyal and virtuous knight. You know this isn’t going to end well, but the bit with the potions reminded me of that old Danny Kaye sketch about the “Vessel with the Pestle”.

Act 2 finds Tristan and Isolde in a dark wood, having embarked on an illicit love affair. It’s basically just the two of them on stage expressing their love to each other in wonderful music. Dramatically, however, nothing at all happens for the best part of an hour until right at the end when the King and his men find the couple in flagrant deliciousness. Now I understood why this opera works so well on the radio..

Tristan is stabbed by one of the King’s cronies at the end of Act 2, but the start of Act 3 finds him back in his ancestral home in Brittany, mortally wounded, lying under a very large plank of wood. In despair he hopes that Isolde will find him and mend his wounds with one of her potions (hopefully the right one this time). She arrives, but he snuffs it before she can help. Then another ship arrives, carrying King Mark and his boys, who have obviously been in hot pursuit across the English Channel. Isolde sings of being reunited in love with the dead Tristan and as she sings the stage and other actors fade from view. She dies.

Full marks to Isolde, Ann Petersen, a wonderful dramatic soprano with an electrifying voice; she’s from Denmark, incidentally. Canadian-born Ben Heppner as Tristan, was also in good voice, although he sometimes struggled to project and his rotund appearance called for a bit of audience imagination for him to be seen as a dashing knight. Mezzo  Susan Bickley was a splendid Brangäne too.

The Orchestra of Welsh National Opera under the direction of Lothar Koenigs were excellent too, after a rather nervous opening during which they seemed almost to be in awe of the music they were playing. And a special word for the staging, which was rather stark but also very clever, especially during Act I when a translucent screen divided the front and back of the stage and allowed some intriguing lighting effects.

I’d prepared myself psychologically for the 5 hours plus of this performance – not too bad actually, when you realise that includes two intervals, of 25 minutes and 50 minutes respectively – so I coped well enough. The piece definitely has its   longueurs, but you can always shut your eyes and imagine you’re in the garden at home..

The Heldentenor

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , , , on August 28, 2009 by telescoper

Last week I was listening one of this summer’s Promenade concerts on the radio. The one in question featured the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, a group of young Arab and Israeli players conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Before the music actually started there was a lengthy discussion by the radio pundits and members of the orchestra about the decision to include in their programme a piece by Richard Wagner, the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. The orchestra had actually done this as an encore piece previously, but had never had in on their published programme. The problem was that Wagner was a notorious anti-semitic bastard and his music is considered by many to be emblematic of German Nazism. Many members of the orchestra – not only those who happened to be Jewish, in fact – did not feel at all comfortable playing music that carried such distressing overtones. After much discussion, however, they had decided to reclaim Wagner’s music from its awful past and treat it as their own. The performance they produced last week was really excellent, I should add.

For reasons which should become obvious fairly soon, this spurred me on to put something up here by the great Danish singer  Lauritz Melchior. Born in Copenhagen in 1890, Melchior was probably the greatest of all the Heldentenors. If you don’t know what a Heldentenor is, it’s a term used to describe the heroic lead in most of Wagner’s operas. In the words of Anna Russell, he

… is very big, very strong, very brave, very stupid. He carries a spear and wears a helmet. He talks to birds, laughs at dragons, and travels by swan.

Melchior had an immensely powerful voice, which is obligatory if you have to cut through a huge Wagnerian orchestra, but, unlike many other singers who can sing very loud, he was also extremely accurate and his voice had a very rich texture. Other dramatic tenors of his day had purer voices – but if Richard Tauber‘s was polished silver, Melchior’s was more like wrought iron. It’s a matter of taste of course, but I haven’t heard any modern singers anywhere near as good as him in Wagnerian roles. For me, Melchior is the Heldentenor.

The other thing I should mention about Melchior was that he was Jewish (NOTE: This appears to be incorrect – see comments). Although he performed frequently in German opera houses – including  Bayreuth – during the 1920s, he stopped doing so in 1931 when Hitler and his cronies started systematically persecuting Jewish musicians. He spent much of the rest of his life as a star performer at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and eventually took up American citizenship. Despite his ancestry and his hatred for the Nazis, however, he never stopped performing Wagner’s music.

When he  died in 1973,  Melchior’s body was transported back to his native Denmark and he was buried in the famous Assistens Cemetery in his home town of Copenhagen. His grave, in fact, is not far from that of the jazz musician Ben Webster.

I don’t know the date of this particular clip, but it was made for American television, I guess sometime during the 1950s. Melchior was already an old man by then, but I love the way he sets himself for this performance and you don’t have to make any allowance for his years. His diction is superb, there’s a wonderful timbre to his voice and when he unleashes the fortissimo his power is almost shocking. This is the narration In Fernem Land, from Wagner’s Lohengrin that also provides the theme for the exquisite instrumental Prelude to Act I of the opera, which also provided Anna Russell with her reference to travelling by swan..