|No. 170 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at https://archive.org/details/pcast170|
This week’s podcast completes our very modest look at Richard Wagner begun on Tuesday’s Vinyl’s Revenge post. As a tie-in between the two, the podcast begins with another excerpt from the opera Tannhäuser, the Festive March from the closing bars of Act II.
Where casual listeners criticize Wagner’s operatic output, more often than not length and plot complexity bubble to the surface. For the most part, Wagner’s works are set in the world of myth and legend – Tannhäuser being an excellent example. However, no work rivals in breath, length and plot complexity with the four-part Ring des Nibelungen, "ein Bühnenfestspiel für drei Tage und einen Vorabend" (a stage festival drama for three days and a preliminary evening). The cycle is a work of extraordinary scale and sheer length: a full performance of the cycle takes place over four nights at the opera, with a total playing time of about 15 hours.
Wagner's title is most literally rendered in English as The Ring of the Nibelung. The Nibelung of the title is the dwarf Alberich, and the ring in question is the one he fashions from the Rhine Gold. The title therefore denotes "Alberich's Ring". The scale and scope of the story is epic, following the struggles of gods, heroes, and several mythical creatures over the eponymous magic ring that grants domination over the entire world. The drama and intrigue continue through three generations of protagonists, until the final cataclysm at the end of Götterdämmerung.
As a significant element in the Ring (and his subsequent works), Wagner adopted the use of leitmotifs. These are recurring themes and/or harmonic progressions. They musically denote an action, object, emotion, character or other subject mentioned in the text and/or presented onstage. Wagner referred to them in "Opera and Drama" as "guides-to-feeling", and described how they could be used to inform the listener of a musical or dramatic subtext to the action onstage in the same way as a Greek chorus did for the theatre of ancient Greece.
In today’s podcast, I retained two selections from the Ring. The first, the infamous “Ride of the Valkyries” is taken out of an operatic performance, with the lyric sopranos providing the battle cry. The second selection happens to be the ultimate scene from the fourth and final opera. In a sense, it is a microcosm of the story, complete with a recap of the many leitmotifs Wagner used throughout the cycle to situate his characters.
Equally ambitious in its own right, Parsifal – Wagner’s last completed work, premiered in 1882, the year before his death - is the story of a young man whose virtue and compassion become the salvation of the Knights of the Holy Grail. He wards off temptation and danger to regain the spear with which Christ's side was pierced on the cross; in the process he heals the king, Amfortas, of a cursed wound, and relieves the fallen woman, Kundry, from her eternal wandering.
The podcast combines digital-era recordings and vintage classic performances by the likes of Kirsten Flagstad, Monserrat Caballe, and Lauritz Melchior, as well as Arturo Toscanini (featured in the last selection, the fanfare Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin)
I think you will love this music too!