Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Growing Up With Wagner

Nicolas Robertson, singer, music writer (and Ms Godfree's brother) marks the bicentennial of the birth of the great German composer Richard Wagner.

My grandfather took me to the opera in London twice in the same season, in about 1968 (when I was fourteen) - perhaps around the time he took me and my sister to see 'The Sound of Music' on stage (with Millicent Martin), and immediately demanded, as we came out, "Right - verdict?"

The operas were Wagner's 'The Mastersingers of Nuremberg' and Puccini's 'Bohème'. Probably he expected, as I did myself, that I'd be over-stretched by the sheer length of the Wagner, and carried away by Puccini's melodic verve. But that's not how I remember it: I responded in a sort of pictorial way to 'La Bohème', thus recall more or less what it looked like, but the music didn't (at that time) make a lasting impression; however I don't remember any feeling of tiredness in 'Mastersingers', just happiness at hearing the big tune come to fruition right at the end after such long gestation (it's true I may have been nodding off in the interim). I was, effectively, already a Wagnerite - if not yet a perfect one.
I didn't listen to Wagner much, as opera, for 3 or 4 years after that; one didn't, apart from overtures on vinyl (I loved 'Tannhäuser' and 'Rienzi' - aerobic music both), and then the 'Siegfried Idyll', which occupied a similar sort of space as 'Verklärte Nacht' of Schoenberg, and Strauss' 'Metamorphosen': concentrated heady, polyphonic harmony which pulled one about.  So I became aware that Wagner was a phenomenon, one day to come to grips with.
During these Wagner-less years, so to speak, I stayed nevertheless at least once a year with my grandparents in London, and in the room where I slept I found 'Das Buch der Motive', a small Schott pamphlet which listed, in score, all the 'signature tunes' Wagner used in 'The Ring'; and a book called 'The Truth about Wagner', which told (most controversially, as I subsequently found out) how much the composer took, really, from his first marriage to Minna, and his revolutionary times in Dresden in 1849, a pile of evidence which goes against his later avatar, controlled by his second wife Cosima von Bülow and 'the Wahnfried strong-box' - a phrase which has stayed with me ever since those Knightsbridge readings - enshrined as mega-artist, national treasure (and anti-semite). And at the same time, we discovered Anna Russell, on a record of our grandparents, who gives the most lucid run through of the whole Ring cycle in 21 minutes (as you can hear in the following 1953 audio recording) - I haven't ever been able to fault any of its detail -

* * * * *

So I knew, at the time at university when I was loving Sibelius, Prokofiev, Elgar, Webern, Ravel, Bartok, Hindemith, the brilliant manifestations of late or post- romanticism, that one would have to come across Wagner. But how to do it? Chelsea Opera Group came to Cambridge in 1973 with Puccini's 'Turandot', which was staggering; student groups (some including me) performed early Donizetti, Monteverdi, Britten and Kurt Weill, but to do Wagner ourselves was unlikely.
In those days (we're in 1974 or '75) there was an excellent record shop in New Oxford Street, London called Gramex (it's now in Lower Marsh, where it's been described - in 'The Spectator' - as "the world's best second-hand classical CD and record shop"), which advertised special offers. One could compare, via the pages of 'The Gramophone', different versions of Wagner's 4-opera cycle 'Der Ring des Niebelungen'; I read about Karajan's and Solti's, but opted for Karl Böhm's live recording from Bayreuth (1966), 16 LPs in a serious box, which Gramex were offering for (if I remember correctly) about £27 [a considerable sum then, especially for a student - JCJG]. I've just seen an internet note which says there are 13 hours 39 minutes of music, which feels too little to me, but it was certainly faster and lighter on its feet than its rivals.
Once I had it, I observed the box and its contents warily. By now I had listened to the 'Tristan und Isolde' Prelude and 'Liebestod', so I had an entrée to the Wagnerian musical atmosphere (and could imagine, though not quite share, the emotion of the young Belgian composer Guillaume Lekeu who fainted when he heard it). But it wouldn't work, I understood, to pick bits out, listen selectively. So first I played the discs deliberately without listening closely, objectively, with scores (borrowed from the Cambridge Public Library, a fantastic resource) and LP booklet to hand, just to time the sides and identify certain crucial events, while I was doing other student things.
As I was getting the assemblage together, I asked friends in other colleges whether they were amenable to a 'Ring party', and had space without too-close neighbours where this could work. A set of rooms high up under the eaves of Clare College seemed ideal.
Wagner described 'Das Rheingold' as the Prelude to 'The Ring' - so we agreed to listen to it in the afternoon, in time to sing evensong (as I had to, as a choral scholar at St John's College) and eat; and resume at about 9pm for the rest. I circulated detailed timings for salient moments during the night: if you wanted Siegfried's Rhine Journey, you needed to turn up at (say) 5.15am - and people did drop in! among them Barry Millington, now a leading Wagner scholar and writer, then an undergraduate like me. I can't remember how many of us were there for the whole thing, perhaps half a dozen… but many more came and (naturally) went.
I'm not going to talk in detail about the music itself here, or about the effect it has on one, including that invasion of one's entire space which one may or may not find legitimate, and which Verdi doesn't pretend to; Nicholas Spice's recent article in the 'London Review of Books', 11 April, entitled 'Is Wagner bad for us?', is a fine short discussion of this and other aspects of the operas, in human and musical terms. Wagner didn't become one of 'my favourite composers', he's beyond that category, indeed for many years I couldn't listen to him at all, I found it too moving in an uncomfortable (yet admiring) sort of way.
That first time in Cambridge, though, I didn't fully grasp that enormity, amidst so much novelty (revelations of huge emotional import at individual moments, such as 'Wotan's farewell' at the end of 'Die Walküre', came during the following couple of years). What I remember are the longueurs of 'Siegfried' in the small hours, exacerbated by some bottles of Tuborg I'd brought in exactly to alleviate the tedium, but which fell rather sourly on one's empty stomach (but one needed the sort of 'Scherzo' 'Siegfried' provides, a lowering of the tension until its towering finale, which calls you on to the last stage), and then the extraordinary progress through 'Götterdämmerung', as dawn (not twilight! but it works! it's the twilight of the gods, but the initiation of a new cycle on earth) filtered in, and the harmonic key sequence took one from the deep river-run E flat of 'Rheingold', through the wild D minor of the start of 'Walkure' , to the cosmic D flat of love's redemption at the end of 'Götterdämmerung', 14 hours of music later; and I walked out into a bright cool early June morning in Cambridge (no one, I think, wanted or needed to speak at the end) as if I'd never walked the roads before, and knew that things were not the same. I had been through the Ring.
The sensation wore off, of course. Happily; or, alas.
Find out more about Nicolas Robertson's work here and here.

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