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How much do you know about Richard Wagner? Probably two unfavorable facts: He wrote very long, grandiose operas and was Hitler's favorite composer. As true as they are, those simple examples barely hint at the complexity of this endlessly creative and confounding artist.
Two centuries after Wagner's birth (he was born in Leipzig May 22, 1813), the man and his music continue to beguile and bewilder fans, detractors and critics. Wagner societies the world over revel in the composer's resplendent operas and theatrical innovations. On another level altogether are the "Ring Heads" who will travel anywhere to soak up performances of his 15-hour long operatic tetralogy The Ring of the Nibelung. But countless others revile the man for his rabid anti-Semitism, his posthumous associations with the Third Reich and his overall megalomania. To this day, live performances of Wagner's music are unofficially banned in Israel.
William Berger, in his book Wagner Without Fear, tackles the many-sided beast that is Richard Wagner, labeling him the most controversial artist who ever lived. "Devotees of history, politics, psychology and literature, as well as artists and musicians of all kinds, all have a great deal to say about him," Berger writes. "This can be quite intimidating to the nonexpert who just wants to know what all the fuss is about."
And there is plenty to fuss over — both awe-inspiring and contemptible. A few years back, with Berger's help, we presented "The Self-Help Guide To Wagner." It's a kind of Wagner for Dummies that explores the wealth of human experience found in his fascinating music and the "Darth Wagner" side of the composer.
But for this big anniversary, we asked Berger to focus on the music, not the man. He chose his five favorite Wagner moments — moments which bring the composer's extraordinary works directly into our lives today — and guided us through the music. His comments are excerpted below.
Have your own top Wagner moments? We'd love to hear about them in the comments section.
The Ring of the Nibelung is this huge epic. It's a four-night-long opera telling of the passing of the gods and the old order and the emergence of man as the supreme being on the Earth. There's literally nothing it's not about. The first part of the Ring of The Nibelung is called Das Rheingold, which is about the gold at the bottom of the river Rhine — the Rheingold — which is stolen by a very frustrated dwarf named Alberich. He's the Nibelung of the title of the whole epic. And he steals this pure gold from the bottom of the river, forges a ring out of it, which is the ring of the title, by which he intends to be master of the entire world. But it is cursed and everybody who touches the ring destroys themselves and everything they love. What I think Wagner accomplishes really uniquely are transitions, and the way one thing relates or doesn't relate to another. That's what's interesting about the Ring. In the orchestral transition from the first to the second scene of Das Rheingold, we go from the bottom of the river to the top of a mountain where Valhalla is being constructed as a fortress home for the gods. What we hear at the beginning is swirling chaos. There's also a sense of menace. You can kind of tell something bad has just happened. Things aren't going to be the same from now on. But now imagine a camera doing a pan shot from the bottom of a river. Coming up, there's a little bit of light. There's still a swirling and uncertainty of what's happening. But then the world of air and eventually mountaintops will emerge out of that. There's Valhalla, and everything has changed. We have Wotan, the king of the gods, dreaming about this house that he's had built. He imagines walking in with his wife and the other gods over a rainbow bridge. And they will be safe at last — he thinks. Now there's one problem. He hasn't quite figured out how he's going to pay for this. What we have is the original real estate crisis that will bring down the economy.
Die Walküre is the second opera in the four-opera epic known as the Ring of the Nibelung. The focus of this story is on the title woman, the Valkyrie Brünnhilde. If you've ever seen somebody trying to trivialize opera by showing the classic fat lady in the breastplate with braids and horned helmet, that would be Brünnhilde. She's a very human character and a fascinating one. Her father is Wotan, the king of the gods. Well, he is going to have to part from her and leave her on a mountaintop to be found by a hero. The pain that he is experiencing in this moment is on one hand very much a father taking leave of his favorite daughter forever. On the other hand, it's also somebody putting a part of themselves to rest — letting go of their dreams, their aspirations, everything they wanted from the future. So in that way, it is everybody's tragedy. Everybody has this moment that Wotan has. Anyone can understand that this is the sort of pain that can only be deadened by rest, by sleep, by sedatives, by death. And again, we can think of this in terms of mythology and the passing of the gods, or you can think of this in terms of somebody sitting at a bar, slamming shots, trying to forget something. It's a human and surprisingly universal tragedy. It's about each and every one of our daily lives and the things we have to let go of as time progresses.
TRISTAN UND ISOLDE
Many operas portray true love very well, in a very direct and familiar way that the whole audience can relate to. Tristan und Isolde is a love story but it's very different from anything familiar — this is the union of souls on an extreme metaphysical level. This touches on the mystical union of light and dark, and life and death, and every sort of duality. There is a love scene between these two lovers that is pretty much the whole central act of the opera. It is an exploration of the idea of the union of two separate entities. It is considered, and rightly so, the supreme love scene in opera — and maybe because it takes the idea of one man and one woman, which is the most pedestrian thing there is, and projects it onto the cosmic level very convincingly. I think all modern poetry owes an uncredited debt to the formlessness of the libretto of Tristan und Isolde. This is not the way people talk when they meet and fall in love. There's a point at which they are no longer trying to be syntactically logical. In other words, they get out into the "twinkie zone." It shows you that these are people who are in love on a concrete level, but they're also ideas that are swirling in and out of each other in a much more vaporous dimension.
DIE MEISTERSINGER VON NÜRNBERG
When you hear the name Wagner, comedy is not the first thought that usually pops into your, unless of course it's Bugs Bunny. But Wagner did write a comedy, and it's called Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg — The Mastersingers of Nuremburg. And it is remarkable. What's important to me about Meistersinger is a look into human nature and the possibilities of love and happiness that are beyond a laugh fest. One of the most extraordinary moments in Meistersinger is an example of people connecting to each other and to an idea in a given moment. This is the famous quintet that comes in Act 3. This moment is perfect. The sun is coming up. Right now, in this moment, everything is coming together and everything is possible. This merger of tradition and innovation can happen. This merger of boyfriend and girlfriend can happen. All these things that are always perceived as separate units can come together and a beautiful, beautiful moment can happen.
Parsifal, in the briefest terms, is the story of boy meets Grail — a depiction of this corrupt, fossilized society that's renewed by the intervention of a young, 'pure fool' who has been made wise through compassion and who renews this community. The sources of the story are legends of the Knights of the Holy Grail. But it's clearly Wagner's idea of the Holy Grail, which is in this case the cup that was used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper and then was used in his Crucifixion to catch his blood. One of my favorite moments of Parsifal is during the ceremony of the Holy Grail in the first act. The knights go through the ritual of uncovering the Grail and venerating it. For this one moment, Wagner's directions say there's a shaft of light coming down from heaven. What happens in this part of Parsifal is this musical figure begins in the lowest voices, the basses. Then the middle voices, tenors, will pick up the same figure. Eventually it moves into these heavenly voices which are usually actually placed above the stage. And what we have is a musical ladder that literally connects the here and now, the Earth, to the heavens.