Weill Concert Hall, Green Music Center
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1801 East Cotati Ave
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
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RICHARD WAGNER (1813-1883)
Scenes from The Ring of the Nibelung
Wagner’s Ring is one of the most monumental musical works ever created. He first conceived the idea for a story about a ring of power that would grant its wearer dominion over the world (provided that he was willing to foreswear love) when he wasin his early 30s, and he completed the last pages at the age of 61.
The Ring ostensibly deals with gods, giants, dwarves, dragons, magic helmets and the all-controlling ring of power, but its philosophical and ethical basis grows directly out of the unfettered capitalism of the industrial revolution. It is no coincidence that Wagner wrote an essay on “The Nibelung Myth as a Sketch for a Drama” in 1848, the same year that Marx and Engels published The Communist Manifesto. In their characteristically different ways (Marx with an essay in economic philosophy, Wagner with a draft for a theatrical work), both men addressed the theme that wealth, and the power that it gives, can be a destructive force in human relations.
Wagner planned at first to tell his story in a single opera, The Death of Siegfried, but soon realized that he needed expansion to recount the full backstory. Four massive operas grew from myths involving the Norse gods and old epic poems, which Wagner absorbed thoroughly then fused into his text. He began the actual composition in1853 and worked on it for twenty-one years (interrupting himself twice to create Tristan and Isolde in 1865 and The Mastersingers of Nuremberg in 1868) while completing his largest work.
In August 1876 the full monumental work had its premiere, an event of international importance. Few artistic creations of such scope and power exist in the European tradition. Perhaps only three literary masterpieces—Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Goethe’s Faust—can be mentioned in the same breath with Wagner’s gigantic composition. All four present an all-encompassing world view in a work of epic size that spanned the entire universe, dominating the creative lives of the artists who envisioned them.
Musically Wagner created an entirely new approach, an extended continuity in which the span of musical shapes is measured in hours—by whole acts—rather than in minutes—by arias, duets, and other ensembles. Each act grows over its entire span with a contrapuntal web of themes unfolding symphonically in the orchestra; the vocal line forms one more element, though often the most significant one.
As the tetralogy unfolds, Wagner’s short, characteristic themes (often called by the term Leitmotiv, or “leading motive”) gradually change shape or turn into new themes or intertwine with others; certain musical ideas reappear in specific dramatic contexts. An astonishingly large number of these grow out of the very first music heard at the beginning of Das Rheingold—a simple arpeggiation of the E-flat triad in a slow dotted rhythm. The fundamental unfolding of a tone, a chord, a harmony, depicts the unspoiled world of nature before the loss of the Ring, but its variants quickly take on new meanings when introduced during the action in connection with a striking moment or textual phrase. Gradually each theme builds up its own referential power, so that a restatement brings with it the accumulated emotional force of everything the viewer has witnessed throughout the course of the extraordinary tale.
Each of the four operas in the cycles has its own dramatic-musical course, building to a climax and a temporary sense of conclusion; and taken together, they build to one of the most astonishing and daring conclusions in the entire history of the musical and theatrical arts—to the destruction and rebirth of the entire universe.
In DAS RHEINGOLD (The Rhine Gold) the Nibelung dwarf Alberich steals the pure gold from the bottom of the river Rhine and, by cursing the power of love, forges a ring that makes him the master of the universe.
Meanwhile Wotan, leader of the Norse gods, has had a fortress, Valhalla, constructed by some giants as defense in an anticipated war. Since Wotan offered to give Freia, the goddess of love, as payment, Valhalla is morally no different from the Ring in representing the will to power rather than love. In order to counter the potential power of Alberich, Wotan and the trickster Loge descend to the home of the dwarves, and obtain the Ring through trickery. The Descent to Nibelheim is an orchestral passage accompanying the change of scene from the airy heights of Valhalla to the depths of the earth, emphasizing at the end the anvils of the dwarves who have been enslaved by Alberich to do his bidding. When it is taken from him by trickery, Alberich puts a powerful curse on the Ring: Whoever owns it will die because of it; whoever does not have it will take any measures possible to gain it. Wotan wants it himself, but he is forced to cede it to the giants, one of whom, Fafner, immediately kills his brother in order to have it.
In DIE WALKÜRE (The Valkyrie) Wotan attempts to regain the Ring. He cannot simply take it, because that would undermine his moral authority in the universe. He creates a family of mortal heroes to act independently to recover the Ring. His wife Fricka argues that he is deluding himself: By creating his offspring, Siegmund, and then personally arranging affairs to force him to such an encounter, Wotan himself is still morally culpable. Siegmund will have to die in battle with the husband of a woman he had run off with. But something unexpected has happened. This woman is his twin sister, and she has become pregnant. She will bear a son, the world’s greatest hero, Siegfried. And he, without Wotan’s intervention, will regain the Ring.
The last act of The Valkyrie opens with the thrilling Ride of the Valkyries, an aerial ride of the warrior maidens whom Wotan has created. Eight of them arrive en masse accompanied by music that suggests their galloping steeds, the swirling winds around them, and their manic joy as they soar over battlefields and gather dead heroes to be taken to Valhalla for the ultimate battle.
Wotan’s favorite Valkyrie, Brünnhilde, is not among them. She has disobeyed Wotan’s order, protecting Siegmund in battle. Now, furious at her disobedience, Wotan pursues her to a high tor and announces her punishment: She will lose her immortality and become a mortal woman, left in a magic sleep, be to taken by any man who finds her. Brünnhilde pleads that he at least surround her with some kind of protection so that only a brave hero will awaken her. Wotan’s Farewell is one of the most poignant passages in the entire work: Moved by the sorrow of his favorite daughter, Wotan agrees to surround her with an eternal magic fire, such that only the “world’s greatest hero” will dare penetrate to her sleeping form. (This will turn out to be Siegfried, the son of Siegmund and his twin sister.)
SIEGFRIED takes place a generation later. The young hero is brought up in the depths of the forest by Mime, a brother of Alberich, who took care of Siegfried’s mother during her pregnancy (she died in childbirth) and raised Siegfried, in the hope that he will recover the Ring—for Mime’s benefit. Siegfried, now a young adult, wants to know more of his mother. Part of Mime’s plan is to induce Siegfried to kill Fafner, the giant who took the Ring and turned himself into a dragon; this monster simply sleeps on his golden horde. On the way to this adventure, Siegfried rests for a time in the forest, listening to the singing of a bird, which he tries to imitate (Forest Murmurs).
When Siegfried attempts to imitate the bird’s song with his hunting horn, he arouses the dragon and kills him. During the fight, a drop of the dragon’s blood falls on his hand and burns it. Instinctively, Siegfried puts it into to mouth. The magical power of the dragon’s blood allows him to understand the bird’s song: that Mime is planning to kill him that he must find Brünnhilde on the fire-surrounded rock. Taking the Ring and a magical helmet from the dragon’s cave, he follows the bird, passes through the fire, and awakens Brünnhilde. The two fall ecstatically in love.
GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG (Twilight of the Gods) is the final component of this massive work. Siegfried bids farewell to Brünnhilde and sets off in quest of heroic adventures that will make him worthy of her. The orchestral tone poem known as Siegfried’s Rhine Journey is built up of many musical themes connected with Siegfried (his lively horn call), of past events (the Magic Fire behind which Brünnhilde slumbered before Siegfried’s kiss awakened her) and the mighty stream of the Rhine itself, followed by the song of the Rhinemaidens whose loss of the gold had set in motion the whole tragic train of events.
At the beginning of the last act, Siegfried is murdered, stabbed in the back by Alberich’s son; he dies with the name of Brünnhilde on his lips. As the curtain falls, the orchestra begins Siegfried’s Funeral March, marked with sharply punctuated brass chords and a rolling triplet in the lower strings, which sets off an extended recollection of the themes that summon up earlier events building eventually to the full-orchestra version of Siegfried’s heroic horn call. Through all of this, the dark tattoo of the funeral march regularly recurs with the ironic reminder that this supreme hero is now gone.
Siegfried’s body is placed on a funeral pyre. Brünnhilde prepares to die with him there, her act of self-immolation being the culmination of the entire gigantic work. She takes the Ring from his dead hand and puts it on her own finger. In a mood of great serenity and power, she sings a farewell also to her father, Wotan, and the entire universe, which will now be consumed by the fire and reborn in a new guise. Her lengthy scene, Brunnhilde’s Immolation, concludes with an elaborate orchestral passage accompanying the destruction of everything by fire and then by water. It brings together in an extraordinary musical web virtually every significant theme that Wagner has employed over the preceding four nights of music drama, reminding the listener of the violence of Alberich, Wotan’s self-defeating actions, the love of Siegfried’s parents, the heroism and tragedy of Siegfried himself, the destruction of Valhalla and all the gods, the return of the Ring to the Rhinemaidens (thus cleansing it of Alberich’s curse), and the birth of a new world order, redeemed by love.
GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813-1901)
Verdi preferred to write operas about real people whose lives are intense and dramatic. An ardent reader of plays, he used Victor Hugo, Alexander Dumas the younger, Shakespeare, and many other literary figures as sources for his work.
IL TROVATORE (The Troubadour) is based on a Spanish play about gypsies, witchcraft, rival lovers, and revenge. It was so successful in the mid 19th century that is was said that Verdi’s melodies resounded on hurdy-gurdies in every large city in Europe and America.
The Anvil Chorus of the gypsies, working at their anvils, became one of the biggest hits of the day. Manrico is the son of a gypsy woman whose own mother had been executed for supposed witchcraft years before. In revenge she had seized the infant son of the old Count di Luna to burn him in revenge—but in her fury she actually kills her own infant. She raises the other boy as her own without telling him of his heritage. Grown to adulthood, the boy is a rebel and a troubadour who was won the heart of Leonora. His rival is the young Count di Luna—who, unknown to him, is his own brother!
When the gypsy woman is recognized as the one who apparently burned the infant so many years ago, she is seized and marked for execution. Manricp determines to save his “mother” from the pyre (“Di quella pira l’orrendo foco”). Earlier in the story, Leonora recounts to her servingmaid how she had fallen in love with an unknown troubadour, Manrico (“Tacea la notte splendid”)
Verdi composed AÏDAfor a premiere in Egypt to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal. He used a story by a French Egyptologist to provide an air of historical accuracy. It is a tale of contrasting loyalties: the soldier Radamès is named leader of the Egyptian army for a war to be fought against the Ethiopian king. Radamès is loved by Pharaoh’s daughter, but he is in love with her Ethiopian slave girl, Aïda, who—unknown to all, is the daughter of the Ethiopian king.
The Triumphal March and Ballet occurs as Radamès and the Egyptian army return victorious from the field. His first aria, “Celeste Aïda,” is his fervid expression of love for the woman he hopes to marry.
Verdi’s third opera, and his first big success, dealt with the Babylonian captivity of the Hebrews in the courts of Nebuchadnezzar (NABUCCO). Composed at a time when Italy was still largely under the political control of Spain in the southern half of the country, Verdi was struck by a chorus sung by the Hebrew slaves (with a text derived form Psalms) hoping to return to their homeland . the Overture to Nabucco begins with march tunes associated with the Hebrews and the Babylonians, but its most important melody returns later in the opera as the chorus of Hebrew slaves, “Va, pensiero sull’ ali dorate” (Fly, thought, on golden wings) as they dream of their homeland and the banks of the Jordan. This chorus eventually became an anthem for the Risorgimento, the movement that eventually led to an independent Italy. To this day virtually any Italian can sing it. In 1901, nearly sixty years after it was composed, tens of thousands of mourners followed Verdi’s funeral procession through the streets of Milan and, as his body was being lowered into the grave, spontaneously broke into an impromptu performance of the famous chorus.
LA TRAVIATA (The Strayed One)
The “woman who has gone astray,” Violetta, is based on a courtesan who was the principal character of the play The Lady of the Camellias by Alexander Dumas the younger—and her model had been Dumas’s lover. Verdi was particularly drawn to this play, set in the modern age (as of 1850) because he, too, was living with a remarkable woman whose “past” kept her from being accepted in the society of Verdi’s home. La Traviata became one of Verdi’s most deeply felt works in its portrayal of the “sinful” woman whose life would be cut short by illness and the young man who loved her to distraction (in real life, Dumas himself).
The hushed PRELUDE TO ACT I anticipates the tuberculosis that will bring her to an early grave, intertwined with themes connected with her carefree life as a courtesan. It is made up of two principal ideas: the soft music that returns in Act III as Violetta lies on her deathbed, weakened by consumption, and the passionate outburst “Amami, Alfredo” (“Love me, Alfredo, as much as I love you”) when she knows—but he does not—that they are saying farewell for the last time.
The Gypsy Chorus from Act II is not sung by “real” gypsies, but simply by partygoers in masks, enjoying the high life.
Alfredo, the young man who has fallen in love withVioletta from a distance as the opportunity to explain to her the effect she has had on him when he is invited to one of her parties (“Un di felice, eterea”). She, however, has heard this before from many men, and she is hardly ready to take him seriously.
After the party is over, she ponders the unusual fervor of the young man, and wonders whether perhaps he just might be the one who would offer the enduring love for which she longs—but then, afraid to commit to him, she chooses instead to pursue the live of frivolity and abandon that has hitherto been her course.
Earlier in the evening, Alfredo has led the party in the lively drinking song, or brindisi, “Libiamo, ne’ lieti calici”, establishing a mood of lively festivity that cannot last.
© Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com)