Tuesday, March 18, 2014

My Wagner Experience Pt. 1 Der Ring Des Nibelungen

My Wagner Experience

The Wagner Experience is a past tense term that has been used to denote an individual's personal "clicking" with the works of Richard Wagner. To be more specific, it means the point where a neophyte to Wagner's music becomes irreversibly immersed in it.
My first serious encounter with Wagner's music occurred in the spring of 2007, with Der Ring Des Nibelungen. I purchased the James Levine-conducted dvd set, along with a book/concordance by Barry Millington entitled "Wagner's Ring". During my first full viewing (four day's worth) I was overwhelmed and intimidated by the scope of the piece. I even watched it following the libretto, which I see now only hindered my inward absorption. After that first viewing, I walked away having been very moved by the "highlights", but feeling very small and lost in the face of such towering genius. The music at times seemed impenetrable to me, and made me feel dumb.
That same year the Kings of Metal, Manowar, released their most risk-taking CD, Gods of War . This cd was obviously heavily influenced by Wagner's Ring, as bassist/main songwriter Joey DeMaio publicly confessed his own Wagner Experience many years ago. Though there are Manowar albums I like better, none do I respect more in terms of courageous artistic terms their challenging will to experiment, an experiment I personally thought overall succeeded, and a shame it was never expanded upon. All this spurred me on to renewing my study of the Ring, after nearly eight months of timid avoidance.
Being more open due to Manowar really helped his time, the prelude to Das Rheingold floored me, and spurned me onto being more open to the piece as a whole. The initial scene with the mermaids and Alberich sets the musical stage for much of the rest of the opera, so clicking with that helped me a lot with the rest of the tetralogy.
As a sidebar, many Wagner "newbies" utilize what is termed a "bloody chunks" method, trying out the preludes and overtures of his works first, kind of like dipping one's toes into a hot bath before full immersion. This approach can be very helpful. But I wanted to start out with the full experience.
I got much more out of the Ring the second time, but I still felt like I was missing a lot. It was obvious to me that this work was a real milestone: its scope and depth were apparent from the very first listen. I later likened this deeply felt intuition to a spiritual experience: it was as though I could inwardly intuit how much of an impact the Ring would have on my life.
I became committed toward having a deeper appreciation and understanding of the Ring, and Wagner overall.
I learned that the greatest studio recording (by popular consensus) of the Ring was conducted by Georg Solti . So I devised a course of action: buy each part of the Ring tetralogy, one cd set for each month. That way I could immerse myself completely into each set per month: Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, etc.
It worked. My main problem before had been a misunderstanding in how I should approach the music. I kept expecting compact, consistently resolving melodies along the lines of Mozart (at the time I was very much under the spell of the movie "Amadeus").   Due in part to my further reading, as well as my more willfully focused listening approach, I now understood how Wagner often wouldn't use conventional (I-V and I-IV-V) melodic patterns, since those tend to be complete within themselves. That is, they couldn't be continually expanded upon (as in the case of a psychological epic) without turning trite and repetitive.  Popular and folk musics tend to rely on conventional, predictably resolving melodies to the virtual excusion of any others, since they are perfect for folks that mostly love music to "jam out" or dance to (nothing wrong with that!).

When one listens intently to Wagner's music, especially keeping in mind the themes in the more "popular" parts of his operas, one can understand how he worked. Wagner liked to have large, sprawling melodic forms in order to keep a broad scope. He would often take what would later be described as "germ motives" from the more accessible melodies in his operas, and elongate, invert, retime and implode them. It just takes more attentiveness and patience to unravel the intricacies.
I must add here that Wagner had several instances of what could be termed non-melodic, at least borderline recitative parts in all of his later operas. This was almost always due to the fact that he would begin working on his operas as prose works, and then only marginally edit the text when setting to work on the actual music composition. That is, he'd often try to write the music to fit the existent words. Obviously, this resulted in some unmusical sections in his dramas, but they are easy to identify and forgive. Often their placement adds to the overall dynamics of the piece.

In any case, I learned from my experience something that could be likened to a "spiritual truth": to fully absorb something above and beyond one's preconceptions, one must empty one's self. The only resistance I was experiencing was just that: the "I". I had to learn a whole other musical language, had to put aside the "but that's not right!" sensibility. Wagner's accomplishment in terms of personal expression is amazing, but a person might only be capable of fully absorbing it through the discipline described above, a discipline that's been a part of learning since...well, probably since learning itself.
To be continued. This piece was originally taken from the site "Our Father of Metal", my own Richard Wagner heavy metal site here: