Wagner the boy his first love was literature, not music. When he was
eleven, steeped in Shakespeare and the Homeric epics, he wrote an
intense poetic drama he called Leubold und Adelaide. Wagner
himself later said of this work (a sort of cross between Hamlet
and King Lear), "I had murdered forty-two in the course of
my piece and I was obliged to have most of them reappear as ghosts in
the last acts for want of living characters".
there in Wagner-land is to be found a veritable treasure-trove of
trivia. Here, in no particular order, is a tiny representative
miscellany — partly droll, partly sedate. Many thanks to the
Bikwilians who submitted some of these fascinating bits and pieces.)
hated his first piano lessons, but while still at school he heard Weber’s
Freischütz and Beethoven's Fidelio and symphonies, and
right away became bitten by the composing bug. With difficulty he taught
himself the rudiments of music theory from a book he borrowed from
Friedrich Wieck, Clara Schumann's father.
his musical skills developed, young Richard made transcriptions of his
favourite composers. One was a piano arrangement he did aged 16 of
something by his hero, Beethoven. The massive Ninth Symphony, of all
he concentrated all his energies on composing rather than performing,
Wagner never got to be a good pianist. When friends teased him, he’d
say, “I play a deal better than Berlioz”. All were well aware, of
course, that Berlioz couldn’t play the piano at all.
you may have already gathered, it has been impossible for me in this
special issue to resist the temptation of contributing a couple of
burlesques on the Wagner theme. I seem to be in good company with this
idea. Anna Russell and Bugs Bunny aside, there’s been a huge number of
Wagnerian send-ups written over the past years, and at least one
scholarly essay written on the subject of Wagnerian parodies and
of my efforts here (page 12) is based on a well-loved Gilbert and
Sullivan Pirates of Penzance song. (Funny how G&S have Wagner
connections, isn’t it? At last count, I found four other such
references sprinkled throughout these pages.) For my money, some of the
most successful Wagner send-ups in a G&S style were written by
Robert Zeschin under the collective title The Savoyard Ring; or A
Tetralogy in Patter Song. There are eight of them, and here, to whet
your appetite for seeking out these masterpieces (they appeared in 1971,
in Opera News), is the last stanza of Brünnhilde’s
Immolation (to the tune of The Flowers that Bloom in the Spring).
hours that take up the Ring, tra la,
finished, kaput and all done!
the audience sits sound asleep, tra la,
singers have all had to keep, tra la,
our feet till a quarter past one!
that's what we mean when we say, or we sing,
arches are glad it's the end of the Ring!
la la la la la, etc.
can find Wagnerian obsessive-compulsives just about anywhere. One such
addict worthy of our awe-struck admiration is Roger North. In 1996 he
self-published the most thorough analytic study imaginable of the music
of Tristan und Isolde. Bar by bar he goes through the work, with
16 pull-out summary diagrams and 500 musical examples. For you
like-minded fanatics, seven hundred irresistible pages! (Wagner’s
Most Subtle Art, ISBN 0 95279750 X, available from the author for a
total of £48.25, airmail to Oz.)
the first Ring festival in 1876, Wagner went to great trouble and
expense to get a dragon manufactured in England and shipped to Bayreuth.
Although mechanical, it was made from paper-mâché. But it arrived in
pieces — the tail first, then the body and eventually the head, but no
neck. On stage, with head attached directly to body, the dragon looked
even more grotesque than intended. The long neck had been sent by
mistake to Beirut.
at that première, apart from opera fans, music critics and
miscellaneous royalty, was a remarkable gathering of composers —
Bruckner . . . Gounod . . . Grieg . . . Liszt . . . Mahler . . . Saint-Saëns
. . . Tchaikovsky . . .
is believed that the very first recording made of Wagner's music was of
the Prelude to Die Meistersinger, conducted by Hans von Bülow.
The year was 1889, the medium an Edison cylinder.
King Ludwig of Bavaria, Wagner's patron, is remembered for many deranged
things. None is more bizarre than having himself ferried about a
mountain lake in a water chariot drawn by trained swans, all to the
accompaniment of the sounds of Wagner's music.
you, royal swan-powered water-skiing aside, as Bikwil’s various
contributors herein cogently demonstrate, Wagner’s operas can be
harnessed in the service of all manner of human experience — laughter,
for starters, patently. Another obvious beneficiary is the movie
industry. Likewise police work (albeit fictional). The music has
revolutionary applicability, also, to say nothing of sexual uses.
about the following, though, as an occasion for Wagnerian assistance?
to W.S. Brooks of Elizabeth Bay (letter to the Sydney Morning Herald,
9/2/98), you can always be guaranteed of making your transport
connection at Central Railway by taking advantage of our universal
dislike of the headphone music of others. Ever been blocked by people
standing on the right of the escalator? Well,
. . if one marches steadily upwards while listening to Wagner via
headphones, these people step aside with alacrity . . . Verdi was born
in the same year as Wagner and composed many wonderful tunes, but his
music does not have the same effect.
known for his Bach interpretations, Canadian pianist Glenn Gould
probably wasn't your typical Wagner enthusiast. Yet he made a
sympathetic record (Sony SMK 52650) of Wagner's music that includes
performances of Gould's own piano transcriptions of Dawn and Siegfried's
Rhine Journey (from Götterdämmering), plus a rare example
of Gould as conductor — in this case a 13-piece orchestra playing the Siegfried
Ride of the Valkyries is harder in rhythmic terms to play than it might
seem. According to George Bernard Shaw, there were so many poor
performances that you could be forgiven for thinking that Walkürenritt,
the German title, meant “cruelty to animals”.
some eventually repudiated his music, for a while even the fastidious
French were caught up in the Wagner craze — particularly poets, as Bet
Briggs’ A French Connection
1859, for example, Charkes Baudelaire attended a concert of Wagner’s
music. “It’s been easily fifteen years since I felt such
exhilaration”, he said, and wrote a long, passionate letter to Wagner,
from which this is a brief extract:
all, I want to tell you that you have given me the greatest musical
pleasure I have ever experienced. I am past the age at which one
enjoys writing to famous men, and I would have waited even longer before
expressing my admiration in a letter, did not my eyes light every day
upon outrageous and ridiculous articles in which no effort is spared to
malign your genius. You are not the first, Monsieur, to make me ashamed
of my country. Indignation finally spurred me to express my gratitude,
as I thought: “I wish to distinguish myself from all those imbeciles.”
he signed it, by the way, he added the following remarkable postscript:
shall not include my address, since you might then think that I had some
favour to ask of you.
musicians? Alexis Chabrier (he of later España fame) was once a
passionate Wagnerian. Indeed, when he first heard the opening of the Tristan
Prelude he burst into tears. Not quite as delirious a response, perhaps,
as another French muso, one Guillaume Lekeu, who had to be carried out
of the same performance fainting.
seemed to have a forceful effect on the French whenever their paths
crossed. In 1861 Wagner took Tannhäuser to Paris for its French
première. A big performance was planned, including a special
bacchanalian Venusberg ballet, but the occasion was ruined, not by
critics, but by the inebriated members of the trendy and snooty Paris
was their custom not to arrive at any opera before Act II, which was
where an opera’s ballet traditionally was danced. Wagner, however, had
written it into Act I, and ignored entreaties to move it. The Club
contingent duly arrived just in time for Act II, and when the lads found
that they’d missed the erotic dancing girls (some of whom were their
mistresses) they began to hiss and boo. Stamping of feet followed, and
ultimately a riot. The event was an out-and-out fiasco.
yes, Wagner has had his detractors, none more vituperative than English
art critic and would-be social reformer John Ruskin. Over the last
hundred years, Die Meistersinger has proved to be the most
popular of Wagner’s operas by far, yet Ruskin (in a letter in 1882 to
Lady Burne-Jones) made no bones whatsoever about his own opinion:
. . of all the bête, clumsy, blundering, boggling, baboon-blooded stuff
I ever saw on a human stage that thing last night beat [all] as far as
the story and acting went; and of all the affected, sapless, soulless,
beginningless, endless, topless, bottomless, topsiterviest, tuneless,
scrannelpipiest, tongs-and-boniest doggerel of sounds I ever endured the
deadliest of, that eternity of nothing was the deadliest, as the sound
went. I was never so relieved . . . in my life, by the stopping of any
sound — not . . . [excepting] railway whistles — as I was by the
cessation of the cobbler's bellowing; even the serenader's caricatured
twangle was a rest after it. As for the great “lied” I never made
out where it began or where it ended — except by the fellow's coming
off the horse-block.
has been said on the fierce enmity between the fans of Wagner and those
of Brahms. Brahms, however, seems to have more magnanimous than his
supporters. For example: when he heard of Wagner’s death, he was in
the middle of a choral rehearsal, which he cancelled, saying, “A
master is dead. Today we sing no more.”
November 1988, actor and comedian Stephen Fry was the willing
shipwrecked guest on the long-running BBC radio programme Desert
Island Discs. Of the eight musical pieces he selected as his only
companions, two were Mozart, one was Verdi, two were rock numbers, one
was Cole Porter (Sinatra and Basie), and . . . two were Wagner.
the Magic Fire Music, Fry confessed, "I'm insanely in love
with the master, the great Richard Wagner.” As for Mild und Leise,
Wie Er Lächelt, Isolde's "dying song" from the final
scene of Tristan, Fry enthusiastically described it as "the
most supreme piece of romantic, indeed erotic music”, adding, “This
particular climactic piece of music is something one couldn't live
it was prolific sci-fi comedy novelist Terry Pratchett’s turn on the
show, one track he chose was The Race for the Rheingold Stakes,
and he said of it,
heard this record when I was about 11 or 12 and it is probably in a
sense one of the ancestors of Discworld. It is just a beautifully
drawn out joke, which initially appears to be going on for too long and
then, merely because it is going on for so long, becomes even funnier.
It is The Ride of the Valkyries with horse racing commentary.
race-caller was none other than Bernard Miles, distinguished actor and
long-time close friend of chief Valkyrie Kirsten Flagstad.
1886 the 74-year-old Franz Liszt made sure he atttended the Bayreuth
Festival once more. Despite doctor's orders, he went to Parsifal
and Tristan und Isolde, but collapsed during the third act of Tristan.
Afflicted by pneumonia, within two days he was dead. The last word he
uttered was "Tristan".
Clara Schumann nor Joseph Joachim, the Hungarian violinist, were much in
sympathy with Wagner’s music. At concerts, whenever the sound of a
leitmotiv occurred, Joseph used to raise his hat to Clara in an
exaggerated manner and murmur "Guten Tag".
Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), militant English suffragette and prolific
author, was in her day widely regarded as the sole woman composer of a
quality equal to that of the men. Not everyone was so complimentary,
however. Sir Osbert Sitwell, for example (himself no stranger to
insult), once remarked, "She would be like Richard Wagner if only
she looked a bit more feminine."