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Extreme Drama: The Life And Music Of Richard Wagner

Apr 13, 2013

Richard Wagner was, and still is today, arguably the most controversial figure in classical music. A self-appointed deity and hyperdriven genius, Wagner is often considered the ultimate megalomaniac. He dreamed up and achieved a single-minded plan to change the course of classical music history.

With the 200th anniversary of Wagner's birth approaching on May 22, musicians and music lovers worldwide will explore not only his operas, but also his extreme politics and egotistical worldview — in the process barely scratching the surface of this complex man.

For Wagner, music is drama — a drama of extremes. He created a new, multidimensional form of expression through a mix of music, drama and poetry that changed forever how the world thought about and experienced opera.

Wagner's magnum opus, a 16-hour series of four operas called The Ring of the Nibelungen — or Ring cycle for short — was inspired by Norse sagas. Through the cycle, Wagner set out to depict nothing less than the creation and destruction of the world. (Modesty was not a quality Wagner possessed.)

When I conduct Wagner's music, I'm drawn to the excess and to the extreme commitment in his music. There is a luxuriance of melody and an opulent use of leitmotifs — the musical themes Wagner assigned to characters and situations. There's even the instrument he invented himself, the Wagner tuba: a cross between a horn and tuba, the instrument possesses the bestial and primitive qualities evoked in the strange realms and characters of his operas.

Marking The Bicentennial

To mark the Wagner bicentennial in concert, I'm pairing an orchestral suite extracted from the Ring cycle with a Wagner-centric percussion concerto by American composer Christopher Rouse. Der Gerettete Alberich (Alberich Rescued) imagines life after Wagner's Ring cycle ends. It stars one of the Ring's principal characters, the evil dwarf Alberich, who set the entire tale of greed and betrayal in motion.

Rouse begins with the same music that closes the Ring. Then, Alberich appears in the form of a raspy guiro (the Latin American percussion instrument). The concerto takes us through many twists and turns — including a stint for Alberich as a 1970s rock 'n' roll drummer. It's all musically motivated and derived from Wagner's own music, brilliantly contorted and disguised by Rouse, and designed to showcase the virtuosity of the percussion soloist. This piece creates over-the-top excess for our own time.

Wagner's Dark Side

We cannot speak of Wagner without acknowledging his virulent antisemitism, captured in his prolific writings. Our view of him today is further affected by the fact that the Nazi Party, long after Wagner's death in 1883, adopted him as its mascot, distorting, magnifying and hijacking his music, along with his antisemitic and nationalistic writings, as propaganda tools. For me, it's essential to raise the question of whether it's possible to separate the creator from his creations — which, in Wagner's case, include some truly astounding music.

We will also explore the dark side of Wagner in A Composer Fit for a King: Wagner & Ludwig II, a new work by playwright and stage director Didi Balle. This through-composed play captures the real-life backstage drama behind the making of the Ring cycle, which spans 12 years in the tumultuous relationship between Wagner and his cunning young patron, King Ludwig II of Bavaria.

In the process of achieving his goals, Wagner willingly compromised the lives and reputations of those he'd claimed as friends — not only the king, but also his first wife, Minna, conductor Hans von Bulow and a long list of friends and associates he'd fleeced, cheated, defamed and/or cuckolded. The symphonic play brings together the very same triumvirate of music, drama and poetry that consumed Wagner's vision and defined his life's work.

Written with contributions from Didi Balle.

(A Composer Fit for a King: Wagner & Ludwig II plays April 19-20 in Baltimore and Washington, D.C.)

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


The music is instantly recognizable by listeners of all ages, from a famous scene in "Apocalypse Now"...


SIMON: ...to a virtuoso performance by Elmer Fudd...


ELMER FUDD: (Singing) Kill da wabbit, kill da wabbit, kill da wabbit...

BUGS BUNNY: Kill the wabbit?

SIMON: ...and Jake and Elwood in a famous chase scene from the Blues Brothers...


DAN ACKROYD, ACTOR: (as Elwood) Oh. no.

JOHN BELUSHI: (as Jake) What the (beep) was that?

ACTOR: (as Elwood) The motor. We've thrown a rod.

BELUSHI: (as Jake) Is that serious?

ACTOR: (as Elwood) Yep.

SIMON: The music, of course, "The Ride of the Valkyries" by Richard Wagner, who was born 200 years ago this year. And this season, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is commemorating Wagner with a series of programs.


SIMON: Next week, they'll play an orchestral suite from Wagner's massive "Ring Cycle", as well as a piece by Christopher Rouse that imagines what might have happened where "The Ring" left off. And the music director of the Baltimore Symphony, our friend Marin Alsop, and Christopher Rouse join us from the studios of WYPR in Baltimore. Thanks very much for being with us.

MARIN ALSOP: Great to be here, Scott.

CHRISTOPHER ROUSE: Absolutely. Thank you.

SIMON: Maestra, let me get you to step in first. So, imagine you're Wagner. OK. That's a challenge...

ALSOP: It's a frightening thought, a frightening thought.

SIMON: ...anyway. So, what amounted to an escalator or an elevator pitch for 15 hours of opera back in the day?

ALSOP: Well, if I deigned to give you even an audience to hear my pitch, I would say that I have the capacity to sum up the entirety of the world, past, present, future, predict everything that is to come, pass judgment on everything that has happened. And I could do it in, oh, you know, 20 hours of opera or so.


SIMON: Of course, we think of sopranos and baritones when we think of Wagner, but this is an opera that's dominated by the orchestra.

ALSOP: It is, and the driving feature throughout Wagner's operas and what really changes the landscape is the way he uses leitmotif. They're little identifying themes. They represent the different characters but they also represent different emotions and different states of consciousness. So, the orchestra conveys all of these messages to the listener.


SIMON: Marin, what is this like to conduct?

ALSOP: Well, Wagner's music is, it's like climbing a 14,000-foot mountain. It's an adventure, it's strenuous, it's challenging, it's surprising, and the great part about it is that I'm not alone. I have 120 musicians by my side, trekking up this mountain with me. And it gets only better when there are 2500 people in the audience with us too.

SIMON: You're going to be performing, I gather, an orchestral suite of Wagner's music. And let's listen to a bit of this recording by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic.


SIMON: Help us understand what we're hearing. I gather it's called the Ring: An Orchestral Adventure.

ALSOP: Well, this is an excerpt from an orchestral suite that was put together by a Dutch composer. But it's true to Wagner's music. It's really just excerpts from the operas.

SIMON: Maestra, can you point us to a section of this orchestral suite that might help us especially appreciate it?

ALSOP: I think you're going to hear an excerpt from his third opera called "Siegfried". And this is near the end of the opera. It's when Siegfried and Brunnhilde finally reunite. And theirs is the true love. And Siegfried has just won a battle with the giant, Fafner, and he's braving the surrounding fires to get to Brunnhilde. And you can hear the lushness of this music. And you can hear all of these themes coming together and reuniting.


SIMON: Christopher Rouse, tell us where your piece comes into this. Is it at the very end of the opera?

ROUSE: At the very end of "Gotterdammerung", the last of the four operas in this tetralogy. The curtain comes down and there's one character - everyone else is accounted for, most of them are dead - but one of the principal characters, Alberich, who's a villainous dwarf, his whereabouts are unknown. And so I kind of tried to imagine what he might have done after the dust settled.


SIMON: Christopher, could I get you to tell us, as only you can, the name of this piece?

ROUSE: Yes. (Foreign language spoken), which means in German "Alberich Saved."

SIMON: This is Evelyn Glennie.


SIMON: This is in the recording with the Helsinki Philharmonic.

ROUSE: That's right.

ALSOP: Scott, what you heard was the exact quote of Wagner, which opens Chris's piece, but then the percussionist is playing what's called the guerro(ph), and it's Alberich breathing, isn't it, Chris?

ROUSE: I never really thought too specifically. I just kind of thought of it as just him dusting himself off and pinching himself to see if he was still alive...

ALSOP: Still alive.

ROUSE: ...after the entire universe has burned up.

SIMON: And why do you hear this in percussion?

ROUSE: Well, it was a percussion concerto that I was asked to write. Evelyn Glennie requested it. And at first I couldn't really come up with an idea of how to write a nice three-movement percussion concerto. But then it occurred to me if it were more of a narrative piece and she represented a character that maybe I could pull it off that way.

ALSOP: And I think he gets the character, Alberich, across. You know, Alberich was a fascinating and demonic character throughout "The Ring". And he has all of his little workers forging the gold and you can hear them busily working. And I think the way it's conveyed through the percussion instruments, lots of fascinating colors. And so I think it lends itself beautifully. And I think of it as not a parody but more of an homage to Wagner.


SIMON: Let me ask you both in turn, beginning with Christopher Rouse. I'm afraid, even in this day and age, impossible to talk about Wagner just in terms of the music. He was a genius and, I think it's fair to say, a racist jerk.

ROUSE: Yes, on a good day. He was a terrible human being. There's no question. The fact that he was so closely associated long after his death with Hitler and the Nazis, he has, I think, a ring of hell reserved just for him in terms of...

SIMON: He knows the tune, doesn't he?


ROUSE: That's right. And there have been quite a few nasty composers over the years but he really created new vistas in that regard.

SIMON: Is it, Marin Alsop, still a little difficult to get people to just concentrate on the music?

ALSOP: There certainly remains a tremendous amount of baggage whenever you perform the music of Wagner. But I think it's our responsibility not to try to skirt those issues because they're important to talk about. And they open a great opportunity for discourse. But I think it's important to be able to listen to the music for what it is, which is absolutely unbelievably gorgeous and complex and elevated music.

SIMON: Marin Alsop is music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. And next week, they will present several Wagner-themed programs, including "Der Gerettete Alberich" by Christopher Rouse. They joined us from the studios of WYPR. Thanks so much for being with us.

ROUSE: Thank you.

ALSOP: Thank you, Scott.


SIMON: You can read Marin Alsop's essay on Wagner and hear more of Christopher Rouse's Wagner-inspired music on our website, nprmusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.