The controversy over who will inherit Bayreuth has attracted notice in England. In the course of an article about it for the Sunday Times, Stephen Pettitt delivers a rather nice 2-paragraph summary of Wagner’s achievement:
What makes this man and his work so important is, essentially, his reforming spirit. He wanted to purify opera, to return to something like the concept envisaged by its creators in the late 16th century, one aimed at resurrecting the principles of Greek drama. So, he dispensed with “number opera”, with its distinct arias, ensembles, choruses and recitatives, and came up instead with something labelled the Ges-amtkunstwerk, the “total art work”. In the Gesamtkunstwerk, everything –- orchestra, singers, scenery, acting; even, ideally, the theatre itself -– was a vital, inseparable part of the whole. In this way, Wagner was able to express complex psychologies. His was not the all-action opera of the French and Italians, but an internal drama. It was a big idea, one that, despite the limitations of the literal interpretations that were the order of his day, has given today’s interventionist directors huge opportunities. A Ring production can have a Marxist leaning, since one message of the opera allies itself to Proudhon’s assertion that property is theft. It can be inspired by the nihilism of Schopenhauer, since all comes to naught. Or it can be psychoanalytical, a Jungian examination of the mind. And so on. Fertile ground for continuing controversy.
The music is unique both in its epic scale and in its sound world, structured in vast paragraphs and unified through the device of the leitmotif, a snippet of music – a chord, a phrase – that signifies thought, character, mood or symbol. These snippets may not be consciously recognised and labelled, but their presence and interreaction subliminally convey meaning and nuance. Wagner’s role in the evolution of music is crucial. His mature language is a rich-textured, multi-layered sound, full of detail but never confused. He uses a large orchestra, not just for its brute force, but for the range of colours it offers. And he pushes the bounds of tonality to the limit. Undoubtedly, the most talked-about chord in all music is the so-called “Tristan chord”, from Tristan und Isolde. Isolated, it doesn’t seem to be alluding to any key. And when Wagner resolves it, he lands on another chord that leaves the music lingering, suggesting longing, or maybe ecstasy, or maybe death prolonged. It is just a small step from here to the atonal world of Arnold Schoenberg and others.
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