To come this far without having been exposed to the music of Richard Wagner (1813-83) might be considered by some to be something of a relief; but to opine on matters musical without reference to this extraordinary man, would be akin to sharing a love of literature without referring to Shakespeare.
He cannot be ignored, however divisive his music still is, and was in his own lifetime. As an individual, he had little to commend him: few would deny that he was a genius, maybe even one of the greatest there ever was, but his less favourable characteristics make it the more remarkable that he was capable of conceiving music of exceptional beauty, as I hope today’s post will testify.
Wagner is now most infamously known for his anti-semitic views and for being Hitler’s favourite composer. But that is just the sugarless icing on an unpalatable cake: he was a renowned liar, unpopular political rebel, bad-tempered, financially useless, egotistic, autocratic – and a first class adulterer. He and his first wife, Minna, were separated three times, and reconciled twice; and it was only when he’d fathered three children with Cosima, married to the conductor, Hans von Bulow, that the wretched cuckold rolled over and conceded defeat. Cosima became Wagner’s second wife, 24 years his junior.
I doubt that any composer has divided opinion quite like Wagner. There is no shortage of anecdotes to support his unpopularity – I have previously alluded to Rossini’s alleged observation that ‘Wagner has some beautiful moments but some awful quarter of an hours’; Tchaikovsky likened the end of one of his operas to being released from prison; and Mark Twain quipped that Wagner’s music was ‘better than it sounds’. By contrast, more recently, Bernard Levin was a passionate Wagnerian, as is Stephen Fry; Solti recorded the first ‘Ring’ cycle; and Daniel Barenboim conducts his music in Israel. By virtue of their own beliefs and upbringing, all four had every reason to eschew the man’s music altogether.
But if you can’t bring yourself to sit through one of his operas (they are very long), you can adopt the Rossini approach by listening to orchestral passages like this, and find yourself transported.
This is the prelude to Act 1 of ‘Lohengrin’ . Sorry, I’m going to duck the synopsis here, as it will not necessarily add to your appreciation of the piece. Allow me, instead, to focus briefly on the conductor, Claudio Abbado, my all time favourite maestro, who died in 2014. If you’ve ever, quite reasonably, questioned the point of a conductor, this man, this lovely man, will convert your doubts. Abbado was sensational. His concerts were always thrilling. He was not showy, but had a charisma the like of which I’ve never seen on the podium; an ability to bring out a sound from his players you, and even they, could not dream possible. He was famously shy, bringing out the best from those around him, not by dictating, but by encouraging them to listen to eachother. He was truly ‘primus inter pares’. With Abbado comes that extra, perhaps surprising, quality which only enhances his charisma – humility.
Above all, as you will observe here, Abbado recognised the big moments in music: he understood and delivered what the audience wanted to hear, and in doing so would underline it three times. This is an exquisite, ethereal passage. It is nothing less than than musical foreplay, and six and a half minutes of it, before reaching a moment of pure ecstasy and then returning to the delicacy of the opening bars. The control is astonishing, this is no ‘brace yourself, Sheila’ approach. Like everything he conducts, he leaves you transfixed, fulfilled – yet wanting more. How lucky we are to have his recordings.