Friday, July 13, 2012

Wagner & Fry

Watched a documentary called Wagner & Me by Stephen Fry yesterday in which he expounds his enthusiasm for Wagner's music.  Fry has loved Wagner since he was a child, and he was like a child in the way he reacted to coming for the first time to Bayreuth, and the theatre Wagner had built for his music-dramas.  His enthusiasm was certainly one of the high points of this otherwise rather sluggishly-put-together doco, in which the music is often heard but there is only a little sign of it being performed on stage.   (We see some rehearsals, but no actual performances, I don't think.)

Fry also examined his Jewish background in relation to the way Hitler had 'taken over' Wagner, and smeared the huge colourful tapestry that Wagner created.  He sits on the steps where the Nuremberg rallies took place and feels uncomfortable about being there.  He can't bring himself to stand up on the platform where Hitler stood, even though it's a well-known tourist spot.  Towards the end of the doco he meets up with a women who survived Auschwitz - she was a young cellist and played in the orchestra that was produced from the prisoners.  Fry discusses his quandary with loving Wagner's music when Hitler had so besmirched it and left his historical stain on it.  The woman, in so many words, tells him to get over it.  At the end of the day, Wagner's genius is far more important than Hitler's attempt to use Wagner for his own ends.  (Though Fry also points out that Wagner wrote a particularly nasty anti-Semitic article at one point in his life, possibly because two Jewish composers, Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer were much more popular than him at that point.)

There's one particularly delightful moment in the film.  A pianist whose name I didn't catch is playing and discussing the Tristan und Isolde 'chord' that only gets resolved at the very end of the opera.  (It's interrupted at one other point when resolution seems imminent.)  He's playing on Wagner's own piano, a Steinway that was presented to Wagner by that company.  It's a massive grand and still holding up well after more than a century of use.  Fry, who claims no great skills as a musician at an earlier point in the film, waits with enormous anticipation to play the very last note of the opera, when all has been brought to fruition.  And hits the wrong note!  His embarrassment and hilarity makes it worth watching the film.

The other interesting thing was seeing the inside of the Bayreuth theatre, which is an odd building.  It's design - inside and out - is fairly ugly, to be honest, and from the film it looks as though the stage is narrower than the audience area.  Yet every seat has a clear view of the stage, according to Fry.  The stage seems as deep as it's wide, which is an odd way to design a stage.  However, it obviously works, since it's been showing successful productions since it was first built.  We saw the stage machinery as well, both under the stage and high above it - very high, in fact.  And then there's the intriguing way in which the orchestra isn't in a pit at the front of the stage, but virtually underneath it.  Only the conductor is visible to the singers.  There are a few comments on it here in Wikipedia.

I have a bit of a love-hate relationships with Wagner's music myself.  Personally I think the music-dramas (he wouldn't call them operas) are excessively lengthy and exhausting for audiences.  They're self-indulgent in terms of how much Wagner thinks needs to be included.  And the best tunes, by far, are given to the orchestra.  In fact, it's the orchestral music that grabs me far more than the singing, which, while it might be dramatic in form, is often tuneless to the point of tedium.  The orchestral interludes in the operas make me wonder if perhaps Wagner mightn't have been a much better composer of symphonies, if he'd gone in that direction.  Though if he'd considered that those needed to be as long, comparatively, as his operas, I might struggle!




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