Post by Mike Scott Rohan Post by Richard Partridge
I don't know nearly enough about music to add to what you wrote, but don't
you think if it hadn't been Wagner, someone else would have come along? The
evolution of music would have continued somehow, and one way or another we
would have gotten to the present situation, where just as no artist tries to
paint pretty pictures, and no architect tries to design pretty buildings,
hardly any composer (except in an Ayn Rand novel) tries to write pretty
music any more.
Well, I don't know that much compared to an awful lot of people, and you
probably know more than you give yourself credit for. Sometimes Wagner's
influence is largely technical, in the actual construction of harmonies, for
example, or orchestration, but it's also there for the listening. Compare the
music of Wagner's contemporaries, Mendelssohn and Schumann for example, with
that of the next -- Strauss and Debussy, among many. The contrast is almost
explosive, a sense of liberation, of expansive freedom and intense drama,
extra depth of colour, complexity, nuance. Sometimes, as with Liszt and Verdi,
you can hear the transition in the same composer's career -- yes, even with
Verdi! Amazingly, that is almost entirely Wagner's work.
True, other composers had been experimenting and developing their language;
but the development would have been much slower, more cautious, more easily
suppressed by academic stuffiness; Wagner's force of personality pushed it all
through in one lifetime. And he also gave music a sweeping dramatic potential
which even Beethoven and Berlioz only anticipated, and which Brahms, for all
his mellow virtues, simply didn't have. No wonder younger composers, even
thoroughly academic ones like Tchaikovsky, grew impatient with him ("Christ,
what a giftless bastard the man is!"). Unfair, but Brahms was too apt a weapon
in the hands of obstructionists like Hanslick.
Brahms simply wasn't made to be a comparable inspiration. Whereas even
composers whom you wouldn't associate with Wagner often went through an early
Wagnerian phase, so powerful they almost seemed drunk on it, even when they
outgrew him later. Debussy is one obvious case, with his famous remark when
writing Pelleas that he had to watch out for "Old Klingsor" on every page --
yet he does in fact quote Parsifal once, and comes very near it elsewhere. An
even more extreme reaction, of course, is Schoenberg's, from the very
Wagnerian Gurrelieder and Tristanesque Verklarte Nacht to arid serialism.
But less likely Wagnerians include the extremely English Holst, best known of
course for the Planets, and for later more small-scale works. He went through
a Wagner phase so strong that he created several Wagnerian works, notably a
huge operatic cycle Sita, based on the Ramayana. I've heard bits of it, and
apart from his ghastly libretto, which reads like early Ring translations,
it's really rather good; you can get some idea of how it sounds from his later
tone-poem Indra, about the god who drives off the drought-demon to bring the
Or Elgar, for example, more Brahmsian than Wagnerian symphonically -- but the
opening numbers of his breakthrough work, the cantata King Olaf, are
http://youtu.be/_-kgKJ5Yw1Y (rather a weedy recording, unfortunately, but the
best I could find online; the Andrew Davis one on Chandos is much better)
And Grieg's abortive opera about the same character, Olaf Tryggvason, is one
You probably know Sibelius's Swan of Tuonela; but did you know that it was
originally the prelude for a mythological opera, Veen Luominen (The Building
of the Boat) conceived in a long-lasting daze after experiencing the Ring at
Bayreuth? With the Finnish national hero Vainamoinen reconceived as a
And, as I said, you can hear similar transitions in composers like Rimsky and
even Dvorak, who owed so much to Brahms. Of course, being great talents in
their own right, they all had to get over Wagnerism to establish their own
identities; Holst cheerfully mocked Wagner in his opera The Perfect Fool. But
almost always, to an extraordinary extent, Wagnerism was the catalyst.
Puccini's famous parallel fifths in Boheme, lambasted by Hanslick, were
ultimately the product of Wagner's liberating influence. Vaughan Williams said
hearing Wagner was like reencountering something you'd always known. And even
Britten, who adored Schumann and was disparaging about Wagner, betrays his
influence, particularly in Billy Budd.
Yes, much of this might have happened anyway; but not all together, and not as
fast, not as thrillingly. In short, as with only a few other composers, you
can say (to steal an good line) that if Wagner hadn't existed it would have
been necessary to invent him.
You make a very compelling case, and I'm sure you're right.
performance of Das Rheingold at Bayreuth. In those days no phonographs were
previous exposure to music could have prepared them for. They must have
been amazed to see what an orchestra could do.