Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Case of Richard Wagner

I haven't done one for a while, but I used to toss off brief posts on various composers, particularly ones that I thought might be just a tad over-rated. But there is one composer whom I have hardly written about at all, but who deserves a closer look. This is Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883) whose masterwork, Der Ring des Nibelungen, has been called "the most influential art work of the past two hundreds years [sic]" but who remains a controversial figure to this day.

Richard Wagner is in the first generation of the great Romantic composers, all of whom were born right around 1810. These include Hector Berlioz (1803 - 1869), Robert Schumann (1810 - 1856) and Franz Liszt (1811 - 1886). For a really brilliant and lengthy discussion of these last three, I recommend the book The Romantic Generation by Charles Rosen. But you might also read the individual biographies at Wikipedia that I linked to above. Yes, this is the only music blog on the Internet with actual homework! I just want to save a bit of time by not rehearsing all the basic information about these composers.

What is so special about this generation at this particular time? The 19th century is a very complex era, historically, and there are enormous amounts of writing about it, but the crucial fact might be that the generation born, more or less, around 1810 was the first to be born into a post-Revolutionary world. Wikipedia says about the French Revolution that it was:
a period of far-reaching social and political upheaval in France that lasted from 1789 until 1799, and was partially carried forward by Napoleon during the later expansion of the French Empire. The Revolution overthrew the monarchy, established a republic, experienced violent periods of political turmoil, and finally culminated in a dictatorship under Napoleon that rapidly brought many of its principles to Western Europe and beyond. Inspired by liberal and radical ideas, the Revolution profoundly altered the course of modern history, triggering the global decline of absolute monarchies while replacing them with republics and liberal democracies. Through the Revolutionary Wars, it unleashed a wave of global conflicts that extended from the Caribbean to the Middle East. Historians widely regard the Revolution as one of the most important events in human history.
Prior to the Revolution, composers and musicians were typically employed by the Church and the aristocracy. If successful, they were guaranteed the patronage of princes, dukes and emperors and this gave a security and stability to their careers. Haydn managed to write one hundred and six symphonies not only because of his manifest talents, but also because of the wealth and patronage of the Esterházy family. He had, at his disposal, an orchestra, large and small concert halls and even an opera house, all at the Esterházy estate. The French Revolution was quite successful in erasing, or at the least diminishing, both the aristocratic class and the influence of the church. One of the intellectual leaders of the Revolution was Denis Diderot who has this quote attributed to him (though it is actually a paraphrase of something said by Jean Meslier).
“Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest”
That's clear enough! The consequences of the French Revolution were profound and widespread and not least upon the arts, music especially. The Revolutionaries were supported by composers who grew up under the ancien régime and their music, while glorifying the Revolution in a suitably brilliant way, was not fundamentally different musically from that which came before. Composers to note include Luigi Cherubini and Étienne Méhul. But as we move into the 19th century, the composers born between 1803 (Berlioz) and 1813 (Wagner) came into the post-Revolutionary world.

One obvious problem was, who would offer them patronage? Mozart and, towards the end of his life, Haydn, had shown that there was a market for public concerts and Beethoven took advantage of this as well. But all three relied mostly on aristocratic patronage. Even Beethoven, who is often called a "revolutionary" composer himself, was supported by a special fund set up by a group of aristocrats in Vienna. The big economic change in the 19th century was the growth of the middle-class music consumer. I say "consumer" instead of "patron" because that better describes the nature of the relationship. The nobility who had a keen interest in music, also tended to be highly educated in music and often, like Prince Nikolas of Esterházy or Frederick the Great of Prussia, were accomplished musicians in their own right. Some of this was true of the middle-class music lovers as well, which is attested to by the enormous numbers of pianos that began to adorn middle-class parlors. But they were more consumers than patrons and musicians and composers found that they needed to write and play music a bit differently to catch their attention. The emotive and sensational began to supplant the witty and charming.

Let's take a couple of examples. The first is a symphony by Joseph Haydn, that well-exemplifies the aesthetic values of 18th century music. This is the Symphony No. 96 in D major and the performers are The Orchestra of the 18th Century, conducted by Frans Brüggen.

This symphony is one of the "London" symphonies written for Haydn's tour. It was premiered in the Hannover Square Rooms, the large concert hall of which seated only 500 people. This was the main concert hall in London for a century. Mozart's piano concertos were premiered in the Lenten concerts in Vienna where the typical audience was around 120 people. In both these cases the majority of attendees were nobility.

Now, by way of contrast, let's listen to Berlioz's hugely influential Symphonie fantastique which was premiered in 1830. Wikipedia describes it as follows:
The symphony is a piece of program music that tells the story of an artist gifted with a lively imagination who has poisoned himself with opium in the depths of despair because of hopeless, unrequited love.
Let's listen. This is the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France & Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra conducted by Gustavo Dudamel:

This piece is always discussed in terms of its innovation and exotic program, but why don't we ask ourselves why Haydn didn't write something like this for Prince Nikolas? Actually, I can see the prince now saying, "my dear Joseph, why would you ever think I had any interest in your romantic adventures, with or without the addition of opium?" I think that crystallizes what was so successful in the Berlioz work: it was perfectly designed to appeal to the new middle-class music consumer. It was scandalous and seductive all at once. Instead of making an intellectual appeal, it makes an emotional, psychological and sensual appeal. The orchestration, harmonies and rhythms are haunting and alluring.

I suspect Haydn could have written something quite like this, if he had seen the point. Just listen to the introduction to his oratorio The Creation for example. This is Concentus Musicus Wien conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt:

And now I find I have written a fairly long post, and hardly mentioned Richard Wagner! This will have to serve as the introduction and I will continue with Herr Wagner in the next post.

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