Viswa Subbaraman

Opera and Orchestra Conductor

Performing Wagner - Part 1: Background

This is the first of a multi-part blog on Wagner – spawned in part by the recent production of Lohengrin at Houston Grand Opera.  I know I have said over the past few weeks that we would be discussing Wagner, but as I wrote about it, I realized that there was no way I could do this in one or two blogs.  I’ll try to get the next segment on Wagner up each Tuesday for the next few weeks.  The Thursday/Friday blog will cover other topics. As a trombone player (previous life), I always looked forward to playing Wagner.  When you play trombone in an orchestra, you spend a good amount of time playing softly, so you don’t cover up the strings.  When you do play loud, it’s at the end of a piece.  (I am speaking in generalities, of course).  It’s one of the reasons that trombonists enjoy playing Wagner.  It’s challenging, and we get to play loud!  I never gave performing Wagner a second thought – it was just great music.

The first time I met my first mentor, William Henry Curry, it was when he was delivering a speech on performing Wagner – not the performance practice – but whether we should perform Wagner at all.  Wagner was without a doubt one of the most influential composers in the history of Western music.  Much like Beethoven, every composer who came after had to confront Wagner – composers either respected or rejected his ideas but nobody could ignore them.

As Bill Curry said in his speech – in 1988, he checked with the Library of Congress about a statement that he had heard on TV, and they verified it:  The most written about person in human history was Jesus.  The second was…..Wagner.   Where does this fascination come from?  For composers, he was one of the most innovative musicians ever, so that explains why music historians study him and his music, but to be the second more written about person in history after Jesus?

In Mozart’s time and to a lesser extent in Beethoven’s time, the musician and artist were treated as yet another servant in the coterie of royalty.  (This is one reason that orchestras traditionally wear tuxedos – it’s an outgrowth of having come from the “wait staff.”)  Wagner was born into a time when musicians and artists were gaining more notoriety and respect.  The Enlightenment had created a society that was well versed in the importance of freedom and individuality.  Beethoven was perhaps the first musician to be treated as a genius and more than simply another servant.  Wagner became a composer in this world that had greater and greater respect and admiration for the artist, and after Beethoven’s death, Wagner began working to take over Beethoven’s mantle of the grand visionary composer.

Much of the challenge that Wagner confronted musically was due to Beethoven.  (This was also the challenge faced by Brahms, Bruckner… ok, all the composers post-Beethoven).  Beethoven had been so innovative in his expansion of the symphony that most composers post-Beethoven believed that the symphonic form was dead.  In other words, Beethoven had done everything that could be done with the symphony, so why try?  Wagner and Brahms each decided to approach this problem in different ways.  Brahms put off writing a symphony for many many years because he felt that anything he wrote would be measured against Beethoven.  He experimented quite a bit with symphonic forms and structure in his early works without actually writing a symphony, so he could “get it right” when he finally wrote his first symphony.  I think that in the end, he did.

Wagner, however, decided to take a completely different tack.  Since Beethoven had already done everything possible with the symphony, Wagner decided to turn his eyes to opera.

In some ways, Wagner saw opera as a continuation of the symphony – after all, even Beethoven included voices in his most amazing work, the ninth symphony.

By the way, my personal website has undergone a number of changes.  You can see it here.