Recommendations for an intro to Wagner's music/operas?

Posted by: BWV 846

Recommendations for an intro to Wagner's music/operas? - 10/05/12 07:29 AM

After watching "Wagner's Dream" (http://wagnersdream.metoperafamily.org/) on PBS, I would like to learn more about Wagner's music and especially his operas. Since there are SO many books out there about Wagner, I would appreciate recommendations for some good introductory books (or videos or websites). Danke.
Posted by: JoelW

Re: Recommendations for an intro to Wagner's music/operas? - 10/05/12 07:38 AM

Tristun und Isolde is really popular.
Posted by: Chopinlover49

Re: Recommendations for an intro to Wagner's music/operas? - 10/05/12 09:04 AM

If you are not a long-time classical music/opera listener, most of Wagner's full operas will overload you sonically. You might start with a selection of popular highlights that include Ride of the Valkyre, Siegfried's Journey, etc. His music is wonderful, but all of the operas run about four hours and because he uses Leitmotivs, there is an organizational scheme that might not be easy to get used to first time out. Just a suggestion. Don't get me wrong, I have multiple recordings of all of the operas and love them. Just a little much for a first-time listener in their entirety.
Posted by: pianoloverus

Re: Recommendations for an intro to Wagner's music/operas? - 10/05/12 09:59 AM

I listen to very little opera and especially little Wagner. But, as a non opera buff, I've always wondered if it's true, as it seems to me, that the non vocal parts of his operas(overtures etc.)are the most well known and often played part of his music.

Is this the case? If so, why do you think this is true?
Posted by: argerichfan

Re: Recommendations for an intro to Wagner's music/operas? - 10/05/12 10:47 AM

Originally Posted By: BWV 846
Since there are SO many books out there about Wagner...

By a long shot the most written about composer in western music. The sheer amount of books is bewildering.

As a former Wagner fanatic (in my early 20's), I've plowed through a fair amount of the literature. Here are a few highlites:

The best overall introduction to the operas is still Ernest Newman's 'Wagner Nights', published stateside as 'The Wagner Operas' and available on Amazon.

It's a thick volume, but highly rewarding to study (or dip in to) as it gives great background and a blow by blow guide to the music, introducing all the major leitmotivs and how they interact and develop. I could never have managed without it.

Bryan Magee's short book 'Aspects of Wagner' is a terrific read, each chapter discussing one particular 'aspect' of Wagner. Magee does not idolize the man, and certain controversial subjects (yes, that one) are gratifyingly met head-on.

I've lost count of the Wagner bios I have read, but there are several (somewhat overlapping) books by Robert Gutman which I can recommend. His earlier bio (possibly OOP) contains some rather uncomfortable stretches, so be warned. At one point I almost had to put the book down; Wagner was not always a 'nice guy'.

Finally, for anyone interested in Solti's pioneering studio recording of The Ring, John Culshaw's book 'Ring Resounding' is not only self-recommending, but perhaps one of the most engrossing books I've ever read.
Posted by: Vid

Re: Recommendations for an intro to Wagner's music/operas? - 10/05/12 01:44 PM

I was a Wagner fanatic in my 20's too. I think somehow it has an appeal for "angry young men". I still appreciate Wagner but am less of a fanatic these days.

The Perfect Wagnerite: A Commentary on the Niblung's Ring by George Bernard Shaw was an entertaining read if I remember correctly. Bernard himself was influenced by the innovations Wagner brought to stage productions.

Although the Ring cycle is 4 very long operas I think they are the most accessible of his operas. Das Rheingold is 'only' three hours long and has a storyline that is easy to follow.
Posted by: Ridicolosamente

Re: Recommendations for an intro to Wagner's music/operas? - 10/05/12 03:15 PM

Radiolab covered Wagner's Ring on a dedicated hour a few years back.
It is available as podcast. [click here]

It's a pretty good summary of the entire cycle - gives a 30000-ft overview of Wagner, touches all the major characters of the cycle, plot points, themes, and covers some of the leitmotifs and how Wagner transforms them throughout the cycle - e.g. the transformation of the Spear motif in the gorgeous and heartbreaking "Wotan's Farewell" near the end of Die Walkure. I think even those that know the cycle well will find it entertaining.



-Daniel
Posted by: dolce sfogato

Re: Recommendations for an intro to Wagner's music/operas? - 10/05/12 06:48 PM

the best way to learn more about Wagner's musical stageworks (opera's? he didn't think so) is to listen to them, all reading is afterthought.
Posted by: David-G

Re: Recommendations for an intro to Wagner's music/operas? - 10/05/12 07:48 PM

Originally Posted By: dolce sfogato
the best way to learn more about Wagner's musical stageworks (opera's? he didn't think so) is to listen to them, all reading is afterthought.

I would slightly modify that statement; the best way to appreciate Wagner's musical stageworks is to see them. Ideally in the opera house; but a DVD could be good. But you would want to find a production that is reasonably true to Wagner's intentions, and does not have a crazy producer's "concept"; and unfortunately I can't give you a recommendation. If you listen on CD, you should definitely follow a printed libretto while listening, then you can create the drama in your mind's eye.

I would suggest that you start either with Lohengrin or The Valkyrie. Lohengrin was the first Wagner opera that I saw, and I became an instant convert. It is intensely tuneful from beginning to end, and it has a very strong story. The Valkyrie is an even stronger work. It has fantastic music, and the drama is gripping from beginning to end. But you do have to see it. It's no good listening without understanding precisely what is happening and what the characters are singing; without that, parts may seem boring.

With respect to Mazurkajoe, I would definitely suggest not starting with Tristan!
Posted by: Vid

Re: Recommendations for an intro to Wagner's music/operas? - 10/05/12 08:17 PM

Originally Posted By: David-G
Originally Posted By: dolce sfogato
the best way to learn more about Wagner's musical stageworks (opera's? he didn't think so) is to listen to them, all reading is afterthought.

I would slightly modify that statement; the best way to appreciate Wagner's musical stageworks is to see them. Ideally in the opera house; but a DVD could be good. But you would want to find a production that is reasonably true to Wagner's intentions, and does not have a crazy producer's "concept"; and unfortunately I can't give you a recommendation. If you listen on CD, you should definitely follow a printed libretto while listening, then you can create the drama in your mind's eye.

I would suggest that you start either with Lohengrin or The Valkyrie. Lohengrin was the first Wagner opera that I saw, and I became an instant convert. It is intensely tuneful from beginning to end, and it has a very strong story. The Valkyrie is an even stronger work. It has fantastic music, and the drama is gripping from beginning to end. But you do have to see it. It's no good listening without understanding precisely what is happening and what the characters are singing; without that, parts may seem boring.

With respect to Mazurkajoe, I would definitely suggest not starting with Tristan!


+1
Posted by: argerichfan

Re: Recommendations for an intro to Wagner's music/operas? - 10/05/12 09:43 PM

Originally Posted By: David-G
If you listen on CD, you should definitely follow a printed libretto while listening, then you can create the drama in your mind's eye.

And I might slightly modify that. smile

Listen with a piano-vocal score. If you do not read German, even a singing translation will help you create the drama and actually follow what is going on. After a while you are able to identify and trace the development of the various motives. That's what I did.

Quote:
I would suggest that you start either with Lohengrin or The Valkyrie. Lohengrin was the first Wagner opera that I saw, and I became an instant convert.

Dutchman was my first live Wagner opera, and it confirmed my adoration of Wagner. Now I've seen all the mature operas, but someday I would love to see Rienzi, a fancy slap-up production ought to be a helluva show! (The best opera Meyerbeer never wrote?)

Quote:
The Valkyrie is an even stronger work. It has fantastic music, and the drama is gripping from beginning to end. But you do have to see it. It's no good listening without understanding precisely what is happening and what the characters are singing; without that, parts may seem boring.

An understatement about Walkure. A 'boring' part might be Wotan's monologue in the 2nd act, but that is where a piano-vocal score would be most valuable for study.
Posted by: BWV 846

Re: Recommendations for an intro to Wagner's music/operas? - 10/05/12 11:17 PM

I do read German, so resources in German would be OK.
Posted by: argerichfan

Re: Recommendations for an intro to Wagner's music/operas? - 10/06/12 12:41 AM

Originally Posted By: BWV 846
I do read German, so resources in German would be OK.

laugh , Wagner in German or English is much the same: verbose, opaque and generally just this side of unwittingly pompous. (Unlike, say, Proust whose writings utterly and completely resist translation into English.)

But Wagner, the great megalomaniac, HAD to write his own libretti, it could not be any other way. That is part and parcel of his genius.

Also -sorry to say- if Wagner had not been a man so driven by MISSION (with resultant arrogance, self-promotion, paranoia of Jews, sexual ambiguity), he could never have written the glorious music he has given us.

You take it or leave it, simple as that.
Posted by: landorrano

Re: Recommendations for an intro to Wagner's music/operas? - 10/06/12 03:13 AM

Originally Posted By: argerichfan

Listen with a piano-vocal score.


And I might slightly modify that! Read through parts of the score at the piano, the best moments, even if it is beyond your ability to play it fluently.
Posted by: BDB

Re: Recommendations for an intro to Wagner's music/operas? - 10/06/12 03:41 AM

And then there is this:


And this:
Posted by: bennevis

Re: Recommendations for an intro to Wagner's music/operas? - 10/06/12 11:21 AM

For a quick (very quick) guide to most of the juicy bits in Wagner's Ring, the Cambridge Buskers play a 3-minute abbreviated version on recorder and accordion grin.

Those wanting something more meaty (and on the instruments that Wagner actually wrote for) won't get much better than Lorin Maazel's 'The Ring without Words' which he recorded with the Berliner Philharmoniker, no less - over an hour of all the choice bits from Der Ring des Nibelungen strung together seamlessly, dispensing with singers, but every note by Wagner.
Posted by: BDB

Re: Recommendations for an intro to Wagner's music/operas? - 10/06/12 12:45 PM

The classic analysis of the Ring:

Posted by: BruceD

Re: Recommendations for an intro to Wagner's music/operas? - 10/06/12 01:48 PM

The Anna Russell "analysis" of the Ring is one of the great classic bits of comedy-in-music; it never ages for me and still makes me laugh outright every time I hear it. I listened to the whole thing - again! Thanks, BDB!

There are few "timely" references that some younger members may not fully appreciate, such as : "The Andrew Sisters," "My Friend Erda," "L'il Abner," but what a priceless bit of great humour.

Regards,
Posted by: argerichfan

Re: Recommendations for an intro to Wagner's music/operas? - 10/06/12 02:12 PM

Originally Posted By: BruceD
The Anna Russell "analysis" of the Ring is one of the great classic bits of comedy-in-music; it never ages for me and still makes me laugh outright every time I hear it.

Definitely a classic, and rather spot-on!

Also I'm sure you know her other great parody: 'How to Write Your Own Gilbert and Sullivan Opera'.

Just cracks me up...
Posted by: argerichfan

Re: Recommendations for an intro to Wagner's music/operas? - 10/06/12 02:17 PM

Originally Posted By: landorrano
Originally Posted By: argerichfan

Listen with a piano-vocal score.


And I might slightly modify that! Read through parts of the score at the piano, the best moments, even if it is beyond your ability to play it fluently.

And I might definitely agree with that!

After becoming addicted to Wagner, I wasted no time learning the Immolation Scene, the great central love duet in Tristan, and the close of the first act of Parsifal (amongst others) at the piano.
Posted by: Ian_G

Re: Recommendations for an intro to Wagner's music/operas? - 10/06/12 04:05 PM

Richter recalled how he played through a bunch of Wagner for some friends, afterward one said, "Everyone bow before Slava!" Richter said something like, "No, don't bow," to which the friend replied, "Then spit on me! Spit on my face!" Wagner certainly does that.
Posted by: argerichfan

Re: Recommendations for an intro to Wagner's music/operas? - 10/06/12 06:54 PM

Originally Posted By: Ian_G
Wagner certainly does that.

Wagner takes no prisoners.
Posted by: Ian_G

Re: Recommendations for an intro to Wagner's music/operas? - 10/07/12 05:14 AM

Originally Posted By: argerichfan
Originally Posted By: Ian_G
Wagner certainly does that.

Wagner takes no prisoners.


Beethoven does, though.
Posted by: BruceD

Re: Recommendations for an intro to Wagner's music/operas? - 10/07/12 01:05 PM

Originally Posted By: Ian_G
Originally Posted By: argerichfan
Originally Posted By: Ian_G
Wagner certainly does that.

Wagner takes no prisoners.


Beethoven does, though.


Thinking of Florestan?
Posted by: Ian_G

Re: Recommendations for an intro to Wagner's music/operas? - 10/07/12 01:11 PM

Originally Posted By: BruceD
Originally Posted By: Ian_G
Originally Posted By: argerichfan
Originally Posted By: Ian_G
Wagner certainly does that.

Wagner takes no prisoners.


Beethoven does, though.


Thinking of Florestan?


Fidèlement!
Posted by: argerichfan

Re: Recommendations for an intro to Wagner's music/operas? - 10/07/12 07:00 PM

Originally Posted By: Ian_G
Originally Posted By: BruceD
Originally Posted By: Ian_G
Originally Posted By: argerichfan
Originally Posted By: Ian_G
Wagner certainly does that.

Wagner takes no prisoners.


Beethoven does, though.


Thinking of Florestan?


Fidèlement!

Bingo! (Or perhaps loto?)

The Pasha in Mozart's 'Abduction' has a few prisoners, though they seem to be living a rather comfortable life.

Which brings up an interesting point: what do we mean when Wagner took no prisoners, yet Beethoven does?

Not sure about this... crazy
Posted by: BWV 846

Re: Recommendations for an intro to Wagner's music/operas? - 10/08/12 09:03 AM

Seeing one in the opera house isn't an option now (I live in DC). Which performances on DVD would you recommend? The Anna Russell "analysis" is great.
Posted by: BruceD

Re: Recommendations for an intro to Wagner's music/operas? - 10/08/12 11:07 AM

Originally Posted By: argerichfan
[...]Which brings up an interesting point: what do we mean when Wagner took no prisoners, yet Beethoven does?
Not sure about this... crazy


I, too, wondered about this. To confirm, I had to look up the meaning of "to take no prisoners" and it means to do anything and everything one wants and needs to do to get what one wants. I'm not sure how Wagner, on the one hand, is uncompromising in reaching his goals while Beethoven, on the other, is less focused or less determined.

Regards,
Posted by: AldenH

Re: Recommendations for an intro to Wagner's music/operas? - 10/08/12 02:40 PM

What interesting resources!

I don't mean to take this discussion off topic, but I have a closely related question: I've never been to a Wagner opera or listened to more than a snippet of one, but I'm seriously considering heading to Seattle next August for their Ring cycle. How would you prepare for this jump into freezing water, so to speak?
Posted by: BruceD

Re: Recommendations for an intro to Wagner's music/operas? - 10/08/12 03:31 PM

Not a great Wagner fan, I would start by studying the non-Ring operas: Der Fliegende Holländer (Flying Dutchman), Die Meistersinger, and Tannhäuser to get an idea of Wagner's tone palette his treatment of the orchestra and his vocal writing. Then, listen to any of the "Ring" cycle you might want to wade through. Above all, I would make sure I was familiar with the details of the plot of the opera(s) I was to see. With Wagner, particularly, I don't think you want to be asking yourself "What is going on?" while you are experiencing the opera.

Regards,
Posted by: AldenH

Re: Recommendations for an intro to Wagner's music/operas? - 10/08/12 04:48 PM

Thanks, Bruce! The other operas and the Ring plot will be at the top of my Wagner to-do list.
Posted by: BWV 846

Re: Recommendations for an intro to Wagner's music/operas? - 10/11/12 09:08 AM

Originally Posted By: argerichfan
The best overall introduction to the operas is still Ernest Newman's 'Wagner Nights', published stateside as 'The Wagner Operas' and available on Amazon.

It's a thick volume, but highly rewarding to study (or dip in to) as it gives great background and a blow by blow guide to the music, introducing all the major leitmotivs and how they interact and develop. I could never have managed without it.


I just ordered the Newman book. Thanks for the recommendation.

I listened to the Met's PBS broadcast of Das Rheingold and generally liked it.
Posted by: dolce sfogato

Re: Recommendations for an intro to Wagner's music/operas? - 10/11/12 05:48 PM

I heard all of the Ring-parts seperately, that was the schedule at Operahouse, but then they decided to do it all in one week, for the last time, I was there, I had the deepest musical impression since I had to dance on Saint-Saëns' 'le cygne' at the age of 5.