By on January 21, 2014

Famed (and perhaps the most famous) opera composer Richard Wagner started out as a political revolutionary. Really. Wagner’s stated aim was to destroy the established order and to transform established social relationships. (That’s why Wagner’s personal behavior often involved sexual betrayals.) Wagner himself wrote:

I will destroy each phantom that has rule o’er men. I will destroy the dominion of one over many, of the dead o’er the living, of matter over spirit; I will break the power of the mighty, of law, of property.

— (Richard Wagner: “The Revolution.” Printed in Volksblätter No. 14, Dresden, Sunday April 8, 1849.)

Ironically enough, Wagner’s stunning success as a composer of music dramas was quite dependent upon the generosity of the newly rich (who craved the social prestige that came from being associated with a celebrated composer), and later, the patronage of the nobility. So much for overthrowing the established order—at least in the real world.

(NOTE: There’s a potentially non-work-safe painting after the jump — JB)

In the realm of art however, Wagner’s music was nothing other than “the continuation of political and social revolution by other means.” In his operas, Wagner gave free reign to his fascination with the “creative destruction” of institutions and societies. That’s why all of Europe reacted violently to the texts and subtexts of Wagner’s operas—some with abhorrence, some with horrified fascination, and many, especially young artists and composers, with a sense of wonder and of personal transformation.

Richard Wagner’s favorite “teachable moment” was the last possible instant before doomed grandeur falls into rubble. Wagner’s entire four-opera Ring cycle culminates in the fated destruction of Valhalla, the home of the Norse gods. In Wagner’s cosmology, the destruction of Valhalla is what makes way for the rise of humankind.

In 1845, Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser had its debut. Tannhäuser is Wagner’s reworking of a Medieval legend about the historical knight, composer, singer, and poet Tannhäuser, who supposedly discovered Venusberg, the underground (or mountaintop) home of the goddess Venus. In the myth, Tannhäuser spent a year in Venusberg, err, um, “worshipping” Venus.
Jcollier

Credit: Tannhäuser in the Venusberg by Hon. John Collier, English (1901).

However, after a year of erotic bliss, Tannhäuser longed to return to his earthly home. The Tannhäuser legend (like the Medieval legend of the Grateful Dead Man from which the famous rock band took its name) was doubtless a reworking of an older pagan legend.

In the Medieval version, Tannhäuser leaves Venusberg, repents of his sins, and travels to Rome to ask the Pope for forgiveness. The Pope scornfully tells Tannhäuser that forgiveness is no more likely than the Pope’s staff sprouting shoots and blossoming. Dejected, Tannhäuser departs to go home. Three days later, the Pope’s staff indeed does sprout. But by the time the messengers arrive, Tannhäuser has already returned to Venusberg, never to be seen again.

What Wagner added to the Tannhäuser story was dramatic tension between religious faith and human love, through the introduction of the character Elisabeth. Elisabeth’s virtuous prayers enable both Tannhäuser’s forgiveness and his not returning to Venusberg. Wagner also added a “Pilgrims’ Chorus” of pilgrims returning from Rome as the Act III news-bearers.

While Tannhäuser is on the surface a pious work, Wagner’s relationship with Christian culture was decidedly of the “Frenemy” sort. In its blurring of the distinctions between divine and human love, Tannhäuser could be Wagner’s first sketch for Tristan and Isolde.

So: Where does Detroit come in? Detroit comes in way back at: Richard Wagner’s favorite “teachable moment” was the last possible instant before doomed grandeur falls into rubble.

Courtesy of YouTube poster “Peppopb”, at the top of this article, we have an amazing mashup of the Pilgrims’ Chorus from Tannhäuser with haunting black-and-white footage (from the Godfrey Reggio movie Naqoyqatsi) of Detroit’s ruined Michigan Central Station railroad terminal.

Michigan Central Station was built in 1913. It is in the same Beaux Arts style as, and by the same architects who designed, New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. You can catch a train and even have a good meal in Grand Central, but Michigan Central is hardly safe to walk about in. (Not to forget that Detroit has entered Federal Bankruptcy protection from creditors.)

Two nearly-identical railroad stations, with two soberingly disparate outcomes.

While both labor and management in Detroit’s auto industry were addicted to short-term thinking and rent-seeking behaviors, a major reason for the differing outcomes is that New York has never been a one-industry town, while Detroit always was.

Richard Wagner’s strangely powerful religious music, itself the product of a life politically dedicated to destruction and artistically fascinated by downfall, is the perfect soundtrack for images of Detroit’s ruined Valhalla.

For your thoughtful consideration, I offer these take-aways:

• The Goddess Fortuna rules the world while wearing a blindfold.

• Nothing lasts forever.

• But great art often lasts a long time.

Record producer John Marks is a Senior Contributing Editor and columnist of Stereophile magazine.

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38 Comments on “Herr Richard Wagner vs. The City of Detroit—This Time, It’s Musical!...”


  • avatar
    Omnifan

    Now that the current owner is replacing all of the windows, it will soon (2025?) be time for a new video. Detroit should be out of bankruptcy by then. The Packard plant will also be a vibrant part of the city by then too :)

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    An excellent ruin-porn video, thanks for sharing.

    The other day I was reading a crazy editorial on how to help Detroit: exploit the ruin-porn tourism industry. It may sound hare-brained, but at least it is an innovative thought.

    Heck, with a little promotion, these buildings could be the next Parthenon or Machu Pichu ruins!

  • avatar
    Kenmore

    Götterdämmerung with hamsters and rap?

    Won’t draw much of an audience.

  • avatar

    Just to be pedantic, the Grateful Dead didn’t take their name directly from the medieval Grateful Dead Man legends. Jerry Garcia happened across the term when opening up a Funk & Wagnalls dictionary and the phrase stuck in his head:

    “We were standing around in utter desperation at Phil [Lesh]‘s house in Palo Alto [trying to think up a name for the band]. There was a huge dictionary, big monolithic thing, and I just opened it up. There in huge black letters was `The Grateful Dead.’ It … just cancelled my mind out.”

    I’ve read too much about what a terrible human being Jim Morrison was to be able to enjoy the Doors’ music. My life will be just fine without Richard Wagner in its soundtrack.

    • 0 avatar
      John Marks

      Hi-

      Thanks for reading the piece.

      There is a source that says that it was a dictionary of ***folklore*** published by Funk & Wagnalls, and that Garcia was playing “Fictionary” at the time.

      There is another source for the claim that it was a Britannica World Language dictionary, and that the definition was “the soul of a dead person, or his angel, showing gratitude to someone who, as an act of charity, arranged their burial.” So I think that both these stories support what I wrote.

      However, there is another version of the story, that makes the naming totally accidental and not related to the folk tale. In that story, Garcia opened a dictionary at random and saw the words “grateful” and “dead” opposite each other across the gutter of the binding. I use no initial caps because it would have been a strange dictionary with the G words coming before the D words, so, it must have been a matter of words within definitions rather than of the words that were being defined.

      Ciao,

      John

      • 0 avatar

        John,

        It’s very cool for TTAC to have someone from Stereophile contributing here. I’m a long time reader of the magazine. Any chance we’ll see you discuss car audio systems here?

        I’ve seen the folklore dictionary story but Snopes quotes the band’s publicist as saying it was a normal Funk & Wagnalls. Who really knows? I went with the quote from Garcia because, well it’s Garcia, and it’s seemed pretty definitive.

        With the mood and mind altering substances the principals in the story were likely imbibing at the time, it’s not surprising that there are alternate versions of elements of the Grateful Dead’s foundational story. Also, and I say this as someone that right now has a GD show from 1970 on the CD player in my office, a show from 1977 in the player in the car, and who is listening to Scarlet Begonias as I type: never trust a prankster.

        … and speaking of the Merry Pranksters, welcome onto this particular bus.

        • 0 avatar
          chuckrs

          Love to see a stereophile’s take on car stereos. It’s a guaranteed controversy with some people willing to pay large sums for high end car audio. Others (including me) believe the listening environment doesn’t merit the best (e.g. a Burmester system in a Boxster or Cayman.)

          • 0 avatar
            John Marks

            As I just explained to Ronnie, no can do, going forward. I do work also as a record producer and acoustical consultant… . Only so many hours in the night.

            Listening environment–it depends.

            In theory, if management is willing to spend the money, and not just slap a bought nameplate on something (e.g., I knew Mark Levinson when he was just Mark Levinson), the advantage of an in-car design is that the engineers know everything about the environment, where people will be sitting, etc.

            Whereas the designers of a $50,000 home speaker system have not the least clue what the buyer’s room will be like (Second Empire? Mies van der Rohe? Phillip Johnson?), in theory, the car-audio designer knows the cubic volume, dimensional ratios, surface materials, ray tracings, etc.

            I usually tell musicians who can’t afford good equipment but need to listen to a test CD to listen in their cars, on the premise that their car system is better than their home system.

            BTW, Burmester makes great stuff. Not cheap, but great.

            FWIW & YMMV.

            ATB,

            John

        • 0 avatar
          John Marks

          Hi, Thanks.

          About the Dead, first. If you read Stereophile, you should remember that the remastered Original Studio LPs were the Record of the Month for December, and, if you look at the end of my February column, I go into greater detail than there was space for on the one-page R2D4 entry about the amazing, near-voodoo recovery of the analog tape bias tone as a clock signal to enable the nulling out of the original tape recorder’s FM distortion. Stunning.

          I really doubt that (even with John Atkinson’s indulgence) I could offer anything about car audio. The reasons being, while I have written about complete car systems here and there on occasion, my beats are affordable systems, digital front ends, integrated amplifiers, conventional cone loudspeakers, etc. PLUS! String quartets, vocal music, choral music, pipe organ, piano, symphonies, vintage jazz, singer-songwriter, etc.

          I just don’t have the time to stay current on high-end factory car audio, let alone aftermarket–forget about that. The last car audio piece I wrote was for the then-new Mercedes S-Class, a Bose DSP-enabled system. My article for the US Mercedes Club STAR was called, “Driving While Intoxicated.”

          So, thanks for the interest, but, even as it is, I have no life!

          Ciao,

          John

  • avatar
    sordidman

    Wow! Thanks for the amazing piece & article. So looking forward to the further destruction of the city. However, like the city, I’m afraid that class awareness in this land of sheep will move too slowly for me to witness the end of the horror of these entrenched robber barons. I am so grateful to know, (Thank you again), that Richard Wagner stood on such firm ground. Burn baby burn.

    • 0 avatar
      jhefner

      If by robber barons you are referring to the car companies; they are not nearly as much to blame as the ruling class; see regmacc’s post.

      My hometown and Houston were built on the oil business. But, when that tanked in the 1970s and 1980s; after undergoing much pain, they diversified themselves; and are stronger than ever. Detroit’s ruling class apparently rode the automotive sector like the A-bomb in Dr. Stranglove all the way to the bottom; now, they are going to have to rebuild everything from the ground up.

      • 0 avatar
        sordidman

        Nope,

        More than just the car companies: they couldn’t have done this on their own. There is still gold to be mined, opportunities to remove more wealth from the people there, and return Detroit, and the rest of the USA, to a feudal state. As US citizens are led down the path of their own destruction: (denigrating, ignoring, the crucial lessons learned from the first depression): Detroit becomes a symbol of what the rest of the USA, and the world is in for. Without any democratic institutions, the wealthy are free to run unfettered. This is what Wagner was talking about, and what is occurring.

  • avatar
    Ron B.

    “…I will destroy each phantom that has rule o’er men. I will destroy the dominion of one over many, of the dead o’er the living, of matter over spirit; I will break the power of the mighty, of law, of property.

    — (Richard Wagner: “The Revolution.” Printed in Volksblätter No. 14, Dresden, Sunday April 8, 1849.)….”
    No wonder Hitler loved his music.

    • 0 avatar
      bill h.

      I’ve read contentions that it was Bruckner, not Wagner who was Hitler’s personal favorite composer (the slow movement of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony was what German radio played when the announcement was made of his death)–but then the Nazis even used Beethoven as a musical vehicle for their ideology. In any case, from what I read of that passage, and the story/music of Wagner’s Ring, is that the grasp for absolute power is ultimately a self-destructive act.

      • 0 avatar
        John Marks

        FWIW, and, one set of factoids should not decide an argument, when AH was sprung from prison after the Beer Hall Putsch, with patrons’ money, the first things he bought were: (1) A Mercedes, (2) A Victrola, and (3) Some Wagner 78 rpm records.

        About power, corruption, etc., my personal view is that the fundamental tragedy of human life is that we are driven to glorify ourselves in our own images and by the means we find near at hand, rather than calming down and letting God glorify us by his standards and by his methods.

        In other words, every attempt to bring “Heaven on Earth” by human means (“to Immanentize the Eschaton”) has ended in bloodshed, innocent bloodshed.

        And please don’t fault Austrian peasant and would-have-been priest Bruckner for Hitler’s sins. Bruckner was dead three years when Hitler was born.

        ATB,

        JM

        • 0 avatar
          bill h.

          Yes, Wagner’s own English born daughter-in-law Winifrid was an avowed Hitler admirer who never renounced her associations, even after the war.
          Pace re: Bruckner–no intent was made to defame him–anybody who could write something as sublime as his Eighth Symphony deserves no blame. Of course, Wagner had been dead for what? 50 years when AH came to power. And some of the greatest musicians of the 20th century (including those who had to flee Germany for being Jews or otherwise unsympathetic to the regime–Bruno Walter, Lotte Lehmann, Erich Leinsdorf et al.) and some of the most fervent anti-fascist musicians anywhere (Toscanini) continued to perform this music, even with their knowledge of the composer’s failures as a human being. The intersection of art and politics sometimes doesn’t have the clear cut boundaries we would wish it to, I guess. ATB to you too!

    • 0 avatar
      sordidman

      How’s that? Hitler was a fascist who believed in Fascism, which is a single ruler or very small group of rulers who understand best the WILL of his children/the state: (a devotion to a strong leader, and an emphasis on ultranationalism and militarism). Wagner was opposed to this, at least as cited above. Likely, Hitler, loved Wagner because he was German.

      • 0 avatar

        Hitler loved Wagner at least in part because of the latter’s Jew-hatred. Wagner wasn’t shy about his prejudices:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Das_Judenthum_in_der_Musik

        Spiegel has an extensive and nuanced multipart article on Wagner:

        http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/richard-wagner-a-composer-forever-associated-with-hitler-a-892600.html

  • avatar
    regmacc

    “Richard Wagner’s favorite ‘teachable moment’ was the last possible instant before doomed grandeur falls into rubble.”

    Indeed, and it’s not as though Detroit’s pols and voters didn’t have ample warning.

    Snippet: Detroit on Thursday declared bankruptcy, seeking protection under Chapter 9 of the federal code. It is the largest public entity in the United States ever to do so. In 1960, Detroit had the highest per capita income in the United States; today, it is the poorest large city in the United States, with a poverty rate more than 20 percent higher than that of Cleveland, the third-poorest city, and half again as much as that of Philadelphia, the tenth-poorest city.

    Detroit has suffered the usual problems associated with large, Democrat-dominated cities. Its spending has long been out of control, and former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and one of his cronies are prison-bound on 31 counts of extortion, bribery, and racketeering. …Of its $11 billion in unsecured debt, the great majority — $9 billion — is owed to pensions and health-benefit plans for the same public-sector incompetents who helped bring the city to its knees in the first place. Detroit’s ruling class is a parasite that has outgrown its host.”

    http://www.nationalreview.com/article/353862/detroit-goes-down-kevin-d-williamson#!

    • 0 avatar
      Hillman

      Sure it had nothing to do with, complex race relation problems, Urban decay that almost destroyed most cities around the 70′s, white flight, the rise of suburbia, and other problems that contributed to urban decay. It was only the unions and the liberals that killed Detroit.

      • 0 avatar
        28-Cars-Later

        You make a very good point, but although after that era it was the unions and liberals who consciously failed to adhere to a new reality which drove the final nails into the coffin.

        • 0 avatar
          sordidman

          Oh…

          Very few union members were “liberals.” And in the end, it was a conservative country who refused to buy a crappy product. The automobile in the USA became synonymous with total shite by the mid 70s. That certainly wasn’t the fault of the unions. The real problem was that Detroit was a one industry town. The unions, (for all of their faults), were the one thing that SUPPORTED the economy, as wealthier workers SPENT money. But, that matters not now. The reality is that Detroit is a failed city returning to a different condition; it will be interesting to see what evolves.

  • avatar
    bill h.

    Nice article. But of course if you’re going to invoke the Ring Cycle, it didn’t happen just because the rot in Valhalla was spontaneously going to make it so. Someone had to make the sacrifice to set things in motion–who’s going to be your equivalent of the Brünnhilde figure that immolates herself in (her lover) Siegfried’s funeral pyre to bring about the Fall and the Rise of what comes next?

    • 0 avatar
      John Marks

      Thanks. I don’t really have an answer for you. Analogies and allusions can only stretch so far.

      However, I want to point everybody to an even more powerful (IMHO) YouTube mashup–Wotan’s Farewell over a slideshow of still photos of James Dean. The Gender Semi-Role Reversal is haunting. YMMV, though.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4NoOAJyjm54&list=FLLiK-cQB29suzkgDHmSIddA

      Sung by Thomas Stewart, conducted by Herbert Von Karajan with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1967.

      ATB,

      John

  • avatar
    RogerB34

    “While both labor and management in Detroit’s auto industry were addicted to short-term thinking and rent-seeking behaviors, a major reason for the differing outcomes is that New York has never been a one-industry town, while Detroit always was.”
    In the end Detroit was voted into oblivion by The People. Something for nothing the promise of politicians working for unions. When the tax burden got onerous, management bailed just like it did during the 50′s east coast.
    New York is the last bastion of capitalists now under siege by progressives NYC and nationally. Texas here we come?

  • avatar

    While Wagner was a famous operatic composer, one can’t help but think that Herr Mozart is a bit more famous (and was certainly a BETTER composer of opera). However, Mozart composed a bit of everything, while Wagner never gained much traction outside of choral music. I suppose it’s personal preference.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      I don’t know much about Wagner, but Mozart was a genius. Perhaps Wagner was only average in his field in comparison?

      • 0 avatar
        John Marks

        Hi-

        Please first see my lengthy response to the other poster.

        Mozart was a genius, and in his own way he changed music decisively. It was Mozart who elevated pure communicativeness to the status of being the chief aim of Western concert music. That achievement, like modal jazz in the 1950s, turned out to be a very mixed blessing–because there are as few Mozarts as there are Bill Evanses. So, Mozart was great in his own right, and, was one of the set of sine qua nons that made Beethoven possible.

        I think that most music historians, theoreticians, and educators put Wagner actually outside of the mainstream of opera.

        Wagner did not want to write pretty melodies and he did not want people to get all weepy in the sentimental way most of us do over Puccini’s “weepers.” Wagner wanted to confront people as forcefully as he could; he wanted to inspire feelings of pity and terror; and he wanted to transform society.

        A Wagner opera, properly done (I am thinking of Parsifal) is not a pleasant evening out. It is an all-immersive, 4.5 hour confrontation with the basic questions of human existence, such as: Why?

        Anyway, stop me before I fill up TTAC’s server.

        ATB.

        Jack: Thanks for this opportunity, it has been fun.

        John

    • 0 avatar
      John Marks

      Hi.

      I cheerfully concede that here, we are in the Land of Unverifiable Hypotheses.

      My comment, though, was not a reflection of my personal preference. Not at all.

      I think that when average people think of Mozart, they are far more likely to think of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Symphony 41, or the piano concerto 21 as made famous in the film “Elvira Madigan,” than they are likely to think of Cosi Fan Tutte or The Magic Flute.

      One datum that supports my assertion is that when Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd parodied opera, Elmer chases Bugs while wearing a horned helmet as snippets from 6 or 7 Wagner operas fly past. Wagner, and no other composer.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What%27s_Opera,_Doc%3F

      Here’s some Tannhäuser music from that:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6jDcWAWRRHo&list=PLDMnruORXBiBlX0yFpWRxg6yEsfVNdML9

      Interestingly enough, Bugs’ other opera cartoon is based on Rossini’s The Barber of Seville… .

      And while Wagner is best known for opera, some of his best work is on a smaller scale, such as the Wesendonck Lieder. Relevant to my article as a whole for two reasons. One, Wagner as per usual didn’t really respect Mr. and Mrs. Wesendonck’s marriage vows; and, the Lieder are another sketch toward Tristan and Isolde. Wagner wrote quite a few piano pieces, most of which are extant, but rarely performed.

      At the end of the day, we are comparing smoked salmon to brie… .

      Mozart without question had a greater facility as a composer overall. That said, Mozart could spin haunting melodies so effortlessly that he hardly bothered with formal or harmonic innovations.

      Wagner is so easy to parody, but that is only because it was his works, quirky as they are, and as dependent upon the suspension of disbelief as they are, that changed Western culture forever. There is nothing in all of Mozart like the first chord of Tristan, in terms of changing the way music would be written from that point on.

      Schmuck though Wagner was.

      ATB,

      JM

      • 0 avatar

        I worry that we will make most commenters check out here…I will just say that as a composer of Opera, Mozart had no equal. While the man on The Street may not immediately whistle the Overture to Don Giovanni as readily as Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, it’s hard to argue against either Don Giovanni OR Le Nozze di Figaro as the greatest opera of all time. I was fortunate enough to see the Met perform Don Giovanni last season, and I was entranced for four hours.

        Wagner was a melodic oaf in comparison to Mozart. While it’s true that Mozart was not a harmonic innovator in the same way that perhaps Haydn or even Beethoven was, the tightly voiced harmonic structure of Don Giovanni is still astounding.

        I would contend that Wagner’s work is so clearly identified in popular culture as “Opera” is because of its bombastic, over the top nature. Wagner worked with metaphorical sledgehammers—there’s a reason it’s called the “Wagner Tuba.”

        Agreed that it’s difficult to truly compare the classical period with the romantic period. Also, I’m a saxophonist, so what do I know (other than Wagner was the first composer to hire—and subsequently fire—saxophonists to perform Opera)?

        • 0 avatar
          John Marks

          Thanks.

          I plan not to make a regular thing of this–my editor at Stereophile let me visit here because I felt that that video had something powerful and “transrationally true” to say about Detroit, and, no false modesty, I think that there is no one better qualified to put it in context.

          But don’t expect “Mr. Marks’s Music Seminars” to be a weekly feature here.

          With all due respect, Wagner is ***not*** identified in the popular imagination with “Opera” because he was bombastic. That’s like saying that Woodstock was important because a lot of people were willing to sleep in the mud.

          What Wagner achieved was a sea change in Western culture from the mindset of the time of Mozart. With no going back.

          The architectural perfection of Mozart’s greatest works (my nomination for #1 is the Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola) convey a sense that the world is ultimately comprehensible by rational (albeit perhaps Gnostic) means.

          Mozart was, with Baroque and Rococo Architecture, the chief ornament of the Enlightenment. Proportion, harmony, and ornament–but ornament only in a tasteful place. As I used to say in my lectures, “Mozart wanted to go ‘back to nature,’ but only in the most sophisticated way imaginable.”

          Wagner brought on the Endarkenment.

          Wagner threw the perfectionary aspirations of the Enlightenment onto the trash heap of history (to the extent the French Revolution had not already done so). That’s why I started with Wagner’s Revolutionary quote. His aims were totally at cross-purposes to Mozart’s, and, I think that looking at it objectively, Wagner swept all before him and had a far more decisive impact on culture as a whole (and not just music) than Mozart.

          Why? Good question. My short answer is that Wagner was open to the dark and irrational forces in the human heart and in society in a way the spinners of pretty string quartets and charming divertimenti simply were not. (I refer to all music of the era and not just Mozart, some of whose works did plumb the depths. As an example I mostly have in mind Grétry, whose beautiful music is ultimately forgettable.)

          It was a matter of Wagner’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” versus the classical era’s “The Sound of Music.”

          I also think that for many in Europe, entering into Wagner’s mythic world represented the dropping of the last bonds to confessional Christianity, again, which many found liberating, not realizing the risk of disorientation.

          Myself, I’d far prefer to listen to a cappella choral works by Morten Lauridsen or Eric Whitacre than have a steady diet of Wagner. But every time I listen, I cannot deny the power of Wagner’s imagination, and I think that everyone, love him or hate him, has to acknowledge that Wagner’s vision fell like a sledgehammer on 19th-century European culture, and the vibrations are still being felt.

          OK, ban me for prolixity.

          ATB,

          John

          • 0 avatar
            regmacc

            John:

            Years ago I read that Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries, that opens Act 3 of Die Walküre, is the **only** piece of music that convincingly conveys the act of flying. Do you agree?

        • 0 avatar
          bill h.

          @ Bark M.: I’m not worried about other commenters “checking out”….heaven knows there’s enough other postings about popular culture on TTAC and elsewhere that make me check out pretty early. I’ll go on to agree with you about the greatness of WAM as an opera composer, something which he thought of himself first, and then afterwards a composer of concerti, symphonies etc. There’s no doubt about the power of “Don Giovanni”–that penultimate scene where he meets his end never fails to leave a chill in the spine. Ditto for the delicious, ambiguous ironies of “Cosi fan Tutte” comments upon how the sexes view each other in the real world. And Magic Flute? Heaven.

          But re: your comparison, some of my own very limited connections to the operatic community have provided me with the insight that the pathway for singing Wagner is through Mozart (moreso than the e.g. Italians)…so I don’t see the dichotomy between the two that you do, at least in the singing part. Perhaps that explains why there’s the Ring, but also Die Meistersinger, which is a very different work, as is Tristan from either of them. So I see the video that is the subject of this posting as an interesting, but not completely fitting use for Wagner’s music in the context of what has occurred in Motor City. Perhaps for that, “Don Giovanni” might be the more apt metaphor–The Don (Detroit’s Big Three) woos many ladies with lots of sweet sounds and talk (and actions) over the years, but the falsehoods build up, and eventually he can’t sustain the story he gives them, and pays for it in a fiery ending–the final scene having all the remaining characters dwelling upon the lessons learned, as folks here do every day on TTAC. Maybe?

  • avatar
    John Marks

    To regmacc, on music and the act of flying.

    I don’t think that there is a lot of competition. There is one episode in Pictures at an Exhibition, movement 9, right before the finale, that describes a witch flying in a mortar, as in mortar and pestle.

    There’s a bit on Night on a Bare Mountain.

    I know some WWII-era and post-WWII-era stuff that is pretty documentary-ish, like Dello Joio’s “Air Power,” which apart from a horn passage that almost borrows the rising arpeggio at the beginning of the Valkyries, is discoursive and not all that convincing.

    There’s the pre-WWII Sir Arthur Bliss “Things to Come” future dystopic history SF movie score, same as immediately above except for the semi-quote from Valkyries.

    So, by process of elimination, my choice is R. Vaughan Williams’ rhapsody in three parts for solo violin and chamber orchestra, “A Lark Ascending.” True, it is avian flight and not Norse Goddess flight, but, in its swooping and gliding, for me it is the most convincing.

    A nice live job of it–it’s a tough, very “exposed” piece for the solo violin:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wbcuteYm-EA

    Now, if you had asked for floating music rather than flying music, from the Impressionist period on, there’s lots of that. My favorite right off the top of my head being the slow movement of Debussy’s string quartet.

    ATB,

    John

  • avatar
    mbruno

    Another ‘tour de force,’ John! I loved the essay, especially with the music playing in the background, and the comments and your replies have been terrific. I especially liked when you commented that Wagner “brought the ‘endarkenment.’” One of my favorite comments (can’t remember who made it) about Wagner was that his music is really much better than it SOUNDS. (!)

    Once again you challenge, enlighten, and entertain! Bravo!

    • 0 avatar
      John Marks

      Thanks!

      For “Endarkenment,” I am indebted to Dr. Peter Sampo, former President of Thomas More College, where I formerly was a Visiting Lecturer.

      The “I am assured that Herr Wagner’s music is actually better than it sounds,” or words to that effect, I believe is from Mark Twain’s tour of Europe.

      ATB,

      JM


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