If you are an opera buff, you cannot afford to ignore the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Richard Wagner, especially when it is celebrated by none other than Daniel Barenboim, who brings to life The Ring of Nibelung – which took the composer some twenty-six years to complete.
I expect everyone will be talking about the event for the combination of Wagner and Barenboim is pure magic.
The BBC Proms is wheeling out the big guns for its celebratory Ring, which begins this week with Das Rheingold and climaxes with Gotterdammerung on 28th July.
Although the operas will not be staged, there are plenty of compelling reasons not to miss the Ring, the most important of which is Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Staatskapelle. Barenboim has an impeccable Wagnerian record; he has conducted several Ring Cycles at the Bayreuth Festival, the spiritual home of Wagner, and his Wagner performances at the Berlin Staatsoper have been renowned for twenty years.
The most exciting name in the cast is the Swedish soprano, Nina Stemme, who many claim is the reigning Brünnhilde of our times. Our own Bryn Terfel, meanwhile, pops up as Wotan in Die Walküre, but in Das Rheingold his younger self will be sung by Iain Patterson, the Scottish baritone.
Richard Wagner was a giant in musical terms. He was born in Leipzig on 22nd May 1813, and died in Venice on 18th February 1883. His whole life was a struggle, for his musical ideas were unlike any that had gone before. But he lived to witness a splendid triumph; and today, his operas have an extensive following worldwide, and are produced more often than those of any other composer.
The following is the order in which the operas were first given:
Rienzi (1842); The Flying Dutchman (1843); Tannhäuser (1845); Lohengrin (1850); Tristan and Isolde (1865); The Master Singers (1868); The Ring of the Nibelung (1876); and Parsifal (1882).
When Wagner was just beginning his career, he was in great doubt as to the choice of subjects for his operas. His first famous work (Rienzi) was based on Italian history. The English novelist Bulwer-Lytton wrote a noted book using the same title and groundwork.
The legend of ‘The Flying Dutchman’, which Wagner next chose, is one of the best known sea myths. In every country sailors tell of a mysterious ship that is seen in times of danger or distress. The captain of this vessel bears a number of names, but it is believed that the varying tales are only versions of one original legend. The German poet Heine wrote one version, and from this Wagner obtained the first idea for his opera.
With Tannhäuser Wagner entered upon the purely German themes which he was thenceforth to find so rich a mine. The story, like many others, was extremely old – yet it had been treated only rarely. Ludwig Tieck had written some verses on it, and from these Wagner got his idea. Owen Meredith, the English poet, had also given us a charming version entitled ‘The Battles of the Bards’. While Tannhäuser himself has been seldom written about, Walther von der Vogelweide – the Minnesinger, and friend of Tannhäuser in the opera – is the subject of many poems, one of the last being by Longfellow.
Sir Walter is set down in German history as an actual person, and many things are told about his marvellous gift of song.
Wolfran von Eschenbach – another historical character found in the operas – once wrote a famous old poem entitled ‘Parzival’.
Here Wagner discovered his beautiful story from the poem of Lohengrin, following the lines of an old and almost forgotten legend. The opera of Parsifal, though left incomplete until more than thirty years later, was also conceived at this time and remained cherished. The legends of the Holy Grail are familiar in every Christian country.
There is much in the characters of both Parsifal and Lohengrin to remind us of Tennyson’s Sir Galahad, in ‘Idylls of the King’ – which treats the Holy Grail.
In Tristan and Isolde we have another legend which was well known during the Middle Ages; in Wales, Ireland, Brittany and Germany – where it was a frequent theme with minnesingers, or wandering minstrels like Walther von der Vogelweide.
One of the earliest German authors to write down a version of it was a certain Godfried of Strasbourg, and Wagner had at his command this and numerous other versions.
English poets, too, have been attracted by the tale, with Sir Walter Scott in ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ telling the simplest version. Matthew Arnold, Tennyson, and Swinburne have also all produced poems of great length on the subject.
During the Middle Ages and particularly in the thirteenth century Nuremberg was a seat of a well-known musical guild or training school for poets and singers. Wagner followed history in his Master Singers for scene, characters and traditions.
The Master Singers left proof that they in fact lived. There are poems in existence, signed by Sixtus Beckmesser, Veit Pogner, among others. Hans Sachs left volumes behind and his memory is so revered that he is viewed almost as the patron saint of his city.
Longfellow says in his poem on Nuremberg: ‘Here Hans Sachs, the cobbler poet, laureate of the gentle craft, wisest of the twelve wise masters in huge folios, sang and laughed.’
Wagner also obtained his idea for the contest of song from one of Hoffman’s novels entitled Sängerkrieg. He made use of the same idea in Tannhäuser.
Although The Ring of the Nibelung, Wagner’s grand life work, was not presented until 1876, he had been at work on its four parts for more than twenty-five years previously. He published the first two parts without their musical score in 1853. The other operas, which appeared in the meantime, were but breathing places, so to speak, in the greater labour he had set himself.
Wagner was especially fortunate in his choice of subject. The Nibelungen myth was a great national epic – one of the oldest of the Teutonic race, dating back to the pre-historic era when Wotan, Fricka, Freia, Thor, Loki, and the other gods and goddesses were worshipped in the German forests.
In the course of centuries several versions of the legend appeared, some being found even in Iceland under the name of Eddas. In Germany a long epic poem came to be written by some unknown hand. It was called ‘Das Nibelungenlied’, and it is the most famous of all early German poems.
Of course, Wagner had access to all this material. But he made so many changes from it in writing his own poem as to create a new story – one which, independent of the wonderful music which he wrote to accompany it, gives him place among the foremost writers of his nation. Volumes have been written pointing out the differences between his Nibelung story and the earlier legends.
It simply emphasises the fact that Wagner was always his own man. He used legend as a basis for his own creative genius, and made future generations realise that we will never grow too old to believe in giants, dragons and dwarves, and the brave heroes who ride over the world doing heroic deeds. We should be thankful that Wagner lived and made us share his monumental dreams of the past.
To listen to Wagner is a joy that has no equal. I shall no doubt be mesmerised watching my television screen, when the BBC in all its glory transmits the opera from the Royal Albert Hall for the thrill of the nation.