ENDNOTES, January 2021
In this edition: Stuart Millson’s Wagner
The twilight of the gods, the violence and feuds of the great characters of The Ring Cycle, the exploits of knights and Die Meistersinger of mediaeval Nuremberg – these are some of the characteristic stories and settings associated with the music, chiefly operatic, of Richard Wagner (1813-83). Even when translated into the concert hall, Wagner’s contribution to the programmes of the world’s orchestras often consists of “bleeding chunks” from his music-dramas, or curtain-raising overtures – the surging Tannhauser, or The Flying Dutchmen, or the exhilarating prelude to Act lll of Lohengrin. But despite these majestic sequences and the many experiences this reviewer has had of Wagner’s operas (Bernard Haitink at the Royal Opera House in ‘Die Meistersinger’; Sir Reginald Goodall at English National Opera and the Proms in Parsifal) it is Wagner’s understated, small-in-scale, nature tone-painting which arguably constitute his most profound achievement.
Let us turn accordingly to an overlooked song-cycle, written in the late 1850s, with words by the poetess Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of one of Wagner’s supporters. The work consists of five songs, and throughout the sequence there is an immediate sense of introspection – a surprising pre-echo, in fact, of the mysterious and melancholic orchestral songs written by Mahler at turn of the century – the Rückert-Lieder, for example, of 1901.
Sounding much more “modern”, more late-romantic than their mid-19th-century origins would have you believe, the Wesendonck songs bring the listener into an atmosphere of lamentation and love-sick regret, as exemplified by Im Treibhaus (the greenhouse):
‘High-arching leafy crowns,
Canopies of emerald,
You children who dwell in distant climes,
Tell me, why do you lament?’
An orchestral accompaniment, reminiscent of Mahler’s ‘The Lonely One in Autumn’ from Das Lied von der Erde, paints a delicate wistful background, but one which ends with a palpable sense of distance-from-the-world, repressed bitterness, futile longing. Such meanings are intensified in Schmerzen (Agonies) and Träume (Dream), the last two songs of the cycle, but here, Wagner comes close to the grandeur of his operas – with Schmerzen, at its opening, burning like the evening sun and taking us close to the Wagner we know in Tristan and Isolde. Indeed, the Wesendonck work was, in many ways, a trial-run for that quintessential romantic opera:
‘Every evening, sun, you redden
Your lovely eyes with weeping,
When, bathing in the sea,
You die an early death…
… If only death gives birth to life,
If only agony brings bliss:
O how I give thanks to Nature
For giving me such agony!’
More iridescent than Strauss’s Four Last Songs, the intensity of these few minutes is brought to an end by brass fanfares – which disappear into the silence of a Wagnerian forest, setting the stage for the final song: Träume.
Can it be that the heart of a work should come at its very end? If so, Träume is that extraordinary moment: the faint web of orchestral strings, barely holding together in their sadness, just allowing the human voice to float above them. And yet mid-way in the song, a Wagnerian farewell-theme gathers enough strength from the dreaminess – to break your heart and slip-way into a resigned, “what if?” farewell, on low strings and woodwind.
Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder should not be listened to lightly. Instead, wait for the winter sun to set and then play the recording – but only if you can cope with that world-weary feeling that the composer injected into his music, anticipating in one moment the sound-world which would come more fully with Mahler, Strauss, Schoenberg and – to some extent in his orchestral songs – Frederick Delius. The roots of the 20th-century are contained in some 25 minutes of Wagner – and the poetry of Mathilde Wesendonck.
STUART MILLSON is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review
Suggested versions of the Wesendonck Lieder: London Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Adrian Boult, with Dame Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano, EMI, AE 34454; BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Colin Davis, with soloist, Jessye Norman, Philips, 420 085-2 (recorded live at the Last Night of the Proms).