MusicWeb International's Worldwide Concert and Opera Reviews

 Clicking Google advertisements helps keep MusicWeb subscription-free.

255,339 performance reviews were read in September.

Other Links


Editorial Board

  • Editor - Bill Kenny
  • London Editor-Melanie Eskenazi
  • Founder - Len Mullenger

Google Site Search


Internet MusicWeb




Wagner Rarities: – including excerpts from Die Hochzeit, Männerlist grösser als Frauenlist – oder Die gluckliche Bärenfamilie, and Siegfrieds Tod: Ailish Tynan (soprano), Robert Murray (tenor), Liora Grodnikaite (mezzo), Catriona Beveridge (piano), Members of The Royal Opera Chorus and Extra Chorus (chorus director Renato Balsadonna); Southbank Sinfonia conducted by Stephen Barlow. Linbury Studio Theatre, London 13.10.2007 (JPr)

Hidden away amongst the Royal Opera House’s ‘Events Around the Ring’ was this fascinating evening of ‘Wagner Rarities’ devised and introduced by Barry Millington. Along with some help from ‘his partner in Wagner crime’ Stewart Spencer (don’t ask as it is a long story) they produced a compelling concert, three-quarters of which was new to me. What was given is worthy of much more detailed discussion than is available in a review, but what was presented to a small audience in the Linbury Studio Theatre included two world premières of versions of early abandoned Wagner works written before he was 25 and first music he wrote for the Ring in 1850.

Die Hochzeit
is Wagner’s earliest work for which music survives. In I832 during a short stay in Prague Wagner became infatuated with a tall, dark girl called Jenny who was a count’s daughter and out of his league. She teased him endlessly and eventually he tired of this and left to go back home to Leipzig that December with the text of Die Hochzeit (The Wedding) a paean to unfulfilled passion with many autobiographical references. In Leipzig, Wagner composed a septet and the music for the first scene. His favourite sister Rosalie, an actress with good connections in Leipzig, however, disliked the text and in deference to her judgement, Wagner destroyed the manuscript, probably realising that the work would have little chance of being staged. Wagner wrote: ‘I do not know where I found the medieval subject. An insane lover climbs through the window into the bedroom of his friend’s betrothed, who is awaiting her bridegroom; the bride struggles with the madman and throws him down into the courtyard, where he gives up the ghost. At the funeral rights the bride utters a cry and falls dead on the corpse’. This last stage direction seems familiar? He further described Die Hochzeit as ‘an out-and-out night piece of the blackest hue’. This seems to be his first Romantic affinity with the night that would reach its fulfilment years later in Tristan und Isolde.

Here we heard the surviving introduction, chorus and septet in a chamber orchestra version by James Francis Brown, who studied composition with Hans Heimler, who was a pupil of Alban Berg. The chorus had moments from Beethoven and the septet knotted together imaginatively some wonderful musical lines.

Perhaps the most fascinating of the ‘new music’ was the realisation by James Francis Brown of two completed numbers from Männerlist grosser als Frauenlist oder, Die glückliche Bärenfamilie (Men Are more Cunning than Women, or The Happy Bear Family). Let us use the words of Wagner to introduce this; he was at that time (1837) in Riga and wrote: ‘I found good material for an opera company, and went to work with much zeal to make good use of it … I also wrote the text of a two-act opera, the Happy Bear Family, the subject of which I had taken from a story on the Thousand and One Nights. Two numbers were already finished when I discovered, to my disgust, that I was again on the way to compose à la Adam; my deepest feelings were lacerated by this discovery. I loathed the work and left it unfinished. The daily rehearsing of the music of Auber, Adam, and Bellini soon helped to change my former delight in it to utter weariness.’ The story again has many autobiographical elements, and involves a jeweller Julius (the name of one of Wagner’s brothers) who falls in love with a baron’s niece Leontine. She is incensed with the inscription above his shop – ‘Men are more cunning than women’ - and cuckolds Julius into marrying the baron’s daughter, Aurora – ‘a monster of ugliness’. In a complicated plot, Julius manages to weasel out of the marriage contract by claiming an itinerant bear-keeper as his father and the person wearing the bearskin (the original bear is dead) as his brother. Again with Wagner the problem of social class becomes important and the baron will not have someone of such lowly birth wed his daughter so Julius is free to marry Leontine who allows him to leave the inscription above the shop door.

Again we heard the introduction with chorus followed by a duet. The chorus declaimed its French musical roots while the duet was Mozartian.

It is unlikely, as Wagner asserted, that the music and texts of his later operas were conceived simultaneously, though what is certain is the form of the Ring music was virtually finished within him before he wrote Das Rheingold as its musical form was probably built into the text through the regular narrative repetitions. He undoubtedly realised the musical potential of the text from the very start of his work on Siegfrieds Tod in 1848/9 for the very episodes written into it primarily to provide a mythic background for the heroic tragedy already tend to reoccur. This process continued as he worked through the Ring poem from Waltraute in Götterdämmerung, via Wotan and the Wanderer, to Loge’s narration in Das Rheingold. Had Wagner not considered the musical possibilities of these narratives he would have shortened or eliminated them? Along the way the story changes so that Wotan becomes the most important character and the gods instead of reigning in glory at the end perish in the conflagration.

The surviving sketches, transcribed and published in 1968 by Robert Bailey that were performed consist of a Fragmentary Draft and Second Draft of the opening Norns’ scene and part of the duet from the Prologue. The E flat minor colours for the Norns’ music are already present. Momentarily the familiar dawn music is there fleetingly but in this first version daybreaks actually as the Norns sing and Wotan approaches the spring. Many of the words of the duet are there but the music is more prosaic than we now know it. The Jette Parker Young Artist, Catriona Beveridge accompanied the singers at the piano.

With the remaining Wagner music performed we were in more familiar territory. Firstly the Wesendonck Lieder; as an obvious Romantic as well as an artist of genius, Wagner believed that to write his opera of consuming passion (Tristan), he first had to feel that kind of emotion himself: hence the ‘affair’ he conducted with Mathilde Wesendonck, his current patron’s wife. It was in setting her five poems that he began to discover the music of his new opera: the music of one of the resulting songs is quoted verbatim in the final act. Though these songs sound as if they were conceived for voice and orchestra, Wagner left them as songs with piano accompaniment, perhaps because he felt they had served their purpose in inspiring the opera. These works too were left initially more in the nature of sketches. Why was this? Well, perhaps it was because of his second wife, Cosima, with whom he was having an affair by the time Tristan was staged that he had a certain ambiguity to the love songs he had created in collaboration with her predecessor. Until recently the Wesendonck Lieder have been generally been heard in the orchestration by Felix Mottl, a conductor close to Wagner, recently Hans Werner Henze’s 1976 version has begun to supersede Mottl's score. Henze's arrangement is for low voice with the aim that each member of the chamber orchestra has a separate part including a prominent role for the wind instruments, I was particularly drawn in the third song to the dropping of water from the leaves of the hothouse ‘portrayed’ by the harpist.

Finally it was the Siegfried Idyll about which many will know the story that o
n (25 December) the morning of Cosima's 33rd birthday a small fifteen-piece orchestra assembled by Wagner's resident student of several years, Hans Richter, crept onto the stairs of the Wagner's house, Tribschen. Wagner raised his engraved baton and the strings ushered in the soft music that would crescendo into a compete expression of Wagner's love for Cosima. What they would later refer to as the Siegfried Idyll, due to the birth of their son Siegfried and themes from the opera Siegfried, achieved its desired effect. Probably mostly true but in fact that Christmas morning was the day after Cosima’s birthday! Originally the Tribschen Idyll, the Siegfried Idyll was never intended for the public, but it was published when the Wagners were pressed by debt.

It is not my intention on such an evening of discovery to give too close attention to the musical performance. The chamber ensemble was the Southbank Sinfonia, a group of young players just starting in the music profession. There was just occasionally a thinness of tone that made me think of the vintage Wagner recordings I had recently heard introduced by Robin Neill of Music Preserved. Why I mention that is because he wondered where today is the contralto voice with the booming bottom voice of a Clara Butt. Well I suggest he hears the Lithuanian Liora Grodnikaite who here sang the Wesendonck Lieder. She is a true contralto though bills herself (as most of her Fach now do) as a mezzo-soprano. It was a compelling performance that held one’s attention throughout. She should however pay a bit more attention to the top of her voice which displayed a little fragility in failing to bloom at times.

Other highlights were the spirited singing of Robert Murray and Ailish Tynan in the Singspiel duet from ‘The Happy Bear Family’. I will long remember the relish with which Ms Tynan declaimed she was supposed to be ‘ein Ungeheuer an Hässlichkeit’ (a monstrous, ugly wretch) - that neither the character nor the singer is. Elsewhere small parts were taken by The Royal Opera Chorus and its extra members who as a unit sang valiantly. Individual ability varied but was never less than totally committed, Gareth Roberts was the best of them all in the few phrases available to him as Siegfried in his duet with Brünnhilde. Stephen Barlow was the conductor and he combined sensitive control with strong musical instincts throughout the evening.

To conclude, this was a wonderful exploration of a great composer in his youth striving for his own identity. It left me a bit confused as more than ever there was the spark of a lighter musical side to Wagner that life’s trials and tribulations seems to have extinguished all too soon.

Jim Pritchard



Back to Top                                                    Cumulative Index Page