Five and a half hours – one piece of music

Five and a half hours – one piece of music. Par for the course for Wagner operas and the opera bands that have to manfully keep it up for that long. We haven’t had to yet, but now we’re doing Meistersinger in a concert performance for the Edinburgh Festival. A few years ago we did the Trojans marathon – two night’s long – but that, greatest of all operas, comes in perfectly paced bite- sized sections. While at the reins of the Edinburgh Festival, Sir Brian McMaster has given us important stuff to play, and provided me with some of the greatest highlights of my life.

We’ve had a summer of biggies. Heldenleben, the full version of Firebird, Bruckners 2 and 6, three superb new pieces and now the Wagner. There isn’t a much bigger test of sheer stamina and concentration than Meistersinger. I’ve got a big problem with it. It simply doesn’t do it for me. But if I’m going to have a bit of a nark about Wagner, you need to be re-assured that I haven’t forgotten my place in life. Ant snarling at elephant. I have no delusions. Rank and file, below stairs, humbler than Uriah Heep. There’s nothing I can do that will harm Wagner’s music or folks love for it.

To get to the point, if Elgar had written a five and half hour opera called ‘The Morris Dancers of Daventry’, every bar of it would have been as good music as anything in Meistersinger – but the big difference is that it would never (or very, very rarely indeed) get performed. The Brits just don’t do self-aggrandisement on that scale. The sheer arrogance of such a massive piece beggars belief. There is something in the shadow of Wagner’s genius (I had to bite my tongue to avoid saying ‘evil genius’) that not only wrote the damn thing in the first place, but then seduced people into putting their money up to stage it and then – and then got the whole world to go on staging it centuries after he died. If Wagner’s operas had received only half the quarry loads of dosh that’s been dumped on them, he would still have had more than his fair share, but how much richer we would all be for the other half having being spent on other composers and projects.

I can easily stand aghast, as did Bruckner, at Wagner’s sheer skill – composition, vocal writing, orchestration etc., but for me the whole towering edifice never rises above coffee table chat. No sin in that…..but five and half hours? That’s an incredibly long time to sit there playing, giving my all, my heart and technique, whatever, and using up what’s left of my strength for a piece that I feel so duff about – but I’m a professional, I go at it with a will. So this performance will be testing the bits that others don’t. I’ll be proving the credo, “There are no boring pieces of music, just boring performances”. Come along and see.

This whole Wagner grump has been fired up by the blinding contrast with the Bruckner symphonies that we’re also doing. By the way, just in case you think I’m a miserable heretic deserving the fire, or just a delinquent intellectual vandal trying to deface the Wagner façade,
I should remind you that no less than the great Scottish musician, Sir Donald Tovey (right) of that ilk, asserted that there was more in Beethoven’s opus 131 quartet than the whole of the Ring and he was ever a huge admirer of Wagner’s musical achievements. Any ten minutes of the Bruckner can take you to visionary heights that Wagner never glimpsed. Maybe he was just too busy down on the floor putting together his flat-pack DIY mythology and stagey pseudo spirituality that he never looked up and beheld.

While I’m on this rant – what about those romantic heroes? Who are these guys in his opera plots? Who admires some knight who deserts his family duties in pursuit of a very strange relationship with a swan? We did the complete Schumann Manfred the other day. Now, it takes heroism just to read the original Byron in English, but to listen to it all in German as our audience had to…..? At least they had it spiced with some of the best snippets that Schumann ever wrote. Byron shows real dragon challenging heroism as he tilts at the overwhelmingly fearsome sacred cows of our culture. Schumann bought into all this and then, in his anguish, depression, and fatal degenerative illness he tried to follow it through by throwing himself into the Rhine – I’d like to see Lohengrin or Siegfried try and live that life. That’d be heroism.

To un-rant a bit. Meistersinger is McMaster’s last big gig as boss of the Festival (McMaster’s singers…?). His first also involved us – in Schoenberg’s Moses and Aaron. That was a milestone for me, journeying through my little life. Meistersinger is a fabulously apt finale.

I’ve begged all sorts of questions here. What makes one pile of notes more spiritual than another? What on earth do you mean by spiritual? What is the ‘more’ that Tovey was going on about? Don’t get me going on that – we’d need lots of bottles. Buy a ticket for our City Hall performance of Bruckner 3 on October 12th because after it Richard Holloway,
he who knows about these things because he appears on the telly, will be talking about exactly those questions and as far as I am concerned that is un-missable. You might be worried by the two words in the brochure, ‘James’ and ‘MacMillan’(left). His The World’s Ransoming is the quiet and reflective cor anglais concerto bit of his otherwise shattering Easter triptych. The ‘cellist doing the Haydn in this concert is wonderful. I’ll not want to be skiving off that concert, and I won’t accept any of your excuses. If you grace me with a reply to this blog, and then introduce yourself at the concert, I’ll buy you a drink (the first one of you anyway).

Reblogged from one of the best musician blog around, cellist Anthony Sayer writes in the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra blog. Great post Anthony, but I have to confess that if I could only take one piece of music to my desert island it would be Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

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Civic Center said…
I also feel like an ant snarling at an elephant, since so many people whose musical tastes I respect adore Wagner, and like Pliable have a special affection for "Die Meistersinger." I just don't get his music and never have, finding it grandiose, bloated, interminable and plodding.

I was a supernumerary years ago in a very good production of "Meistersinger" in San Francisco with Ben Heppner and Karita Mattila when both of their voices were fresh and very beautiful, and I STILL found the damned thing interminably boring. I know it's racist, but German and Comedy have always struck me as an oxymoron, and German+Comedy+5-plus-hours is really stretching it.

Thanks for the reprint from Mr. Sayer. He's a good writer.

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