I have little doubt that I was present last night at a truly momentous and historical musical event. I attended the performance of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung at the Proms. As the music ended, the conductor, Daniel Barenboim, directed the final orchestral phrase to finish by clenching and holding his outstretched hand, and held the orchestra and the 6,000 people in the audience completely silent for more than fifteen seconds. As he let his arm drop the Albert Hall erupted into applause as thunderous as I have ever heard. It was an extraordinary occasion.
In fact as I was listening to the end of the performance today on iPlayer to measure the length of that silence, and struggling with superlatives to put in this post, BBC Radio Three’s Sara Mohr-Pietsch articulated my thoughts exactly: asked what she thought, she said it was the ‘best experience, musically, of my entire life...’ adding that it was ‘totally exhilarating and completely exhausting...’ I could not agree more.
I have been to fully staged performances of Wagner operas at Covent Garden and the ENO; a few years ago, I saw Das Rheingold at Bayreuth. In the 1970s, I was given a ticket for Siegfried, the third opera in the Ring cycle, in that ground-breaking production at English National Opera. But last night’s performance, semi-staged at the Albert Hall, eclipsed the lot. Admittedly, I had a superb seat, in the stalls, a few feet from the orchestra, so my view of the players and singers was second only to that of the Prommers standing at the front. Perhaps it was the fact that in following the libretto, understanding what was being said and intimately following the plot, I was drawn more easily into the emotional turmoil of the drama. Possibly, the mass hysteria of 6,000 like-minded people at the Proms was irresistibly infectious.
Most likely though, that genius Richard Wagner was just working his magic with the help of master-musician Daniel Barenboim, the Berlin Staatskapelle, and a retinue of wonderful singers.
Bryan Magee in his excellent book, Aspects of Wagner, explains how it works. Wagner had effectively rediscovered the ideas of the ancient Greeks. He (Wagner) claimed that Greek tragedy was the pinnacle of human creative achievement because it combined all of the arts – instrumental music, song, drama, poetry, costume and dance. The drama was set in the time of legend, and was, therefore, timeless. He claimed that the ‘content and occasion’ of the performance had religious significance, but that this ‘religion’ was human, ‘a celebration of life.’ More importantly for the Prom experience, the ‘entire community’ took part. Barenboim recognized the importance of that is his speech.
I know that Wagner is a bit like Marmite – generally, you either love him or you hate him. If the latter, then there is little that can be said. If you’re a waverer though, give him a chance. Do not be put off by the ‘Wagner has some great moments but some dreadful half-hours’ brigade. The 'half-hours' are used to tell the story; in any case, when the opera is properly staged there is the scenery and the acting of the cast to look at, as well as, most importantly, the libretto, so that you know what is going on.
One more thing, you have to see it all live. It is impossible, artificially, to reproduce by HiFi and video the dynamic range of the music, or the electricity of the drama. A live performance is the only way to really appreciate Wagner and understand what all the fuss is about.
I have finally signed the book off and it is at the printers. Expected delivery date is 15th August, so just a couple of weeks late from the estimate.
Error checking the manuscript has been a task of monumental proportions and I'm glad that it is over. No doubt many errors remain, and my friends and colleagues will delight in pointing them out in the coming months. Nevertheless, I'm very pleased with the outcome and I'm most grateful to Gill who designed the layout and Nicky who has managed the whole process.
Last week, I managed to combine a few days R & R in the West Country, with some research into Isambard Kingdom Brunel. For years I have been fascinated by the story that he aligned the Box Tunnel on the Great Western Railway, such that it is penetrated by the rising sun on his birthday.
Having spent the most of the day following this subject up, I went into a pub for dinner (100 miles or so distant from Box), to discover that the guest ale was ‘Tunnel Vision’ brewed by the Box Steam Brewery, complete with a Brunel type stovepipe hat on the beer glass. If that is not an omen, I don’t know what is.
There can be very little left to say about Wagner that has not already been said by a thousand commentators in as many different ways. But the experience of seeing and hearing Die Walküre at The Proms last night left me physically and emotionally exhausted. For the first time at a Wagner opera, I was following the libretto in English, and found myself to be sucked in to the emotional turmoil surrounding the characters.
The whole thing is absurd of course. The plot is melodramatic, the language stilted (the German archaic), and the sexual chemistry highly questionable – twins, Sigmund and Sieglinde, embarking on a passionate affair, their son (Siegfried) eventually to have a one-night-stand with their sister, Brünnhilde (all sired by Wotan, king of the gods, whose ‘wife’ Fricka, insists that Siegmund must die to atone for his incest and adultery). And yet at the end of the first act when the reunited twins embark on their incestuous liaison, I was too overcome with the emotional tension to speak.
What was really interesting though, was the fact that the famous Ride of the Valkyries, the most well-known piece of music in the entire Ring cycle, was almost an anticlimax. The conductor, Daniel Barenboim, had to restrain the enormous orchestra so that the singers were not overwhelmed.
I almost can’t wait for Sunday for the final opera Götterdämmerung, Twilight of the Gods. I just hope that the weather is a little cooler.
On Wednesday we held a memorial dinner in honour of our old friend Stu Hesselson. Stu, ‘our man in New York’, was a very nice man, held in genuine affection by myself and my work colleagues at EEV. I made an audio recording of parts of the conversation which I will send to his widow Vivian, although I may have to edit out some of the more extreme Anglo-Saxon epithets...
The ‘Smethurst’ talk was very well received at the King’s Lynn U3A yesterday, although the 95 mile drive through the wild fenlands of Norfolk was somewhat daunting. If only the railway would allow me to use my senior railcard before 9:30 am when I am travelling against the rush-hour traffic, I could let the train take the strain. Perhaps I will write to them.
For the last few years those very nice people at CAMRA have organized the Chelmsford Beer Festival in Admiral’s Park, just a few minutes walk from my house. It is a thoroughly pleasant event, the only sadness being that I always seem to be doing so much at this time of year that I am rarely able to attend more than once or twice. It is quite interesting to compare the good-natured conduct of vast numbers of people at the festival, consuming considerable quantities of beer, with what goes on in Chelmsford city centre. There, similar numbers of people consume similar quantities of alcohol turning that area, according to the police, into a war zone on a Friday and Saturday evening.
Interesting to see that Karren Brady, her of Apprentice fame, has just forked out €3,500 for a week’s worth of ‘water cure’ in Austria. Thomas Smethurst (see Smethurst’s Luck) was an expert on the water cure, having written a book on the subject in 1843. In 1842 The Lancet commented on hydropathy, the fancy name for the water cure:
"Hydropathy is a fine word for water-pain, a “science” which certainly rests on a better foundation than homoeopathy, or mesmerism, or any of the other mystic “sciences” which have latterly issued from that hot-bed of absurdities, Austria, where the crushed minds of men that cannot bear the healthful fruits of free investigation, run riot in the extravagancies of fantastic credulity, or ignorantly strive to breathe life into the dead superstitions, and one-idead theories, of the Middle Ages."
Admittedly the Viva Mayr clinic, reclining on the shores of the Wörthersee, offers slightly more than Thomas Smethurst was able to provide when he opened his clinic at Moor Park, Surrey, in 1850. As well as doses of Epsom salts, water, and sweating wrapped in wet sheets, nasal reflexology, foot massage and intravenous drips (more water?) are provided. And at £430 per day, a nourishing 500 calorie diet completes the fare.
Karren said she felt great afterwards, but I wonder what Lord Sugar’s reaction was when she told him what it cost?
My mother was born and brought up in Vienna, and the family used to go to the Wörthersee, along with many other Viennese, to escape the summer heat. The area is developed for the tourist industry, and it’s nice to see that the enterprising locals have contrived methods for relieving tourists of cash when there is four foot of snow on the ground (when Karren went).
I can’t help wondering though, whether just a little application of willpower and a week spent at home might have saved Ms Brady a sizable pile of cash. Perhaps the next edition of The Apprentice should set the candidates a task to sell the most anodyne ‘health’ cures for the largest amount of money to a gullible public. The team with the most vacuous treatment and outrageous margin wins the contest.
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs