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F419 Brass Rep
Listening Session

 Wednesday 3/2/05
4-6pm in MA452



Excerpts from Rheingold & Walküre

from Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs”

Selected from live recordings of the
Bayreuth "Ring", 1956

Conductor Hans Knappertsbusch
Greatest Wagnerian singers of the day
(Windgassen, Varnay, Hotter, et al)

This listening session will not be a modern, state-of-the-art HiFi experience such as some of the excellent studio-produced recordings of the Ring may provide. However, with just a little imagination, you should be able to transport yourself into a true acoustical wonder: the Wagner Festspielhaus in Bayreuth. Add to that the incomparable immediacy of these historic live performances, and I believe this should be an ear-opener. 

Wagner’s output for music theatre had taken on revolutionary dimensions - not only in the length of his compositions, but also in the refinement of orchestral techniques, libretto, interpretive potential, stage technology, and demands on the human voice - and he felt it necessary to realize his own conception of a working theatre, which should be built to his unique specifications and located in surroundings conducive to undistracted performance and enjoyment, or even celebration of this high art form. 

Of particular interest is Wagner's idea of the "invisible orchestra", enabling the music to magically appear as from nowhere, without visually distracting from the stage action. (Precursor of movies soundtracks?!) He achieved this by having the orchestra pit constructed in different terraces, descending downward away from the conductor and under the stage. The strings occupy the highest terrace, below them the woodwinds. The brass and percussions are on the bottom terrace and under the stage, looking very far up toward the conductor. This unique construction has obvious acoustical implications, which were doubtlessly intended by the "Meister". The visual and acoustical covering of the revolutionarily large orchestra enables the musicians to play with a romantic intensity and fervor, at times even ferocity, while not overpowering the singers, or without disrupting the balance between instrument sections within the orchestra. 

In listening, try to recognize that Wagner – through the unique construction of his theatre - was trying to achieve the same balance between singers and orchestra, as well as within the orchestra, that recording engineers today try to achieve through electronic means. This is just one example of how revolutionary and ahead of his times Wagner was!  

This recording from 1956 was made with a presumably simple microphone set-up, so basically - within the audio standard of that day – we are hearing the music exactly as it was performed. Of the Bayreuth/Ring cycles that Knappertsbusch conducted in the 1950’s, this 1956 performance is generally recognized as uniquely inspired and successful. The singers should each be eulogized separately, but in this context I will draw your attention especially to Astrid Varnay’s Brunnhilde, devoid of all hysterical screaming, as well as Wolfgang Windgassen’s Siegmund and Siegfried (and that on back-to-back nights!!), which, while certainly a Herculean feat, is never muscular or brawny, but rather always lyrical, even in the most commanding moments.  

I would also draw your attention to the interpretation and style of these performances. Hans Knappertsbusch counts as a truly old school German conductor. Note that he never abuses the tempo for effect, but rather – within his deliberate and sometimes just plain slow tempi – allows space within the music for the true excitement of the moment to unfold. Beyond these specific Knappersbuschian traits, you should also notice some of the Germanic stylistic qualities such as the very rhythmical phrasing, and a solid, bold and dramatic presentation of motifs and themes – in many ways the antithesis of impressionistic “French” stylisms. 

Brass players listening may miss some sheer volume from their instrument groups playing from the distant third terrace under the stage. Occasionally the shuffle of a singer on stage (or the falling of a sword!) can drown out parts of the orchestra. On the other hand, the singing is beautifully clear and unforced, and the singers can operate in a volume range that enables nuanced poetic enunciation and inflection. And isn’t that what opera is about? 

I have annotated the story line and some of the motifs as applicable to the chosen excerpts, but must assume at least a working knowledge of the Ring content, as this brief overview does not allow a thorough delineation of the entire story line. There are many excellent resources available toward those ends.

Relax and enjoy listening!

Wednesday 3/2/05 in MA452, 4-6pm

Siegfried & Götterdämmerung will follow next semester!


Excerpts from:

Das Rheingold

Scene 2 (Valhalla)
Scene 3 (Giant Dragon)
Scene 4 (Entrance of the gods into Valhalla)

Die Walküre

Act I: Vorspiel, scenes 2 & 3
Act II: Vorspiel, scenes 4 & 5
Act III: Vorspiel ("The Ride")



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