Saturday, October 26, 2013

"Up to now I have done nothing even approaching it" (Richard Wagner on Act I of "Die Walküre")

We've already heard the stormy orchestral introduction to Die Walküre -- in the February 2012 post "Storms that set three great operatic scenes in motion (aka: Musical storms, part 3)."

Vienna Philharmonic, Sir Georg Solti, cond. Decca, recorded Oct.-Nov. 1965

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim, cond. Teldec, recorded live, June-July 1992

New Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. EMI, recorded 1969

"The score for Act I of The Valkyrie will soon be ready. It is extraordinarily beautiful; up to now I have done nothing even approaching it."
-- Richard Wagner, in a letter to Franz Liszt dated
February 16, 1855 (translated by M. M. Bozman)

by Ken

For the record, Wagner's guess about the score for Act I of Die Walküre being ready "soon" was wrong, just as he had been wrong in June 1852 when he was finishing the libretto and estimating to Liszt that he would "be able to polish off the music very quickly and easily, for it is only the carrying out of what is complete already." After all, as my friend Conrad Osborne suggested when I mentioned this to him once, Wagner could already hear it in his head.

It wasn't until October 3, 1855, that he was able to send Liszt not just Act I but Acts I and II. That said, the part about Act I being "extraordinarily beautiful" and the composers's "hav[ing] done nothing even approaching it" up to that point -- that part could hardly have been more true. Neither he nor anyone else had done anything like it.

In that spirit, perhaps, we've never done anything like what we're doing today either.

I had the post to follow last week's "Can we fully feel Wotan's pain knowing that it's mostly self-inflicted?" pretty well mapped out (as set up in Friday night's preview, "Brünnhilde asks, 'Who am I if I were not your will?' Question: Is it ever OK for a daughter to say such a thing to her father?," and a number of audio files and some of the texts were already prepared. But to be honest, I just didn't have the energy or concentration to do all the choosing and editing still to be done, not to mention figuring out what to say about it all.

Then it occurred to me that we're at a perfect juncture to just listen to Act I of this First Day of the Ring cycle (Das Rheingold being formally a prologue). In Das Rheingold we left the gods making their grand entrance across the rainbow bridge into Valhalla, Wotan having finessed his original ethical and contractual breach by stealing the ring recently forged by the Nibelung Alberich after he stole the Rhinegold -- the titular Ring of the Nibelung.


We're in another environment altogether: the primitive hut of Hunding. Here are the stage directions for Act I as translated by Andrew Porter.
Inside a dwelling

In the middle stands a mighty ash tree, whose mighty roots spread wide and lose themselves in the ground. The summit of the tree is cut off by a jointed roof, so pierced that the trunk and the boughs branching out on every side pass through it, through openings made exactly to fit. We assume that the top of the tree spreads out above the roof. Around the trunk of the ash, as central point, a room has been constructed. The wall are of roughly hewn wood, here and there hung with plaited and woven rugs. In the foreground, right, is a hearth, whose chimney goes up sideways to the roof; behind the hearth is an inner room, like a store room, reached by a few wooden steps. In front of it, half-drawn, is a plaited hanging. In the background, an entrance door with a simple wooden latch. Left, the door to an inner chamber , similarly reached by steps. Further forward, on the same side, a table with a broad bench fastened to the wall behind it and wooden stools in front of it.

A short orchestral prelude of violent, stormy character introduces the scene. When the curtain rises,
SIEGMUND, from without, hastily opens the main door and enters. It is towards evening; a fierce thunderstorm is about to die down. For a moment, SIEGMUND keeps his hand on the latch and looks around the room; he seems to be exhausted by tremendous exertions; his raiment and general appearance proclaim him a fugitive. Seeing no one, he closes the door behind him, walks to the hearth, and throws himself down there, exhausted, on a bearskin rug.
Our recording is the famous 1935 recording of Act I, intended to be the start of a complete recording of the opera conducted by Bruno Walter (parts of Act II with Lauritz Melchior and Lotte Lehmann were also recorded at this time), but international affairs intervened, and although Act II was later completed in Berlin, that was as far as the project went. I should say that I'm not as wild a fan of this recording as some people, but it's hardly chopped liver, and the Siegmund of Melchior remains one of the great role assumptions on records.

WAGNER: Die Walküre, Act I
[For complete German and English texts, go here -- or directly to Scene 1, Scene 2, and Scene 3.]
Scene 1 (4 tracks)
[1] Orchestral introduction
[2] Siegmund enters -- "Wes' Herd dies auch sei"
Sieglinde enters; she gives him water
[3] Siegmund, "Kühlende Labung gab mir die Quell"
[4] Siegmund, "Einen Unseligen labtest du"
Scene 2 (3 tracks)
[5] Hunding enters. Sieglinde explains Siegmund's presence -- "Müd am Herd fand ich den Mann"
[6] Siegmund begins his story -- "Friedmund darf ich nicht heissen"
[7] Hunding reveals that his people are the ones chasing Siegmund -- "Ich weiss ein wildes Geschlecht"

Scene 3 (5 tracks)
[1] Siegmund, left alone, "Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater"
[2] Sieglinde returns, "Schläfst du, Gast?"
[3] Siegmund, "Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond"
[4] Sieglinde, "Du bist der Lenz"
[5] Siegmund, "Siegmund heiss ich"

Lauritz Melchior (t), Siegmund; Lotte Lehmann (s), Sieglinde; Emanuel List (bs), Hunding; Vienna Philharmonic, Bruno Walter, cond. EMI, recorded June 20-22, 1935


First is the start of Siegmund's narrative, in response to Sieglinde's inquiry in Scene 2 --

part 1, track 6
Act I, Scene 2, Siegmund, "Friedmund darf ich nicht heissen"
SIEGMUND: Friedmund ["Peaceful"] no one could call me;
Frohwalt ["Cheerful"] -- would that I were!
I'm Wehwalt ["Woeful"], named for my sorrow.
Wolfe, he was my father;
his two children were twins --
my unhappy sister and I.
Both sister and mother were lost --
my mother killed
and my sister borne off.
Valiant and strong was Wolfe;
his foes were many and fierce.
And hunters bold
were the boy and his father.
Once, weary and worn,
we came from the chase
and found our home laid waste.
A heap of ash
was all that was left;
a stump where once
an oak tree had stood;
the corpse of my mother
lay at my feet;
all trace of my sister
was lost in smoke.
This cruel blow was dealt
by Neidings, who sought revenge.
As outlaws then
we took to the woods;
there I lived
with Wolfe my father;
in hunting I spent my youth.
Many a raid was made on us both,
but we had learnt
to defend our lives.
{Turning to HUNDING]
A Wölfing tells you this tale,
and as "Wölfing" often I'm known.
HUNDING: Wonderful, wild adventures
came to our daring guest.
Wehwalt the Wölfing!
I think that I've heard of the pair.
I've heard unholy stories
spoken of Wolfe
and Wölfing too.
SIEGLINDE: But tell us more, o stranger:
where is your father now?

Alberto Remedios (t), Siegmund; Clifford Grant (bs), Hunding; Margaret Curphey (s), Sieglinde; English National Opera Orchestra, Reginald Goodall, cond. EMI-Chandos, recorded live, December 1975

This "Wolfe" who's supposed to have been Siegmund's father, does he remind you of anyone?

Finally, I want to highlight a bit of the story Sieglinde tells her guest --

in part 2, track 2
Act I, Scene 3, Sieglinde, "Der Männer Sippe sass hier im Saal"
SIEGLINDE: My husband's kinsmen
sat in this room,
they'd come to witness his wedding.
He married a wife
against her will;
robbers had made her their prize.
Sadly, I sat
while they were drinking;
a stranger entered this house:
an old man dressed in grey;
his hat hung so low
that one of his eyes was hidden;
but the other's flash
filled them with terror;
none could counter
that threatening gaze.
I alone
felt in those glances
sweet, yearning regret --
sorrow and solace in one.
On me smiling,
he glared at the others;
in his hand he carried a sword,
then drove it deep
in the ash tree's trunk;
to the hilt buried there . . . .

Margaret Curphey (s), Sieglinde; English National Opera Orchestra, Reginald Goodall, cond. EMI-Chandos, recorded live, December 1975

That old stranger who crashed Sieglinde's wedding -- and then left her there, consigning her to a marital life of unbroken hell -- does he remind you of anyone?
Sieglinde later tells Siegmund she knew who the old grey stranger was. What do you think of his wedding-gift selection?


How would we rate Wotan's chances of winning Father of the Year? (Probably next week, but you never know.)

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