Saturday, January 16, 2010

The history of everything in just 16 hours

It would be a travesty, a sacrilege, for me to run a music blog and to never mention the piece of music that, for me, has always overwhelmed, surpassed, and outshone everything else that has ever been created. Not to mention that fact that I would never go to Valhalla when I die.

I freely admit that it’s a bit cheeky to include Richard Wagner’s mammoth operatic quadrilogy Der Ring des Nibelungen as a single entry in a music blog – but Wagner did always conceive it as a single work and I have been listening to it today so, somehow, I reckon it qualifies.

Wagner’s Ring is, in fact, four operas or, to be strictly correct, it is 'A Festival Stage Play for Three Days and a Preliminary Evening'. The ‘Preliminary Evening’ is Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold), and the three days are, respectively, Die Walküre (The Valkyrie -a valkyrie being a generally large breasted woman dressed in battle armour with horns sticking out of her head), Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods). It’s a massive tale about the beginning of the world and its end – a tale where gods and giants and ugly subterranean dwarves mingle with mortals and demigods and mermaids and warrior maidens and a dragon and all kinds of things, battling over a golden ring that has been fashioned out of a piece of purely and innocently beautiful gold but that has, in being so fashioned, become the vehicle for world domination. Everyone lusts after it. Anyone who has read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings will know that the whole thing ends in a cataclysm of fire but that, out of the fire, a new and redeemed world is born.

But it’s not the story that people remember the Ring for. It’s the music. It begins with an almost sub-audible, sustained E flat from the double basses, which have had to tune their strings down a semitone to play even the first note of the score, giving it a watery, primeval, subconscious sort of feel. From there, another note is added, and then another and, for what seems like an eternity, you feel yourself swimming amidst the universal consciousness of an E flat chord.

And then, 16 hours later, you find that the music has taken you from the beginning of time to its end, capturing every height and depth of human experience – the love, the hate, the rage, the peace, the beauty, the ugliness. You travel down mine shafts where a cacophony of anvils pound away; your climb a rainbow bridge into the heavens to music of psychedelic richness; you fall in love to music where unutterable tenderness walks hand in hand with unspeakable sadness; you see people die unjustly, and you feel the rage of everything you hoped for going wrong, all told in a sad and twisting phrase on the cellos; you fly through the air carrying the bodies of dead warriors with grotesque glee, squealing and howling to music that really does sound like horses galloping on the clouds; you feel the boisterousness of male adolescence, and you sit under the shade of a tree in the forest; you discover sex on a mountain top, with a sky so blue and brittle that you dare not look at it. You hear gloomy prophecies about the end of everything and then you watch it happen, played out before your eyes, where everything collapses because of human greed and malice but where, even out of the rubble, love is resurrected, and thrives, to soaring violins that transport you to eternity, and lay you to rest at the same time.

But, most of all, all of this is brought to you in music of such incredible power and eloquence that you are almost afraid to let it take hold of you because you know, once you do, you will be in its grip forever.

Wagner builds all of this through the simplest of devices – he assigns little phrases of music to this or that idea, to this or that person or place or thing, and then welds them all together with incredible ingenuity and artistry, so that a simple downward scale, representing the authority and law of the gods, makes you sit up and shudder whenever you hear it; or so that, when you hear the majestic harmonies of the Valhalla theme behind Sieglinde's sad tale of her wedding day, you know that the strange old man who walked into the festivities and looked at her, and glared at the others, was Wotan, the king of the gods.

He uses his ginormous orchestra to the full - every instrument getting, at some stage or another, its place in the sun, showing its colours, or all them blending together in the titanic force of those big, loud, steam-rolling passages for which Wagner was so famous.

It’s unfortunate, if not entirely unjustified, that Wagner’s music has become associated with some really bad stuff – Hitler, neurosis, excess, helicopters – but, even so, people keep coming back to it, and I suspect they do so simply because it is just so, so, so good. As Mark Twain famously said, Wagner’s music is not as bad as it sounds. If you listen to it without prejudice, it will make every hair on your body stand on end. It will make you cry. It will give you nightmares. It will make you ring up someone dear to you and tell them that you love them. It will make you treasure our planet and it will make you treasure the people who share it with you. And, most of all, it will make you marvel at the power of music and at the way that music can muster its resources to say almost anything at all.

Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen isn’t something you play on your iPod while you negotiate your way through your local public transport fiascos. Nor is it something that you go along to at your local Opera House, dressed in your respectable finery, applauding politely, and with dignity, at the end. It’s something you listen to with passion, with gusto, prepared for the possibility that your heart and your guts will be shredded and squeezed and twisted and tortured in the process.

But, by time everything comes to an end with an all-embracing, all-releasing, D flat major chord, you know that somehow or other Wagner has put back together everything he pulled apart.

It took Wagner 25 years to write the Ring, and it will take you a good 16 hours to listen to it. But where else could you hope to find the beginning and the end of all things squeezed into such a teensy-weensy bit of time?

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