My music dictionary

My music dictionary

Thoughts about Richard Wagner, Bayreuth and the Ring

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

The atmosphere in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus auditorium is unique: at the beginning of a performance, the hall is dark, you cannot see the orchestra, it feels as if the music starts from nowhere. I will never forget the overwhelming impression the mystical, silvery opening chords of Lohengrin made on me in that hall. I felt completely immersed in a multidimensional space which included the realm of sound and reverberation.

In my first summer at Bayreuth, I wouldn’t have thought this place was going to call me back for several years. There is hardly an environment which taught me so much about music. Where I made so many friends. Where I got to work closely with conductors who were going to have a big impact on my musical journey.

Attempts to do justice to the master

One of the most striking things in Bayreuth is a strong sense of performance tradition. Unsurprisingly, as Richard Wagner himself had the theatre built, the Ring and Parsifal were premiered there and the Wagner family still runs the festival today. Some staff veterans have been returning to Bayreuth for decades. Since the opening of the Festspielhaus in 1876, Bayreuth audiences have observed and analyzed performers. There is a lot of talk about who did well there and why.

I had the chance to observe some of the world’s greatest conductors rehearsing in Bayreuth. They were all determined to find a true approach to the music of Richard Wagner, whose spirit still seems to be present there, always lurking over one’s shoulder. The conductors’ musical concepts were very different and so were the aspects they highlighted while rehearsing with singers and orchestra.

Transparency and elasticity

Two main lessons left a mark on my own way of making music. The first one is rather technical: details are important. It is substantial for a good performance to achieve transparency through articulation and balance.

Articulation means pronunciation: making a message understandable for the audience. It helps if the singers pronounce the text clearly and treat the consonants very seriously. For the orchestra, pronouncing implies pointing out characteristic motives and shaping them in an expressive way.

In addition to articulation, a good balance between stage and orchestra will enable the audience to hear the singers and perceive the text.

The second lesson I learned is more complex: the performances I found striking all had a sense of elasticity, which includes among others: allowing the music to breathe, giving space for the main voices, rubato playing. Harmony, instrumentation and rhythm must always be considered in a meaningful arrangement. The conductor constantly readjusts all elements and thus guides the audience through the score.

Christian Thielemann has conducted more performances than any other conductor at the Bayreuth Festival and his work has been most inspiring for me. Thielemann impersonates both lessons described above: he promotes the so called „Kapellmeister” virtues, i.e. a sort of unpretentious, effective conducting, which aims to make sure the ensemble is together and the music is well balanced and transparent. In addition, his outstanding musicality combined with a most refined conducting technique allows him to establish a high level of elasticity and flexibility.

The Ring

My summers in Bayreuth were a formative time, which enabled me to perceive Richard Wagner’s genius from different angles. I learned that Wagner absorbed musical ideas by Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Lortzing. I got an overview over most of his operas, including the Ring, which helped me immensely rehearsing the tetralogy with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra some years later.

Wagner’s music — the Ring in particular — grew close to my heart. Its characteristic leitmotifs are like musical metaphors which have direct access to our souls: they seem to sum up great mysteries such as love, hatred and fate in a nutshell. They also help me decipher works by other composers; the Ring became my favorite music dictionary.

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