Join us tonight at 7pm for our next archival live concert broadcast on WNED Classical!
Tonight’s program features two work by Wagner: his famous Ride of the Valkyriesand his heroic Siegfried’s Rhine Journey; and Bruckner’s grand Symphony No. 4, inspired by the music of Richard Wagner. This week’s broadcast was originally performed and recorded on May 6, 2017, and November 12, 2016.
These archived concert recordings will be available each Tuesday at 7pm EST (GMT – 4hrs) for the next several weeks by tuning in to 94.5 FM, or by streaming at wned.org/classical, via the WNED Classical mobile app, or by listening to WNED Classical on a smart device.
By Edward Yadzinski
born: 22 May 1813, Leipzig; died: 13 February 1883, Venice, Italy
Die Walküre: Act III, Scene 1
The Ride of the Valkyries
from: Der Ring des Nibelungen
The Ring of the Nibelungs
Ars longa, vita brevis – Latin for ‘Art is long, life is short.’ But there is more than just a little extracurricular meaning here – the Romans also recognized that art was the mirror of life, suggesting as well that as the soul outlives the body, art outlives the sculptor or poet. Such ideals most certainly had a natural appeal to Richard Wagner, an individual so certain of his destiny that he began writing his autobiography at age sixteen.
Wagner went to great lengths to represent himself not as a composer but rather – stage front and center – as a dramatist. Of course, no stage could be large enough for him except the macro universe of opera theater. Although he maintained near reverence for the great German and Austrian traditions exemplified by the works of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, he had not the slightest inclination to expand the traditional repertoire of the classical sonata, concerto, or symphony. With the single exception of his opera Der Meistersinger (the only time he allowed himself to pen a light-weight, ‘entertaining’ score) his output comprises only operas which concern morality issues of one kind or another, always biased with the power of mythology and the transcendent ideas of love and passion. In sum, Wagner was a great, if imperious, interlocutor who composed music that sounds like it might have been stolen from the gods. Given his character, he would not have hesitated at the opportunity!
With regard to the Ring cycle (i.e. the set of four operas which comprise “The Ring”), only after completing all four librettos in the early 1850s did he begin to compose the music. The score for the second of the operas, Die Walküre, was completed in 1856.
Overall ‘The Ring’ is an allegory that represents the coexistence of beauty and cruelty, exalted passion and common lust, generosity and greed, faith and irreverence, marital bliss and marital amiss, and finally – at the end of the day – worldly evil is redeemed by supernal love.
The current BPO broadcast features a riveting scene from Die Walküre, known as The Ride of the Valkyries. It is among the most often quoted themes in all of music, used widely as background music from major Hollywood films to TV commercials.
The scene represents a rocky mountain peak. Lowering clouds race past the edge of the cliff as though driven by a storm; occasional flashes of lightning break through the banks of the cloud; a Valkyrie on horseback comes into view, a slain warrior over her saddle. More and more Valkyries arrive in this way, greeting each other from far and near with wildly exultant calls.
Siegfried’s Rhine Journey
Wagner’s famous Ring is a cycle of four operas, Das Rhinegold of 1854, Die Walküre of 1856, Siegfried of 1869 and Götterdämmerung of 1874. With more than thirty years between conception and completion, the tetralogy received its first full performance at Bayreuth in August of 1876.
The saga of The Ring begins when gold is stolen from the Rhine and ends when the treasure is returned. In sum: a ring made from the gold of the Rhine will give its owner absolute worldly power if – and only if – the maker is willing to place a curse on love and forswear it forever. From this Wagner spins his tales of love and morality, cloak and dagger mysteries, political intrigues, stories of self-sacrifice, idyllic scenarios, sorcery and magic, domestic squabbles and foibles, a lesson or two in economics, and even a few fragments of humor. Ultimately it all ends in a tragic yet idealistic lesson. In the opera theater, it takes about 14 hours to unravel the whole tale – there is easily enough material for three or four more operas. We should thank Wagner for his self-restraint..!
The current excerpt, Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, takes place at the beginning of Götterdämmerung: The scene features the bravura motif of Siegfried in the horns and the tender, surpassing love of Brünnhilde intoned by the clarinet. Embellished by lush strings, the scene achieves a brief but glorious tone poem.
Departing at dawn on a noble quest, Siegfried leads his horse down the mountainside; his beloved Brünnhilde calls after him exultantly until he suddenly passes behind a rocky bluff and disappears from view. But from the depths of the Rhine valley, the sound of his horn thrills her heart. Brünnhilde catches sight of Siegfried once again in the far distance as he continues valiantly on his way; overcome, she waves to him once more. Happily sounding his hunting horn, he journeys on until he reaches the Rhine, where the Rhinemaidens bid him welcome as their hero and savior.
born: 4 September 1824, Ansfelden; died: 11 October 1896, Vienna
Symphony No.4 in E-flat Major “Romantic”
Bewegt, nicht zu schnell – Lively, not too fast
Andante quasi allegretto – Moderately
Scherzo: Bewegt; Trio – Lively
Finale: Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell
Our BPO maestro Lukas Foss once remarked here in Kleinhans – “One should never wear a wristwatch when listening to Anton Bruckner.” A lot of meaning hides in that savvy aperçu – especially the notion that, in addition to creating long and rich scores, Bruckner was also a timeless Romantic.
However, Bruckner was above all a classicist who never dimmed the lights on sonata-allegro form, and he employed that structure in the first and last movements of most of his symphonies, including the “Romantic”. He was also a great admirer of Wagner, to whom he dedicated his Third Symphony, and he often employed modulations and chord progressions which bear the nuance of Bayreuth. But nuance is far from derivation, and the originality of Bruckner’s harmonic gifts can be seen as a direct link to the 20th Century via his torch-bearing acolyte Gustav Mahler. On another point, while Bruckner’s orchestrations could pull out all the orchestral stops in the Wagnerian manner, there is a big difference: Bruckner’s scores call for instrumentation only slightly beyond the player complement of Beethoven’s 9th.
Symphony No. 4 begins with a chanting solo horn on the wide-open 5ths of the natural harmonic series, cast over rooted pedals in the shimmering strings. This is primal music, reflecting a great organist’s ear (Bruckner’s) for registration and ‘natural’ harmony. Notice how perfectly the high woodwinds pipe and mirror the tune, adding to the feel of airy stillness. This point is described by historian Philip Barford as “…a mood of almost unearthly peace.” In a moment the sustained phrases will be buffeted by that special Brucknerian spin and break out into brassy blocks of tone. Then, with barely an apostrophe, a deceptively simple figure in dotted strings reveals a second theme as the expansive development begins. But keep an ear on that opening chant in the horn – it contains the tuneful DNA which shows up frequently throughout the score.
Bruckner employs a classical funeral march motif to open the second movement Andante. In turns, serene timbres from the cellos and violas become a paean for the full ensemble, with stellar brass and timpani breaking massively over the tonic shores. Along the way, were those bird calls we heard? And just near the close – a tympanic heartbeat?
Sprightly scherzos were de rigueur for Bruckner, and he added a programmatic title to this third movement: “Hunter Scherzo”. At the trio (the liquid phrase in the flutes and clarinets) he also noted in the score: “Dance strain during a repast at hunting”. By the way, the rhythm heard in the horns at the very beginning of the movement is a perfect sample of what is often identified as the ‘Bruckner rhythm’, i.e, two even notes followed by a pert and bouncy triplet. The cachet also appeared in the first movement, as it does frequently throughout Bruckner’s symphonies.
The Finale is such a cornucopia of new melodic ideas with abundant souvenirs from the preceding music that Bruckner nearly breaks his own convention of last movement form. The orchestra is transformed into a great cathedral organ – soulful and charged as a fantasy of brazen eloquence. Timeless, indeed.