Performance Saturday, March 3, 2012 | 8 PM

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
Wagner’s Ring cycle comprises 17 hours of opera. Lorin Maazel assembled his Ring Without Words as a way to provide fans with a new—decidedly shorter, entirely orchestral—perspective on the music they love, but also, as he puts it, to “bring some of the magic of this monumental work a mite closer … to a new audience of music-sensitive people.” Whether you know the Ring or not, this will be one massive night.
Back to Event Details
Print Program Notes

The Program

Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550

The Art of Endless Transformation

In an interview for National Public Radio, composer Elliott Carter stated that Mozart was a great composer because his music, like life itself, is a process of continual change and transformation. This may seem like a novel assessment of such a supremely Classical composer, especially coming from a modernist like Carter, but we need only to listen to the G-Minor Symphony to confirm it. The “tragic” first and last movements have a sneaky way of transforming into moments as affirmative as anything in “happier” Mozart works. The serene trio of the third movement emerges from one of the sternest minutes Mozart ever wrote. And the development sections of the first, second, and fourth movements are alive with shifting emotions, textures, and tonalities. Indeed, the treatment of counterpoint and tonality in the finale was a favorite of Arnold Schoenberg. 

Banishing Black Thoughts

The G-Minor Symphony is beloved of Romantics as well as modernists. Composed while Mozart was plunged in adversity and “black thoughts,” it served as a model for 19th-century artists who placed a premium on suffering and melancholy. Mozart made the case irresistible by penning his own poignant lines about the piece. Near the end of his life at age 32, he was plagued by a threatened eviction from his lodgings, a hostile reception to Don Giovanni by Viennese critics and his patron (Emperor Joseph II), an inability to find other patrons, and a generally desperate financial condition.

In the second of his “begging letters,” written in 1788 after he was forced to relocate his family in cheaper lodgings, he pleaded with his Freemason brother for financial help, fearing a loss of his “honor” and “credit.” Nevertheless, he continued a miraculous stream of composition: “During the 10 days since I came to live here, I have done more work than in two months in my former quarters, and if such black thoughts did not come to see me so often, thoughts which I banish by a tremendous effort, things would be even better, for my rooms are pleasant, comfortable, and cheap.”

In these “cheap” circumstances, Mozart composed the E-flat Major, the G-Minor, and the “Jupiter” symphonies (nos. 39, 40, and 41, respectively), three of the most exalted works in Western music—all in the course of about six weeks. Since the G-Minor seems, in its passion and melancholy, to be the most autobiographical of the three, it is no wonder that E. T. A. Hoffmann and other Romantic writers were so taken with it.

A G-Minor Symphony for Everyone

Many commentators continue to see the G-Minor this way. Charles Rosen views it as “a work of passion, violence, and grief “and finds the whole thing “shockingly voluptuous … The grief and sensuality strengthen each other, and end by becoming indivisible.” But there is more than one view of this symphony. We should not forget that Schumann, among others, admired the G-Minor for its delicacy and charm rather than its passion. The symphony has, even for Mozart, a restrained, crystalline scoring, omitting trumpets, drums, and, in the original version, clarinets.

In works like this, Mozart is an artist who can’t be pinned down. As Aaron Copland put it, “we can pore over him, dissect him, marvel, or carp at him. But in the end there is something that can’t be seized.”

—Jack Sullivan

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation


The Ring Without Words, for Orchestra

An Epic Fusion

The four operas that make up Wagner’s Ring cycle—Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung—constitute one of the most monumental achievements in Western culture, a fusion of all the arts into a 15-hour mythological music drama that depicts the rise and collapse of civilizations. It has hypnotized not only the opera world, but a huge amount of popular culture—its superheroes, deranged gods, and shape-shifting monstrosities endlessly recycled in epics like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. Audiences willingly suspend their dismay at Wagner’s many dark sides—his monumental arrogance and notorious anti-Semitism—and submit to the work’s overwhelming ambition and rapture. As Stephen Greenblatt recently wrote in The New York Review of Books, “an achievement of this magnitude has a mysterious power to affirm human worth in the face of humanity’s manifest and crushing defects, defects that the composer himself shared in egregiously full measure.”

An Orchestra Larger Than Life

Wagner’s orchestra in the Ring cycle has been compared by critics to a Greek chorus commenting and reflecting on the action in the drama. But there is a striking difference: Whereas the Greek chorus is primarily expositional and philosophical, the orchestra in Wagner’s music dramas is so compelling and larger than life that it threatens to steal the show. Indeed, for most listeners it has literally done so, since many more know the Ring through orchestral numbers than from contact with the four-to-six–hour operas. Combining electrifying power with a narcotized sexiness, its endlessly unresolved leitmotifs floating in what Wagner called a “sea of harmony,” the orchestral music has become a self-contained genre. Liberated from their characters in the narrative, Wagner’s leitmotifs take on a mysterious life of their own.

Lorin Maazel’s arrangement, The Ring Without Words, has both exacerbated this phenomenon and given it a compelling shape. Created in 1987 for the Berliner Philharmoniker, this meta-tone poem takes us through all four Ring operas in a way that gives us a sense of the work’s structure and vast reach, as well as some of its most astonishing set pieces.

The Text Behind the Text

Wagner, of course, always wanted the orchestral and vocal parts to be organically tied together in one epic music drama. As novelist George Eliot pointed out as early as 1855, Wagner understood that “the drama must not be a mere pretext for the music; but music, drama, and spectacle must be blended, like the colored rays of the sunbeam, so as to provide one undivided impression.” Yet even Wagner bowed to pragmatic pressures and conducted excerpts himself, going so far as to compose alternate versions of certain parts (the final quiet bars in Siegfried’s funeral music, for example) for concert hall performance. Wieland Wagner, Richard’s grandson, told Lorin Maazel in 1960 that the orchestra is “where it all is—the text behind the text, the universal subconscious that binds Wagner’s personae one to the other and to the proto-ego of legend.”

Five years later, when Maazel began conducting the Ring cycle for Berlin’s Deutsche Oper, he finally “grasped the profundity of Wieland’s view, especially as it applies to the Ring: Its orchestra score is the Ring itself, coded in sound. Decoded, it becomes story, legend, song, philosophy in countless cosmic overtones and human undertones.”

From Pure Color to Immolation

The music begins with pure color, a single ever-shifting chord evoking the “greenish twilight” of the Rhine in Das Rheingold, which “floats up to the home of the gods” and depicts the “Entrance of the gods into Valhalla.” Grotesque sections—such as the “smithying dwarfs,” Wotan’s rage, Mime’s fright, Siegfried slaying the Dragon, and Hagen’s call—provide a snarling contrast to the ravishing lushness of the opening and closing of Die Walküre. Nietzsche, who loved and loathed Wagner,  mirroring his age, complained that the deep sensuality of this music constituted a spiritual “sickness”—if so, it’s one to which modern culture has happily succumbed.

Even the most familiar sections continue to exert a spellbinding power. “Ride of the Valkyries” (by now hopelessly identified with Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now), is still a riveting showpiece for the modern orchestra. And has anyone ever composed a more delicate piece of impressionism than Siegfreid’s “Forest Murmurs”?

Magnificent Set Pieces

In the case of Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), the final work in the Ring cycle, Maazel’s excerpts work particularly well, since the opera is full of magnificent set pieces for orchestra alone: the rising glory of dawn on Brünnhilde’s rock in the prologue to Act I; the lyrical ecstasy of “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey”; the dramatic funeral music following Siegfried’s murder, which explodes into a miniature, self-contained tone poem rather than a conventional interlude; and the final immolation scene, which begins with fresh material, then recapitulates motifs from the whole Ring cycle in a finale that is appropriately incandescent.

To hear these orchestral excerpts from Götterdämmerung is thus to hear highlights from the entire cycle, though cast in more advanced harmonic language. Between 1853 and 1874, when Wagner was working on the cycle, his music underwent revolutionary changes that in turn changed the basic musical grammar of Western music. By the time he completed Götterdämmerung, basic motifs from the earlier operas had undergone a metamorphosis so that familiar ideas sound more impressionistic and ambiguous—or sometimes, as in the stunning conclusion, larger and more imposing.

Sunrise or Sunset?

As to the final literary and philosophical meaning of the work, that is very much left to the listener. The rule of the gods has been brought to an end, but whether the new order based on human love (and Wagner’s interpretation of Schopenhauer) will replace it, as some critics assert, is left ambiguous. The final crescendo-diminuendo chord implies the hope of something positive, but Brünnhilde does not divulge what it might be. Some, such as critic Justin Davidson, argue that the work is a “the most pessimistic of sagas, a fable of total annihilation.”

Perhaps this is just as well, given that the 19th century—and Wagner in particular—was addicted to lengthy explanation and addenda. It is gratifying that this grandiose piece ends in ambiguity and mystery, especially since in many ways it represents the twilight of 19th-century Romantic art even as it points toward something new.

The latter point was not grasped until long after Wagner’s death. Just as the late Mozart symphony on this program represents the highest development of Viennese classicism—and thus begins ushering in the end of a cycle—Wagner’s Ring took late–19th-century Romanticism about as far as it could go. Wagner’s disciples did not see it that way; to them, the Ring was the supreme avant-garde art, the “music of the future” as well as the present. 

In a superficial sense, they were right: The incomparable colors and harmonies of the Ring are still alive in both neo-Romantic music and popular culture, especially Hollywood scores. But these are recyclings, not advances, and music has moved in many other directions since Wagnerism. It was Claude Debussy who first saw the Ring for what it was, “a magnificent sunset that was mistaken for a sunrise.”

—Jack Sullivan



© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

This concert is made possible, in part, by the Audrey Love Charitable Foundation.
Duff and Phelps 115 x
The Carnegie Hall Live broadcast series is sponsored by Duff & Phelps.