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Sunday 8 December 2019

Classical: Wonderful music - if you can last the pace

Anniversary: Richard Wagner
Anniversary: Richard Wagner

George Hamilton

Some eminently quotable quotes have emanated from the world of music. It was Rossini who said of the operas of Richard Wagner that they had some wonderful moments, but some awful quarter hours. Maurice Ravel got his retaliation in first, describing his Bolero as 15 minutes of orchestra without music. He needn't have been concerned. It went on to become quite probably the most performed piece in the classical repertoire.

Not only that, but French copyright law takes account of the two world wars. Ravel's royalty rights extended beyond the customary 70 years following his death in 1937 and didn't expire till 2015. His estate has earned more than any other French composer.

Richard Wagner's music has been in the public domain for a lot longer, over 60 years in fact. He died on this day in 1883. Rossini's comment about his operas was most likely inspired by the fact that they are anything but small scale.

His magnum opus is actually four operas of immense scope and scale, based on the German legend of the Nibelung. There are twists and turns, plots and sub-plots.

Basically, it's about a ring that everybody wants, but brings only bad luck to anyone who has it. Dwarfs and Rhine maidens, the king of the gods, and a dragon-slaying hero all take the spotlight along the way, and, as you might expect, it all ends - eventually, after four nights - in tears. Götterdämmerung, the last of the set is on stage for a staggering total of six-and-a-half hours.

It was the opera that Wagner started out with - the tale of the death of Siegfried, the dragon slayer. But he felt it needed more by way of a back-story, and it ended up as a four-parter.

The prologue, Das Rheingold, precedes Die Walküre that gave us the famous Ride of the Valkyrie when the women gather on a mountain top, each with a fallen warrior to carry off to Valhalla. Siegfried leads on to Götterdämmerung, the twilight of the gods.

Twenty-eight years in the making, you might imagine Wagner had time for little else, but that's far from the case. He built up a whole collection of fabulous music across 13 operas in total.

The Flying Dutchman is in his catalogue. Lohengrin gave us one of the most familiar songs of all, the chorus that everybody knows now as "Here Comes the Bride".

Controversy stalked him as well. Adolf Hitler admired him and his music, in particular Die Meistersänger von Nürnberg.

The story, and its setting - the city seen as authentically German - he found particularly appealing. Hans Sachs, the shoemaker and leader of Wagner's Mastersingers, was the personification of "holy German art".

Like his operas, Wagner himself was larger than life. He led a chequered existence. Married, in debt, and in exile in Switzerland after falling out with the King of Saxony who was employing him, he took up with the wife of the businessman who was bank-rolling him there.

He got himself sorted out in Munich, but he was still weaving a tangled web. This time it was the wife of Hans von Bülow, the conductor who'd premiered his Tristan and Isolde, who attracted his attention. She was Cosima, the daughter of his friend Franz Liszt. They would eventually marry.

Wagner had this huge ambition for his work. When he couldn't get the backing in Munich, he went north to Bayreuth to build himself an opera house.

Every year still, Bayreuth stages the festival that he began with the first complete performance of the Ring in 1876.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ Lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.

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