The late English comedian and vocalist Anna Russell was famous for having fun with, and sometimes at the expense of, Richard Wagner’s music. In one of her one-woman acts which started in the ’50s, she performed an irreverent “analysis” of the Ring cycle, telling the roughly 15-hour epic story about nymphs, dwarfs and gods in about 20 minutes.
“The Ring is a magnificent work, supposing you can make any sense out of it,” Russell would say before sitting at the piano. “It is the only grand opera on earth that comes in the giant economy package.”
Later on, Russell would describe the singing water sprites who open and close the operatic cycle as “a sort of aquatic Andrews Sisters.”
However absurd the premises may have been, Wagner’s operas set a precedent for how future composers would use music to create drama and tell a story. The Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, under Music Director Rossen Milanov, will present an evening of instrumental selections from Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen at 8:15 p.m. Tuesday in the Amphitheater. The performance is the first in 2017’s “Into the Music” series, titled “Very Wagner: From Valkyries to Valhalla.”
Milanov realizes he and the CSO could just as well performing overtures from Wagner’s earlier operas.
“But to me, the Ring and Parsifal are his crowning achievements as far as understanding how the leitmotifs work,” Milanov said.
For centuries, composers had used recognizable themes to guide listeners through the unfolding of a piece of music. Wagner attached musical ideas to characters, objects and concepts in his operas. The eponymous gold ring that gives its possessor power over the world, for example, is musically portrayed by a phrase which enigmatically circles back on itself. According to Milanov, the leitmotifs “can tell a story that’s happening on the instrumental level in addition to the purely dramatic level.”
Following these motifs, whether they’re a melodic fragment or a meaningful chord progression, requires some effort from the listener. Fortunately, the melodies coming from the orchestra pit are unique and memorable.
“People would be surprised how quickly they can recognize some of the most popular ones,” Milanov said. “Siegfried’s call and the Valhalla leitmotif and the Rhine leitmotifs, and certainly the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ that everyone knows from popular culture.”
At Tuesday’s performance, the audience will be able to hear these musical avatars isolated from the characters they represent. Milanov said listeners shouldn’t be intimidated or even feel obligated to follow the evolution of these musical ideas.
“I don’t think people need to necessarily get that to enjoy the music of Wagner,” Milanov said. “But this is an additional layer of complexity that one could follow. To people with musical ears, they occur so many times that (the leitmotifs) are the things you would remember because they’re quite hummable and musically very pregnant with recognizable intonation and ideas. Even when they’re developed later on, you can still recognize something familiar.”
Audiences, especially at classical concerts, may tend to underestimate their ability to recall and recognize musical ideas.
“People remember pop songs, they remember the text of the songs and sometimes even the year it was written,” Milanov said. “It’s surprising how capable we are. It’s just a question of exposure.”
It took Wagner more than a quarter-century to complete the four operas that make up the Ring cycle. Much as the leitmotifs develop and evolve over the course of an opera, Wagner’s own musical style changed as well.
“Certainly from the third act of Siegfried on, the entire music of the Ring completely changes,” Milanov said. “Wagner sort of discovered a new personal language that was more complex and chromatic. You notice that another world is opening up to you musically.”
Milanov hopes Chautauquans will get more exposure to Wagner’s music, perhaps by hearing a production of Das Rheingold or, eventually, the entire Ring cycle on the grounds.
“Why not?” Milanov said. “Certainly the first of the operas could even be presented in a concert version” — that is, with limited staging and the orchestra on stage with the singers.
“As a philosopher, as a composer, as a musician, Wagner has been extremely influential and important,” Milanov said.