Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Wagner's baby steps

Did you know that Wagner wrote a symphony? If you did, have you ever heard it? I had heard of it but, no, I'd never heard it either. Then again, we hardly ever hear any orchestral works by Wagner that aren't taken from his operas - except for the Siegfried Idyll, of course. Why? Well, they are often described in critical accounts as being nothing more than "empty pot-boilers".

The Symphony in C major is a very early work, written when the composer was just 19. It's not a great piece but it's considerably more interesting than its almost total neglect suggests. Part of the problem (for Wagnerians) is that it doesn't sound in the least bit 'Wagnerian'. Yes, it is expansive (lasting nearly forty minutes) and full of dramatic writing but, overall, it sounds very much of its time - a post-Beethoven symphony consciously displaying a large amount Beethoven's influence. 

In the opening movement it's the first movement of Beethoven's Eroica that seems to be the model in the young composer's mind and there are even some audible echoes of that work. There's a long brooding introduction ('Sostenuto e maestoso') followed by an Allegro brio that slogs away at its two main themes with a skill that I wasn't really expecting, even if the invention is hardly white-hot. The second movement Andante is the finest stretch of the symphony and the section which sounds most original, with some brass writing that looks forward to the glowering passages of the late operas. If that movement transmuted Beethoven's influence into something fresh and pleasing, then the following Scherzo fall back into merely aping Beethoven - without coming close to matching the master at his own game. Here's it's the scherzo of Beethoven's Seventh that seems the likeliest model. Still, it's quite a fun movement. (It gives me the mental image of a giant toddler hitting me over the head with a huge but harmless rattle. Dr Freud to reception, please!) The energetic Finale is also entertaining, putting some light-sounding scherzo-like material on the symphonic rack and pulling on it with all its strength. Again, the equivalent movement of Beethoven's Seventh seems to be the model (though the melodic material sounds a lot like Weber). Neither of these later movements approaches the quality of the Andante though. For lovers of YouTube comments, one sage-sounding commenter (on the linked video) suggests the influence of Schubert's Grand Duo on the final two movements. This is unlikely as the Schubert work was only published (posthumously) in 1837, five years after Wagner wrote this symphony. 

For all its weakness, it's an impressive début for an ambitious lad of nineteen. 

It's a shame he didn't live long enough to fulfil his intention late in life to write another symphony. Instead, we have to make do with 'symphonic' paraphrases of his operas by other hands, such as these 'symphonic excerpts' and this 'symphonic synthesis' from Parsifal or this 'symphonic suite' from the Ring. Alas!

No comments:

Post a Comment