Bard Music Festival / Richard Wagner

Got Wagner? – Wagner and the Choral Tradition

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Saturday, August 15, 2009
Wagner and his World: Program III.
Bard Festival Chorale, James Bagwell, choral director.

Double Image: Richard Wagner and William Hogarth's "The Chorus"
Double Image: Richard Wagner and William Hogarth's "The Chorus"

This jewel of a recital of choral works directed by James Bagwell was all too brief. Sandwiched between a long chamber recital (“In the Shadow of Beethoven”) and the day’s grande finale (“The Triumphant Revolutionary”), Mr Bagwell worked under unfortunate time constraints. This was lamentable since some of the most affecting and memorable music of the day was discovered amongst rarely heard choral works by Brahms and Bruckner, and Liszt. A few of Wagner’s own choral works were heard as well, but were hardly as impressive as much of what followed.

The oddness of a choral recital in the context of this Wagner festival had been pointed out by Leon Botstein in his opening remarks, and, as well, by Ryan Minor in his excellent accompanying program notes. In his writings at least, Wagner was deprecatory about the rise of amateur choral societies, then very much in vogue. He also declared choral stage presentations, without an all-important dramatic context, to be part of an outmoded musical aesthetic. Mendelssohn’s and Brahms’s choral music was popular, and so in Wagner’s view such works represented the Establishment – his declared enemy – and all of the bourgeois-academic ideals he so abhorred. That didn’t stop Wagner from writing choral music when a commission was in the offing. However ideologically opposed he might have been to the idea of choral music, and, in spite of his own injunction against the unnaturalness of simultaneous voices, in practice Wagner outfitted his operas with exceptional choral writing. Tannhäuser and Lohengrin are unimaginable without their famous choruses. While such writing eludes Rheingold, Walküre, and Siegfried, in dogmatic adherence to his pre-Schopenhauerian views at the time, Wagner relented and laced his later operas with sumptuous and varied choral passages. Throughout Parsifal, Wagner balanced differing choral idioms: the antiquated and sacred in Acts I and III, the romantic and sensual in Act II. Meistersinger, albeit partly a platform for purposeful anachronistic caricature, has his most varied and imaginative choral writing. His contrapuntal ability, so evident in Meistersinger, and clearly influenced by Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and Grosse Fugue, results in an occasional mayhem of voices rather than a clarification achieved by emulating the true practices of the past: an irony that is part of the work’s intention.

Palestrina’s Stabat Mater of 1590 opened the afternoon, in a near-cori spezzati arrangement devised by Wagner in 1848. The original two-choir setting, with alternating homophonic and polyphonic sections, was further dithered and divided into soli and sub-choral sectioning. The result, with prescribed dynamics, gave the work a remarkable transparency that would have been lost with the oversized chorus Wagner intended. Even within the small confides of Olin Hall, the antiphonal possibilities were evident. The Stabat Mater, which provided a baseline for the ensuing works, was followed by two of Wagner’s original occasional works, Festgesang “Der Tag erscheint” and Gesang am Grabe Julies von Holtei. Primarily homophonic works for men’s voices, the simple textures anticipate the male choruses in Parsifal. Liszt’s Ave verum corpus and O salutaris hostia, more harmonically daring compositions, reminded one of his earlier piano sequence, Harmonies poétiques et religieuse. Bagwell and his singers never strayed in the subtle harmonic shifts. Nor were they any less poised in Bruckner’s highly contrapuntal Os justi meditabitur and Locus iste a Deo factus est. These works, written in an intentionally archaic manner, were influenced by the conservative Cecilian Reform movement whose goals were to recreate and rekindle the post-Reformation Catholic compositional style. Bruckner wrote Os Justi with considerable constraints: “white notes” only, no more than three simultaneous voices, and no cadential formulas that bore any trace of musical practice beyond the year 1600. Whether the music was contrived or not, the results were sublime and the performance was extraordinary.

Perhaps the most enjoyable sequence of works this afternoon was an extensive selection by Johannes Brahms, who was an unsurpassed master of choral music in the nineteenth century. The selections revealed much of what Brahms had learned of choral technique, voice leading, and texture by studying Gabrielli, Schütz, and J.S. Bach. These influences alone could not account for the uniquely folk-like appeal of Four Songs for Women’s Chorus, Two Horns, and Harp, opus 17. The captivating second number, “Come away, come away,” Feste’s song from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, was particularly reminiscent of passages in the Requiem.

A long assortment of pieces followed: Der bucklichte Fiedler (The hunchback fiddler), opus 93a, a capella with chromatic evocations of a Walpurgisnacht fiddler’s scratching; Verlorene Jugend (Lost Youth), opus 104, intimately setting each verse to different music; Von alten Liebesliedern (From Old Love Songs), opus 62, which, in contrast to its predecessor, carried a child-like refrain; Vier Zigeunerlieder (Four Gypsy Songs), opus 112b, disarming settings of traditional Hungarian songs with piano; Fest und Gedenksprüche (Festival and Commemorative Sayings), opus 109, very reminiscent of Schütz’s Cantiones Sacræ; and a concluding masterpiece, Schaffe in mir Gott (Create a Clean Heart), opus 29, clearly modeled after Bach’s motets, which ends with a vigorous choral fugue.

Quite a lot of music for a little over an hour – one wanted music and more time to savor what was heard. Perhaps Bard might devote a spinoff evening to indulge these sublime works without the anxiety of the next event in the queue. Mr Bagwell has been a consistent asset to the Bard scene and never fails to draw the best from singers, whether they are professional or amateur. The difficult and varied a capella pieces heard today could sound absolutely deadly with anything less than an immaculate preparation, a close understanding of the style, and a poet’s feel for text nuance. While I enjoyed the grandeur and thrill of Lohengrin excerpted in the ensuing evening concert, it will be these rare choral works that I – and many others – will remember most.

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