Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Wagner

Dr. Bob Prescribes Richard Wagner, Tristan und Isolde – Part 1

Sooner Than Later My Dr. Bob Prescribes post for May 14, 2024 (four weeks ago) was entitled “Fluids of Choice and Drinking Songs.” Among the featured “drinking songs” was the famous “quaff the presumed poison” scene from Act I of Tristan und Isolde.   That May 14 post offered a video link to the scene, from a performance recorded live at La Scala in Milan in 2007. Featuring Waltraud Meier as Isolde and Ian Story as Tristan, and conducted by Daniel Barenboim, it is hands down my favorite recording of the opera on DVD.  I promised to feature the performance in a post of its own “sooner than later.”   I trust today is soon enough. Today’s double-length Dr. Bob Prescribes post will deal with Act I of Tristan und Isolde.  Next week’s Dr. Bob Prescribes will pick up from  there, with Acts II and III.  Write What You Know: Tristan und Isolde as Autobiography The aspiring writer is advised to “write what you know.”  What Richard Wagner (1813-1883) “knew” during the late 1850s was an unquenchable passion for the wife of his benefactor.  That benefactor was a wealthy businessman named Otto von Wesendonck; his wife (and the object of […]

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Music History Monday: Let Us Quaff from the Cup: Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde

On June 10, 1865 – 159 years ago today – Richard Wagner’s magnificent and groundbreaking music drama Tristan und Isolde received its premiere in Munich under the baton of Hans von Bülow (whose wife, Cosima Liszt von Bülow, Wagner was enthusiastically shtupping at the same time).  Oh Goodness; Did I Just Write That? I did.  I know, right?  Here I am, introducing Tristan und Isolde – one of the most awesome, incredible works of art ever created – and I still couldn’t resist a cheap dig at Wagner the person.  As we have discussed in the past and will do so again, the same personality flaws that made Richard Wagner an often despicable narcissist allowed him the conceit to reject the operatic clichés and conventions of his time and to create a body of dramatic musical art unfathomable in its originality, beauty, dramatic power, and imagination. Of course, had he not been the towering genius he was, and had he not risked everything – including his sanity, over and over again – to create his unparalleled body of work, well, he would just have been another loathsome crank, writing nasty letters to newspaper editors and shouting at people in the […]

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Music History Music: Richard Wagner – Lohengrin

Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin received its premiere in the Thuringian (central German) city of Weimar on August 28, 1850: 173 years ago yesterday. Conducted by Weimar’s Kapellmeister – the extraordinary Franz Liszt (1811-1886) himself – the premiere was a smash and Lohengrinhas remained a pillar of the operatic repertoire since. As we observed in yesterday’s Music History Monday – which offered up a synopsis of Lohengrin’s action – the opera contains a thinly-veiled paean to German national virtue. But more than that, it is an Adam-and-Eve-like story of temptation and the power of evil to make an otherwise innocent person act on temptation, to disastrous consequences. The action of the opera revolves around two couples: one good, one bad, and an ugly situation. Couple Number One: The Good. Elsa is the Duchess of Brabant, living in what is today the Belgian city of Antwerp. “The Nameless Knight in Silver” (a.k.a. Lohengrin) is Elsa’s mysterious savior, who shows up in Antwerp in a little boat drawn by a swan, there to act as Elsa’s champion against the scoundrel who has accused her of killing her own brother. Couple Number Two: The Bad. That scoundrel is Telramund, a once-honorable nobleman. The puppet-master behind […]

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Music History Monday: Lohengrin

We mark the premiere performance on August 28, 1850 – 173 years ago today – of Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin, in the central German city of Weimar.   The premiere was conducted by none-other-than Wagner’s friend and supporter (and future father-in-law!) Franz Liszt (1811-1886).  Liszt had chosen the premiere date of August 28 in honor of Weimar’s most famous citizen, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was born on August 28, 1749, 101 years to the day before Lohengrin’s premiere.  The “opera” – the last of Wagner’s stage works to be designated by him as being an “opera” – was brilliantly received and has been a mainstay of the international repertoire since that first performance. Alas, Richard Wagner (1813-1883) was not in attendance there at the premiere.  With a price on his head, he had been de-facto exiled from Germany thanks to his activities in the Dresden Uprising of May of 1849.  Wagner did not hear a full performance of Lohengrin until 1861, 11 years later, in Vienna. Be informed that both today’s Music History Monday and tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes posts will deal with Lohengrin.  Tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes will focus on three video performances, comparing video excerpts from each […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Richard Wagner: Siegried Idyll

The Giving of Gifts It is appropriate that today, on St. Valentine’s Day, we celebrate a piece of music given as a gift of love from a husband to his wife: Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyl, which was given as a birthday gift to his wife Cosima in 1870. Yesterday’s Music History Monday post marked the 140th anniversary of the death of Wagner (1813-1883) in Venice, at the age of 69. As we observed in that post, Venice was, for Wagner, a spiritual and artistic refuge, a place of uncanny physical beauty and – lacking any sort of wheeled transportation – uncanny quiet, a place where Wagner could presumably remove himself from the anxiety, hyperactivity, over-excitability, and depression that dogged his adult live. Presumably. On September 14, 1882, following the premiere run at the Bayreuth Festival (in southern Germany) of what turned out to be Wagner’s last work, Parsifal, Wagner, his family, and his entourage decamped for Venice. There they took over the entire mezzanine floor of one of Venice’s greatest palazzi: the late fifteenth-century Palazzo Vendramin-Calergi on the Grand Canal. On arriving in Venice, Wagner expressed the wish that he would die in Venice, a classic instance of “be careful […]

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Music History Monday: A Man for All Symptoms: The Death of Wagner

We mark the death, on February 13, 1883 – 140 years ago today – of the German composer Richard Wagner, in Venice, at the age of 69.  He had been born in the Saxon city of Leipzig on May 22, 1813. Wagner’s Health Writing in Hektoen International – A Journal of Medical Humanities, George Dunea, MD, states that: “[Richard] Wagner was an extraordinarily highly strung individual.” Do you think, Dr. Dunea?   In fact, he was a pathologically overwrought individual, a certifiable narcissist who required maximum stimulation at all times whether he was awake or asleep.  (Yes, even asleep.  As a young child he kept his many siblings awake at night by shouting and talking while he slept.) Wagner was not born a particularly healthy person, and as an adult, his personal habits and constant excitability exacted a considerable toll on his already compromised constitution.  Writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association back in 1903 (Gould, George M.; The Ill-health of Richard Wagner, JAMA 1903; 51: 293 and 368; as articles go, this is an oldie but a goodie!), Dr. George Gould described Wagner as having the collective symptoms of: “[Thomas] DeQuincy [best known for his Confessions of […]

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Music History Monday: Siegfried Wagner

We mark the birth of Richard Wagner’s son Siegfried Wagner on June 6, 1869 – 163 years ago today – in Lucerne, Switzerland.  Like the sons of so many great men groomed to follow in their fathers’ footsteps, he could never hope to measure up to or escape from his father’s shadow. Cliché We contemplate, for a moment, this thing called a “cliché.” Strictly defined, a cliché is: “an element of an artistic work, saying, or idea that has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, even to the point of being trite or irritating, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel.” Granted. But clichés didn’t become the tiresome, oft-repeated, over-used devices that – by definition – they are without carrying within them a kernel of truth. Admittedly, some clichés express stereotypes that may (or may not) be true, but the vast majority of them are analogies that do indeed express truisms.  In fact, when it comes to expressing a truism succinctly, nothing succeeds more quickly that a cliché. For example: “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” (Parenthetically, some folks would tell us that “the apple doesn’t fall […]

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Music History Monday: The Mastersingers of Nuremberg

We mark the premiere performance on June 21, 1868 – 153 years ago today – of Richard Wagner’s music drama The Mastersingers of Nuremberg. The performance took place at the National Theater Munich, which today is the home of the Bavarian State Opera. Conducted by Franz Liszt’s student (and son-in-law) and Wagner’s protégé Hans von Bülow, the performance was sponsored and paid for by none-other-than the mad king himself, Ludwig II of Bavaria (1885-1886). Excepting Wagner’s second complete and first performed opera Das Liebesverbot (“The Ban on Love” of 1836, a work that Wagner ultimately rejected) The Mastersingers of Nuremberg was Wagner’s one-and-only operatic comedy. Wagner and Verdi: A Brief (and Important!) Comparison For all their many and seemingly irreconcilable differences, Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi had rather more in common than we might think. They were exact contemporaries, born 4 months and 19 days apart: Wagner on May 22, 1813 (he died on February 13, 1883) and Verdi on October 10, 1813 (he died on January 27, 1901). They were the leading nineteenth-century exponents of their respective operatic traditions: Verdi Italian opera and Wagner German. They were both considered ardent patriots by their countrymen, composers who, each in his own […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Siegfried Idyll

Yesterday’s Music History Monday marked the 144th anniversary of the premiere of Richard Wagner’s music drama Götterdämmerung (“The Twilight of the Gods), the fourth and final installment of his epic tetralogy The Ring of the Nibelungs. As we properly observed yesterday, Wagner’s Ring was and remains the greatest single undertaking in the long history of Western music. We read – here and there – that “Wagner wrote almost no instrumental music.” This is a most misleading statement, as he was a brilliant composer for orchestra and did indeed compose a significant body of orchestral music. However, it just so happens that the great bulk of that orchestral music was incorporated into his stage works as overtures, entr’actes, interludes, codas, etc. Let’s rephrase that just-quoted statement to read this way: “in his maturity, Wagner (1813-1883) wrote very few self-standing, exclusively instrumental compositions, the most famous of which is his Siegfried Idyll of 1870.” Siegfried Idyll is an exquisite work, with a fabulous back-story, and after all, how often do we get to hear and revel in a Wagnerian opus that runs but 20 minutes from beginning to end? So let’s do it! But first, let us contemplate good birth dates and […]

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Music History Monday: The Miracle at Bayreuth!

On August 17, 1876 – 144 years ago today – Richard Wagner’s music drama Götterdämmerung (“Twilight of the Gods”) received its premiere in his newly-opened “Festival Theater” in Bayreuth, Germany. That performance of Götterdämmerung brought to its conclusion the first production of Wagner’s epic four evening tetralogy, The Ring of the Niebelung.  Let’s say it up front because it needs to be said. That performance concluded what was and remains the greatest single undertaking in the history of Western music: not just Wagner’s writing and composition of the four music dramas that make up The Ring, but of the construction and opening of Wagner’s great shrine to himself: his custom-built Festival Theater in the Bavarian city of Bayreuth. The Conception and the Creation of The Ring of the Nibelung On May 16, 1849, an arrest warrant was issued by the Dresden police for the 36-year-old Richard Wagner (1813-1883). He was charged with treason due to his actions in the just terminated Dresden uprising, a charge that carried with it the death penalty. The warrant read as follows:  “Wagner is of medium stature, has brown hair, an open forehead; eyebrows, brown; eyes, grayish blue; nose and mouth, proportioned; chin, round, and […]

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