Wagner’s Preludes and Overtures – What Makes Them Great?

Auckland Philharmonia’s Joshua Clark is a huge Wagner fan. Read on as he recounts his experiences with the great operatic composer’s music and what makes his preludes and overtures so striking…

Rienzi was Wagner’s first commercially successful opera, and already, early on in his career, it’s filled with the sumptuous musical language that defined his unique sound. Rienzi was staged a mere 18 years after the height of the late classical period marked by Beethoven’s heroic Ninth Symphony, demonstrating the swift change and extreme influence the composer had on the operatic repertoire, the Romantic era, and music as a whole.

But what is it in the music that so hypnotically draws us in?

In writing this article it has been so wonderful to return to Wagner’s preludes and overtures, in an effort to answer this question. I was lucky enough, during my undergraduate years, to receive tuition from University of Otago Professor Terence Dennis – a musician who has championed Wagner from the piano and with the pen, and is the current President of the Wagner Society of New Zealand. Sometimes our lessons would last up to three hours as he went back and forth from the library shelf of his studio to play me obscure moments from one Wagnerian opera to another. To put it bluntly, he was obsessed, and consequently, so was I.

Suddenly I found myself sitting in on the most fascinating lectures with the Wagner Society of New Zealand (for which Terence was a member and presenter), learning from other great Wagnerian exponents such as the University of Auckland Emeritus Professor Heath Lees. He helped me – much to his distaste, I imagine – draw comparisons between Wagner and Whitney Houston among other things! But perhaps that is for another article. Sometimes the lectures would involve us watching archival footage of Sir Donald McIntyre in rehearsal, both in Bayreuth and in New Zealand. Once Simon O’Neill dashed into the room unannounced, straight off the plane from New York, and blew us all away with some excerpts from the Siegfried Idyll, before promptly making his exit as swiftly as he entered, to get home to his family.

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Simon O'Neill

One of my most vivid memories of Terence was hearing him play the Prelude from Das Rheingold in 2008. It is rumoured that Wagner was accused of being full of musical tricks with no understanding of orchestration. In retaliation, the first five minutes of Das Rheingold is a shimmering depiction of the flowing water of the Rhine River, setting the stage for the arrival of the Rhine maidens. The whole prelude is just one exquisite E-flat major chord, with only the orchestration to illustrate this magnificent image. When I reached out to Terence for this article, his words were;

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Wagner recounts in his autobiography that he was struggling to conceive the opening of Rheingold….he was staying at La Spezia, on the Italian Ligurian coast, and in a dream he heard the chord of E flat and the rushing of water, and his inspiration was fired…..
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Just the year before in 2007, Terence had recorded Liszt and Wagner Piano Works, of which the first track is ‘Phantasiestück über Motive aus Rienzi’. Hearing Liszt’s great command of the piano paired with Terence’s virtuosic style, I was amazed at how the music could speak without an orchestra. It then prompted my own undergraduate dive into recordings – being relatively new to Wagner’s musical language.

As most undergraduates do, I went straight for Tristan und Isolde. Having spent most of my teenage years listening to Mozart, Rachmaninov and many of the other greats, I was refreshed to find Wagner’s musical language so complex yet so emotionally connected. Tristan is of course known for its ‘endless melodies’ and seemingly unresolved tension. And of course, like anyone new to the style, I asked, “what on earth was that chord?!”

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The Tristan chord is a single semitone away from the diminished harmony that had been thumping audience ears since the early Baroque, and that single semitone makes all the difference. Where the diminished seventh chord is full of anguish, the Tristan chord is spacious, warm and abstractly inviting. With this new approach to harmony, it can be argued Wagner paved the way for the great impressionist soundscapes of Debussy and Ravel. Not only in harmony, but in orchestration too. Although pairing the oboe with the flute – allowing the melody to pierce through the textures of the orchestra – was not necessarily a new concept, Wagner paired this with shimmering strings and choral brass, creating a whole new sense of sound.

With Tristan und Isolde, there is also a sentimental return to the strings as a driving force for melody – in the same way that the Prelude to Lohengrin carries us away with a sea of unison violin. It is no secret to many that Wagner was a champion of the brass and the mega orchestra. Take for example, the heroic leitmotif (meaning a melody directly associated with a character – Wagner’s gift to the film industry and Darth Vader alike) of Der Fliegende Holländer, a rising, militaristic low brass theme. Or perhaps the most famous pop culture reference, the opening brass for Die Walküre. But unlike many of the preludes and overtures from Wagner’s early and mid-period, Tristan und Isolde foreshadows impending loss of love with the heartthrob of endless string melodies.

Then again, Wagner was a composer who took pleasure in being bold with his choices. Consider the opening of Tannhäuser – was Wagner was being intentionally democratic across his opus by giving the lower woodwinds the opening theme, a choice of orchestration historically and still very rarely heard? Undoubtedly a bold choice, and one that feels idiosyncratic for the heightened drama of the operatic stage.

Wagner’s music is undisputedly great. It has paved the way for over a century of film music, and opened the gates for the late Romantic period and early impressionist composers. I hope that one day I will find myself in the audience of the Bayreuth Festival – once I have made it through the twelve-year waiting list!

Did this article pique your interest in Wagner’s preludes and overtures? See Auckland Philharmonia perform Opera in Concert, Tristan und Isolde.

Tristan und Isolde
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