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THE OPERAS OF Richard Wagner give Wife Dottie, Daughter Suz and me much pleasure, though I also appreciate that the subject matter, complexity and sheer length are something of an acquired taste. ”Are There Opera Divos?” touched on this, where I quoted no less than Peter Ustinov saying “Opera rides the razor edge of absurdity.”
In fact, Nick Slonimsky, another of my favorite musicians, wrote a book about these trips through absurdity: Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven’s Time, University of Washington Press, 1953.
Needless to say, Slonimsky devoted a considerable number of pages recounting less than complimentary opinions of Wagner and his works. Typical of Nick’s erudition, the opinions are offered in a variety of languages; it wasn’t only Mark Twain who felt “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.”
Here’s a selection of invectives for Richard Wagner offered in Slonimsky’s book.
A comment heard in the audience after a Taunnhauser performance that had been specially modified for its Paris première: “Votre M. Wagner est sans pitié; quant il tient son clou, il vous l’enfonce lentement dans la tête à grands coups de marteau.” That is, “Your Wagner is without pity; he drives the nail slowly into your head with swinging hammer blows.”
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Modest: “With the last chords of the Twilight of the Gods, I had a feeling of liberation from captivity. It may be that the Nibelungs’ Ring is a very great work, but there never has been anything more tedious and more dragged-out than this rigmarole.”
Opera composer Gioachino Rossini, he of The Barber of Seville, was quoted as saying, “M. Wagner a de beaux moments, mais de mauvais quart-d’heres.” That is, “Wagner has good moments, but bad quarter-hours.” It sounds especially good in French, doesn’t it?
Oscar Wilde wrote in A Picture of Dorian Gray, “I like Wagner’s music better than anybody’s. It is so loud that one can talk the whole time without people hearing what one says.”
Mily Balakirev was a Russian pianist, conductor, composer and early proponent of Tchaikovsky. He wrote to a colleague in 1868, “After Lohengrin, I had a splitting headache, and all through the night I dreamed about a goose.”
Years later, as recounted here in ”Opera Chaos, Act II”, the Lohengrin character missed his cue to exit aboard a boat pulled not by geese, but by swans. Memorably, heldentenor Lauritz Melchior faced the audience and said, “Wenn geht der nächste Schwann?” “What time’s the next Swan?”
Opera, even Wagner, can’t get any better than this. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016