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WAGNER INVECTIVES

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.”

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Wilhelm Richard Wagner, 1813–1883, German composer, theater director, conductor.

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.

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Nikolai Leonidovich Slonimsky, 1894–1995, Russian-American conductor, musicologist, self-professed “failed wunderkind.”

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.”

Ouch.

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Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, 1840–1893, Russian composer.

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.”

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Gioachino Antonio Rossini, 1792–1868, Italian composer.

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?

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Oscar Wilde, 1854–1900, Irish playwright, novelist and poet.

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.”

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Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev, 1837–1910, Russian pianist, conductor and composer.

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?”

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Richard Wagner’s conception of a swan boat; not a goose boat.

Opera, even Wagner, can’t get any better than this. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016

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