20 May 2005

MAY: Decoding Wagner — An Invitation to His World of Music Drama

Thomas May's stated goal in Decoding Wagner is indeed summarized in his subtitle, An Invitation to His Music Dramas. Mr. May offers an introduction to those who may seek a reliable yet succinct guide in their first Wagnerian experience; a further potential readership is seen among those who have attended performances of Wagner but who wish to expand their appreciation of the music dramas. In his chronological overview of Wagner's oeuvre from the mid-1830s until the close of his career May presents an approachable guide to appreciating the composer's operatic genius. As an illustration of May's commentary on the works, a generous selection of Wagner's music is included on two Discs that accompany the volume in a protective sleeve.

After an introductory chapter dealing with the significance of Wagner in political, philosophical, and cultural debates for both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, May begins his analysis of influences on the young composer and those early interests that shaped Wagner's progressive development. The 1830s are depicted as a time of apprenticeship for Wagner, during which he had not yet found "his authentic musical voice." (18) The compositional maturity here suggested starts with Der fliegende Holländer [The Flying Dutchman] (1841), for May the first musical and dramatic work by Wagner that does not rely extensively on convention.

Holländer is then used as a musical springboard into Wagner's oeuvre: the chapter devoted to this work is entitled "Navigating a Way into Wagner," and the first recorded example on the Discs presents the overture to this work. Although one may argue convincingly for an artistic "leap" (24) achieved in the composition of Holländer, those works completed by Wagner in the previous decade could profit from a more balanced treatment. Since May points out that Rienzi enjoyed remarkable popularity, starting with its 1842 premiere and continuing to the close of the nineteenth century, it would be appropriate to offer a sample of its music or a selection from the earlier Die Feen. In this way the audience of the book could appreciate — or assess — more readily the thesis put forth by May that Wagner's work starting first with Holländer shows a clear sense of individual style. In his comments on Holländer the author demonstrates the method or focus taken in each of the subsequent chapters of his handbook. The experience or literary model which first drew Wagner to an individual topic is complemented by reference to Wagner's own comments or theoretical writings. A discussion of individual character types in each opera and their major arias or musical numbers shows May providing both dramatic and musical insights. Finally, May integrates into his commentary musical references from the discs, so that readers might follow a recorded example while following the specific analysis for each opera.

The author's segments on Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, both operas rooted in medieval legendary material, attempt to draw parallels in theme and character to later works of the composer's maturity. May credits Samuel Lehrs, a friend of Wagner during his Paris years, with sparking the young composer's interest in medieval lore and myth. Already here we can appreciate — as May points out with sufficient example — Wagner's approach to using various strands of myth and weaving these into a new creation that would be guided by his musical vision. For Tannhäuser this "motley collection of sources" (40) contains the story of the German crusader who forsakes his goal to spend time in the realm of Venus; the contest of Minnesänger in the Wartburg palace; and lastly, the idealization of the heroine Elisabeth, representing both love and self-sacrifice in her attempts to redeem the goals of her knight-suitor. The mixture of both themes and figures from medieval legend are examined by May in his explication of the lengthy overture as well as individual scenes in the opera. He demonstrates how Wagner worked to intermingle his various sources while maintaining a personal vision of the hero as "outsider." In his chapter on Lohengrin May again treats Wagner's transformation of a medieval story and argues in this example for both greater consistency and success. May points to the popularity of Lohengrin during the nineteenth century and to its satisfaction of the Romantic imagination for the medieval period. At the same time, it is argued that Wagner's depiction of featured characters is here raised to a more sophisticated level than in earlier works. In both the dramatic presentation of characters and their musical delineation — as well as Wagner's ability to synthesize the two — May sees a decided "artistic advance." (57) When discussing the point of view accorded to Ortrud in Act II and her portrayal as a force of negation, May focuses justifiably on Wagner's creative depiction. These scenes from Act II could, however, be examined further as an extension of archetypes of evil already present in those medieval sources which May shows to have been transformed by Wagner. The discussion of musical excerpts from Lohengrin included on the first Disc, especially here May's analysis of "In fernem Lande," is effective in guiding both first and return listeners through the significant moments of this piece.

It is hardly a coincidence that Wagner's earliest inspirations and sketches for his Ring derive from the period toward the close of his work on Lohengrin in the late 1840s. This continued reading of medieval texts and artistic extrapolation from topics in Germanic mythology is underscored by May in his essay on the gestation of Wagner's Ring. May devotes five chapters, an "Overview" on beginnings and one for each of the operas, to the cycle which he defines as the "turning point in [Wagner's] artistic development." (116). In each of these segments May begins his musical analysis early, and he refers consistently to the examples on disc 2 in order to highlight a significant instrumental and vocal confluence with its corresponding dramatic action. He cites regularly both noted scholars and critics of the Ring, among these Dahlhaus, Donington, and George Bernard Shaw. In this way, May grounds his own remarks on leitmotif and musical narrative in those of previous commentators who have attempted overall assessments of this extended compositional achievement. May wisely chooses his recorded examples from one series of Ring performances, those featuring the Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Marek Janowski. Providing examples from one such larger undertaking yields an overall consistency for the listener/reader who wishes to consider the Ring -- both opera and commentary -- as a multi-faceted whole.

In his additional chapters on Tristan und Isolde, Meistersinger, and Parsifal May follows his established method for "decoding" the music drama. Since May quotes intermittently from other writers on Wagner, it would be helpful to be given specific references — even to the translations here used — for those who would like to read further background and interpretive possibilities. These might then offer complementary approaches to the biographical and political/philosophical emphases which surface, at times, in May's discussion of Wagner's inspiration and its guiding forces.

Salvatore Calomino
Madison, Wisconsin