The Complete Wagner - Die Wagner-Orchester

© Copyright Zac Sawyer 2015

A paradox lies at the heart of Wagner‘s orchestration.
As his compositional ambitions developed through the three early operas, the trio of German Romantic operas and the Ring tetralogy, culminating in the final three masterpieces, so the tonal resources of the existing orchestra were expanded.
Yet larger forces did not – contrary to the impression given by contemporary caricatures – simply lead to greater volume and cruder effects.

On the contrary, to compare the exuberant tambourines and castanets of 'Das Liebesverbot', or the bombastic, massive rhetoric of 'Rienzi', with the rich, velvety textures of the 'Ring' or the refined sonorities of 'Parsifal', famously described by Debussy as 'illuminated as from within', is to realize just how central the art of orchestration was to Wagner‘s project.
On one level, this development reflects Wagner‘s own progress towards mastery.
Again, one may compare the overwrought triangle part in the early, and somewhat incongruous concert overture, 'Rule Britannia' with the single stroke of the instrument in the closing bars of Act II of 'Siegfried' – praised by Richard Strauss as a 'wise application of the triangle'.
Similarly, the insistent cymbals of 'Das Liebesverbot', the massed brass of 'Rienzi' or the extravagant six trumpets of the early 'Columbus Overture' may be compared with the magical pianissimo brushing of the cymbals at the start of the long final descent in the 'Lohengrin' prelude, or the delicate touches on a solo trumpet in the second stanza of 'Elsa's Dream' (Act I of the same opera).
On another level, the increased sophistication of Wagner's scoring accords with developments in the 19th century generally.
The beginning of the century heralded the liberation of woodwind and brass instruments, whose sonorities, both solo and in combination, now made more distinctive contributions to the orchestral texture.
In opera, more specifically, such composers as Spontini and Weber were employing these timbres imaginatively, adding new colours to the tonal palette; such innovations were soon extended by Berlioz and Meyerbeer, as well as Wagner.
The demands of narrative and characterization in opera fuelled these developments, and the Wagnerian technique of leitmotif underlined further the association between particular timbres and characters, objects, concepts or emotions.
In 'Lohengrin', for exmple, according to Liszt, - the work‘s first conductor, each of the elements has its own distinctive colouring: strings for the Holy Grail, wind for Elsa, brass for Heinrich.
Richard Strauss – although not always a great fan of Wagner, also admired 'Lohengrin', in particular for Wagner‘s deployment of the 'dritte Bläser' – i.e. the addition of the cor anglais to the two oboes, and the bass clarinet to the two clarinets, to form homogeneous and potentially autonomous choruses, alongside the three flutes and three bassoons.
In accordance with the general trend in the 19th century, Wagner‘s mature orchestra was notable for its considerable reinforcement of strings in relation to woodwind.
For the 'Ring' he asked for 16 first violins, 16 seconds, 12 violas, 12 cellos and 8 double basses.
Admittedly he called also for quadruple woodwind in the 'Ring', as in 'Parsifal', though only triple for 'Tristan', and double (plus piccolo/third flute) for 'Die Meistersinger'.
The ensuing 'carpet of string sound' is a characteristic feature of Wagner‘s scores, but there are also countless examples of subtle, delicate effects obtained in a variety of ways.
Expanding the tonal resources of the orchestra involved both the redeployment of existing instruments, and experimentation with new ones.
In the first category belong the trombones.
If trombones were becoming standard in opera house orchestras throughout Europe in the 19th century, then it was Wagner above all who gave them an independent voice.
Their enunciations of the striding 'Spear' motif, or that of the baleful 'Curse', in the 'Ring' proclaimed a new freedom that made possible even more radical innovations in subsequent eras.

Wagner Tuba
Perhaps the most significant of the 'new' instruments were the 'Wagner tubas‘.
Called tenor and bass tubas in the score, they are generally blown, with horn mouthpieces, by a quartet of horn players, and were intended to bridge the gap between horns and trombones.

The Wagner tuba is an infrequently-used brass instrument that combines tonal elements of both the French horn and the trombone. Wagner tubas (or Wagnertuben) are also referred to as Wagner horns or Bayreuth tubas in English and as Bayreuth-Tuben or simply Tuben in German. The term Wagner tuba has been used in English since the 19th century and is standard today. Wagner's published scores usually refer to these instruments in the plural, Tuben, but sometimes in the singular, Tuba. The Wagner tuba was originally created for Richard Wagner's operatic cycle 'Der Ring des Nibelungen'. Since then, other composers have written for it, most notably Anton Bruckner, in whose Symphony No. 7 a quartet of them is first heard in the slow movement in memory of Wagner, and Richard Strauss, who composed several works that used the Wagner tuba, including his 'An Alpine Symphony'. Wagner was inspired to invent the Wagner tuba after a brief visit to Paris in 1853, when he visited the shop of Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone and saxhorn. Wagner was initially shown a saxhorn which is similar to the instrument that Wagner ultimately wanted and later had constructed by the C. W. Moritz firm in Berlin. Wagner wanted an instrument that could produce the noble and somber Valhalla motif in 'Das Rheingold' like a trombone but with a less incisive tone, like that of a horn. That Wagner tuba aural effect is obtained by a conical bore (like a horn) and the use of the horn mouthpiece (tapered and conical, as opposed to the parabolic cup mouthpiece such as on a trombone). The Wagner tuba is built with rotary valves, which (like those on the horn) are played with the left hand. Horn players traditionally double on Wagner tubas because the mouthpiece and fingering are identical. The Wagner tuba nominally exists in two sizes, tenor in B-flat and bass in F, with ranges comparable to those of horns in the same pitches while being less adept at the highest notes. The sound of the Wagner tuba is as mellow as that of the horn and sounds more distant, yet also more focused. Anton Bruckner generally uses them for pensive melodic passages at piano to pianissimo dynamics. They can hold their own in a forte tutti but Bruckner generally gives them sustained tones rather than melodic motifs in such passages.

Wagner‘s 'invention‘ of these instruments owed much to the experiments of Adolphe Sax and others, just as the bass trumpet and contrabass trombone he had constructed for the 'Ring' also drew on military band precedents.
Wagner called for an alto oboe to be specially constructed for the 'Ring' and 'Parsifal', but the instrument failed to establish itself permanently.
The bass clarinet was not a Wagnerian invention, but it was exploited as a melodic instrument in 'Tristan', and as a useful bass to the woodwind choir elsewhere.
Other special instruments used by Wagner include the 18 anvils in the 'Ring'; the steer-horns in 'Die Walküre', 'Götterdämmerung' and 'Die Meistersinger'; the wind machine in 'Der fliegende Holländer'; and the 'Grail bells' which are not the least of the many problematic issues in 'Parsifal'.

A Parsifal bell (German: Parsifal Klavier Instrument) is a stringed musical instrument designed as a substitute for the church bells that are called for in the score of 'Parsifal'. 
The instrument was designed by Felix Mottl, a conductor of Wagner's works, and constructed by Schweisgut, of Karlsruhe, Germany. It is constructed on the principle of the grand piano. The instrument has five notes; each note has six strings (three are tuned to the fundamental pitch, and three an octave higher). The strings are struck by large hammers, covered with cotton-wool, which the performer sets in motion by a strong elastic blow from his or her fist,[ similar to the motion of playing a carillon. The hammers are attached to arms 56 cm long, which are screwed to a strong wooden span bridge placed horizontally above the strings at about two-fifths of the length from the front. On the point of the arm is the name of the note, and behind this the felt ledge struck by the fist. Two belly bridges and two wrest-plank bridges, one set for each octave, determine the vibrating length of the strings, and the belly bridge, as in other stringed instruments, is the medium through which the vibrations of the strings are communicated to the soundboard. The arrangement of pegs and wrest-pins is much the same as on the piano. Difficulties arise whenever a composer writes a piece for orchestra in which he calls for reproducing the effect of church bells. Well-known examples include '1812 Overture', 'Cavalleria Rusticana', 'Rienzi', and 'Parsifal'. The most serious difficulty of all arose in Parsifal, where the bells are called for in an extremely solemn scene with deep spiritual significance. If real church bells were used for the notes Wagner wrote, they would overpower the orchestra and ruin the solemn atmosphere on the stage. In most orchestral music, tubular bells are used when a bell sound is called for. Modern productions of Parsifal typically use a synthesized, or electronically recorded, church bell sound.

© Copyright Peter Crawford 2015

das Festspielhaus

Festspielhaus - Plan

© Copyright Peter Crawford 2015
Of course, while Wagner attempted, sometimes unsuccessfully, to use all his orchestral innovations in the various opera houses where his operas and music dramas were performed, it was only in the Festspielhaus, at Bayreuth, that these developments could be heard to full effect.
In creating the orchestration for his later works, Wagner took into consideration the unique design, and unusual acoustics to be found in the Festspielhaus.
The Festspielhaus, itself, was almost entirely of wood construction and is, in fact, the largest free standing timber structure ever erected.

This use of wood in much of the interior gives a distinct mellow acoustic to the sound, with a noticeably limited reverberation time of 1.55 seconds.

Festspielhaus Orchestra Pit

More importantly, however, the orchestra is recessed under the stage, and covered by a hood, so that the orchestra is completely invisible to the audience.
This feature was a central preoccupation for Wagner, since it made the audience concentrate on the drama onstage, rather than the distracting motion of the conductor and musicians.
The design also corrected the balance of volume between singers and orchestra, creating ideal acoustics for Wagner's operas, which are the only operas performed at the Festspielhaus, however, this arrangement has also made it the most challenging to conduct in, even for the world's best conductors.
Not only is the crowded pit enveloped in darkness, but the acoustic reverberation makes it difficult to synchronize the orchestra with the singers.
Conductors must therefore retrain themselves to ignore cues from singers.
The orchestra layout deployed at Bayreuth is unusual in three ways:
The first violins are positioned on the right-hand side of the conductor instead of their usual place on the left side.
This is in all likelihood because of the way the sound is intended to be directed towards the stage rather than directly on the audience.
This way the sound has a more direct line from the first violins to the back of the stage where it can be then reflected to the audience.
Double basses, cellos and harps (when more than one used, e.g. Ring) are split into groups and placed on either side of the pit
The rest of the orchestra is located directly under the stage.
This makes communication with the conductor vital as most of the players are unable to see or hear the singers, but creates the huge, rich sounds that Wagner required.
In addition, the Festspielhaus features a double proscenium, which gives the audience the illusion that the stage is further away than it actually is.
The double proscenium, and the recessed orchestra pit create – in Wagner's term – a "mystic gulf" between the audience and the stage.
This gives a dreamlike character to performances, and provides a physical reinforcement of the mythic content of most of Wagner's operas.
The architecture of Festpielhaus accomplished many of Wagner's goals and ideals for the performances of his operas, including an improvement on the sound, feel, and overall look of the production.

© Copyright Peter Crawford 2015

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