From Florence to Bayreuth

While it’s relatively easy to raise a smile with music that accompanies an amusing song or a comic dance, pieces that have no visual or literary add-ons rarely succeed in getting the giggles going. The finale of Haydn’s Joke string quartet (Naxos 8.550788) can raise a smile, at least on first hearing; similarly, those quirky moments in the scherzo from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 106, Hammerklavier (Idil Biret Archive 8.571269). After that, my list of examples thins out pretty quickly, having never been a fan of Leopold’s Mozart’s Toy Symphony.

Florence-Foster-JenkinsA number of people on the fringes of the art, however, have made their name out of music’s rib-tickling potential, whether intentional or not. It was the sheer personality of Florence Foster Jenkins, certainly not her musical ability, that went on to inspire four plays about her life. Her singing voice had such little feeling for timing, intonation or the pronunciation of foreign languages that her recitals packed in disbelieving audiences and challenged critics to only allude to the truth, rather than get out the machete. It’s unclear whether she knew the full extent of her limitations or the honest opinion of her audiences, but her thick-skinned survival was certainly made easier with put-downs like: “People may say I can’t sing, but no-one can ever say I didn’t sing.” Murder on the High Cs (Naxos Nostalgia 8.120711) will tell you all you need to know about the Dire Diva, but make sure you are sitting down first.

Born in London in 1911, Anna Russell was a voice student at the capital’s Royal Academy of Music, but she went on to find Anna-Russellfame more as a comedienne after moving to her mother’s native Canada in 1939; the therapeutic benefits of laughter are borne out by the fact that she lived until the grand old age of 94, dying in Australia in 2006. From her base in North America she went on to make her mark in burlesque, becoming hugely successful by trading off her deadpan humour, as can be heard in her famous recording of How to write your own Gilbert and Sullivan opera. But she is probably best remembered for her revisionary account of Wagner’s magnum opus in The Ring of the Nibelung (An Analysis), “the only opera on earth that comes in a giant economy package,” as Russell introduced it to her audience. The Rhinemaidens are dubbed “a sort of aquatic Andrews Sisters,” Wotan chief of the Gods is “a totally crashing bore”, and Valhalla “a sort of celestial White House.” With alternating subterranean, earthly and heavenly scenarios in the plot, it earns Russell’s tag as “a vertical opera.” YouTube will oblige with the rest of her illustrated lecture.

NAPP0701B_Wagner_Ring_iconRussell’s humour, however, only serves to sharpen the incomprehensibility of The Ring to many music lovers who wobble over the work’s huge story, contained in four operas that last a total of around 15 hours, which Wagner intended to be performed over three days. Such people would love to get more familiar with the iconic work, but baulk at the amount of narrative and musical undergrowth that stands in the way. Now, almost two hundred years to the day since Wagner was born, help is at hand. Naxos has developed an App (Wagner’s Ring Cycle) that will guide you through the threads of the storyline and the dozens of musical clues (leitmotifs) that continuously aid the listener in recognising who’s who, what’s what and where’s where.

The App contains a wealth of background information to the creation of The Ring, and has already attracted positive critical reaction, such as this comment from Charlotte Gardner in Sinfini Music:

“If you’re either looking to investigate this cornerstone of the operatic repertoire for the first time, or to increase an existing musical and historical understanding of it, then you’d be hard pushed to find a better way.”

As a closing thought, I wonder how many fans of The Ring are familiar with some other, less well-known Wagner operas. Do the following ring a bell?

Der Bärenhäuter (The Man in a Bear’s Skin, Marco Polo 8.223713-14)
Banadietrich (Marco Polo 8.223895-96)
Schwarzschwanenreich (The Kingdom of the Black Swan, Marco Polo 8.223777-78)
Bruder Lustig (Brother Lustig, Marco Polo 8.225245-47)

The con is that they were written by Siegfried Wagner, Richard’s son, composer, conductor and director of the Bayreuth Festival from 1908 until siegfried-wagner1930, the year he died. While the subject matter continues his father’s exploration of the mysterious mediaeval world of German legend, Siegfried’s style is more in the tradition of his teacher, Engelbert Humperdinck. Let’s allow him the final word for today:

“I was given the name Siegfried by my parents, but I have riven in two no anvil, slain no dragon and stridden through no sea of flames. In spite of this, however, I hope that I am not completely unworthy of this name, since fear is not my failing.”