Showing posts with label Wagner. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Wagner. Show all posts

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Movie Review: Unfaithfully Yours (1948)

Written and directed by Preston Sturges. 1948.

Unfaithfully Yours is a much odder movie than I expected and just why it works I am not precisely sure. Yet it does work and it is very funny.

All of the performances are pitched nearly to the point of caricature, from Rex Harrison's cocky and stubborn conductor to Darnell's turn as his impossibly devoted wife to Edgar Kennedy as the music-loving flatfoot, the characters are at the edge of parody. This feature along with the dry and sharp wit which pervades nearly every line of the opening act, sets the audience slightly off-balance. Even the dialogue subverts our expectations and not just with sharp phrases. In the first few minutes Harrison switches between a semi-oratorical style and bizarre throw away phrases ("a cat who had its kittens in a harmonium.") We hear both musical jargon and rhyming jokes ("handle Handel" and "your Delius is delirious.") All of this dialogue is delivered with great rapidity further confusing the tone of this act as the film never settles into one tone. One the one hand we have some rather saucy dialogue (cut off with a few clever edits) and on the other we have giant cymbals and a fiasco with fire-hoses set to the William Tell Overture. No wonder Unfaithfully Yours is sometimes billed as slapstick and other times dark comedy. What will we make of all of this?

The grossly overweening Sir Alfred De Carter (Harrison) is quite the conceited conductor even before he suspects his new bride of infidelity. Afterward he is so simply and insufferably cruel and Darnell's reaction to him so honest and pained we have to wonder, again, what exactly we're supposed to make of this. This feels too serious to brush off with a few laughs.

When De Carter finally takes the stage to conduct, he imagines what he might do to rectify the situation of his wife's affair and he contemplates his choices we enter into sequences in his imagination. In the first scene the director plays the tone as if it were a murder mystery. Carter's wife is now wholly, and devilishly, complicit in her affair with Tony's secretary. For his revenge Carter executes a brilliant and elaborate set up of the two adulterers, offing his wife and framing his secretary for the deed. All set to the overture to Rossini's Semiramide he prepares the frame: dispatching his wife, sharpening the blade, and getting Tony's fingerprints on it. Carter orchestrates the crime to perfection so that one carefully timed phone-call from the lobby sets the events in motion to doom his secretary. The scene concludes with Carter enjoying a hilariously over-the-top cackle at Tony's trial.

In the second sequence, set to the prelude to Tannhäuser and maintaining a melodramatic tone, Carter is resigned to the wandering of his wife's heart. He does not blame her but rather excuses her and even writes her a check so she can go off with Tony and be happy with him, free from want. In the final sequence Carter is manic, challenging Tony to a game of Russian roulette.

Each scene matches the tone and tempo of the music and the concert hall serves as an effective point of departure. Now these stirrings of his imagination have so inspired Carter that he gives the greatest conducting performance of his career. . . from which he promptly bolts to try and setup the crime at his apartment. The ensuing string of mishaps is the lowest humor in the movie, a flurry of slapstick with running gags, a foot through a chair, and a pin in the buttocks, but Harrison plays it completely straight to hilarious result. Instead of orchestrating the masterful plot of his dreams he sits amidst the rubble of his room, mussed, foiled and struggling with the Simplicitas Home Recorder.

The ultimate reconciliation with his wife, again set to Tannhäuser, makes a sort of coda to the film, and to continue the analogy the whole film's structure is rather musical. We get a sort of exposition of all the traditional styles of comedy with a hodgepodge of characters and tones. This gives way to three variations on a second act which played straight are not funny in themselves but humorous as contrasting resolutions to the plot. He then settles on a full-fledged slapstick finale before tying the plot and romance up with a coda. The couple's love, which we really have to take for granted since it is not developed, may serve only to tie the whole mess of things together. The coda too with its Wagnerian background and exaggerated romantic speechifying is far over the top.

Again we must ask: what do we make of this? Is it a mess, uneven, revolutionary? This structure is more novel even than it appears due to how it unifies the highly disparate stylistic features of the movie and complements its character, and in this respect Unfaithfully Yours stands above other loosely structured comedies. The opening is a whimsical potpourri of styles, tones, and clichés. Only Carter's cruelty stands out too much. A normal film would have staked out its bounds and stayed within them to tell its story. You should need multiple films to contrast these styles but Sturges here with his "musical" structure fits them all in one movie.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Wagnerian Singing: Another Unscientific Comparison

By chance this morning, I came across a recording of Kerstin Thorborg (1896-1970), a Swedish contralto, singing Erda's warning to Wotan, "Weiche, Wotan, weiche."

The quality of her tone left me immediately impressed and awestruck. This, I thought, is how Wagner is to be sung. And we are fortunate, indeed, that we have recordings from the likes of Thorborg. To compare, here's a recording from Christa Ludwig, by any account, a fine mezzo, singing the same role.

Despite the improvement in recording technology, it's clear that Thorborg's singing is on a different plane than Ludwig's. Giving precise reasons why I think this is so would depend on my having a better knowledge of vocal technique than I do. But there may be an important question behind these off-the-cuff comparisons: why is it almost the universal consensus that Wagnerian singing has declined so swiftly since the early and mid-20th century? I offer no answers, only a blow upon a bruise: two more comparisons to drive home the difference.

First, Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962) sings Isolde's Liebestod:

And Deborah Voigt here sings the same (I was unable to acquire a recording-quality video: it is a live performance.):

Finally, Set Svanholm (1904-1964) sings the Preisleid:

And Ben Heppner sings the same:

I intend no slander on Ludwig, Voigt, or Heppner. All of them are (and in the retired Ludwig's case, were) very fine singers, perhaps the finest we can expect for the present. But I suspect many more such adverse comparisons could be made: I entirely neglected the roles of Siegfried, Wotan, Hans Sachs, Lohengrin, and Parsifal. But I know of no one who seriously contends that there has not been a lamentable decline: the greatness seems to have gone out of Wagnerian singing. Despite our extraordinary recording technology, we seem to have arrived on the scene too late: the decline outran our technological advance. Perhaps it's only a passing thing, but we should at any rate be grateful for the recording jewels we do possess: the happenstance encounters with greatness that grace a beautiful Labor Day.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

A Dangerous Fascination

Updated: Please see below.

I feel remiss for not mentioning in our recent discussion of Santayana's Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, Goethe two points of intersection with the dramas of Richard Wagner. Here will will look at the first point of comparison, regarding Dante and his treatment of the lovers Paolo and Francesca. Santayana writes,
Love itself dreams of more than mere possession; to conceive happiness, it must conceive a life to be shared in a varied world, full of events and activities, which shall be new and ideal bonds between the lovers. But unlawful love here cannot pass out into this public fulfillment. It is condemned to be mere possession–possession in the dark, without an environment, without a future. It is love among the ruins. And it is precisely this that is the torment of Paolo and Francesca–love among the ruins of themselves and all else they might have had to give to one another. Abandon yourself, Dante would say to us,–abandon yourself altogether to a love that is nothing but love, and you are in hell already. Only an inspired poet could be so subtle a moralist. Only a sound moralist could be so tragic a poet.

Canto V, 127

Noi leggiavamo un giorno per diletto
  di Lancialotto come amor lo strinse;
  soli eravamo e sanza alcun sospetto.

Per piu` fiate li occhi ci sospinse
  quella lettura, e scolorocci il viso;
  ma solo un punto fu quel che ci vinse.

Quando leggemmo il disiato riso
  esser basciato da cotanto amante,
  questi, che mai da me non fia diviso,

la bocca mi bascio` tutto tremante.
  Galeotto fu 'l libro e chi lo scrisse:
  quel giorno piu` non vi leggemmo avante.

Translation: Allen Mandelbaum

One day, to pass the time away, we read
  of Lancelot–how love had overcome him.
 We were alone, and we suspected nothing.

And time and time again that reading led
  out eyes to meet, and made our faces pale,
  and yet one point alone, defeated us.

When we had read how the desired smile
  was kissed by one who was so true a lover,
  this one, who never shall be parted from me,

while all his body trembled, kissed my mouth.
  A Gallehault indeed, that book and he
  who wrote it, too; that day we read no more."

The tale is of course a familiar one, as Dante himself tells us earlier in Canto V:

Vedi Paris, Tristano; e piu` di mille
ombre mostrommi e nominommi a dito,
ch'amor di nostra vita dipartille.

"See Paris, Tristan. . ."–and he pointed out
  and named to me more than a thousand shades
  departed from our life because of love.

But the comparison here is rather more specific:

Tristan und Isolde: Act II
Isolde! Geliebte!... Tristan! Geliebter!
Jon Vickers & Birgit Nilsson


Mein! Tristan mein!

Mein! Isolde mein!

Mein und dein!
Ewig, ewig ein! 

The scene for all of its beauty is rather overwhelming and as such a little uncomfortable. The lovers are so seized, so heedless of time, everything. . . and we too grow transfixed by the scene which grows more and more detached and ethereal as the motives of transport and love weave together. Somewhat frighteningly effective, I think, which led Nietzsche to say how it exercises "such a dangerous fascination, such a spine-tingling and blissful (süssen) infinity." [1] (emphasis mine)

Indeed. "Why cannot these lovers shroud themselves forever in the sweet twilight of night and death that should indissolubly unite their souls and their destinies?!". . . Dante was filled with such pity he fainted after Francesca told her tale.

 René Kollo and Johanna Meier. 1991.

Update: I did not intend to suggest Wagner shared Dante's view of the lovers' situations, merely that  we might me inclined to compare them. Indeed one might find something quite different in Wagner, for example:

"The redemption through love that Wagner dramatizes in his mature operas is not an escape into another world in which the sufferings of this one are finally compensated. It is rather a demonstration of the value of this world by showing that something else is valued more. The sacred moment, in which death is scorned for the sake of love, casts its light back over the entire life that had led to it." –"Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde" by Roger Scruton. 2004.

See also:
Death Drive: Eros and Thanatos in Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde"
Linda Hutcheon & Michael Hutcheon
Cambridge Opera Journal, Vol. 11, No. 3. (Nov., 1999), pp. 267-293.

[1] Ecce Homo. Warum ich so klug, 6.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Last week at The Hannibal Blog, Andreas Kluth put the question, "Greatest thinkers: Greeks or Germans?" Of course the challenge is a bit of a joke of the fact so many great thinkers were Greek or German. I did begin to consider though, "what do you mean by great?" Do you mean "profound" or "original?" Many great ideas were first considered by a Greek thinker of the ancient world, but found their perfect expression later. By this I mean that many artists put ideas more clearly, succinctly, and beautifully than the philosophers who first thought of them did. Surely some philosophers were great authors and stylists, namely Plato and Nietzsche. Aristotle's prose is remarkable for its clarity and succinctness, but it is still dense and technical. Some philosophers, like Kant, were abysmal prose stylists and their work is excruciating to read.  

Thus I thought, which works of art gave a philosophical idea, or even more specifically a metaphysical idea, its most clear, beautiful, and succinct expression? Of course all art is about some idea, but I was considering particularly abstract or philosophical ideas or ideas expressed in their most abstract or "pure" form. For example, I excluded expressions of a dramatic, descriptive, or pictorial nature. Likewise I considered whether the form of expression was appropriate, particularly appropriate, or most appropriate, for the idea. In the examples I selected I believe the form is ideal for the idea.

I also did consider mean statements simply well-said like, "the highest form of Human Excellence is to question oneself and others (Socrates) and "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." (Aristotle) Rather my thinking was to find an expression of an idea so extraordinary as to be a perfect expression of its essence, and one which invites the reader into an experience of it. Philosophers sometimes succeed here, for example, Nietzsche's statement, "Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you" is no mere assertion but an aphorism fraught with portent.

Thus we might say what I was looking for were expressions not about an idea, but which themselves constituted the idea. For example, Nietzsche's statement draws you into the question and makes the experience it is about and draws you into it.

The following were the first to my mind, though I welcome suggestions and there will likely be a Part II at some point. Music being the most abstract of expressive forms I am sure could predominate. I'm sure Beethoven ought to figure more prominently and one might consider the Mozartian overture in general as a fine example of what I am considering. I have discussed them here.

I have refrained from commenting where possible, since these works by nature are highly condensed, expressing much with little. Where necessary I offered some explication just to get the ball of inquiry rolling. In my experience starting to think about any of these pieces takes you down many and long roads.

Part I. Being, Non-Being, and Becoming

i. Overture to Don Giovanni, KV.521 (W.A. Mozart)

". . . the work is not about guilt and retribution but simply about being and non-being, and the overwhelming tragedy of the conclusion rests on the grandeur and terror of the action as such, not on the triumph of moral laws over the world of appearances." [Abert, 1050.]

James Levine, conducting.

ii. Piano Concerto 21, KV.467. Andante. (W. A. Mozart)
. . . the form is "a becoming." In it we may be aware of phrases, of sequences which show metabolism. . . but the main principle of its form is the approach to and decline from climax. . . we imagine ourselves to be the performer; if we do not live along its line, we are not fulfilling the composer's demands of us. [Hutchings, 139.]

iii. Hamlet, Act III, Scene I. (William Shakespeare)

– "To be, or not to be. . ."

iv. Das Rheingold - Scene 1: Prelude (Richard Wagner)
. . . It symbolizes the primitive element, water, in state of repose; the water from which, according to the teaching of mythology, life springs complete with all its struggles and passions. During this long sustained note we hear the beginnings of life; but those are things which are outside the province of words, and which music alone, speaking without an intermediary to the intelligence, can hope to make us comprehend. [Lavignac, 343.]
Georg Solti conducting The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

v. Fragments (Heraclitus)
  • X: Nature loves to hide.
  • L: As they step into the same rivers, other and still other waters flow upon them.
  • CIII: The way up and down is one and the same.

    Part II. The Problem of Knowledge

    Items i-iii cannot be adequately shared here. Their length and nature is such that to divide them is to destroy their messages. I have, though, written on 2001 and Solaris.

    i. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick)

    ii. Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky)

    iii. Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa)

    Briefly to comment: Rashomon is a sort of hermeneutic riddle. What happened, and how do we interpret these descriptions of the events?

    iv. Claude Monet: Haystacks

    See the variations at Wikipedia.

    v. Four Quartets, II. East Coker. iii. (T. S. Eliot)

    You say I am repeating
    Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
    Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
    To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
    You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
    In order to arrive at what you do not know
    You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
    In order to possess what you do not possess
    You must go by the way of dispossession.
    In order to arrive at what you are not
    You must go through the way in which you are not.
    And what you do not know is the only thing you know
    And what you own is what you do not own
    And where you are is where you are not.

    vi. The School of Athens (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino)

    Causarum Cognitio, but how do we get it? The full painting is a sort of galaxy of philosophy, with other philosophers as constellations around the fundamental, intertwined, and yet opposing figures of Plato and Aristotle.

    See whole image at Wikipedia.

    Part III. The Divine Mystery

    i. Mass in B minor - Gloria - Duet: Domine Deus (J. S. Bach)

    The  canon "'neither confounds the Persons nor divides the substance', for the figure that is detached in one voice is slurred in the other." [Tovey, V. 38.]

    IV. Love

    i. Prelude to Tristan und Isolde

    An unfolding of themes, ceaselessly modulating. . . "the tension growing towards, and relaxing from, a climax of passion; and the passion is the love of Tristan and Isolde." [Tovey, IV. 125.)

    Zubin Mehta conducting Bayerische Staatsoper, Bayerisches Staatsorchester


    Abert, Hermann. W. A. Mozart. Yale University Press. New Haven and New York. 2007.

    Hutchings, Arthur. A Companion to Mozart's Piano Concertos. Oxford University Press. New York. 1948.

    Lavignac, Albert. The Music Dramas of Richard Wagner and His Festival Theatre in Bayreuth. Dodd, Mead, and Company. New York. 1898. 

    Tovey, Donald Francis. Essays in Musical Analysis, Volume IV. Illustrative Music. "Tristan und Isolde. Prelude." Oxford University Press. 1965.

    Tovey, Donald Francis. Essays in Musical Analysis, Volume V. Vocal Music. "Bach. B Minor Mass." Oxford University Press. 1965.

    Monday, June 21, 2010

    Wagner and The Lord of the Rings

    The music of Richard Wagner and the writing of J. R. R. Tolkien are both considerable interests of mine so you can expect substantial writing on both topics in the future. For now, I was recently watching Peter Jackson's spectacular film adaptation of "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" and came upon two rather striking similarities. The first is of set design and the second of music.

     Leif Roar as Klingsor in Parsifal, about to set Kundry against Parsifal.
    Stage design and artistic supervision by Wolfgang Wagner. 1981

     Christopher Lee as Saruman in The Fellowship of the Ring,
    invoking the spirit of the mountain against the Fellowship.
    Artwork and conceptual drawing by Alan Lee and John Howe, 2001.

    Parsifal, Act I.

    The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,
    The Great River

    The scene (using the word loosely since Wagner did not divide the acts into smaller scenes) in Parsifal is quite complex, with multiple choruses, the Knights marching up Montsalvat to the bells, and many themes including those of the Grail, the Eucharist, and the Lance. Shore's scene is considerably simpler but they function in not dissimilar manners. In Fellowship Aragorn catches sight of enormous statues of kings of old, his ancestors. This is simultaneously a reminder of their grandeur and weakness, and also his, that he is the rightful heir but turned from the path since he shares his ancestors' weakness to be tempted by the Ring of Power. Likewise the themes demonstrate Amfortas' mixed feelings, his sacred duty, his suffering, and his sin.

    Likewise the figures of Klingsor and Saruman more than superficial relations. Generally, neither managed his tendency to sin and each turned to dark arts. In his classic work on Wagner, Albert Lavignac describes Klingsor:
    [he] has vainly sought to root out of his heart the tendencies to sin; and, not succeeding, he has destroyed his animal instincts by laying violent hands on himself. . . he has listened to the Evil Spirit, and received from him unhallowed instructions in the art of magic. . . [Lavignac, 212]
    That Saruman succumbed to a natural weakness and was not simply corrupted by studying "too deeply the arts of the enemy" requires some explication, handily provided by Tolkien himself in a letter c. 1956:
    In the view of this tale and mythology Power–when it dominates or seeks to dominate other wills and minds (except by the assent of their reason)–is evil, these "wizards" were incarnated in the life forms of Middle-earth, and so suffered the pains of both mind and body. They were also, for the same reason, thus involved in the peril of the incarnate: the possibility of "fall," of sin, if you will. [Tolkien, 237]
    Likewise where Klingsor "Layed violent hands on himself" Gandalf rebukes Saruman for his unnatural machinations, saying, "he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of reason." [The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Council of Elrond."]

    Yet we ought not to read too much into these similarities and we should avoid trying to craft analogies and allegories here. The characters are themselves different and function differently in the plots of their respective stories. I do not suggest one was a model for the other but rather point out the noteworthy similarities of style and fundamental themes of two artists exploring man's nature in these particular scenes.



    Lavignac, Albert. The Music Dramas of Richard Wagner and his Festival Theatre in Bayreuth. Dood, Mead, and Company. New York. 1901.

    Tolkien, J. R. R. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Letter No. 181, an unfinished letter to Michael Straight. c. 1956. p.237. Houghton Mifflin Company.  New York. 2000.