Wagner Guilt

Below is another guest contribution from Tanner Cassidy, author of last month’s post on issues of programming in classical music. Here, Tanner addresses his conflicting relationship with Wagner, his music, and his complex legacy.

Tanner Cassidy

I have suffered tremendous loss in a time of tremendous loss. At the end of a string of announced cancellations, the Lyric Opera of Chicago has canceled their production of the Ring Cycle. Plane tickets, years of payments, and careful planning it seems were all for not. Due to the way of the world right now, the creeping paranoia of cancellation has been brewing for some time, but the news finally arriving initially felt like I was finally beginning to accept this impending grief as reality.

However, even admitting this loss to any sort of public causes consternation to well up in my chest. I am ashamed of my proclivity for Wagner. Despite my best efforts, I am not comfortable with my choice of favorite composer. To even mention him as my favorite seems wrong, but before perhaps stating the obvious, I would like to explain the origin of this taste. 

I do not come from a musical family. I do not come from a well-off family. To be blunt, I do not come from a very cultured family. I hold no embitterment towards this, as how could I? It would be unfair to do such injustice to my parents, and they provided for me in ways that weren’t musical in nature. However, this meant I gleaned all of my musical taste from my middle and high school wind ensembles. A saxophone player, the world of orchestral and especially vocal music was foreign to me, and my mediocre schools lead to a lack of any variety or depth in repertoire. There was an exception that stuck out to me in my sophomore year of high school, however. My band director passed out Lucien Cailliet’s transcription of “Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral” from Lohengrin. We rehearsed, did a fair job at the concert, and put it away. The effect of this piece, however, took hold. I found in this piece my first taste of what orchestral and classical music could bring. It deepened the uncertain love of music I had at the time, and opened up the world of opera and chromaticism. In fact, the first theory paper I ever wrote was on this piece that I so treasured, and to this day it serves as a means of calming me down when I feel stressed. 

What I did not know was what this rabbit hole would lead me to. I was enamored by the music—the lush orchestration, shifting harmonies, beautiful motives, etc. What I did not pay attention to (initially) was the plot, the libretto, the context, or even the piece’s placement within Lohengrin. I found these things later, of course, but they were not a part of what attracted me in the first place. When I found other Wagner instrumental excerpts I experienced similar aesthetic delight. It was around this time that I discovered a smudge on the mental image of this music. When looking up more works by this strange German man, a biography began to appear. First, at a trickle, some of the more nefarious details of his life came to be. These were initially shallow, such as his habit for extramarital affairs and his reputation at the podium. However, at the moment, I had no cause for alarm. I knew next to nothing of music history, and he seemed at first glance as flawed as any other.

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Reflections on the Problems of Programming

Today’s post comes courtesy of a guest author, Tanner Cassidy, one of my good friends and colleagues at UC Santa Barbara. Tanner is currently working on his MA/PhD in music theory and is also a talented saxophonist, conductor, and composer. Below, he reflects on an issue that I have written about before on this blog and will continue to address in future posts—the problem of uninspired programming in classical music.

Tanner Cassidy

This past week, I was emailed notifications that both the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the LA Opera have announced their seasons for the upcoming ’20/21 season. To my dismay, I found the upcoming seasons from both organizations to be underwhelming, relying on overplayed hits and lacking in diversity. CSO’s email advertises a night of Italian opera favorites (at best, no doubt only as fresh as Puccini), a performance of Amadeus with live score (a wonderful experience I just had there a couple of years ago), and a list of concert highlights for the season. The newest piece on this list is Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, a piece nearing its 107th birthday. Besides this, other composers featured are Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, and Strauss, with some of their most oft programmed (and hence blandest) pieces scheduled.

LA Opera paints a similarly safe picture, with Il Trovatore AND Aida in the same season. Verdi wrote 25 operas, and yet the best we can apparently do is program the same few that are always performed. Verdi is juxtaposed against two German operas, Don Giovanni and Tannhäuser, also works programmed (perhaps) too often. Rossini also makes an appearance, with his La Cenerentola on the schedule. A work also performed frequently, at least it’s a secondary classic (unlike its cousin, the excessively performed Barber of Seville). Finally, the final opera of the season is by Missy Mazzoli, titled Breaking the Waves. The only break from the monotony of tradition and “classics.”

Why do I mention any of this? Wonderful and innovative work is happening all over if you’re willing to look. What’s the point of whining about what these major institutions are programming?

For me, it seems to reflect a growing conservative trend in these particular organizations, one that I’ve begun to notice trickle down to smaller local organizations. For example, Beethoven’s 250th birthday this year has had a horrible impact on innovation in programming. One of the most oft-performed and esteemed composers in the history of European classical music, Beethoven does NOT need any more attention on these organizations’ calendars. If anything, the occasion should be marked by a season-long moratorium on his music. Despite this, CSO is advertising in bold lettering that next season is featuring the Missa Solemnis, one of the few orchestral works not performed by the orchestra this current season (this season excessively has featured all the symphonies and all the piano sonatas, because God knows we never see Moonlight Sonata performed).

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32 Thoughts about Beethoven (and his 250th Birthday)

“Ludwig van Beethoven is the most frequently performed of all classical composers. He was also a radical artist who constantly reinvented himself, expanded the boundaries of music and posed questions to society. Even today he inspires people all over the world.” So proclaims the homepage of BTHVN 2020, an organization that joins in this year with hundreds of others worldwide to celebrate the 250th birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the most famous, beloved, and—indeed—frequently performed composers in the Western canon.

The birthday boy. Source

The festivities will be wide-ranging and immense. Beethoven’s symphonies, overtures, concertos, piano sonatas, and string quartets will appear on programs the world over, and, in many cases, entire cycles of these works will be presented. New recordings of time-tested favorites will be made, and classic recordings will be remastered. (Case in point: a recently-released, 123-disc box set claims to offer “the most complete Beethoven anthology ever produced.”) Symposiums, lectures, essays, articles, and books will seek to reveal new insights about the composer. In all, Beethoven will receive a truly comprehensive celebration that he could have only imagined during his lifetime.

Yet, amidst all this merriment, there’s something about this whole celebration that’s a bit overwhelming, redundant, and even fatiguing. And there are some things that I feel need to be said about this. Below, I have compiled a list of 32 miscellaneous thoughts about Beethoven, his music, and his 250th birthday celebration. Why 32? It’s mostly inspired by the film Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, but it’s also because Beethoven composed 32 piano sonatas. (Come to think of it, those two things are probably connected…) These musings are wide-ranging and in no particular order. I would also like to emphasize that many of these express my opinions. Some you may agree with, others you may disagree with. And that’s 100% fine! At the end of it all, though, it’s clear that there’s still much left to be said about Beethoven. Anyway, here we goooooo…

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