A new sound
Music has formed itself an organ capable of the most immeasurable expression- the orchestra.
– Richard Wagner
CHAPTER AIM: Exploring Wagner’s choice of instruments
Welcome to the work of the Romantic composer, Richard Wagner (1813-1883). This music, that we’ll use for this Wagner section of the course, comes from the very end of his opera “Tristan and Isolde“.
We join the action as Isolde gazes upon the dead body of her lover Tristan. By the end of the piece, she herself will collapse dead – or at least transformed – beside Tristan.
Welcome to the Romantic Age!
The Wagner Case
Wagner’s music sounds rich and lush. Too rich and too lush for some: Wagner has always had a fair few detractors.
Probably the most famous was the philosopher (and ex-fan) Nietzsche, who detested what he saw as theatricality and decadence. “Is Wagner a human being at all?” Nietzsche asked “Isn’t he rather a sickness? He makes sick whatever he touches,—he has made music sick”
There’s something to this. Wagner’s music has a lushness that can sound over-ripe. If this music sounds too opulent or mushy for your tastes (or just plain indecipherable), please be patient and give it some time. Classical music, as you should be discovering, covers a vast array of very different types of music.
Wagner’s voice really adds an extra dimension to the experience of music. Enjoying Wagner is an enriching and rewarding experience, as I hope you are about to find out…
Wagner’s deployment of the musical forces of Rhythm Melody and Harmony is always expert, but beyond even this, Wagner’s ear is brilliantly attuned to the raw sound of music. The actual noise produced by instruments and their combinations.
His own hearing was acutely sensitive, indeed all his senses were highly developed. This was a man who really loved his perfumes and silks because he cared about what he smelt, and what textures his skin felt.
And we can feel that synesthesia in his music, in its richness and its sensuality. There’s an almost tactile quality to the sounds he produces.
Much of the reason comes from the instrumentation, the choice of instruments the composer makes. Wagner was an innovator in this field, bringing new instruments such as the bass clarinet into the orchestral fold that have since become standard.
More of this later.
Wagner knew exactly which instruments blended with which to create the texture and timbre of sound he required. It’s a process of blending he achieves here so prefectly, you often don’t realise when one instrument becomes another.
In this chapter, we’re going to pay attention to the first minute of the piece.
We are going to ignore the voice (hard as that may be!) and instead just concentrate on the instruments themselves. This is actually a great way into Wagner’s music in general: pay attention to the orchestra first, and come to the voice after.
Wind and Brass
- 0.00 Bass clarinets – only – join the voice of Isolde.
- 0.07 Trombones join in low down. You hardly feel the join.
- 0.14 Clarinets
- 0.21 Again Trombones
- 0.28 Now the horns take the lead
- 0.35 Again trombones, but very quietly
- 0.48 Flutes oboes bassoons etc all added. The music swells to…
- 1.08 …the climax of this section, after which the music dies down.
This palette of Wind and Brass – as always with Wagner – is chosen perfectly to produce a particular aural effect. It’s a lush sound with a throbbing intensity that grows and swells. It’s a sound that begins in the lower mid-tones, and comes from the wind and gentle brass instruments.
Everything creates a background canopy of sound which cradle the human voice, as the music gently ascends.
It’s worth pausing to look at the specific choices of instruments Wagner employs. We begin with a bass clarinet, an instrument rarely used before Wagner. It looks more like a saxophone, particularly in its more modern incarnations. The low somewhat gentle tone of this instrument brings a sad tone that greatly appealed to Wagner. He often scored for the instrument.
The trombones (0.06, 0.21, & 0.35) do not just stamp out the bass line. They play, very quietly, two or three notes at the same time. This thickens the texture of the sound.
When the horns enter (0.28), you hardly notice the different instruments. Horns are the most gentle of the brass instruments. Wagner loved them, and used them a lot. You feel the build, but the effect is subtle.
Presently the other wind instruments join in (0.48). You can feel the climb upwards, but you hardly notice the individual steps. This is not a moment for individual brilliance in the orchestration. It’s a proper team effort. Everything Wagner does is to create an overall atmosphere or mood.
Now let’s take a look at what happens with the strings in our first minute:
- 0.00 Cellos and double basses play, low, and VERY quietly
- 0.14 Now the violas enter, again so softly
- 0.35 Half of 2nd violins enter
- 0.41 The other half of the 2nd violins enter
- 0.44 Half of the 1st violins enter
- 0.48 The other half of the 1st violins enter
- 0.56 A harp joins in.
Wagner’s choice of instruments is perfect, blending sounds for dramatic effect.
Again that sense of building from the bottom up. So we begin with the low strings, and then gradually build up the sound, by adding each new string section a block (or even a half-block) at a time. But it’s really hard to make out the particular entry of any of the string sections: this is a smooth process. Once again you you don’t feel any moment of sudden build, but rather a long steady rise.
And let’s not forget the harp, plucking it’s way up (at 0.56) and bringing such a lot to the ethereal almost unreal sound Wagner is creating. Like the bass clarinet, this is another instrument rarely used before the Wagner’s time in the context of an orchestra. Wagner was so precise about the instruments he emplyed, and that is what makes each of his operas have such a unique texture.
And it’s not just the choice of instruments, but also the way they are played. Wagner always gives very specific directions for musicians in his scores.
Here, the strings are all, for the most part, instructed to play tremolo. That means the bow plays rapidly back and forth across the strings, producing a throbbing, passionate sound. That happens throughout this opera, and is one of the elements that gives Tristan & Isolde its distinctive tone.
Again, it’s done subtly, it’s not immediately obvious. To hear the tremolo effect stand out most clearly, listen at 0.56-1.08, when the strings all are instructed to play in that style.
There are also directions in the score for the strings to play with a ‘mute’, a small device placed on the strings to quieten them. This is why those strings are all introduced so unobtrusively.
One by one Wagner instructs the sections to remove their mutes, a process that begins at the end of our excerpt. You can hear just at the end (1.15) the violas sounding out their florid strokes with unusual clarity, since they have now removed their mutes.
The effect is like a slow pulling focus on a camera lens, bringing the music gradually closer.
Wagner is not creating music for us to enjoy, simply as music, the way we would understand a composer like Mozart works. Wagner is a dramatist, composing musical drama. He is producing a soundscape, an audio backdrop, before which his drama can unfold.
Wagner’s commitment to the emotional, psychological, even the sexual character of his drama means that he creates unique aural backdrops for each of his dramas, and that comes firstly from the palette of instruments he chooses.
Again and again in Tristan & Isolde you will find these same or similar combinations. Clarinets, bass clarinets, cor anglais (deeper oboes), and oboes, combining with horns.
These are instruments that give a plaintive often ambiguous tone, clustered as they are around the mid-tones, clear from pitching notes too high or low. As I’ve said already, it’s the choice of instruments and how they are played that adds to the emotional feel. So often throughout the opera you’ll find tremolo bowing in the strings, with rises and falls in volume, in the dynamics of the music. All to reflect the sensual passion and the nervous frenzy of the characters on stage.
The sound is lush and thick, but it is not mushy or incoherent. On the contrary it’s been produced by a careful selection of instruments, and a detailed attention to how they are played. When you start to perceive that detail, appreciating Wagner gets easier.
As Nietzsche himself put it: