Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The lost chord

This post might be filed under the category of "lost and found". A very long time ago, a couple of decades at least, I confess I had a bad crush on someone, I won't say who or I'll feel like a complete idiot (which I already do!). This wasn't an affair or anything like that, or I would have seen the person for the total blithering idiot he was. But this was fantasyland, and I needed a theme song.

I had an old tape of Wagner favorites. You know old Wagner. Hitler's favorite composer. I don't think he'll ever live down the stigma of his close association with the Third Reich, even though his heyday was decades earlier. His work had a certain bombastic grandeur, a call-to-action/get-up-and-heil feeling, inspirational in a really awful sort of way. OK then, I've just summed up the whole Ring Cycle, 18 hours of opera compressed into a not-very-well-composed paragraph.

But I don't worry about that, not here anyway. Here, I just write.

So in the throes of my hopeless longing, I discovered in my dusty tape library a recording of "the" Wagner romantic-yearning passage, the Liebestod, love-in-death. In the opera, Tristan and Isolde are sitting around singing like mad because they can't have sex, then somebody bursts in and says "hey".  But the instrumental version is the one I love - get rid of all those nasty, unnecessary voices, please!  The tape didn't run at quite the right speed because it was about to turn to ferrous oxide or something, but I listened to it incessantly. It was the only thing that helped me survive the crush.

Fast forward about a jillion years, and something comes on Knowledge Network (yet another of those 90-minute documentaries that they have razored down to 53 minutes). It's called Stephen Fry: Wagner and Me. A nice humorous little diversion, an exploration of the zany British comic's love for the glorious-if-overblown music of Hitler's favorite composer. 

I always think Fry has a face like something you'd see on Easter Island (see my little ditty, Stephen Fry, Stephen Fry). He doesn't get his hair cut too often and is known to be disshevelled (how the hell do you spell that word anyway?). In this one he was eager and animated, unlike some of the other shows he did (see the bipolar one - no, don't, it's depressing), maybe even a touch manic as he explored his lifelong passion.  At one point he played one chord on Wagner's own piano, called the "Tristan" chord for its tender dissonance, melancholy, and weird way of throwing the listener off-balance.

It was an interesting show, if a bit "golly-gee-I'm-turning-the-door-handle-on-the-theatre-where-Wagner-actually-rehearsed". It came out that Fry was Jewish, making his passion for music so closely associated with the Master Race a little disturbing.

Anyway, all this reminded me of things I hadn't thought of in years. The hunt was on for the "lost" version of the Liebestod, the version on the tape I'd chucked out years ago, the one I listened to over and over again, a piece so full of aching and longing that I can't even approach it unless I am in a certain frame of mind. Its eroticism is beyond question, with great simultaneous ascending and descending lines that gradually lift the listener to higher and higher altitudes until the air is dangerously thin, finally erupting in one of the few great orgasms of classical music.

I listened to many different versions of this piece on YouTube, but none of them remotely satisfied me. Most were played too slowly, sounding dragged out, which I hate. (This is my biggest beef with conductors. Pick it up, pick it up, will you?). Then I found this one, the one I've posted here, with Eugene Ormandy, and thought: gee, that sounds just a little bit similar.  Then on about the third listening, ding ding ding ding ding, I suddenly came to the conclusion that this WAS the original version, the one that was taken at the right tempo, the one that expressed impossible erotic longing in a way that had scored a bullseye in my heart.

Why didn't I recognize it right away? It's funny, but if you've been away from someone for years and years and see them again, they, well, look, um, ah, different (though of course YOU don't).  I think this is why I didn't immediately realize it was "the" piece, the lost chord. Or maybe it was like Jesus appearing to the disciples after his resurrection. . . they didn't know who he was, maybe because he'd changed a little bit. Death and resurrection will do that to a person.

The Liebestod is embedded in this very long piece, and begins at 11:30. (Not 11:29. That's his lunch break.) I think it represents all the best of Wagner, a tenderness and excruciating longing which can't be separated from the composer's awful sins against humanity.  Unlike Stephen Fry, I can't sit there for eighteen hours with a numb bum, so I am left with excerpts like this which a purist would say are bleeding chunks.

Come to think of it, Fry is not the only Jewish person I know (and for some reason we can't say Jew any more:  why is that?) who loves Wagner and has commented at length on the Ring cycle, which makes the Lord of the Rings look like a Smurf story. I just thought of something else (then I promise I'll stop - I know I am going on and on): back when I took violin lessons from a Polish-born teacher, not Jewish but a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto (and in fact imprisoned in a concentration camp with his mother when he was just a tot), I would occasionally stumble upon a simplified Wagner piece and want to play it.

My teacher would sort of look away and say,  I don't like Wagner. It was like saying I don't like axe murderers. Another time I had an extra ticket for a Renee Fleming concert and no one else was available, so my teacher paired me off with a Polish musician I'd never met before. One of the first things he asked me was, "What will she be singing tonight?" "Oh, Mozart, Puccini. . . " "Not Wagner." "Not that I know of." "Good. I won't go if she does."

I don't like Wagner either, except that I do love what he wrote here, how it hang-glides over such fiery, dangerous territory, then takes us right up to the sun. 

(There is a very odd post-script to this story. Looking for a CD the other day, I unearthed a Wagner compilation that I didn't even know I had. The cover art was bizarre, a map of Europe with a red bullseye over Poland. I looked on the back, and yes, there it was: the Liebestod, but not just any Liebestod. The Ormandy one. The lost chord had never been lost.)