Upstairs, Downstairs: Acoustics and Tempi in Wagner's 'Träume' and Siegfried Idyll

By Walton, Chris | Musical Times, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Upstairs, Downstairs: Acoustics and Tempi in Wagner's 'Träume' and Siegfried Idyll


Walton, Chris, Musical Times


The acoustic of Wagner's Festspielhaus in Bayreuth is justly celebrated. It is at its best in Parsifal - the only work written specifically for it - and from the mixing of orchestral colours in the Prelude to the placing of his various offstage choruses, Wagner uses the space at his disposal to create compelling musical effects. As is proven by studies of his hands-on role in planning the Festspielhaus, Wagner not only knew how to write for his acoustic, but had also helped to create it.' While his understanding of acoustics seems to have been largely intuitive, the success of the Festspielhaus was no mere matter of chance, but rather the culmination of Wagner's long-standing interest in matters of architectural space.

When Wagner conducted Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in Dresden in 1846 he arranged for a new podium to be constructed for the orchestra and the chorus seats arranged 'in the manner of an amphitheatre' in order to achieve the best possible acoustic results.2 He took similar measures in Zurich in 1853 when he put on a festival of bleeding chunks from his own works, designing an acoustic shell to be placed behind the orchestra on the stage of the City Theatre.3 We can thus assume that acoustic considerations also impinged on the conception of his music from an early date. When he wrote his Liebesmahl der Apostel for performance in the Dresden Frauenkirche in 1843, he will have made his own calculations as to how to deploy the work's vast forces. And he presumably conceived his Tannhäuser ana Lohengrin with the acoustic of the old Dresden Opera in mind. But the theatres of Dresden and Zurich burnt down not many years after Wagner conducted in them, so we will never ascertain the extent to which their respective acoustic might have influenced Wagner's compositional choices. The Dresden Frauenkirche was destroyed in the Second World War, left as a ruin throughout the years of the GDR, and only reopened in its restored state in 2005. The costs of recreating the first performance of the Liebesmahl - there were some 1200 angers involved, plus an orchestra including quadruple wind - are likely to prove prohibitive to any musicologist eager to research the impact of the acoustic on the work's conception.

There remain, however, two venues in Switzerland for which Wagner especially composed works and that remain in existence to this day, largely unchanged: the bottom of the staircase in the Wesendonck Villa and the top of the staircase in Tribschen. There has hitherto been no attempt to find out just how the works in question sound in the acoustic for which they were written, probably because the idea sounds rather silly. If one looks up 'acoustics' in any music dictionary, one finds descriptions of Greek amphitheatres, Gothic cathedrals, Baroque churches and assorted theatres and halls large and small, but nothing on staircases, which have never figured large in the history of western music. Yet a closer investigation of how Wagner's music sounds there can let us observe in miniature how he approached writing for a specific space.

Wagner began his 'Wesendonck Lieder' to texts by his adored Mathilde in the autumn of 1857, at the time that he also commenced work on Tristan und Isolde. Three of the five songs were completed before the end of the year ('Der Engel' in late November 1857, 'Träume' in early December, and 'Schmerzen' in mid-December). Of these, Wagner chose to orchestrate 'Träume' for solo violin and small orchestra in order to present it as a birthday gift to Mathüde on 23 December (at a time, conveniently, when her husband had not yet returned from an urgent business trip to America). Wagner gathered together a small ensemble early on the morning of her birthday and performed it in the foyer of her new villa, underneath the landing where her bedroom was situated. The forces involved (besides the soloist) were four violins, two violas, one cello, two clarinets, two bassoons and two horns. Thirteen years later, Wagner wrote another 'birthday music', this time for his new wife Cosima, whose birthday fell one day later than that of Mathilde, but which she celebrated a day after that, on Christmas Day itself. …

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