The thing with Wagner is that, if he's a food, he is a very, very heavy bread, the kind of bread that's an inch thick and sits in your stomach like a brick after you swallow it. Oh, and it's dark bread. Almost black, really. Thick, dark, heavy bread. The kind of bread that, when you make a sandwich with it, you have to use spicy mustard and thick cuts of ham just to taste anything other than bread. The kind of bread where...well, that's enough. There's such a thing as overkneading a metaphor.
But anyway, of all of Wagner's music, this is the piece of his that works its magic on me more than any other. The overture may be my favorite form of shorter orchestral work, but in Wagner's hand, the overture -- or Prelude -- reached heights that no one else has reached since. Fifteen minutes of a great musical journey...here is the overture to Tannhauser.
When that famous chorale theme recurs at the overture's end (the 1:49 mark of the second video), the effect is astonishing, with those shimmering strings that weren't there the first time we heard this same theme. And when the entire orchestra takes up the theme, with those magnificent trombones leading the way, it's nearly overwhelming...and then Wagner tops it off, at the very end, with the brass in a slow arpeggio that to me sounds like the Heavens opening. I never listen to Wagner unless I'm willing to go somewhere, emotionally. To listen to Wagner is to listen to the most purely proud musical arrogance -- in the best sense of the word -- that has ever been written. Wagner is not a composer who for one second even considers that his listener may not wish to follow him where he wants to go.
Oh, two final notes: Check out the 3:24 mark, when you can see the trumpets and the trombones. I don't know if it's still the case, but for many years, the Chicago Symphony was regarded as having the greatest brass section in the world. That trumpet player sitting there, next the trombones, is Adolph Herseth, who was likewise for years regarded as the greatest symphonic trumpet player in the world (as well as one of my personal musical heroes, especially when I was a trumpet player in college -- let other trumpet players lust after Wynton Marsalis's skill, what I wanted was the ability to completely dominate an orchestra the way Herseth could). And check out what Sir Georg Solti -- one of the greatest Wagnerian conductors of all time -- has his horns do at 4:04 and 4:30. He directs them to lift their instruments up so the bells are pointed, not into their own laps as is normally the case with the French horn, but at the back wall, to make their counterfigure heard brightly.
What a wondrous, magnificent overture. This is one of the most perfect pieces of symphonic music I know.
* Or would that be "Somethings for Thursday"? Hmmmm....