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Writing music

Here is Richard Wagner’s 1880 program note for King Ludwig of Bavaria for the performance of his opera Parsifal:

First theme: Love

“Take ye my body, take my blood, in token of our love!” (repeated in faint whispers by angel voices)

“Take ye my blood, my body take, in memory of me!” -- (again, repeated in whispers)

Second theme: Faith

Promise of redemption through faith. Firmly and stoutly faith declares itself, exalted, willing even in suffering.-- To the promise renewed Faith answers from the dimmest heights -- as on the pinions of the snow-white dove -- hovering downwards -- usurping more and more the hearts of men, filling the world, the whole of Nature with the mightiest force, then glancing up again to heaven’s vault as if appeased. But once more, from out the awe of solitude, throbs forth the cry of loving pity: the agony, the holy sweat of Olivet, the divine death-throes of Golgotha -- the body pales, the blood flows forth, and glows now in the chalice with the heavenly glow of blessing, shedding on all that lives and languishes the grace of ransom won by Love. For him who -- fearful rue for sin at heart -- must quail before the godlike vision of the Grail, for Amfortas, sinful keeper of the sacred relic, we are made ready: will redemption heal the gnawing torments of the soul? Once more we hear the promise, and -- we hope!

These are the only words I have read about Parsifal that actually get me closer to understanding the piece.

They are not difficult to understand, and sharply contrast with the various wordy ‘explanations’ that intellectuals have written about this and other works of this composer.

Maybe we should just accept that music, however complex in the execution, is not generally difficult to explain, at least, not if it is any good. Pop musicians seem to understand this, and the principle of simple, though often pungent, themes works for me, too. 

My compositions start with the effect, and from this the melody, countermelody and harmony follow. It takes me a long time to write, because I want to create something that sounds new, whatever the influences were.

I have three finished pieces and two more in progress (although have no idea when they will be completed).

Now … although I firmly believe that music should mostly strive to be beautiful, I would not dare to say this publicly as ‘serious’ classical composers regard this view as naïve and passé.

However, it is the reason I have little interest in attending any opera written since 1900, and why I would often rather face the other way for those written before then.

One recent opera I would have gladly attended, though, was Cinderella by Alma Deutscher. Here is Alma explaining why music should be beautiful:

The entire opera, as performed in San José, California in December 2017, is now available on DVD.

I am of course aware that Deutscher is a prodigious talent, but this exceeded my expectations. I already knew that she could write beautiful music, but in an opera one also has to create drama, which involves people behaving in ugly ways. I have to report, though, that the three antagonists (the stepmother and stepsisters) were sufficiently unpleasant to make the story work. Deutscher has evinced a talent for comedy, too: the king, in his eighteenth-century setting, listing modern medicines, for example, was classic.

Strangely, the role of Fairy Godmother is as much one she has taken for herself as given to the character of that name, as in the key inspirational moments she appears herself, playing the violin or piano. It is interesting to notice her body language when she is taking the curtain calls. She is, of course, beaming, enjoying the adulation, but you get the strong impression that she would be able to manage perfectly well without it.

I believe that Deutscher is unstoppable. Composing in the classical Romantic style may have been out of fashion since Wagner’s death in 1883, but she manages to connect directly with audiences, including many who ordinarily would never bother to see opera at all. Cinderella has left us feeling hungry for more, and it is a safe bet that this, and anything else she chooses to write will be playing to packed houses for the forseeable future. No other living operatic composer can make such a claim.

One group she will not be winning over any time soon, though, is the classical music establishment — not the composition part, anyway. I notice that some reviews, for example, this damn with faint praise, and have the weary tone of one who understands the art form so much better than the composer herself and feels duty bound to point out her errors. Really? I so much look forward to listening to these greatly-superior operas that you wrote at the age of ten! I found I agreed with none of the various criticisms, and least of all the notion that the piece is overlong (but then again, I am used to Wagner).

I have never seen anyone so completely dominated by their talent, and I am not sure that anyone else has, either. It seems to have been a white-knuckle ride — in the best possible way — for her parents just to keep up with the demands their daughter’s enormous gift has placed on their lives. I think we have a real musical game changer on our hands.

Although no instrumental virtuoso, another game changer was Richard Wagner. The last Romantic opera he wrote was Lohengrin. From Das Rheingold onwards they are something different, which one can only call Wagnerian. The thing that changed was that music became music-drama. Take for example, rage. In The Magic Flute, the Queen of the Night rages against Sarastro. Have you ever heard rage set to more beautiful music? I have not. If you did not know that she was, to use an American phrase, ‘mad as hell’, you would think she was merely appreciating the beauty of starlight, or diamonds, or flowers. Something nice, anyway. Mozart could not stop himself from writing beautiful music, even when it is wholly inappropriate. Take, for example, the catalogue aria in Don Giovanni: jaunty, fun music which only seems to mock Donna Elvira, valuing her inner turmoil at nought. With Wagner, post-Lohengrin, you would definitely feel her pain.

People often say that Wagner is ‘heavy’. Well — yes, it often is, because emotion is heavy. This is Wagner dealing with rage: in this case Wotan’s rage and despair at being forced to abandon Siegmund by his wife Fricka. The music and drama here flow in and out of each other in a way that no other composer seems to be able to do. If that is heavy, then, well, I like heavy — listening to the perfect music for every aspect of human experience is enriching.

It is often said that Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is a musical watershed. People have written books about just the opening chords. Music was certainly never to be the same afterwards, but the direction it took — away from melody and towards atonality was one that the master himself would have never have approved of. For all the chromaticism and endless key shifts in Tristan, it remains staunchly tonal and melodic.

Wagner wrote a lot about the direction that music was taking. In some ways he was just anticipating film music: the invisible orchestra, the egalitarian nature of the experience and focus on drama. As his grandson Wolfgang pointed out, if he had lived a century later, he would have worked in Hollywood. Luckily he did not. If he had, he would hardly have accepted the subservient role of composer: he would have insisted on directing, and thereby written much less of that sublime music. It is ironic that Wagner spent so much of his time designing and building the perfect outlet for his art in Bayreuth considering that, within the lifetime of Cosima (his second wife), cinema had become dominant.

It seems obvious to me that film is in any case the natural medium for Wagner. My favourite so far is the filmed Metropolitan Opera staging of The Ring in 2002 with Levine conducting. It is beautiful, both to look at and to hear, but without the restrictions imposed by a theatre, and with modern CGI, one could go a lot further. My dream is to set Arthur Rackham’s illustrations in motion.

But, at the very least, there is surely going to be a future for filmed opera without the restrictions of the theatre stage.

My favourite so far is not actually Wagner at all, but Joseph Losey’s film of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. If you have not seen it already, then check it out, and you will see what I am getting at. But I want more. And I fully expect young talents like Deutscher to deliver new works in this medium!

Do not get me wrong, though. I just love paying huge amounts of money to sit in uncomfortable seats barely being able to make out the performers in live theatres and opera houses. Especially after a year of lockdowns. It is the occasion of it that makes the extra effort worthwhile. But — let us face it — cinema and video are where the money is made, and one might as well make use of the extra freedom that goes with the medium.


James Hurley

Here is another person who is already making an impact on the world of opera, and this time one I know personally: James Hurley.

James is an opera director whose gets his singers to act. In a way, I feel sorry for them. Just standing on stage and singing would be a lot easier, and many directors, if such a post exists, are happy to allow this. However, with James’s approach the stories are really brought to life!

He generally chooses modern dress and modern sets, as he takes the view that this is the way to get the best performances out of the singers.

I see his point, but I am hoping that he will at some point use period sets and costume even if only as an experiment.