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Where I sit at my desk, typing this piece, I am surrounded by shelves filled with CDs. There are thousands of them. Eleven complete Mahler cycles (and I just ordered another). I don’t know how many boxes of Beethoven symphonies I have. I have literally lost count. Some are filed with Beethoven, some under the name of the conductor, some in my historical bin. Too much. Too much.

Henry David Thoreau famously advised “Simplify. Simplify.” And so, I’ve been cogitating, Marie Kondo style, how to reduce this agglomeration into a fine sauce, into the absolute essentials. 

And so, I decided I would pick a single composition and recording from each of the major composers and stack them up in a neat, tiny pile, figuring they would do me for the remaining years of my declining life. 

I realized, too, that I had to limit my list. There are simply too many composers out there. Do I really need Hans Pfitzner? Can I do without Louis Spohr, Max Reger, David Diamond? Surely, there is a short list of the pillars of Western art music. If not, I would make one. 

If you don’t find Palestrina on this list, or Josquin de Prez, it is not because I don’t value their work. I don’t even include Antonio Vivaldi, although I love his music and probably should include at least the Four Seasons. But I have chosen to start with Bach. He really is the fountainhead of the 250-year project we now call “classical music.” At least, those composers who followed him considered him so. 

Each of these winnowed-down composers can enter only a single work on my list, and I have chosen for each of these, a single performance to put in my “keepers” pile. 

Here are my suggestions, in roughly chronological order.

Johann Sebastian Bach — Since I want as much of him as possible on my pile, I will add the St. Matthew Passion, one of the greatest works of art ever assembled. It goes on for as much as three hours, depending on whether you’re listening to Otto Klemperer or Riccardo Chailly, who can squeeze the whole thing onto two discs. 

For my pile, I’m going with Klemperer, who brings a majesty and awe that few can match. In fact, if I had to have only a single recording on my pile, it would be Klemperer’s Matthew Passion. 

(If you find the passion too dour and downbeat, you can substitute the Mass in B-minor. I won’t complain. Klemp is good in that, too.)

George Frederic Handel — If I can have three discs of Bach, I can do the same with Handel. I love the 12 concertos of Op. 6. They come in two forms: currently, the historically informed performance practice, bouncy, quick, staccato versions that dominate the market; and the old-fashioned warm Mitteleuropean version. No one does that anymore. 

I grew up hearing violinist Alexander Schneider in New York, and his brand of committed music making. And I have a set of his Op. 6 recordings, with a pick-up ensemble, that it horribly out of date, but glorious. Into the pile. 

Domenico Scarlatti — On the shelves are all 555 sonatas, played on harpsichord by Scott Ross. But I hate the clangy, monotonous sound of the harpsichord and prefer my Scarlatti translated to piano. Most pianists now attempt to imitate the harpsichord by using no pedal and dry staccato. I want someone not afraid of using what the piano offers. My favorite used to be Vladimir Horowitz. He is still great. But I have since discovered an even richer performer in Mikhail Pletnev. This is magnificent piano playing. 

Joseph Haydn — Papa is hard to narrow down for me. He is one of my absolute dearest composers. But how do you choose a symphony over a quartet? Or a single symphony or quartet over all the others. Haydn’s work is so consistently excellent, it makes it hard to pick one as more essential than another. But there is The Creation. It is unlike anything else, and has the greatest sonic description of chaos ever devised. In his lifetime, The Creation was recognized as his crowning achievement. 

I have something like half a dozen recordings of it, including two by Leonard Bernstein, who had a magic sympathy with Haydn always. I will choose his second recording, with Deutsche Grammophon although I think the earlier with the New York Philharmonic is just as good. 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — The problem with Wolfie is similar to that with Haydn: consistency. But Mozart is best in opera. I would have chosen The Marriage of Figaro — his most nearly perfect work and the world’s most perfect opera — but instead I pick Don Giovanni, which, although it sags a bit in the second act, has more emotional power and heft. 

There are many great performances, and lots by the newer, faster, punchier conductors who follow historically informed performance practice (pardon me while I spit at their feet). And my choice is the recording with Cesare Siepi as the Don, with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler. What a supporting cast! 

Ludwig von Beethoven — I hate to be caught out as predictable, but after considering one of the late quartets, or the Hammerklavier sonata, I realized that there is only one possible choice. I am sorry for it, but I have to pick the Ninth. If I had been really snobbish, I would have suggested the Missa Solemnis, but I don’t know anyone who really enjoys that music. Respects it, yes. Reveres it, even. But enjoys? No. But the Ninth. It was the sign over the door to the Nineteenth Century. Enter who dare. It cast a shade over the next hundred years. You wrote in emulation or reaction against. 

I’ve got to fess up to liking the first and third movements more than the second and fourth. The scherzo seems a little thin melodically speaking, and I always have to get through the first half of the finale before hitting the solid core of gold, which starts with the fugue after the Hogan’s Heroes’ march. The Adagio, though, is as sublime as music gets, and when it is done right, the first movement is a vision from Dante: If the conductor lets the tympani roar properly, the recapitulation can rouse the fight-or-flight in you. Too many conductors smooth that bit out, letting the kettle drums murmur underneath the themes. In 1942, Furtwangler unleashed his tympani in a recording that is both the greatest performance and one of the sloppiest and poorly recorded in history. You have to put up with a lot in that historical document (including knowing that Hitler was in the audience), but it is the version I put on my pile.

Franz Schubert — The riches are there: the Unfinished Symphony, the Trout Quintet, the B-flat Sonata, the Death and the Maiden quartet. Heck, the F-minor Fantasie for Two Pianos, the two piano trios, to say nothing of the songs, especially Winterreisse. But the most moving of all, deeply emotional and profound is the String Quintet in C, sometimes considered the greatest piece of chamber music ever — even topping Beethoven’s late quartets. That’s saying something. 

Lots of great performances, but my favorite and the one on my pile is by musicians from the Marlboro Festival. Some find it a bit over the top; I find the top cannot be gone over in this music. The disc also gives us The Shepherd on the Rock, sung by Benita Valente and so we have one of the songs, also. 

Robert Schumann — Bobbie doesn’t get a lot of props these days, and he can get repetitious. And as he aged, he became outright boring. But in his hot youth, he wrote a lot of the world’s most memorable tunes. For me, what goes on the pile is Carnaval, a series of sort-of variations, a necklace of character pieces for piano. 

There are two essential recordings of it: Artur Rubinstein and Sergei Rachmaninoff. When push comes to shove, I’m taking Rach with me. 

Felix Mendelssohn — My absolute favorite Mendelssohn is his Hebrides Overture, but it is too short for my pile, and so I pass by his symphonies and, god help us, his tedious oratorios, and pick the most elegant and refined of all the great violin concertos. 

I am in luck, though, because Pinchas Zukerman plays the bejeezus out of the concerto with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Phil and pairs it with the Hebrides and as a bonus, a rousing performance of the “Italian” Symphony. That’s hard to beat.

Hector Berlioz — This will probably be a controversial choice. How can you not choose the Symphonie Fantastique? It is his signature piece, and under the baton of Charles Munch, it can’t be beat. But my heart belongs to the Requiem. I love it without regard for its faults. It is ingenious, tuneful, and loud. (My college roommate’s brother used to love what he called “the loud classics,” by which he meant things like the 1812 Overture and Beethoven’s Fifth, but you can’t get much louder than the Dies Irae in the Berlioz “Wreck.” 

And there is one recording above all: Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Too many other conductors (I’m looking at you, Colin Davis) attempt to make sense of this irrational music, to tame it and have it make sense. But Ormandy lets it all hang out, and his tenor, Cesare Valletti, is just cheesy enough. 

Frederic Chopin — This is a toughie. Chopin wrote mainly short pieces, and so picking just one would be giving him short shrift. I don’t particularly like his piano concertos, and his sonatas are fine, but what he really calls for is a program of mazurkas, scherzos, ballades, waltzes and the bunch. 

There are two contenders, almost opposite poles apart, interpretively, but they are the best at getting the spirit of Chopin. Most modern pianists are too dry and all seem to hate the pedal. The older Chopin tradition is closer to what the composer wanted. One could choose the 10-CD box of Artur Rubinstein Plays Chopin, which is a delight. But it is made of his later, stereo recordings, and his older mono ones were more idiosyncratic. Still, it is a great box. But on my pile goes Vladimir Horowitz: The Chopin Collection, with seven CDs. Volodya has all the snap and jump that sit in the music waiting to spring out. It’s a close call. The Rubinstein is more complete, but Horowitz is the only pianist who has ever taken the measure properly of the Polonaise-Fantasie, and so, I’m going with Horowitz. 

Franz Liszt — Like Chopin, Liszt is best in the shorter to medium size pieces. I’d want a compilation.

The best Liszt pianist going is Valentina Lesitsa, who understands that Liszt without the theatrics is not really Liszt. Those pianists who try to extract the “music” from the glitz only destroy the essence. The problem is that Lisitsa has not released a really good single Liszt disc; the best is spread out on several. No one does the second Hungarian Rhapsody with as much schmaltz as she does. She is great. But, I have to choose, and so, I’m going with a great 2-disc compilation on DG called Liszt: Wild and Crazy, with the works spread out among more than a dozen great pianists. 

Richard Wagner — Oy, Wagner. This is a kind of classical music Everest, not just because the music is great, but because it takes a mountain-climber’s stamina. To a true Wagnerite, the music is transcendental, mythic, epic. To the not-so-convinced, it can seem bombastic, never-ending, and pretentious. I’m with the first group. I’ve attended two full Ring Cycles live, and own six cycles on disc. So sue me. 

But I’m not going to take all that with me, and so, Kondo-style, I will divest and choose a single disc. Each of Wagner’s operas contain longueurs, segments of what can seem like filler, as the story is rehashed once again. But the first act of Walküre is a perfectly enclosed whole, musically. Arturo Toscanini recorded Act 1, scene 3 with Helen Traubel and Lauritz Melchior that is, for me, the perfect Wagner recording. The disc also includes the Siegfried Idyll and the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde

Anton Bruckner — Sometimes, it is hard to tell one Bruckner symphony from another. He had one tone, one message, one purpose in all his music. Symphonies Four and Seven are the easiest to love; Eight is the longest and most sublime; the unfinished Nine is profound. But if I choose just one, it will be Symphony No. 5 in B-flat. It has that fugal finale, and a first-movement ear-worm that you will carry with you for life.

And my recording of choice is with Hans Knappertsbusch and the Vienna Philharmonic. No one gets Bruckner quite like the quirky Kna. The disc also gives us Wagner’s Dawn and Rhine Journey, and so we get to cheat a little on our Wagner. 

Johannes Brahms — OK, this is painful. Old beard-face is very close to my heart. I’m going to want to add to my pile the DG box of “Complete Works,” but that would be cheating. Brahms is the greatest composer of chamber music since Beethoven and Schubert, and no one has equalled him since. His symphonies and concertos are top tier. But the music that moves me the most, that I could not live without, for it provides me with the deepest consolation is his German Requiem. “Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras.” It is the most human, compassionate, loving music I have ever heard. I weep just remembering it. 

The greatest performance ever recorded, by general acclamation, is that of Otto Klemperer, with the Philharmonia and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Ralph Downes. I’m putting on top of my pile, so I can reach for it first. 

Giuseppe Verdi — I’m afraid am giving opera the short stick in this selection. I shouldn’t. And Joe Green is going to take a beating here. Because, although I would love to add Otello or La Traviata to my pile, I’m going to choose instead his Requiem. It is operatic, after all. 

Into the pile goes my Barenboim version, with the La Scala orchestra and chorus and Anja Hareros, Elīna Garanča, Jonas Kaufmann and Rene Pape. It is stunning. 

Antonin Dvorák — After Haydn, no composer has been more mentally and emotionally sound and hale than Dvorak. And that has translated, as with Haydn, into a remarkable consistency of quality across genres. You pretty much can’t go wrong with him. I’m going to go against the grain, here, though, and not choose the cello concerto or the New World Symphony, but an old Columbia box of the two piano quartets, the piano quintet and the lovely bagatelles for two violins and harmonium with the Juilliard Quartet and pianist Rudolf Firkusny. This recording is a delight.

Piotr Ilich Tchaikovsky — When I was younger, there was a prejudice against Tchaikovsky. My generation preferred irony and detachment. Tchike was all heart-on-sleeve. And besides, he wasn’t German, which meant he didn’t build his symphonies out of tiny germs of thematic material, like Brahms. We were too sophisticated for Tchaikovsky. We were, of course, stupid. Tchaikovsky was a great composer, a brilliant orchestrator, and put more of himself into his best music than almost anyone. For my pile, I’m going to pick his Sixth Symphony, the “Pathetique.” Everything about it is brilliant, emotionally deep and how can you not love the five-beat “waltz?” 

The performance I choose is Bernstein’s from 1987, with the New York Philharmonic, on DG. It is nearly an hour long (most performances run 40-45 minutes), and with anyone else, that slowness would dissipate all the forward motion of the music, but Lenny manages, even at the crawl, to keep the drive going, and the emotion he wrings from the performance is sui generis. Not to everyone’s taste, but it makes the music an experience, not just a pleasant listen. 

Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov — I can’t live without Scheherazade. It is Rimsky-Korsakov’s greatest bit of tune-making and orchestrating. It is lush and washes over your ears like gentle surf. 

There are some great performances, including Beecham and Stokowski (I have both), but the one I’m gonna keep is Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, not only because it is a delicious recording, but it also includes the most joyous Capriccio Espagnol and the Russian Easter Overture, making it a Rimsky trifecta. 

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This takes us up to the end of the 19th Century. In the next piece, I’ll clean out my 20th and 21st century clutter.

Rheingold

Modern art is so ancient it’s practically a joke. It is older than my great grandmother, and I’m a geezer myself. cubist beethovenThe birth of Cubism, say, is actually closer in time to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony than it is to us.

Modernism was a bender our culture went on; Postmodernism is the hangover we are just now getting over.

Of course, a lot of wonderful art was created in that century, but a lot of piffle was written, too, in support of the theories and ideologies that tried to argue the presumed supremacy of Modernism. Now, we look back at the wreckage and see it all as drunk-talk.

One of the arguments was over what was “appropriate” for any art form: the issue of “medium specificity,” as critic Clement Greenberg called it. Greenberg was one of the greatest pifflers at the bar, holding forth with a stein sloshing in his hand and willing to take on anyone in the bar, if they would just step outside. Here, hold my coat. clement greenburg

The idea was that each variety of art, whether painting, sculpture, theater or poetry, had its proper vocabulary and content. The lines between genres were defensive walls that should not be breached. Good walls make good neighbors, as it were.

All effects borrowed from any other medium should be proscribed, leaving the art form “pure.”  Purity becomes the sign of quality. All foreign effects must be exterminated. Esthetic cleansing, we might call it.

That means, painting must not tell a story; stories belong to literature. Sculpture must work in the round; sculpture that is meant to be seen from a single point of view is borrowing too much from painting and is therefore bad sculpture. Music that attempts to describe a scene is straying from the purity of musical expression and trying to be a picture. “Ut pictura poesis?: Not on my watch.

All this talk of purity makes us cringe now: If nothing else, the 20th century and its wars and pogroms have given the idea of purity some really bad karma.

It hadn’t always been that way: Purity didn’t used to be a shibboleth.

The issue of medium specificity is one of those generational pendulums that swings back and forth over time. nocturne in black and goldThe question is whether each art has a special message that can only be delivered in its language, or whether all the arts have the same message, only tell it in different languages.

The puritanism of the 20th century was a reaction to the promiscuous genre-mixing of the previous century, just as the pervasive tone of irony in the 20th century was an antidote to the cloying sincerity of Victorianism.

In the 19th century, it was clear that art — all art — had a single message, although there was not always agreement on what that message might be. Shelley wrote about this, Baudelaire wrote of the “perfume” of his poetry; Whistler painted “nocturnes,” as if he were Chopin on canvas; Franz Liszt gave concerts that were as much theater as music. (Nowadays, when we hear that a pianist has eliminated the hoopla and “found the music” in Liszt, we can be sure he has completely misunderstood Liszt.)bayreuth

And let’s not forget that it was the 19th century that brought us that greatest of artistic mash-ups, Richard Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk — the use of all the arts at a single blow in a grand design that ultimately included even architecture, in the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth. All set to a single purpose — albeit the purpose may have been the glorification of Wagner himself.

I said this was a pendulum. In the 18th century, a hundred years before Wagner, there was a sentiment, parallel to Greenberg’s, that the arts should not fraternize.

In his 1766 work, Laocoon: An Essay on the limits of poetry and painting, German critic Gotthold Lessing maintained, “that an artwork, in order to be successful, needs to adhere to the specific stylistic properties of its own medium.”Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

He was reacting to the classic line by the Roman poet, Horace, that “ut pictura poesis” — “as is painting, so is poetry” — arguing that these arts are inherently different, because while poetry unfolds in time, painting exists in space (forgetting that in a larger frame, both exist in the mind and imagination).

So, do we now use our scalpels and surgically separate music from poetry, painting from dance, and say unequivocally that what we get from Balanchine rubies balanchinebears no relation to what we get from Philip Roth? Or is there some quality they share that gives them value and worth?

As the pendulum swings back, we recognize that all art is about becoming more fully human, more aware of the world and our place in it. That awareness can be through compassion, through beauty, through politics, or through irony. It saves us from isolation, from ignorance, from emptiness. These are the big issues we face, in contrast, mutable public issues of politics or career are trivial: When we come to the end of our lives, what remains of the fustian of our existence has little to do with annual income or who got elected; it is how much we have loved and been loved, whether we have become larger in our hearts, or shrunken and dried up.

And it is art — in all its various plumage, each of its forms — that provides the imagery to do this. This is their common message.

And purity is a kind of puritanical and sanctimonious defense of the impotent notion of “good taste” that is anathema to the creation of vital art.

It is what Sir Kenneth Clark called the “fatal defect of purity.”

And as Pablo Neruda reminds us in his 1935 essay, Toward and Impure Poetry, “Those who shun the ‘bad taste’ of things will fall flat on the ice.”

rackhambookcovervalkyrie

We live two lives. Everyone does, although we seldom acknowledge it.

The first is the life we know daily, the ordinary life filled with people and things. It is the life of work and fast foods, traffic and journalism. It is a loud, swarming stage, with 7 billion competing egos jostling for their air.

In such a life, it is easy to become submerged, easy to lose our way. The demands of survival and success blind us to the larger, more important issues.

Which is why that second life is so very important. That is the life we recognize when we are alone at night under the starry sky. In this second life, the 7 billion disappear, and we are conscious of only two players: ourselves and the universe — the single, moving, conscious point on the infinite ground.

We become aware in a way we cannot during busier times, that the universe we live in is intensely beautiful and awesome and is driven by a power we cannot conceive of — and what is more, we are a part of it and have been given the chance to participate.

In the first life, we are never more than an extra in a crowd scene, but in the second life, we are each the protagonist in our own autobiography.

Or more exactly, we are each the hero of our own existence.

It is this second life that animates one of the most extraordinary works of art ever conceived, one so huge, multifarious, demanding and overwhelming, that only a few people are willing to invest themselves in it. Those who do, tend to become unbearable to those who have not. They become Wagnerites.

In one way of looking at it, the history of art is a vast pendulum that swings back and forth between works created out of the friction between peoples, on a personal, familial, tribal or national level. The individual and his place among human society. The other extreme is art that examines the individual and his place in nature and the universe. We move from Alexander Pope to William Wordsworth, from The Marriage of Figaro to the Symphonie Fantastique. One shouldn’t have to choose, but the fact is, one’s Zeitgeist chooses for you which paradigm will be most valued during your lifetime.

It is this second life that animates Richard Wagner’s 15-hour quartet of music dramas, The Ring of the Nibelungs. The massive theater-and-music work tells the story of the creation and death of the universe, and the human actions that animate it. If you are looking for a concise story with a coherent plot, turn instead to Bizet or Puccini; Wagner focuses directly on that inner life that pivots under the constellations.

That is why so many people love his music, and why just as many hate it. The Ring is populated with gods and heroes. La Boheme is populated with people. La Boheme is — on the surface, at least — about the first life; The Ring is unapologetically about the second.

There is, in some cultures, the idea of ”The Long Man,” that is, the individual seen as the summation of history: ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny — the one life contains all life.

So that Wagner’s retelling of all of history is also the birth and death of each individual consciousness.

Das Rheingold, the first of the four operas, begins with Eden, a perfect paradise in which the creatures who inhabit it are perpetually in touch with the radiance of nature. The beginning of the opera — and of the cycle — is unprecedented in music history.

alberichandrhinemaidens

It begins with the watery creation of the world, and the composer wrote it in the key of E-flat. The opening of the first of the Ring operas is one of the most astonishing stretches of music in all of history. Wagner holds onto a single E-flat major chord for a full four-and-a-half minutes — 136 bars, longer than some Mozart symphony movements. That is an eternity in music without a change.

It begins in the basses with a deep fundamental note, which breaks slowly into a rising arpeggio on the E-flat chord and slowly speeds up to a crescendo of runs and arpeggios — an immense pile of busy-ness, but without any of the forward sense of motion that harmonic progression provides.

In this, Wagner has provided a musical metaphor of the Hindu concept of maya, or illusion. He had been reading Indian philosophy — albeit in the very German version of Schopenhauer — and his illustration of the idea is perhaps the clearest in art.

Before consciousness, it is said, the mind is like a placid lake reflecting the sky perfectly. But such a state is impossible, for a breeze is inevitable, and it breaks up the surface into ripples and waves, and the sky — eternity — is then reflected individually in every wavelet. Such is creation in Hindu philosophy, where we are all fragmented into individuals by the accident of the animating wind. But the fragmentation is an illusion — maya. The busy play of the world is just a trick; eternity itself is unchanged.

So Wagner shows the indestructible and unmoving E-flat spinning out into a busy surge of notes, building the world into existence.

The idea came to Wagner while he was drowsing, dreaming he had fallen into a rushing stream of water.

”The rushing sound formed itself in my brain into a musical sound, the chord of E-flat major, which continually re-echoed in broken forms,” he wrote. ”These broken chords seemed to be melodic passages of increasing motion, yet the pure triad of E-flat never changed, but seemed by its continuance to impart infinite significance to the element in which I was sinking.

”I awoke in sudden terror from my doze, feeling as though the waves were rushing high above my head. I at once recognized that the orchestral overture to the Rheingold, which must long have lain latent within me, though it had been unable to find definite form, had at last been revealed to me. I then quickly realized my own nature; the stream of life was not to flow to me from without, but from within.”

“Within” — That’s the second life.

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In one of the most prodigious imaginative feats in history, Wagner then managed to create most of the remaining 15 hours of music in his Ring from the initial 4 1/2 minutes of arpeggio — fragmenting it further, turning it upside down and inside out, to generate most of the melodic ideas in his epic.

So that, just as all scales and harmony in Western music are generated through overtones of the fundamental bass note, so all of Wagner’s universe likewise grows from that one, deep vibration.

That “radiance of nature” is also the gold at the bottom of the Rhine river. The three nixies who ”guard” the gold sing its glories.


rackhamrhinemaidens and ring

It is the ”visionary gleam” of childhood that Wordsworth elegized in his Intimations ode.

It is Nature, unsullied by greed and striving, which is the philosophical ground of The Ring. And it is Nature that is disturbed by the theft of the gold by a dwarf, who gives up any hope of love in order to possess the treasure and its power.

rackham rhinegolddwarf

So, love and power are the two poles of the moral universe in The Ring, and they play out against each other for the remaining three operas.

And in the end, the gods die and the world is engulfed in fire and flood. All that survives, at the final notes of the fourth opera, Goetterdaemerung, is the high, hanging violin melody that we have come, in all those hours of music, to associate with the redemptive power of love. It is the final word on life, history and the cosmos, and just as the world is destroyed it provides the hope of the next creation, just as our children provide a hope against our own deaths.

This is more than an entertainment: Wagner is trying to say something genuine about existence and to the extent we are open to his music and ideas, we will value them.

In the second life we all lead, the same two forces play out: career versus family, law versus justice, greed versus generosity, selfishness versus universal love. In each case, the first binds us in pain and frustration and the second redeems us through a connection to the transcendent.

Such an ambitious aim in art is held in great suspicion these days, where too easy a transcendence turns quickly into sentimentality. And a great deal of what followed Wagner is mawkish. We are much more comfortable now with a skeptical irony. After all, Wagner’s grandiosity fed into the rise of Nazism in Germany. Wagner was, after all, Hitler’s favorite composer.

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(Wagner, himself, was an awful man. A ridiculous anti-Semite, a ruthless user of women and patrons, and more than comfortable living the high life on other peoples’ money. Take my word, you wouldn’t have liked him.)

But Hitler looked for the Germanness in The Ring and ignored the humanness. The narrowness of his ideology is the very thing Wotan, the chief god in the operas, comes slowly to understand is the cause of human misery.

We are all, if we are truly sentient beings, on something like Wotan’s learning curve.

There is a great deal in The Ring. It is the single most compendious work of art in European history. Wagner manages to take on rapacious capitalism, national identity, Schopenhauer, Hinduism, mythology and the role of the artist, among other things. There are as many interpretations of The Ring as there are hearers. And that is as it should be.

There are Freudian interpretations, Jungian ones, Marxist readings and neo-Feminist glosses.

Yet, it all comes down, in the end, to an awakened awareness of our second life.

The Ring has its faults; it is not a perfect work of art. It is sometimes dull for stretches as bits of plot are rehashed. Like Rossini said, there are some great moments and some tedious quarter-hours.

And in some sense, it is quite silly to take all this seriously. With its dragons and horn-helmeted Valkyries, its gods and dwarfs — to say nothing of its 200-pound sopranos — it can be hard to see past the adult fairy tale aspect. To some, it is as tedious as a musical version of Tolkien.

Fritz Feinhals Wotan

Yet, the music itself, underlying and amplifying the experience of The Ring, reawakens in us our awareness of our second life, which is ultimately the source of all that is good in life for ourselves and those we love.

Finally, as the critic Longinus says, all great works of art are flawed and we should always prefer flawed greatness to perfect mediocrity.

And make no mistake, The Ring is truly great.

rackham ring circle

A SHORT RETELLING OF THE RING — SO FAR

Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is a four-opera monument to myth, history and psychology. First performed in 1876, The Ring was designed to be played on consecutive days as a single, 15-hour unit, broken up into these four operas, or ”music dramas” as Wagner called them:

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Das Rheingold — In this prelude to the main story, Wotan, the chief of the Viking gods, gains and loses the gold stolen from the Rhine River. The gold confers power on its possessor; unfortunately, it has been cursed and it also confers death. To retrieve the gold for himself, Wotan concocts an elaborate scheme, which plays out in the subsequent operas.

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Die Walkuere — Because he is bound by his own laws not to get the gold himself, Wotan fathers a hero, Siegmund, to do it for him. Siegmund falls in love with his own sister, Sieglinde, and Wotan, again bound by law, is forced to kill Siegmund, but Wotan’s daughter, Brunnhilde — who is a Valkyrie, or divine warrior maiden — saves Sieglinde and her unborn child. For her disobedience, Wotan puts Brunnhilde to sleep on a mountain surrounded by fire.

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Siegfried — Sieglinde’s child, Siegfried, is raised in the forest by a dwarf. The hero kills the dragon that guards the gold and climbs the mountain and awakens Brunnhilde. Wotan’s plan seems to be working, except that Siegfried isn’t really interested in the gold.

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Goetterdaemmerung — The title translates as ”The Twilight of the Gods” and shows the sad end of Wotan’s plan. Siegfried is drugged by the evil half-dwarf Hagen — who also wants the gold — so that he forgets Brunnhilde and plans to marry Hagen’s sister. Brunnhilde feels betrayed and joins with Hagen to kill Siegfried. When she realizes that Siegfried had been tricked, she sings one of the most difficult 20 minutes in opera, and in remorse for her part in the murder, rides her horse into the hero’s funeral pyre, igniting the final conflagration that destroys both the world and the gods. Wotan’s plan has failed, but Wotan has achieved something more valuable than the gold: Wisdom. As the opera closes, hints of the redemptive power of love suggest that the world can start over again with a fresh beginning.

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To unify the sprawling story, Wagner used repeated musical phrases — called leitmotivs, or leading musical ideas — and developed them symphonically over the 15 hours. The music expresses the emotions and thoughts of the characters — sometimes hidden — and the music changes as the characters grow and the plot thickens, helping the audience keep track of what is happening.

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