Tannhäuser at the Vatican

tannhauser liebig

To finish out the week, here is a particularly exciting performance of Wagner’s Overture to the 1845 opera, Tannhäuser. The clip comes from a special 2005 concert at the Vatican in the presence of Pope Benedict. Christian Thielemann is conducting the Munich Philharmonic.

Tannhäuser is based on two German legends, one involving a singing contest at medieval Wartburg Castle, which sits on a rocky outcrop 1,350 feet above the town of Eisenach. The Overture opens with a quietly noble and unassuming chorale. Just before the curtain rises, the chorale reaches a climax with a heroic statement in the trombones.

Orchestral string players associate Wagner with endless, repetitive, and often physically taxing running passages, which provide dramatic counterpoint to the other musical lines. In this clip, you’ll hear plenty of those exciting moments (listen to the flutter of energy coming from the second violins and violas around 6:10 and the violas and cellos at 9:06). Listen to the way string sequences snake around the chorale melody, beginning at 10:45. These inner voices are an essential part of the overture’s drama and intensity.


Historic Tannhäuser Recordings, Munich and Beyond

Here are a few historic recordings of the Munich Philharmonic playing the Tannhäuser Overture:

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  • Longtime Munich conductor Sergiu Celibidache’s recording
  • Hans Knappertsbusch’s 1962 recording
  • Wilhelm Furtwängler’s 1940 recording with the Berlin Staatskapelle- It’s hard to separate this from the troubling politics of the time and place in which it was recorded, but a great performance, nonetheless.
  • Daniel Barenboim’s 2002 recording with the Berlin Staatskapelle.
  • Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic in a 1975 recording.
  • Bonus: Knappertsbusch’s Die Meistersinger Overture with the Munich Philharmonic


Siegfried Idyll: Wagner’s Musical Love Letter

Wagner's house in Lucerne
Richard Wagner’s villa at Tribschen, near Lucerne, Switzerland.


On Christmas morning, 1870 Cosima Wagner, the wife of Richard Wagner and daughter of Franz Liszt, awoke to the sound of music:

“As I awoke, my ear caught a sound, which swelled fuller and fuller; no longer could I imagine myself to be dreaming: music was sounding, and such music! When it died away, Richard came into my room with the children and offered me the score of the symphonic birthday poem. I was in tears, but so were all the rest of the household. Richard had arranged his orchestra on the staircase, and thus was our Tribschen consecrated forever.”

Siegfried Idyll was simultaneously a grand gesture and an intimate musical love letter. It was Wagner’s combined Christmas and birthday gift to Cosima, as well as a celebration of the recent birth of their son, Siegfried, nicknamed “Fidi”. The original title, Triebschen Idyll with Fidi’s birdsong and the orange sunrise, as symphonic birthday greeting, Presented to his Cosima by her Richard, suggests details in the music which were of personal significance to the couple. A lullaby, Schlaf, Kindlein, schlaf, played by the oboe (4:39, below), may have been linked to Wagner’s oldest daughter, Eva.

Wagner never intended for Siegfried Idyll to be performed publicly, but financial pressures forced him to sell the score to the publisher B. Schott in 1878. In order to accommodate the logistics of the stairway outside Cosima’s bedroom, the original version required a small chamber orchestra of 13 musicians: flute, oboe, two clarinets, bassoon, two horns, trumpet, two violins, viola, cello, and double bass. When Siegfried Idyll was published, Wagner expanded the orchestration to include a larger orchestra.

The opening of Siegfried Idyll seems to emerge out of subconsciousness. You can almost hear the piece waking up at the first light of dawn, gradually finding its way forward. Birdsongs (around 10:32) and horn calls draw us close to nature. At the end of the piece, the calm repose of the prolonged final chord tells us that we’re home.

We often hear a full orchestra version of this piece. Otto Klemperer’s 1961 recording captures the intimacy of the original scoring, giving us an idea of what Cosima Wagner may have heard on Christmas morning:

Many of Siegfried Idyll’s themes originated in an unfinished string quartet. Ultimately, these motives found their way into opera. Listen to the way themes from Siegfried Idyll pop up in the final scene of Siegfried (the opera) and in Siegfried’s Rhine Journey from Götterdämmerung. Listen to the horn line at 6:47 and compare it with the line in Siegfried Idyll around 10:32.

More Recordings

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Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, Reverent and Terrifying

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)
Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)

Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 in E major enters strangely mystical territory. The hushed intensity of its opening string tremolo seems to emerge out of silence. The first movement gradually begins to unfold from an expansive theme which, according to some accounts, came to Bruckner in a dream. It’s simultaneously serene and ghostly, reverent and terrifying. It hints at majestic, awe-inspiring, mysterious, and even frightening aspects of the sacred. In Bruckner’s music we sense the cosmic power of sound, as well as silence.

In the context of history, Bruckner, the slightly eccentric Austrian symphonist and organist (at the monastic church of Sankt Florian near Linz), links the worlds of Schubert and Mahler. Each of his nine mature symphonies represents a persistent attempt to pick up where Beethoven’s monumental and enigmatic Ninth Symphony left off, a daunting task avoided by earlier composers. At the same time, Bruckner’s symphonies, largely misunderstood by audiences when they were first performed, were a radical departure from anything which had come before. In the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians Deryck Cooke writes:

Despite its general debt to Beethoven and Wagner, the “Bruckner Symphony” is a unique conception, not only because of the individuality of its spirit and its materials, but even more because of the absolute originality of its formal processes. At first, these processes seemed so strange and unprecedented that they were taken as evidence of sheer incompetence…. Now it is recognized that Bruckner’s unorthodox structural methods were inevitable…. Bruckner created a new and monumental type of symphonic organism, which abjured the tense, dynamic continuity of Beethoven, and the broad, fluid continuity of Wagner, in order to express something profoundly different from either composer, something elemental and metaphysical…his extraordinary attitude to the world, and the nature of his materials which arose from this attitude, dictated an entirely unorthodox handling of the traditional formal procedures. Sonata form is a dynamic, humanistic process, always going somewhere, constantly trying to arrive; but with Bruckner firm in his religious faith, the music has no need to go anywhere, no need to find a point of arrival, because it is already there…Experiencing Bruckner’s symphonic music is more like walking around a  cathedral, and taking in each aspect of it, than like setting out on a journey to some hoped-for goal. 

Let’s start off by listening to the first movement of the Seventh Symphony. Try closing your eyes the first time through. Listen attentively, staying in the moment as the music gradually unfolds. At times, Bruckner seems to turn the orchestra into a giant pipe organ. He often isolates strings, woodwinds or brass rather than mixing these colors together. Pay attention to the way musical lines fit together, forming interesting contrapuntal shapes. The Seventh Symphony’s musical architecture includes an almost obsessive fascination with inverted counterpoint (voices which mirror each other).

This performance features Sergiu Celibidache conducting the Munich Philharmonic during a 1990 tour of Japan:

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  1. Allegro moderato (0:00)
  2. Adagio. Sehr feierlich und sehr langsam (25:45)
  3. Scherzo. Sehr schnell – Trio. Etwas langsamer (53:47)
  4. Finale. Bewegt, doch nicht schnell (1:05:55)


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The opening of the Seventh Symphony is rooted firmly in the home key of E major, but did you notice how quickly the first theme pulls us away from E towards B major? Even if you didn’t know what was happening specifically, you might have sensed a drama unfolding involving keys and their relationships. In the opening we get a hint of E major, the symphony’s true center of gravity, but amazingly it’s never fully reestablished until the end of the coda (23:42). That’s one reason why the moment when the music “finds E major” is so powerful. On a subconscious level we feel like we’re going home. In The Essence of Bruckner Robert Simpson describes the first movement’s harmonic structure as:

the slow evolution of B minor and B major out of a start that is not so much in as delicately poised on E major [and] the subtle resurgence of the true tonic, not without opposition from the pretender…outward resemblances such as the change from tonic (E) to dominant (B) must not deafen us to the fact that such behavior as we find in this opening section is totally uncharacteristic of sonata [form]. The slow emergence of one key, by persuasion, from a region dominated by another is a new phenomenon in the field of symphony, and the rest of this movement will be heard to reinstate E major in a similar but longer process.

For me, one of the first movement’s most strange and frightening moments is the gradual, ominous crescendo and diminuendo in the coda (21:44). Bruckner marks this passage Sehr feierlich (very solemnly) in the score. The tympani roll on an E pedal tone anticipates the movement’s ultimate resolution to E major (23:42). Listen to the incredible sonic intensity of the final bars. For a moment, focus on each individual voice…the rumble of the tympani’s E pedal, the vibrant energy of the string tremolo, the heroic statement of the opening motive in the horns and trombones, the trumpet fanfares, and the repetitive contrapuntal figure in the violins.

These are just a few highlights from the first movement. Go back and listen again, and then go on to the other three movements. If you feel inspired, share your own thoughts in the thread below.

The Triumph of Inner Voices

Conductor Sergiu Celibidache wants "More viola!"
Sergiu Celibidache wants more viola.

No, this post isn’t about following your intuition…today we’re talking about musical inner voices, those sometimes inconspicuous lines between the melody and the bass, which are often the essence of a piece’s drama. If you have any doubts about the importance of these lines, often played by violas and second violins in orchestral and string quartet repertoire, watch this short but funny clip of conductor Sergiu Celibidache rehearsing the Adagio from Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7. 

Ensemble playing is about teamwork and every part is essential to the whole. Let’s listen to a few orchestra excerpts, which are great examples of the power of inner voices.


Take a moment and think about all of your Facebook friends or cell phone contacts. Could you imagine music which would fit each personality? English composer Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) wrote a series of variations on this original theme, each depicting one of his friends. He assigned each variation a cryptic title, leaving audiences to guess who was being represented. The piece has commonly come to be known as the Enigma Variations. The variations run the gamut from lighthearted to fiery. One of the most famous and memorable parts of the piece is Variation IX, a moving chorale dedicated to Elgar’s publisher and close friend, August Jaeger. Listen carefully to the inner voices. Pay attention to the contour of the lines and the way they fit together. Listen for moments of harmonic tension:


Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” 

Tchaikovsky’s final work, Symphony No. 6 “Pathétique”, features a triumphantly rousing third movement, followed by a Finale which sinks into the deepest despair (Adagio lamentoso – Andante). What’s interesting is the way Tchaikovsky chooses to write the opening theme of the final movement. As a listener, you might make the logical assumption that the first violins play the prominent descending scale line (F-sharp, E, D, C-sharp, B, C-sharp). But the actual opening line for the first violins is B, E, G-sharp, C-sharp, E-sharp, C-sharp. It sounds pretty strange when played by itself. The second violin part has similar jumps. So who has the famous melody? It turns out that the melody and inner voices alternate back and forth between the first and second violins. Today the second violins in an orchestra typically sit next to the firsts, but in Tchaikovsky’s day, the seconds faced the firsts on the other side of the stage (where the cellos usually are now). Tchaikovsky achieved the nineteenth century equivalent of surround sound.

In this performance, conducted by Valery Gergiev, the second violins are seated across from the firsts:


Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony

In the final movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, a seemingly insignificant inner voice becomes the star of the show. Listen to the supporting voice at 1:11, which mirrors the top voice in contrary motion. As the development section begins, we hear it again (4:28), then more prominently in the trombones. Listen as this inner voice is transformed into a powerful, heroic proclamation played by the whole orchestra (5:28).

What are your favorite inner voices? Share your own listening suggestions in the thread below.