Menu West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

  • Musician perspectives: Wagner

Musician perspectives: Wagner

Violinist Asaf Levy shares his perspective on Wagner, whose Vorspiel und Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde and Ouverture from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg will be performed at the Waldbühnenkonzert, 25 August.

To write about Wagner – even just to think about him – strikes me as odd; for it seems as though everything has already been said, as though every possible position, every perspective, has already been precisely defined. To each his own Wagner. And to each his presumption as to what anybody else’s Wagner might be.

Nonetheless do I struggle to define such a precise position for myself, a Jewish Israeli, a musician, somebody who has chosen Berlin as his home.

The two pieces we will play at the Waldbühne capture perfectly the essence of this struggle. They reveal the unique difficulty in “grasping” Richard Wagner. They expose the polarity of his work as much as the polarity of his effect.

On the one hand: The Overture of the Meistersinger von Nürnberg. A work that is opulent, pompous, festive, and – dare I say – fascist. I am weighed down by the knowledge that this piece accompanied at least some of the victims of the Holocaust on their way to the gas chamber. So instead I try to escape cultural memory into the musical themes sounding in the Overture, which will develop over the course of the opera.

On the other hand: The Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. In contrast to these two pieces, the dominating C-major of the Overture from the Meistersinger sounds almost primitive in its pompous simplicity. Both the Prelude as well as the Liebestod are of great complexity. The Prelude departs from nothingness; the Liebestod culminates in catharsis.

And yet, over the course of these works an immense field of tension builds; one that is in no way inferior to the field of tension characterising “Wagner” as a cultural phenomenon. In these pieces, Wagner stretches the boundaries of dynamics, sound and harmony, amounting to a veritable emotional rollercoaster. I think Der Liebestod is entirely deserving of its title. There is hardly another work which probes into this fundamental – and extreme – facet of the human condition with such noble beauty.

So how then should we approach Wagner’s complexity, which becomes so apparent in his musical richness and density, as well as the almost vulgar simplicity of the Meistersinger Overture?

Perhaps there lies a category error trying to “grasp”, to capture, Wagner intellectually. For the truth is that Wagner captures us, the musicians, and the audience. The intensity of his work grips us and leaves us suspended in another world; one of light and darkness, of extremes and polarities. In the end, Wagner, to me, is something like a drug experience. Before I began playing his music and studying his work in depth, I thought of him as something mysterious, questionable, threatening, almost dangerous. But, as with every good drug, I quickly found myself hooked.