by Madelaine Jones
Call me a philistine, but I have never liked Wagner. I tried watching Tristan and Isolde on DVD and gave up – the shrill of an over-bearingly loud soprano hovering somewhere between Romanticism and atonality almost sent me into convulsive fits. The thought of sitting through the entire ‘Ring Cycle’ made me shiver with boredom. I found his style over-indulgent and lacking substance, and since I never really understood the appeal of the composer or what he was trying to achieve, I never really got to understand or enjoy the compositions – that is, until I found his piano works.
Turns out Richard Wagner’s earlier exploits into composition were not as overly expansive and luxurious harmonically as we’ve grown to expect when we hear the name. His Opus 1, it turns out, was a piano sonata, and even more surprisingly, one you could well be forgiven for mistaking at first for early Beethoven/late Haydn, despite the odd Romantic turn of phrase in places. In fact, by the very nature of the key it is written in (B flat was a particularly favourable of Beethoven’s, the key of both his ‘Grand’ Sonata, op. 22, and the famous ‘Hammerklavier’, op. 106) and some tongue-in-cheek quotes from other works (within a few bars of the second movement, note the reference to the beginning of Beethoven’s Eb major sonata, Op. 31/3) show that Wagner clearly had a far deeper respect for the Classical era than most people credit him with.
This new side to Wagner got me interested: if he was not so outlandishly Romantic and over-expressive as I had first considered him, what other gems of his piano music were out there and why hadn’t we heard of them? Next, I stumbled across the Fantasia in F sharp Minor, written in the same year (1831). The opening ringing of the chords instantly struck a resemblance to the famous Mozart Fantasy in D Minor and so I was fascinated and continued listening. The lyrical and poignant recitative passages interspersed with expressive melodies and tormented chordal cries grabbed me as something incredibly beautiful, but also well-crafted and poised. I continued looking: the delightfully cheeky Polka, so full of character given its brevity, the stately Polonaises, the sentimental Albumblatt for E.B. Kietz (interestingly subtitled a ‘Lied Ohne Worte’ – maybe his respect was abundant towards Mendelssohn as well, though the more Romantic lilt to this piece might suggest otherwise!) all struck me as wonderful music that’s been brushed under the carpet.
So why, if this music is so fantastic, do we not play it or hear it anymore? Why is this side of Wagner kept hidden? The answer to that, I would hazard a guess, is that most of these piano works were fairly early in Wagner’s output – in his 70 years of life (1813-1883), the majority of his piano works were composed in the first half, and once his success in the world of opera kicked in, he seemed less inclined to compose piano music, instead favouring more expansive mediums of composition. Since his style then blossomed into a much more experimental breed of High Romanticism, the simplicity of his earlier works became unduly neglected by listeners. Despite being less outlandish, I think the pieces themselves are absolutely charming, and deserved to be remembered, if not only for their artistic merit, but also to give us an insight into the thinking of a clearly multi-faceted composer, who is most certainly not insensitive and over-indulgent as I first thought. Now I have a far better appreciation of his genius, I might even hazard giving Tristan another go…
Sonata in Bb, Op. 1, WWV 21 (1st movement)
Fantasia in F sharp minor, WWV 22
Albumblatt to E.B. Krietz
Madelaine Jones is currently a student at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, studying piano and harpsichord with Penelope Roskell and James Johnstone respectively. She was the winner of the Gladys Puttick Improvisation Competition 2012 with duo partner and dancer, Adam Russell. Her ensemble experience as a pianist has included working alongside the BBC Singers, the Medway Singers and the Walderslade Primary School Choir, and she has performed as a harpsichordist and chamber organist in the Greenwich International Early Music Festival alongside Trinity Laban’s various Early Music Ensembles. Madelaine is a recent recipient of an LCM London Music Schools and Teachers Award, and is also a keen writer in her spare time.