Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Describe that Tune

Thomas Mann (translated by John E. Woods) describes (without naming) Wagner's Prelude to Act III of Die Meistersinger (you can listen to it here) in Doctor Faustus:
The cellos intone all by themselves a somber, pensive theme that questions the world's folly in a forthright and highly expressive philosophical "why" addressed to our hustle and bustle, our hounding and harrying. The cellos enlarge on this for a while, shaking their wise heads in regret over this riddle, and at a given, carefully considered point in their comments, the wind instruments, after a preparatory deep breath that causes shoulders to rise and fall again, enter with a chorale, stirringly solemn, splendidly harmonized, and played with all the muted dignity and gently constrained power of brass. With that, the sonorous melody pushes forward, approaching its highpoint, but, in accordance with the law of economy, avoids it for now, dodges, leaves an opening, leaves it aside, recedes, lingers very beautifully right there, but then steps back and makes room for another theme, a simple folk tune, jesting and pompous, apparently coarse by nature, but as shrewd as they come, too, and, when subjected to a few seasoned devices of orchestral analysis and coloration, proves amazingly capable of interpretation and sublimation. There is now some clever and sweet dandling with the little tune for a while; it is taken apart, each of its segments observed and transformed, and one charming figure in the middle voices is lifted to most magical heights, to the spheres of the violins and flutes, is cradled there for a while yet, until, at its most flattering moment, the gentle brass again announces the chorale from before, steps into the foreground, avoiding the long preparation of its first statement and entering not at the beginning, but as if the melody had already been there for a while, and now moves solemnly toward that same highpoint from which it wisely refrained the first time, so that the 'Ah!' effect, the surge of emotion is all the greater, when, ascending ruthlessly and supported by harmonic passing tones from the bass tuba, the brass gloriously bestrides the theme and then, gazing back, so to speak, with worthy satisfaction on what it has accomplished, sings its way modestly to the end.

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