Wagner: You either love him, or hate him!

Getting tickets for the FIFA World Cup is nothing to getting tickets for the Bayreuth Festival of Wagner operas. Mark Twain heard Parsifal there in 1891, but having got in, he couldn’t wait to get out.

BayreuthThe application process for tickets to Bayreuth used to involve applying several years in a row, moving up the waiting list each time before getting lucky. It’s hit and miss, although for most performances a few tickets are sold on the day. Tickets currently cost anything from 45 Euros in the Gallery (few seats and at the very back of the auditorium) to 320 Euros in the Stalls. Only some 200 seats cost less than 100 Euros.

Wagner’s three-act opera Parsifal is loosely based on a 13th-century epic poem about the Arthurian knight Percival and his quest for the Holy Grail. Wagner began it in 1857 and finished it in 1882, having left off in order to compose Tristan and Isolde and The Mastersingers of Nuremberg. For the first 20 years, Parsifal was only staged at Bayreuth. Apparently, Wagner wanted to ensure that it was performed in the way he intended – a tradition maintained by his wife, Cosima, long after his death – and that it would be a nice little earner for his family.

ParsifalMark Twain recounted his experience of hearing Parsifal in a long travel letter called “Mark Twain at Bayreuth” or alternatively “At the Shrine of St Wagner”. It was published by the Chicago Daily Tribune and was the occasion for one of his famous diatribes against Wagnerian singing.

“The entire overture, long as it was, was played to a dark house with the curtain down. It was exquisite; it was delicious. But straightway thereafter, or course, came the singing, and it does seem to me that nothing can make a Wagner opera absolutely perfect and satisfactory to the untutored but to leave out the vocal parts. I wish I could see a Wagner opera done in pantomime once. Then one would have the lovely orchestration unvexed to listen to and bathe his spirit in, and the bewildering beautiful scenery to intoxicate his eyes with, and the dumb acting couldn’t mar these pleasures, because there isn’t often anything in the Wagner opera that one would call by such a violent name as acting; as a rule all you would see would be a couple of silent people, one of them standing still, the other catching flies.”

TwainDespite the fact that later in the same week Twain returned to hear other performances, he was not going to lose the chance to amuse his reading public:

“I was not able to detect in the vocal parts of Parsifal anything that might with confidence be called rhythm or tune or melody; one person performed at a time – and a long time, too – often in a noble, and always in a high-toned, voice; but he only pulled out long notes, then some short ones, then another long one, then a sharp, quick, peremptory bark or two – and so on and so on; and when he was done you saw that the information which he had conveyed had not compensated for the disturbance… Singing! It does seem the wrong name to apply to it. Strictly described, it is a practicing of difficult and unpleasant intervals, mainly. An ignorant person gets tired of listening to gymnastic intervals in the long run, no matter how pleasant they may be. In Parsifal there is a hermit named Gurnemanz who stands on the stage in one spot and practices by the hour, while first one and then another character of the cast endures what he can of it and then retires to die.”

Twain would not have known that Parsifal is one of only two works by Wagner (the other being the Symphony in C) in which the composer makes use of a contrabassoon. Nor that the sound of bells summoning the knights to the Grail ceremony was produced by a specially fashioned stringed instrument combined with gongs in an attempt to replicate the timbre of church bells. Even if available, genuine bronze bells might have drowned out the singing – something Mark Twain would have appreciated.

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