Tuesday, June 21, 2011

June 21: Looking for Meaning in Trivial Events

I look for meaning in everything.  Whenever I see something peculiar I try to find out why it is so; why it must be so.  At my last consultation with my psychotherapist, Abbas Jama, M.D., on June 17, 2010, he pointed out that finding the meaning of things is important to me.  I prefer not to dismiss trivial events as insignificant.  Even trivial events must have meaning.

With the exquisite quintet in the third act of  Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg ("Blessed, as the sun"), Wagner used an ensemble style that he had not employed since his early opera Lohengrin.  Wagner eschewed ensemble writing in his later operas.  He believed that ensembles -- trios, quartets, quintets, and the like -- impeded the dramatic flow; in an ensemble the characters stand still on the stage and embark on what might be termed a group soliloquy.  For Wagner the dramatic rhythm was everything.  Opera, in Wagner's theory, should flow from beginning to end like a play.  In Wagner's mind ensembles in opera had no dramatic purpose; they did not advance the story, rather, their existence was justified by the composer's need to express himself musically.

Why did Wagner include a quintet in Meistersinger?  Most authors who have considered the question, such as Wagner biographer Robert W. Gutman, have said that the Meistersinger quintet is simply an atavism: a throwback to an earlier operatic style.  Wagner, the composer, wanted to express himself musically, so Wagner the composer triumphed over Wagner the theorist and dramatist.

I would offer a different explanation.

The third act of Meistersinger takes place on June 21, the day on which the summer solstice occurs. Solstice, from the Latin for sun stands still, in astronomy, is either of the two points on the ecliptic that lie midway between the equinoxes (separated from them by an angular distance of 90°).

At the solstices (winter or summer) the sun's apparent position on the celestial sphere reaches its greatest distance above or below the celestial equator, about 23 1/2° of arc. At the time of summer solstice, around June 20 or 21, the sun is directly overhead at noon at the Tropic of Cancer.

For several days before and after each solstice the sun appears to stand still in the sky, i.e., its noontime elevation does not seem to change from day to day.

Perhaps Wagner wanted to express the idea of the solstice symbolically in the drama of Meistersinger; perhaps he wanted to embed the idea of standing still into the fabric of the play.  And the quintet in the third act was employed as the musical means to that end.  The characters standing still in the ensemble was the most potent way of expressing the dramatic theme of the sun appearing to stand still in the sky.

But then, I tend to attach a meaning to trivial events.  It's part of my psychopathology.  See Freedman v. D.C. Department of Human Rights, D.C.C.A. no. 96-CV-961 (Sept. 1, 1998)!

Wagner may have been an attention seeker, but the dramatist in him knew what he was doing!


Gary Freedman said...

The Siegfried Idyll, one of Richard Wagner's few non-operatic works, is a symphonic poem for chamber orchestra lasting approximately twenty minutes. Wagner composed it as a birthday present to his second wife, Cosima, after the birth of their son Siegfried on June 6, 1869. It was first performed on the morning of Christmas Eve (Cosima's birthday) in 1870 by a small ensemble on the stairs of their villa at Tribschen (today part of Lucerne) in the Canton of Lucerne, Switzerland; Cosima awoke to its opening melody. Today, it is often performed in Wagner's full orchestral version.
Its original title was Triebschen Idyll with Fidi's birdsong and the orange sunrise. "Fidi" was the pet version of the name Siegfried. It is thought that the birdsong and the sunrise refer to incidents of personal significance to the couple.

The opening theme of the piece is a variation of the opening of the Meistersinger quintet, "Blessed, as the Sun."

Gary Freedman said...

Wagner's Siegfried Idyll was featured in the television series Curb Your Enthusiasm. During episode 13, "Trick or Treat", Larry David is chastised by a Jewish neighbor for whistling the tune to his wife, Cheryl. However, Larry unashamedly tells Cheryl of Wagner's romantic story, and recreates the loving gesture on her birthday at the end of the episode.

Larry David is a friend of Jerry Seinfeld's who did TV commercials for American Express -- on whose Board of Directors Akin Gump counsel Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., Esq. sits.

Gary Freedman said...


Katherine Syer said...

I've recently come across an unpublished document that records Cosima explaining that Wagner wanting to jettison the quintet as soon he had written it but she successfully urged him to keep it.

Katherine Syer said...

that Wagner wanted