March 13, 2016

Dum-Dum-de-Dum: Young Wagner's weird rhythmic obsession

On the count of three, clap your hands to the rhythm of the first four notes of "Hail to the Chief".
Ready? One, two, THREE:
Good job! Try another one, a famous bit of Wagner: the "Bridal Chorus" from Lohengrin:
You're really good at this. (I'm a shameless suck-up...) You probably picked up on the fact that both ditties are built on the same rhythmic motive. Lohengrin was the third of the three early Wagnerian operas that have entered the standard repertoire. The second, Tannhäuser, features a lyrical aria for Wolfram, "Du mein holder Abendstern". which opens like this:
The meter is different, but it still sounds like "dum-dum-de-dum", so it's essentially the same motive.

But my subject these days is The Flying Dutchman, and here the "dum-dum-de-dum" rhythm puts us hip-deep into an odd phenomenon:
A motif that has no meaning.
Richard Wagner
That's not how we're used to thinking of Wagner! As his craft matured and he committed more to his "music of the future" style, his operas became a spider's web of interwoven motifs (often called leitmotifs though that wasn't his term) both rhythmic and melodic, representing people, gods, objects or concepts.

On the other hand, Dutchman is almost completely dominated by examples of the "Bridal Chorus" rhythm. It is frequently sung by the Dutchman, Senta, Daland and Eric. But to what end? Get a load of these examples. And trust me, by no means am I citing each instance in Dutchman; to do so would become tediously lengthy. But you need to see how obsessively it appears!

In the Dutchman's great monologue "Die Frist ist um", after the recitative and an opening tempestuous section venting his rage and frustration, comes an especially intense expression of brooding bitterness marked "Maestoso". These thirty-four bars are like the slow movement of this multi-movement solo. Over tremolo strings, the Dutchman begins a plea for mercy:
Each four-bar phrase begins with the rhythmic motive, if occasionally double-dotted.

During the ensuing episode in which the Dutchman encounters Daland and expresses his interest in the Captain's daughter, his vocal line is peppered with the motive; here are a few instances;

For his part, Daland, whose initial rhythmic utterances were free of "dum-dum-de-dum" finally gets in the spirit of the motive:
And by the end of Act 1, Daland's instructions to his crew to weigh anchor are accompanied by an orchestral tune that shows he's given in to the rhythm:
Senta is on board with "dum-dum-de-dum" even before her tete-a-tete with the Dutchman; the "Piu lento" section of her ballade, which symbolizes her sacrifice, serves it up on a platter:
When Erik (the suitor in whom Senta has lost interest) shows up to pitch a little woo, he does so in a plaintive solo. Note how the rhythm appears twice in this passage:
When Papa Daland arrives with the Dutchman in tow, every phrase of the first section begins with this rhythmic pattern:

When the two love birds are finally alone to gaze in wonder at one another, their duet is a slow-motion ping-pong game of "dum-dum-de-dum", trading the motif back and forth:

Well, look - IF you are still reading this (and, in your shoes, I'm not sure I still would be), you long since got the idea, and I'm skipping Act 3 because ENOUGH! Again, I've shown you about 10% of all the examples of "dum-dum-de-dum" which are planted throughout the score.

My question: WHY, WHY, WHY?! Does it MEAN anything?

I can't see how. This motive cannot have a symbolic meaning; it can't stand for anything. Too many characters sing it in too many unrelated dramatic contexts.

I think Wagner just thought it was a fine way to begin a melody, that's what I think. As his technique matured and he gained confidence in his art, old-fashioned melodic phrases built on "dum-dum-de-dum" took a back seat to the aforementioned spider's web of leitmotifs. That said, it's worth noting that the Overture to Die Meistersinger revives "dum-dum-de-dum" in grand fashion.

Did Wagner realize how much he was relying on this rhythm? Was its overuse (in my opinion) a deliberate device somehow? Did he imagine himself the New Beethoven, imagining that perhaps "dum-dum-de-dum" would become his calling card in the way that so much of Beethoven is built on the grundgestalt of four notes as in the Fifth Symphony?

If so, he found a much, much better calling card.

No comments:

Post a Comment