Coping with crisisThe Triangle Wagner Society is, according to its website, “dedicated to enhancing the knowledge and enjoyment of composer Richard Wagner’s thrilling and profound music.” The Society offers presentations and lectures, performances, and the opportunity for people with an interest in Wagner to come together. It was founded in 2016, and shows the increasingly dynamic cultural firmament of our state.

Wagner societies date back to the early 1870s, the very first one having been founded even before Wagner began his campaign to raise funds for the first Bayreuth festival. The International Association of Wagner Societies, which boasts 147 groups in 45 countries, was founded in 1991. (Our regional society is not currently a member of that association.)

For this Zoom event, William Henry Curry was the guest speaker. Maestro Curry leads the Durham Symphony, where he has been the music director since 2009. For twenty years he was the resident conductor and Summerfest artistic director of the North Carolina Symphony. Many of us – this writer included – would have seen his fine performances leading that orchestra. He is also a composer; in 2016 he led a performance of his own Eulogy for a Dream (1999) based on the words of Dr. Martin Luther King. In 2000, the piece was heard on NPR’s Performance Today.

Curry’s lecture was primarily focused on a rarely-heard piece of Wagner: the American Centennial March, composed (surprise) in 1876. In a life filled with events, the period of composition of this march counts as one of the most extreme and remarkable: Wagner was in the throes of advance preparations for the world premiere of the Ring at Bayreuth, in the opera house he had designed and built specifically for performances of this massive and groundbreaking work. As recounted by Curry, Wagner was at the time seriously interested in emigrating to Minnesota. Perhaps for this reason (and a high-paying commission) Wagner took on the composition of this piece between everything else he was feverishly doing. It was commissioned by Theodore Thomas, the famous conductor who had emigrated from Germany to America as a child and later helped found the Chicago Symphony.

Curry engagingly recounted the story of the piece. He obviously enjoys talking to an audience. Various luminaries floated through: The American Secretary of State at the time, the conductor Hans Richter, Cosima – Wagner’s second wife – and Gluck, whose birthday fell around the time of the Ring festival. There was also mention of a book by Richard Fricke, who recounted first-hand Wagner leading the rehearsals. And there was the funny story about the dragon which was supposed to appear in Siegfried: the body arrived timely; but the head was somehow mailed not to Bayreuth, but to Beirut; it was in the capital of the Mount Lebanon province of the Ottoman Empire when it should have been in the opera house.

It was interesting to hear some of the music from the march. It is a curiosity, Wagner’s last orchestral work, and an absolutely undistinguished piece. The audience heard two segments, which gave a good idea of its content. It is a fanfare for large orchestra. Curry conducted it with the Durham Symphony, and so could give listeners full and immediate knowledge of the music. He suggested, even as a Wagner lover, that though he likes some of the material, in performance he might ideally cut half the piece. (The heresy of it!)

Here and there the music resembles elements from Wagner’s operas. Not mentioned in the lecture was the absence of two key aspects of the composer’s power: his extraordinary use of the orchestra and, in his later music, his intensive chromatic language. Neither was anywhere in evidence. Where the innovative master composer could have made even routine material distinguished in some way, this piece did not. Perhaps no surprise: Wagner was by nature a dramatist, and this piece has no dramatic programme. With the exception of the Siegfried Idyll – itself based on elements of the Ring – no non-vocal-associated music of Wagner has entered the repertory.

One particular aspect of the piece, told engagingly by Curry, enhanced understanding and was entertaining too. It centers around three disconnecting pauses that arise in the middle. There is no indication in the score of what should be done there. Curry found a little-referenced letter by Wagner to Thomas, in which Wagner called for the firing of cannon in those pauses. That makes sense! (Factoid: Tchaikovsky’s famous example, with 16 cannon shots, dates from several years later and was probably not inspired by Wagner.) But again, it is not in the score. The piece was played at an American festival in 1876 (which failed) with no mention of cannon. Up till today, there is no recording – of the few that exist – which includes the cannon. However, Curry’s performance includes them, and it absolutely works. (OK, actually it was a recording of cannon shots chosen by the orchestra’s percussionist. It would have been a disadvantage to fire cannon in the concert hall.)

With that, the last 15 minutes of the one-hour talk – plus a few questions – were devoted to the well-traveled, still controversial topic of Wagner as an anti-Semite. Curry held a mock trial laying out the issues – very good! – and then presented essentially an opinion piece; unlike with the march, there was no material which would have been new to Wagner devotées. But there were interesting personal notes, including that Curry identifies as partly Jewish, via his great grandmother on his mother’s side.

Even as a lover of Wagner whose conducting debut was the Prelude to Die Meistersinger, Curry holds Wagner’s Jew hatred to be indisputable, despite some who disagree. He discussed the dilemma which faces nearly every Wagner lover: how to reconcile disturbing aspects of the man with love of his music. Wagner, said Curry, is worse than others, like Hemingway and Ives, who said racist things. Wagner published, and then republished those hateful views all too reminiscent of the Nazis – the second time when he was a well-known composer under at least some form of patronage from the king of Bavaria, who was no anti-Semite.

Having been to Israel, Curry agrees that it is justified to not perform Wagner’s music there until the last Holocaust survivor has died. He rose to impassioned phrases in addressing what he called the United Haters of America: quit pointing fingers, he said. When you have properly pointed the finger inward, then you may have the right to criticize.

A successful talk like this one, with interesting material and an engaging speaker, recommends the Triangle Wagner Society to anyone who would like to experience discussion and music, and share that with others intrigued by one of the most fascinating composers in our musical history.

Note: We are grateful to TWS and Maestro Curry for permission to share a recording of this talk with our readers. To access it, click on the following link and enjoy: The password, if needed, is maestro515.