Amazingly, I hit 3.30 this Saturday afternoon, and I’d knocked over all the urgent jobs I had to do. So I’ve been spending the afternoon doing relaxing things that I enjoy doing. It’s been a remarkably nice afternoon.

The point of all that is that I gave some thought to blogging and thought that maybe if I made an attempt to just review one thing a week, the task wouldn’t be so overwhelming. That way, I could give some thought to what was the most remarkable piece of culture I consumed in a week, and could give it some thought, rather than trying to review everything. I mean, after all, if you really want to know what else I’ve been watching or listening to, you could always ask, couldn’t you?

So I thought I’d kick this vague attempt at jump-starting my blog back to life again with a review of possibly one of the more bizarre programs created for TV – the 1983 miniseries “Wagner”.

1983 was the 100th anniversary of the death of the composer, Richard Wagner, so this documentary was timely when it came out. The original version (or “the complete epic”, as you can see in this picture) was about 9 hour longs.

However, I just put up this picture, because there’s actually no image on the net that matches the version I watched, which is a cut-down DVD (now out of print) that runs for a rather more modest 5 1/2 hours instead. (That’s far more likely to make you watch it, isn’t it?) So maybe part of the bizarreness is the fact that I’m missing 2-3 hours worth of material. It could well be, because having seen it twice (the first time was several years ago on video), I still shake my head at how obscure and difficult to follow some moments are. I know a little bit about the life of Richard Wagner, which helps, but woe betide anybody watching this thing cold.

Why is this show so bizarre?

For starters, nobody seems to want to take ownership over it. With most old TV shows, directors, cameramen, etc are all keen to crawl out of the woodwork to mumble commentaries and tell inane stories on extra features whenever a show is released on DVD. Not so Wagner. It’s quite clear that my cut-down version has just been copied straight onto DVD from the video tape version I watched. (And I understand the American version pictured here is no better.) So effectively, we’re left with sound and video that date from the VHS era. Which studio owns the rights to this? Does no one have the original negative? Where’s the director?

Well, actually, I know he’s around. You can visit his website. But it seems the studios haven’t bothered to call upon him to help out in bringing this thing to DVD. Hmm . . . Maybe I should send him an email. I might just do that when I’ve finished this.

Anyway, Wagner. For those of you who have no idea who Wagner is, you can skip the next couple of paragraphs. For those of you who have no idea who Wagner is and don’t even care, skip the whole review. It’s not going to get any more interesting from here on in.

Richard Wagner was one of the most radical music composers to come out of the 19th century. He composed several major operas over his lifetime, including the amazing Ring of the Nibelungs, which consists of four operas that are meant to be performed across the space of a week. In total, there’s about 15-16 hours worth of opera in the Ring.

Wagner continues to be one of the most unusual composers that ever lived, because his personality and music were so extreme. The man himself was a complete egotist, who believed that the world revolved around him, and that as a great artist, he should be denied nothing that he needed. So, it comes as no surprise that he cheated heavily on his first wife, stole his second wife from another man (who, in a bizarre twist, still continued to be devoted to the composer) and generally left a trail of debts and scandals in his wake. In the second half of his life, things took an even more dramatic turn, when King Ludwig of Bavaria (barely out of his teens) became so enamoured of Wagner and his music, that he poured large amounts of the country’s money into funding Wagner’s operas. This caused no small upset in the nation.

But, at the same time, standing alongside these massive character flaws, the music Wagner composed has an extraordinary power and emotion to it. (I say it in the present tense, because to this day, Wagner’s music still stirs audiences in a way that most composers do not. Wagner fans will think nothing of traveling the world to see a performance of the Ring live. They will do this for no other opera.) While Wagner does have a tendency to drag on in some parts, when he hits his high points, they are among the most spine-tingling moments of theatre you will ever see or hear.

But, at the same time, there’s a disturbing trend towards immorality that bypasses us in the music. The epic Tristan & Isolde, which tells of a knight who falls in love with a princess betrothed to someone else. To an audience in the late 1800s, this was as good as committing adultery, but Wagner’s music makes us buy into the romance straight away. In the Ring, he was to feature all sorts of incest and philandering, but his music convinces us that love is much more important than law.

Some might say, we should throw out his music on that basis – and also on the far more disturbing basis that his music became a favourite of the Nazis several decades after his death. But his music, on its own, is so majestic and beautiful, that it has become part of our culture. Even if you don’t know Wagner, you know movie soundtracks, and we wouldn’t have things like the Star Wars theme if it wasn’t for Wagner.

So back to the miniseries. How do you portray a man like this? As a hero? A ratbag? Tony Palmer does the film in the only way I think you can do it – as the man was. We watch Wagner’s life unfold, portrayed by the extremely watchable and eccentric Richard Burton. Burton was in the last few years of his life when he made this, so he looks a wee bit old to be playing the young revolutionary Wagner in Dresden, but by the time we get to the familiar mutton-chopped figure we’re familiar with from the pictures, he’s completely convincing.

The next bizarre thing is the dialogue. You don’t realise until you see something like Wagner what a complete joke most “period costume drama” films are. As a general rule, in most of these films, we’re watching thoroughly modern people wearing old clothes. Not so Wagner. I would say the dialogue comes largely from Wagner’s writing, because I couldn’t see such complex and lengthy monologues being made up by a screenwriter . . . again, maybe I should email Tony Palmer and ask him.

Every five minutes or so, we seem to see Wagner ranting about something. How brilliant he is. How music needs to change. The fact that he wants a united Germany. How much he hates Jews. The point is made quite clear that the roots of Nazism were alive and well in this man. Every now and again, a moment will occur when you think, “Oh, he’s not so bad,” and then another jaw-dropping piece of anti-Semitism will come out, and you’ll change your mind again.

So why would anyone want to watch this guy for six hours? . . . For exactly the same reason that we go to his operas. . . the music. Ranging from the quiet and sublime to raging and ominous through to majestic and soaring, there’s just something in Wagner’s music that catches our ears. Certainly, there were scenes in this series that just had me transfixed, just because of the power of the music.

Very well conducted by the famous Georg Solti, the music blasts through most of the scenes. Combine that the with the cinematography of Vittorio Storaro (of Apocalypse Now fame), and you have a morally disturbing, striking looking and gorgeously sounding piece of art.

In the end, it’s hard to say what I think of it. I don’t love Wagner any better than before. I don’t actually think I’m meant to. But, at the same time, if you told me that you were going to burn all his music and any recordings of it, I’d be pretty heartbroken. What does this mean? I can’t explain it beyond the fact that there is a certain transcendent power to music that can cross all sorts of barriers.

4 out of 5.

3 thoughts on “DVD Review: Wagner

  1. Hi Matt

    never truly spent any time to listen to Wagner’s works, maybe you can recommend a few pieces of his works to me. it is very interesting to read your review. can I link your blog to mine if you don’t mind?



  2. Hi Allan! The link will be fine. With regards to works of Wagner’s, there’s two approaches:

    1. You can listen to some orchestral highlights, and see what you think that way.

    2. You can try listening to a complete opera on CD, or watch one on DVD.

    For people who are timepressed, I recommend option 1, but option 2 is worth doing at some stage, because you really get the full effect of Wagner when you hear his music in its original context.

    However, famous one-off pieces I would recommend are:

    a) The Ride of the Valkyries (just because it’s his most famous piece)

    b) The Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin (absolutely gorgeous)

    c) The Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin (could be played over the top of a rugby league commercial and would fire the blood of every one watching it)

    d) The amazing prelude to Das Rheingold, which grows out of a single note into a rushing sound representing the Rhine river.

    e) Siegfried’s funeral march from Gotterdammerung – far and away the greatest funeral march ever composed

    f) the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde

    g) the final minutes of Parsifal

    h) There’s also the ending to Gotterdammerung, the final opera in the four-opera series, Der Ring des Nibelungen. It’s an amazing piece of music, however, I really recommend that you only listen to it when you’ve listened to the 15 hours of opera that have gone before it, because otherwise it’s a bit like giving yourself a payrise without doing any work, or a treat without having earned it.

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