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I was whiling away a Saturday morning listening to Wagner's first finished opera, Die Feen — in preparation for my next book, Wagnerism, I'm going through the operas one by one — when a loud D-minor chord in Act II stopped me short. Namely, this:

Arindal, a king in love with the fairy Ada, has been put to a test: he must not curse his beloved, no matter what horrors she appears to have committed. When Ada seems to hurl their children into a flaming abyss, he fails. "Verruchtes Weib, sei denn verflucht!" he cries. "Wicked woman, you are cursed!" To symbolize this unfortunate turn of events, the harmony lurches from F-sharp major to D minor, an alarming sequence because the two chords have no notes in common. At the age of twenty, Wagner is already beginning to discover his characteristic harmonic wizardry. I thought of the Tarnhelm motif, among other eerie combinations of chords. But I also thought of this:

"Du bist verflucht!": Jochanaan's curse in Strauss's Salome. The lurch this time is from F major (or F dominant seventh) to C-sharp minor — different chords, same major-third plunge. Moreover, the voicing of the curse is remarkably similar:

What are the chances that Strauss not only knew but remembered in detail this long-neglected early opera of Wagner? As it happens, pretty good; when Die Feen had its belated world premiere, in Munich, in 1888, the young Richard Strauss conducted the rehearsals. "Wagner's lion's paw is already quite strong," he remarked.

Recordings: 1) Linda Esther Gray and John Alexander, with Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting the Bavarian Radio Orchestra, Orfeo 062 833; 2) José van Dam, with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, EMI 67159. The parts for the 1888 premiere can be viewed here.

8 years ago | Read Full Story
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