Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Iron, Glass & Wagner

Iron & glass architecture had a very strange relationship with music. This played out in a number of different ways, some of which I discuss in the manuscript for my book, or have written about here in the past. Take the 'discordant display of loyalty' as the two organs at either end of the Hyde Park palace failed to play 'God Save the Queen' in time with each other, or the very first recorded music, created by the Edison Gramophone Company at the gigantic Handel festivals which were held triennially at the Sydenham Crystal Palace. Listen to it again here, because it's absolutely stunning, if you're interested in that sort of thing.

On the other hand, another aspect of the musical life of the late 19th century was revealed to me during my studies, as my searches for material threw up more and more cheap and cheerful fodder, otherwise thankfully lost. The British Library has reams and reams of throwaway Victorian sheet music, all compiled into big fat volumes, all of it dirge, and in a few cases composed in honour of some new edifice that had just been thrown up. Hence 'the Albert Palace Grand March' above, one of two pieces composed in honour of the ill-fated iron & glass building off Battersea Park, which I previously depicted in what you might call a quasi-ruined state, driving friends, colleagues and lovers to near-total distraction.

So imagine my surprise when, inamongst the vulgar kitsch of Crystal Palace Waltzes and such like, I found the following passage, regarding the Philadelphia Exhibition of 1876:
“The Women’s Centennial Executive Committee […] commissioned the Centennial Inauguration March from Richard Wagner which was played at the opening ceremony on 10 May 1876. Joseph Wilson, Henry Petit’s Partner, felt that ‘to one who is an enthusiastic admirer of Wagner, it must be confessed that it is somewhat disappointing. Still, it is Wagner. None can dispute that. The grand clashes, swelling up and up until they almost overtop the heaven’s themselves’”.

Allwood, John. The Great Exhibitions. London : Studio Vista, 1977, p.54

Was this some example of a decent piece of music being composed to go along with an iron & glass building? Well, I had a look at it when in the library, and I must say that, lo and behold, it wasn't particularly impressive. In fact, it was as dirge-like as any other piece of shit throwaway music from the period. (If you have access to spotify you can hear all thirteen achingly dull minutes of it here). Indeed - Allmusic have an interesting anecdote about the piece:

Meanwhile, the United States was preparing to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and, at Christmas 1875, commissioned Wagner to compose a commemorative march for the occasion. By February 1876 it was completed, as music for the Flower Maidens in Parsifal sprang to mind -- perhaps they wanted to be Americans, he quipped. Wagner was obviously correct when he said of this vacuously pompous effusion that the best thing about it was the $5,000 he was paid for it, which funded -- despite a festival deficit of 150,000 marks -- an Italian vacation.

From here.

So we have here two opposed logics regarding the music of the exhibition palaces. On the one hand the music that accompanied them was altogether vulgar and unrefined, totally in keeping with the pomp and naivety of their popular reception, but on the other hand we can look back and collect reverberations, echoes and distorted memory artefacts, coming to understand the haunted qualities of their musical cultures, much as we understand the strange dreaminess of their spatial qualities, both dream qua hope and dream qua phantasm, in accordance with Walter Benjamin's analysis.

But in fact, we have not yet exhausted Wagner's contribution to iron & glass and its cultures. First I'd like to note here his minor appearance in Kenneth Frampton's excellent 1970s essay Industrialisation and the Crises in Architecture, where Wagner comes to represent a similar bourgeois reaction to industrialisation (which Frampton describes as 'The Crisis of 1851'):

In short, Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk became the aesthetic model for a wholesale bourgeois retreat from the barbarisms of an industrialised world. From Morris’ Red House, built at Bexley Heath in 1859, to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde of the same date was but a step.

Oppositions reader : selected readings from a journal for ideas and criticism in architecture, 1973-1984 New York : Princeton Architectural Press, c1998. p.51

In this case Wagner strongly represents the whole-hearted rejection of technology, and of course it's very easy to draw lines between the Pre-Raphaelites, with their medievalist aesthetic, and Wagner's own pagan nonsense. I'm certainly no expert on Wagner's work but generally I don't think that there's really any machines in there - the utilisation of myth as some kind of universal doesn't make much sense when you consider that industrialisation was already near-fully established: by 1844 Charles Valentin Alkan had already composed 'Le chemin de fer', a rather mental etude depicting a railway journey. The universality of myth in this instance can only really point backwards.

But it's actually more complicated than that. Wagner, while working on 'Tristan und Isolde', was living in a house in the garden of his patrons the Wesendoncks. He, being Wagner, got rather too close to Mathilde Wesendonck, although nobody is quite sure whether they 'got it on', so to speak. While he was there he composed the Wesendonck Lieder, some of his only music that isn't set to one of his own texts. The poems that he set were ones written by Mathilde, including one called 'Im Treibhaus' (In the Greenhouse), which is a substantially more modern subject than what we might be used to from Wagner.

Musically the piece is a sketch for the Prelude to Act III of Tristan und Isolde, with Tristan's leitmotif, the ascending four notes that govern the entire opera, stretched out across a minor scale, and a lushly abject voicing of the tonic chord. This alternates with short passages of more bittersweet character, although still quintessentially Wagner; those slippery, wandering minor chords sliding in and out through tight chromatic voice leading. Overall it's a small-scale and less bombastic side to Wagner and thus is far more palatable than one might normally find him, although it's no less brilliant as a result.

But the lieder as a whole is what is most interesting here. The protagonist is in a winter garden considering the lot of the plants, which have been uprooted and brought to this horticultural museum:

Hochgewölbte Blätterkronen,
Baldachine von Smaragd,
Kinder ihr aus fernen Zonen,
Saget mir, warum ihr klagt?

High-vaulted crowns of leaves,
Canopies of emerald,
You children of distant zones,
Tell me; why do you lament?

The protagonist compares the alienation and suffering of life to the strange-nature of the greenhouse:

Wohl, ich weiß es, arme Pflanze;
Ein Geschicke teilen wir,
Ob umstrahlt von Licht und Glanze,
Unsre Heimat ist nicht hier!

I know well, poor plants,
A fate that we share,
Though we bathe in light and radiance,
Our homeland is not here!

Indeed, the lugubriousness of the scene is encapsulated in what must be one of the darkest lines I've ever come across in a Lied:

Und umschlinget wahnbefangen
Öder Leere nicht'gen Graus.

And embrace through insane predilection
The desolate, empty, horrible void.


Anyway, it's worth looking just a tiny bit closer at this. The setting for the poem is not a public greenhouse like the Jardin d'Hiver or Kew Gardens, although they did exist at this point. Instead, we can assume that we are inside a private greenhouse. The earliest winter gardens, originating around the beginning of the 19th century, were not public buildings, but rather spaces attached to aristocratic houses. Public winter gardens would only start to be built from around 1848, of course, but once they were on the scene the era of the private winter garden was in decline, accompanied by a deepening, you might say thickening of the Romantic aesthetic. Kohlmeier and Von Sartory's amazing Houses of Glass outlines this condition in the following passages:

With the change from family- based enterprises to the anonymity of twentieth-century monopoly capital, the era of the private winter garden came to an end […] the winter garden [w]as a place beyond the reach of ordinary mortals, an unreal world where amid rarities and rituals the nobility prepared to make its departure from the historical scene. As the nobility was relinquishing the acquisition of nature to the bourgeoisie (which, moreover, began to buy up the castles and mansions), it developed a sense of Romanticism for which the winter garden was the last refuge.
Kohlmaier, G & von Sartory, B, Houses of Glass, Cambridge, Mass. London : MIT press, 1986.p.31

So, on the one hand this piece of music can function as a lament for cultural decline as seen from the endangered aristocracy. In this sense, the fragility of the alienated plants is a metaphor for the beauty and delicacy of a vulnerable way of life being threatened from below by the ascendant and uncouth bourgeoisie. Proust, of course, bases so much of the Recherche on this botanical image of the aristocracy - too beautiful and rare to survive in this new world.

But I would prefer to read this differently. The alienation of the poem might be understood with the benefit of conceptual hindsight. Here we can think that the fragility of the plants in their artificial environment forces a reframing of concept of nature, an obvious artifice that reveals an underlying artifice. In this sense we are closer to what is more interesting and radical about Romantic attitudes to nature - indifference rather than harmony, fragment over totality. This already-alienated nature universalises in a way no anti-industrial grasp at timelessness could ever possibly achieve.

With this piece in consideration, we now have what is almost a perfect musical correspondence to the three main different cultural readings of Iron & Glass architecture that I'm trying to understand. There is the naïve and the glorious, as represented by the Victorian pap that accompanied the pomp. There is also our archived perception of the memory of the iron & glass world, as testified by the haunted recordings and images of the buildings that are long gone, and indeed were barely there in the first place. To this we can add the strange romantic attitude whose melancholic gaze does not look back wistfully, but confronts its technologised setting and reframes itself accordingly.

King Ludwig of Bavaria, Wagner's eventual patron, had this large winter garden built on the roof of his palace in Munich.

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