‘Wagner’s operas are the closest music to Buddhism that I know,’ says Semyon Bychkov. He goes on to explain: ‘It is in a permanent state of unfolding. Yes, of course, there is a moment when it starts – but only because it is at that point we hear it. The story had actually begun a long time ago. And if you are not familiar with it, it’s all right, because during the next five hours, someone will make sure to inform you!
So it is sequential writing. It has no beginning, and it has no end. What is Buddhism if not that? It is a constant and eternal reincarnation. Now, that is astonishing. Because it simply means that his idea of time is not within the confines of an hour that has 60 minutes, or a day that has 24 hours, and so on.
But now comes the question of the tempo at which his music has to unfold. And he writes about it himself. We find the right tempo from speaking the text. He said this when he received the timings of a performance of Lohengrin, at Weimar, conducted by Liszt. He realised that it had taken much longer than he had intended, because the singers had lingered over the recitatives. And he said, ‘I have already thought about it, and I have written the rhythm of the speech into the music. So you find the right tempo from the way the text is spoken.’
This leads logically to the story of Strauss conducting Parsifal in Bayreuth, and causing a scandal with his tempos. He said in his own defence, ‘I was here in 1882 when Parsifal was given for the first time. I was sitting next to my father who played first horn. And every so often a little door behind Levi would open, and the master himself would put his head in and say, ‘Levi, don’t drag the tempo.’ Everything that has been done to this music since is a travesty.’
Believe it or not, the original set of Parsifal orchestral parts survived in the Bayreuth archives, and it was used almost until the First World War, with many musicians documenting the timings of the acts. And it is true that after that first decade, it got slower and slower and slower. Wagner died one year after the premiere. Levi was not there any more. Cosima was telling everyone how deep and solemn it should be. And as the music sounds so glorious when it is played slowly, it was hard to argue with her.
But Strauss remembered exactly how it must be. And when you start thinking that there is a text, and people have to sing that text in sentences, not syllables, you see that it makes absolute sense.’
Listen to Semyon Bychkov conduct Wagner Lohengrin with the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln: