Tag Archives: Wagner

Classics at the Movies by CBSO @ Symphony Hall


Often, when it came to classical music, I used to feel like there was a bit of a boundary that existed. When I was younger, I often felt that I ‘didn’t get’ classical music and would grow impatient with it quickly, due to naivety and to craving a fast food pop music fix.

However, attending ‘Classics at the Movies’ at Symphony Hall in Birmingham I had the realisation that classical music is embedded in my enjoyment of pop culture thoroughly and has more of a presence within my life than I had ever imagined. ‘Classics at the Movies’ paired the work of the late and great composers, including Wagner, Mozart, Strauss and Puccini with their use in film, which created a fantastic merging of pop culture and classical music, demonstrating how perfectly different composers have the skill to capture a range of emotions and moments, illuminating classical music’s presence, and relevance in everyday life. The performance featured various pieces from a vast range of films, which differed wildly in genre and date, ranging from A Room with a View, to Babe and Die Hard 2, capturing that moment in the cinema when you realise you recognize the tune, however you just can’t put your finger on its origin.

The resident, ninety-piece ensembles were conducted by Michael Seal and leading proceedings was Barry Norman. Norman, who presented BBC Film from 1972-1998 was the perfect addition to the evening. He narrated each piece and provided his own characteristic introduction of each work and the film in which it appeared. His presenting style often broke the intensity of each work, his casual chat in between each searing number punctuated the energy and immersion that occurred in each performance, allowing the audience a well-deserved breather, to recover from the depth and scale that each classical number provided. It also offered insight into classic films and their relationship with classical music – for instance, how Stanley Kubrick originally commissioned an entirely futuristic score for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), but ditched it upon hearing Johnann Strauss’s The Blue Danube, the work which is synonymous with the film.

Hearing the CBSO play in a setting as stunning as Symphony Hall is truly recommended and a definite must if visiting, or living in, Birmingham. For stunning live music, in an awe-inspiring location, Symphony Hall is the perfect place to visit to escape day-to-day life and immerse yourself in a performance that is guaranteed to stun.

By Lottie Halstead

CBSO Opening Concert @ Birmingham Symphony Hall


It is telling – though not particularly subtle – that the name Wagner originally gave to Tannhäuser was ‘Der Venusberg’ (the Mount of Venus). The opera, like its creator, is incandescent with sexual excess. Luckily the composition is of more nuance and tact than its would-be title, and masterfully the Overture (as performed by the CBSO) explores the polarity of sensual and spiritual love, it once having been dubbed “one of the most extreme depictions of sex attempted in music” (though paradoxically enough it was a favourite of Queen Victoria’s).

The piece begins solemnly with the mellow warming notes of clarinets, horns and bassoons. Yet, there is almost an imperceptible melancholy and shortly, before the theme of spiritual love can develop, this melancholy is transformed by the entrance of the upper and lower strings into a dizzying, chromatic yearning – an allusion to ‘the temptations of the flesh’. Here we have Wagner at his most exhilarating; the giddiness of it all compels a sharp intake of breath (“Wagner’s art has the pressure of a hundred atmospheres”) whilst Nelsons draws out the visceral sense of yearning longer than any other performance of the overture I have heard.

This exhilaration founders, however, and is subdued by the solemn chant of the trombone. But it is not long before the tempo takes on a joyful allegro, with leaping flutes and violas depicting the ‘earthly delights’ of the ‘Venusberg’. The music crescendos into a vivacious, ebullient melody, driven by the full orchestra over pulsating strings; this is “the true, the terrible, the universal Venus” that Baudelaire writes of, the Venus which smothers our “sense of the divine” with “the lusts of the flesh”. Again, though, the music tumbles, this time into a vigorous swirl (depicting sexual abandon) before the wind instruments (spiritual love and redemption) are lifted by the whole orchestra into a triumphant apotheosis that echoes the last lines of Goethe’s Faust: “Das Ewig-Weibliche / Zieht uns hinan.” (“The eternal feminine lures us to perfection”).

The Tannhäuser overture, together with the Lohengrin prelude and the resolution of Tristan and Isolde, very much beg the question first put by Nietzsche in 1888: is Wagner a musician at all? Is he not a magician, a hypnotist, or rather, a sickness? Eventually he concludes that Wagner is a tyrant whose pathos topples every resistance, opining;

Who equals the persuasive power of these gestures? Who else envisages gestures with such assurance, so clearly from the start? The way Wagner’s pathos holds its breath, refuses to let go an extreme feeling, achieves a terrifying duration of states when even a moment threatens to strangle us.

Nietzsche’s equivocation belies his tone. This is praise for Wagner, as well it should be. Though what’s more, this is perhaps the diagnosis par excellence of the sorcery behind Tannhäuser and its breathless embrace.

By Alexander Blanchard