18 April 2024

P.R. Jenkins

Spotlight Wagner: “The Valkyrie”

Richard Wagner’s “The Valkyrie” is a complete opera and also part of the greatest cycle in classical music, “The Ring of the Nibelung”.

Karajan’s interpretation of “The Valkyrie” therefore must be regarded in connection with the whole “Ring”, although “The Valkyrie” was the part he conducted most often in his career (44 times). It is more than likely that Karajan’s fascination for the ultimate “Ring” challenge developed in his early years. When he had just started his second engagement in Aachen at the age of 26, he was already in a position to conduct “The Valkyrie”. Having performed “Fidelio” twice at the beginning of the season 1934/1935, “The Valkyrie” was his third-ever appearance in Aachen and immediately focused maximum attention on this new talent. Three years later, now a musical institution in Aachen, Karajan contrived to perform his first entire “Ring” cycle. Together with his performances of “Tristan” and “The Flying Dutchman”, it was a strong recommendation for his upcoming engagements as a Wagner conductor in Vienna and Berlin. In February 1939, the Aachen opera house gave one of its prestigious guest performances across the border. Karajan conducted “The Valkyrie” in Liège.

It took Karajan twelve years to perform his next “Ring” cycle, this time in the Mecca for Wagner musicians and Wagnerians, Bayreuth. Karajan’s modern style of Wagner conducting based on textural clarity was praised as “orchestral chamber music”. Karajan didn’t like the term. In 1972 he told a journalist:

“I do not make it chamber music; I produce music in which the design is clearly identifiable. The complex structure of the Wagnerian melos, with four or five themes interwoven simultaneously, can only perceived in that way.”

Unfortunately, only the third act of Karajan’s Bayreuth “Valkyrie” with Astrid Varnay, Sigurd Björling and Leonie Rysanek was recorded.

Karajan’s appearance in Bayreuth remained an episode. The following season was already his last. In autumn 1956, he began his job as artistic director of the Vienna State Opera but it lasted six months until he appeared on the rostrum for the first time. “The Vienna Philharmonic turned up to Karajan’s first rehearsal as Artistic Director of the Opera with a more than usually keen sense of anticipation. Chairman Hermann Obermeyer made a short speech of welcome, to which Karajan replied, ‘Well then, we’ve finally made it’ and raised his baton to begin the rehearsal. Who ‘we’ were was not entirely clear. The production, which opened on 2 April 1957, was of Wagner’s Die Walküre, the start of a new Ring cycle staged and lit by Karajan himself. (Richard Osborne)”

For eleven months we prepare for the performances of a single week. That is my vision of true art at the moment.

As well known, the Salzburg Easter Festival was founded by Karajan in 1967, completely as a private initiative and without any financial support from the government. It’s not the only invention of Karajan’s still in existence today, but it is still unique. Initially he was looking for an opportunity to produce Wagner operas all by himself, as director and of course as conductor.

The first opera production was “The Valkyrie” and the three other “Ring” operas were produced in the following years. The focus on Wagner wasn’t coincidental in the early years – as Karajan told his biographer Franz Endler “the genesis of the Easter Festival has been recounted over and over again. At the very beginning was a remark made by conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi, who told me I should produce operas completely on my own responsibility and in accordance with my own standards. That made me think, and it took me back to an unfulfilled lifelong dream of performing the Wagner operas under ideal conditions. (…) First we thought about doing the project in Geneva and we weren’t sure about the orchestra. But then – I’ve often described it – there was an evening at the Salzburg Festival. I was conducting “Boris Godunov” (…) and suddenly I knew that I should organize the Easter Festival in this hall with these artists. I thought, everything you need is already there.”

This documentary was produced by the German television channel ZDF in 1966 and has lain dormant in its archives ever since. After an introduction by Pia Bernauer you can hear Karajan explaining the visions and motives that prompted him to start the Easter Festival (with English subtitles).

Karajan combined the productions with studio recordings, which he produced before the festival with an identical cast, so that “Deutsche Grammophon” could sell the LP sets during the festival. In addition, he was able to use the tapes for stage rehearsals and therefore save time and money and spare the voices of the ensemble.

Karajan in rehearsal. Unfortunately, far too rare an opportunity to witness him in action – compared to the many concert and opera films in his legacy. This short clip from an “arte” documentary presents Karajan at the “Valkyrie” rehearsals for the first Salzburg Easter festival in 1967.

“Karajan’s ‘Walküre’, for instance, is perhaps my favorite album of the last few years.”
Glenn Gould in 1970

All in all, Karajan achieved something that today is almost unimaginable: a successful classical music festival without public financial support. Karajan told Endler: “And we actually survived this first Easter Festival – there was a tiny profit. And I waived my fee – that goes without saying.”

In the interests of total independence Karajan also figured as producer and financier. He didn’t even rely on what is known today as “sponsoring” but cooperated with a co-producer, the Metropolitan Opera, instead. So six months after the first Easter Festival, he conducted a series of “Valkyrie” performances in New York with a slightly different cast. This is common practice today but in 1967 it was something really new. On 21st November Karajan made his conducting debut at the Metropolitan Opera New York.

Twenty years later, he told Richard Osborne: “I had a dream many years ago that the opera-houses of the world would make many more exchanges. We took the Ring to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, which was a partial success. But there were problems with the orchestra … and perhaps, looking back to it now, I was not always very helpful to Mr Bing, but, in general, the idea of co-operation between houses was not welcomed. So I said, well, I have my thing here in Salzburg; if they want to see it they must make the effort to come here.”

The performance on 1 March 1969 at the Metropolitan Opera was the last time Karajan conducted “The Valkyrie”.

Richard Osborne: “Karajan. A Life in Music” Chatto & Windus, London. 1998

Franz Endler: “Karajan: Eine Biographie” Hoffmann & Campe, Hamburg 1992

“Conversations with Karajan” Edited with an Instroduction by Richard Osborne. Oxford University Press. 1989

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