Philip Hensher: Wagner can survive anything

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Radio 3 has been experimenting with programming music in a saturated way. Rather than moving from one thing to another, it has mounted, with considerable success, days and weeks devoted to a single composer. Bach was given this treatment, and Mozart, and listeners valued this opportunity to plunge themselves into a single composer's work, however substantial.

The station will carry on with the project, though some composers might not be quite so rewarding in bulk - Telemann week, anyone? - and others don't supply enough music. Ravel would be over in a day, and Webern in a not very long afternoon.

In this new enterprise, Radio 3 on Easter Monday broadcast Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung in a very unusual way. Wagner envisaged the cycle as being performed in four successive nights. (In practice, on those rare occasions when a complete cycle is performed, the physical demands on performers invariably mean that it's spread over a week). Twenty years ago, BBC television very successfully broadcast the great Bayreuth centenary Ring under Boulez and Patrice Chéreau, one act at a time over 10 weeks.

The Easter Monday broadcast took a different approach, and presented it in a way that has until now been the preserve only of the maddest of Wagner Societies, playing the entire cycle back to back. No other work could occupy such a stretch of broadcasting time - no, readers, please don't start writing to me about Sorabji. Even a listener who, like me, reveres Wagner, can find the whole of Siegfried a strain. The prospect of 19 hours, even in the hands of Daniel Barenboim, seemed not just an immense challenge, but somewhat anti-musical.

In the end, I listened to it not continuously, but for longish periods. I came in before the descent into Nibelheim in Rheingold and left it when Fricka walks out in Walküre, returning for an hour and a bit of Siegfried and back again for the stupendous second act of Götterdämmerung. Even so, it was an unusual experience. I left it with a renewed sense not just of the genius of Wagner's music, but of the genius of the gaps between the music, of the power of the long interval and the days that normally pass between the dramas. Listeners who, instead of taking it in live, chose to download the broadcasts and listen to them at intervals during the week would have had a richer experience.

There is something sublime about the way Walküre begins, for instance, with Donner's summoning of the thunder from the end of Rheingold, but now on earth and without the voice of the god. The power of it depends on the fact that a day or more has passed for the listener. When the gap is only 10 minutes, the effect is lost. It's true even of intervals in each opera. Wagner abandoned the cycle for years between the second and third act of Siegfried; when the third act opens, it's with a new orchestral sound of extraordinary richness. After an hour in the bar at the opera, it's as if the drama is opening out in a thrilling way. After a short interval talk, the effect is of a strange jolt.

I would never seriously complain about so serious an endeavour of Radio 3's as this; it is the sort of Reithian enterprise now rare at the BBC. But there is something odd about the availability of so elevated a work of art now. Daniel Barenboim, in the Reith Lectures has been commenting on the damaging effect of great music in the general environment. His example was of a couple who, going to hear the Brahms violin concerto, hear a snatch of it in the lift. The point is unarguable.

Radio 3's broadcast of the whole Ring cycle is subtly different from its surveys of Bach and Mozart. Unlike them, Wagner's cycle contains no music intended for banal, everyday use - no serenades, no Sunday cantatas. It is all on the most sublime level, and Wagner's intention was that listeners to his work should pay a pilgrimage to the site of its performance, and sacrifice a good portion of their life to its contemplation. Long after his death, if you wanted to hear Parsifal, you had to go to Bayreuth. Even now, in the best houses, the first act of Parsifal is, by convention, not applauded, as if it were something quite different in nature from, say, La Traviata.

The Ring of the Nibelung will hold up under the weight of millions of listeners, and will still be great however often it is turned into background music. When Saint-Saëns heard the prelude to the third act of Walküre he said he had no idea music could be so exciting. These days, you hear it most often as a ringtone. But live, it still infallibly works its magic.

No harm, really, is done by the dissemination of Wagner through mechanical reproduction; certainly not through Radio 3's enterprise. It remains, however, most itself in a dark theatre, the arc of Siegfried beginning with the groan of the bassoon rising like smoke from the pit.

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