Das Rheingold

5 September 2013 in Music

If the dappled blue marble we call Earth wore headphones, there is only one piece of music I’d want them plugged into: the opening five minutes of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold. The orchestral unfolding of a simple E-flat major triad is music of all time and place. Wagner’s music depicts the Rhine River, but knowing this bit of literal information in no way hinders the imagination. The French horns outline the triadic skeleton in overlapping entries and I remember the wheat fields of my childhood, the smell of straw, the golden fleece rippling and settling over the rolling hills like a baby’s blanket. As the strings join in the unchanging harmony hundreds of measures later, I remember when I had no choice but to dive into the urban mob of baseball fans lining Market Street in downtown San Francisco, a few days after the Giants won the 2012 World Series. Deranged joy and proud muscle pressed in on me from all sides, lifting my feet off the ground and propelling me eastwards toward the Ferry Building, the destination of my dentist appointment. Wagner’s music turns even the mundane act heroic.

I love this music for the power it exerts on memory and personal experience, even as it supports a story all its own. Its basic soundworld (the harmony, rhythm, and tempo) never changes, and it captures the listener in the liquid amber—in the gold at the bottom of this E-flat River Rhine—a place where the most treasured memories rub shoulders with the most awful. I remember a baby who died, a lover who cheated, a bone that broke. When the chill of some unspeakable thought crosses the music’s otherwise intrepid path, I realize that I can hear the dominant harmony as it ducks in and out of the musical fabric (B-flat here, F and A-flat there). As quickly as the notes of this other harmonic region arise, however, they are consumed by the E-flat river. All is one. Wagner speaks equally to that which exalts and terrifies; he paints the waters to match the sky.

The prelude to Das Rheingold is the introduction to four epic operas, Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, arguably the most complex audiovisual imagining of all time. Yet, the music thumbs its nose at complexity; it reveals its bones, measure upon measure of E-flat major, and as such, it reveals the bones of its listener. Thus stripped, breathing in tandem with the seemingly endless phrases, I turn my face skyward and tell the Earth to press the headphones closer.