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A lifetime of involvement with Wagner’s work and coming to terms with his conception and influence over time led me to investigate and try out how Wagner’s scores could be compressed and consolidated in certain ways for smaller orchestral forces, using his music drama Der Ring des Nibelungen. It happened in cognizance of the so-called Coburg version, which Wagner allegedly authorised and of which only adapted orchestra parts survive (i.e. there is no full score available). It is evidently an ad hoc arrangement for small orchestra, born of necessity; it has none of the instrumental apparatus typical of the Ring and is therefore unequal to modern expectations of an “authentic” transcription.
Up to Act II of Siegfried, the concept involved conventional opera houses with open orchestra pits rather than the “indirect orchestra sound” of Bayreuth’s covered pit. It was a matter of keeping in mind that, since the invention of microphone techniques and loudspeaker sound, the “mystical abyss” of a covered, invisible orchestra has been a kind of anachronism – although it is not disputed that Parsifal, for example, was tailored to the specific acoustical conditions of the Festival Theatre in Bayreuth. Thus the idea of indirect orchestra sound has been overtaken by the development of microphone techniques and loudspeaker systems.
Nor should we forget the great progress in constructing musical instruments in the past 125 years; even unto Wagner’s time, elimination of disruptive side noises from the instruments was one of the main motivations for the “covered orchestra.”
The notion of “sound” mutated more and more due to technical changes from that of a mixed, hidden/covered and therefore manipulated one to a more open sonic structure, to analytically influenced and tested sound, more incisive in detail, in order to clarify the musical context using a visible and directly audible (dimensionally shaped) sonic production in the orchestra.
This is not to postulate that an interpretation is better or more authentic the further it is from the original character of the work; it is to point out that various alterations and developments (arrangements, instrument construction, microphone and loudspeaker techniques and altered reception conditions) also change the perspectives on a work, its production (interpretation) and thus the reception of music as well.
It is a widespread mistake to believe that Wagner – the Ring in particular – is performed “the original way” in German-language opera houses; even the “big five/seven” opera houses in German lands play Wagner with a reduced number of strings.
Initial research on the number of strings actually used, then and now, for the Ring in German lands quickly revealed that none of the opera houses – even the biggest ones – plays Wagner with the string forces Wagner expressly stipulates (16/16/12/12/8); Bayreuth is the only exception.
The following is a list of large opera houses which have performed Wagner in recent years and the string sections used.
Stuttgart: Rheingold and Walküre, 13/10/10/10/5, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, 14/12/10/8/5
In the mid-size and smaller opera houses the string section ratio shifts correspondingly to the further disadvantage of the original.
Fundamentally correcting this disproportion between the strings and winds in terms of the performance-practical reality in most opera houses with an up-to-date, new arrangement was one of my initial impulses, along with making it possible for smaller theatres to play the Ring.
Thus my central concerns when transcribing the Ring were both to create a practical alternative for performance (while fundamentally adhering to Wagner’s score) and to find a new sonic directionality for the piece – without, however, making it confusable with the approaches of so-called historically informed interpretational practice. This transcription consists of a not negligible transformation of the sound and thus the sonic structure within the orchestra and in the balance between the stage and the orchestra. The presumed loss of “grand opera sound” is countered with a more radical substance as regards both composition and sound, in the sense of finely attuning the interaction between the singers and the markedly reduced orchestra. The result is the option of greater flexibility in casting – lighter voices, more articulate and not from the highly dramatic Fach. Comprehensibility of the words and sonic transparency intensify the theatrical impact which was doubtless Wagner’s intention in writing his works for the musical stage. To recall Wagner’s own words to the singers before the world premiere of the Ring in 1876: “Clarity! The big notes happen anyway – the small notes and the words are the main thing.”
In the course of arranging the work, the Klangfarben of the orchestra were expanded and “modernised” by greater differentiation within the historically given spectrum and by introducing new instruments. I strove both to expand and condense the sound, especially since I of course kept the instruments typical of the Ring (Wagner tuba, bass trumpet, contrabass trombone, etc.); the newly introduced ones (alto flute, heckelphone, contrabass clarinet, contrabassoon and cimbasso, the latter as a link between tubas and trombones) become especially significant as additional dramatic-psychological sonic elements.
The Ring orchestra in this transcription is geared to the forces available in a mid-size orchestra:
Walküre: 57 players
Siegfried: 60 players
Götterdämmerung: 63 players
I expressly point out that the four operas were arranged without cuts. The effect of practical operatic consequences with regard to variable casting alternatives in the direction of more flexible, articulate voices will become apparent. Wagner’s operatic concern was for theatrical impact, which is increased when the words are comprehensible and the sound is transparent.
Thanks are owed to Andreas Prohaska for helping to “define” the singing forces and for critically assisting with the new version/abridgement of the scenic and staging instructions. Special thanks are due to Heinz Stolba at Universal Edition for his dedicated proofreading at all times during the transcription work.
Eberhard Kloke, Berlin, November 2012
Translated by Grant Chorley
A brochure with detailed information on the arrangement and casting (overlaps and double-casting options) is available from Universal Edition: [email protected]