The Wagnerian Method

What We Know / by Joe Kloc /

Physicists investigate the grand artistic vision of one of the most influential artists of the last two centuries.

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“Wagner always said that he wanted to be Shakespeare and Beethoven in one. He wanted to write great plays and set those plays to great music,” says Michael Saffle, a musicologist at Virginia Tech. In pursuit of “total artwork,” Wagner allowed no artistic component of his operas to take precedence over any other; the plot was as important as the score and the design of the set as important as the poetry of the libretto. (He considered his librettos literature in their own right, even going so far as to publish them as independent works.) His operas contained subtle plot twists that required his audience to pay careful attention to the lyrics being sung. Wagner couldn’t—and wouldn’t—compromise the intelligibility of his lyrics during high soprano parts. “You weren’t supposed to go just to tap your toe to the tunes,” Saffle says. “He didn’t want that. He wanted you to take in everything, and everything had to play a crucial part.”

So one evening in his garden while he was recovering from surgery, Smith took up a pen and paper and went through Götterdämmerung note-by-note, lyric-by-lyric, recording which notes were paired with which vowel sounds. In the early hours of the next morning he wrote a computer program to determine with statistical certainty whether Wagner had in fact used a vowel-pitch matching technique. Looking at the program’s first results, he was amazed. There was a clear relationship.

After Smith’s discovery, he and Wolfe began analyzing more of Wagner’s work. “It’s quite a tedious job, but sitting in the garden reading Wagner is not a bad way to spend your time,” Smith says. In all, Smith and Wolfe looked at four of the composer’s works, including Tristan und Isolde and three operas from Wagner’s magnum opus, Der Ring des Nibelungen. In each case they found a statistically significant correlation between the music and lyrics. For comparison they also looked at operas by Mozart, Rossini, and Strauss and determined that, in these compositions, no such correlation existed. This didn’t surprise Eaglen. “Some composers had a better idea of how voices worked than others. For example, Beethoven did not really understand how the voice works. But Wagner clearly did,” she says. Smith and Wolfe first published their findings in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America this July, and since then they have continued to test the works of more modern composers. “Wagner’s operas have certainly the strongest effect we have seen by a long way,” Smith says.

The researchers found that as Wagner’s career progressed he continued to improve his vowel-pitch matching technique, suggesting that over time he had developed an intuitive sense of the interplay between words and music in his operas. Though he couldn’t express this concept in scientific terms, on some level he certainly grasped it. Eaglen’s experience performing the character of Brünnhilde throughout the Der Ring des Nibelungen cycle also corroborates what Smith and Wolfe discovered. “The progression of that character is just fascinating. What Wagner writes for her at the end of Götterdämmerung isn’t the same music that he could have written in Die Walküre [the second opera in the cycle, written 18 years before Götterdämmerung]. His music develops along with her character,” she says.

The impact of Wagner’s “total artwork” is hard to pin down exactly, but the man himself is without question one of the most influential artists of the last 200 years. “Wagner influenced—positively or negatively—almost every subsequent musician,” Saffle says.  Some say composers like Richard Strauss and John Williams (the latter of whom is perhaps most well known for scoring films like Star Wars and Jurassic Park) both bear the mark of Wagner. And according to Saffle, you can find him outside of music as well. He is often considered to have anticipated film with his operas. “Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a Wagnerian movie,” he says. “It’s all-encompassing, like Wagner’s total artwork. It takes the individual and hurls him up into the air or throws him down into the ground. That sense of emotional space, that is Wagner.”

Just as Jackson Pollock incorporated fractals into his splatter paintings, Wagner seems to have used vowel-pitch matching in his operas—a concept that scientists wouldn’t formally explain for well over a century. And though it would certainly be going too far to suggest that vowel-pitch matching alone was responsible for Wagner’s grand compositions, without a strong intuitive sense of the human voice and its limitations, it is unlikely that he would have been able to take his unified theory of art so far. If understanding of concepts like vowel-pitch matching can emerge from the vastly different frameworks of art and science, then surely there is merit to considering Wagner’s thoughts on the eventual intersection of the two fields: In The Art-Work of the Future, he writes, “The end of Science is the justifying of the Unconscious, the giving of self-consciousness to Life…. As Science melts away into the recognition of the ultimate and self-determinate reality, of actual Life itself: so does this avowal win its frankest, most direct expression in Art.”

Originally published August 20, 2009

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