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Cardboard Rocks


When it came to judging fellow composers Peter Tchaikovsky had strong opinions. He wrote to his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, on December 8, 1877:

I attended Wagner’s Die Valkürye. It was a wonderful production. The orchestra was excellent. The singers did everything they could to make the best of the work…all the same, it was boring. What a Don Quixote Wagner is! Why does he throw all of his strength into chasing after the unattainable when he holds in his hands the ability to draw out an ocean of musical beauty? In my opinion Wagner is a born symphonist. The man has enormous talent, but that talent is thrown aside for the sake of proving a theory he has invented.

In his quest for reality, truth, and the rational in opera he has completely abandoned music. It’s noticeably absent from his last four operas, because I can’t apply the word music to the kaleidoscopic grab-bag of musical tidbits that follow one after the other without going anywhere and never give you a chance to relax in any worthwhile musical form. There’s not a single ongoing melody that enables a singer to blossom. He has to chase the orchestra all the time and worry about how to thrust in his own part, which is about as important as the fourth horn part.

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You’ve probably heard in a concert his wonderful Ride of the Valkyries. What grandeur in a musical picture! One can really imagine those giantesses thundering and crackling through the clouds on their magnificent steeds. In the concert hall the piece always makes a great impression. In the theater, seeing cardboard rocks and rag clouds, and the warriors blundering across the stage in the background, and, the ridiculous theatrical sky, supposedly representing the vast firmament on high, the music loses all of its pictorial power. So the theater doesn’t tweak the impression, but dampens it like a glass of cold water.