In the music of most composers, you could forgive the eighth French horn player for nodding off. Not so in Wagner, and especially not in the prelude to Wagner’s magnificent tetralogy of the Ring Cycle.
Even before the last few audience members have settled in their seats for Das Rheingold the eighth French horn takes off with one of the most recognisable motifs in classical music: the E-flat triad paying undulating homage to the grandeur of the river Rhine.
Things don’t get easier from there on out, either. For French horn player Marnie Sebire, who joins the Melbourne Ring Orchestra from the Sydney Symphony, the fifteen hours of the Ring cycle are an exercise in endurance and quick instrument changes.
“You need a good warmup, like anything else,” Sebire explains. “You need lots of sleep, and plenty of bananas – I’m being serious. It’s an ongoing power-fill when you’re playing for a long time. And then after a performance like that, it takes a hell of a long time to come down. It’s pretty massive.”
The back row of the French horns (players five-to-eight) double as Wagner tuba players, an instrument invented by the composer and employed to play the rousing leitmotif signifying Valhalla, the home of the Gods. It’s a difficult instrument, unwieldy to play and prone to out-of-tune notes.
“There’s no school where you can go to study the Wagner tuba,” Sebire explains. “Most people get thrust into it – it’s the lot of a French horn player if you’re playing Wagner or Strauss.”
The Wagner Tuba uses the same mouth piece as a French horn but is a very different design. Her little finger gets a workout playing an extra valve. “Wagner wanted an instrument that would provide a different timbre between the trombone and the French horn, a sound that could demonstrate the nobility of the Gods.”
The size of the French horn section give some indication of the unusual size of a Wagnerian orchestra, but it’s an orchestra that is representative of the period, argues Aubrey Murphy, a freelance musician and one of the two concertmasters of the Melbourne Ring Orchestra.
“Wagner was composing for the future. He wasn’t constrained by a conventional orchestra makeup, he was looking forward to the time of composer’s like Strauss, where it wasn’t unusual to have an orchestra of that size,” he says.
But as the old adage goes, it’s not the size of an orchestra, it’s how you use it. As co-concertmaster Roger Jonsson (of Orchestra Victoria) explains, Wagner is famous for big moments, but it is actually when the mammoth orchestra is playing softly that the magic happens. “The piano dolce moments just bring you into the music, and it is so beautiful.”
The Melbourne Ring Orchestra has been drawn from all over Australia (and, the world). Players from ten separate orchestras were called up to supplement the nucleus of Orchestra Victoria. It’s a great gathering of talent, and when combined with the unusual commitment of playing a Ring cycle back to back, it’s a pretty incredible experience for the players involved.
Jonsson is playing his first Ring, and he counts it as the biggest thing he has ever experience in professional life. “I’m learning as we go, and it’s a very humbling experience.”
Even for players well versed in the Ring, there’s always something to learn, admits co-concertmaster Aubrey Murphy, who has played his fair share. “If doesn’t matter how many times you’ve done it, you’re never any more comfortable, you’re never any more wise.”
Sebire says a French horn player could play the Ring eight different times and never play the same part. “Wagner’s music offers such a challenge. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”
Harpist Mary Anderson on Wagner and the Harp
The harp came to the orchestra via the opera house. The tradition of using multiple harps for grandiose effects has been present in opera houses around the world since the early 19th century. So the way Wagner wrote for the harp isn’t all that different – it’s just on a grand scale.
While there are six harps in the orchestration for the Ring, Wagner essentially only wrote two harp parts. Sometimes one person is playing, sometimes two, sometimes six. He uses the harp to create extra musical significance.
One of the harp’s characteristic orchestrations is the arpeggio (harp is arpa in Italian). We play a rippling arpeggio in Das Rheingold and again in Götterdämmerung when we accompany the Rhinemaidens. You can hear the harps quite clearly in those moments.
Harps are frequently associated with the heavens, so Wagner uses the harp to establish the entrance of the Gods across the rainbow bridge into Valhalla, their new castle. The religious theme continues into Götterdämmerung, when Brünnhilde makes her sacrifice and there is a feeling of atonement and redemption in the air.
You’ll hear the harp during Brünnhilde’s awakening in Siegfried, suggesting romance, and again when Siegfried reminisces in Götterdämmerung.
We’re also playing when Loge summons up his magic fire in Die Walküre, evoking the supernatural.
When you learn that Wagner based his whole Ring saga on Norse and Teutonic legends, and consider that these myths were disseminated through minstrels and bards playing harps, it’s quite fitting to have the harp used so prominently.
Mary Anderson is lead harpist in The Melbourne Ring Orchestra.