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Insight: Wagner does Sandhi! - Impressions and Expressions of Ijon
August 8th, 2003
12:14 pm

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Insight: Wagner does Sandhi!
Tonight, watching my new DVD copy of Wagner's Die Walküre (Levine at the Met), I was struck by a realization: Wagner does Sandhi!

Sandhi is a Sanskrit name for a set of linguistic phenomena involving changes and combinations of tones or consonants. Sandhi is what scared me off studying Sanskrit several years ago (but I shall try again, one day). There are many forms and types of sandhi, and not only in Sanskrit (even the English language's phenomenon of variety in the indefinite article (i.e. 'a' vs. 'an') can be called sandhi).

In Devanagari, the classical script used for Sanskrit and the one I was trying to learn to read, sandhi has a visual aspect, wherein two characters combine, or meld, into one compound character, bearing distinctive elements of both original characters.


An example of compound characters in Devanagari Sanskrit


Wagner's innovative use of leitmotifs is well-known. My realization is that he sometimes performs sandhi magic with the motifs, melding them ingeniously. It struck when Wotan was scolding Brünnhilde for disobeying him (Act III), and he mentions Valhalla, evoking the regal Valhalla motif, but not as it appears elsewhere (and in particular in Das Rheingold); here it is subdued, almost forlorn, matching the context. This interplay of theme and context, motif and variation, is Wagner doing sandhi.

It is also one reason for my fascination with his works.

Current Mood: calm
Current Music: Wagner -- Die Walküre

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From:goliard
Date:August 10th, 2003 08:34 am (UTC)
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It's always nice to load your friends page and see Devanagari. :)
But what you describe (a motif recurring in a different mood) doesn't sound like sandhi - unless Wagner actually connects two motifs together and varies the ending of the first to link with the second.
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From:ijon
Date:August 10th, 2003 09:03 am (UTC)
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No, I do mean melding motifs. Valhalla melded with the "Love-Curse" motif, the sword motif ("Notung") with the spring motif, etc. The fact you get a new musical phrase in which you can definitely recognize the two constituent phrases is what reminded me so vividly of sandhi.
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From:goliard
Date:August 11th, 2003 05:43 am (UTC)
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Oh. Sounds fascinating, then - though I hardly know Wagner's music. Can you recommend a starting point (preferably a "light" one in length and drama)?
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From:ijon
Date:August 11th, 2003 07:15 am (UTC)

Wagner Without Tears

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First, avoid "highlights". I generally detest highlights, but I feel that in Wagner's case listening to so-called highlights would be particularly wrong.

I think that Tannhaüser is a good introduction to Wagner in general. It's lovely music, standard length (i.e. three hours or so), and does not demand too much.

However, if your interest was piqued particularly by the compositional aspect I described, i.e. by Wagner's motif syntax, you definitely need to listen to the Ring (Der Ring des Nibelugen), starting with Das Rheingold, the introductory opera. Das Rheingold is short (about two hours), has a good, action-packed plot, and introduces the major motifs used in the Ring (Valhalla, the Ring, the Love-curse, the Spear, etc.)

An excellent way to economize while getting to really know the Ring is to get "The Ringdisc" -- an excellent multimedia offering by Media Cafe. It is a computer CD-ROM that includes the complete Ring in digital audio, in the performance is probably the most classic version out there: Georg Solti conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in a studio recording; see the Ring entry on Wikipedia (I recently added the recordings section) for details on that.

Anyhow, beside the music itself, the CD includes a Piano/Vocal score, an index of motifs, some images from past productions, and short write-ups on the characters and the concepts. The real value, though, is running commentary, which the program displays alongside the score while the music plays. This commentary can point your attention to appearances of motifs, to subtle orchestral effects, etc. I found it an excellent "study guide" for the Ring.

As far as I remember, I bought it for about $80. Of course, being compressed digital audio, it's not quite CD quality sound, and if you want to experience Wagner proprely, you'd better get a good recording of Das Rheingold on CD (most performances fit on two CDs, so they should not be very expensive). I do recommend the Solti version, or Levine conducting at the Met.

You're quite welcome to borrow any of my Ring versions. Beside the Ringdisc, I have the Ring on CD performed by Solti and the VPO, Bohm at Bayreuth, and Furtwängler at La Scala (all mentioned in the Wikipedia page linked to above), as well as DVDs of Levine at the Met and parts of Goodall on CD and of Boulez on DVD. You are welcome to either come and pick them up (do!), or I could mail you one.
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From:goliard
Date:August 12th, 2003 03:01 am (UTC)

Re: Wagner Without Tears

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Thanks for the tips. There's a good CD library here so I won't need to buy a plane ticket (though I'm probably coming back to Israel soon anyway. But that's another story). Now for a very ignorant question: is Wagner all opera? I'm not a big opera fan, and its being in German doesn't help at all... I'll check out Tannhäuser anyway, but is there any instrumental music I could listen to?
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From:ukelele
Date:August 11th, 2003 05:28 am (UTC)
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I don't suppose you're a John Williams fan? The husband is a movie-music buff and adores Williams because of his handling of motifs.
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From:goliard
Date:August 17th, 2003 12:35 pm (UTC)
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By the way, this entry of yours reawakened my interest in Sanskrit to the extent that I've spent the last two days poring over nominal declension tables (think I've got them all down by now. Except the irregulars, damn 'em). If this goes on (and all signs suggest it will) I'll be starting on verbs tomorrow. My eyes hurt and it's all your fault.
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