Historians always seek the first. If they examine a style, they try to locate the first artwork that reflects such style, or the first artist to create such style. Quite interestingly, after the so-called the ‘first’ is found, not lasting for a long time, another the ‘first’ appears. For the now-famous minimal style which has swept through many of the 20th century musical works, we always speak of Terry Rily’s “In C” or Philip Glass’s many minimal pieces. But could you think of Richard Wagner’s music dramas?
The following discussion may lead you to a new terrain of understanding of the so-called musical minimalism. Be it a style of 20th century music only, or through broadening its definition, that we can also find some extraordinary works which may also be called minimal music before the 20th century.
Wagner’s four minutes length prelude Das Rheingold unquestioningly shows three significant Romantic traits: 1. sublime orchestral sonority; 2. kaleidoscopic timbres; 3. prolonged melodic line. The overall mood portrayed in this grand passage is extensively dramatic, yet profoundly poetic and sensationally touching, rather than only elegantly classical under the aegis of well-proportional and symmetrical. Apart from the apparent Romantic appearances, however, this inspiring passage is not without having other novel features that invite further scrutiny.
In short, Wagner’s prophetic setting comprises much novelty and innovation, despite its apparent Romantic outlook. The single Eb tonic triad successfully maintains the entire musical motion and tension. In order to retain audience’s interest within a monothematic background, the orchestration, timbre, dynamic, harmonic pattern and texture are altered incessantly. This restless small-scale change is the key factor for the gradual growth of musical tension, building up a more complex texture and bombarding sonority until the climatic conclusion. Das Rheingold, therefore, can be regarded as an extraordinary example of hybridization of Romanticism and somewhat nascent Minimalism.
David Leung (theorydavid)