A book on “Wagner & Cinema” invites speculation on writing music that is intended to accompany narrative action.

Wagner and “Mickey-Mousing”

Jeongwon Joe and Sander L. Gilman have edited a 475-page tome on Wagner & Cinema, a bushel-basket of essays by a host of contributors on topics so wide-ranging that there’s guaranteed to be something to stimulate (and to something to bore) you.

Wagner and Cinema

There’s stuff on Fritz Lang but also on Mildred Pierce.  Discussions of Nazism variously refer to Wagner, Looney Tunes’ Fritz Frelich, Bugs Bunny (click that link and listen to the music starting around 2:45), Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, Warner Brothers’ Chuck Jones, Visconti’s Ludwig, and Syberberg’s Our Hitler. 

Of particular interest to me was to learn the term “Mickey-Mousing.” 

Seen today, much of Fantasia's

Mr. Joe uses this term to describe the practice, in early days of film, of a piano accompanying the action of a silent film, depicting the action on the screen by selecting music appropriate to the plot or the situation.  “Mickey-Mousing” is distinct from film composers’ use of “motifs,” or tunes associated with a particular character or event (think the “Tara” theme from Max Steiner’s score for Gone With the Wind, which Steiner is quoted in the book as intending to be Wagnerian in technique).  Contributor Peter Franklin considers Sieglinde’s approach to the exhausted Siegmund as “Mickey-Mousing” (depicting “a mincing little succession of three tripping dotted-note steps”), an observation with which contributor Eva Rieger agrees.

One is pressed to ask what distinguishes Wagner from Mickey Mouse.  (Did I just write that sentence?)  Is the Ring Cycle a long story with suitable musical accompaniment — the fights going fast in the brass, the love scenes pretty, the villains accompanied by minor chords in the bass?  Of course not.  The music in Wagner’s dramas doesn’t accompany the story — it tells the story.  It is as important as the words, the scenery, the plot and the characters themselves.  The music has narrative content that the spoken/sung words do not. 

(And I know this experientially — I saw a five-hour performance of the four written plays, performed by a young theatre company in Chicago, and while it heightened my admiration for the “poem” it also was testament to the genius of the entire work.)

The distinction between “Mickey-Mousing,” “theme writing” and Wagner is clearly illustrated in the two worst piece of music in the Ring, both so very poor.  And why? Because they are “Mickey-Mousing”!

I refer to the battle between Fafner and Siegfried in Act II of Siegfried, and the fight between Siegfried and Brünnhilde at the end of Act I of Götterdämmerung.  If no one else will say so, I will — this stuff is second-drawer.   And why?  Because it’s written simply to accompany a necessary bit of action onstage.  And the Meister just isn’t hack enough to pull it off.

The dragon fight is simply awful.  Referring to the Schirmer piano-vocal score, we start at page 188 system 3 bar 2, with the Siegfriedheld theme, bare (bars 1-2).  Then we have the Dragon theme, bare (bars 3-6).  Then Siegfriedheld over a chromatic line (bars 9-11).  Then the Dragon theme, bare (bars 12-17).  And again, half-tone up (bars 18-19).  And agin, another half-tone up (bars 21-22).  Two measures of upward chromatic line in the bass (bars 23-24), and the Siegfriedheld (guess what) with half-tones up (bars 29-32).  The Dragon, three times in a row (bars 33-40), and the Siegfriedheld motif (bars 41-42).  A crashing chord, the Giants‘ theme on the timpani, and mercifully we’re back to the dialogue.  In all, 46 bars of “first-you-then-me” treading water.  Mere depiction of action.  Mickey-Mouse.

The Brünnhilde/Siegfried fight is worse.  Deny it if you can.

The point is not that Wagner is a schlock.  On the contrary, the point is that he is not one.  When he tries to be, he fails.  The guy just wasn’t capable of mere pictorial gesture or music to accompany wagon trains being chased by Apaches.  He was an artist, and proves it by his failings at writing schlock, even when schlock is what’s called for.

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