The special gifts granted to the gifted

What It’s Like to Play Wagner

A few years ago I was walking back to the parking lot after attending a riveting performance of Siegfried at the Met, and joined a young man waiting for the pedestrian signal to change, carrying a trumpet case and wearing formal dress.  “Great show,” I said.

“Yeah,” he responded.

“It’s an amazing score, isn’t it?”

Then he just started to riff.  He told me about playing the trumpet in Wagner, distinct from any other composer’s work.  He said how generous Wagner was to each instrument in the orchestra, how you found yourself carrying responsibility (his word, I swear) at unexpected moments.  He had been as moved as I was, maybe more so.

I told him about an intermission chat I’d had in San Francisco with a trombonist, during a break somewhere in the Ring, who had related the sadness of a guy in the section during rehearsal.  He’d stood in for a member of the section for rehearsal only, and had been shaken by the beauty and specialness of the music.  He was grieving – literally – at the prospect that he would not have the chance to play the part in performance or, possibly, ever again.

The Met brass section filmed a short explanation of what it’s like to have “responsibility” during the Ring, and it is posted on YouTube.  I encourage you to look at it, even if you already know the permutations of the sword motif or the derivation of the bass trumpet or the commissioning of the Wagner tuba.  What the film conveys is not the learning of the musicians, but the state of mind of artists who are entrusted with great art, and the privilege of living in testimony to the truth of beauty.

That is, you are moved not by the music or ideas, but by the guys themselves.

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