An interview with Siegfried Mauser “Wagner taught sound images how to walk”

Professor Siegfried Mauser: “Wagner creates visual spaces from sound textures”;
Professor Siegfried Mauser: “Wagner creates visual spaces from sound textures”; | Photo (detail): © Thorsten Mischke

Not only the Bayreuth Festival feeds on the genius of Richard Wagner. Cinema too drafts a very special effect from his compositions. The pianist and President of the University of Music and Performing Arts in Munich, Professor Dr. Siegfried Mauser, has studied this connection in detail.

Professor Mauser, the most commonly used Wagner piece in film is probably the “Ride of the Valkyries”. One thinks especially of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”, though Coppola was by no means the first to use it in film.

Correct. I’ve discovered, for example, a Wochenschau newsreel that shows the conquest of Crete by the Wehrmacht in 1941. Just as the fighter planes take off sounds the Ride of the Valkyries. Even before that, in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, there is a passage in which Proust and a friend see an air squadron in the sky and compare it to the Ride of the Valkyries. Coppola must have known this passage in Proust or this Wochenschau newsreel.

What is the particular attraction of the “Ride of the Valkyries”?

Dematerialized sound

The use of Wagner’s music is also maliciously humorous in Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator”. Chaplin as a Hitler blend who dances with the globe while we hear the Prelude from “Lohengrin”.

This hubris, this megalomaniacal lift-off, is inherent in the Lohengrin Prelude. At the beginning the flageolet of the strings exalts everything into irreality, into a free-floating suspension. It’s a dematerialized sound, another world. Lohengrin comes from another world and saves the king’s daughter Elsa. That’s the context.

It’s exactly in this sound that there’s something dark …

Yes. There’s another great example in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu. How the guest walks along the water, and is then driven up to Kinski in his castle. It’s all accompanied by Das Rheingold Prelude. It’s a slow arrival. As soon as the door opens, the music subsides. Kinski greets his guest: “I have been expecting you …”. That has an incredible effect because our sense of time has been guided into another dimension by Das Rheingold Prelude.

In addition to films that use Wagner’s music, there are many film composers whose music can be traced back to Wagner. How did Wagner exercise such a great influence?

The hinge was Erich-Wolfgang Korngold, a brilliant child prodigy, the son of the famous Viennese music critic Julius Korngold, who was a Wagnerian. Because the young Korngold was an Austrian Jew, he immigrated to America in the late 1930s and there ended up in the film business. He was very successful and had considerable influence on Max Steiner and other Hollywood composers.

The exalted side of music

Korngold introduced Wagner’s technique of leitmotifs into film music, which associates characters, objects and situations with certain musical motifs.

Yes, and the sound imaging technique, which through the composition of sound textures creates spaces that can become visual spaces. The leitmotifs are small sound images that are strung together. I always say it was Wagner who taught sound images how to walk.

If we follow the line from Korngold, we come to Hollywood composers like John Williams. Isn’t his music for “Star Wars” Wagner reloaded?

Yes, but less subtle. In Wagner there’s a certain ambivalence. Take the Spear Motif, for example, which stands for Wotan’s spear but is also the Pact Motif. The pact can no longer be fulfilled. How is that expressed? The motif never appears in the same form. This is part of Wagner’s greatness, that his music has this gestural side and, at the same time, a semantic and exalted side.

Cosmic symbols

Great film directors such as Ingmar Bergman have been spoken of as directors of the“Ring” at Bayreuth. Recently, Lars von Trier declined the offer. One wonders why.

Perhaps because he, like Bergman, was too close to the music. He already had a concept for the Rheingold and the Valkyries, but he wasn’t certain. Wolfgang Wagner told me that von Trier therefore had himself shut up in the Festival Hall for a weekend. When he came out, von Trier said: “I can’t do it”.

Although he used the Prelude of “Tristan and Isolde” as the leitmotif of his apocalyptic film “Melancholia”. How does the Prelude fit into this vision of doom?

The basic idea is that these two planets in Melancholia are the cosmic symbols of Tristan and Isolde. That more intimate contact leads to their destruction. When they touch, they die. I’ve never before experienced the use of a Wagner composition as it’s used in Melancholia. The film begins with a kind of scenographic choreography of the Tristan Prelude.

When you go to the cinema, can you concentrate on something other than the music?

After studying Wagner and film music so intensely, I’ve become used to listening to the music. But I’d like to concentrate on the film again.

You should see Michael Haneke’s films.

Right. They have no music at all. Not a bad idea.

Professor Dr. Siegfried Mauser gilt als bedeutender Interpret von Klavierwerken des 20. Jahrhunderts. 2002 wurde er als Professor für Musikwissenschaft an die Hochschule für Musik und Theater München berufen, der er seit 2003 als Rektor vorsteht. Seinen Vortrag „Vom akustischen Sehen und visuellen Hören: Richard Wagner und die Filmmusik“ hat er in München sowie unter anderem in Kopenhagen, Mexiko City und Riga gehalten. Als Nächstes wird Mauser in Ljubljana über das Wirken und den Einfluss Wagners sprechen, den er zu Recht den „Urvater der Filmmusik“ nennt.