Pop Culture and Wagner

Last night we had Family Movie Night. Which basically means we ate dinner in the family room in front of the TV and watched a movie the whole family could agree on–in this case, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones.

It’s sort of funny–we are programmed at this juncture in history and pop culture to consider anything popular and enjoyable by the masses as “pop culture” (extension: junk for the peons), whereas if it is “literature” or “art,” it must not be, you know, fun.

Somewhere in the middle of Clones (spoiler alert, if you are one of the 8.423 people in the United States who has not yet seen it, or if you’re too literate to watch pop culture flicks, or whatever), Anakin’s mother dies, and he gives in to his anger and grief and slaughters a whole tribe of Tusken Raiders. And right before he does it (or after, I forget), we hear this distant hushed nine-note lament– the Darth Vader theme, the leitmotif that will now follow him for the rest of the 4 remaining movies. The music of the Dark Side.

I took an opera lit course in grad school. It was the first class I took after Dr. Mathiesin’s amazing and amazingly difficult Medieval Music course–the class where I first really learned how to be a student. (I dont’ remember jack about medieval music at this point, honestly, but what he taught me about how to learn is something I’ve had occasion to use again and again. It’s sort of tragic that I pulled A’s for four years of college and one year of grad school, and only then with the hardest-won A- of my career learned how to be a real student.) So for opera lit, for the first time in any lit course I ever took, I made a point of going to the library for an hour after every class and actually listening to the music on the listening list, taking notes, paying attention, and incorporating into my psyche what we’d just been talking about in the classroom. As a result, among other things, the “drop the needle” exams were a piece of cake. A piece of cake, I tell you. If any university-level music students should ever read this, please hear and learn: the best, the only way to ace random excerpts on tests is to actually do what the prof tells you on day 1, and listen to them as you study them, all semester.

But I digress.

When we studied Wagner’s Ring cycle, the prof gave us a double-sided sheet with the “leitmotives” of every major character and concept in the opera.  Before going to the library, I sat down at the piano and played them all, learned them, memorized them. I was determined that after years of finding Wagner about as interesting as watching Really Noisy Paint Dry, I was going to figure out what all the fuss was about. Then I went to the library, put on the excerpt assigned to us, and listened to it with libretto on one hand and Dr. Buelow’s Handy Dandy Leitmotif Guide in the other, to see if I could make any sense of it.

Unbelievable.  Within about 4 minutes, I needed neither libretto nor leitmotiv guide; the whole story was right there in the music. There was the ring, there was the curse on the ring, there was Wotan being all Godly and Annoying, there was Brunhilde standing up to him…oh crap, here comes the fire, but before it does, as she’s singing along for what seemed like hours on end, we hear Siegfried’s theme…the guy who isn’t even born yet, but who in the next opera (not so coincidentally named after him) will be fairly central to the whole mess…It was, it is, amazing stuff.

Okay, I still don’t listen to Wagner for fun and hahas, I stick to Brahms or maybe Smashmouth for that, but now I “get it.”

Back to Star Wars. John Williams, in those scores, uses Wagnerian leitmotives liberally throughout–Wikipedia has a fairly decent summary of the different motives for different characters, ideas, etc.–and it’s interesting stuff.  I wonder if music students in 100 years (assuming we haven’t destroyed the planet by then) will study John Williams’ score as an extension of Wagner’s work? Or as an easier-access way “in”?

What I need now is Dr. Buelow’s Handy Dandy Guide to Star Wars Leitmotives, so I can sit down and watch all six movies that way…

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