Learning this cursed role

Two footnotes to Alex Ross’s post about a chord progression accompanying operatic curses in Wagner and Strauss:

– to me, the rising arpeggiation of both examples cited by Ross recalls the similar gesture in the fourth scene of Rheingold when Alberich puts a curse on the ring – though in that example the melody falls at the end of the phrase.

– Ross points toward an online archive with images of the parts for Die Feen, Wagner’s first opera. See an example here. What startled me about this was that the singers learned their parts not from a vocal score as we would understand it – an arrangement of the orchestral accompaniment for piano – but just a bass line along with their own vocal line. But for the lack of figures, it looks like a baroque aria. I don’t know Die Feen, but I doubt that the harmony is as tricky throughout as it is in the passage Ross cites. Still, it can’t have been easy for a singer to learn his or her part without knowing the details of what was going on harmonically in the accompaniment. Maybe scholars have already worked on this, but it seems to me this is an area of performance practice that merits further investigation. Can you imagine learning Tristan or Gurnemanz with only a bass line as reference? (Perhaps another reason the first Tristan, Ludwig Schnorr (I love that name) dropped dead shortly after the premiere.) On the other hand, while I assume there were piano rehearsals with a fuller accompaniment, can you imagine hand-copying the piano accompaniment for a Wagner opera for each soloist? Were there engraved performance materials for the first performances of the later Wagner operas?

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