Wagner Nights derives from Souvenirs de Monsalvat, a set of ‘waltzes on favourite motifs from Parsifal’ for piano duet, which in turn grew out of close absorption in Wagner’s last opera in the two years (1982-4) when it was a set-work for music undergraduates at Cambridge. Behind this lay a period in the mid-1960s when I’d first soaked myself in it while writing a doctoral study eventually published as Debussy and Wagner. Naturally this was concerned in part with the general French reaction to Wagner, all the way from earnest sublimities "à la d’Indy" to party-piece piano-duet parodies – Souvenirs de Bayreuth, Fauré’s collaboration with Messager on Ring-motifs, and especially Chabrier’s "Fantasie en forme de quadrille sur les thèmes favouris de Tristan et Isolde", Souvenirs de Munich.
It seemed a pity that no one had done Parsifal! I wanted to fill this gap, tried, but didn’t then know enough about tonal harmony to succeed. The eventual result, some 20 years later, surprised by its copiousness, fluency, and fundamental seriousness. The complete set plays for something like half-an-hour and, unlike its French models, not only includes a (burlesque) account of the opera’s plot, but also, for all the mischief, pays genuine hommage to a work that remains for me the profoundest single artefact of the nineteenth century of any other.
And in retrospect I see that this attempt, like an earlier piece Scenes from Schumann, was a case of "reculer pour mieux sauter". That took a favourite phase of early German romanticism as its starting-point; this takes the bull by the horns: the result in both is an enrichment of resources and a free pass into another country. A commission for one of the Royal Opera House’s "Garden Concerts" provided the perfect opportunity to work up the original piano-duets into an orchestra score. But half-an-hour is a bit long for a jeu d’esprit (even one that turns out unexpectedly substantial). Wagner Nights retains three of Monsalvat’s five waltzes, together with an intermezzo and a concluding sarabande.
The sequence is prefaced by a Prelude which runs direct into No.1, Quick Waltz: Love’s Torments, concerned with some of the opera’s darker places, guilt and atonement, suffering and pain, Amfortas and Kundry. No. 2, Ländler: Praise of Folly, is a portrait of the hero himself, with a middle-section depicting his mother Herzeleide. No. 3, Valse-Pastorale: Nature’s Balsam, encloses the lake of swans from Act I within the flowering meadows of Act III. The Intermezzo, built over the famous bell-motif, leads into the final Sarabande: Whitsunday Blossoms, which uses the music of Parsifal’s Baptism and Coronation from Act III, with a hint, at the climax, of the evil flowers of bygone temptations. This is followed by a gentle passage based on the Faith motif, before the final apotheosis. The overall effect is of a kind of ballet-scenario; atmospheric, and highly evocative of its inspiring source, yet retaining none of its specific incidents.
This programme note can be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with a credit to the composer
This is one of Holloway’s most delightful works, an absolute jeu d’esprit: a waltz-sequence on favourite motifs from Parsifal. Like so many of his works, it’s an hommage, but one looking in two different directions: on the one hand to Wagner and his final opera and on the other to those 19th century French composers, such as Chabrier, who so much admired the music that they heard at Bayreuth that they incorporated it into their own music, even their salon music. Holloway’s waltzes started life as piano-duets but the commission from the Royal Opera House gave him the opportunity to orchestrate five of them, preceded by a Prelude. The memorable tunes, the dance rhythms and the lush orchestral sound make them a show-stopper in the concert hall.
Repertoire Note by Peter Marchbank