The Utah Symphony and the Godfather of Metal

Photo: mikeybaratta.comPlenty of metalheads are aware of the influence of blues and rock on the earliest bands of their favorite genre, but predating all of these is an influence some may not have realized existed—the complex, bass-heavy pieces of classical musicians such as Richard Wagner and Niccolo Paganini. This March, the Utah Symphony will be performing one of Wagner’s orchestral suites from his four-part opera cycle The Ring. SLUG sat down with Utah Symphony violinist Alexander Martin and Communications Manager Ginamarie Marsala to talk about the upcoming performance and the similarities between classical and metal music.

“Classical is a completely different genre,” says Marsala, “but when you really get into it, there’s so much to love about it, and they’re the same things that I love about rock n’ roll.” Marsala also emphasizes the unbeatable experience of sitting in front of 84 musicians playing live—an appreciation metal fans can understand, even if metal’s ensembles aren’t in the double-digits. Martin agrees that across genres, live performance is always more intense, emotional and, ultimately, fulfilling. He also sees the ensemble nature of both classical and metal as an important similarity, as well as the technical ability required of musicians of both genres to synchronize complex and sometimes very fast pieces. “To somebody first listening to a song with blast beats, [it] will sound like a drummer playing as fast as he can and everyone else just doing whatever. They’re coordinating—they’re lining up exactly how they want with these blast beats, which is actually kind of amazing,” says Martin.

Wagner particularly stands out from his peers in relation to metal, and some have even referred to him as the “Godfather of metal,” thanks to his complex and epic pieces. Dramatics are a huge component of both metal and classical music, and Wagner employed them in Germanic and Norse myth–inspired works such as The Ring of the Nibelung, or Der Ring des Nibelungen. This four-part opera cycle was traditionally performed on a crazy epic scale over four nights at the opera, totaling 15 hours of music, and featuring a familiar story of Norse gods, dwarves and giants fighting over a magic ring that gives its holder power to rule the world. While the scale is certainly grander, it’s easy to draw comparisons to the mythology used by endless metal bands like Bathory or Amon Amarth. One could even view the four-part sequence in The Ring as a kind of concept album, allowing for fewer restrictions on expression.

As a composer, Wagner was also intensely focused on creating a much larger bass section than was traditionally used. To achieve this, he even went so far as to create his own instrument—the Wagner tuba, which could reach lower notes than traditional tubas or French horns. He also employed use of the octobass, an enormous, bowed string instrument that requires pedals to stop its strings. Wagner produced a heavy darkness in his work that metal fans will be familiar with.

There are quite a few similarities in the performance and music of classical pieces and heavy metal: the drama, complex songwriting, wide range of instrument use and epic subject matter, to name a few. Surprisingly, even the live classical scene itself has, at times, resembled the familiar passion of a metal show. Martin mentions the infamous riot that occurred at the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. “[It] was a literal fist-fight between people in the audience who liked it and wanted to hear it, and others who didn’t,” he says.

Marsala says, “There’s a lot of really rock n’ roll stuff like that. There’s a term coined for how women acted around [19th Century] composer Franz Liszt, called ‘Lisztomania.’ If women got close enough to him, they tried pulling his clothes off him. They would throw their underwear onstage—they would faint and scream.” While it may be the flashier areas of rock and metal that presently deal with Beatlemania-level public groping, facts such as these make the world of classical music—usually tucked so cleanly into its upper-class interest niche—far more human and relatable.

Even discounting all these similarities, both Marsala and Martin are confident that metalheads—particularly those who are musicians themselves—already find a great deal of satisfaction in attending any symphony performance. “We have wonderful musicians that we hire from all over the world,” says Marsala. “Then we bring guest artists, and when our musicians are excited to play with them, you know it’s going to be really good.” In particular, Marsala says that the appreciation that metalheads—even non-musicians—have for the technical proficiency required for playing complex music will easily translate to the symphony. “You know when it is hard, and you know when it took practice and it took hours and telling your friends you can’t go out with them,” says Marsala.

The Utah Symphony will be performing Wagner’s orchestral suite from The Ring as well as Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto #2” on March 27 and 28. One hour prior to every performance, a free informative lecture will be held at Abravanel Hall, giving audience members a chance to connect with the story of the piece before they hear it, a feature that Martin says will definitely increase one’s enjoyment of any performance. Students and anyone under 30 years of age can also take advantage of ridiculously priced $10 tickets ($15 day of) for any performance that is not sold out during the season.