The one thing I remember Lorin Maazel for

RIP, Lorin Maazel. A music conductor of fame and longevity has died (at age 84), generating no shortage of obituaries, such as this one.

Very often famous people die without my really having known much about them, and of course, this case was no exception. But this post isn’t about what I didn’t know, but what I do know, and remember.

The “Ring” Without Words

Lorin Maazel may have had a long and illustrious career, but actually, I don’t believe I have listened to a single of his recordings (I never saw him in performance) other than one, his “Ring Without Words” purely orchestral arrangement of Richard Wagner’s “Ring” cycle of operas that fits in a CD-length 75-minute “summary” of the epic operatic cycle (which takes more like 17 hours for a complete performance, spread out over four separate operas).

So he touched my life in a single, unusual, but quite positive way. Ironically, the example obituary I mentioned does not even mention this work of Maazel’s. This illustrates that obituaries hardly tell the whole story of the contributions of someone to people’s lives. They may tell what is most prestigious or most scandalous, but may miss interesting quirky projects that have less measurable impact.

My story

The Ring Without Words

In my senior year of college, I came across a CD in the campus library on the Telarc label of Maazel’s recording of the “Ring Without Words”. At the time, I knew fairly little about Richard Wagner or his music, but I was intrigued by the concept, since I was not an opera fan, and didn’t mind trying out what some immediately criticized as a gimmicky “Reader’s Digest” concept by Maazel.

I very much enjoyed the recording and listened to clips here and there without the “guilt” or confusion of choosing and listening to selected portions of recordings of the actual original operas. Basically, I appreciated Maazel’s role as a curator and summarizer that brought in curious new listeners like me. I still believe there is a role for “popularizers” of “classical music”.

I just looked on YouTube and found this very short clip of a performance by Maazel of the “Ring Without Words”, so you can check it out to get an idea of how it works:

Authorial intent

I mentioned last year in my post for Wagner’s 200th birthday that I had, before encountering Maazel’s CD, tried to watch the Metropolitan Opera’s four-evening TV broadcast in the summer of the “Ring” cycle and found it hard going. My overall philosophy was, and is, that authorial intent is overrated. Fact is, if we were really serious about authorial intent, Wagner actually originally forbade his opera “Parsifal” from being performed anywhere except in Bayreuth.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t respect to one degree or other a composer’s original setting or wishes. Actually, I’m probably more respectful than most other people, because of my involvement with early music! I’m just saying that alternative arrangements and excerpts are always possible, and as long as they do not misrepresent themselves, I have no problem with them.


You might expect me to say something how Maazel turned the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra into a world-class orchestra, but actually, I moved to Pittsburgh in 1997 after Maazel had just left, so when I started attending PSO concerts, it was under Mariss Jansons.

Here’s the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s official statement on the passing of Lorin Maazel.


Whatever else Lorin Maazel may have done in his life, one thing he did was bring Wagner to people like me, through his “Ring Without Words”. I am grateful he carried out this project. Also, more indirectly, he shaped the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra into the world-class orchestra it was by the time I moved to Pittsburgh, so I benefited from something he did that I never personally saw.

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