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When the subject chocolate is brought up, our memory immediately takes us to Belgium and Switzerland, countries in which German is spoken and are known for producing the most famous and delicious chocolates in the world.

The cocoa tree is native from a region that stretches from Mexico into South America. The Spanish brought the bittersweet and strong flavored beverage, sugarless at the time, from Mexico to Europe. By around 1700, it already rivaled with coffee in London's cafés.

In 1847, an English company mixed the chocolate powder used in the drink with cocoa butter and sugar; and so were born chocolate bars.

Later in 1875, Swiss chocolate manufacturer Philipp Suchard used fresh milk to create a milk chocolate bar known as Milka. Ever since, numerous chocolate factories from different countries developed many types of chocolate – sweet, half-sweet, bitter, with or without milk, with nuts, liquor or no liquor, and an uncountable number of other variations to satisfy every taste.

But the most adorable, delicious, exquisite, irresistible... what was I saying? Oh, of course... they are, for sure, the Belgian and the Swiss.

There are at least three top-graded brands in Brussels: Callebaut, founded in 1850 as a malt and dairy producer; Godiva Chocolatier, founded in 1926 in a small family confectionery called Draps; and Neuhaus, resulting from a "pharmaceutical confectionery" founded in 1857, where chocolate was also used to ease bad taste from medication.

And there are some equally high-esteemed brands in Zurich, too. Lindt was founded in 1845 by David Sprüngli-Schwarz and his son Rudolf Sprüngli-Ammann. And there is Teuscher that started over 70 years ago as a small village in the heart of the alps.

So, what's your favorite??

Posted on August, 28th 2013

Richard Wagner - Influence

Today would have been Richard Wagner's 200th birthday. Paying tribute, Darfyx has been publishing in its blog this series of posts about his life and work. This is the fourth and last one of them, where we will cover how much he influenced and contributed to today's world, as well as the ideas and controversies by which he is also remembered.

"Tristan and Isolde" marks the beginning, as by some authors, of modern classical music that developed during the subsequent century. Composers such as César Franck, Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, Jules Massenet, Claude Debussy - among others - were largely influenced by Wagner's late works.

Thanks to Wagner, the use of leitmotifs developed enormously, even at cinema's initial development in early XXth century. Theodor Adorno, in the 1930s, wrote - in disapproval - that the device "leads directly to cinema music where the sole function of the leitmotif is to announce heroes or situations so as to allow the audience to orient itself more easily."

Films like "Gone with the Wind" (1939), the trilogy "Star Wars" (1977-1983), "A Dangerous Method" (2011), among numerous and uncountable others, make use of leitmotifs. Even more modernly, video games also associate short musical phrases to actions and characters in the game.

Wagner has also made valuable contributions to the principles and practice of conducting. He thought that conducting was a way of re-interpreting the piece, not simply a mechanism for achieving orchestral unison. His more flexible conducting style inspired a whole new generation of conductors.

But Wagner is not only remembered by his contributions to music. As with his long operas, he also wrote many essays on a wide range of topics, personal annotations and vast correspondence. Among the essays in which he tried to describe and explain his work, there were also severe antisemitic criticism against Jews.

In 1850 he published, under the pseudonym K. Freigedank, the essay "Judaism in Music", where he claims that Jews don't have the German spirit and their music are made to entirely commercial ends, not being, thereafter, genuine works of art. At that time, Wagner engaged that very same criticism against more diffuse targets, but in this essay he did it namely against Jews.

In 1869 he republished the essay under his own name, receiving more attention and causing protests in the first performances of "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg"; and in 1878 he published "What is German?" with similar criticism.

Some biographers believe that some of his characters are Jew stereotypes ridiculed in the operas. To none of these characters that is mentioned in the libretti - text of the opera -, in the detailed personal annotations he left about his work and about himself, or in the diary Cosima - his last wife - thoroughly described many of her conversations with Wagner.

The source of that antisemitism is much debated. Until he was fourteen, Wagner thought that Ludwig Geyer, his stepfather, was his biological father. Later, he found some letters between him and his mother that may have made him once again suspicious of his paternity, and that Geyer might had been Jew.

Furthermore, it is believed that a lot of Wagner's resentment towards Jews came from his own early struggle to success as opposed to the wide acclaim Jew composers such as Felix Mendelssohn and, in particular, Giacomo Meyerbeer received at the time.

Meyerbeer provided major support to Wagner during his early career, both financially and when composing. During the 1840s, however, differences in style each composer had taken began to become more and more apparent and, when Wagner finally reached notoriety, much of his efforts were channeled to publicly deprecate Meyerbeer's work.

The fact that Wagner kept long lasting friendships with Jews, such as Hermann Levi, reinforces theories that his antisemitism, although directed to all of Judaism, came from some form of resentment towards specific people from that religion, possibly Geyer or composers at the time.

Much of what Wagner wrote in his antisemitic essays remains unclear, as the German words he picked in some important passages allow more than one interpretation. It may be understood that the author called for the ending of separatism and Jewish traditions - in other words, that Jews integrate themselves into German culture -, but others believe that he wanted Jews annihilated!

For a long time it has been believed that the ambiguity above might have been partly responsible for well-know atrocities in the following century. When Wagner died, antisemitic intellectuals began to gather in Bayreuth, attracted by the German nationalism of his operas, but also by the even stronger antisemitic ideas of Cosima. Eva, Wagner's daughter, married one of those intellectuals - whose philosophy would later become Nazi required reading -, and Siegfried, Wagner's son, married a close personal friend of Adolf Hitler.

Hitler was an eager admirer of the composer, and wanted to integrate his operas into the German nation mythology the regime was trying to write. The dictator arranged, to some of his high-rank official's exasperation, performances of the operas in which his subordinates were expected to attend. There is also evidence that the composer's music was played at the Dachau concentration camp to re-educate political prisoners.

Despite these facts, it is no longer believed that there is any direct causality between the ideas of Wagner to those of Hitler or Nazism. Hitler was a keen admirer of the composer, as were many other people at the time. There is no evidence that Hitler has read any of the composer's writings, including his antisemitic essays. Allegations that the dictator might have watched "Rienzi" as a young man, and that the event may have been the sparkle for his national-socialistic ideas have been overly disproved.

There are also racism accusations to "Parsifal", possibly from the influence of the philosopher Arthur de Gobineau - whose theories on inequality of human races later became very dear to Hitler -, but research indicates that Wagner only read his most important essay on the subject once the opera's libretto was written; and later, when they met personally, Wagner thoroughly rejected his ideas.

Wagner is today as much remembered for his innovations in music and opera as for his controversies. On top of the antisemitism and racism he is accused of, he spent most of his life running from creditors and having love affairs with several women - some of which married to friends who provided him some kind of support. His affair with Cosima, 24 years younger, made him leave Munich.

Two hundred years ago Wilhelm Richard Wagner was born, and today Darfyx pays this small tribute to that extraordinary composer. Even if some of his ideas and behavior were reprehensible, his artistic talent is undeniable and his contribution to music invaluable. We hope you enjoyed this special series on the composer, and we end it with the opening of "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg".

Posted on May 22nd 2013

Richard Wagner - Music

This is the third post from the series that celebrates the 200th anniversary from the birth of Richard Wagner, considered by some the most influential composer in music. We will see some artistic aspects of his work, particularly from the last of his three productive phases.

Wagner's work until 1842 is classified into his developing stage and considered of minor artistic importance. The next three operas, written up to 1849, show notable evolution and constitute his intermediate or romantic phase. But it was a change in direction started in 1849 that made Wagner one of the greatest composers in History.

Between 1849 and 1851, Wagner published a set of essays in which he describes the bearing he began to seek from that point forward. The first one of them was "Art and Revolution" in 1849, written just after his participation in the nationalist revolution failed attempt in Dresden.

Wagner saw in Greek tragedies the most supreme achievable form of art: drama. But mankind later evolved in a way, first through Romans and then the catholic church, that art sold "her soul and body to a far worse mistress: commerce."

"There are even many of our most popular artists who do not in the least conceal the fact, that they have no other ambition than to satisfy this shallow audience. They are wise in their generation; for when the prince leaves a heavy dinner, the banker a fatiguing financial operation, the working man a weary day of toil, and go to the theater: they ask for rest, distraction, and amusement, and are in no mood for renewed effort and fresh expenditure of force. This argument is so convincing, that we can only reply by saying: it would be more decorous to employ for this purpose any other thing in the wide world, but not the body and soul of art."

In the same year, 1849, Wagner published "The Artwork of the Future" where he once again praises Greek theater where art elements such as dance, music and poetry unify to create what scholars called - Wagner himself rarely used this or any other expression referring to this concept - total artwork, or Gesamtkunstwerk in German.

As part of Gesamtkunstwerk, one technique that is distinguishing in Wagner's work is the use of leitmotifs. A leitmotif is a short and recurring musical phrase associated to a character, place or idea. Wagner did not invent it, but he is today the composer most associated to it due to how much he developed it. The brief documentary below plays some leitmotifs from his operas.

Leitmotifs first appeared in "The Flying Dutchman" (1843), and then in every opera thereafter. In the "The Ring of the Nibelung" four-opera cycle, some leitmotifs are played throughout the cycle, while others in only one of the operas.

Those essays, particularly "Opera and Drama" (1851), described total artwork as what the ideal opera was and what Wagner began to seek in his works. Historians understand that it was in "The Rhine Gold" and, especially, in "The Valkyrie" that Wagner most fully achieved that purpose before his style went through another turnaround.

In 1854, he was introduced to the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. The German philosopher asserted that there are in every man a world of will and a world of representation. The former usually overcomes the latter, causing pain and anguish; but when his consciousness is totally occupied and absorbed with the world of representation - which art can cause to happen -, it ignores his world of will and brings him relief.

According to the philosopher, other forms of art strive to incorporate pure perceptions through emotions and forms, such as writing. Music is the only form of art that is abstract and a direct manifestation of will, and hence superior to all other. The music in an opera is the immediate expression of a will, whereas the libretto - the text of the opera - is just a linguistic representation.

This view openly rejects the idea that all forms of art must be unified in a work, with no hierarchy between them. From 1854 onwards, Wagner's compositions began to designate to music a more central and commanding role over all other arts, as well as some new thematic elements incorporated by the pessimism that the composer saw in Schopenhauer's philosophy.

"Tristan and Isolde" represents a mark in classical music. The very first chord, Tristan's chord, may have caused astonishment at the time, but it was the precursor of modernist tonality disintegration. Listen to the chord below and try to imagine the reaction of the audience present at the theater who had never heard anything like it.

Another distinguishing feature in the opera is the recurrent use of harmonic suspension, which is creating musical tension by exposing the listener to a series of unfinished cadences. Although the technique had long been employed, Wagner innovated creating suspensions that lasted almost the entire opera.

Additionally, at times the chords build up the audience's tension making one believe that a climax is about to occur, just to postpone it to much later; at the end of the second act, for instance, Kurwenal catches the two lovers together and breaks what would be a musical climax that will only come to realize at the end of the opera - with Isolde's death.

And this is how we will end this post. Watch "Liebestod", last scene of "Tristan and Isolde", in which Isolde dies in anguish. On the next and last post from this series, we will cover Wagner's legacy and controversies.

Posted on May 15th 2013

Richard Wagner - Operas

This is the second of four posts from the series dedicated to the composer Richard Wagner in the month of his 200th anniversary. In the previous one, we covered his biography; we will now go through his operas. Commentators divide his work into three different phases.

From his first phase, the most acclaimed operas today are "The Wedding" (1832, "Die Hochzeit"), "The Fairies" (1833, "Die Feen") and "The Ban of Love" (1836, "Das Liebesverbot"). Of these three, Wagner could only stage the latter one during his lifetime, and still only once before the theater closed. None of them display the innovations that would later distinguish the composer's work.

"Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes" (1842, "Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen") is usually placed in this first phase, although it shows notable advance from his previous works. It was written in Grand Opera style with important influence from the composer Giacomo Meyerbeer, his supporter at the time, later an enemy. The opera was a critics and audience success that significantly boosted Wagner's career.

His first major success, however, was the opera that dates the start of his second artistic phase: "The Flying Dutchman" (1843, "Der fliegende Holländer"). Inspiration came in 1839, according to the author, during a stormy sea cross between Riga and London. This is where can be found the first occurrences of what would later be very common and characteristic in his operas: leitmotifs - we will talk about them in the next post.

"Tannhäuser and the Singers' Contest at Wartburg Castle" (1845, "Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg") was the second opera from this phase also known as romantic phase. The plot is a mythological and medieval retell of two German legends: Tannhäuser and a singing contest in Wartburg. Central themes are the struggle between sacred love and profane love and redemption through love.

Lohengrin is the name of a character from German medieval romance, part of the Swan Night legend, after which was named the last opera from Wagner's romantic phase. It premiered in 1850 in Weimar, directed by Franz Liszt. The most popular fragment is the bridal chorus, often played in the western world as the bride enters the church. In the opera, however, it is played by the end of the bloody wedding between Lohengrin and Elsa.

These three operas show remarkable maturity development with respect to thematic handling, portrayal of emotions and orchestration. While all of his work from his first phase - including "Rienzi" - were later neglected by the composer, these three were performed, despite sometimes going through modifications, throughout his career.

But it was from the operas starting with the epic cycle "The Ring of the Nibelung" ("Der Ring des Nibelungen"), sometimes simply referred as "Ring Cycle", that Wagner achieved greatest acclamation. Between 1849 and 1851 he published from his exile a set of essays that would point the way to his forthcoming work. In the last of these essays, he said how he intended to exhibit the Ring Cycle: "at a specially-appointed festival, […] in the course of three days and a fore-evening."

The four operas are presented in the following order: "The Rhine Gold" ("Das Rheingold"), "The Valkyrie" ("Die Walküre"), "Siegfried", and "Twilight of the Gods" ("Götterdämmerung"). Wagner considered it a trilogy begun by "The Valkyrie"; "The Rhine Gold" was the prelude to the cycle. All of them combined amount to approximately 15 hours.

The plot evolves around a magic ring forged by the dwarf Alberich - the Nibelung from the title - from the gold he stole from maidens in the Rhine river. It gives its bearer the power to rule the world and is disputed throughout the four operas by generations of gods, giants and mortals. The story was created from German and Scandinavian myths and folk tales.

Wagner began to write the libretto - how the text of an opera is called - for "Twilight of the Gods" in 1848. By December 1852 he had finished the libretti to the whole cycle - written, by chance, in reverse order from the narrative - and in 1853 he started to compose the music for each opera.

In June 1857, he put aside his work to dedicate himself to his new idea: "Tristan and Isolde" (1865, "Tristan und Isolde"). At that point, he had composed the music for the first two operas and for the first two acts of "Siegfried". In 1869 he resumed work from where he left, making adjustments in the libretti and the music he had already written making them adequate to his new style which, as we will see, had changed a lot. Nevertheless, the composition from one period is noticeably different than that of the other.

Wagner's inspiration to compose "Tristan and Isolde" came from two different sources. The first was the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. At the end of 1854 Wagner was introduced to his work "The World as Will and Representation", which he later described as the most important event in his life. Wagner saw in the work of Schopenhauer a deeply pessimistic view of the human condition. According to the philosopher, man is continually moved by unachievable desires, and the gulf between these desires and the possibility of achieving them leads to self-misery.

Furthermore, Schopenhauer argued that, contradicting Wagner's views in his essays, music played a supreme role in art as the direct and abstract expression of the world's essence.

The other source of inspiration was the love and admiration for Mathilde, wife of Otto Wesendonck, friend who paid for some of his expenses during his political exile in Zurich. The opera does tell the story of a couple who magically falls in love, Isolde being promised to marry King Marke, Tristan's uncle. The two live the agony of a forbidden and suffocated love amidst the schopenhauerian dichotomy represented in the story by day and night.

The opera was finished in 1859, but, after failing to premiere in Vienna, it was only staged in Munich in the year 1865 thanks to the support of king Ludwig II. To many, the work pointed the way to which classical music progressed in the following century.

His next opera was "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg" (1868, "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg"), the only comedy from his mature phase. The first draft was made back in 1845, and his intention - later discarded - was that it be staged after "Tannhäuser" as in Greek tradition, where a tragedy was followed by a comedy; both operas have singing contests in common.

Additionally, it is his only opera that takes place in a well defined historic context: the German city of Nuremberg of the XVIth century. Amateur singers employ in the composition and presenting of their songs similar mechanic process to what they use in their professions as craftsmen, developing a rigid system of rules and procedures. It is also noticeable in this work the influence of Schopenhauer on Wagner.

His last opera was "Parsifal" (1882), inspired in a medieval poem in which Parzival, one of king Arthur's knights, goes in a quest for the holy grail. The story is told under schopenhauerian lighting and blends Buddhists themes - such as self-renouncing, reincarnation and castes - with Christian ones - such as the redeemer and the holy grail.

Wagner describes the opera as "this most Christian of works", but commentators claim that it denies some of the religion's essentials. Others see aspects of German nationalism and antisemitism. And the opera finally broke apart Wagner from the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who published an essay with long and harsh criticism to the work.

The first draft was written in April 1847; in 1865, Wagner further elaborated the plot and characters; but it was only from 1876, after the first Bayreuth festival, that he could dedicate himself to the opera hoping to finish it - which came in January 1882. In May that year, the second Bayreuth Festival took place starring and premiering "Parsifal".

Musically, commentators see in "Parsifal" a continuing of Wagner's development. It was, sadly, his last opera. After the second Bayreuth Festival, Wagner signaled that he would turn to the composition of symphonies, a will interrupted by his death in 1883.

In the next post of this series, we will analyze Wagner's work with regards to his innovations and style. For now, let us watch the very moving "Siegfried Funeral March", part of the "Twilight of the Gods" opera and theme for the film "Excalibur" (1981).

Posted on May 8th 2013

Richard Wagner - Biography

Richard Wagner was one of the most influential and, at the same time, controversial personalities in History. On one hand, his contributions to opera still cause enormous impact in the art world - such as in the "Lord of the Rings" saga. But his extreme antisemitism and scandals in his love life partly dim, to some, his impressive artistic talent.

Wagner was born on May 22nd 1813 and would therefore turn 200 years old on the same date of 2013. In celebration, Darfyx will pay tribute by publishing four weekly blog posts about this great composer, starting with his biography. On the next one we will talk about his operas. And if you think you have never heard Wagner before, watch "Ride of the Valkyries".

Wilhelm Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig, Germany, son of Carl Friedrich Wagner and Johanna Rosina. Carl died when Richard was only six-months old. His mother then married the playwright Ludwig Geyer, a friend of her ex-husband, and moved with her son to Dresden. Wagner was known by Wilhelm Richard Geyer until he was fourteen, and probably thought Geyer was his biological father - which historians have not yet discarded.

His stepfather largely instigated his admiration for the theater, and Wagner participated as a child in some of his plays. At that time, he wished to become too a playwright, and did not exhibit very good music skills as noted by his piano teacher.

Geyer died in 1821, and in 1827 Wagner moved with his mother back to Leipzig. There he took harmony and composition lessons and was introduced to the works of Mozart and Beethoven. He enrolled at the Leipzig University in 1831, where he began to compose sonatas and symphonies that his teacher helped him publish.

In 1836, the opera house in which he worked as music director closed causing Wagner steep financial difficulties. The actress Christine Wilhelmine "Minna" Planer arranged him a job at the Königsberg theater. The two married in November 1836, starting a turbulent marriage.

Debt made them flee to Paris in 1839. With the help of Giacomo Meyerbeer - who would later become a public enemy -, Wagner composed his first acclaimed opera that allowed him to return to Dresden in 1842. In the six years that he stayed in the city, another two operas were staged to even greater praise.

Wagner played a minor role in 1849 at the May Uprising, a revolutionary attempt to unify Germany under a single constitutional monarchy. Revolutionaries were defeated, warrants were issued for the arrest of the participants, and Wagner had to flee to Zurich in exile.

During the exile, Wagner had an affair with Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of a friend who funded some of his household expenses and placed to Wagner and Minna's disposal a cottage on his estate. Mathilde was a poet and they produced together a few songs; more importantly, she was inspiration to one of his most acclaimed works: "Tristan and Isolde".

Minna found out in 1858 about the love affair and the three parted ways. Mathilde stayed in Zurich, Minna returned to Dresden where she lived until 1866, and Wagner moved to Venice in 1858, Paris in 1859 and Biebrich, back in Germany, in 1862 when his political rights were reestablished.

In 1864, Ludwig II, fanatical admirer of Wagner's operas, succeeded to the Bavarian throne. This event would forever change the composer's luck. The new king settled his debt, brought him to Munich, the kingdom's capital, and arranged "Tristan and Isolde" to premiere in 1865 - what Wagner had been failing to accomplish since 1861. The opera's conductor was Hans von Bülow, whose wife, Cosima, had, three months earlier, given birth to Isolde, Wagner's daughter.

Cosima was the daughter of Franz Liszt, friend of Wagner, and 24 years younger than her lover. The affair scandalized Munich at the time. Ludwig resisted - it is believed that he was homosexual and fallen for Wagner -, but in December 1865 he was forced to ask the composer to move to Tribschen, beside Lake Lucerne.

Minna died on the following month, and Cosima began to repeatedly request that her husband would grant her a divorce so she could marry Wagner. He only accepted after she bore another two children from Wagner: Eva and Siegfried; all three of his children were named after characters from his operas. In August 1870, Wagner and Cosima celebrated the marriage that lasted for the rest of his life.

The family moved to Bayreuth in 1871, where Wagner was given land to build his home and an opera house to host the festival to present the complete cycle of "The Ring of the Nibelung", as it had always been his will. The event was initially scheduled for August 13th 1873, but because of funding shortages and delays in construction, the opera house was only finished in 1875; the festival began on August 13th 1876.

Distinguished personalities from around the world attended, but public reaction ranged from admired praise to hard criticism. It also caused the first crack in Wagner's friendship with Friedrich Nietzsche, since the philosopher made public his dissatisfaction with the operas in the festival. At the end, Wagner's sentiment was that of bitter frustration.

After the festival, Wagner resumed his work on his final opera: "Parsifal". It was finished four years later and premiered in May 1882 at the second Bayreuth Festival.

The family traveled to Venice to spend the winter, as they had been doing in the past few years because of the composer's worsening health. Wagner died from a heart attack on February 13th 1883, at 69 years of age. His body is buried in the garden of his house in Bayreuth.

The last image, that of Richard Wagner's grave, is a photo taken by Josef Lehmkuhl
Posted on May 1st 2013

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