2007-08-14 15:07:32 UTC
[Linked by Arts & Letters Daily.]
His operas sell out immediately. His theories changed classical music. His
artistic legacy still divides his warring family. Millions either love him
obsessively or hate him passionately
Richard Wagner - or, rather, the Wagner dynasty - is in the news
again, with intrigue about who in the family will inherit the
directorship of the 131-year-old Bayreuth festival, created by the
composer in the theatre built specifically for the performance of
his work. Wagner occupies music and opera lovers as no other
composer does. Some unequivocally worship him, their trips to
Bayreuth akin to pilgrimages. Others revile him. Many can do both at
once, separating Wagner the composer from Wagner the self-obsessive,
a man who, though often penniless, lavishly spent others'
(particularly the adoring Ludwig II of Bavaria's) money, who freely
exercised his considerable libido, who demanded adoration and who
held some highly suspect views, on, for instance, Judaism. The music
itself requires much of us: endless uncomfortable hours in the opera
house, with outrageous demands upon not only time but concentration.
Many meekly enter his world on his terms - and gasp in amazement.
What makes this man and his work so important is, essentially, his
reforming spirit. He wanted to purify opera, to return to something
like the concept envisaged by its creators in the late 16th century,
one aimed at resurrecting the principles of Greek drama. So, he
dispensed with "number opera", with its distinct arias, ensembles,
choruses and recitatives, and came up instead with something
labelled the Ges-amtkunstwerk, the "total art work". In the
Gesamtkunstwerk, everything - orchestra, singers, scenery, acting;
even, ideally, the theatre itself - was a vital, inseparable part of
the whole. In this way, Wagner was able to express complex
psychologies. His was not the all-action opera of the French and
Italians, but an internal drama. It was a big idea, one that,
despite the limitations of the literal interpretations that were the
order of his day, has given today's interventionist directors huge
opportunities. A Ring production can have a Marxist leaning, since
one message of the opera allies itself to Proudhon's assertion that
property is theft. It can be inspired by the nihilism of
Schopen-hauer, since all comes to naught. Or it can be
psychoanalytical, a Jungian examination of the mind. And so on.
Fertile ground for continuing controversy.
The music is unique both in its epic scale and in its sound world,
structured in vast paragraphs and unified through the device of the
leitmotif, a snippet of music - a chord, a phrase - that signifies
thought, character, mood or symbol. These snippets may not be
consciously recognised and labelled, but their presence and
interreaction subliminally convey meaning and nuance. Wagner's role
in the evolution of music is crucial. His mature language is a
rich-textured, multi-layered sound, full of detail but never
confused. He uses a large orchestra, not just for its brute force,
but for the range of colours it offers. And he pushes the bounds of
tonality to the limit. Undoubtedly, the most talked-about chord in
all music is the so-called "Tristan chord", from Tristan und Isolde.
Isolated, it doesn't seem to be alluding to any key. And when Wagner
resolves it, he lands on another chord that leaves the music
lingering, suggesting longing, or maybe ecstasy, or maybe death
prolonged. It is just a small step from here to the atonal world of
Arnold Schoenberg and others.
Indeed, without Wagner, there would have been no Schoenberg, no
Richard Strauss, no Gustav Mahler - not, anyway, as we know them.
Debussy, for all his railings against Wagner, took on the German
composer's idea of opera as an integrated art form and a window onto
the innermost psyche in Pelléas et Mélisande.
So, Wagner opera remains in heavy demand whenever it's in town,
which is often. Keith Warner's finally complete production of The
Ring at Covent Garden, to be staged three times this autumn, is so
oversubscribed that patrons are being sold tickets for the
rehearsals. At Bayreuth, the waiting list for a ticket stretches
back 10 years. People return to Wagner again and again, not simply
to see yet another production or to hear a particular singer, but
because they know that even if it's the wrong singer for them and
the 10th time they have seen the staging, they can be pretty sure
another layer will reveal itself, another thought stirred.
What about those uncomfortable connections with the Nazis, though?
Wagner, it is true, was more or less adopted as the quintessential
Nazi composer in the early 1930s. Hitler adored his music. But that
was hardly the long-dead composer's fault. Another problem was that
Winifred, the British-born wife of Wagner's homosexual son,
Siegfried, was close to the Führer. In 1933, it was even rumoured
that the pair were to marry. This relationship is fascinatingly
charted in Jonathan Carr's forthcoming book The Wagner Clan, and, in
a rather different way, in AN Wilson's quasi-historical new novel,
Winnie and Wolf.
Winifred inherited the directorship at Bayreuth on her husband's
death, and thereafter Hitler began subsidising Bayreuth's coffers
more generously even than Ludwig II had done. Bayreuth in turn
mounted productions of Die Meistersinger that became ever more
tub-thumping celebrations of the glorious fatherland. The
institution was "Nazified". DeNazification was attempted after the
war, by replacing Winifred with her sons, Wieland and Wolfgang.
Despite radicalisation of production styles, it has proved hard to
rid Bayreuth of every trace of bad odour as long as it has remained
in family hands.
There is no question, of course, that Wagner was resolutely
antisemitic, becoming more so as he grew older. But how much that
had to do with pure prejudice and how much it was down to his
resentment that the Jewish composers Meyerbeer and Mendel-ssohn held
artistic sway in Paris and Germany at times when Wagner was eager to
make a name for himself in those places is debatable. Certainly, in
his notorious 1850 essay Judaism in Music (penned under a
pseudonym), he is ready to characterise all Jewish music, and the
music of these two men in particular, as superficial. That was an
unfair judgment, particularly upon Men-delssohn. But whether he
believed also that the only solution to perceived Jewish economic
and political dominance was their physical annihilation is another
matter. He was, after all, a libertarian revolutionary, forced to
flee Dresden in the suppressed 1849 uprising there, and he numbered
many Jews among his friends. But the Jewish issue is not one to be
belittled, and it is an aspect of Wagner that has guaranteed he will
remain for ever a talking point.
Indeed, Wagner's antisemitism and his association with the Nazis -
or, rather, their association with him - still means that there are
many who cannot bear to hear his music. Until fairly recently, it
was impossible to encounter it in the state of Israel, until that
great Wagnerian Daniel Barenboim decided to throw his considerable
moral weight behind the matter. And as that devout Wagnerian Michael
Portillo pertinently asked in a New Statesman article a couple of
years ago, why is it that a love of Wagner is so often taken to
signal right-wing, antisemitic tendencies when a love of Richard
Strauss, at least on occasion a Nazi sympathiser, signals only the
height of good taste?
Love the music or not, Wagner cannot be ignored. Larger than life in
his own lifetime, posthumously he gets no smaller. The Bayreuth
feuding might be what's in the news, but it's the art that
perpetuates the reputation. And whether it's young Katharina Wagner
who takes the reins of the family business, or her half-sister Eva,
or indeed her cousin Nike, one cannot change the reason for or the
importance of Bayreuth's existence.
* Have your say
There is no doubt that Wagner's innovative music is galvanising and
The part of the deal that causes outrage is the staging. I greatly
prefer live concert performances of Wagner. I still treasure the
memory of a concert performance of "Die WalkÃŒre" which I attended
many years ago in London.
The awful truth is that when the action is static the unedifying
spectacle of hefty, middle-aged singers heaving about in
inappropriate costumes, often ludicrously supposed to be socially
relevant, reduces the effect of the music and its content to bathos.
On the other hand, the sight of great singers and musicians losing
themselves in the spirit of the music is inspiring.
I recommend the Tolkein Ring movies to those who crave spectacle.
Janet Kenny, Point Vernon, Queensland, Australia
Who on Earth believes that "a love of Richard Strauss ... signals
only the height of good taste"?
As for Wagner's importance, he wrote a few good tunes, and made
important innovations in orchestration and structure, but I (like
most people, I suspect) find him largely dull. Also, as John
Borstlap said below, Wagner initiated the phenomenon of gigantism in
German music - his closest musical descendants would all benefit
from a little more discipline and a little less egoism.
Has Amos N Lenox ever heard Wagner in the theatre? Thirty years ago
I heard my first 'Ring' cycle at the English National Opera,
conducted by Sir Charles Groves, and was completely hooked - so much
so that at the end of Gotterdammerung I wanted it all to start
again! The sheer momentum of the cycle carried me along and the time
simply flew by! The 'Ring' can do this; 'Meistersinger' is wonderful
music but far too long (for me) ... but different scenarios result
in different music, and the effect on the same individual is bound
Garry Humphreys, London, England
In the literary arena, Proust and Dickins certainly lack brevity of
ideas but they are still given their due. Regarding Wagner's tall
blonde heros and short quirky villans, consider his audience. If
Wagner were Italian I'm sure the opposite would be true. Should we
ban Shakespear because of Merchant Of Venice? No. I think too much
is made of an artist's philosophy. You can't fault the artists for
Rich Hill, Prospect Park, PA/USA
Wagner's music is often brilliant. Wagner himself was an
overbearing, egotistical, immoral man. Then, after his death, he had
the misfortune of becoming Hitler's favorite composer.
His music was used beautifully in the Movie, Excalibur--probably the
best low-budget movie ever. Wagner's music actually works better in
film than in opera, where it can enter the artistic milieu at
crucial moments, then fade out. The problem with his operas is that
the moments of brilliance are separated by long periods of just
Given the terrible history of Nazism, I can understand why many
cannot appreciate Wagner. More often than not, great artists are
also terrible human beings--it seems to go with the territory. Also,
an appreciation of great art does not (contrary to popular belief)
make a person good or moral. Hitler not only loved Wagner, but also
(recent news stories revealed this) had a secret stash of well-used
records of Tchaikovsky, Borodin, and other Slavic composers.
Paul Weber, GILBERT, USA/Arizona
And Leni Rieffensthal just made a movie. So like what's the big
starry de cysis, Mountainview,
So NJ Levitt thinks "On that view, the cumulative effect of Wagner's
music, especially his most mature work, is to reveal a shriveled and
rather nasty persona unable to see his way past self pity." He's
right, of course, about Siegfried; try as I might, I find him very
hard to like. No matter how mistreated and ill-raised, I still would
not care to associate with him.
But unable to see his way past self-pity? Spend six hours with Die
Meistersinger, and reflect what a mature Wagner through Sachs looks
to say. The revolutionary of 1849 has been replaced by a wiser man
more willing to see where others are correct, not hating of his
enemies, and eager to guide and assist that "angry young man" to a
better art. The text of the Ring was written by that young
revolutionary, but Meistersinger is the mature Wagner. I don't see
Tom Schmidt, Brooklyn, New York
Someone here said, "It is well known that Hitler loved Jewish music
Not so. That's a meme spreading from the article earlier this week
revealing that Adolf's large record collection included a
Tchaikovsky concerto that happened to be performed by a Jewish
violinist, and two Beethoven sonatas that happened to be performed
by a Jewish pianist. That is not "loving Jewish music in private."
In fact, Hitler hated Jewish composers and banned and exiled a
significant number of them. Several of them he had murdered in the
camps. Keep the record straight.
(Also remember Wagner died 50 years before the Nazis ever came to
power. Guilt by association is bad enough. Back-dating it is
David Johns, Seymour, USA/TN
I'm one of those dreadfully old-fashioned folk who believe that an
artist with a powerful talent, as Wagner assuredly was, creates a
body of work whose main revelation, when all is said, is the
character--the soul, to be even more old-fashioned--of the creator.
On that view, the cumulative effect of Wagner's music, especially
his most mature work, is to reveal a shriveled and rather nasty
persona unable to see his way past self pity. Brunhilde doesn't die
for love of Siegfried, nor Tristan and Isolde for love of each
other. They all die for RW! It's easy to discern the infantile
narcissism of Wagner's plots. Who else would make a "hero" of that
bloated braggart Siegfried--violent, stupid, grandiose, and
clueless? The standard line amongst Wagnerians who recognise these
failings in the text is that all is redeemed by the music. But in my
view, it's in the music that one finds the most intense and
indefensible moral corruption, all the more repulsive because of its
NJ Levitt, New York, NY
Wagner's thought is self indulgent tripe. I regard his stories as
akin to Walt Disney (not that I am against Disney).
But his harmonies and orchestrations are to die for.
So i love the music when the mood takes me, and more or less ignore
the words if my mood so inclines, as Anton Bruckner the great
Austrian symphonist (died 1896) did.
But why cannot Wagner be ignored? I will ignore him if i want to. He
is just a composer, no more no less. There are greater things than
As for Wagner's moral legacy, there are for more important things to
worry about. Let Puritans think a love of Wagner's music equals anti
semitism if they need something to keep them warm at nights. Their
attitude is nothing to me
Steve Meikle, Christchurch , NZ
....the hell with all the funny theories....just listen to Wagner
for music...love or hate it.......take what you want...just like you
would do for Sinatra or Elvis.
JOHN AMBROSE, NORTON, OHIO...USA
Any article on Wagner that leaves out an even passing mention of his
decade-long friendship with Nietzsche misses something profoundly
Joseph F. Conte, Uniondale, NY
So very easy to peck out a moral high road on a key board, so very
hard to better his music or approach his output. It it's too
difficult, his morality too stressful, why listen?The off button is
as close as your fingers and you'll be spared all that nasty angst.
Tony Flynn, Gunning, NSW Australia
As they say, 'Trust the art, not the artist.'
Lee Merrick, Newport Beach, CA
The importance of Wagner does NOT lie in his 'reforming spirit' but
in the artistic quality of much, not all, of the music. Much of
Wagner's 'reforms' had a desastrous influence upon European music:
absurd size of orchestras, blown-up gestures, muddy harmonies and
false heroics, symphonies and operas that sag under their own
weight... Bad Bruckner, Mahler and Strauss can be traced back to bad
Wagner. As for psychological depth: Mozart has it all as well, and
leaving the theatre after a Mozart opera gives the feeling of having
drunk champagne, after Wagner it is mostly exhaustion and feeling
drugged and elevated in the same time. Wagner, often misjudging
scale and balance, was an insecure artist, hence the enormous
lengths and too much talking & explaining in the texts, and the
sudden absence of inspiration over long stretches, and great music
in other episodes. It is an uneven art, but the best bits touch the
sublime. And Tristan was followed by Meistersinger: hysteria by
John Borstlap, Amsterdam, Netherlands
I doubt very much that Hitler or the Nazi Party understood Wagner
very well at all but merely plagarised this great music to suit
their own flawed ideology. It is well known that Hitler loved Jewish
music in private. It is very wrong to associate Wagner with Hitler
and the Nazis. Richard Wagner was not alive during the Nazi period.
It is also wrong to hate Wagner for being an anti-semite without at
first understanding him and the times in which he lived. Wagner was
extremely paranoid, perhaps even bi-polar. The words "conspiracy"
and "Jewish" are frequently found together, especially when it comes
to matters of money, which Wagner could not manage at all. He was
always in debt, lived well beyond his means for much of his life,
and "borrowed" as much and as often as he could from friends and
patrons. It is testament to the greatness and purity of his music
that we find Wagner's flawed personality so hard to reconcile with.
Wagner's music will last forever and we are all in his debt.
John Harper, Oxford, United Kingdom
Very fine article and an excellent introduction to Wagner. I would
only add what is often overlooked: that at the base of all the ideas
and achievements lies one of the greatest melodists who ever lived,
a pure composer who rivals Bach, Mozart and Beethoven in the ability
to create wonderful musical themes and variations. Without, this,
the rest of his achievement would be forgotten.
Charles Zigmund, Pleasantville, NY
Wagner musical thinking is philosophcial among all music poetry.
Juan Carlos Rico Diaz, Mexico City, Mexico
"If it sounds good, it is good" - Duke Ellington
"Wagner's music is better than it sounds" - Mark Twain
I agree with Ellington. Wagner has become a cult. The music is most
dull, plodding, and a waste of time.
Amos N, Lenox,
Great article! Only the mighty influence of Wagner could have led
the fawning Bruckner ( the symphonic Wagnerite) to compose one of
the greatest Adagios (for his celestial Seventh Symphony) ever to be
heard. Those Wagnerian tubas intoning the opening phrase lead the
listener later to peaks of spiritual ecstasy and sublimity. It's
unfortunate that Wagner's music was hijacked by the Nazis for their
own ends. But as Edward Said wrote in his essay on Wagner in the
aftermath of Dniel Barenboim's performance of an extract from
Tristan in Israel for which the maestro received official flak, "How
many poets, writers, musicians, painters would there be left if
their art were judged by their moral behavior? And who's to decide
what level of turpitude can be tolerated in the production of any
given artist?...This is not to say that artists shouldn't be morally
judged for their immorality or evil practices; but that an artist's
work cannot be judged solely on those grounds and banned
SD Goh, PJ, Malaysia
Very interesting article. The problem I have always had with
Wagner's music is that it takes him an hour to say something in his
music that Beethovan can say more clearly in five minutes. Now that
David Morris, Hay on Wye, Powys
The heroes are tall, blonde and noble. The villains are short, ,
quirky and apparently bent on destruction. And the man who wrote the
stuff thought Jews were the agents of destruction. Just how hard
does one have to work to join those dots up?
As to the artistic merits of this dubious fare, Debussy had it
right. When a Wagnerite said to him "There are some divine moments
in Wagner", he responded :"Yes and some pretty turgid half hours as
ian morrison, Auckland , New Zealand