Listen to Wagner
A bicentennial sense of his life and work.
Nov 25, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 11 • By PAUL A. CANTOR
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Richard Wagner (1813-1883), arguably the greatest of all opera composers. (Mozart and Verdi fans: Please note the “arguably.”) Accordingly, the Wagner industry, active enough in off years, has kicked into high gear. The major recording companies have issued large boxes of commemorative CD collections, with varying degrees of completeness. Deutsche Grammophon is the current champion, with a bargain set that includes the 10 canonical operas, plus the early and rarely performed Die Feen (The Fairies), Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love), and Rienzi. Opera houses around the world have been offering major productions of Wagner works throughout the year.
‘Die Walküre’ in rehearsal at the Bayreuth Festival, 2009
AP Photo / Bayreuther Festspiele GmbH / Enrico Nawrath
To cite just one example: Zurich conducted a Wagner festival that ran from June 14 to July 14. The Swiss city provided refuge to Wagner when he was exiled from German lands, and he wrote some of his best-known operas while living there. So Zurich went all-out to honor its adopted son: The festival featured Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), with Bryn Terfel in the title role, as well as numerous films, panel discussions, and lectures on the composer’s life and works. No less than Nike Wagner, the composer’s great-granddaughter, opened the festivities.
I was off hiking in the Bernese Alps during some of these events, but I did manage to catch the “Valkyries Over Zurich” exhibition at the city’s art museum, an impressive display of stage designs, posters, and other memorabilia selected from 150 years of Wagner productions at the local opera house. The fact that even the sober Swiss went ga-ga over Wagner is a good measure of how his bicentenary has captured the world’s imagination.
Musical scholarship has been doing its part to commemorate this milestone anniversary. And American readers should welcome the publication of this major new work of Wagner scholarship: Stewart Spencer’s translation of Richard Wagner: Biographie (2012) by the distinguished German musicologist Martin Geck. As an editor of Wagner’s Complete Works, Geck brings a deep familiarity with the composer to his task. He seems to have read everything Wagner ever wrote and, what is more, a substantial portion of everything that has ever been written about Wagner.
Geck is thus able to document his claims about Wagner’s life and works with apt quotations, often drawn from obscure corners of the composer’s correspondence and recorded conversations. He makes effective use of commentary by other musicologists and by Wagner’s profoundest critics—fellow geniuses such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Mann, Charles Baudelaire, and Marcel Proust. The result is a multifaceted investigation of Wagner’s achievement as the supreme master of music drama.
In a sweeping narrative, Geck shows that Richard Wagner’s works are, broadly speaking, autobiographical in nature. In opera after opera, Wagner pursues his personal obsession with the problem of redemption. His typical hero is a man outcast from society for some transgression, or simply set apart by his superiority. Condemned to a life of wandering, or otherwise unable to fit into conventional society, the Wagnerian hero can be saved only by the love of a woman willing to devote herself to him unconditionally. (In the case of Lohengrin and his beloved Elsa, who is forbidden to inquire into his identity, it is literally a “no questions asked” situation.)
As Geck shows, Wagner projected much of himself onto these heroes, drawing upon the Romantic archetype of the artist-as-solitary-genius who is rejected by an uncomprehending public and seeks sympathy from a small circle of devotees (preferably female, in Wagner’s case). In Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers from Nuremberg), Wagner’s only mature comic opera, he creates a fantasy world in which the revolutionary artist (represented by the singer-poet Walther von Stolzing) is eventually accepted by the artistically conservative community and, in the end, even wins the girl (Eva) as his bride.
Most of Wagner’s operas end tragically, however, with the lovers forced to part—or united only in death, the famous Liebestod (“love-death”) that captivated Wagner’s imagination from his first mature opera, Der fliegende Holländer, to his best-known love story, Tristan und Isolde. Wagner’s grandest creation, the four-opera cycle called Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), is dominated by the love-death idea in the tragic stories of Siegmund and Sieglinde in Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) and of Siegfried and Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods).
Wagner was haunted, Geck argues, by a vision of redemption that could only be gained through destruction, culminating in the apocalyptic ending of the Ring Cycle. The final opera, Götterdämmerung, portrays the collapse of the divine order that had been painfully established in the first, Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold). Siegfried and Brünnhilde, who turn to love to escape the corruption of this world, become tragically entangled in the evil web of court politics and can be purified of guilt only in their deaths, involving a funeral pyre whose flames ultimately ignite the castle Valhalla, home of the gods, thus bringing this world to an end.
Geck correctly asserts that Wagner’s tragic vision was rooted in his political experience as a failed and disillusioned revolutionary. In his youth, Wagner hoped that political action might restore humanity to a paradisiacal condition; but the abortive European revolutions of 1848 left him in despair about politics—not to mention in exile for his own revolutionary activities in Dresden. Like many artists of his day, Wagner learned to turn from politics to art as the only proper vehicle of human salvation. The central theme of the Ring Cycle is the incompatibility of love and the quest for power, and the consequent need to renounce power to achieve redemption.
Wagner may compulsively return to his own quest for romantic redemption in his operas, and he may grapple with personal demons, particularly in his dream/nightmare images of women as seductresses (notably in the figures of Venus in Tannhäuser and Kundry in Parsifal). But as Geck reminds us, for Wagner, the personal is the political. For all his narcissism and self-absorption as a human being, Wagner as an artist was a representative man of the 19th century. Precisely by drawing upon his personal obsessions, he created perhaps the most characteristic works of 19th-century art—operas that captured the spirit of the age and engaged with its deepest moral, political, and spiritual dilemmas.
Geck succeeds in conveying a sense of the big picture in Wagner’s operas; but in the course of his larger narrative, he also illuminates many individual topics. His discussion of Die Meister-singer contains an intriguing analysis of the way Wagner uses a variety of musical techniques, including Bach-like counterpoint, to give the score an archaic texture suited to his portrayal of the medieval world of German song. Geck is excellent on Wagner as the inheritor of Beethoven and, hence, the creator of a new kind of symphonic development in opera, with the orchestra becoming central to the action, not just acting as an accompaniment to the singing, as in conventional opera.
Geck offers several insightful analyses of principal characters, such as Wotan in Die Walküre, Hagen in Götterdämmerung, and Kundry in Parsifal. He demonstrates how Wagner creates psychological depth principally through the complexity of the music he associates with each character. Geck also refers to a variety of productions of individual operas. He is aware of the ways in which a clever producer can sometimes bring out hitherto-unnoticed aspects of an opera, but he is also not afraid to sound old-fashioned and quarrel with contemporary producers who are intent on imposing their personal vision on Wagner’s works by ignoring or contradicting his obvious staging intentions.
My admiration of Wagner: A Life in Music obviously rests on my underlying admiration of Wagner’s operas. But what of the common objection that, because of Wagner’s noxious opinions and beliefs, we should not even listen to his music, let alone applaud it? Richard Wagner was a vicious anti-Semite and, although it would be anachronistic to call him a Nazi, he did entertain the kinds of racist and nationalist theories that went on to provide the foundation of Hitler’s ideology. It certainly has not helped Wagner’s reputation that Adolf Hitler was, in fact, a great admirer of his operas and identified with his heroes, particularly Walther von Stolzing. Clouding matters even further, Wagner’s family linked up with the Nazis in the 1930s and allowed his operas to become a centerpiece of cultural propaganda under the Hitler regime.
Given all these facts, I can understand why some people, including many Jews, refuse to listen to Wagner’s music, and why performing it in public has been unofficially banned in Israel.
Geck is acutely aware of this problem, and he does not minimize the objectionable character of Wagner’s beliefs. He writes quite candidly, “As for my own perception of Wagner’s works, I feel both fascination and horror in equal measure.” But he does not make the dark side of Wagner the dominant theme of his book, as, for example, Robert W. Gutman tended to do in his biography, Richard Wagner: The Man, His Mind, and His Music (1968). In an effort to come to terms with the tainted and poisonous aspects of Wagner’s legacy, Geck appends to each chapter a biographical vignette of a Jewish figure (or someone of Jewish descent) who played a role in the Wagner story, either during his lifetime or in his reception after death.
These sections are as far as can be from an obnoxious some-of-Wagner’s-best-friends-were-Jewish argument. In fact, in several of the vignettes, Wagner comes off looking all the worse for publicly professing anti-Semitism while exploiting the talents of artistic Jews for his own benefit. (The conductor of the premiere of Parsifal was a Jew named Hermann Levi.) What Geck does succeed in showing is that many Jews (among them, Arnold Schoenberg), while critical of Wagner’s ideology and sometimes even of his music, nevertheless chose to hold in check their understandably hostile feelings toward Wagner the man and contributed to our understanding and appreciation of his genius as an artist.
One cannot ignore the fact that an extraordinary number of the most important conductors of Wagner’s operas have been Jewish, including Daniel Barenboim, Leonard Bernstein, Leo Blech, Artur Bodanzky, Antal Dorati, Jascha Horenstein, Otto Klemperer, Erich Leinsdorf, James Levine, Lorin Maazel, Gustav Mahler, Fritz Reiner, Georg Solti, George Szell, and Bruno Walter. Surely this distinguished group of intelligent and sensitive men, several of whom suffered under the Nazi regime and/or stood up to it, could not have been deluded in their admiration of, and devotion to, Wagner’s music.
Geck’s main point in defense of Wagner’s music, as opposed to his personal ideology, is that the ideological effects of music are unpredictable. He cites a comment from the Jewish critic George Steiner:
No one can accuse George Steiner of being soft on Nazis. And yet even he was struck by the ability of Wagner’s music to inspire a great Zionist in his hopes for Israel. Should Herzl have been prevented from hearing Rienzi?
Geck says this of his own approach to Wagner’s operas:
Geck makes an important point about what we are really listening to when we hear Wagner’s music. With the strains of the “Ride of the Valkyries” resounding in our ears, we picture men in pointy helmets and women in breastplates and are likely to think of Wagner as the great musical poet of power, the king of the Kaiser March.
But in fact, the Ring Cycle is one of the greatest indictments ever written of power politics: a portrait of its utter corruption and ultimate impotence. No composer—arguably no one but Shakespeare—has probed the inner torments of those addicted to power as profoundly as Wagner (especially in the music he associates with Wotan). No one writes more stirringly heroic music than Wagner; and yet he is at his best as a pathologist of suffering—as his most incisive critic, Nietzsche, was the first to point out. In opposition to the common image of Wagner’s grandeur, Nietzsche characterized him, in The Case of Wagner, as “our greatest miniaturist in music who crowds into the smallest space an infinity of sense and sweetness. His wealth of colors, of half shadows, of the secrecies of dying light spoils one to such an extent that afterward almost all other musicians seem too robust.”
Geck repeatedly distinguishes between the messages Wagner may have wished to convey in his operas and the way they have actually been received. The creative geniuses who have drawn upon Wagner’s art have not necessarily been influenced by his politics. As Geck writes, “Both Debussy and Proust were fascinated by Parsifal without abandoning themselves to its ideology.”
What is true of the aesthetic elite may also be true of the average operagoer: “In wanting to be gratified by Wagner’s gifts as a sorcerer, audiences prefer not to have their lives called into question by Wagner the moral preacher.” Whatever may have been the case at moments in the past, Geck is almost certainly right that the vast majority of Wagner’s audience today listens to his music in spite of his anti-Semitism and proto-Nazi opinions, not because of them.
In the end, Geck the musicologist keeps coming back to Wagner the musician: “And yet Wagner has a specific trump card up his sleeve—his music.” It is ultimately by his music—not his ideology—that Wagner’s achievement is to be judged. By that standard, Geck concludes at the end of his study, “there is only one Wagner.”
A critical wag might reply, “Thank God; the world couldn’t stand a second one”—and there would be some truth to that comeback. But Wagner’s 200th birthday provides an occasion to be generous to his memory and acknowledge that, for all his faults, his reprehensible behavior, and his contemptible beliefs, he made a unique contribution to the world of music and expanded our awareness of the range of the human soul’s possibilities. Although I share Nietzsche’s contempt for Wagner’s faux Christianity, I cannot bring myself to wish for a world without the prelude to Parsifal. No music—perhaps no work of art—has ever captured so movingly a tortured soul’s agonized yearning for transcendence.
Paul A. Cantor, the Clifton Waller Barrett professor of English at the University of Virginia, is the author, most recently, of The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty vs. Authority in American Film and TV.