Richard Wagner Essay Research Paper mgWagner critical

Richard Wagner Essay, Research Paper


Wagner: critical essay

I have a friend, Matthew, who is a Wagnerian. For those of you who don’t

know what that exotic species is, “Wagnerian” denotes someone who

listens to the operas of Richard Wagner and loves them to a degree

bordering on the unreasonable. And he’s continually amazed by the fact

that I don’t get off on Wagner to the degree that he does. He also hit

me once when I referred to Wagner as a proto-Nazi. Granted we were both

a bit drunk at the time, but even so, you may get a bit of an idea how

much respect and love Matthew has for the various works of Richard W.

Nonetheless, I stand by both of those statements. There’s no point

denying the proto-Nazi thing, since handsome Adolf said it himself:

“whoever wants to understand National Socialist Germany must first

understand Wagner.” Michael Tanner tries to minimise Wagner’s effect on

the development of Nazi Germany by saying Hitler was the only one in the

Nazi hierarchy who actually liked Wagner, and all the others had to be

dragged to Wagner productions under protest, but even so I don’t think

he denies Wagner’s influence outright. And even if anti-Semitic views

were less unfashionable in the earlier part of this century than they

are these days (certain quarters like the KKK notwithstanding) so that

Hitler could really have picked them up from anywhere, he himself speci

fically referred to Wagner as his source. So let’s stop quibbling on

this point.

I’m also going to stand by my other statement about Wagner not really

doing it for me. I don’t have problems with 19th century Romanticism.

(of which Wagner became by common consent one of the greatest exemplars

and proponents) per se, and I’d rather have that than the stiffly formal

and correct classicism of the 18th century more often than not. But even

so, I’m not blind to its shortcomings, and there are times when the

Romantic fits and seizures become too much. Wagner, to me, represents

Romantic excess. There was a great moment once in the TV series

Blackadder where Blackadder describes just how evil the Germans are:

they have no word for “fluffy” and their operas last three or four days.

The first example is slightly exaggerated perhaps (say hi to the word

flaumig, Edmund), but in the case of Wagner’s Ring der Nibelungen, the

gibe is cruelly true. The whole thing really does last for four days (or

evenings, at least).

This is what I mean by excessive. Granted that the Ring is of course a

series of four operas, not one, it’s still too much. I’ve written before

about how I don’t like Mozart much, and one of the things I said then is

that the sheer volume of young Wolfgang’s output is one of the things

that defeats me when I approach it. Wagner’s excesses are in the

opposite direction; he wrote relatively few operas but they were almost

all mind- and arse-numbingly long. I don’t think any of them (other than

perhaps The Flying Dutchman) clock in below three hours and most go over

four. Way too much to handle for me.

Still, I’ve actually made an effort to get a handle of Wagner. A

semi-proper effort too, not the half-arsed surface scratch job I did on

Mozart. In preparation for this here bit of writing, I’ve done a bit of

reading and also some more listening?notably, finally listening to the

whole of the Ring for the first time. Way back when I did music at UNSW

in 1993 I heard the first two operas in the cycle, Das Rheingold and Die

Walk?re, then never heard them again for nearly six years (except for an

old Bruno Walter recording of Walk?re Act I at Bowen Library) until I

picked them up again a few weeks ago, and I’d never heard the other two?

Siegfried and G?tterd?mmerung?at all before now. This naturally had a

rather grievous effect on my perception of the whole work, and really it

wasn’t until I started preparation for this thing here that I even

realised really what the story was. So I think I’ve come to a better

appreciation of what Wagner was trying to achieve with the Ring, and

these days I’m prepared to give him more credit than I’ve been in the


Wagner’s source for his exhausting epic was the old German poem the

Nibelungenlied, which was probably given its final form around the same

time as the stories of Parzival and Tristan and Isolde were taking

shape, i.e. about the end of the 12th/start of the 13th century. Those

other medieval stories were the source of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde

and his final opera Parsifal. However, having heard the latter and

having also read Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, which was Wagner’s

specific source text in that case, I know just what liberties Wagner

took with his source to come up with his own text. I haven’t read any of

the Tristan stories other than Malory’s version of it in his Chronicle

of King Arthur and I don’t know what particular version Wagner used for

Tristan und Isolde, but I suppose he did something similar.

And he certainly played about with the Nibelungenlied. Even if you look

no further than the table of contents, you realise how much he left out.

The whole second half of the story, to be precise, in which Siegfried’s

death is avenged with a little help from Attila the Hun. Brunnhilde’s

position in the original is entirely different, and the gods have only

the smallest of bit parts in the poem. Arguably Wagner’s filleting of

Parzival was a lot worse than that, but that’s heavy enough. Fritz

Lang’s 1920s films of the story, Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Revenge, are

much more faithful to the Nibelungenlied than Wagner’s operas. (And just

as Wagner’s Ring cycle was Hitler’s favourite opera [or operas], Lang’s

Nibelungen films were apparently his favourite films.)

An advantage the Lang films have over the Wagner operas, apart from

their greater textual fidelity, is their brevity compared to the

duration of the Ring. They’re still fairly long?the versions I have on

video occupy about 3? hours of your time between them?but Wagner is four

or five times as long. The famous Solti recording adds up to near

fifteen hours of playing time. I personally dread to think how many

operas Wagner might have required if he had included all the events of

the Nibelungenlied that happen after Siegfried gets done in.

Given that these days people are supposed to have attention spans

lasting no longer than a few minutes, if even that much, this obviously

seems absurd. Fifteen hours, even over a number of nights, is a lot of

time to devote to something. The sheer length of it all has admittedly

been one of the things which has proved most daunting in any of my other

attempts to get a grip on Wagner. To sit and listen to Parsifal

continuously for four and a half hours proved extraordinarily difficult

when I tried it, and the first time I listened to Tristan I just

couldn’t do it and had to spread it over three nights, one act each

night. This was also what I finally wound up doing with Siegfried and

G?tterd?mmerung, splitting each one up over a few days. The amount of

mental preparation necessary even for that, to force myself to listen to

them at all, was considerable.

I say “listen” advisedly because I don’t habitually watch operas. I’ve

seen only one on a stage (an amateur production of Rigoletto) and seen a

few more on TV. But normally I discover operas through recordings of

them, and this is the case as well with the Ring (the recording in

question being the 1958-65 Solti set mentioned above). Given what I’ve

read about some of the more recent productions, especially some of the

ones perpetrated at Bayreuth, I’m not sure that I even want to actually

see a Ring production. Anyway, I like listening to operas and trying to

visualise them for myself by listening and reading the text.

What bothers me about some of these productions is a tendency many seem

to share to dislocate the text from its proper mythical point in time.

Patrice Chereau’s centenary production with the Rhinemaidens in a

hydro-electric dam and Fafner as a tank, for example. If the original

text has a reasonably specific historical setting, then I don’t see why

producers can’t stick to it. Obviously, being a work of “myth”, the Ring

doesn’t really have a specific historical date attached, although the

presence of Attila the Hun in the Nibelungenlied presumably places the

action around the mid-5th century AD. I’d be wary of updating that

setting too much in case the thing looked even more ridiculous than it

already is in many ways. (The 1957 Warner Bros cartoon What’s Opera Doc?

showed just how easy it is to take the piss out of Wagner’s

pretensions, with Bugs Bunny in Brunnhilde drag and Elmer Fudd singing

“Kill the WAB-bit!” to the tune of the Ride of the Valkyries. The best

joke, though, is that the Pilgrims’ Chorus from Tannh?user actually

provides most of the musical material for the cartoon.)

This isn’t to say we can’t interpret the Ring?I’m not so literal-minded

as to seriously think we can’t take the cycle on anything other than

face value?just that I have reservations about how some people seem to

interpret it. And I don’t think we need to burrow too deeply to find

meaning in this story of gods, giants, dwarfs, magical treasures and the

occasional human being. The story gives us the passing of the gods and

the rise of mankind, who are raised up by the power of those same gods

they cast aside. One system is vanquished by another system with help

from the first. If we accept the 5th century setting (which is

admittedly extremely tenuous), we could further read it as the victory

of Christianity over the pagan belief systems of whichever lands it

filtered into. Politically speaking this could be seen as revolutionary

(i.e. the replacement of the old with the new is inevitable) or

reactionary (i.e. there are ruling classes and lower classes, and good

reasons why the former shouldn’t let the latter get above their

station), so whether you choose to see this victory as wonderful or

lamentable is open to question. At any rate, though, I think this theme

of the displacement of the old gods and beliefs is a profound and

important one.

But even so, I keep wondering: does the bloody thing really need to go

on for as long as it does? Does it need to go on for fifteen or sixteen

hours? A grand theme is a grand theme and obviously all themes should be

given fitting treatment, but even so the Ring stretches one’s tolerance.

Tchaikovsky apparently said leaving the first production of the cycle at

Bayreuth in 1876 was like being released from prison. And I’ve always

liked Edgard Var?se’s comment on Parsifal, which can easily be extended

to any of Wagner’s other works: “Some of it is so grand, so strong, but

it goes on and on.” Don’t know about anyone else, but it cost me a

reasonable amount of effort to steel myself for the Ring, to force

myself to even listen to the last two parts one disc at a time with a

break in between each one.

The slowness with which the drama proceeds is a good part of the problem

as well for me. Other than Alberich and Mime in Siegfried, I don’t think

anyone else in the Ring gets to sing at a speed even approximating to

normal conversation. Obviously opera is not designed to approximate

conversation, of course, even I know that opera is about singing and not

speaking. But Wagner’s verse (not sure if it can be dignified with the

name “poetry”) reads to me like it has a sort of conversational quality,

by which I mean it could be declaimed on stage as dialogue if you

removed the music. It reads like people speaking rather than singing

songs. But when united with the music, however, things are slowed down

immeasurably. At times I feel like it’s taking ages for anything to

happen, possibly because it is. Combine this sluggishness with the

artifice inherent in all opera (and which occasionally becomes monstrous

in Wagner’s case), and all that grandeur and strength can become

somewhat crushing. It takes an effort to resist it.

It could be argued that my views on Wagner have been too strongly

influenced by Nietzsche, but I’m not a hundred percent sure of that. I

discovered both Wagner and Nietzsche in 1993, but didn’t get much into

Nietzsche until a couple of years after that?I started with Zarathustra,

of course, but don’t recall reading anything else by Nietzsche or

exploring him any more deeply for some while afterwards?by which time

I’d made more progress with Wagner, heard half of the Ring as well as

Tannh?user and a few other items, and hadn’t really been swept away by

them. I’m not even sure if I knew at that stage that Nietzsche was an

anti-Wagnerian; if I did then I’d certainly never read any of his

specifically anti-Wagner statements. I think I’d probably concur with

many things Nietzsche does say against Wagner, but whether he influenced

my opinions or whether he just reflected something I already felt is

certainly questionable.

And yet, does the fact that I like Nietzsche mean I can’t also like

Wagner as well? Of course not. Anyone who says otherwise is operating on

an untenable idea, that a person’s political, aesthetic, religious etc.

opinions should all unite harmoniously and be of a coherent piece, so

that the person becomes a coherent and easily classifiable unit. In

other words, the idea that if you like something then by rights you

should not like something else which is unlike that first thing. There

are things which you are not allowed to like. Wagner represented the way

of the future to the nineteenth century’s forward-thinkers, while

Johannes Brahms became the figurehead for the more conservative element.

Since the two were thus opposed, by rights I should not be allowed to

like them both.

But people aren’t coherent in that way, or if they are then they must be

exceedingly boring. Brahms doesn’t usually pose a problem for me, I must

say. I like most of what I’ve heard by him. But I like Wagner as well?at

least, for all my reservations, I think I like him more than I dislike

him, even if I may prefer some of his progeny (Mahler, Bruckner, etc.)

to Wagner himself. I have reservations about them at times as well, but

their best moments can be very fine, and I’m willing to admit this is

true of Wagner as well. It’s perfectly possible to find both Wagner and

Brahms acceptable, just as it is to find both Wagner and Nietzsche

acceptable. After all, Michael Tanner has written books on both of them,

and come out on both their sides. (Interestingly, he finds Nietzsche’s

later anti-Wagner comments more instructive than his earlier pro-Wagner


I think Nietzsche was more profoundly ambivalent towards Wagner than he

was actually against him, though. His last book may have been called

Nietzsche Contra Wagner, but let’s not forget the first section of that

is called “Where I Admire”. He recognised what Wagner was good at, even

if he did not find Wagner’s art terribly healthy. My own ambivalence

towards Wagner is rather less profound than Nietzsche’s was, but it’s

still there. I don’t deny those moments when Wagner really does it for

me, but I find him somewhat problematic nonetheless. In short, I am

neither particularly pro nor contra Wagner. I am neither wholly for nor

wholly against. And this is why Matthew wonders about me, because Wagner

is an artist that you’re supposed to be either wholly for or wholly

against; I don’t feel a need to submit absolutely in raptures nor to

hurl masses of invective against him. He’s not supposed to inspire

people to occupy a relative middle ground in relation to him as I do,

hence Matthew has difficulty understanding my position.

Wagner’s personality was seemingly such that it virtually demanded you

make that one-or-the-other-no-compromise-possible decision. Wagner took

a particular view of art (especially his own) and its possibilities

which I’ve seen described elsewhere as “messianic”, which seems a fairly

good word so I’ll use it as well. He demanded an almost unreasonable

degree of loyalty from his supporters and followers, many of whom gave

him it (even Has von B?low, when he found Wagner shacking up with little

Cosima, stuck by him?and all the performers at the first Bayreuth

apparently performed free of charge), and his art is supposed to make

similar demands upon its audience. Either give it all or not at all.

Hence Nietzsche’s characterisation of Wagner’s art as decadent, and

Wagner himself as the supreme decadent. Wagnerian opera he treated as a

ruiner of spiritual health; for those to whom life is not enough it

fills the void and makes up for whatever is lacking. It latches onto a

certain neurosis, feeds on it and keeps it going, and therefore Wagner’s

works and the man himself can be a literal health hazard. As Wagner

himself wrote to a friend once, “if we had life, we should have no need

of art. Art begins where life breaks off: where nothing more is present,

we call out in art, ‘I wish’? is our ‘art’ therefore not simply a

confession of our impotence?” Tanner says all this theorising about

decadence is speculative but even so, “it would be less than honest for

people on either side to deny that something, maybe a large element, in

their responses to Wagner is touched by it”. Maybe it is in my case.

Maybe I try to resist being sucked in by Wagner and his works so as to

affirm my own strength. But I doubt it.

There’s another possible reason why people perhaps resist the pull of

Wagner which is rather less speculative: the taint of National

Socialism. That Wagner’s name and reputation have become tarnished by

his having been co-opted by Hitler is not worth the effort of denying.

It was Wagner’s early opera Rienzi, with its tale (told by Edward Gibbon

near the end of his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) of the

medieval Roman tribune who went about trying to restore the glories of

ancient Rome and lift it out of the decadence into which it had fallen

by the fourteenth century, that converted the 17 year old Adolf to

Wagnerism and supposedly inspired him to purify the still fairly

recently formed Germany and cleanse it of the taint of Judaism.

(Parenthetically, Rienzi was Wagner’s longest work, the premiere of it

in 1842 lasting as it did some six hours. Hitler certainly had more

staying power than me.)

Of course, we shouldn’t blame Wagner for this. In the same way that we

shouldn’t blame Jesus for the many idiots who followed him, we can’t

really hold Wagner responsible for things that happened decades after

his death. William Shirer claims any influence Wagner had on the nascent

Dritte Reich was based upon a misinterpretation of his works. (Wagner is

referred to on just six of the approximately 1300 pages of Shirer’s

history of the Third Reich.) This is also the claim made by advocates of

Nietzsche, who is also viewed as an influence on Nazi Germany, that his

words and ideas were taken and twisted by Nazi theorists and by Hitler;

therefore in the interests of fairness at the very least we have to

allow Wagner’s advocates to state their case.

But if Nietzsche was not an anti-Semite, and his writings provide

abundant evidence that he was not, Wagner certainly was an anti-Semite,

and his writings provide abundant evidence that he was. It’s this part

of his character which probably does the most to set people against him

these days, given how unfashionable anti-Semitism has become since World

War 2. Michael Tanner is clearly fascinated by the way in Wagner’s

character is used as an excuse to question the value of his work,

whereas someone like Beethoven also acted like a monstrous *censored* but no

one questions his work. This is a fair call to a degree. I think the

personality of a creative artist must in some way find expression in the

art they make and that this is unavoidable. By the same token, however,

I think that the evaluation of the artwork has to be made by removing

the creator from the creation. A person may be a complete arsehole but

that shouldn’t influence how we perceive their art. In Wagner’s case

(and perhaps in Hanif Kureishi’s case as well!), however, people seem to

find this separation too difficult to perform. And although Nietzsche

has probably been rescued from Nazi distortion and so rendered as fit

for consumption as he’ll ever be, there is still that anti-Semitic

streak in Wagner’s work which means the association with Nazi Germany

will never quite go away. Not until 1993 was Wagner’s music first

performed in Israel, whereupon questions were asked in the Israeli


Perhaps the term I’ve used a couple of times, “unfashionable”, might be

viewed as somewhat inappropriate and/or flippant given the conclusion

that anti-Semitism was pushed to in the middle parts of this tiresome

century, but I’ll stand by it. After all, I think political views and

opinions are in many ways subject to certain fashions, especially with

what we now call “political correctness”? and just as a show of one’s

political correctness has been a fashion in itself for better and for

worse, so too has political incorrectness been prized by some. It all

depends where you stand.

The dominant direction of political correctness in trendy European

intellectual circles, at least for the past couple of centuries, has

been leftwards, towards more liberal ideas. Germany by the early 20th

century was a different matter; William Shirer claims that the

nationalistic thinking of early 19th century German philosophers like

Fichte and Hegel worked eventually to set German political fashion in a

rightwards direction, thereby isolating it somewhat from the rest of

Europe. Ironically, of course, Hegel’s dialectical methods also inspired

that ?ber-Leftie Karl Marx, who was also German by birth?and also

something of an anti-Semite. At least that sort of thinking wasn’t

necessarily unique to Right-thinkers. (The greatest irony of all was

that the virulently anti-socialist Nazi Party was in fact named the

National Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany? though few people, least

of all the Nazis, seem to have noticed this.)

Because right-wing ideologies seem to have been traditionally less hip

in the rest of Europe than left-wing ones (and also perhaps because the

?ber-Right policies of Nazi Germany led to such horrific

conclusions?which is not to deny similarly dreadful events in Communist

Russia and China, although I’d argue those states were hardly leftist

any more), we’ve had more trouble admitting that Nazi Germany could

possibly have created any great art. When we do find something

worthwhile, we hum and haw over whether or not we should admit to liking

it. We seem to have little trouble admiring Sergei Eisenstein’s Soviet

films but Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and Olympia are somehow

more problematic. “Great films, yes, but?” seems to be the way of it. We

feel we have to qualify our admiration for some reason. I have a set of

Bruckner symphonies which were recorded in the 1930s and therefore are

technically products of Nazi Germany (even if it is EMI who distributes

them). Shouldn’t I feel extremely wrong for harbouring these things?

To come up to date, but leaving Germany (and also classical music) for a

moment, let’s consider the black metal music scene in Norway. Alongside

the Satanic imagery metal music has often decked itself out in to

equally often silly effect, quite a few black metal bands have also

adopted Nazi leanings as well. Norway, of course, was a notorious Nazi

puppet state, and after the war right-wing ideologies fell distinctly

from grace, hence the adoption of them by many black metal bands. My

favourite example is probably an album by Darkthrone with the words

“Norsk Arisk Black Metal” emblazoned on the back cover where you

couldn’t miss them, which forced the band’s distributor Peaceville

Records to issue a statement distancing themselves from the band’s

politics. I bet they wouldn’t have bothered doing that had the band

explicitly aligned itself with communism rather than Nazism. In the case

of Varg Vikernes, the one-man band behind Burzum, politics are the least

of the problems he poses. The lovely Varg is a convicted arsonist and

murderer, after all?two things we can’t pin on Wagner, though some might

like to try?and I have a couple of Burzum albums. By purchasing these,

am I perhaps showing some form of private support for a criminal?

Admittedly, as with the Bruckner symphonies mentioned above, these are

things I’ve thought about, but they don’t really bother me much. I think

that if you stop for too long to question all your motives and whether

or not you should do a thing, then you will soon wind up doing nothing.

(And Peaceville Records evidently didn’t feel strongly enough about

Darkthrone’s dubious politics to refuse to make money from them.) But a

vague feeling of what might be called guilt by association does kind of

linger in the background. By venturing into the muddy waters of black

metal I may have wandered a bit from Wagner?and in musical terms I

certainly have, though many of the bands may be accused of having

similar pretensions to pomp and grandeur if on a cheaper scale?but even

so, I think all of that ties in with things I’ve said earlier about how

there are things you’re supposedly not allowed to like and also Wagner’s

posthumous association with Nazi Germany. My own political leanings do

not incline towards Nazism, but I don’t think that means I can’t find

Burzum interesting. And yet, perhaps that’s why some people are wary of

Wagner. Whether or not the Third Reich was his fault, the association’s

still there? and perhaps people are afraid to commit firmly to Wagner

because of it. Maybe they think that if they side with Wagner, in some

way they’re also siding with the Reich. Guilt by association, as I said.

Can you let yourself like Wagner? Can you allow yourself?

Maybe, maybe not. This is all speculative, of course, just as Michael

Tanner rightly notes Nietzsche’s theory of Wagner as artist of decadence

is also speculative. But I think the possible ethical reason I consider

for why people have problems with Wagner are a bit less tenuous than the

psychoanalytic fields Nietzsche and Tanner ponder.

Anyway, I don’t think my own reservations are rooted in any ethical

issues? probably because I haven’t really done a vast amount of study

into Wagner’s works. There are times when I’m faced with a supposed

masterpiece of art, be it pictorial musical cinematic or literary, and

I’ll automatically respond to it, and there are times when someone has

to explain to me why it is a masterpiece before I’ll necessarily agree.

Wagner fits the latter case. I feel instinctively that yes, something

great is indeed going on here, but until I know what it is I don’t think

I fully appreciate it. Obviously I understand Wagner’s historical

importance, and I do appreciate the skill needed to write a piece of

music lasting 15 hours yet remaining coherent all the way through. But I

think I’d appreciate it more if I knew more about all what’s going on

for those 15 hours.

Still, I don’t know if I’d actually enjoy Wagner then or not. In smaller

doses he doesn’t pose a vast problem. I’ve enjoyed a record of piano

transcriptions made by Glenn Gould which also features his orchestral

Siegfried-Idyll, and have given serious consideration to buying a

collection of historic performances of “bleeding chunks”. Smaller doses

are fine (remember Nietzsche’s characterisation of him as a

miniaturist). It’s just the big slabs of raw meat from which the

bleeding chunks are ripped that pose problems for me. Thus far of all

the operas I’ve heard Siegfried is probably the only one I could say I

somewhat enjoyed. This is interesting, given that Michael Tanner says

that’s probably the least popular member of the Ring family. Die Walk?re

usually comes out on top in popularity terms, yet listening to it this

time round I don’t recall feeling especially moved by it. Then again,

maybe it’s a matter of what version you get. I seem to remember liking

Bruno Walter’s 1935 Walk?re Act I when I heard it.

At present, therefore, I don’t dislike Wagner but I’m not exactly a fan

either. There’s still obstacles in the way of my greater enjoyment of

Wagner’s work. Still, despite the difficulty, I’m willing to make an

effort to understand him better. Having finished with the Ring, I’ll now

give Tristan and Parsifal another go, and make an attempt on Die

Meistersinger. And perhaps one day I will indeed learn to love the

Tristan prelude, as Matthew has ordered me to do. Meanwhile, Karlheinz

Stockhausen is pressing ahead with his Licht series of seven operas, due

for completion in 2002, whereupon even the Ring will be dwarfed in time

scale?the four parts currently available already fill more CDs than any

Ring cycle I know, and there are still three more parts to be written

and/or recorded. Wonder if anyone will ever hold Stockhausen responsible

for a war? I’m sure Wagner would never have expected that honour either?


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