Why opera? 6 – Wagner



Let’s fast forward to 7 May 1942.  Reinhardt Heydrich was the head of the Gestapo.  The son of an opera singer and an actress, he excelled in fencing and he wept when he played the violin.  He was cashiered from the navy after he revolted other officers by blaming a pregnancy on the girl.  An American journalist described him as a ‘long-nosed, icy-eyed policeman, the genius of the final solution.’  He was known as Hangman Heydrich in occupied territories.  He hated Catholics as much as Jews.  He embodied the moral disintegration of the people who had given the world Bach, Kant, Goethe, and Beethoven.  He might be said to represent the fall of man.

Two Czech patriots, for such they may be called, assassinated this monster on the date I mentioned above.  The reprisal was the liquidation of the town of Lidice and the murder or enslavement of its people.  More than a thousand people were killed.  The Teutonic death rites were ghastly in Berlin.  Heydrich had been the Reich’s flaxen haired Siegfried.  All the frightful Nazi paraphernalia came out.  The Fuhrer personally consoled the family.  He lay German Order and Blood Order medals on the funeral pillow. And the climax was of course the appropriate music from Hitler’s favourite composer.  Siegfried’s Funeral March (‘Trauermarsch’) from Gotterdammerung (‘The Twilight of the Gods’).

Alan (Lord) Bullock said this in Hitler and Stalin, Parallel Lives:

Hitler’s great hero was Richard Wagner, whose music dramas held him spellbound.  Hitler was later to declare that he had no forerunners, with the single exception of Wagner.  Much has been made of the fact that Wagner was anti-Semitic, but what first attracted Hitler to him was the theatricality and epic scale of his operas, which he never tired of seeing, and which were the source of the theatricality and epic scale of his own political style.  Even more important was Wagner’s personality and the romantic conception of the artist as genius which Wagner had largely created, and which he put to the proof by triumphing over every conceivable obstacle to establish the shrine of German art at Bayreuth….so Hitler identified himself with Wagner.  It was an inspiration that never failed him.  Whenever his confidence in himself wavered, it was immediately restored by the magical world of Wagner’s music and the example of his genius.

Now, it would be very wrong to seek to blame Wagner for Hitler.  But it is not just the case that Wagner hated Jews and that he was a dreadfully selfish egomaniac who believed that the world owed him a living.  The problem for a lot of people, including me, is that the image of Hitler keeps surfacing when we listen to Wagner.  That happens in part because of the matters I have just referred to, but also because Wagner was fiercely nationalistic and he used his magic to enthral Germans about their future by idealising their past in a way that emotionally overcame them, so that they could lose their judgment.  And that was precisely the modus operandi, or as we would now say, the schtick, of Adolf Hitler.  And for reasons I will come to, I find Parsifal to be utterly repellent.

That’s one of the issues that some people have with Wagner.  Now listen to the Prelude to the opera Lohengrin (from which opera we derive one of our wedding marches).  Can you think of another piece of music of such exquisite beauty?  Anywhere?  In any mode?

Now listen to Wotan’s farewell (‘Leb wohl’) from Act III of Die Walkure.  Can you think of another piece of music drama as compellingly moving as this?  Would you not be happy to have it played at your funeral?

Wagner’s operas contain many moments of such utter transcendence – although you often have a long wait for the next one.  But what happens if this awful power falls into the wrong hands?

Well, let’s put this aside as the musing of a squeamish neurotic.  Obviously this is not an issue for a lot of people – although it might be one that some dedicated, snooty Wagner fanatics might bear in mind.  Speaking of which, they would be disappointed if I didn’t mention Mark Twain on Wagner.

One in fifty of those who attend our operas likes it already, perhaps, but I think a good many of the other forty-nine go in order to learn to like it, and the rest in order to be able to talk knowingly about it.  The latter usually hum the airs while they are being sung, so that their neighbours may perceive that they have been to operas before. The funeral of these do not occur often enough….I have witnessed and greatly enjoyed the first act of everything which Wagner created, but the effect on me has always been so powerful that one act was quite sufficient; whenever I have witnessed two acts I have gone away physically exhausted; and whenever I have ventured an entire opera the result has been the next thing to suicide…..The banging and slamming and booming and crashing were something beyond belief.  The racking and pitiless pain of it remains stored up in my memory alongside the memory of the time that I had my teeth fixed…

Some of the Wagner fanatics, especially the Ring addicts, do take themselves very seriously.  Perhaps they think that they have earned that right through pain and suffering.

Now, the second problem people have with Wagner cannot be batted away as easily as the first.  In my case, it is unanswerable.  It comes from the Bill of Rights, which is still part of the law of Victoria.  That basal law expressly forbids ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’  That’s what most of Wagner has become for me.  I survived and more or less enjoyed the two Ring Cycles in Adelaide.  I just survived Tristan und Isolde in Melbourne.  Simone Young told us that if we were lucky, someone or other might give us the extended version.  I prayed that it would not be for us, but I fear that it was.  I limped home in serious physical pain, a saddened man.  My memory is of a backbreaking celebration of neurosis, narcissism, and aural masturbation.  But it was Parsifal in Adelaide that finally broke my will.  Two of the three acts are set on Good Friday.  It is not just endless; it is so repetitive.  I thought that I was at risk of screaming if I heard the same phrase again.  Here is Mark Twain again:

The great master, who knew so well how to make a hundred instruments rejoice in unison and pour out their souls in mingled and melodious tides of delicious sound, deals only in barren solos when he puts in the vocal parts.  It may be that he was deep, and only added the singing to his operas for the sake of the contrast it would make with the music.  Singing!  It does seem the wrong name to apply to it.  Strictly described, it is a practising of difficult and unpleasant intervals, mainly.  An ignorant person gets tired of listening to gymnastic intervals in the long run, no matter how pleasant they may be.  In Parsifal there is a hermit named Gurnemanz who stands on the stage in one spot and practices by the hour, while first one and then another character of the cast endures what he can of it and then retires to die.

In 1993, The Times reviewer said of Tristan:

Nearly six hours spent in the theatre being buttonholed with long winded and specious justification of the composer’s taste for other people’s wives in general and Mathilde Wesendonck in particular is wearing on one’s patience.

The English critic Neville Cardus complained of the ‘eternal recurrence of leading themes.’  He spoke of being ‘imprisoned’ for hours ‘by this unreasonable tyranny of Wagner, this inordinate length and prolixity….utterly lacking in poise and taste.’  This was of Parsifal, which started at the ungodly hour of 5.45, and in which he heard another critic say ‘Amfortas is the wisest man here; he’s brought his bed with him.’

The third problem I have is that too many of the plots are plain silly or boring.  For example, the Valkyries are the women who choose the soldiers who will die.  The chosen go to Valhalla.  One of the most moving parts of the Ring is the entry of the Gods into Valhalla, but it is no accident that when the makers of Apocalypse Now wanted to show the most frightful aspect of the Vietnam War – ‘I just love the smell of Napalm in the morning’ – they chose to do so to the swelling sounds of the Ride of the Valkyries from the final act of Die Walkure.  I think Wagner wanted live horses on stage.  One version I saw had them as mermaids sitting at a bar.  How do you figure that out?

Richard Wagner (1813 to 1883) was a rolled gold five star jerk.  He was born in the Jewish quarter of Leipzig to lower middle class parents about two years before Waterloo.  His parentage is problematic, and that issue recurs in his work.  He got interested in theatre, and then he took music lessons.  He wrote his beginner’s pieces.  He married in 1836.  He was perpetually in debt, but he was already coming to the view that the world owed a living to a man of his genius.

Rienzi premiered in 1842.  The Flying Dutchman came out the following year.  This was the start of Wagner’s revolution.  Tannhauser and Lohengrin followed.  He had ideas for Die Meistersinger, Tristan and Parsifal.  Wagner was after the ‘total work of art’, involving all the arts.  He would write the script and have total control.  The music would have interacting themes – the leitmotifs, or ‘leading ideas.’  He would push Romanticism so hard and far that the reaction would be uncomely.

Wagner was involved politically.  He did of course believe that he could do anything.  He was involved in the events of 1848, what Sir Lewis Namier has described as ‘The Revolution of the Intellectuals’.  Wagner had to flee to Zurich.  (Did he prefigure Lenin?  God forbid!)  In 1850, Liszt conducted the first Lohengrin in Munich.  Wagner then completed the poetry for the Ring.

His marriage finally dissolved in the 1860s.  Wagner had fallen for Cosima, the wife of a close friend and the daughter of Liszt.  He was bailed out by a nut, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who kept shrines to the Master in his crazy castles.  Wagner’s capacity for self-adoration at least matched that of Donald Trump.  He spoke of himself in the third person.  Like Hitler, he was an animal-loving vegetarian who was hateful to any human who did not bow to him.  In his eyes, his genius excused all.  He is the most appalling example of the artist as hero.  In 1872, a Munich psychiatrist said that Wagner suffered from ‘chronic megalomania, paranoia, and moral derangement.’  As part of that syndrome, he was toxically racist and a predatory womaniser.  What psychiatry hasn’t explained is why people who fall for these jerks are so forgiving.

The Ring was composed in the 1850s and premiered then and in the 1870s.  In 1871, the people of Bayreuth gave him the land for his temple.  Wagner devoted much time to Parsifal.  It was first performed at Bayreuth.  It premiered there six months before his death.

In conjunction with this opera, Wagner published a nauseating polemic, ‘Heroism and Christianity’.  He insisted that Jesus was of Greek origin and that the New Testament had nothing to do with the Old.  Sweet Christ, is this not the seed of the obscenity of the Reich?  Wagner said that the Aryans, the German leaders of mankind, had evolved from the gods, while lesser races had evolved from the apes.  He was revolted by the notion that Aryans might worship a Jew.  Nietzsche in his turn was revolted by Wagner.  He described Parsifal as ‘Christianity arranged for Wagnerians…a work of malice, of vindictiveness….an outrage on morality.’

After Wagner’s death, Cosima managed Bayreuth.  She was followed by her son Siegfried and his English wife, Winifred.  It was Winifred who befriended Hitler, and ensured that he and other Nazi leaders made pilgrimages to the birthplace of the new Teutonic order.

In 1993, Wagner’s music was first played live in Israel.  The event caused huge conflict.  The Master may have turned in his Wahnfried grave.  Wahnfried means ‘Peace from Illusion’.  God knows that I love the Germans, but their penchant for euphemism can be alarming.

In discussing Verdi, I referred to Berlin’s description of him as a ‘naïve’ artist.  He said that naïve artists were at peace with themselves and happily married to their Muse.  He distinguished them for ‘sentimental’ artists like Wagner.

Hence the effect of the sentimental artist is not joy and peace, but tension, conflict with nature or society, insatiable craving, the notorious neuroses of the modern age, with its troubled spirits, its martyrs, fanatics, and rebels, and its angry, bullying, subversive preachers, Rousseau, Byron, Schopenhauer, Carlyle, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Wagner, Marx, Nietzsche, offering not peace  but a sword.

Some of that is a bit large, but I get the drift.  Against that, two English philosophers have written books in praise of Wagner – Michael Tanner, and Roger Scruton.  I only have the first.

So, they are some problems with Wagner.  But I don’t see that as a reason why people should not look and listen for themselves, and I recommend that you do just that.  There are any number of recordings of extracts or famous parts – including some that exclude singing and just present as finished orchestral works.  You could start with one of those.  Many years ago now, someone who had succeeded in business told me that she was interested in coming to terms with the Ring Cycle.  I lent her a two disk set of extracts, and listed the order in which she might play them – beginning with Wotan’s Farewell.  The experiment came off – and with some fruit for the company as this lady is a leading sponsor.  Try a recording called ‘Richard Wagner: The Best Overtures and Preludes’, or ‘The Best of Wagner’ – there are two on offer.

As for individual operas, I have seen Tannhauser, Lohengrin, Tristan und Isolde, and The Flying Dutchman by the AO on stage and a concert program conducted by Simone Young.  I very much enjoyed The Flying Dutchman.  As I recall it, there was no interval.  There are many full recordings available on the internet.

Here is how an English writer summarised the Ring under the heading ‘Fifteen hours in a few words.’  (It’s a clip I found in one of my books on Wagner.  I think it came from The Guardian by John Crace.)

Three Rheinmaidens – either naked or in fat suits, depending on the production – frolic in the water while teasing Alberich the dwarf.  He throws a strop and nicks their gold, which he forges into the ring of absolute power.  Elsewhere, Wotan, king of the gods, is involved in a complicated series of double crosses with a pair of giants, Fasolt and Fafner, over arrangements to build him a castle.  Loge, the god of fire, persuades Wotan to steal the gold and give it to the giants.  By the end of Das Rheingold, Alberich is sulking, Fafner has killed Fasolt, and Wotan is skipping off to Valhalla.

Wotan is busy between operas shagging his way through Valhalla and has had a couple of kids, Siegmund and Sieglinde, with Fricka, and Die Walkure opens with Siegmund turning up unexpectedly at the home of Hunding, Sieglinde’s life.  Needless to say, Siegmund and Siegfried don’t recognise each other at first, but after Siegmund has magically pulled a sword out of a tree and been threatened by Hunding, they cement their relationship by embarking on an incestuous affair.

Fricka tells Wotan he has to put a stop to this.  He doesn’t want to as he has been banking on Siegmund to get back the ring; but he gives in and sends Brunnhilde, the top Valkyrie, to sort them out.  She reneges on the deal, so Wotan has to step in himself.  Siegmund dies, Brunnhilde is put to sleep on a mountain top and Sieglinde goes off to have Siegmund’s baby.

Sieglinde dies in childbirth and baby Siegfried is brought up by Alberich’s brother, Mime.  Don’t ask.

The best that can be said for Siegfried is that he is a dreary, brain-dead Aryan lummox who spends most of his eponymous opera either in a vegetative state or a psychopathic frenzy.  After re-forging his father’s sword, killing Fafner and taking the ring, Siegfried decides to take his orders from the birds.  They tell him to kill Mime and head for the woman on the mountain.  En route, he bumps into Wotan, who now calls himself the Wanderer, and breaks his spear.  Brunnhilde then thrills at Siegfried’s arrival.

For no good reason, Siegfried abandons Brunnhilde at the start of Gotterdammerung in favour of adventure and winds up with the Gibichungs another bunch of halfwits, who are ruled over by Gunther and his henchman, Hagen, who just happens to be Alberich’ s son.  Hagen slips Siegfried a Mickey Finn that makes him forget Brunnhilde and he agrees to marry Gunter’s sister, Gutrune, and to abduct Brunnhilde for Gunter.  Brunnhilde is none too happy.  Hagen then kills Siegfried and everyone left standing falls out with one another.  Hagen claims the ring but Brunnhilde insists it be given back to the Rhine and rides into Siegfried’s funeral pyre.  Valhalla combusts and the Rheinmaidens drag Hagen to his death as they reclaim their gold.  Fifteen hours later, we are back where we started.

For the Ring Cycle, I collected some extracts and I have full sets by Karajan, Bohm, and various conductors at Bayreuth.  It is better to search for individual names – Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, Siegfried and Gotterdammerung.   In each you can watch the whole production of Patrice Chéreau with Pierre Boulez.  I have the Die Walkure, which is the best of the four for me, and this is a wonderful filmed version of this work performed at Bayreuth.  Each member of the cast is sensational.  (The French director, Chéreau, received death threats.)  Wotan in particular is beautifully presented and it was, I think, this version that first alerted me to the power of his farewell to Brunnhilde – and of the cycle at large.

After Leb wohl, my favourite music of Wagner is the overture to Rienzi, about his first work of note.  It has for me all the music drama of the later work, but none of the imagined pagan Golden Age or the perversion of Christianity.  And it swings, and it is decently German.  Try it with Georg Solti – who is Jewish – and the Vienna Philharmonic.  Those cats can really swing, man.

Well, there you go – you have an introduction to the glorious enigma of Waggers.  Sample and enjoy what you can.  There is much of pure beauty, but there are long arid moments between drinks, and I can’t help feeling that the prodigious ego of Waggers is at the root of most of the problems.

I met the late Gough Whitlam for the first time before the opening of the first Ring Cycle in Adelaide.  Gough nailed it on the spot.  ‘The problem with Wagner is that he was such a megalomaniac, he had to write his own libretti.  He badly needed an editor!  Margaret and I saw Tristan in Dresden.   The hero gets caught in flagrante.  The king comes out to castigate.  Fifty minutes!  Ten would have been more than enough.’  Spot on, Gough.  The world is coming to grips with living with another unmannered egomaniac – still, at least Wagner had some brains, if no manners.

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