Com­poser of the Month

Michael Scott Rohan passes by the Ring to glimpse the lighter side of Richard Wag­ner

BBC Music Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Wag­ner. That name still con­jures up for many lis­ten­ers images of pon­der­ous, overblown Teu­toni­cism, of a pro­to­typ­i­cal Nazi, ego­cen­tric, wom­an­is­ing, dis­hon­est, an un­speak­able anti-semite. This is the im­age pro­moted by pop­u­lar books such as jour­nal­ist Joachim Kohler’s 1997 Wag­ner’s Hitler: The Prophet and his Dis­ci­ple, which made the long-dead com­poser the moving spirit of Hitler and the Holo­caust. Yet only a few years later, some­thing changed. In 2012 Kohler pub­lished Den Lachen­den Wag­ner (‘The Laugh­ing Wag­ner’), wholly re­vis­ing this grim pic­ture in favour of a ge­nial, gen­er­ous, lib­eral, imp­ish fig­ure. And in a 2014 Wag­ner Journal ar­ti­cle he specif­i­cally ab­solved Wag­ner of any blame for the Holo­caust.

So should we, like him, re­ally re­assess our whole view of Wag­ner? For some peo­ple it doesn’t mat­ter. ‘For­get the hor­ri­ble man,’ they’ve said, ‘and lis­ten to the glo­ri­ous mu­sic.’ But many lis­ten­ers would have prob­lems with that. One of the el­e­ments that speaks to us in Wag­ner’s scores is their in­tense hu­man­ity. If that’s hypocrisy, we can’t lis­ten. We would rather be­lieve in Kohler’s se­cond take on the com­poser – but should we? How cred­i­ble is this no­tion of Wag­ner Lite?

Gen­er­a­tions of bi­og­ra­phers hold up their hands in prim hor­ror at Wag­ner’s ex­trav­a­gance, his shame­less cadg­ing and ar­ro­gant de­mands; his string of af­fairs, of­ten with mar­ried women like Mathilde We­sendonck, his bene­fac­tor’s wife, and Cosima, wife of his as­so­ciate Hans von Bülow; at his na­tion­al­ism; his ego­cen­tric­ity and ap­par­ently in­fi­nite self-be­lief; and, of course, his anti-semitic out­pour­ings. Put like that, he sounds like an in­tol­er­a­ble char­la­tan; but that’s ex­actly what he wasn’t.

Not that his faults weren’t le­gion, but there are mit­i­gat­ing fac­tors. He had no sense of money and plenty of en­ti­tle­ment; but many great cre­ators have been just as un­worldly – Si­belius, for one. Beethoven was also dou­ble-deal­ing, and a miser with it, whereas Wag­ner was ex­trav­a­gantly gen­er­ous. And his en­ti­tle­ment was for­giv­able in an age when even suc­cess­ful com­posers rarely made a liv­ing. We­ber worked him­self to a mis­er­able death in London to pro­vide for his fam­ily; Marschner left his des­ti­tute even as his op­eras were per­formed through­out Ger­many. And these were crowd-pleasers, whereas Wag­ner strug­gled to cre­ate some­thing new and dar­ing. In his day a com­poser usu­ally earned, for an en­tire opera, less than its lead tenor re­ceived for one per­for­mance.

His sex life, too, bears con­sid­er­a­tion. True, he was un­faith­ful to his first wife; but she, a pretty, pro­mis­cu­ous ac­tress, had first palmed off an il­le­git­i­mate daugh­ter as her sis­ter, then de­camped with a lover. There are rea­sons to be­lieve his dal­liance with Mathilde was more an in­tel­lec­tual than phys­i­cal flir­ta­tion. His other af­fairs were chiefly with women un­hap­pily mar­ried in an al­most di­vorce­less age – even Cosima, who had been more or less mar­ried off by her par­ents, Liszt and the Comtesse d’agoult. In gen­eral, Wag­ner was a se­rial monogamist, in search of the soul­mate he fi­nally found in Cosima. He cer­tainly never be­haved as badly as some con­tem­po­raries – Verdi, for ex­am­ple, or Of­fen­bach – be­hind veils of re­spectabil­ity.

Wag­ner’s na­tion­al­ism looks par­tic­u­larly sus­pect through post-nazi eyes. Yet it was born in dif­fer­ent times, and wholly dif­fer­ent in char­ac­ter. The Ger­many he cel­e­brated was not a coun­try at all, but a rag­bag of squab­bling lit­tle states torn apart three cen­turies since by the Thirty Years War. For him, Ger­many wasn’t supreme; it was the en­dan­gered un­der­dog. He hoped for its re­uni­fi­ca­tion, not by Bis­marck’s mil­i­tary means, which he de­tested, but by art

and cul­ture. And it didn’t have to be ex­clu­sive; he never lost his love and ad­mi­ra­tion for Ital­ian mu­si­cal­ity, es­pe­cially Rossini. Nor did he want it dic­ta­to­rial; a ro­man­tic so­cial­ist revo­lu­tion­ary in his youth, he re­mained a believer in hu­man broth­er­hood, strongly drawn to Bud­dhist doc­trine, and in­stinc­tively lib­eral, re­gard­ing his many ho­mo­sex­ual ac­quain­tances, for ex­am­ple, with amused tol­er­ance. The last words of his li­bretto for Der Ring des Ni­belun­gen, which he chose not to set be­cause the mu­sic ex­presses it bet­ter, can be ren­dered roughly as ‘All you need is love’.

With a some­times over­bear­ing na­ture went ebul­lient charm, en­ergy – men­tal and phys­i­cal – and lively sense of hu­mour. Car­i­ca­tured as a silk-swad­dled aes­thete, he was equally an ath­letic type who walked his friends off their feet in the moun­tains, and even in old age would shin up trees in sheer high spir­its. At the first Bayreuth Fes­ti­val he greeted the Em­peror of Brazil, no less, by stand­ing on his head.

So where does all this leave his an­ti­semitism? Kohler sees it as largely an artis­tic pose, but that’s an ex­cuse too far. The vi­tu­per­a­tion is shock­ing – if less vi­o­lent than some trans­la­tors ren­dered it. His out­bursts were so un­re­strained it’s been sug­gested he suf­fered from some­thing like Asperger syn­drome. But that said, they have their lim­its. Wag­ner never be­lieved in an ‘in­ter­na­tional Jewish con­spir­acy’ as some have sug­gested and was, if any­thing, less anti-semitic than most Ger­mans of his day. He saw Jews as able, root­less out­siders, a cul­tural threat only, and once again very much from the un­der­dog’s view­point. His rem­edy was not vi­o­lent ex­ter­mi­na­tion but will­ing as­sim­i­la­tion. One could con­sider it jeal­ousy of Frenchi­fied Jewish com­posers like Meyer­beer and Of­fen­bach, ex­cept that he ad­mired Halévy, who was both, com­pared his old ad­ver­sary Of­fen­bach to Mozart, and, while lam­bast­ing Men­delssohn, al­lowed him ‘am­plest tal­ent… finest cul­ture… high­est hon­our’. And, as Kohler points out, Wag­ner ap­pears pos­i­tively pro-semitic per­son­ally, with a host of Jewish friends and col­leagues, some of whom lived with him and his fam­ily; he even con­sid­ered hand­ing over his beloved Bayreuth to the Jewish im­pre­sario An­gelo Neu­mann, and be­fore his death em­braced his long-suf­fer­ing con­duc­tor Her­mann Levi in lov­ing farewell. He wasn’t a racist in the gen­eral sense; while he was in­ter­ested in con­tem­po­rary doc­trines of racial su­pe­ri­or­ity, he didn’t al­to­gether ac­cept them. He hated slav­ery, for ex­am­ple, and hoped for a North­ern vic­tory in the US Civil War.

If all this makes Wag­ner sound in­con­sis­tent, com­pli­cated, self-con­tra­dic­tory, that’s about right. In the poet Walt Whit­man’s phrase, he ‘con­tained mul­ti­tudes’. But where can we

look for the es­sen­tial man – the real root of his cre­ative ge­nius? It has to be in his mu­sic – the most pro­foundly per­sonal thing he ever pro­duced, far more deeply felt and imag­ined than his of­ten cranky writ­ings. Here, if any­where, is the essence, and what we find can be sur­pris­ing.

His early works were light, comic, fan­tas­tic, un-ger­manic. Adapted from Shake­speare’s Mea­sure for Mea­sure, Wag­ner’s Das Liebesver­bot (‘The Love Ban’) pits a cold, hyp­o­crit­i­cal Ger­man gov­er­nor against hap­pily sen­su­ous Si­cil­ians, to mu­sic in­flu­enced by Rossini and Donizetti. Die Feen (‘The Fairies’) is based on an Ital­ianate fairy tale by Gozzi, au­thor of the orig­i­nal Tu­ran­dot, and Rienzi, his first great suc­cess, mixes in­flu­ences from Meyer­beer and Rossini with his own de­vel­op­ing style.

This bur­geons in the great op­eras, be­gin­ning with Der fliegende Hol­län­der (‘The Fly­ing Dutch­man’), but the feel­ings which drive it are all the more in­tense. Der fliegende Hol­län­der de­picts an ac­cursed wan­derer in search of real love, Tannhäuser the con­flict be­tween an artist’s spir­i­tual and sensual drives, Lo­hen­grin, once again, the con­flict be­tween the worldly and the sub­lime. Through­out the grim Nordic leg­ends of the Ring, even gods, dwarves and spir­its be­come vividly hu­man in the in­tri­cately wo­ven score, with threads of hu­mour, es­pe­cially in the fig­ure of Siegfried, heroic but naïve. And lis­ten to the soar­ing fi­nal bars of Göt­ter­däm­merung with those un­set words of love and tran­scen­dence in mind.

Tris­tan und Isolde, writ­ten amidst emo­tional con­flict, yearns darkly for love and death; but off­set­ting it, shortly af­ter, is Die Meis­tersinger von Nürn­berg. This is Wag­ner’s most Ger­manic, most na­tion­al­ist opera; but sig­nif­i­cantly, it’s also a ra­di­ant, kindly com­edy, which pokes gen­tle fun at a conservative artis­tic in­sti­tu­tion, dis­rupted by an ar­dent young new­comer. Only the ge­nial cob­bler-poet Hans Sachs ac­cepts him, and re­stores har­mony. He val­ues peace­ful Nurem­berg against the era’s grow­ing con­flicts, and fore­sees that ter­ri­ble Thirty Years War in a fi­nal speech of­ten mis­in­ter­preted – es­pe­cially by the Nazis – as ul­tra-na­tion­al­ist; but he very specif­i­cally looks to art to save an em­bat­tled Ger­many, re­ject­ing force of arms. Even here Wag­ner quotes his beloved Rossini, bas­ing the ap­pren­tices’ dance on the Ital­ian’s aria ‘Di tanti pal­piti’. Die Meis­tersinger’s malev­o­lent town clerk, Beckmesser, is not now gen­er­ally re­garded as a Jewish car­i­ca­ture as he once was; but there’s no doubt that

Par­si­fal, Wag­ner’s fi­nal mas­ter­work, does re­flect as­pects of his prej­u­dices in the ‘Wan­der­ing Jewess’ Kundry. She, though, is well-mean­ing and tragic, mis­used by oth­ers; Gurne­manz, voice of wis­dom, re­bukes per­se­cu­tors with ‘How has she ever harmed you?’ As a whole, Par­si­fal, a Chris­tian leg­end re­shaped in pan­the­is­tic and even Bud­dhist guise, ra­di­ates res­ig­na­tion, paci­fism and tran­scen­dence through­out its score. Its cen­tral mo­tif, Wag­ner told Cosima, rep­re­sented ‘lov­ing rev­e­la­tion’ spread­ing through­out the world. No won­der the Nazis tac­itly banned it.

But although the mu­sic am­ply con­firms Wag­ner’s brighter as­pects, it is still fair to sug­gest that Kohler, hav­ing gone too far in one di­rec­tion, swings equally far back in the other. Wag­ner Lite and Wag­ner Lumpen are, hon­estly, in­dis­sol­u­ble. We should ex­pect no less; great art is rarely cre­ated by saints, but by out­size per­son­al­i­ties, with, in­evitably, out­size flaws. A saint could hardly have cre­ated the Ring. And if he had, we’d al­most cer­tainly never have heard it. That in­fer­nal self-be­lief, that vast ego­cen­tric­ity, was the sole guid­ing star of a man driven by the aware­ness of mas­ter­works he alone could bring to birth, through poverty, scorn and con­straints that would have bro­ken a lesser man.

Die Meis­tersinger is a ra­di­ant, kindly com­edy, which pokes gen­tle fun

in high stand­ing: Wag­ner (cen­tre) with his wife Cosima and her fa­ther Liszt at the Wah­n­fried villa in Bayreuth

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