Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Richard Wagner: Most Hated Composer

Today's the 200th anniversary of Richard Wagner.  He's #3 in Charles Murray's list of classical composers compiled in Human Accomplisment.  But he's probably #1 on the list of most-hated composers.

That would partly be due to his anti-semitism.  And partly due to the fact that he wrecked the good old opera formula of recitative followed by beautiful songs.

But really, he upended music as a whole.  The best way to understand this is to listen to a movie (while you watch it).  It was Wagner that invented that kind of music, setting the tone of the movie, telling you in the feeling in sound of what is going on visually and what you should feel about it.

Wagner always lived the spirit of the age.  He was a Romantic, then a lefty revolutionary, then a Schopenhauerian pessimist.  And he did his best to bring all that out in his music.

This sort of thing infuriated the purists.  He took the Nordic myths about power struggles between the gods and turned it into a drama about power, duty, and love.  He took the Arthurian Tristan and made it all about sex.  He took Eschenbach's Parzival and made him into a post-aristocratic post-Christian upper-class ascetic.

That points up the main thing to know about Wagner.  He requires total surrender.  Think the opera is too slow? Too long? Too chromatic?  Too improbable?  Too bad.

My own relationship with Wagner began in the 1970s.  My wife had asked me to get tickets to the Flying Dutchman and Mr. Skinflint didn't do it.  But I got an LP of the Dutchman from the library and was blown over.   Not by the singing, but by the Prelude, which is an astonishing impressionistic piece that evokes wind and storm.  The story is about Senta's sacrifice of love.  All heroines in Wagner sacrifice themselves for love.

Wouldn't you know, by the time I actually got season tickets to the opera, Director Glynn Ross in Seattle was mobilizing for a full Ring cycle for the centenary Ring year of 1976.  So I got to go to Der Ring des Nibelungen, the whole thing.

People ask: how can you sit through four nights of opera, and long operas at that.  The answer, of course, is that going to the Ring is a ritual, and rituals are supposed to be boring; they are supposed to force you to get rid of your monkey mind and surrender to the experience.  It is, if you like, a form of meditation.

At the end of the Ring, after the end of Götterdämmerung, you know you have experienced one of the great aesthetic experiences known to man.  That is why the Ring is so popular, even though Wagner's music is so challenging.

What about the bad parts, the anti-semitism?  Wagner was undoubtedly a minor monster.  He aligned his life completely with the various spirits of the age.  And one of them was anti-semitism. When the Jews were released from their ghettos in Germany in the 19th century they exploded into the economy and the culture with a power that frightened lots of people.  Kinda like the way that liberals are terrified of conservatives and Christians.  Where do these people come from?

But like it or not, Richard Wagner was a musical genius, and after Wagner music will never be the same.

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