(If I told you that this music is about planning a wedding, would you believe me?)
I still don’t get it. No matter how much I vow to stay away from Wagner, no matter how bored I am by him, I keep coming back for more. Wagner wrote 10 major operas, most of which are over four hours long, and less than 25% of the music from which I find a pleasurable experience to listen to. We all have the experience of music, or movies, or books, or whatever else; that you realize is inestimably great, and yet we don’t like it. Many people feel that way about classical music itself. And yet more than any cultural milestone for which I have little sympathy: I find myself unable to tear myself away from Wagner, even as I find the whole spectacle somewhat unbearable. This is music that attracts me and repulses me simultaneously. I once wrote a dialogue between me and Wagner in which I portrayed him as a pimp with feather cap and full-on ghetto speak. It was hardly in good taste, but I enjoyed myself, and I preferred it to a lot of other things I’ve written.
But even as I’m repulsed, I can’t escape the feeling that so many people I know would take to Wagner much better than I ever did. Wagner is the ultimate fantasy literature. Anyone infatuated by Star Wars, or Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter, or Marvel Comics, or even Disney movies, can take to Wagner like fish to water. He is grandfather of them all. The Brothers Grimm may be the originators of modern fantasy literature, but Wagner takes fantasy literature to an un-toppable zenith. Wagner’s world of fantasy literature mapped on a scale so massive that even Game of Thrones looks as though it’s written under a microscope. In its musical way, there is no world of fantasy so detailed, so intricate and complex, or so inspiring as the world Wagner created. Lord of the Rings and Star Wars may have inspired generations of nerds to dress up, but Wagner’s dress up games inspired whole countries, whole regimes, whole eras. We are a visual culture, not an aural one. So the musical intricacies of Wagner's world have fallen on nearly deaf ears. But were the ears of all the DC comic fans better developed, they would fall on Wagner like a pack of vultures.
And yet it has all the same problems which all the aforementioned cultural milestones do. Wagner deals in archetype, not characters: health against sickliness, freshness against rot, morality against decadence, good against evil. And yet his greatest paradox of all is that in creating an art which tries to espouse all that is good and true in the world, he created one of the world’s most decadent cultural bodies of work – four-to-five hour operas of unsurpassable demands, volume, complexity, and expense. Over and over again, Wagner’s libretti (texts) espouse the message that the highest honor of all is to die in the service of a cause greater than the self – if love you feel for your deceased boyfriend, or your god, or for the balance of nature, is fervent enough, then you will die in a blaze of ecstasy to be at one with them; free from life’s stifling compromises and sacrifices. For those who take this message seriously (and many people once did), it is a disgusting, demonic rendering of how life ought to be lived.
Wagner wrote his own texts, and they are as amazingly dull as the speech of any dictator. Like nearly all opera texts, they can’t be taken seriously as anything but allegory. Whether the opera is L’Incoronazione di Poppea, or Tamerlano, or The Magic Flute, or Nabucco, or Salome, so many operas are as much a comment on the events of their day as they are representations of myth and literature. If composers of previous centuries set their operas in the present day and critiqued current events, they would be thrown in prison. But because composers set operas in the distant past, they could stage events that closely resembled events of the present day, and trust that the audience was intelligent enough to make the connection.
But Wagner’s operas take allegory to still another level. Like Greek Drama, we’re supposed to view these events at such a distance that we can’t possibly see ourselves in these characters. The characters here are absolutely not human in the way which we are. Wagner lovers always talk about how Wagner is such a masterful psychologist – that’s bollocks. Wagner doesn’t understand psychology, because that would imply an understanding of three-dimensional human beings. What Wagner understands is moods. No matter what the idea he’s trying to represent, he finds the absolutely perfect music for it. So whether it’s the music for a mood of evil, or of love, or of legally binding treaties, he finds music that rings in our ears as the perfect music to capture precisely what he means. Each theme has a motif, just a few notes long with a few harmonies underneath, and it’s perfect. Every time an idea needs to be represented, he simply takes the motif and uses it as he sees fit.
(Brunnhilde’s Immolation Scene and the conclusion to the Ring. Turn on the Closed Captioning.)
The Great Moments of the Ring:
Siegfried’s Funeral March (Sir Georg Solti would be amazing in a fight...)
The Ride of the Valkyries (see it in its actual operatic context)
Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla (with subtitles, pretty much the whole plot of the Ring Cycle can be understood in this excerpt…music’s pretty good too)
Das Rheingold Prelude (a full hundred years before Phillip Glass and Steve Reich, we get four minutes of uninterrupted E-Flat Major)
Descent of the Gods into Nibelheim (for sheer awe-inspiring theatrical effects in music, I don’t think Wagner ever topped this musical transition, which ends with the music of roughly a dozen anvils)
Die Walkure Prelude (tying Beethoven’s record for the most visceral thunderstorm in music)
Die Walkure Act 1 Scene 3: (Much is made about how the first act of Die Walkure is one of the glories of Wagner. The truth is that it’s dreadfully dull until Siegmund and Sieglinde are alone, at which point it gets incredibly fucked up when they realize that they’re twin brother and sister, fall in love, elope, and conceive Siegfried, the hero that will redeem the world. The music of this scene, however, is quite beautiful and often incredibly exciting.)
Die Walkure end of Act II (Most of Act II of Die Walkure is a dreadful bore, with the god Wotan arguing over the finer points of how to punish incest with his wife Fricka and daughter Brunhilde. Nevertheless, the end of the act is very exciting…believe me, we deserve it.)
Wotan’s Farewell (Between the Ride of the Valkyries and Wotan’s Farewell, Act III of Die Walkure is unlistenable. If Wagner had made act three a stich of merely those two scenes, it would be a masterpiece.)
Siegfried’s forging song (Siegfried is both the worst and the best of the Ring operas. None of the operas has more spectacularly cinematic scenes with music that makes John Williams sound like John Tesh, and none has duller valleys. Act I is the nadir of the Ring; a dull, dull series of exchanges between an annoying dwarf – who is allegedly an anti-semitic caricature – a bratty teenager, and a homeless dude who’s actually a god in disguise. But the final scene is far better than the rest, in which we finally get some memorable music as Siegfried forges the magical sword that no other person can.)
Siegfried and Fafner: (The hero kills the dragon, a scene that is made utterly cliché by now in every b-movie ever made. But if you want an example of how Wagner inflamed the world, look no further than this scene.)
Siegfried Finale: (The moment when Brunnhilde awakens is, for me, one of the most magical moments in all of opera. Never mind all the dull, annoying things that have happened already. When you see and hear Brunhilde awaken, everything else is forgiven – this isn’t quite the best example…I can’t find a good cut of it. But would that all fairy tales were accompanied by music like this.)
Gotterdammerung Love Duet (And if that weren’t enough, there’s another melting love duet in Gotterdammerung. It is the last time the lovers are in uncomplicated circumstances. Immediately followed by…)
Siegfried’s Rhine Journey (Siegfried crosses the Rhine in search of new adventures…it doesn’t really end well for him, but Wagner gets some epic music out of it.)
More on Wagner next week in our ‘Brief History of Why Jewish Music Sucks’ (which will probably take ten years to complete…)