Monday, July 29, 2013

800 Words: A Bi-Yearly Diatribe on Wagner...

As long as mankind shall continue to bestow more liberal applause on their destroyers than on their benefactors, the thirst of military glory will ever be the vice of the most exalted characters - Edward Gibbon

Wagner is the very music of sociopathy, expertly moulding our emotions like clay into whatever he wills us to feel with no regard for how we feel after it’s all over. Bach is music’s angel, promising us full consolation for whatever suffering we’ve undergone. Wagner is music’s devil, exciting us with rancor and disturbance but with no guarantee of any stability. He’s every drug which addicts can’t help taking on the infinitesimal chance that the next hit will be as amazing as the first. He’s every girlfriend who sets fire to your living room right before and after amazing sex. He’s every boyfriend who looks dreamy in the leather jacket he took off to give you a black eye. No matter how much the man repels you, no matter how often the music bores you, you can’t stay away.

And that’s because Wagner is the door of perception which opens to the new world of music which we still don’t understand - and may never. Like Loge, he offers resources, wonders, and mischief beyond what any other composer can offer. Like Wotan, the chaos of a far-away journey is something we cannot resist. But only as Wagner can, he conjures a hidden dream world of a primitive man which we unconsciously worry may be far, far more sophisticated than any world in which we live.

Wagner was born in 1813. During his youth, Beethoven still bestrode the earth, while Mozart and Haydn were still talked about as living presences. It was the moment at which music seemed literally capable of expressing anything, and Wagner’s contemporaries - Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, and Verdi among them, were centers in the most important intellectual debate of their generation - what is music capable of expressing? Every master had his own answer, but Wagner believed that in the 9th symphony, Beethoven ‘proved’ that music was so powerful an expressive language that it had become too grand to merely be confined to the realm of instruments, and Wagner was determined to show just how far the expressive power of ‘world-spirit’ which Beethoven demonstrated could be carried still much, much further. Beethoven, still alive until Wagner was 14, proved for all time that music was no mere artisan craft - it could express the entire world. And Wagner was determined to express that entire world to a purpose.

In Berlioz and Liszt, Wagner had a musical ‘big brothers’ or ‘cousins’, who regarded absolute music as a dangerously antiquated concept. But even Berlioz’s aims as a composer were so far removed from Wagner as to render Wagner sui generis. Berlioz, nearly as gifted a man of letters as he was a musician, and through the expressive potential which Beethoven unlocked, Berlioz aimed to create music that was as articulate of situational imagery as the great literary works. Liszt’s aim was closer. For most of his career, Liszt was a composing pianist who aimed to create music which would excite his public to a state which resembled worship. But Wagner’s aim was far more ambitious than either; he remained, to the end of his days, a lousy poet who happened to create great music to accompany his poetry. Nor was he ever a matinee idol or a skillful instrumentalist. Wagner required something more, Wagner wanted his music to express something far beyond great literature or even a cult of personality (hard as that may be to believe).

For Wagner, music was a means to an end, and the end was to provoke a particular response to the listener. His truest forerunners were romantic poets like Byron and Blake, themselves descended from his ultimate progenitor - Milton. And Wagner’s truest follower was Brecht. His art was not made to be appreciated as an end in itself, his art was made to provoke reactions in his listeners. It is hard not to believe he would have disagreed with Brecht’s famous quote: “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.”

Any argument that Wagner did not mean to disturb his listeners for a fully disturbing reason is willfully naive. In terms of techniques utilized, he has no equal and not even anything resembling a peer. He occupies that ground in music which Milton occupies in literature and Kubrick occupies in cinema - accorded a level of influence and control over his ability to practice his art which no other artist in his artform ever occupied or ever will again. To find an artistic predecessor, one must look outside of music to Blake or Byron or Shelley. To find an artistic successor, one must again look outside of music to Brecht or Chaplin or Ibsen or Zola, but you won't find one in music.  Wagner was not simply an artist or a thinker, he was a man of action who wrote operas as a means to hammer his society to better fit his vision of it. But the irony of his vision was that it was of a purely spiritual world of myth and legend. His vision was of a race of people who transcend the stupid, crass, messy material world of ours into a realm where all things are possible - in other words, a world only possible in myths. But in order to create that new world, he had to perpetuate the most dangerous myth of all - the old world has to be obliterated to make way for the new. Senta must prove her love by sacrificing herself so that the Dutchman can leave Earth. Tristan and Isolde’s love can only be consummated through death. Kundry must be kept alive and Amfortas wounded until a perfect fool arrives with no knowledge of our terrible world and all its misery. In the Ring Cycle, the entire corrupt world of the gods, giants, and dwarves, must be destroyed so that heroic men like Siegfried may try again and do better. It is the same myth perpetuated by every dictator, that if only we rid ourselves of the festering corruption of those other humans who prevent us from realizing our full potential, we would emerge cured as a pristine society.

And meanwhile, Wagner has music which fully equals the implicit cult-of-death of his dramaturgy. Many people like to defend Wagner by saying that music can’t show fascist sympathies. It most certainly can. What other word than the F-word is there for a five-hour opera in which harmonic resolution is denied until the very last moment when the titular characters achieve a blissful union through death? What word but the F-word is there for a fifteen-hour cycle of operas which plunges us into every possible contortion of tonal harmony to illustrate every shade of evil, only to achieve a blissful state of serenity at the end, after the opera’s entire world has been destroyed.

Wagner was a musician of genius - perhaps of a higher creative genius than the world has ever yet seen from an artist of any form. But music was never enough for Wagner. He was firstly an activist, secondly an intellectual, and only thirdly a musician.

Wagner wrote Tristan und Isolde, the ultimate opera about love, immediately before he wrote Die Meistersinger, the ultimate opera about renouncing love. It was as though he wanted to prove that he was more than merely a creator of human considerations. Indeed, for five hours, Die Meistersinger is the most humane of all operas, creating a world of human beings with extremely human problems and joys done so uncannily that we can’t possibly mistaken this vision of life for anything but a world which teems with compassion for our fellow humans. But after five hours of pure humanity, there stands Hans Sachs, the great, benevolent hero of all Wagner, exhorting us to honor our German masters and protect the land from foreign invaders. After five hours of disguise, there lie the same warcries as ever before, all the more effective for being dressed up with so much Mozartian delight intermingling with heartbreak. Die Meistersinger is a perfect opera, with enough delight to make up for all the agonized moments in his operas and then some. It is therfore the greatest disgrace to our common humanity which Wagner ever created, and by far the most amenable of all the Wagner operas to propagandistic purposes.  

Wagner’s drama perhaps feels ‘real’ in the way that it’s entirely consistent with itself. There is rarely ever division between dialogue and song, and there are rarely ensemble numbers. There are merely a lot of singers standing in place and singing, with orchestral harmonies and effects swirling around them as though to explore every possible crevice of consciousness from these beings, a consciousness we can never understand because these beings clearly exist in another dimension from ours. If Verdi’s drama feels artificial, it’s also because he is so spontaneous and clearly ‘of our world.’ The musical development of Verdi is truly that of an organic composer (and anybody who thinks Verdi could not handle development in a symphonic sense is invited to deeply examine any opera of from Rigoletto onward). We recognize the emotions of Verdi’s characters, because they are our own emotions, even if those emotions are heightened and sometimes contained by ridiculous plots. But the development in Wagner’s music is not organic, it’s eugenic. It exists in a manner which is too controlled to convincingly portray the human. Wagner understood psychology, and he certainly understood human beings well enough to manipulate them, but he didn’t want to express anything which smacked of humanity. He wanted to portray humans through a mirror in which they were judged principally by how they measured up to his heroic standards. Within the Wagnerian universe, there is no good and evil in any traditional sense, there is only strength and weakness. And those who are too strong for our world as its currently constituted are exhorted to kill or be killed on the path to creating a better world. No, Wagner was not Hitler, and he shouldn’t be viewed as such. But it’s difficult to believe that he’d have looked at the cult of death out of which Hitler created Nazism partially from his operas with anything but delight.


No wonder Daniel Barenboim is so fascinated by his music, and no wonder hardly any other conductor conducts his music with such deep perception.

I have been looking forward to listening to this Ring Cycle for months because Barenboim may well be the greatest Wagner conductor of the recorded era. Look at the alternatives to that title - Solti is decent; Wagner through the lens of Salome and Elektra. Solti was never quite as inflexible and martinet-like as critics alleged, and he certainly has a great sense of theater and the sensational, but Wagner requires still far more flexibility and moods than Solti’s ever willing to give. Karl Bohm is Wagner by way of Schubert’s Winterreise, he has the Bayreuth orchestra at a great standard, with nearly all of Solti’s singers singing better for him, and he follows and supports his singers all the way through like a great lieder accompanist. But even so, he seems extremely unwilling to make the music move on its own with the flexibility Wagner requires. Wagner’s messy “unending melody” is not the precise elegance of Schubert - Wagnerian melody is grounded in harmony, not rhythm, and the conductor has to stretch tempos well over barlines for the phrases to create a life of their own which cannot be found in the score. James Levine is surprisingly fine at points, but utterly wrongheaded. Too rhythmically foursquare when it should soar, too perky when it should be weighty, too weighty when it should be perky. Levine positively basks in the Wagner’s refulgence, with no sense that he ever feels the need to follow the drama to its fullest plumage. Levine, a surprisingly great Brahms conductor, seems to see Wagner through Brahms’s lense - lots of warmth, but not enough heat. And if Levine is a Brahmsian Wagner, then Furtwangler is Wagner by way of Bruckner, often extremely exciting and moving, but with amazingly dull spots in between because we can’t ever forget just how ‘deep’ Wagner’s music is - I can’t help thinking that Furtwangler possesses a conception of Wagner’s music which is far loftier even than Wagner’s own. Boulez’s Wagner is Wagner by way of Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande. The singers aren’t quite as good as in earlier generations, but they almost don’t matter. He has an even better Bayreuth orchestra than Bohm’s, refined to the point of shine with every detail shimmering through an always beautiful sound - the singers sound like merely another line to clarify on the way to complete transparency. Clemens Krauss, easily the best of the old Bayreuth house conductors for my money, is like later Strauss, including in its underratedness (except among the most hard-core collectors). Here, at last among those mentioned, is a conductor able to articulate the full diversity of meaning in the Ring Cycle, but not quite able to summon the epic Wagnerian power within that framework. Maybe it’s the sound, but all that lightness and shade comes at a price. Joseph Keilberth is like a Brahms/Bruckner hybrid, warm, dependable, and still too heavy-going. And I still haven’t heard enough of Herbert von Karajan’s non-Meistersinger Wagner to make a judgement...

That leaves four major recorded conductors left who understand Wagner on his own terms. One of whom I haven’t listened to enough Wagner to make a judgement on his (Christian Thielemann). The other three are Hans Knappertsbusch, Reginald Goodall (Kna’s pupil), and Daniel Barenboim. I have no doubt that Wagner by way of Knappertsbusch and Goodall possesses a certain type of authenticity, but it’s no authenticity I want in my life - under Kna, Wagner becomes a static ritual, something to be worshipped rather than enjoyed. When I hear Knappertsbusch in Wagner, I hear Wagner as Wagner probably wanted to hear himself - an object for veneration rather than love. The dimension in which the characters of Wagner operas exist under Kna’s hands is so far removed from the human dimension that it seems to me a perfect representation of everything that’s noxious in Wagner.

For reasons I don’t quite understand, Barenboim is the only conductor of a major recorded Ring Cycle who seems to meet Wagner on his own terms. His tempos are both faster and slower than nearly any other conductor, and the sudden changes in tempo are so imperceptible that they seem like black magic. Barenboim doesn’t simply support his singers, he challenges them, he inspires them, he inflames them - and this clearly inferior generation of singers is inspired to a level of commitment unseen from far greater Wagnerian voices. For the first and only time among Ring recordings, Wagner’s cumulative impact is felt (just about) all the way through, every bar threatening to double the excitement and meaning of the last.

(A three hour Tristan, a three hour Tristan, a three hour Tristan)

As far as I’m concerned, there is only one more perceptive Wagner conductor than Barenboim, and it’s the infamous Artur Bodanzky. The sound of his 1930’s recordings is nearly unlistenable, but if you can get past the sound to hear the music, then Bodanzky’s Metropolitan Opera forces had probably the greatest Wagner singers the world will ever hear. And he inflamed those singers to the maximum possible commitment, whipped the orchestra into a constant frenzy of fast (but constantly shifting) tempos, and mercilessly cut out so many of the dull passages which cow the rest of us into avoiding Wagner when possible. Finally, here were performances in which Wagner is no longer a ritual for the believers, but a visceral composer for the theater, in which characters sing as though they have human motivations. For only in this time and place, the practical considerations of the listener’s attention span are engaged in Wagner. Wagner was not simply a religious ritual and pseudo-philosopher taken seriously, he was a theater composer to be practically engaged and enjoyed for pleasure as one would a Shakespeare play or a Dickens novel. Never has the approach to Wagner been more Jewish than it was at the 1930’s Met.

Virtually every other conductor who’d be willing to grab the bull by the (jew)horns never gave us a recording of anything more than small pieces of The Ring: Eugen Jochum, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Charles Munch, Victor de Sabata, Nikolai Golovanov, Willem Mengelberg, Albert Coates, Carlos Kleiber, the young Leonard Bernstein or John Barbirolli or Colin Davis.... Perhaps there’s yet hope to get a great Ring from younger conductors like Manfred Honeck and Andris Nelsons. Hell, maybe even Simon Rattle or Valery Gergiev still have a great Ring in them somewhere (not yet...), and, perish the thought, maybe a millionth of a possibility of a great Ring from Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

Perhaps it’s the congestion of the online sound, but something has changed definitively in Daniel Barenboim’s Ring Cycle conception, and not for the better. Life is not quite lived on the edge of safety anymore. People used to say that Barenboim’s Wagner was slavishly imitative of Furtwangler’s, but this past week’s Proms performance seems much closer to Furtwangler’s conception than his recording from twenty years ago. There is excitement to be had during those points where he keeps things flexible, and there fortunately are a number of moments when he does - but not quite enough anymore. Like last year’s Beethoven cycle which Barenboim conducted, I was put very much in mind of the older Bruno Walter. We have no way of knowing how the elderly Walter would conduct Wagner’s Ring, but I’d imagine it would be with great warmth and beauty of sound, and with the incendiary fire of his middle age dampened though not vanished. The musical depth which Barenboim used to imply is now self-conscious. This is no longer Wagner on his own terms, this is Wagner by way of a Schubert piano sonata or The Magic Flute. Amazingly beautiful, luminously so at times, but also a little sapped of intensity at times and not quite hanging together as a whole. It’s certainly great, but it’s not quite the Wagner which Barenboim made me love against my better judgement.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Mr Tucker

    I'd like to read your thoughts about The Pilgrim's Chorus