I have never found a work as dangerously fascinating, with as weird and sweet an infinity, as Tristan, -- I have looked through all the arts in vain. Everything strange and alien about Leonardo da Vinci is demystified with the first tones of Tristan. This work is without a doubt Wagner's non plus ultra...the world is a poor place for those who have never been sick enough for this 'voluptuousness of hell': it is permissible, it is almost imperative, to reach for mystical formulae at this point.Baudelaire:
His is the art of translating, by subtle gradations, all that is excessive, immense, ambitious in spiritual and natural mankind. On listening to this ardent and despotic music one feels at times as though one discovered again, painted in the depths of a gathering darkness torn asunder by dreams, the dizzy imaginations induced by opium.Faure:
If one has not heard Wagner at Bayreuth, one has heard nothing! Take lots of handkerchiefs because you will cry a great deal! Also take a sedative because you will be exalted to the point of delirium!
Most of us are so helplessly under the spell of his greatness that we can do nothing but go raving about the theatre in ecstasies of deluded admiration.
When I left the Festival Theatre, unable to utter a word, I realized that I had experienced the summit of greatness and pain, and that I was going to carry it with me, unblemished, for the rest of my life.There are literally dozens of testimonials from these and other men of genius who pay homage to someone they find a greater genius than themselves. Whatever else one thinks about Wagner, you have to realize that Wagner was, perhaps, the single most creative genius in the history of the world. He was, without a doubt, a musical genius, even if, like Berlioz, he was not much of an instrumentalist. But before he was a great musician, he was an activist, an intellectual, and a dramatist. Music itself was just the means by which he created a whole way of looking at the world that was at once spiritual, emotional, political, and intellectual. The only other 19th century artist who had this kind of impact was Lord Byron, and compared to Wagner's impact, Byron was a non-entity. No other musician in the entirety of music history has anything like this impact on the world, and for all the impact he had on music, he could have no true musical successor. He was in the grand line of poets who created a kind of anti-realist theater that takes place in spiritual or ancient worlds, and is supposed to put you more in touch with the hidden world of the spirit than the world in which we live. This kind of theater isn't much in vogue these days because it is dependent on special effects, and because the impact of special effects has been cheapened by so many movies.
Obviously Goethe's Faust was a huge influence, and so was Greek Tragedy that re-enacted myths on stage and was partially a religious rite. I have no idea if Wagner knew much about the plays of Byron or Shelley. These are plays that have powerful moments and rhetoric that perhaps were meant more to be read than produced. They owe a lot to Milton's Paradise Lost, and Milton could, perhaps, be called Wagner's literary equivalent. Whatever one thinks of Paradise Lost, the sheer grandeur and ambition and heaviness of it had a similar impact on the England of Milton's day as The Ring and Tristan had on the Germany of Wagner's. Nobody except a true believer will call Wagner anything like as great a poet as Milton or Goethe, but the difference between Wagner and all these other dramatic poets is that Wagner had music, the most spiritual of all artforms, to support his drama.
We hear this music today and a lot of it probably reminds us of film music, which owes just about everything to Wagner. But there was no such thing in Wagner's day as film, except for still photography. As best as I can boil down Wagner's impact on listeners into a single sentence, I would say that he managed make listeners of his time feel as though they were put directly in touch with the spiritual world. When people heard the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth, the music felt so spiritual to them that they felt they'd been lifted up into a higher world of the spirit, but that higher world didn't have specificity. It was as though Beethoven was merely alluding to it poetically, but it had no visual form, it had no action, no goal, no motivation. In Wagner's Music Dramas, it had all that and more. Here's how Thomas Mann describes it:
“Wagner, the discoverer of the myth as a basis for his music dramas, the saviour of opera through the myth...makes us believe that music’s raison d’être is to be mythology’s handmaiden.”
Myth in the 19th century means something very different from what it means in the 21st. Wagner's world was a world that had only undergone the Enlightenment a single lifetime ago. Moreso even than us, the 19th century was groping for substitutes to the religious faith so many people lost. It's what George Steiner calls 'nostalgia for the absolute.' If God cannot provide redemption, then maybe we can accomplish things in our own lives to redeem ourselves, and if some people are simply irredeemable, perhaps at least a group of us can be proven more redeemable than others.
We're still very far from the second half of the 20th century yet when liberal democracy is thought to be the most important contribution to quality of life. We are, rather, in an era that has overthrown God, but hasn't yet apprehended the importance of individual freedom to quality of life. Even the most sophisticated people still inhabit mindspaces that think like Christians. People who still think thought by most people that you can only achieve quality of life by apprehending a purer world that does not have the encumbrances and messy compromises of this world. The reason Wagner is so important to so many is that he shows every person who loves his music your own personal transcendence in which you can overthrow whatever it is which you think oppresses you.
This is, ultimately, the kind of musical transcendence I've been talking about since the beginning of this class. The transcendence you hear is always vague, and always personal, but it's unmistakably there. If you sit through Tristan und Isolde or Götterdämmerung, you can't mistake this feeling at the ending of some kind of mystical transfiguration taking place. You've been sitting in the dark for the better part of six hours, and the harmonies seem to have been building to some kind of resolution for the entirety of the day. But the musical goal, the resolution, keeps getting pushed back further and further like a goal that seems forever more distant. By the time you get there, the release you feel is ecstatic.
Myths are, almost by definition, open-ended. Like music, every person can derive their own meaning from a myth. In the days before Nazism, Wagner's works were often interpreted in support of democracy, and even today, many socialists interpret Wagner as Bernard Shaw did, a kind of theatrical Karl Marx who shows in drama how heroes will arise and redeem us by overthrowing capitalism. But there are very few myths in human history that cast Jews in a good light, because Judaism is the monotheistic religion without transcendence. We are the people who survived everything because of our ultra-realistic dealings with the humiliating compromises it takes to survive in all situations. The revulsion of antisemites is as much because of how Jews are oppressed as it is because of how Jews seem to oppress others.
It's important to both realize that the racial overtones of Wagner are unmistakably there, and also not exaggerate the extent of their presence. If Wagner's antisemitism or German jingoism were anything more than subtly present, he wouldn't be nearly so great an artist or so inspiring to so many different kinds of people. Part of what's extraordinary about characters in his operas like Mime or Beckmesser or Kundry - who are often seen as antisemitic stereotypes - is that it's just one of dozens of different ways that you can interpret them, and also one of a dozen different ways Wagner means for you to interpret them.
The freedom of Wagner promised is was incredibly dangerous in both ways that make the greatest of great art and also lead people down paths of absolutism. It's the best possible evidence Plato could ever get that the famous quote about the importance of banning music form the Republic:
Musical innovation is full of danger to the State, for when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the State always change with them.That's obviously an extremely specious claim - the kind that would be used by Goebbels as justification to ban music of his day. Wagner is obviously not the reason that Europe erupted in war. But there's also no question, Wagner is a symptom of a world that decided it had had enough. The Ring premiered in 1876. Fifteen years earlier, Russia freed its serfs. Ten years earlier, America freed its slaves. Five years earlier, Germany finally united. This was also the period when Italy finally united and the Austro-Hungarian Empire guaranteed equality under the law for all races.
All over the world, countries seemed to be accomplishing the goals that they had long since worked so hard to achieve at expense of blood and treasure too enormous to truly be measured. Yet rather than make them happier, these accomplishments had so depleted them of morale that they felt worse than ever. The new world weren't all that much better than the old one, and did not feel worth the sacrifice they made. People everywhere began to imagine a world that smashes its current systems to bits so that they can start over and build a better one. That dream never ceases to be dreamed, but it has never brought anything about but still worse systems.