Like the composers we're going to talk about today, we're going to do our best to avoid Wagner. And we'll do it by not listening to him. In 2017, we can't hope to understand the impact that Wagner had when he was first heard. You can't recreate the circumstances of it. The best way to think of it is perhaps to think of an Isaac Asimov story, Nightfall, in which people of a planet saw the stars once every two thousand years, go insane when they see the stars and darkness for the first time, because everything they thought they knew about their civilization was no longer true, and civilization collapses. Here's what all manner of famous artists and intellectuals of his time had to say about Wagner.
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 systems that are little better than what came before, just different, and even if the systems sometimes seem better from epoch to epoch, less people in poverty, less people killed, quality of life generally higher, the time comes when they inevitably crash, and the crash seems to be correspondingly worse every time. The Napoleonic Wars killed ten million people, all the various theaters of the World Wars between them killed at least two hundred million if you count the Spanish flu and the deaths under totalitarian states. If there's a world war with nuclear or biological or chemical weapons, there's no reason to assume that it won't claim well over a billion lives. Maybe life will be a little better for the survivors, a fairer system of government and economics, but war is as simple and unavoidable a fact of life as sex or music. It just happens, and it's so unpredictable that no one ever accomplishes the objectives they started with. It's the ultimate demonstrator that we're not in control of our own lives; we emerged from the Earth, we are the Earth's property, and the earth will claim us for its own uses whenever it decides. Whenever one feature of the world dominates the ecology over the other, some kind of war strikes, and the world everybody knew falls away - it's a self-cleansing mechanism, and there has never been anything in the history of the planet that has dominated the world's ecology to contemporary America.
This shouldn't be that much of a worry for you guys, but not everybody makes it to a ripe old age, and the world clearly doesn't have the resources to get us all there. When people see each other as impediments to getting what they want, they resort to violent means to getting them out of the way. Life is not beautiful, art is beautiful, but perhaps art is beautiful because it's the best way we have to learn about life.
And the 1870s was the moment when Europe began an inexorable descent into an abyss from which it would not come out for an entire lifetime. Just as people and machines grow old, so civilizations seem to also. In 1805, Wordsworth could gain fame by writing these lines about the French Revolution:
OH! pleasant exercise of hope and joy!Look at the imagery here. "Budding rose above the rose full blown,... they who had fed their childhood upon dreams, The playfellows of fancy, who had made All powers of swiftness, subtilty, and strength Their ministers. Wordsworth wrote this right in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars. In fact, the Napoleonic wars had yet to kill most of its victims. But by 1805, his hopes for a better world were already dashed, but even in the middle of a terrible war, he could still look at his hopes and hopes of millions of people now dead with nostalgia. If Wordsworth only knew what might come a century later, it would have boggled his mind completely.
For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!--Oh! times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!
When Reason seemed the most to assert her rights,
When most intent on making of herself
A prime Enchantress--to assist the work,
Which then was going forward in her name!
Not favoured spots alone, but the whole earth,
The beauty wore of promise, that which sets
(As at some moment might not be unfelt
Among the bowers of paradise itself)
The budding rose above the rose full blown.
What temper at the prospect did not wake
To happiness unthought of? The inert
Were roused, and lively natures rapt away!
They who had fed their childhood upon dreams,
The playfellows of fancy, who had made
All powers of swiftness, subtilty, and strength
Their ministers,--who in lordly wise had stirred
Among the grandest objects of the sense,
And dealt with whatsoever they found there
As if they had within some lurking right
To wield it;--they, too, who, of gentle mood,
Had watched all gentle motions, and to these
Had fitted their own thoughts, schemers more mild,
And in the region of their peaceful selves;--
Now was it that both found, the meek and lofty
Did both find, helpers to their heart's desire,
And stuff at hand, plastic as they could wish;
Were called upon to exercise their skill,
Not in Utopia, subterranean fields,
Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us,--the place where in the end
We find our happiness, or not at all!
But ninety-five years later, Thomas Hardy wrote The Darklng Thrush, a very different poem:
I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
Wordsworth was to the 1800 decade of English poetry what Hardy was to the 1900 decade, the singular dominant voice, and they both expressed the spirit of their times. No one sane would choose to live in 1805 England over 1900 England, yet even if Wordsworth was disappointed by the French Revolution, he was in many ways living in a new world, and he could both look to the past wistfully and look to the future with some kind of hope.
But look at the dark, gothic, almost diseased imagery of the second poem. I don't think I need to point it out. It's everywhere. The difference between the two eras was, ultimately, one of optimism vs. one of pessimism.
Think back to the 1950's, everybody in America, everybody white anyway, looked to their future with optimism and hope, and the hopes of your generations were largely borne out. What ultimately does it mean to have hope in my generation? America is twenty trillion dollars in government debt, thirty-five trillion dollars of personal debt, there will soon be less than three working people for every retiree to support social security, and we are still utterly dependent on oil both for transportation and for jobs. Read American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips, no liberal he - a Nixon advisor no less, for more on the hopelessness of that situation. Alt-right, conservative, moderate, liberal, progressive, or socialist, almost everybody is now in agreement that we live in an old civilization that has much less hope for a bright future than you did at our ages. The only people who don't realize that yet are people too privileged to be protected from the realities of our era.
This is the reality we faced after we won the Cold War. We got what we wanted, we accomplished the ultimate goal of making the world fundamentally safe for liberal democracy, both at home and abroad, and the struggle of getting us there was so unbelievably difficult that we were faced with a fact that our victory was a poisoned chalice. It only served to show all the things wrong with our country in greater relief, and so far, the struggle to make those problems better is making things still worse. The problems of America are no longer problems that you can solve, you can only survive them.
And that was the realization of Europe around 1876. (Mravinsky/Leningrad)
That's how Russia expressed the new pessimism. Let's hear how Vienna expressed it. (Furtwangler/NDR)
And now how Prague did. (Davis/Concertgebouw)
Whether it was because of Wagner, or because of some vague zeitgeist, a new kind of symphony was born at this time. An expanded orchestra, expressing heavier emotions, and a level of dramatic heft you don't generally find in Mendelssohn or Schumann. It was the symphony as written by a generation who began to despair that the transcendence promised by Beethoven's Ninth Symphony isn't possible. The only people with real hope for the future were political and aesthetic radicals like Wagner and Berlioz. Everybody else was drawing to the realization that the world they knew was not in any better shape than the world before them. Everything they knew about their worlds was either going to end or it was going to change severely. Nothing gives the human mind greater anxiety than change, and the realization that the world would change did not happen in Europe overnight. It happened over the course of a half-century, bit by bit, until all it needed was one little explosion to set off an entire continent.