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David Trippett: Wagner's Electrifying Thoughts

PostPosted: Tue Aug 27, 2013 1:26 pm
by alberich00
Dear Discussion Forum members and visitors:

I'm now getting a bit of help here and there taking care of my ailing 92 year old mom, from Hospice and a privately engaged home health care worker, so I can now catch a break occasionally and submit postings from time to time in our discussion forum. As promised, I'll now post brief reviews of the lectures presented at the Wagner Bicentennial Symposium sponsored by the Univ. of South Carolina in late January and early February, 2013. I haven't the time for comprehensive appraisals of each lecture, so instead I will simply highlight whatever most interested me, pro or con.

I start here with:

"Wagner's Electrifying Thoughts" by David Trippett, from Cambridge Univ.

Trippett, speaking of Wagner's magnetism as conductor and composer, suggested that there is a link between the 19th Century's fascination with magnetism (especially in its occult sense) and electricity, and Wagner's legacy, that in fact it provides a metaphor for Wagner's effect upon his audience.

Trippett noted that in the 19th century attempts to link cognitive phenomena with the electro-physiology of the brain was essentially a materialistic inquiry into the soul. The question to be considered: is thought and emotion electrical? The brain was equated with telegraph wires, which, like nerves, are employed to send and receive messages.

Trippett recalled (if memory serves: it's been nearly half a year since I listened to these lectures and wrote cryptic notes on them, so my memory, even with the aid of my notes, may be faulty) that in some "Ring" productions Nibelheim is depicted as a lab for horrific scientific experiments. Of course, one of the primary arguments in my own interpretation of the "Ring" is that it expresses the hopelessness of man's striving to affirm his transcendent value in the face of the inevitability that science will explain all that we have formerly described as divine or transcendent as merely earthly and material, but falsely interpreted by the imagination under the influence of longing and fear.

Trippett stated that by the 1850's the notion that specific areas of the brain are specialized to perform different functions had gained currency. In other words, science was dissecting what man had formerly called his soul.

Trippett then segued into a discussion of the alleged influence of Wagner's music on the nervous system. Wagner's one-time friend Nietzsche wrote how Wagner's music corrupted the nerves and fogged the mind. [PH: Curiously, though Nietzsche asserted that for a time the Wagnerian spell fogged his mind, he claimed that he emancipated himself from Wagner and only then could fully grasp the danger inherent in Wagner's spell. However, there is a great deal in Nietzsche's maturest thinking which echoes not only the direct influence of Ludwig Feuerbach, but also Feuerbach's indirect influence via its mythologization in Wagner's music dramas.]

In essence, Trippett says, the Nietzschean critique of Wagner's art was that it guaranteed a physiological judgment in the listener, through a sort of psycho-technical control.

Trippett ended his discourse with a humorous aside: Wagner's music was the first to get on your nerves, a full, sensory immersion.

[PH] I've always found it curious that self-proclaimed protectors of the classical canon sometimes allege that Wagner corrupted the ears of several generations of listeners. I've never understood this at all. Granted, Wagner broke or simply elaborated a variety of rules and conventional procedures of prior classical instrumental music and opera (as did many others), but so far as I know he enhanced the language of music, expanded its possibilities, preparing the mind of listeners for novel experiences in music heretofore undreamt. Isn't that what every original composer does? Perhaps Nietzsche lost his reason while experiencing Wagner's art in performance, but I have not. However, it would not occur to me to insist on maintaining a cool objectivity while experiencing Wagner's art in performance. The whole idea is to enter a dream-like state in which Wagner's experience becomes your own, in which you share what he described as his clairvoyance. The application of objective reason to this experience should only come after the performance. What on earth is Nietzsche talking about!

Trippett's lecture, like all the others, was followed by a Q&A session. I reproduce some highlights below:

John Deathridge took issue with the description of Nibelheim as a torture chamber of science. Trippett responded that Wagner was very much aware of modern scientific research, and he resisted scientific reductionism, i.e., striving to reduce the wonderful and the awe-inspiring to the prosaic through scientific explanations. Trippett said that Wagner in fact rejected natural science. However, Deathridge countered that constructs his music-dramas in a scientific way, more so than other composers. To this Trippett responded that though Wagner was an idealist, his method often went against this grain. He noted that the prestige of natural science increased in the second half of the 19th Century. He noted also that Wagner specifically tried to preserve the mystery of genius from scientific reduction. [PH: This of course is a signature aspect of my own interpretation of Wagner's "Ring." Wagner was desperate to maintain a privileged space, a last refuge, for transcendence and all the values associated with it.]

Deathridge describes this conflict within Wagner's soul, between a conscientious regard for the objective truth, and man's subjective desire and longing for transcendent value, as a cultural schizophrenia. Roger Scruton has oft addressed this issue in his writings about Wagner, namely, that Wagner grasps, and expresses in his art, the existential dilemma of modern man, his natural quest for objective knowledge of himself and his world, and his often conflicting longing to affirm his transcendent, spiritual being in the face of scientific reduction. [PH: This was also a primary inspiration for Dostoevsky's literary art].