Anthony Steinhoff: Music drama as national art

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Anthony Steinhoff: Music drama as national art

Postby alberich00 » Mon Sep 02, 2013 11:32 pm

The latest among my mini-reviews of talks presented at the Wagner Worldwide 2013 bicentennial symposium sponsored by the Univ. of South Carolina during the winter of 2013.

"What does it mean for music drama to be national art?" by Anthony Steinhoff (Universite de Quebec)

Subject: art and German national identity.

Following Herder, there was a focus on the promotion of German culture and art and gymnastics, etc. Wagner's contribution was distinctive. His 1850's essays played a part in the cultural revival. Theater, music, drama were essential to Germany's political rejuvenation. We must also include Wagner's essays from the 1860's.

The question: could opera be popularized? Wagner wanted a State which would nurture a national art. It is hard to grasp his idea of a State. Wagner was more concerned with the longing for a nation than with its establishment. One must tap into German mythology. Wagner would create a German music-drama. Only he could do this, Wagner suggested. Wagner's own music-dramas would teach the nation. He would found a new school of singing and theater.

Wagner felt there had been a decline in the public art of Germany. But German music-drama would not be a good vehicle for political persuasion. The notion of Hellenic drama as a model was a pipe-dream. Wagner established his festival theater, but his fundraising failed. The number of Germans who truly knew music-drama or cared about it was small. Wagner's artistic agenda was at odds with the political agenda. His art was inaccessible to most citizens: a high and difficult art, even for attendees.

Did Wagner's music-dramas become a national art? Wagner felt misunderstood by his contemporaries. Could his music-dramas be popularized?

We must treat Wagner as we do any other historical phenomenon. Wagner alone thought opera could help build the nation. His artworks could never be used for popular enlightenment. Only a privileged few could grasp them.

After his death, he became a German cultural icon. The question must be asked: must all art be serious? His art only appealed to the cultural bourgeoisie.

Q&A: Someone asked whether Wagner brainwashed us into believing he was important. For some reason PH did not record Steinhoff's answer.

PH: I concur with Steinhoff's main point that it was absurd for Wagner to think his art could ever be a national art in the sense of being a popular means for building the nation, given the fact, first, that opera per se appeals only to a sliver of the general populace, and second, that Wagner's art appeals to even a smaller sliver of the opera-loving audience. It is one of the great fallacies of the modern age to rate the value of art in proportion to its accessibility to the widest possible audience. This would be like saying that only the most popularly understood physics or chemistry has validity, when in fact it is the case that often the most far-reaching developments in science are understood by very few, even among the specialists. I believe the same is true of art. Of course, over time, what was once regarded as inacessible often becomes a classic and is taught in the schools.
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