Can Wagner's music, drama, poetry, be judged separately?

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Can Wagner's music, drama, poetry, be judged separately?

Postby alberich00 » Sat Jun 25, 2011 3:40 pm

Hello, intrepid visitors to the discussion forum.

I recall a bizarre accusation laid upon both me and upon a fellow contributor to a Wagner discussion forum some years ago. I and my colleague were discussing Wagner's drama and poetics at some length, and a third member of the forum asked (I paraphrase from memory here): When did you too get tired of Wagner's music?

The implication of this accusation was that Wagner's music is somehow the essential raison d'etre of Wagner's operas and music dramas, and that the dramas for which Wagner wrote his music are merely incidental, a sort of scaffolding (as I've heard various proponents of this view put it) Wagner needed to make it possible for him to create sublime music which, having served its purpose for Wagner, can well be discarded by listeners to Wagner's music. I've heard this thesis propounded hundreds of times, and I wince each time I hear it. The following seems to be behind it:

A rather large number of admirers (and, I add, authentic admirers) of Wagner's art hold that of the three primary components of Wagner's art, music, drama, and poetry, music is the truly essential one, his genius as a dramatist is next in importance, and his skill as a poet must be rated the least important. This seems to be based at least partly on the self-evident truth that Wagner's operas and music-dramas, on the whole, would not survive without the music, whereas, if Wagner's music were separated from the dramas for which it was written, it would remain a very important part of our artistic heritage. In other words, his music works as music better than his dramas work as dramas, if these components are considered separately.

Though I believe this to be true, I believe it is irrelevant to what I regard as the true magic of Wagner's art, which is that, when Wagner's art is experienced as a whole, as it was meant to be, its sublimity and power and beauty transcends that which is offered by his music alone, or his drama alone. Yes, his artworks would not work solely as dramas without music, but by the same token, his music shorn of the drama for which it was written would also lack much of its luster and poignance. I hold this to be the case even in that allegedly most purely musical of his dramas, "Tristan and Isolde."

A few popular and simple examples (and there are thousands of others) will illustrate my point. Who has not experienced a special shiver, the pathos of reminiscence of things past (and many other queer sensations which can only be described as musico-dramatic, and not purely musical), when we hear the first segment of the Valhalla motif in "The Valkyrie," Act One, Scene Two, as Siegmund recounts how he lost his father, whom he knew only as Waelse and as Wolf, in the woods, a father we the audience now recognize as Wotan, thanks to this musical reminiscence. Were the "Ring" known to us only through the music this recapitulation of a theme would have some musical power, no doubt, but not anything like the conceptual, dramatic, and musical power it accrues through this dramatic association. Something similar occurs with the recapitulation of motif #99, associated originally with Wotan's farewell to Bruennhilde in "The Valkyrie" Act Three, Scene Three, when it is heard again as Waltraute tells Bruennhilde that their father Wotan recently thought of his long-lost daughter Bruennhilde (long after he allegedly severed their bond of love).

Another, somewhat different example, is this: I have found from experience that many (not necessarily all) admirers of Wagner's art who dismiss his drama as relatively unimportant (when compared with his music, taken by itself) tend to admire mostly what are called his bleeding chunks, excerpts from the operas and music-dramas in which Wagner creates, for a comparatively brief span of time (from, say, 8 minutes to 20 minute or so), comparatively stand-alone musical entities, such as preludes, overtures, entractes, duets, and aria-like songs, which have a coherence considered purely as music which is lacking in large portions of his operas and music-dramas. I have, for instance, tried to play large stretches of even "Siegfried" Act Three, Scene Three, for some Wagner fans who didn't want to be bothered following the drama, and in most cases the listeners asked me to turn the music off after 20 minutes or so because they couldn't follow it as music. In each case I've suggested to them that, were they to follow it onstage all of this music would make "sense" to them and they would be able to follow it fluently. Wagner himself noted that there is much that happens in his music which makes sense neither as music nor drama without its necessary bond with the drama.

This is a vexed problem of long-standing. Any thoughts?
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Re: Can Wagner's music, drama, poetry, be judged sepatately?

Postby alberich00 » Sat Jun 25, 2011 3:44 pm

A quick correction:

Sorry, I submitted this question a bit prematurely: I meant to say (at the end of the first paragraph): "When did you two get tired of Wagner's music?" It would also have been preferable had I said: "My colleague and I ..." rather than "I and my colleague." Better luck next time.
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Re: Can Wagner's music, drama, poetry, be judged sepatately?

Postby feuerzauber » Sat Jun 25, 2011 9:46 pm

Consider Dr Johnson's stinging lampoon on those who championed Shakespearean snippets over Shakespeare's works:

[Shakespeare's] real power is not shown in the splendour of particular passages, but by the progress of his fable, and the tenour of his dialogue; and he that tries to recommend him by select quotations, will succeed like the pedant in Hierocles, who, when he offered his house to sale, carried a brick in his pocket as a specimen.


Add "and the architecture of his music", and Dr Johnson's pronouncement applies equally to Wagner's music dramas. This can be the only possible default position against which a worthy challenge to Wagner's avowedly conscious Gesamtkunstwerk must be mounted before any-one feels obliged to defend it.
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Re: Can Wagner's music, drama, poetry, be judged sepatately?

Postby maggiebeer » Tue Jun 28, 2011 8:36 am

I can`t comment on this yet. I have listened to excerpts from Wagner for many years and have seen three of his operas in theatres, but not The Ring. I recently read Roger Scruton`s "Listening to Music" and was so entranced by what he had to say about "The Ring" that I have ordered it on DVD. I will get it at the end of July - a friend will bring it from England. I am not a complete novice. My late father and I watched "The Ring" on television many years ago, and he explained some of it to me. He was a refugee to England from the Sudetenland (Bohemia/Czech Republic) in 1938, and my cousin, a nephew of his, married a Bayreuther, and still lives there. I have visited den Gruener Huegel many times, but have been to a performance at the Festspielhaus only once, many years ago when I saw The Meistersingers. I feel as though it will take me a very long time to gain any understanding or insight at the level you describe, but I will use this website and a couple of companions book i`ve also ordered. I will post ant questions or comments as I go along. One thing: someone years ago remarked that Wagner`s librettos were poor. This may have been a purely subjective view, of course. Furthermore, this man may not have had quite the knowledge of Wagner that he implied, but the remark has hung about, so I will be interested to learn more about the librettos.
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Re: Can Wagner's music, drama, poetry, be judged sepatately?

Postby alberich00 » Tue Jun 28, 2011 10:03 am

Greeting, Maggiebeer:

You are actually in an enviable position. There is nothing so wonderful as still having the discovery of new Wagner operas and music-dramas in store. It is not that they ever grow stale or old for me, but nonetheless, nothing will ever match my first experience of Wagner's "Ring" in the 1951 version conducted by Wilhelm Furtwaengler. It's like that first love.

On the subject of the quality of Wagner's librettos, my view is that they can only be considered in performance, in relation to the music. But with the music, they are, in my view, by far the finest and richest librettos of which I have experience.

There are dozens of introductory studies of Wagner's artworks (I don't know which ones you've ordered), but at least three remain hugely influential (and influenced me, though I disagree with many arguments they present): George Bernard Shaw's "The Perfect Wagnerite," Robert Donington's "Wagner's 'Ring' and its Symbols," and Deryck Cooke's "I Saw the World End." Also, I strongly recommend listening to Deryck Cooke's famous introduction to the "Ring" leitmotifs. I'm not sure how or where it's marketed these days. A few of his demonstrations of the musical relationships are, in my view, strained, but on the whole I believe it is still the best introduction to the sort of musical unity which Wagner attempted to achieve (and, in my view, on the whole did achieve) when writing music for his "Ring" libretto.

Anyway, welcome to www.wagnerheim.com. I really look forward to hearing your views as you increasingly explore Wagner's bizarre yet sublime world.

Your friend from Wagnerheim,

Paul
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Re: Can Wagner's music, drama, poetry, be judged sepatately?

Postby A.C. Douglas » Thu Jun 30, 2011 3:54 pm

alberich00 wrote:I recall a bizarre accusation laid upon both me and upon a fellow contributor to a Wagner discussion forum some years ago. I and my colleague were discussing Wagner's drama and poetics at some length, and a third member of the forum asked (I paraphrase from memory here): When did you [two] get tired of Wagner's music?

The implication of this accusation was that Wagner's music is somehow the essential raison d'etre of Wagner's operas and music dramas, and that the dramas for which Wagner wrote his music are merely incidental, a sort of scaffolding (as I've heard various proponents of this view put it) Wagner needed to make it possible for him to create sublime music which, having served its purpose for Wagner, can well be discarded by listeners to Wagner's music. I've heard this thesis propounded hundreds of times, and I wince each time I hear it.


It's well to remember that Wagner did NOT write his music-dramas (I'm speaking here of the works from Das Rheingold forward) as is typically the case for composers of opera — viz., words first, music after to fit — but rather words and music simultaneously in the sense that as he was writing the words (I'm here speaking of the "poems", not the prose drafts) he sensed and "heard" the "shape" of the music that would be wed to them even though he had not yet written so much as a single measure of that music. That is how Wagner thought of music-drama — the organic marriage of words and music simultaneously, not serially. In this, Wagner was, I think, unique. It's quite true that in the finished works the "poems" themselves act as the dramatic armatures ("scaffolding") of the works about which the drama is constructed, responsible for providing the concrete narrative and factual detail that music alone is incapable of providing even though in Wagner's music-dramas the very core of the drama is contained within the music itself, not the words. But those armatures are as necessary to the full-fleshed dramatic work as are our skeletons necessary to our full-fleshed bodies. Absent that armature the work would collapse dramatically (as in drama) as would our bodies without their skeletons.

And, please, let's here, here most especially, desist from this Gesamtkunstwerk fiction. Wagner soon abandoned that theoretical construct when he actually got to writing the music for his music-dramas realizing finally that whenever and wherever music is involved it's NEVER on an equal footing with the other arts but ALWAYS emerges dominant.

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Re: Can Wagner's music, drama, poetry, be judged sepatately?

Postby alberich00 » Sat Jul 02, 2011 9:46 am

Hello, A.C.:

Sorry for the delay in getting back to you: I've spent the past couple of days enraptured at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, this year devoted to Columbia (South America), Rhythm and Blues, and the Peace Corps. This is not so off-topic as one might think: I witnessed two spectacular performances which meld religious ritual with music. I saw a company of Bushman (San) men and women performing a healing ritual enhanced by remarkable multi-part singing and complex rhythmic foot-stamping, and a (to die for) Columbian group of singers and percussionists performing peasant music from the Mompesino district of Columbia (which I gather is a swampy area in the NE) of mostly Afro-Caribbean vintage (but with some interesting Amerindian notes thrown in for good measure).

Well, getting back to the point, I wholly concur with most of what you say above. Yes, as Wagner himself described, he always wrote his libretti under the influence of their potential musical setting. I also concur that this seems to be unique.

You did not say so in detail, but in your critique of the "Total Work of Art" concept I presume you're referencing Wagner's absurd contention that his fusion of the arts (really only the arts of drama and music) would somehow make the separate arts superfluous, would "redeem" them in Wagner's sense of the word. Of course that is absurd: there will always be more to say in each of the arts taken separately, as well as in potential fusions.

But I'm not sure I understand your remark that in any such fusion or collaboration with other arts the music always emerges dominant. Yes, I know that during a certain phase of his career Wagner made this proposition (having argued in favor of other viewpoints at other times), but I'm not sure what this means. Yes, I concur that music has an inwardness and immediacy that seems to be unique among the arts, and yet, though I'm as enraptured by the best music as anyone, I don't feel I can comfortably claim for it a metaphysical supremacy. I wonder if it's mostly a matter of personal capacity. I met at graduate school someone who was so spellbound by a certain painting that he traveled, at great financial inconvenience, across the globe to spend an hour in the presence of a certain painting (I'm thinking here, for instance, of Renoir's "The Boating Party" - is that the correct title?), but who would run off to make sandwiches in the kitchen when I was attempting to have him sit for a mere hour to absorb a recording (libretto in hand) of "The Rhinegold." This threw me into an apoplexy of frustration.

In any case, in what sense to you mean, or imply, that in Wagner's "Ring," for instance, the music remains dominant? For me, the music-drama remains dominant. Perhaps it's a question of semantics. My ulterior motive, of course, is to inspire A.C. Douglas to submit here a more detailed (and, needless to say, fascinating) argument in favor of his thesis.

Your friend from Wagnerheim,

Paul
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Re: Can Wagner's music, drama, poetry, be judged sepatately?

Postby A.C. Douglas » Sat Jul 02, 2011 12:42 pm

alberich00 wrote:I'm not sure I understand your remark that in any such fusion or collaboration with other arts the music always emerges dominant. Yes, I know that during a certain phase of his career Wagner made this proposition (having argued in favor of other viewpoints at other times), but I'm not sure what this means. Yes, I concur that music has an inwardness and immediacy that seems to be unique among the arts, and yet, though I'm as enraptured by the best music as anyone, I don't feel I can comfortably claim for it a metaphysical supremacy. I wonder if it's mostly a matter of personal capacity.

[...]

In any case, in what sense to you mean, or imply, that in Wagner's "Ring," for instance, the music remains dominant? For me, the music-drama remains dominant. Perhaps it's a question of semantics.


In Wagner's music-dramas, the drama is always dominant — dominant and central. What Wagner meant by saying that in all well-made opera, and in his music-dramas most particularly, the music, never the words, ALWAYS emerges dominant is that music always emerges as the dominant and principal articulator of the drama. In all well-made opera, and in Wagner's music-dramas most particularly, if it's being received fully, we *always* believe what the music is telling us above anything the words of the libretto have to say at every point in the work. That's something Wagner himself came to realize very early on, and with unwonted force.

Shortly after writing the theoretical works of his Swiss exile in which he first expounded his theory of Gesamtkunstwerk, he finished writing the "poems" for the Ring which poems he held to be first-rate poetry. He then set to work on the music. After he'd finished writing the music for the first music-drama of the Ring — viz., the score of Das Rheingold — which was also the first music written for the Ring, he remarked that he could no longer bear to read the poem of Das Rheingold alone as he found it empty of both drama and meaning absent its music.

Just so. As always in matters such as this, Wagner was absolutely right, for in music-drama, as in all well-made opera, it's always music that articulates both drama and meaning, never the words which words are, at bottom, naught but armature, dramatically necessary though they may be.

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Re: Can Wagner's music, drama, poetry, be judged sepatately?

Postby alberich00 » Sat Jul 02, 2011 6:38 pm

Hello, A.C:

I believe what you say above corresponds with Wagner's notion, oft-expressed by him, that his music redeems the drama for which it was written. That is one of the most fascinating and strangest aspects of music in relation to drama, particularly in Wagner's case: it is as if music that is persuasive can't be wrong, yet it doesn't affirm or deny anything. And yet, in Wagner's music-dramas its persuasiveness in inextricably bound up with text which, though its audience knows it to be a fiction, yet seems to affirm and deny truths conceptually. Wagner, of course, conflated religious faith with the effect of music, in much the sense that you describe above.

You'll recall my debate with Deryck Cooke's similar assertion that the essential meaning of Wagner's "Ring" is the music rather than the text, which can be found in the latter half of the 16 page introduction to my study of the "Ring." I believe I made a reasonably good case against Cooke's assertion re the dramatic power and meaning, the resonance, of that set of 5 musical motifs to which Wotan sings of his despair, his "goetternoth," in V.2.2, an explosion of despair prompted by Bruennhilde's request to know what troubles him. I won't repeat that argument here, but I noted that a large proportion of the resonance, the meaningfulness, of those 5 motifs, as heard by an audience at that moment, stems not so much from the inherent musical power of that material, but from the prior association of those motifs with elements of plot and libretto text. I gave some similar examples at the top of this discussion.

But I think the problem here is akin to the problem presented by religious faith. The faithful experience a powerful, all-embracing emotion of such persuasiveness that anything with which it is linked, including conceptual claims of sometimes dubious authority, seems to partake of its inarguable feeling of '"truthfulness." This of course is also similar to the demand Lohengrin makes of Elsa. In a sense, he says to her, you feel that my claim to legitimacy ought to be true, in spite of my refusal to give you objective grounds for this feeling: ergo, simply accept me without question. As you know, there are many folks (you and I, I'm sure, are not among them) who are troubled by Wagner's linkage of overwhelmingly persuasive music with a drama which seems, to these folks, to make demands upon their cognitive faculties and beliefs and ideals which they would rather not adhere to. I won't go into details but you know what I mean.

Anyway, though I find most of what you say above right and just, I don't find your remark that "... in music drama, as in all well-made opera, it's always music that articulates both drama and meaning, never the words which are, at bottom, naught but armature, dramatically necessary though they may be," persuasive. One could argue based on this premise that virtually all the drama is in the music (as Wagner himself once said), and that the drama is superfluous. In other words, I think you and I have more work to do to get to the bottom of this problem. But I'm prepared to be convinced otherwise.

Your bemused friend from Wagnerheim,

Paul
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Re: Can Wagner's music, drama, poetry, be judged sepatately?

Postby A.C. Douglas » Sat Jul 02, 2011 9:02 pm

alberich00 wrote:[T]hough I find most of what you say above right and just, I don't find your remark that "... in music drama, as in all well-made opera, it's always music that articulates both drama and meaning, never the words which are, at bottom, naught but armature, dramatically necessary though they may be," persuasive. One could argue based on this premise that virtually all the drama is in the music (as Wagner himself once said), and that the drama is superfluous. In other words, I think you and I have more work to do to get to the bottom of this problem. But I'm prepared to be convinced otherwise.

There's no big philosophic thing at work or at stake here, Paul. It's a matter of creative and performance fact that, concerning artworks known as opera or music-drama, "it's always music that articulates both drama and [dramatic] meaning, never the words which are, at bottom, naught but armature, dramatically necessary though they may be." If you doubt me, I challenge you to name a single well-made opera (and almost by definition all well-made opera is genuine dramma per musica as opposed to, say, Italian bel canto opera which is merely an elaborate showcase for songbirds posing as dramma per musica) or music-drama where that's not the case.

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