Part 3: Millington on "Lohengrin"

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Part 3: Millington on "Lohengrin"

Post by alberich00 » Fri Feb 08, 2013 10:25 am

Dear Discussion Forum visitors and participants:

[PH] As part of my review of Barry Millington's new book "The Sorcerer of Bayreuth" I have included a more detailed discussion of his chapter on "Lohengrin" because its primary thesis (like that not only of his 2005 essay "Asking the Right Question," but of a similar paper by Millington published by the Houston Grand Opera in Autumn of 1992 entitled "Elsa, Lohengrin and the Tell-Tale Halo") that Lohengrin was wrong to prohibit Elsa from asking him the forbidden question about his name and origin, and that, accordingly, Elsa was right to ask him this question he'd forbade, and was in fact Wagner's exemplar for the revolution in opera he was about to launch in his "Ring" (this specific point being only implicit in Millington's three essays aforementioned, but quite explicitly spelled out by me in my 5/95 paper, and in my proposal to Stewart Spencer of 11/91) was one of the main points of my paper "How Elsa Showed Wagner the way to Siegfried," published by Millington's colleague Stewart Spencer in the 5/95 issue of WAGNER, the (now out of print) scholarly journal of The Wagner Society (London). I believe now, thanks to some recent research I've done, that Millington and I developed these parallel hypotheses (both based, after all, on a thorough reading of Wagner's "A Communication to my Friends" from 1851), in all probability, independently of each other, a fact which lends credence to the supposition that, with respect to these hypotheses we share, we must both be on to something.

Other correspondences with my 5/95 paper which are found in Millington's two more recent (2005 and 2012) essays on "Lohengrin", but which are not found in his 1992 essay, are his remarks that maybe Lohengrin prohibited inquiries into his name and origin because he has something to hide, that Elsa represents the unconscious, that Elsa is aligned in some sense with Nature, that Lohengrin seeks his own redemption from this God-illusion by seeking a mortal love with Elsa, and that what we call heaven, and the divine, is, as Feuerbach said, an illusion humans create to console themselves for the anguish of mortal, earthly life (so that Lohengrin is in effect a fraud, and that Ortrud was right to suspect him, not perhaps stated outright by Millington but implicit, with many hints, in his 2 more recent papers). The following shared insights are also found in Millington's 1992 essay: that "Lohengrin" is a Feuerbach-inspired critique of the Christian belief in a transcendent god (in this sense akin to Wagner's "Ring," with its twilight of the gods, and in which Wotan voluntarily renounces his divine authority to make way for the new order represented by Siegfried and Bruennhilde), that Lohengrin's wish to experience human love and not be a god is his bid for the free, emancipated humanity celebrated in the "Ring," that Lohengrin is not a divine savior but rather a tragic figure whose demands he makes of Elsa lead to tragedy, and that Wagner praises Elsa's breach of faith in Lohengrin because it made him a revolutionary, and that the positive, redemptive impact of Bruennhilde in the "Ring" corresponds with Wagner's seeing Elsa in a positive and praiseworthy light. Of course, anyone who reads my complete "How Elsa showed Wagner the way to Siegfried" will see that it is much, much more involved than Millington's brief pieces on "Lohengrin," and makes many claims about the significance of Elsa's breach of Lohengrin's demand for unquestioning faith as a key which can unlock the conceptual structure of Wagner's subsequent music-dramas, a proposition which I illustrate with numerous examples. Every one of these insights I share with Millington's 1992 essay and his more recent essays were much more thoroughly elaborated by me, their logical implications drawn out in detail.

[PH] Of course much of both my interpretation, and Millington's, is drawn from Wagner's 1851 essay "A Communication to my Friends" (except that Millington in most instances limited his analysis to what can be construed immediately, with respect to "Lohengrin," from a close reading of "A Communication ... ," whereas I drew considerably more far-reaching, and not self-evident, conclusions from this material), where scholars and students have for many, many a year had the opportunity to find in Wagner's own words much (but not all) of the evidence which has inspired my interpretation. But given its date, 1851 (a point Millington astutely makes in both his recent pieces on "Lohengrin"), many scholars have feared Wagner was reading back into "Lohengrin" an import which simply wasn't there in the original, completed several years earlier. However, as Millington explains, where authentic art is concerned it is not at all unexpected that an artist would presciently express subliminally, unconsciously, insight which only later rose to the level of conscious, conceptual thought. The fact that much (but not nearly all) of what is original in my interpretation draws upon Wagner's "A Communication ... " has always made it the more surprising to me that, so far as I know (and I half expect to be contradicted), I was the first to propose a comprehensive interpretation of virtually the entire libretto of "Lohengrin" based in part on Wagner's observations on "Lohengrin" in "A Communication to my Friends," particularly his remark (neglected, strangely, by both Millington, and Berthold Hoeckner, and so far as I know, everybody else who has published commentary on "Lohengrin") that Elsa taught him to unearth his Siegfried. But let's be prudent: at any rate I believe I was the first to propose such a comprehensive interpretation which includes the insights aforementioned, but which was also able to demonstrate the mechanics of how Elsa's breach of Lohengrin's demand for faith gives rise to the allegorical logic of Wagner's subsequent music-dramas, including Siegfried's very nature and personality.

[PH] So, here in part 3, and the next several parts of my review of his chapter on "Lohengrin" from Millington's book, and his related essay "Asking the Right Question" (and bearing in mind his 1992 paper which I re-discovered only after I'd completed this review), I will be comparing extracts from my paper with the passages from his 2 papers which seem to me to present a similar point, in order to illustrate how Millington's book "The Sorceror of Bayreuth" could have benefited from the more far-reaching conclusions I drew from the same material (the libretto and music of "Lohengrin," and "A Communication to my Friends," as well as other documentary material). I can recommend Millington's chapter on "Lohengrin" to readers because it proposes, in essence, the same reading of "Lohengrin" that I have been proposing since at least 1991 when I offered to write a paper for publication by Stewart Spencer in WAGNER which, as one can read in my 11/91 letter to him, could have included the essentials of the paper he did actually publish in 5/95 (and presumably earlier: I will have to review my older copyrighted papers to ascertain the first date that I proposed this, or that, insight: I do possess an essay on "Lohengrin" copyrighted in 1991 at the Library of Congress). The primary difference between our papers on "Lohengrin" is that my paper goes much further and contains dozens of insights not to be found in Millington's 3 papers at all, which demonstrate how Elsa's breach of Lohengrin's prohibition became the seedbed for the development of Wagner's allegorical logic which grants striking conceptual unity to his four subsequent music-dramas.

[PH] The fact that Millington now, in his 2012 book, brings these ideas we share back into circulation will hopefully help pave the way for my own creative study of Wagner's art, which extends back to my first copyrighted paper from 1981, to take its rightful place in the halls of Wagner scholarship. I mean, after all, if ideas I conceived and published long ago are now being accepted by major publishers for publication in books regarded even now as examples of cutting edge Wagner scholarship, shouldn't I be credited for introducing any of those ideas for which I can prove by copyright date the chronological priority of my claim to them, and moreover, shouldn't those publishers be contacting me to offer me the chance to publish work which, even 20 years ago, was much more far-reaching than much of the research being published now!

[PH] [THE FOLLOWING CRITIQUE INCLUDES EXTRACTS FROM PAUL HEISE’S “HOW ELSA SHOWED WAGNER THE WAY TO SIEGFRIED” – published in the 5/95 issue (Volume 16, Number 2) of WAGNER, the scholarly journal (no longer in print) of The Wagner Society (London), and posted here in this discussion forum in 3 parts]

[PH] Let me start by noting that my essay "How Elsa showed Wagner the way to Siegfried" is too arcane and its approach too new, frankly, to be presented in a general purpose introduction to the life and work of Wagner such as Millington presents in "The Sorcerer of Bayreuth," so those aspects of my paper which correspond with Millington's hypotheses presented in his "Lohengrin" essays of 1992, or 2005 and 2012, go about as far as Millington could in presenting an exegesis of "Lohengrin" to the general reading public. Nonetheless, Millington, had he chosen to, could have added an intriguing element to his 2005 and 2012 essays by at least introducing my far-reaching interpretation of Wagner's remark (in "A Communication to my Friends") that Elsa showed Wagner they way to Siegfried." It is my analysis of the implications of this remark for a deeper reading of "Lohengrin" and of its conceptual importance as a turning point toward the creation of Wagner's mature music-dramas which distinguishes my paper from those of both Millington and Berthold Hoeckner. However, the day will come when my much more involved and highly documented reading of "Lohengrin" and Wagner's other canonical operas and music-dramas will become part of the common currency of Wagner scholarship, so that writers of general introductions to Wagner will be able to reference my prior work without undue dismay.

[PH] Our current standard readings of Wagner's operas and music-dramas (of course I realize that there are multiple, and quite different, readings of each of them) have long been outstripped by the advancement in knowledge of these works: one need only read my "The Wound That Will Never Heal," and compare it with what is currently touted as cutting edge Wagner scholarship on the "Ring" and Wagner's other mature music-dramas, to see how much is left to be done for established Wagner scholars to catch up with the research I had staked out 20 years ago and more. The fact that Millington himself, in the preface to his "The Sorcerer of Bayreuth," says the following by way of introducing what he regards as the cutting edge of contemporary Wagner scholarship (in the face of my website having been posted in 4/2011, and my having informed Millington of its existence in the summer of 2011), yet doesn't include a single mention in his celebratory bicentenary book of its existence, is cause for wonder:

[BM] "The perplexing ideology of their creator [alluding of course to Wagner and his art] ... causes endless dissension, yet so rich are the works, and so problematic their composer, that the exegetical challenges seem to be endlessly renewable. The present book attempts to grapple with these issues and to present them in a new light, drawing on scholarship of recent years that has yielded some fascinating results and in some cases positively demanded a radical reappraisal of the subject. Examples are recent studies of Cosima Wagner, of Otto and Mathilde Wesendonck, of Wagner's fetishistic tendencies, his compositional process and his own self-promotion as a 'brand,' and of the subsequent members of the Wagner clan (notably Winifred, Wieland and Wolfgang). There has also been some sterling musicological work done on the thirteen operas that form the core of the Wagner oeuvre, while the discipline of film studies has thrown up some intriguing insights into their proto-cinematic nature. Hovering like a dark cloud, never quite banished, is the baleful legacy of Wagner - specifically the question of his anti-Semitism and the extent to which it is integral to the works themselves. Here, too there has been some valuable scholarship of late."

[PH] This is cause for wonder because, aside from research into Wagner's compositional process, musicological research into his specific artworks, and the question whether anti-Semitism is central to our understanding of his art, these issues are trivial in light of what still stands to be done in a direct appraisal of the artworks themselves. Scholarship devoted to the lives of his family and friends and marketing and influence on film is of course worthwhile, but it is Wagner-light in the context of serious scholarship devoted to his artworks themselves. If ever there was a radical reappraisal of all we thought we knew about Wagner's art, and his "Ring" in particular, it is my "The Wound That Will Never Heal," published online right here in since 4/2011, and my 5/95 paper, published by Spencer, "How Elsa showed Wagner the way to Siegfried," long known to Millington: why doesn't Millington cite either study?

[PH] I begin my critique of Millington's 2 brief studies of "Lohengrin" with the quotation from Wagner's "A Communication to my Friends," which I made the centerpiece and opening gambit of my 5/95 paper, a passage not cited by Millington in his two pieces, in spite of the fact that it provided me my entre into my demonstration of the conceptual unity of Wagner's canonical artistic output, particularly his mature music-dramas, and the "Ring" in particular:

“When Wagner summed up his artistic life in 1851, prior to completing the ‘Ring,’ he spoke of Siegfried in the following terms:

‘Elsa showed me the way to this man … .’ (…) (“A Communication to my Friends”: GS IV, 328; PW I, 375)

What did Wagner mean? Wagner felt that with ‘Lohengrin’ he had first glimpsed the means to accommodate words, action, and music in a revolutionary way that eventually bore fruit in the ‘Ring.’ Did he mean something more? In this essay I shall examine evidence that Wagner … achieved a decisive conceptual revolution through a new understanding of Elsa’s words and actions. I shall show how, beneath its ostensible meaning, this opera exhibits an implicit conceptual structure that is developed and becomes explicit in the “Ring” and later operas.” [from Heise’s “How Elsa showed Wagner the way to Siegfried,” page 61]

{PH] I have cited this passage precisely because Millington has neglected it in his treatment of "Lohengrin," at least in the two more recent essays under discussion, in spite of the fact that it holds the key to grasping not only the conceptual structure of "Lohengrin," but also its conceptual relationship to the "Ring" and Wagner's other mature music-dramas.

[PH] As I quote extracts from both of Millington's two essays on "Lohengrin," and from my prior paper, in order to compare them, I will highlight in boldface the specific passages in Millington, and in my own work, which most display the similarity of his propositions, and mine, so that I can also highlight how far my reading diverges from his interpretation:

(1) [BM]
“Of all Wagner’s operas, it is “Lohengrin” that poses the greatest difficulty for many, in that its plot revolves around a dubious proposition. (…) [referencing Lohengrin’s stipulation that Elsa never ask his name or origin, Millington states] The difficulty of the proposition, especially to modern sensibilities, is that Lohengrin’s stipulation seems unreasonable, while Elsa’s failure to repress her female curiosity is regarded by many as unacceptable misogyny on Wagner’s part. But is that really the case? I would like to suggest that Elsa, far from being the weak link whose behavior causes her own downfall and that of Lohengrin and the Brabantines he was about to lead into battle, is actually a progressive, enlightened force, and that the failure is not so much hers as Lohengrin’s.” [from Millington’s “Asking the Right Question,” Seattle Opera 2005]

(2) [BM]
“On the face of it, the story has a misogynistic streak: idle female curiosity has got the better of Elsa, and she is duly punished. But this is not how Wagner saw the situation. For him, the forbidden question is the ‘necessary’ question." [necessary should be italicized, but my italic font isn’t working properly for some reason, so I can only indicate italicized words with apostrophes] [from Chapter 7 – “Swansong to Traditional Opera: ‘Lohengrin’,” in Millington’s “The Sorcerer of Bayreuth,” page 63]

(3) [BM]
[referencing the well known motif of the forbidden question in fairy tales, Millington states that] “Sometimes … the question posed represents a taboo that needs to be broken. And there seems to be an element of that in 'Lohengrin': perhaps the question the knight doesn’t want to be asked should be asked. This would make Elsa more of a heroine than a busybody.” [from Millington’s “Asking the Right Question,” Seattle Opera 2005]

“Elsa, however, is not in full harmony with the folk:

‘It might well bring him danger, were he to tell his secret here to all the world; woe is me … ! If I, whom he saved, should betray him and cause it to be known! If I knew his secret, I would guard it truly! Yet my heart trembles, filled with doubt!’ (Act II, Scene 5; GS II, 97)

Like the folk, Elsa fears that exposure of Lohengrin’s identity may endanger him, but, unlike the folk, she desires knowledge of Lohengrin’s identity. What Elsa has here said has the most immense consequences not only for ‘Lohengrin’ but for all of Wagner’s future operas, for Elsa wants to share with her lover prohibited knowledge of his secret identity, offering to keep his secret if he will share it with her.

But she is filled with doubt. She may wonder why Lohengrin’s love for her depends upon her fearful maintenance of a breakable taboo … .” [from Heise’s “How Elsa showed Wagner the way to Siegfried,” pages 74-75]

PH: my main point of comparison here is that Millington takes Elsa's side against Lohengrin's injunction not to ask him his name and origin, as do I. I made this the centerpiece not only of my 5/95 paper (and of my 11/91 proposal to Spencer to write such a paper for WAGNER), but of my proposition that this will provide us an entre into the conceptual structure of not only "Lohengrin" but of all of Wagner's subsequent music-dramas, an insight wholly missing (with the exception of some cryptic hints re the "Ring") from Millington's account.
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