Mini review of John Deathridge's opening address to the Wagner Bicentennial Symposium sponsored by the Univ. of South Carolina during the winter of 2013:
"Living with Wagner"
What was Wagner like? Very lively, good to friends, abhorrent to enemies.
Portraits of Wagner:
Some are mausoleum portraits, so to speak. A balanced view was anathema to Wagner. However, he is not easily contained by any given description, including that of anti-Semite. He was sickly and had a penchant for excess, pursuing everything to the extremes.
He was fond of bulky furniture, showy clothes, and lots of baggage. But he also had a huge library. He spent a lot of time in libraries and bookshops, though he was unconstrained by academic caution. Mr. Deathridge would invite Wagner to dinner.
The sacralization of Wagner in scholarship and performance is a big problem. It is quasi-religious.
The teleology of Wagner's autobiographical self-image has been much discussed, but Wagner's doubts have found little review. There are insecurities in his letters.
There is a lot of talk about his anti-Semitism, more obligatory than informative.
Wagner was media canny. Look up "Richard Wagner and the Making of a Brand."
Then Deathridge got into the centerpiece of his talk, a detailed review of the various ways in which Wagner and others treated his iconic beret:
What about the beret, stupid? Why did you wear it, RW? There is even a Wagner doll for sale sporting that beret. Of course, Wagner's step-dad Ludwig Geyer sported such a beret. Then there is the famous photo by Jules Bonnet made in the autumn of 1867 [PH: My favorite of all the Wagner photos: it seems to capture him in a state of inspiration, a Raptus]. Maybe Wagner wore it as testimonial to the 15th century style worn by the Mastersingers as portrayed in his music-drama on that subject (Stolzing), expressing a nostalgia for old Germany. Also, there was a revival of interest in this old Germany during the German wars of liberation against Napoleon. The historical Hans Sachs also wore such a beret. Some Prussian militia in the 19th century, who fought against Napoleon, wore black berets, which in this seemed to express anti-French sentiment.
Wagner saw himself as giving rebirth to a German culture freed from French civilization. Wagner therefore may have worn his beret politically. In some portraits Wagner placed his hand inside his waistcoat, like Napoleon, as if to co-opt Napoleon's gesture.
Then Deathridge reviewed a series of films in which actors portrayed Wagner wearing his beret. In the silent film "The Life and Works of Richard Wagner," the actor Giuseppe Becce, actually physically resembled Wagner. In another silent film, "Silence on Lake Starnberg," Wagner is portrayed wearing his beret prior to his first audience with King Ludwig II of Bavaria, though Wagner didn't start wearing it until 1867. This film concerns Wagner's hope to find an ideal ruler who would use his power to bring Wagner's works to the stage. Wagner was in debt and hiding from creditors in 1864 when Ludwig was crowned King and sent for him.
Deathridge noted that there is a strange absence of representations of the story of Wagner's relationship with King Ludwig during the Nazi era, with the exception of a French movie by Guitry entitled "Remontons Les Champs-Elysees" (1938). However, Wagner never wore a beret in Paris. The film captures Wagner as the commanding revolutionary artist and destitute beggar.
In "Hungarian Rhapsody" from 1954, Wagner visits Liszt and Carolyne Sayn Von Wittgenstein [PH: If I recall correctly, while running from the law after his involvement in the Dresden Revolution of 1848-1849].
Then there is "Magic Fire" by William Dieterle from 1955. Alan Badel played Wagner. This film captures Wagner's chaotic household atmosphere. Deathridge showed a scene in which Hans Von Bulow and his wife Cosima visit Wagner. Evidently Erich Korngold played piano in this film.
In "Ludwig II," made in Germany in 1955, we see Wagner's materialistic side; he yearns for luxury and prosperity.
Wagner's reputation changed in the 1960's, with a need to portray his anti-Semitism, racism, and the Nazi-connection. Adorno's book "The Case of Wagner" had an influence here. We meet the crisis of modernism.
In the 1970's, there was a complete reappraisal. In Syberburg's "Requiem for a King," Wagner is portrayed as a dwarf with a beret, doing cartwheels before the Virgin King.
In Ken Russell's sendup "Lisztomania," from 1975, Wagner is sporting a sailor's hat with Nietzsche's name on the brim.
Ultimately, Wagner's beret becomes meaningless, a commodity tag.
Then in 1983 Tony Palmer directed that huge film "Wagner," a film biography, starring Richard Burton, Vanessa Redgrave, and a whole bunch of other high profile actors. [PH's review: A good two-thirds of the film is a waste. It is almost entirely unworthy of its subject. The clunky use and meaningless, constant repetition of certain chunks of music from Wagner's "Ring," etc., in conjunction with certain visual tropes which are supposed - but fail - to offer a sort of leitmotivic unity to the film, is annoying. The script is full of tired cliches and stupid allegedly insider jokes. The only scenes which have merit are, in fact, some of those with Ludwig, the actor who portrayed him being fairly persuasive]
Deathridge, in light of this film history, took note of the bizarre history of Wagnerism.
In sum, he said that we must have careful and critical attentiveness to Wagner's changing place in history to come to terms with him.
PH's verdict: Deathridge's lecture was by far the most witty and entertaining presented at the conference. Its main merit for me was the chance to see some amusing excerpts from various films about Wagner with which I was unfamiliar. However, I must say that using the conceit of a history of depictions of Wagner wearing his beret as a potential entre into the mystery of the man and his art seemed more an evasion than a serious discussion. I found virtually nothing of Wagner here. But I must say I enjoy Deathridge's presentations and would willingly attend any on offer.
General Discussion about Wagner and The Ring of the Nibelung
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