REVIEW OF JOHN DEATHRIDGE'S "WAGNER BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL," CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: WAGNER AND BEYOND
JD P. 229: "... well before he read Schopenhauer , who famously placed music at the center of his philosophical ideas, Wagner always made it clear that music is the crown jewel of the arts. He refers not to the classical music of old ... but to a different kind of music that needed the other arts more than it had ever needed them before. It must interact with them, derive its power from them, let them act as catalysts in allowing it to grow up, to come of age."
PH: Wagner on many occasions suggested that there was much exploration into the possibilities inherent in music that could only come to fruition through music's composition in association with drama, for dramatic situations and human psychology can inspire a composer to plumb depths and take directions that would not normally dawn on even the most inspired composer of what is called pure or absolute music. But of course, who can say what dramatic situations or psychological depths unconsciously or consciously inspire composers of purely instrumental music anyway! But I understand Wagner's point: he noted that there is much in his music that would simply be incomprehensible if taken as absolute music, that is perfectly well motivated in conjunction with drama. I've noted for instance that quite alot of people, even sometimes those who love Wagner's music, can't sit through whole scenes without simultaneously experiencing the drama, i.e., the full musico-dramatic experience. This is precisely why for so many Wagner remains a composer of bleeding chunks: many of these people cherry-pick a few favorite excerpts that have been popularized in the concert hall, but can't or won't take Wagner at his own best level as a music-dramatist. Wagner also suggested that in a great performance, assuming a receptive audience can absorb the drama sympathetically, in a certain sense of the word the music becomes so much a part of the drama that the music as such is forgotten (I know, I know, it's never really forgotten, but I suspect you know what Wagner and I mean).
JD P. 230-231: "... there is no getting away from music as the fons et origo of the entire Wagnerian project. (...) 'Das Rheingold' is far from being 'the musical equivalent of prose drama,' a condition accounting for the 'inspirational limitedness' of its music, or an instance where 'word and tone, each contributing to its share of the synthesis, are blended inseparably into a single unit.' [the first quote was from Bryan Magee, the second from Jack Stein]. If a work so obviously dominated by rich musical invention can be misjudged this badly, it is hardly a surprise that the fabled Gesamptkunstwerk, still rising to the surface of Wagner literature and its vast oceans, has yielded scant insight into the composer's historical role.
WAGNER'S TEN COMMANDMENTS
If we abandon the Great Leitmotif Hunt and the chase for the Gesamptkunstwerk, what do we have left?" JD goes on to describe how Wagner's insistence on the importance of the role of drama in opera, and his example, intimidated his successors. "... it makes sense to look at the bold and intimidating attack he launched against 'opera' and his insistence on the rise of what he liked to call 'drama' over its ashes, if only to understand the enormous impact his work made on other composers, and why even the strongest of them seem to have reacted with surprising reticence, much as an attentive schoolchild might to a stern and charismatic teacher, in the presence of whom even the mere thought of a spirited riposte can feel less than wise."
PH: The point of JD's chapter so far is that we need not be bound by Wagner's own theory in appraising his accomplishment, which may lie in things other than those achievements he claimed were most revolutionary or important. I reproduce JD's delineation of Wagner's 10 commandments, so-called, below, because they're extremely interesting in their own right:
JD P. 232: "... Wagner was always more than happy to explain his mission to anyone willing to listen. And against expectations he usually did so with exceptional clarity and succinctness. On 17 January 1873 in Berlin he read the libretto of "Goetterdaemmerung" ... to an invited audience, and prefaced the reading with an exposition of his entire program for the future of 'drama.' It reads today like a manifesto ... . (...) A composer who believes in true drama, he said in so many words, shall:
1. write no more operas;
2. attend to the dramatic dialogue, the focus of the music;
3. not covet the lyrical in opera;
4. regard German music as victorious over all its rivals;
5. marry music and drama in a way that appeals not to abstract reflection, but to feeling;
6. allow music to reveal the inmost motifs of the drama in all its ramifications;
7. regard the modern orchestra as the greatest achievement of the modern age;
8. allow the modern orchestra to combine the archetypal moments provided by music in ancient tragedy with the action of the entire drama ... ;
9. extend the dramatic dialogue over the entire drama like a spoken play, but articulate it solely in music;
10. create a new kind of drama that appeals not to opera-lovers, but to truly educated persons concerned with the cultivation of a genuine German culture ... ."
JD P. 235: Here is JD's summation of Wagner's concept of the ""Wonder" of Wagner's motifs, their capacity for continual transformation in association with key moments from the drama: "Like Puccini and many other composers of opera from around the turn of the century (Claude Debussy and Richard Strauss immediately spring to mind), Wagner had all his life been interested in the spoken theater. The fundamental question he kept asking himself was: What precisely is the difference between a drama that relies on words and one whose raison d'etre is music? His response is embedded in his eighth commandment (with rallying support from the second, fifth, and sixth), which advocates a link between the individual moments of a drama and its entire action. What he meant was that in musical drama it was possible to create a logical chain of structured presence infinitely greater in depth and power than it ever could be in a spoken play precisely because it was always musically bonded with other moments, both future and past, inside the same dramatic structure." JD then quotes Adolph Appia on the unique capacity of Wagnerian music " '... to express the interior drama, whereas spoken drama can merely signify it'." JD adds, following Appia, that "... the internal states of mind in Wagnerian drama ... claimed to exist outside real time."
PH: Nicely said. And the full implications of Wagner's extraordinary development of this concept to its ultimate conclusion have yet to be fully appreciated.
I've enjoyed reading Deathridge's "Wagner Beyond Good and Evil." Like Badiou's contribution previously reviewed here, it is one among several recent examples of a new sophistication and appreciation of nuance in Wagner studies which collectively are leading inevitably to a major reassessment of Wagner's legacy, a process which I suspect will culminate in some big surprises by (and within) 2013, the bicentennial of Wagner's birth.
General Discussion about Wagner and The Ring of the Nibelung
1 post • Page 1 of 1