Here is Part 3 of my review of "The Wagner Experience" by Paul Dawson Bowling.
[CHAPTER NINE: PUZZLES, OBSTRUCTIONS AND OBJECTIONS]
P. 242-244: DB embarks here on an expose of the faulty reasoning and faulty assessment of the documentary record by certain critics of Wagner's character and art, making the point that commentators and scholars are often apt to allow a kind of character assassination with respect to Wagner that wouldn't be allowed for most other iconic figures in our history. He cites the classic example of Harold Schonberg's book on the great composers: DB: "Wagner's private life inflicted less damage and misery than Debussy's, and even if not a racist Debussy was more unprincipled in other respects, but does he attract the same damning assessment from Harold Schonberg as he doled out to Wagner? He does not. Instead of beginning his chapter on Debussy with a character assassination, Harold Schonberg launches it with ... [a] eulogy ... . (...) In due course, Schonberg did make some passing references to Debussy's personal imperfections, but shuffled them off instead of highlighting them as the first thing that everyone should know. This gunning down of Wagner's reputation is common, and one of the puzzles of Wagner is why he is the composer whom everyone loves to hate."
PH: I concur 100 percent with DB's assessment. Though ultimately I blame Wagner himself for having set himself up for failure with his anti-Semitic writings, nonetheless it pains me that today, in my personal experience, if one asks the regular person on the street what if anything they know about Wagner, the majority who know anything at all know only that he was an anti-Semitic composer. It depresses me deeply that this is at the forefront of the first impressions of most people, when Wagner has given us such inimitable gifts. Sad to say, one has to wonder how many people who might otherwise have enjoyed an earth-shaking experience of Wagner are so put off a priori by this partly manufactured bad reputation that they never bite the bullet and experience Wagner with neutral openness to new experience.
P. 247: PH: Next, DB mentions the schadenfreude which inspires some folks to look for weaknesses in great historical figures and geniuses in an effort to deny their greatness or their genius, to make them commonplace, and here he references Nietzsche as a sort of prototype of this sort of debunker. DB: "... Nietzsche illustrates how lonely, disturbed people can get a distressing satisfaction from pouring scorn on greatness. Nietzsche ended by denouncing Wagner both as a fake and as a pernicious influence. In their happier days, Wagner had been a substitute father for Nietzsche, but later Nietzsche had to endure first the dread processes of syphilis burning his brain away, second the warping of his judgment owing to his passion for Wagner's wife Cosima, and then perhaps, in consequences of that passion, the workings of a distorted Oedipus complex regarding Wagner."
PH: Having read virtually everything Nietzsche wrote about Wagner either directly or obliquely, I find that Nietzsche's reasons for debunking Wagner are far more complex and deeper certainly than most of those Nietzsche himself offered up as explanations. Upon very close scrutiny, I have found that most, perhaps even all, of his aesthetic, ethical, and cultural critiques of Wagner's art do not hold up. For instance, apropos of DB's very accurate appraisal of Wagner's genius as an architect in musical drama on a large scale, Nietzsche described Wagner as only being authentic as a miniaturist, and that his works regarded on the large scale are decadent, always liable to break down. Though Nietzsche is quite right that Wagner is often at his most subtle and powerful in the most finite details, Wagner is also a grand architect, something Nietzsche denied. I recall my first experience of the "Ring" as a whole: I listened alone, libretto in hand, to the entire work, by myself, when I was 18, for the first time, and the sheer epic sweep and aesthetic unity of it has never left me. It was the deepest impression of my entire life. I also wish to add that though many are agreed that the "Ring" has astonishing musical unity, partly due to the repeating and developing musical motifs, many of which are generated from earlier, simpler motifs, and partly due to the symphonic sweep of this through-composed music-drama, what is not as often recognized is that the drama for which Wagner wrote this music is the foundation of this musical unity.
PH: The large variety of Nietzsche's intellectual assaults on Wagner, and my rebuttals, are too involved to reproduce here, but I will say that a very great book could be written about how much Nietzsche's mature philosophy owes both to Wagner and to Ludwig Feuerbach, Wagner's mentor (I don't know how much of Feuerbach's writings Nietzsche read on his own, but since Wagner's "Ring" is at least partly an allegorical sublimation of Feuerbach's philosophy, Nietzsche could absorb many of the key points of Feuerbach's writings as channeled through Wagner's "Tannhaeuser," "Lohengrin," "Ring," and other mature music-dramas). To what extent this early dependence influenced Nietzsche's violent need for separation from Wagner, I don't know. I also have no idea to what extent Nietzsche's syphilis or idolization of Wagner's second wife Cosima played a role. I will say that one of Nietzsche's main complaints about Wagner, that in the end he was catering to the Reich and to the Church, and striving to impress the rabble, so to speak, is absolute nonsense. Wagner was, and remained, one of the ultimate artistic revolutionaries, who had to build his audiences from scratch, through works that could never appeal in any deep and enduring way to the philistine rabble, so to speak.
PH: Not that I necessarily believe in the validity of Freud's concept of the Oedipus Complex, but there may be something to DB's suggestion that Nietzsche's wish to violently gain independence from his surrogate father-figure Wagner played a big role in Nietzsche's subsequent turning away from Wagner. It has oft been noted how difficult it was for anybody of an independent and evolving mind to live in Wagner's personal orbit without being swallowed up. It's only natural that a genius of Nietzsche's caliber would at some point declare his independence after gaining from Wagner all that he could digest and turn to good.
P. 248: DB asserts that: "... from everything Wagner said and did, it stares us in the face that he always was, and always remained, a man of the extreme left. (...) Hitler's ultra-right-wing use of Wagner was a mis-use. It was only possible because Hitler press-ganged Wagner's work to serve his own purposes and distorted his ideas into a complete perversion. Anyone who disagrees has only to remember Hitler's core tenet, that the individual existed to serve the state, and that Wagner held the exact opposite view." DB also notes that though sometimes Wagner dissembled with respect to his lefty credentials when seeking support and money from the Reich, King, and aristocrats, he never gave them up or renounced them.
PH: I fully concur with DB's assessment here. Of course, Hitler's attraction to Wagner was partly due to Wagner's own personal identification with the Germany of myth and legend, and partly due of course to Wagner's anti-Semitism, which, as Paul Lawrence Rose has shown, was often very much a part of left-wing revolutionary ideology in the Germany of Wagner's time, though not necessarily on the basis of race, but rather on the basis of culture.
P. 251: PH: DB offers here a strong, good statement about Wagner's authentic politics: "Wagner's para-Marxist position was strongly opposed to a state controlled by the wealthy, the powerful, and the selfish, and even more to the idea that the individual should be nothing but a cog in the all-important state machine."
P. 251: PH: DB also offers the following useful appraisal of one of the roots of Wagner's peculiar form of anti-Semitism: DB: "He was genuinely worried that the alien influence of the Jews was distorting the fragile growth of German identity and nationhood. 'Das Judenthum in der Musik,' the tract which he published twice, is a vicious attack on Jews as being bad for the German identity. It always seems surprising that a mind as penetrating as his could generate dramas, 'Die Meistersinger' and 'Parsifal,' about decrepit societies rejuvenated by creative vigour from outside, without seeing how this might symbolize what the Jews could bring to Germany ... ."
PH: It has of course long been known how much Wagner owed to Heinrich Heine for certain elements of the plots of "The Flying Dutchman," "Tannhaeuser," and even the "Ring," and it is also often forgotten that Wagner once praised the operas of Halevy, the Jewish composer, for their thematic and dramatic unity. The roots of Wagner's strange brand of anti-Semitism are hard to ascertain, but I have, here and there in the online book on Wagner's "Ring" presented here in this website, tried to pursue lines of inquiry to get at them. Apropos of DB's remark above about the Germans' insecurity re their identity (that they hadn't had a unified nation-state and therefore no identity as Germans), Wagner once said (you'll find this remark in my anthology of Wagner's utterances in this website) that he had nothing against the Jews per se, but it was simply the fact that they had intervened in German affairs before the Germans had found themselves, so to speak. Of course Wagner made similar remarks about French influence, and the unnerving tendency of Germans to want to imitate the French.
P. 253: Re the place of the Jewish people in European history, and the sources of anti-Semitism there, and after mentioning the old basis for anti-Semitism in Christians blaming the Jews for Christ's death, DB makes the following very helpful remark: "They were debarred from military activity, owning land, and most other economic activities, and they were excluded from medieval manufacturing guilds controlled by Christians. (If Beckmesser had really been Jewish, as is sometimes argued, he would have never been allowed among the Mastersingers [PH: If memory serves, I believe Dieter Borchmeyer pointed this out years ago]). Because of their civil disabilities, the Jews were urban and commercial, non-manufacturing and non-military, and so they were branded as cowards, parasites, and usurers."
PH: This is a very helpful remark because Wagner himself admitted that many of the things which stoked anti-Semitism were actually imposed on the Jews by Europeans. He also posed the question how Europeans, or Germans in particular, could judge the Jews since the Europeans (or Germans) hadn't actually found the mote in their own eye, their own complicity in various sins for which they blamed the Jews. I't is strange, then, that he continued to pursue his anti-Semitic arguments long after making these admissions.
P. 254: DB: After noting that the French Revolution offered a newfound citizenship and equality before the law to Jews who previously had been discriminated against, but that after the defeat of Napoleon the old aristocratic order retrenched, so that "... old conservative values, including vilification of the Jews, returned in full force", DB offers the following informative assessment of the effect of the Industrial Revolution on the place of Jews in Europe: "The Industrial Revolution set in motion economic and social changes that were ... far-reaching ... . They opened up new developments and fresh opportunities for Jews because they were mobile, educated and adaptable, and had little interest or affection for the previous declining economies and the former social structures, where they had been vilified and marginalized. However, it also soon [became] apparent that the Industrial Revolution created a new group of losers, traditional minor elites and small-scale producers, and these perceived in the Jews a focus for their miseries and resentments. These groups came to believe that if Jews were benefiting from the changes that were destroying Europe's traditional way of life, then the Jews must be the cause and engineers of those changes. (...) And as the world grew more secular and people looked less to religion for explanations than to science, there arose a new tendency to stop blaming the Jewishness of Jews on their religion, and blame it instead on their race."
PH: There is no doubt that a number of these factors played into the anti-Semitism found in Wagner's social class, and in Wagner himself, including others that DB doesn't directly reference, such as the implication that the Jews' cosmopolitanism, the assumption that they were trans-national and not bound by the loyalties which held together nation-states, allegedly made them a threat to the cause of nationalism. This undoubtedly played a big role in Hitler's anti-Semitism, and to a certain extent it influenced Wagner's distorted thinking as well.
P. 256: DB wishes to set the record straight, that in spite of Wagner having been a famous composer who was also an anti-Semite, Wagner's actual influence on the larger anti-Semitic tendencies in Europe was comparatively minimal: DB: "... while it is no part of my intention to deny that Wagner's anti-Semitism was evil, he was not influential in the same way as Karl Lueger or Bernhard Foerster. Nor did the Nazis need Wagner to turn the Jews into a hated symbol of their collective shadow; but because Wagner composed operas and dramas of genius and Hitler liked them, Wagner is the Jew-hater we remember."
PH: I am somewhat sympathetic to DB's assessment above, though I would be the first to admit that Wagner's writings helped to contribute to the general atmosphere which made Naziism possible. I would like to believe, thanks to everything else I think I know about Wagner, that he would not have supported what the Nazis did to the Jews, but there is no doubt that Wagner contemplated expelling them, not in any practical detail, but simply in some of his vituperative ruminations. This, in spite of the well-known fact that he worked with, befriended, and obtained support from Jews throughout his life, whom he must have seen as in some sense defying his own assumptions. His fairly late writings about racial blood have all the hallmarks of a crank, and are some of his worst writing, a falling off from a higher logic which had guided much (but not all) of his earlier writing.
P. 256: DB: "Just as Wagner vilified the Jews as his personal shadow, a significant number of people now vilify Wagner as the symbol of their own shadow. Hartmut Zelinsky, Robert Gutman, and Gottfried Wagner are three among many who have succumbed to the pathology of the shadow, and projected it onto Wagner. (...) Joachim Koehler, whose book on Wagner ["Richard Wagner: The Last of the Titans"] is a brilliant and erratic concoction of marvelous insights, unfamiliar facts and unfounded, evidence-free assertions, announced on television that without Wagner, there could have been no Hitler."
PH. This passage brings back some memories. I recall hearing Hartmut Zelinsky speak at (if memory serves) the "Wagner and the Consequences" multi-day conference at Columbia Univ. back in the 90's. I can't now recall what he said, except that it was an indictment of Wagner. In November of 1983, the Centennial conference on Wagner "Wagner in Retrospect" was sponsored by the Univ. of Illinois, Chicago Circle, which I attended as an observer (having failed to persuade the organizers to let me present any one of four talks I offered, I presume probably because I didn't have any outstanding academic credentials, because the subjects of the talks were provocative, and my material quite good). I managed to stay at the same hotel on the Loop where most of the presenters were staying, and one evening as I was sitting in the bar having one drink by myself, I observed a group of perhaps five men, including 4 presenters, sitting at a table talking over issues raised at the conference. At just this moment, sadly, I can only remember the names of two of those present, Robert Gutman, and Andrew Porter, Music Critic of The New Yorker. The others included a gentleman famous as a host for the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts, a professor from a Hebrew University located in NYC, and an anonymous attendee. Gutman noticed me listening in and invited me to join them. Being young and new to this august world of Wagnerian scholarship, I kept a low profile throughout most of the conversation (several rounds of beer were shared out throughout the several hours I was there), but, as we were all breaking up, my contributions to the conversation evidently were substantial enough to warrant Robert Gutman saying to me in parting: "You certainly know your Wagner." As for Gottfried Wagner, Andrew Gray (translator of Wagner's autobiography "Mein Leben" for Cambridge Univ. Press) and I attended his lecture at George Washington Univ. many years ago, a lecture intended to cut his great grandfather down to size, at the end of which he played a recording from Bizet's "Carmen," referencing Nietzsche's glib remark that "Carmen" offered a healthy, sunny, southern alternative to Wagner's art.
P. 257-258: DB now introduces the fraught question of whether or not, and if so, to what extent, Wagner's personal anti-Semitism is part of the meaning of specific operas and music-dramas. Here's his summation of the problem: DB: "There are those who insist that Beckmesser, Alberich, Mime and Klingsor are Jews, and are emblems of anti-Semitism, but it is not clear how they make audiences hate Jews, not least because nobody even noticed that they were supposed to be Jewish until about twenty-five years ago, not even the Nazis who might have sniffed it out and made use of it. Sometimes ingenious writers believe they have found 'proofs' of the anti-Semitism encoded in his works which somehow went undeciphered until the late twentieth century; the absence of visible anti-Semitism is not allowed to be evidence for its not being there, but is twisted into proof of Wagner's stealth in concealing it."
PH: I can think of a number of writers, whose names I won't mention, who fall into this category of suggesting that though there isn't any overtly Jewish character even among those DB mentions above who are most often describes as stereotypical images of Jews, nonetheless Wagner was sending perhaps subliminal anti-Semitic messages to insiders in his audience who would simply understand. I have even met those who have said and written that Wagner's anti-Semitism even permeates his music independently of its link to the dramas. Readers of my online book on the "Ring" posted here at my website will find a wealth of evidence, some of it I think unique to my own research, both for and against the suggestion that anti-Semitism is part of the meaning of at least some of Wagner's operas and music-dramas. I personally hold a view, evidently once shared by Franz liszt, that quite often when Wagner writes or says something about the Jews Wagner is really thinking of culture-philistines in general, whom Wagner acknowledged are to be found in all ethnic groups.
P. 260: DB offers here his ultimate conclusion re the accusation that Wagner's personal anti-Semitism influenced him in creating his works of art, and therefore influenced the world: "... no-one who examines Wagner's biography in any detail could reckon him as qualified even at entry level for the vast and gloomy gallery of those who have added seriously to the sum of human suffering."
PH: On the whole I concur with this statement, but it reminds me of something I've experienced in my own life. I once had a relative by marriage who would visit our home in the mid-Atlantic over Christmas holiday, who was in the habit of sharing what are called "Rasmus Jokes" with anyone who would listen. "Rasmus Jokes" are jokes often told in the Southern States of the USA which once formed the Confederacy, which stigmatize, stereotype, and denigrate blacks. This relative by marriage would never be caught dead admitting that such jokes create an atmosphere in which dehumanization and atrocities towards others become thinkable, but nonetheless that is the case. I think that in general Wagner was irresponsible in perpetuating old stereotypes, and though he made a few stray remarks in which he seemed to countenance actions stronger than verbal insults, the preponderance of evidence suggests to me that Wagner fell into the category of an irresponsible big-mouth, who failed to take into account the long-term consequences which could result from spreading such filth. In any case, I countered this relative's jokes with stories about blacks who had shown great rectitude and wisdom, etc. It is unlikely that my counter-proposals had any impact, because that sort of behavior and attitude was ingrained in this relative from birth.
P. 260-261: Here DB introduces a discussion dear to my heart, the problem Wagner's highly complex and lengthy artworks present for a culture which worships instant gratification: DB: "Our next big obstacle to Wagner is ... today's climate of instant gratification. There is a common, puzzling belief that anything recreational should give pleasure without effort. Everything ought to have an instant 'hook' to save anyone from getting bored and turning off. This may represent the values of advertising and marketing, which have become commonplace and axiomatic for life in general, and have even acquired a righteous, moral tinge. With it goes an implicit, unspoken ordinance that things not instantly gratifying deserve to fail; the market ... alone is qualified to make judgments of value. People should not have to take trouble; indeed people who do so and get something good deserve to be sharply criticized for 'elitism' ... ."
PH: I believe this is a matter of personal constitution and no one can be persuaded by argument to grant the value and greatness of certain kinds of highly developed art who isn't naturally drawn to such things, and naturally easily bored with forms of artistic expression which don't deeply engage our entire persona. One of my articles of faith is that with respect to the arts, each person finds their own level. I believe for many reasons, many of which I think are demonstrable, that Wagner's art is at the higher end of the spectrum of sophistication and aesthetic genius, and that he is not for everybody, any more than anybody can easily comprehend Maxwell's or Einstein's equations. I believe that in this sense artists like Shakespeare and Wagner, at their best, are operating at a level which is beyond the comfort zone of the majority of human beings. But I am fascinated by the upper reaches of human endeavor, whether this be in the sciences, the arts, or philosophy, and especially where I don't understand I wish to understand, and within my own limits will push the envelope to grasp what seems very difficult or impossible to grasp.
PH: With Wagner in particular, it has always been precisely the vast arcs of musico-dramatic time, the continuous music, the continuous modulation, the epic scope, the confrontation with the most painful and sometimes unthinkable realities, the very things that turn off so many others, which intrigue and excite me and hold my attention with bated breath through very long sittings to experience Wagner's music-dramas as he intended they be experienced. When I hear of people wishing to make cuts or dumb down Wagner to make him more accessible, I believe they are wasting their time. It is precisely the things that make Wagner great, and memorable, which they wish to castrate. Wagner of course accused Nietzsche of wishing to make a war against the "Great." Now, we share a culture which seems to idolize mediocrity (but that's what they've always said: even in the "Tales of Genji" by Murasaki Shikibu, which I've almost finished reading in English translation, older characters complain that the newer generations have lost touch with the traditions which made an imagined past epoch a golden age), and to denigrate any of what is called the canon of our arts.
P. 261: DB says it all here: "The whole book shows how Wagner wanted his art to change the world, but what causes difficulty is its sheer cargo of meaning. Anyone coming to mature Wagner for the first time, for example to 'Tristan and Isolde,' has to grapple with something like a first encounter with Mahler's Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Symphonies, all played one after ... another; and there is not just the music, but the text and the drama, layer upon layer, something which could give anyone a serious attack of data overload. For the same reason, its density of meaning, Wagner's music is not ideal as background, not the best thing for 'lightening the toil' of car journeys or kitchen chores. People dedicated to art for its 'pointlessness', will not like Wagner and there is really nothing much that can persuade them."
PH: I concur, with the exception that if I had to make a car journey a long way along a mundane but difficult road with little noteworthy scenery, like Rt. 95 in the Northeast US, listening to the entire "Ring" could greatly alleviate my suffering, keeping me up, alert, and engaged. Of course I realize that for some this would be a huge distraction which could send them skidding off the road. In any case, I feel that the sheer sophistication and density of meaning in Wagner's mature music-dramas means they will never be popular to the degree that much more repetitive and easily digested music or drama would be.
P. 262: Here DB introduces the question to what extent Wagner's operas and music-dramas have a coherent, unitary framework of meaning. DB: "Yet another obstacle is the sheer diversity, sometimes the conflict, of the ideas and suggestions present in the dramas. This diversity derives partly from the lifelong expansion of Wagner's intellectual base which led him to reinterpret existing works and find unexpected messages and new directions. His reinterpretations should probably not all be allowed the same weight."
PH: I agree with DB that Wagner's various attempts to interpret the meaning of his operas and music-dramas, sometimes after the fact, after many years, should not be all granted the same weight, but nonetheless, as my research has shown, there are certain ideas which remain consistent more or less throughout his lifetime, which deserve great weight for this very reason. One point I've tried to demonstrate is that Feuerbach's influence pervades Wagner's operas and music-dramas from "Tannhaeuser" onward until his final music-drama 'Parsifal." Once I complete my review here of Volume One of DB's book (shortly), and move on to Volume Two, I will be taking issue with his dismissal of certain things Wagner said retrospectively about the meaning of "Lohengrin" in his 1851 essay "A Communication to my Friends." Here is where I think DB has a problem: DB: "Wagner did put forward some very puzzling ideas about what he meant, one example being his re-imagining of "Lohengrin" as a drama centered on Elsa, 'the woman of the future' ... 'who made a revolutionary of me'." What puzzles DB here is actually the very foundation of my life's work on Wagner; I solved the problem he speaks of here long ago. You will find the solution in my essay "How Elsa Showed Wagner the Way to Siegfried" which is posted here earlier in my discussion forum (just scroll through to find it; I posted it a couple of years ago, I think), and a more detailed, variant version of which (which includes all my evidence from Feuerbach's writings, which had a huge influence on "Lohengrin") can be found at the website http://www.wagnersocietyflorida.org, by clicking on the section "Texts on Wagner." The solution can also be found by a close reading of the relevant portions of my online book on the "Ring," posted here at this website http://www.wagnerheim.com.
P. 263: DB offers also "Tannhaeuser" and the "Ring" as examples where he alleges Wagner confused the issues. DB: "The course of this study shows that Wagner did sometimes put together ideas [that] are incompatible, and that this risks destroying the complex synthesis that was his hard-won achievement. In practice, disintegration does not quite occur even when there are contrary ideas and great tension among them, as happens particularly in "Tannhaeuser" and "The Ring."
PH: I concur with DB that "Tannhaeuser" remains the one opera or music-drama by Wagner which does not fully dramatically cohere. One reason I give is that it is actually a seedbed for Wagner's widely divergent subsequent artworks, including "Siegfried," "Twilight of the Gods," "Tristan," "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg," and "Parsifal." However, I can't agree with him that the "Ring" allegory doesn't cohere; my entire online book posted here is my demonstration of its conceptual unity.
P. 263: DB explains this further: DB: "This is partly because many of his ideas manage to sit side by side in the unconscious, even if they conflict in reason, but more often it is because the music saves the situation [PH: This is what Michael Tanner said about the "Ring," that its unity as a drama is an illusion produced by the unity of Wagner's music.]. The music embraces the differences; it creates resolutions, transforms disjunctions, and rationalizes developments which do not follow logically. Wagner knew it. August Roeckel, his musical deputy at Dresden, ... wrote to Wagner puzzled about the ending of 'The Ring.' 'The Ring' ends with the gold happily restored to the Rhinemaidens, and from all that has gone before this should lead to the redemption not only of humanity, but of the world and the gods; but instead the gods still meet their destruction, and Roeckel evidently told Wagner that he saw no reason why. Wagner's answer explained that the music would make everything clear, and as he demonstrated 25 years later, he was probably right ... ."
PH: Wagner, in his response to Roeckel, may well have provided the sort of pretext Michael Tanner employs to impute to Wagner's music the sole unifying factor in the "Ring," but in my online book on the "Ring" posted here I believe I have shown that the gods' inevitable destruction Wagner discovered was the necessary consequence of his allegorical logic, in which through the long stretch of human history it is inevitable that through mankind's advancement in knowledge of mother nature and of man's status as a part of her, not a transcendent being autonomous from her, would eventually eclipse not only the straightforward claims of religious belief (and therefore belief in the gods), but also the secular art which has been the last vestige of religious feeling, man's longing for the sacred and the transcendent.
P. 264: PH: DB references Wagner's wonderful remark that ultimately his artworks were mysteries to him, i.e., that his unconscious, not his conscious mind, was responsible for them: DB: "He also accepted the idea that he could be mistaken about his creations and what they meant; there is his disarming confession (a letter to Roeckel yet again) that he was often puzzled at what he had produced: 'the artist himself feels in the presence of his art that he is confronted by a riddle about which he too might have illusions'."
PH: I love Wagner's confession of ignorance with respect to the mainsprings of his own creative work because it provides evidence for what I take to be Wagner's allegorical representation of this fact, i.e., the fact that a significant portion of his art is attributable to unconscious thought processes which remained a mystery to Wagner, in his operas and music-dramas. I believe it is their centerpiece.
P. 264: Speaking of the diversity of things different people find in Wagner, DB states: "The happy thing about the different aspects is that anyone who widens out his (or her) scope to embrace new angles rarely finds a disjunction. A new interest in the details of Wagner's life or his prose works does not lead to any significant mismatch with the music. A person who starts with the music and then delves into the myth is unlikely to find misalignments."
PH: Here, here!!! I couldn't agree more.
P. 264-265: PH: Again, I find myself in great sympathy with DB's following commentary on the tendency in modern productions to second-guess or try to better Wagner: "What can be a real obstacle for newcomers and seasoned Wagnerians alike is the longstanding tendency to revisionist production styles and reinterpretations ... ."
PH: This idea of importing, in live productions of Wagner in the theater, ideology which is alien to what Wagner presented in his libretto and music, is a perpetual source of misunderstanding. This post-modern updating is often excused on the basis that only in this way can Wagner be made palatable or intriguing for modern audiences, or that something new might be found in this way which would otherwise not come to light, but I find that Wagner's universality most comes to the fore when his original intentions are respected, and in a modern production that can mean using all the resources of the modern theater to bring out even more fully what Wagner intended, not to second-guess him by forcing independent ideologies onto works which run counter to their grain. An audience should never be compelled by the producer-director to ask themselves what on earth did the producer-director mean by such and such discordant image or action which was never even suggested by the libretto, or worse yet, to ask themselves if this is what Wagner intended.
P. 265: PH: DB writes here something which confuses me. There is a well-known remark Wagner allegedly made after (so I recall) the premier of the "Ring" in 1876, to the effect of: Next time, let's try something new. I forget the exact quote or its source, but as I recall modern producer-directors have indeed used it as a pretext to alter Wagner's original intentions in staging his "Ring" to the point that sometimes modern productions seem to be forcing an entirely alien meaning onto a subtle and complex work whose dramatic force is entirely subverted by the intrusion. What Wagner was aiming at was a new way of trying to bring to fruition his original intent; he was upset at how much hadn't come off in the theater as he had intended it. In any case, DB says the following: DB: "Wagner's exhortation 'Macht Neues! Neues! und abermal Neues! Do something new, new, and once again new', is often quoted as an endorsement for provocative, innovative productions, but this is misleading, sometimes deliberately so, as when Katherina Wagner printed it all over the Bayreuth Programme of 2009 in support of her staging of "Die Meistersinger." When Wagner wrote these words to Liszt on 8 September 1852, he was specifically criticizing his friend for bringing 'old' operas to the stage of Weimar. He was, in fact, objecting to the revival of Berlioz's "Benvenuto Cellini ('If I am not mistaken,' Wagner went on, 'this work is more than twelve years old'). He was advancing the claims of new operas instead of yesteryears', not suggesting that 'old' operas (i.e., operas more than twelve years old!) should be given provocative, innovative stagings."
PH: It's simply that I find it curious that Katharina Wagner would invoke this older quote from Wagner, instead of the newer one about the "Ring" which sounds similar to the earlier quotation but in fact was alluding specifically to how the "Ring" production should be improved the next time it was performed. But perhaps I am confused myself. If anyone can clear this up, please post your solution here.
P. 265-256: PH: DB here provides a very good example of the damage that can be caused when using live productions of Wagner as a means to carry on an academic debate which actually undermines the dramatic force and meaning of Wagner's work: DB states that Hugo Shirley wrote in OPERA, December 2012, re the "Ring" at Covent Garden, that " ... academic discourse and dramatic presentation are different activities; 'the former thrives on uncertainty and flux, but the latter demands a degree of commitment if it's going to keep an audience on-board.' He then made the point that the first "Ring" at Covent Garden in the 21st century had put on stage interesting ideas which were worth discussion but not effective or even meaningful as drama. The producer, Keith Warner had said that heroes never die, they are deathless symbols that endure forever in human imagination. Siegfried therefore did not die after being murdered by Hagen, but made his way to the back, while still facing forwards, and then sidled surreptitiously into the wings. This simply did not fit into the dramatic action, where Siegfried's death is fairly cardinal to the action and meaning of the "Ring." A fair number of modern productions teem with ideas like this, and often a producer applies these ideas to individual scenes resourcefully, but without building them into a drama that works."
PH: This is a very good point well worth considering. The problem is that producer-directors often seen to say to themselves re a given scene or trope in Wagner's music-dramas: "Oh, wouldn't this be neat! Wouldn't this be effective here! Wouldn't this be provocative." The problem, as DB points out, is that they have to take the drama's libretto and music and plot into consideration as a whole in order to make any sort of coherent impression from it. Therefore I like very much DB's following remark:
P. 266: DB: "There is a fine exception in the Seattle "Ring" of 2001-2013, and its staging by Stephen Wadsworth which shows how profound and illuminating Wagner can be when done his way, and how great the appeal."
PH: DB's point can't be repeated often enough: producer-directors are giving Wagner's theatrical works enough credit that they're willing to spend months, sometimes years, presenting a new production of them to the public; you would think they would trust Wagner's own dramaturgy.
P. 266: PH: And here below DB gives an example of the ultimate sin, when producer-directors simply attempt to re-write Wagner by embedding all kinds of irrelevant or allegedly ironic goings-on onto the stage, which run entirely counter to the very spirit and tenor and content and momentum of the music-drama: DB: "Yet another different problem arises when a producer devises an alternative drama to Wagner's own. Stefan Herheim produced "Parsifal" at Bayreuth as an 'acting out' of German history from 1882 to the present day. The passage of time itself imparted a narrative structure to the sequence onstage, and Herrheim devised scenes so arresting pictorially that nobody noticed or cared what happened to Wagner's own tremendous drama. Its plot, its tensions, and its own characters simply sank without trace in Herrheim's big ideas."
PH: And this is what really sickens me. Such producer-directors of Regie-Theater want to ride to stardom by stealing Wagner's thunder to carry the burden of a set of ideas and aesthetic conceits which, if they are really so worthy of presentation in artistic form, ought to be presented by such producer-directors in works of art devised by themselves. However, they clearly don't trust themselves, but know they can sell this stuff if they hitch a ride on Wagner's shooting star. I mean, the music, in conjunction with these visuals and incomprehensible onstage actions, is sure to carry it off. Why do they even bother with Wagner if not because they know they can use him as a booster-rocket to launch themselves into outer space!
PH: It's a sure bet, by the way, that when producer-directors either fail to provide a visual which Wagner's stage directions require, such as a Rainbow bridge when characters mention it onstage, or the reverse, when they add visuals or incidents which either contradict the libretto and music, or are simply irrelevant and distracting, this is always wrong, always inexcusable, and always the sign of a moron at work who hasn't the remotest idea what he's doing. Obviously I am not speaking here of visuals which are simply extremely difficult to bring off persuasively, like the Rhine flooding the stage, etc. In that case it is best to suggest the visual in some manner which will be neither silly nor unpersuasive. The rule with Wagner is that whatever happens on the stage should never contradict, undermine, or subvert, or distract from, the music and drama which Wagner wrote. A producer-director has failed once audiences find themselves asking what they intended, rather than what Wagner intended.
P. 267: DB offers another example which however is more involved and requires some nuance. DB: "No drama by Wagner is ever a compilation of its sources but a new vision, even if the background sometimes sheds light on moot points. For example anyone uncertain whether Wagner wanted his great opposing figures in "The Ring," Wotan and Alberich, to be morally indistinguishable, as many producers now make them, could be helped by the first prose draft. Wagner's draft shows categorically that he intended the gods to be noble. The draft tells us 'In high emprise the Gods have planned the world, and devoted themselves to the most careful nurture of the human race', and the music confirms the point. The music for Wotan is heroic and noble, and to make him too much the same as Alberich torpedoes 'The Ring's tension and dramatic balance."
PH: This point requires some nuance because it is the case that by developing the "Valhalla Motif" out of the "Ring Motif," which is identified with Alberich and his will to power, during the transition from Scene 1 to Scene 2 of "The Rhinegold," Wagner wishes to draw our attention, if only subliminally, to a certain moral equivalence between Alberich and Wotan, but what is important is that Wotan is unlike Alberich in wishing to deny this equivalence. Wotan and the gods see themselves as gods, and Alberich does not see anyone as a god. Therefore, DB is entirely correct that producer-directors should not engage in altering Wagner's staging to bring out into the open a point which Wagner himself was content to suggest subliminally. Where Wagner chooses for aesthetic reasons to fan us with a feather, it is arrant stupidity to employ a sledge hammer.
P. 267-268: PH: I really appreciate DB's following point, and it should be taken to heart by anyone who loves Wagner. DB: "The alternative to producer's opera is to listen at home to a great recording with a libretto and Wagner's stage directions, and his music on its own can make a more complete experience than Wagner ever realized. For all that he came to believe that music was the queen of the arts and described his dramas as deeds of music made visible, he never quite recognized his own music's self-sufficiency, its stand-alone ability to stage the dramas on the threshold of the mind."
PH: I certainly recognized it when I was 18 and for many years thereafter, because I only knew Wagner's "Ring" and his other music-dramas through listening at home with libretto in hand and imagination in head, up until I saw my first and only live "Ring" production in Washington, DC, when the Berlin Oper put on Gotz Friedrich's production. All the other versions of the "Ring" I've seen have been televised or on dvd. But the greatest Wagnerian days of my life were my early days when the "Ring" and I lived with each other alone in the privacy of my basement in Annapolis, Maryland, USA, experiencing the Furtwaengler "Ring" on Seraphim Records with the Italian Radio Orchestra.
THIS CONCLUDES MY REVIEW OF CHAPTER NINE, AND THEREFORE ALSO VOLUME ONE, OF DAWSON-BOWLING'S BOOK "THE WAGNER EXPERIENCE." (EDITED 5/3/2015)
General Discussion about Wagner and The Ring of the Nibelung
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