Wagner: why the music of the brilliant German composer is often misunderstood and considered difficult
Washingtonannoy! The name itself evokes musical images: something vast, shadowy, Germanic, powerful. And to a certain extent it is true, but that is not the whole story.
How would you describe Wagner’s music?
There is light, laughter, the force of nature and above all love. In fact, you could say that Wagner, the ultimate Romantic composer, is all about nature and love. If his name also evokes fat ladies in horned helmets, or square heads in boots, this is what others have done with his vision.
It remains deeply controversial all the same, which is no small feat for an artist a century and a half after his death. He never called his musical dramas “the music of the future” – this is just another Wagner myth – but they undoubtedly contributed to its creation. It has been rightly said that we owe modern music to Tristan and Isolde(which we named one of the best operas of all time) and hardly a composer after him escaped his adventurous musical influence: Strauss, Sibelius, Dvoπák, Rimsky-Korsakov, Holst.
Debussy, writing Pelléas and Mélisande, said that one had to beware of the “old Klingsor”, the evil enchanter of Parsifal, on each page; but he always ends up quoting the same opera. Most, however, responded as Vaughan williams: ‘a feeling of gratitude, like meeting an old friend…’; or Puccini: “next to Wagner, of course, we are all mandolins…”
Even his rival Verdi collected his scores with admiration, and in Falstaff loving quotes Parsifal. Sviatoslav Richter, supreme pianist, remarked: “I had three teachers: my teacher, my dad and Wagner.
BUT Wagner’s music is also aimed directly at non-musicians. Colin Dexter, creator of Inspector Morse, insisted that if his detective’s house was on fire, the first thing he saved would be his Wagner collection. Equally enamored Cotswold businessman Martin Graham started his own Wagner Festival – in a converted chicken coop. People often think that Wagner sounds like film music, but that’s because he’s constantly influenced it, from the early days to the present day; for example, that of Werner Herzog Nosferatu and Terrence Malick New world borrow the Rhine gold primitive whirlwinds of the prelude, and it deeply influenced Hans zimmer‘s Gladiator Goal.
Nonetheless, for some, the enormous creation of this extraordinary little German is anathema, and even unbiased music lovers can be intimidated. Why? It is mainly the fog of myths and misconceptions that surrounds it: that its scale is only grandiose, that it is unbearably long. In fact, it is not more grandiose than Beethoven, Mahler Where Schönberg. Operas Monteverdi, Handel, same Mozart – Don Giovanni – are not much shorter. Neither the Greek playwrights, Goethe or Shakespeare, dramatic models of Wagner; and his emotional and intellectual humanity puts him at their level.
Why are Wagner’s operas so long?
If his operas are long, it’s because there are so many of them – and the more you know them, the shorter they seem. Certainly more active, human subjects like The Flying Dutchman and Die Meistersinger are easier to live with than the more philosophical and psychological Tristanand Parsifal. But you don’t need to dive headlong into the latter, as we’ll see.
You also don’t have to assault yourself for weeks. Not content with re-imagining the nature and staging of opera, Wagner developed a unique composition technique based on motifs, short themes with dramatic associations. Fanatical commentators systematically dissected them, gave them badges – “Renunciation of love”, “The spear”, “The curse”, etc. Which are monumental garbage; what good music has ever been tinkered with like Lego? Wagner’s technique is much more complex.
The reasons are not fixed; in the sweep and flow of his large scores, they develop from a few roots, develop, blend and reform with astonishing unconscious complexity. Often we only perceive them briefly, like leaping dolphins. And they are too subtle to be summed up in tags: the so-called ‘renunciation of love’, for example, accompanies both Alberich cursing love and Siegmund triumphantly asserting it in the Ring cycle.
You can learn something of their true complexity from analyzes like An introduction to Der Ring des Nibelungen , Deryck Cooke’s recorded lecture on the Decca label (443 5812) – but it’s not necessary. Sort out a few basic patterns, if you like, and take care of the rest later.
Other Wagnerians are usually all too willing to help. Wagner’s audiences tend to be much less clubby and snobbish than in opera in general, or other genres. And they come at all ages. As a teenager and student I found many companies at reasonably priced Scottish Opera and ENO performances, including my future wife, who had resisted the Ringin Vienna ! And I see so many younger guys racing the floor at the Wagner Proms today. The exception is Bayreuth – Wagner’s own theater, which his less gifted descendants and their henchmen have quarreled ever since. Today, in musical and dramatic decline, it is more and more a fashionable place for jet-set wrinkles (even though, after a ten-year ticket wait, no one looks so young. !).
One of the reasons Wagner attracts young listeners is that he draws inspiration from the imaginative worlds familiar from books, movies, and even video games: those of myth and fantasy. CS Lewis discovered the Ringchild of Arthur Rackham’s classic illustrations, while his friend JRR Tolkien was much more deeply influenced by Wagner than he wanted to admit.
But even more mundane tastes may just as well heat up to the earthy sublimity of Master singer, or the erotic intensity of Tristan , his love potion is only a symbol to unleash buried desires. Wagner’s emotional world, with its themes of isolation, alienation, longing for love and fulfillment, and conflicting male and female natures, is intensely modern; it influenced both Freud and Jung. And the political world of Wagner, his god Wotan, a tragic image of a dominant idealism corrupted by ambition and compromise, is also relevant today. No wonder so many politicians like him.
Why is Wagner’s music considered dark?
But he has a dark side. Many people still believe that Wagner was a Nazi, or inspired them. It’s Nazi propaganda. Hitler loved Wagner obsessively, it is true, but also Theodor Herzl, founder of Zionism. Other Nazis hated Wagner; ideologues like Goebbels and Alfred Rosenberg saw all too clearly that he was their opposite – a romantic socialist revolutionary, later an increasingly quietist mystic. They co-opted him, like other cultural heroes long dead; but they also banned Parsifal .
Unfortunately, Wagner has beenCranky anti-Semites, but so, among others less vilified, were Yeats, TS Eliot, GK Chesterton and Stravinsky. Wagner never suggested violence against the Jews, believing that they should assimilate – he had no Nazi-style illusions that the Germans were “racially pure.” He was not a racist in general, opposing slavery. And he had close Jewish friends and helpers, many of whom lived as part of his family, and bore witness to his kindness and generosity. In this it was probably lessanti-Semitic than the average 19th-century German, and one would wish the Nazis had really imitated him. And – unlike Chesterton – his works are not anti-Semitic.
Besides being one of the greatest German composers of all time and the best opera composers, Wagner is one of the greatest composers of all time.