The Case for Wagner

The beginning of Tristan und Isolde

I fell in love with classical music at an early age. My parents in the early 1960s purchased a combined Magnovox record player and TV, a so-called console, and in addition to the records of movie sound tracks that they liked to play, such as My Fair Lady and The Music Man, they had a nice record of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. That symphonic tone-poem struck a chord with me, so to speak. I decided that I liked that kind of music, and that I didn’t like Dick Clark and his American Bandstand that were à la mode at the time. Soon, armed with a Sony transistor radio tuned to WFLN, the classical music station of Philadelphia, and a reel-to-reel tape recorder, I was building up my library of classical music. I saved my quarters and bought a cheap portable turntable, and then I started buying vinyl records. Eventually I graduated to a slightly more respectable record player with two small external speakers. In my high school years I immersed myself in music.

My musical tastes were firmly planted in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But I had a curious blind spot when it came to opera. Perhaps it was because opera performances were rare on the radio, or the fact that the plots were largely lost on me due to the foreign language of the libretti, or the lack of the visual component. Or maybe it was their length. An opera recording would be a boxed set of 5 or 6 or more LPs, pretty much outside of my budget in those days. And so it was that I was listening to pretty much only instrumental music up until sometime in my junior or senior year of high school. Then I discovered Gilbert and Sullivan.

By accident I tuned into a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience playing on the radio. Here was an opera (or operetta perhaps) in English that was easy to follow and quite funny to boot. I bought a recording (D’Oyly Carte, of course) and ended up over the next few years through college and med school listening to every available G&S opera I could find, either on record, or in performance (by the same D’Oyly Carte company, in Boston). Eventually saturated with Gilbert and Sullivan, I became curious about other examples of this novel art form. This led me to Richard Wagner.

In reading about 19th century music, the name of Richard Wagner appears everywhere. He was the one, according to some, who destroyed classical tonality and led to the musical excesses—to the tone rows and atonality—of the 20th century. Others, like my namesake Thomas Mann and Friedrich Nietzsche, admitted to being totally seduced by Wagner’s music, only to later reject it, like a drug addict kicking the habit. Few would argue with the idea that Wagner was a pivotal composer in the history of music. However, as he wrote almost exclusively operas, or music-dramas as he called them, it was difficult to understand what all the fuss was about without actually listening to his operas.

My first Wagner record set

So I bought a record set of Tristan und Isolde, with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Georg Solti and Brigit Nilsson in the role of Isolde. I listened to it straight through, with the libretto on my lap. I learned that evening what all the fuss was about.

Regardless of what you can say about Wagner the man (and you can say a lot, much of it negative), it is difficult to deny that Wagner the composer was a genius. This was recognized even by his critics. His music is not to everyone’s taste. Mark Twain famously, though apparently not originally, said that “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.” It is not music for those with a short attention span. Today with our smart phones, our video games, and our 24 hour news cycle, who has time to listen to or watch a four hour long opera? But back in the late 1960s when these distractions hadn’t been invented yet, I fell under the spell of the music of Tristan und Isolde. It was like musical crack cocaine in my veins.

Wagnerian scores, as well as other goodies on my bookshelf
Some books on Wagner

Over the years, I listened to his operas many times, either on the radio, TV, LP, CD, DVD, or in live performance. I remember my first taste of the Ring cycle, listening to a performance of die Walküre on the radio in my car, driving home from the hospital in Philadelphia. I was a cardiology fellow. I still remember the haunting sound of the “Curse” motif on the car radio. In the 1980s there were some broadcasts of the Ring on TV, which I dutifully recorded on my VCR. All of Wagner’s mature operas, the four Ring operas, die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Tristan und Isolde, and Parsifal, are favorites. As you can see, I have copies of their scores and piano reductions, as well as many books on Wagner and the operas. Just the other day I watched a wonderful Meistersinger on YouTube by the Glyndebourne opera company. The music still gets to me, just like it got to my youngest daughter, who, not able to read the subtitles or understand German, while watching a video of the third act of die Walküre, asked me, “why does the music make me cry, Daddy?”

All that said, history has not been kind to Wagner. He was a virulent anti-semite, as evidenced by his essay Judaism in Music. The producers of his operas, including some of his own descendents, have gone out of their way to stage them in silly or political ways: das Reingold in outer space with the gods wearing space suits, for example. Wagner also was posthumously unfortunate in that one of his biggest fans turned out to be a genocidal madman who nearly destroyed Europe. There are certainly those who on this basis will never ever listen to Wagner’s music. If anything, in the 21st century, the era of political correctness, he is more of an misfit than ever, and perhaps is heading towards irrelevancy. Most of the books I have on Wagner were written in the 20th century, though performances of his operas continue. Have the critics lost interest in Wagner. Has his music been analyzed to death? Do his anti-semitic views make him anathema to our time?

The past is the past. There is nothing we can do about it. We have to take the good with the bad, and get what enjoyment we can from the good and learn what we can from the bad. The world of the 19th century is as alien to people today as our world would be to Victorians if they were frozen and then thawed out in the present. As with any alien culture, I believe it is important to study them dispassionately, and not judgmentally. The “woke” people of today are only woke because they are living today. Transport any of them back to the 19th century and odds are they would have turned out just as racist or anti-semitic as the average person of that time. Moreover if we are to judge the past, we must be willing to be judged by future generations. To think that this present era is the end of the moral evolution of humanity is another example of not learning from the past. Will future generations look back on our most progressive voices dismissively, because, for example, they casually ate the flesh of animals tortured and slaughtered in factory farms? Will the most moralizing woke person alive today be cancelled by a future generation because they ate a hamburger at McDonalds? Who knows? Judge not, lest ye be judged.

This was a round-a-bout way to say that I enjoy Wagner’s music despite his flaws. Not all the time. The music-dramas can be emotionally draining. But despite Wagner’s awful anti-semitic screeds, there is much humanity and wisdom in his operas. In the Ring cycle, the Rhine gold is a symbol of wealth and domination. The Ring created from the gold is supposed to give its wearer unlimited power. But the Ring sets off a series of betrayals and murders. Power corrupts. This corruption infests the whole of time and space, as represented by the Norse gods and goddesses. Walhall (Vahalla), the home of the gods, is built on a rotten foundation. Even love falls victim to the Ring, as Wotan, king of the gods, is forced to exile his own beloved daughter due to the events set in play by his coveting the Ring for himself. And that daughter, when she tries to use the Ring to protect herself against an attacker, finds it to be useless. It is greed itself, and not the substance of gold, that wields power in the world. In die Götterdämmerung, the Norns, weaving the fabric of space and time, see that fabric rip apart when the unknown variable of the Ring enters the equation. Like an uncaught division by zero error that brings a computer to its knees, the future becomes unstable and unpredictable. In the end the gods perish, but the Universe, and hope, live on.

Spread out over four evenings, with “special effects” written into the libretto that could not be realized at the time, and can be barely instantiated today, the Ring was the big spectacle of its era. Multimedia–music, song, drama, impossible stage directions–this was far beyond the traditional opera of the day. And the music, continuous, always modulating, never resolving, was a revelation at the time, and still is. Wagner was a master psychologist. He invented leitmotifs, short phrases that represented characters, ideas, places, every component of the drama, and then varied them, combined them, and used them to add emotion to the sung text. The motifs are often related to each other, resulting in very subtle emotional shading to the ongoing action. For example the Sword motif that appears at the end of das Rheingold is derived from the Rhine motif at the beginning of the opera.

Sword motif
Rhine motif

Wagner’s real progeny are not the 12 tone serialists starting with Schönberg, but the film composers, from Erich Wolfgang Korngold to John Williams, who used the same concept of leitmotifs in their music. This technique is commonplace and obvious today, but at the time it was an innovation. Wagner was a force to be reckoned with in the 19th century. All composers that came after Wagner were influenced by him and either sought to emulate him, outdo him, or rebel against him. Of course he did not create his musical innovations ex vacuo. Starting from Beethoven, and going through Liszt, there were musical innovators and iconoclasts throughout the century, but it all came together with Wagner, the polymath who wrote his own librettos and invented a new musical language and a new form of opera.

There are debates about how much of his anti-semitism leaked into his music. As in all drama, there are good guys and bad guys in his operas. It is tempting especially after the Third Reich and Hitler’s fondness for the operas to feel that the bad guys were intended to represent Jews. Books pro and con have been written on the subject. I am impressed by how weak the evidence is that Mime in Siegfried, or Sixtus Beckmesser in Meistersinger represent Jewish characters. The first is one of the Nibelungen, mythological creatures living in mythological times. If he is Jewish, then wouldn’t all the Nibelungen also be Jewish? If so, their oppression and sad lot outlined in das Rheingold would indicate a more sympathetic portrayal of the Jewish people than one is willing to credit to Wagner. Beckmesser is the town clerk and member of the Meistersinger guild of Nürnberg during medieval times, hardly a position that one would expect to be filled by someone who was Jewish. I think that Wagner left his anti-semitism behind when he constructed the fantasy worlds of his operas. The themes are universal, not racist. I don’t doubt that his anti-semitic views had some influence on his work. But before we get too deep into an argument about Jewish stereotypes in 19th century operas, consider that just 20 years ago George Lucas put a flying alien merchant who was an obvious Jewish stereotype into the Star Wars film The Phantom Menace. We haven’t come as far as we think we have.

If I had a family member killed in the Holocaust I might feel differently about Wagner. He is inextricably tangled up with Hitler and the Nazis. How much blame should he receive for that? He died six years before Hitler was born. It’s interesting that Hitler didn’t celebrate his anti-semitic writings. It was the operas he enjoyed, probably at the same visceral level others enjoy them. These great works were an example of German art that fed into his nationalistic ideals about Germany. But his admiration has tainted these masterpieces for many people, which is understandable but sad. We expect our heroes to live pure, uncomplicated lives, and then go on to produce something as complex as der Ring des Nibelungen. Maybe that’s not possible. Maybe the nice, unprejudiced, non-revolutionary imaginary version of Wagner would have been a better person, but would have died in obscurity, a bank clerk or choir master long forgotten. Artists tend to be complicated, flawed people. Not just artists. People tend to be complicated and flawed. Nowadays our social media profiles often represent the Platonic ideal of our true selves. It’s bad enough to project that idealism on each other, worse to project it onto the past. By its nature the past can never live up to the ideals of the present. Nor will the present live up to the ideals of the future. In the case of Wagner, he has bequeathed to us many hours of wonderful, thought-provoking music and drama, and we can be thankful for that. Can’t we be satisfied with that? Shouldn’t that be enough?


Syberberg’s Parsifal

Parsifal and Flower Maidens from Syberberg's Parsifal
Parsifal and Flower Maidens from Syberberg’s Parsifal

One thing that bothers me about opera is that the stage directors are constantly getting into the act, injecting their often weird interpretations into productions, often to the point of destroying the intent of the composer and librettist. Certainly interpretation of a score has a place up to a point, but one can’t redo a Beethoven symphony as hip-hop without fatally distorting the meaning of the music.

The most OCD of operatic composers was Richard Wagner. Not only did he compose the music, he wrote the libretto of each of his operas. Not satisfied with this, he built his own opera house designed especially for the performance of his operas. The stage directions he wrote into his scores are very detailed, and pushed the limits of the technology of his time. Even today, depicting Rhinemaidens singing as they swim in the river, or the burning of Valhalla, or the Valkyries flying through the air on their horses necessitates leaving more to the imagination than can be technically depicted on the stage.

Yet despite this (or maybe because of this?), stage directors think nothing of ignoring these directions and instead impose their own sometimes harebrained interpretations on these finely crafted works. No one would dream of substituting an oom-pah band for the orchestra, but yet anachronistic reinterpretations of the Ring, for example, sometimes bear a closer resemblance to Star Wars (e.g. this) than Norse mythology. Fortunately in most cases the singers, the music, and the text are able to overcome what otherwise would be a cringe-worthy staging.

Case in point: I have seen Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg performed live on two occasions. The first time, years ago in Denver, was a traditional staging, set in the time of the Meistersingers, with period costumes and scenery. It was very enjoyable. This past year, in Paris, I watched the Stefan Herheim version. This version is very cleverly staged, though the bottom line of the production is that the whole opera is just a dream of Hans Sachs’s. The scenes take place on giant versions of his desk and other parts of his room, and various characters from German legends float in and out of the scenes. I have to say that this was entertaining in its own way, but it also somewhat subverted the sad nobility of Sachs in his affection for Eva. I preferred the Denver version that was truer to Wagner’s intent.

All this is just preamble to my feelings about the 1982 film of Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal, directed by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg. I had heard of the film, but had never seen it until recently. The complete plus-4-hour film is available (at least at the moment) through the magic of YouTube. At first glance, the film seems to do all the things I complained about above. The setting is a giant death mask of Wagner. There are tacky puppets and front-screen projections. There are deliberate anachronisms, like Nazi flags. The protagonist, Parsifal, changes between a male and a female. Only a few of the actors actually sing their roles; most are just lip-synching. So, given all this, I am surprised that I really liked the film.

Parsifal, Wagner’s final opera, is a strange work. After the Norse mythology of the Ring, Wagner turned back to the medieval Christian mythology he had previously explored in Lohengrin. Here we find the Knights of the Holy Grail, and Parsifal, “der Reine Tor — Pure Fool” who ends up saving the order of the Grail. Based on medieval tales such as Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival (point of trivial for cardiologists: von Eschenbach in the 13th century describes treating pericardial tamponade with a hollow reed — something that didn’t make it into Wagner’s opera), Wagner as usual wrote his own libretto and has his own interpretation of the tale. This contains many “un-Christian” elements, including a self-castrated evil sorcerer, a knight suffering from a non-healing wound inflicted by the lance that pierced Jesus’ side on the cross, a woman doomed to live forever under a curse because she mocked Jesus at the crucifixion, and over an hour of the most intense seduction scene imaginable, first by a group of flower-maidens, and then by Kundry, the aforementioned conflicted, cursed, unsaved, undying woman/witch. Apparently this mixture of the sacred and profane was met with mixed reactions when the opera premiered, as it does today.  Underpinning all this is Wagner’s music at its finest  — motifs intertwined more intricately than those of Die Götterdämmerung, his penultimate opera. There are many odd and intriguing aspects to Parsifal. It seems that the Castle of the Grail is located in some kind of parallel universe. There is this odd exchange, which make me wonder if Albert Einstein ever viewed the opera:

Parsifal: Ich schreite kaum, doch wähn' ich mich schon weit.

Gurnemanz: Du sieh'st, mein Sohn, zum Raum wird hier die Zeit.

Parsifal: I scarcely move, yet already it seems I have travelled far.

Gurnemanz: You see, my son, here time becomes space.

So what is so great about the Syberberg film? It’s hard to pin down. I think mostly it is the acting. In particular Edith Clever, the German actress who plays Kundry, the tormented, schizophrenic woman at the center of the opera, is wonderful. Using close-ups, film is able to capture the emotions of her and the other actors much better than can be done on the operatic stage. So, despite all the tackiness and weirdness of this production, it is nevertheless a moving experience and, perhaps because Wagner’s opera is so strange to begin with, the extraneous elements don’t seem to distract from the performance.

I would like to see more operas on film. Not films of opera performances (though these are enjoyable too and some are on YouTube), but movies with real actors. Just as Tolkien had to wait for advances in movie special effects and Peter Jackson for his Ring to be filmed, perhaps the apotheosis of Wagner’s Ring will be found in the modern cinema. Through the magic of CGI maybe one day we will see the Rhinemaidens swimming around the Rhinegold as Wagner envisioned the scene in his mind originally.