Monday, January 02, 2006

Wagner's Perfect World: Part I

"Honor your German masters," sings Hans Sachs in the finale of Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Today those words are as ominous as coal-black thunderclouds on the horizon of an August afternoon, conjuring up images of Hitler's fiery speeches extolling the virtues of the "master race" and memories of millions senselessly exterminated. But is that a fair association?

Richard Wagner was a rabid anti-Semite, but analysis of his work is ill-served by viewing him through the prism of World War II.

Among the many characteristics that made Wagner unique, he was a prolific writer. In addition to composing his own lyrics -- something few composers attempted and fewer still were successful with -- he wrote countless essays and letters. His megalomania was of an order that they were nearly all about himself and his work; pages and pages of his ideas on the widest variety of subjects. In short, to an extent unmatched by any other artist of any medium, we know exactly what points Wagner was hoping to make with his complex and multi-layered operas.

Yet people claim to find all manner of nonsense in his music, and the ugly pall of racism which hangs over his reputation has unfortunately and incorrectly led many people to assume and assert that his operas are thinly veiled commercials for anti-Semitism, especially Der Ring des Nibelungen, Parsifal and Die Meistersinger.

Wagner's racism was extreme and bizarre; he immediately suspected anyone he didn't like or who wasn't utterly enamored of him of being ethnically Jewish. One such person was the Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick, who gave an astute, if negative, review of Tristan und Isolde.

Wagner saw himself as a heroic defender of German art and culture, shouldering a mantle he inherited directly from Bach and Beethoven. He also saw himself as an innovative, rebellious maverick, and it was his unabashed use of chromaticism and "endless melody" in Tristan (not to mention a bizarrely new-age existentialist libretto) that aroused Hanslick's ire.

Wagner frequently inserted himself into his operas; intentionally, as in the case of the tormented Tannhäuser, transparently torn between an insatiable sexual appetite and his desire to find a single, pure soul-mate, and occasionally unintentionally, where he drew himself as the doomed hero Siegfried in Der Ring but was actually much closer in personality and temperament to the nasty dwarf Mime. In Meistersinger, he is deliberately two characters: the wise, revered old master Hans Sachs, and the young, dashing, talented but unschooled knight Walther von Stolzing. It is not coincidental that the heroine, Eva (her name is also not coincidental, as she -- along with many of her Wagnerian cousins -- represents the feminine ideal, that which is original and pure and good and noble), is in love with both men.

Their nemesis is the fusty old town clerk Sixtus Beckmesser, who in an earlier draft of the libretto was called Veit Hanslich. Beckmesser is definitely a caricature of Hanslick; but is he an anti-Semitic cipher, as well?

To be continued…

17 comments:

Marc said...

I always love reading your blog, Andy. It's enlightening, witty, and intelligent. Happy new year.

Jean F. said...

I know Wagner is a controversial composer, but I love his early works. The overature from "Dutchman" is still one of my absolute favorite pieces. His music is unique and beautiful...

little-cicero said...

From what I can gather, a large portion of anti-Semites of that time period were also vehemently anti-homosexual in their views. Was Wagner such an anti-Semite, and if so, would this added characteristic tarnish your view of the composer?

Andy said...

Well, it's more complex than that. At some point I should write about Wagner's specific brand of anti-Semitism, as it was pretty unusual. But anti-Semitism in and of itself was not at all unusual at the time; in fact, it would have been more unusual NOT to be racist. And Germany wasn't even the country most hostile to Jews, it was England, and France was probably second. Russia was pretty bad and so was America.

I am not aware of Wagner making any statements one way or another on the subject of homosexuality; but then, homosexuality was not really something that even had a name until about the time Wagner died in 1883. Some people have alleged that Parsifal is about a secret homosexual society, but I think that's the most laughable thing I've ever heard.

If he'd been asked to speak on the subject, I'll wager he wouldn't have been a fan of the gays. Wagner had specific ideas about love (redemption through love is a constant theme in all of his operas), and he viewed its highest expression in the carnal act, the life-creating, life-sustaining force of love. So I'd guess he'd view homosexuality as a harmful aberration. But...

Wagner had double standards. For all his virulent racism, there were many important Jewish men in his life. And of course, if there was a Jewish person in a position to give Wagner some money for a project, well...Wagner would turn downright obsequious. (Of course if a Jewish person wouldn't give him money, Wagner got nasty.) And, not to rely on stereotypes, but Wagner was a man of the theatre; you can't swing a dead Valkyrie without hitting a homo in an opera house.

Wagner's most important fan and patron was crazy King Ludwig of Bavaria, who may in fact have been the gayest person who ever lived. Wagner certainly had no problem taking his money, and some people suspect Wagner may have indulged the king in special ways now and then, though I am not aware of any evidence for that.

I thought I recalled from his wife Cosima's diaries (yes, I've read them!) that they once had a pleasant dinner with a pair of male friends who lived together, which I thought maybe was during the London trip in 1877, but I couldn't find it. : (

Anyway...as to your question, no, it doesn't change how I feel about Wagner. He was a nasty, crazy, manipulative, spoiled, neurotic, arrogant, moody tyrant (though he could also be exceptionally civil and pleasant, humorous, and even light hearted!). But he was a genius.

Now, being a genius doesn't mean being right all the time, and in Wagner's case, it means being spectacularly wrong on a few fronts. But his operas are amazing, and it would be a real tragedy if the world were to dismiss them simply because their author was unpleasant.

Aethlos said...

i've never been a fan of Wags... but i'm told his music is actually MUCH BETTER than it sounds.

Aethlos said...

you didn't mention Winnie Wags... she was tight with heir schickelgruber- der fuhrer- himself, they were girlfriends, along with leni, eva, etc. of course.

Andy said...

It's largely Winifred's fault that Wagner is associated with Nazi Germany, but aside from including her picture here I didn't bring her up for a couple of reasons: one, she entered the picture long after Wagner was dead, and two, this post is really specifically about whether Meistersinger can accurately be called an anti-Semitic work, so she's somewhat irrelevant. People can't be held responsible for their relatives, especially relatives who married in after you're dead.

Anthony said...

With Hitler's declaration that Die Meistersinger was his favourite opera, it was inevitable that Wagner's work as a whole should gain an anti-semitic reputation which, to this day, it struggles to shake off.

While Wagner's cred has suffered since, I'd very much like to know how he was viewed in his day. Over to you, Andy ...

Andy said...

I don't think people's opinions of the man or his music have changed at all since he was alive. People tend to either worship his music or loathe it. And despite all his idiosyncracies and temperamental issues, there were legions of people who admired him in his own day, and probably equal numbers who found him too bombastic for words.

The only thing that has changed is a persistent charge that his operas "inspired" Hitler to begin the Holocaust; one of the reasons I'm writing pieces like this is to show that, whatever horrible things he may have written in his essays and letters, his operas do not, in fact, contain anti-Semitic references, and anyone who says differently has not really taken a look at what's there.

Anthony said...

Ah, so the anti-semitic accusations only came along with the rise of Nazism, or at least gained credibility then.

Andy said...

Well, I would say given the hostility of his rhetoric, it's not an unreasonable assumption to make. But as Wagner was a pacifist and a socialist, I doubt he'd have been a fan of Hitler.

little-cicero said...

The debate over whether to admire an artist for his art when he is morally flawed seems to be one worthy of its own post. Thomas Jefferson, for example, is disliked by many (they took his name off of a school) because of his possession of slaves. I do believe that you should look at an individual as two people, the person and the proffessional, or the man and the artist. Look at little cicero as little cicero, and whatever the name is of his alterego!

obliquity said...

I do think any artist's work can be said to be influenced by a certain body politic--if not there own beliefs. However, to confuse their art with the person is folly in most cases.

You point out that Beckmesser was an obvious caricature of Hanslick. If I remember correctly, Hanslick walked out of a private reading of the libretto in Vienna because he knew as much. Die Meistersinger in many ways is Wagner giving the finger to his critics and the public who he felt misunderstood or misjudged his work. The fact that the Mastersingers were themselves the embodiment of prejudice puts an interesting spin to the question you raise about Beckmesser being an anti-Semitic cipher.

Aethlos said...

every time i hear das rheingold i get a burning desire to invade poland.

Andy said...

Honestly, I thought no one would comment on this...

little-cicero said...

little cicero can comment on anything. Especially when it means having others look at my comments follow the link to my blog. Did I mention I'd sell my soul for traffic!

Oh, to Aethlos, Wagner's music may make you want to invade Poland, but Toby Keith's music makes me want to invade France.

Steve said...

Wow...putting Wagner and Toby Keith in the same sentence, that is like putting Bush and integrity together.

Context is so important to remember when trying to review someone's work. It becomes even more important when talking about someone who has controversial, nutty, inconceivable ideas.

Racism was/is always wrong. I am amazed at the strength of those in England who realized how wrong slavery was before the U.S. did, those men/women who rescued Jews, gays, and the infirmed from certain death during the Holocaust and those who rode the buses down to the South to help a nation understand that we ARE ONE NATION.

Wagner's genius is debated for sure but there is definitely a beauty about is compositions, that is timeless.