Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Wagner's Perfect World: Part III

Meistersinger begins and ends firmly in glorious C Major. Aside from its length (at six full hours, it remains the longest opera in the standard repertoire), there is nothing especially unconventional about its composition. Wagner is saying, “I didn’t break the rules writing Tristan out of ignorance.” One of the themes is that tradition should never stand in the way of a good idea.

Yet tradition is incredibly important to Wagner, and this is where the accusation that Beckmesser is some sort of anti-Semitic buffoon falls apart. In Nürnberg, Wagner has created his vision of an ideal society: there is no poverty, there is no class warfare, and everyone is equal with the single exception of artistic talent, through which true genius can be recognized. Of all the characters in the opera, Wagner has assigned Beckmesser to be the guardian of tradition.

Political correctness is a social invention of the present era, in which racism or other –isms are detected primarily in perceived slights. Wagner was hardly politically correct. He wrote and published horrifically offensive things concerning Jews and Judaism, and certainly didn’t censor himself in person, either. He even tried to badger Hermann Levi, the handpicked conductor of his final masterpiece Parsifal, into getting baptized before the premiere. Yet for some reason, people persist in believing that Wagner went to the trouble of disguising these sentiments within his operas.

If Meistersinger contains anti-Semitic themes, and if Beckmesser is supposed to represent the “Jewish” character, who would he be and what would happen to him?

Beckmesser is not some penny-ante villain from a melodrama, nor is he Shylock; he is the rule-keeper of the highest, most revered guild, that of the Mastersingers, into which Wagner has placed his own stage-avatar. The other Masters treat him with respect and deference in Act I, and even if Sachs baits and teases him in Act II, it is always polite. Outside of his role as a Mastersinger (which implies he possesses a certain degree of artistic genius himself), he is an important member of civil society: the town clerk. This means he is educated in law and letters. His downfall comes through his own arrogance and inflexibility; he steals Walther’s prize-winning song and attempts to perform it himself. Bogged down as he is in “rules,” he is unable to comprehend the new style, and makes an ass of himself. What is his punishment? Laughter.

Beckmesser is not evil, merely a curmudgeon; in his way, he is bemusing and even sort of endearing. Each of us knows or has known a Beckmesser in our day, and there is nothing stereotypically “Jewish” about him. In fact, if you were to view Meistersinger as some view the Ring – that is, as an allegory of the human conscience, where each character represents an aspect of human personality – then there is a Beckmesser in each of us. Mine, for example, happens to dislike “My Humps.” Yet the crowd applauds.

Beckmesser suffers no great fall; he is not removed from the Guild or banished from Nürnberg, let alone killed off. If you accept that Nürnberg represents for Wagner the ideal society, then either he placed a “Jewish” figure at the respected center of it, or Beckmesser is not the anti-Semitic cartoon he is accused of being.

Of course, the latter conclusion is the more likely. This idealized “Nürnberg” is hardly a diverse, pluralistic society. My argument that Beckmesser is not an anti-Semitic character is not intended to be taken as either a defense or denial of Wagner’s racialism; rather that the charge of anti-Semitism, as applicable as it is to the composer, is generally not applicable to his compositions.

Not surprisingly, Walther wins the competition and the hearts of the people of Nürnberg, in addition to Eva; he is decorated by Eva’s father with a medallion bearing the likeness of King David; yes, that King David, the one to whom are attributed most of the greatest poems in the biblical book of Psalms. (This is an anti-Semitic opera?) Initially Walther declines membership in the Guild of Mastersingers, but Sachs admonishes his arrogance.

“Even if the Reich should fail,” sings Sachs, “for us will remain holy German art.” Those of us who live on this side of the Holocaust might perceive those words as a threat; but we’ve only to look at another civilization – that of ancient Greece – which has long since departed the face of the earth, but whose art and culture form many of the bases of our own today. For Wagner, politics is temporal but art is eternal.

Long live Wagner’s art.


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, we live in a universe where Evil exists.

While the swastika has numerous, wholly important uses prior to the Nazi's, those ideas are currently overshadowed by that historic evil use. Yes, it's just a symbol, and innately neutral, but it's meaning, for some, significantly outweighs any inherent value of the symbol. That will change, sometime in our future, releasing the symbol back into common use. Are we there yet? Really now?

Wagner's compositions were used for evil purposes, too (e.g., Forced performances while innocents were methodically murderd with industrial-hardware specifically designed for such -- go figure).

While, one day, the swastika's innate symmetrical-beauty might again be admired enough by some to hang it in their gallaries or livingroom walls, to some its prior use is sufficiently evil not to, currently.

I think there will be a time when public performances of Wagner would be proper, but i don't think that time is now in this current generation.

Andy said...

Rob, that's nonsense. Let's say for example that Hitler had had a passion for Shakespeare instead of Wagner. Would you suggest we not attend or study his plays?

Wagner cannot be held responsible for Hitler's misappropriation of his music and misunderstanding of his intent.

Anonymous said...

I like your example. But, to be completely analogous to my point, i'll take your example a little farther:

If children, men, and women were forced to perform works of Shakespeare and view his plays while being processed for execution/murder, then Yes, i think a ban on public performances would be proper.

Andy said...

Rob, I don't know where you're getting these allegations, I have certainly never come across any reference to it. It doesn't make sense; the Nazis banned performances by Jewish artists and conductors. It makes no sense that they would then "force" them to perform something. Furthermore, it would seem to me that Nazi idealism would prefer not to taint Wagner's operas with Jewish performers. Then there are issues of practicality; the physical goods necessary to perform a Wagnerian opera aren't bestowed upon just anybody. The voices are rare and the roles would take weeks -- at a minimum -- to prepare. But that's all secondary to the fact that I've never EVER heard of what you're alleging. I would be very curious to hear where you've heard of performances of Wagner operas being staged to torture a Jewish audience.

Trust me, despite all of Wagner's obvious anti-Semitism, if you really studied his philosophy and really READ the texts of his operas, you would not find any justification for the Holocaust. The victims of that tragedy are not well-served by falsely-placed allegations of responsibility.

Jere said...

Andy, it's possible that Rob is referring to BRUNDIBAR, which Jewish prisoners at one of the camps were forced to perform for Red Cross workers as "proof" of the high standard of living in the camps. My understanding is that the performers, including many children, were marched straight out of the theatre and into the gas chambers after the performance.

Of course, this isn't a Wagner piece, but maybe Rob was mistaking it for one.

Andy said...

Well, actually Rob sent me a link to a SF Chronicle article from 2001 that mentioned Holocaust survivors' recollections of "forced performances," but it didn't really go into detail about what that meant. I wouldn't dare dispute a survivor's recollection, but I will say I've not heard of it before.

Even if it were true, and for the reasons given above, I doubt it. Brundibar is a children's opera -- that means, it was intended to be easily performed under simple circumstances with limited demands on the performers. Brundibar was originally scored for an orchestra of 9; a typical Wagnerian orchestra has 75-100 players, just as an example.

Anyway, all of that is beside the point. Brundibar was an anti-fascist opera composed by a Bohemian Jew which was co-opted by the Nazis for their propagandistic purposes; is that composer Krasa's fault?

The point of my posts is that Wagner's operas are not about what most people have been told they are about. Accusations that they have anti-Semitic messages just don't hold up when you look at what's really going on in them.

Andy said...

Wait, I'm sorry, I got distracted while cooking and realized that I started a sentence one way and then finished it another so that it makes no sense: "Even if it were true...I doubt it." Yack, argh, stupid Andy.

No, I don't mean that. I meant that I doubt it for the reasons I listed above. What I had started to write was, "Even if it were true, it doesn't mean that Wagner is responsible for performances that took place 60 years after his death."

Aethlos said...

one more article on wags... and i'll invade poland myself. ;)

Andy said...

Nah, I'm done with Wagner for a little while. Now it's back to our regularly scheduled pabulum.

Anonymous said...

This is amazing stuff.

Theresienstadt was a "model concentration camp", specifically designed to show-case to the RedCross how happy prisoners were under Nazi detention. They performed plays, childrens' plays even, several concerts, and even held art classes and lectures while the RedCross rep's toured.

Unfortunately, most of these artists (child-actors included -- except for one girl) were all gassed once the illusion was delivered.

While Theresienstadt was a clear exception, there are a large number of eye-witness accounts from Holocaust Survivors that detail the use of Wagner within the death-camps.

While some dispute this, like Neo-Nazis and other revisionists, most consider the Survivor accounts credible -- and thus a ban on public performances of Wagner was established within many Jewish communities.

It is this history, not so much Hitler's love for Wagner, that is behind the ban. Don't confuse the two.

Steve said...

It seems strange to me that Jewish folks would ban Wagner. I guess I can understand with regards to the sorrow and all that hearing music from the reported forced performances could cause.

It just seems that with all that the Jewish people have been through, they would be the last folks to ban things.

little-cicero said...

Who invoked the suffering Steve?

Andy said...

If I took you prisoner and forced you to listen to Madonna constantly, that would not be Madonna's fault.

little-cicero said...

Anti-semites as a whole invoked the suffering, not just Hitler (Remember Kristalnact?) If Wagner was carrying the anti-semitic banner of his day, why should we expect Jewish people to promote his message-laiden performances?

Andy said...

Well, actually, LC, I have to say that's the most rational argument I've heard on this subject so far. All I can say in response is: Wagner's operas are not anti-Semitic, even though the composer certainly was. They are astonishingly brilliant masterpieces, and it saddens me no end that people think that there is something wrong, even dangerous about them.

It comes down to ignorance. If people want to object to Wagner's operas, fine, but they ought to object based on their actual content and meanings.