Is It Still Too Soon to Like Wagner Again?

By Logan K. Young on Apr 22, 2013 12:12 PM EDT
Chancellor Angela Merkel & Joachim Sauer German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her husband Joachim Sauer arrive on the red carpet for the opening of the Wagner Opera Festival outside the Gruener Huegel (Green Hill) opera house in Bayreuth (July 25, 2008). According to Sauer, in his youth, he found the music of Richard Wagner "bombastic." Things changed for the theoretical chemist in his early 20s, however, when a chance encounter with Wagner's 'Siegfried' opened up the composer's work for him. Now, the annual summer festival in Bayreuth is one of the few occasions when media-shy Sauer is seen in public with his wife, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. (Photo : Reuters)

One of the most irritating trends in contemporary musicology has to be the wholesale re-appraisal of a revered composer under the guise of institutional revisionism.

Now, scholarly re-assessment, itself a noble sentiment in an epoch typically unkind to second chances, can indeed be a rugged tool for unearthing those musical figures whom time and/or circumstance hath conspired to bury under the organum, secondary dominants and combinatorial sets of the last 1,000 years.

From Felix Mendelssohn 's Bach revival of the 1820s, to Knud Jeppesen's Palestrina fixation of the 1930s, to the more recent (and sound) work of Margaret Notley on behalf of Anton Bruckner, careful scrutiny of the canon is imperative, lest we lose another luckless genius to the annals of obscurity.

Nevertheless, when this same inquisition results in the dethroning of a bona fide artist, looking back turns the discourse into a briny pillar of salt.

Doggedly questioning an already proven master is not the purview of good musicological research. At his best, the music historian becomes an humanitarian; he offers redemption to the composer too long denied. Scathing polemics and quasi-Adorno dialectics regarding the qualitative merit of established convictions on established composers prove retroactive to the endeavor proper.

Once ensconced in the 'publish or perish' methodology of today's ivory towers, however, underpaid intellectuals are compelled to proffer any such theory on the true worth of Bach, Beethoven, Bartok or Babbitt to any periodical or journal that's fit to print.

Perhaps the single composer whose legacy has suffered the barrage of reconstructionist vehemence most viciously, and most often, is one Richard Wilhelm Wagner. Musical visionary, dramatic innovator, acute social philosopher--and, to be fair, late darling of the Third Reich--Wagner's historical significance has become quite the topic of suspicion in both aesthetic and epistemic scholarship.

Music historians like Ms. Notley argue that for a composer's music to be 'successful,' it must not only embody his own aesthetic, political and even moral convictions, but it must further dictate said values to his listeners. Citing Brahms as the master of these seemingly extra-sensory techniques of "rational elaboration,"1 Notley therefore indirectly brands Wagner, and moreover his music drama, (of the "Neo-German School"2 quoth Franz Brendel of the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik) as 'unsuccessful.'

Taking a cue from obscure religious thinker Ferdinand Ebner and Viennese Secessionist/fellow Wagner-phobe Friedrich Nietzsche (post-Die Geburt der Tragodie, of course), the academic Allan Janik, despite dubbing Wagner "the philosophical father of Viennese modernism,"3 acknowledges the derivative nature of his thinking as it "borrows liberally from Arthur Schopenhauer, whom [Wagner] frequently exploits for his own purposes."4

For Notley, Wagner's music sounds problematic because of its inability to convey Wagner's own agenda as expressed above. Wagner's proscribed menology--steadfast aestheticism, a maximalist's delusions of grandeur and a controversial (in a "new key"5 according to Carl Schorske) yet harmless concoction of then-routine anti-Semitism ("But bethink ye, that one only thing can redeem you from the burden of your curse: the redemption of Ahasuerus."6)--is conspicuously silent in everything from the opening bars of Das Liebesverbot to the "Good Friday Scene" from Parsifal.

Furthermore, as per Notley once again, the music of Johannes Brahms--supposedly opposed to the "inspired invention"7 of Wagner, Liszt and the other "Musicians of the Future"8 on account of its motivic austerity (i.e. the Schoenberg-coined principle of developing variation)--is far superior as a cultural artifact because it accurately depicts its listeners: effete Austrian liberals.

Such drivel concerning the necessary correlation of an artist's work with his own political ideology is precisely the sort of reconstructionist dogma that threatens the legacies of music history's most revered persons. Insinuating that Richard Wagner's role in the evolution of Western music is at all weakened due to the absence of anti-Semitism from his sounding oeuvre is beyond reproach.

In fact, those painfully naïve and ridiculously headstrong composers who consciously endeavor to utilize a given musical medium as a vehicle for their own socio-economic commentary succeed only in embarrassing their crusade (cf. Luigi Nono's trite Marxism).

To side with Wagner's enemies for the sake of rhetoric, music--the one, true objective muse in the nonet--is incapable of expressing extra-musical sentiments, anyway.

Thus, even if Wagner had wanted the tritone juxtaposition extant in the "Tristan chord" (essentially, A minor and E-flat major sonorities, respectively, with passing tones added for more convincing voice-leading), found in measures 2 and 81 of the "Vorspiel" to Tristan und Isolde, to aurally represent some sort of anti-Jewish sonority, the chord--as a purely abstract entity--does not contain any concrete semantic weight.

All attempts would be thwarted by the innate properties of music, herself.

True, while the diminished fifth may connote something (e.g. the three complete whole steps within the tritone as proxy for the Christian Trinity, the interval's medieval distinction, "diabolus est in musica," as analogue for the "assimilated Jewry,"9 etc.) Wagner would have absolutely no control over the associations his listeners may have fabricated.

After Wagner's death in 1883, all of Europe was fighting off his legacy. With the notable exception of a few composers like the French eccentric Erik Satie, such resistance proved futile. An incredibly long and quite distinguished lineage of Western art music--including the formidable likenesses of Bruckner, Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss--can easily trace their pedigree back to the master of Zukunftsmusik.

In addition, the "Austrian trio"10 of fin-de-siecle Viennese politics Georg von Schonerer, Karl Lueger and Theodor Herzel owe their respective careers as Pan-German poster boy, Christian Socialist supreme and eventual mayor of Vienna (and leader in the creation of a Zionist homeland) to the admittedly jingoistic, yet uncannily convincing ideology espoused by Richard Wagner.

More laughably, Allan Janik goes so far as to credit the ascendance of Adolf Hitler, himself, as an inevitable causality of Wagner's ubiquity:

"[Hitler's] speeches are in a sense Wagnerian operas with their leitmotifs, repetitions and monumental length."11

Nevertheless, despite the extent to which his music, drama and philosophy expresses his own politics, or the very purity of his thoughts altogether, Richard Wagner is certainly worthy of the status he enjoys in today's informed circles. To deny him the name he so rightfully deserves on account of some didactic fallacy would be the ultimate desecration.

Works Cited:

1. Constantin Floros, "Brahms und Bruckner: Studien zur musikalischen Exegetik" (Wiesbaden, 1980); rpt. in Margaret Notley, "Brahms as Liberal: Genre, Style, and Politics in Late Ninteenth-Century Vienna," Nineteenth Century Music 17 (Fall 1993): 108.

2. Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin, Music in the Western World: A History in Documents (New York: Schirmer Books, 1984), 384.

3. Allan Janik, Wittengenstein's Vienna Revisited (New Brusnwick: Transaction Publishers, 2001), 85.

4. Ibid, 86.

5. Carl E. Schorske, Fin-de-Siecle Vienna Politics and Culture (New York: Vintage Books, 1981), 116.

6. Richard Wagner, Judaism in Music and Other Essays (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 100.

7. Janik, Wittengenstein's, 90.

8. Floros, Brahms und Bruckner, 108.

9. Taruskin, Music in the Western World, 384.

10. Wagner, Judaism, 91.

11. Schorske, Fin-de-Siecle, 116.

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TagsRichard Wagner, Angela Merkel, Joachim Sauer, Margaret Notley, Allan Janik

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