Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Wagner and me

It’s difficult to know when it started, my relationship with Wagner. And no, I don’t mean the X Factor entrant.

It’s been there for a while, most often hovering in the background, but occasionally hoving into clearer view.

First, it was only in the vaguest outlines, formed from a CD of The Other Half’s, a collection of overtures and preludes, together with the famous Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, although I really didn’t ‘get’ that at the time.

With Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Phil, the first piece that grabbed my attention was the overture to Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg.

Oh, what a glorious thing that is – and the resolution still sends me somewhere a little different.

On our trip to Berlin, four years ago, a visit to the Philharmonie to see the same orchestra, under the baton of Simon Rattle, moved me further on again.

After the world premiere of a piece by Matthus Sammer, the rest of the concert was highlights from acts II and III of Götterdämmerung. The singing bits didn’t really grab me, but the orchestral sections left me gasping, as though a g force had picked me up and shoved me back into my seat to hold me there, in rapt attention.

As we left the concert hall, The Other Half asked how I was: “Just trying to teach myself to breathe again,” I managed to reply.

A year or so later, we caught a televised version of a Covent Garden production of Das Rheingold. Now I had a sense of the music and the theatricality combined.

The next stage – although not quite immediately – was the purchase of a Ring cycle: Solti with the Vienna, since that seems to be regarded as the best. When you're going to splash a lot, it pays to research first.

Off and on in the intervening years, I have made limited efforts to start listening to it, but never got very far.

And then, because the nature of some work I’m presently doing means that I need to block out anything else, yet still have a good half of my mind free, I put it all on my iPod and started from the beginning.

We’d not quite caught the very opening of Rheingold, and when I heard it – the 30-second single note; the rumbling of the Rhine as it builds from the source – I was stunned.

And suddenly, listening to one of the operas with no outside interference, the vocal passages changed. In context, they made sense and were far more ‘musical’ than I had previously understood.

Over coffee a few weeks ago, I observed to The Other Half that there was something daemonic about the music (I use that spelling quite deliberately). Yet at the same time, I’'s almost religious. That is – religious without the religion.

I know that it affects people differently, but it gets me right in the gut. And I suspect that that is, in large part, why people feel either wild love with or detestation of it.

Bach, for instance, wrote beautiful music, but it doesn’t ravish you emotionally. Wagner's music can do precisely that.

I don’t think he’s entirely alone in that: there are passages of Beethoven that, played in a certain way, have a huge emotional power.

A few months before we attended that Berlin concert, we were lucky enough to catch one of Daniel Barenboim’s nights at the Royal Festival Hall when he was doing the entire cycle of Beethoven’s sonatas.

I’ve loved old Ludwig since I was introduced to his music at school, but I had never seen or heard it preformed in such a way.

The huge hall faded away and it became something utterly and entirely personal. This was not Beethoven the Polite, this was Beethoven the Passionate, Beethoven the Angry, Beethoven the Inflamed.

In general, we seem so often to treat ‘serious’ music ... well, rather too seriously. But that night, with Barenboim (a Wagner fan, incidentally), the music was given back life and a soul, complete with deep, dark depths.

But back to the extremes that only Wagner provokes.

Just yesterday, on the forum part of a serious national newspaper, someone observed that “no right-thinking” person could like it.

Some of the comments in favour were every bit as over the top.

What other composer has ever triggered such extreme responses?

Of course, much is made of Wagner’s own anti-semitism and the Nazis’ love of Wagner.

My perfect role?
But with the former, do we so damn Milton, say, for his support of Cromwell’s massacres in Ireland or Debussy for being inclined to domestic violence?

And the works themselves are hardly riddled with it – unlike, say, the racism and anti-semitism and sexism of Ian Fleming’s Bond books. Yet who suggests we should forgo 007?

There are great ironies in Hitler’s adoration of Wagner. Let's take the Ring cycle: one of the key themes of that great arc of a story is that of the destructive nature of power and the search for it. Hardly the stuff of the Third Reich.

Indeed, in a slender volume entitled The Perfect Wagnerite, first published in 1898, revolutionary Fabian and erstwhile music critic Bernard Shaw expounded a theory of the Ring as being essentially socialist in nature.

Now it’s a downright irritating read in many ways – essentially for Shaw’s incredible ability to be patronising and pompous – but it is an interesting thesis non the less.

And even if one doesn’t go the whole way along that analytical route, it certainly suggests that the works are far removed from how we have come to imagine them through the prism of national socialism.

Not that the extreme negativity about Wagner is new or dates from after WWII – far from it.

In Buddenbrooks, first published in 1901, Thomas Mann has the church organist refusing to accompany Gerda in playing Wagner. It is morally repugnant to him.

There's an irony here too: in effect, it was being considered, by some, to be 'degenerate' – decades before the Nazis used 'entartete' as their excuse to ban and burn and persecute.

So we’re back to personal responses.

German romanticism – of which Wagner can be viewed as the apotheosis – has elements of a death wish about it: a longing for oblivion.

That culture was still around well into the 20th century – Brecht’s poem from 1919, Ballade von den Seeräubern (Ballad of the Pirates), is a perfect example.

And Wagner goes further, reaching for many his most troubling level in Die Walküre, with the incestuous love of Siegmund and Sieglinde, even though they know they are brother and sister.

I wonder if all this – the death wish element of German romanticism in general and of Wagner’s pushing back of conventional boundaries in particular – prefigures the beginnings of an understanding of psychoanalysis and an imaginative experimentation with exploring the deeper parts of the human psyche?

As the hold of formal religion diminished, and as philosophy – and German philosophy was hugely important in this period – moved toward something more existential (we see this explored at length in Buddenbrooks), then these darker aspects of human nature were being explored in a different way, outside the safety of conventional religion.

They reach their high point in the 20th century, in philosophical questioning of whether the act of suicide is our only real possible act of free will.

Yet nobody seems to view such angst as though it was a contributory factor in later genocide.

Further, it seems inaccurate to me to characterise this fascination with death as being somehow entirely secular.

It’s hardly far away from western Christianity, which has spent centuries creating a worship of death and suffering: not simply in the figure of Christ crucified, but in so many of the martyrs of the church.

Think only, for instance, of all those painted representations of St Sebastian, erotic even in his suffering; dotted with arrows yet gazing ecstatically at the heavens, knowing death will come soon and transport him somewhere better.

The issue, then, seems to be partly the decline of religion, which can be seen to allow such sentiments and musings. And these were opportunities that Wagner, among many others, took.

But moving on, his influence is as wide-ranging as it is possible to be.

We owe him a debt of gratitude for so many things, from the decision to dim auditorium lights before a performance to, some would say, stream-of-consciousness literature (Joyce, Woolf etc).

And that’s without even beginning to name all the composers who were themselves influenced by his work: Mahler, Richard Strauss, Debussy, Berlioz, Bruckner, Tchaikovsky, Schoenberg … it’s a very long list.

It’s easy to forget that his influence moves into the realms of popular culture and not just ‘high art’.

Wagner was the first person to use a leitmotif: a recurring theme, often very brief, that appears throughout a work to suggest something particular to us.

So forget the ‘Tristan chord’ and think 1975, Stephen Spielberg and a score by John Williams. Think Jaws and think boom boom boom boom boom boom boom boom … a leitmotif, and one that everybody knows, even if they haven’t seen the film (me).

And that’s without mentioning how authors such as Thomas Mann took up and used the leitmotif in a literary sense.

But to bring this back to where we began.

I hope to see a Wagner opera – in the flesh – later this year.

But the weekend’s viewing of the New York Met’s latest production of the power of this Das Rheingold left me in no doubt of his extraordinary genius.

And tdoay, on this 200th anniversary of his birth, I find myself more and more drawn to both listen more and learn more.

Yet even for an apprentice acolyte, there is a sense of stepping into unchartered territory, because with Wagner, everything is about the personal response. And that is always going to involve an feeling of risk.

Going right back to the beginning of this piece, I mentioned the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. Now, until very recently, I had not got caught up in this particular piece.

And if you needed any convincing of the almost orgasmic (le petite mort?) infectious nature of Wagner’s music, then here it is.

At the end of this extraordinary performance, Karajan – haggard and having had to sit in order to conduct – slips off his stool; takes Norman’s hands and kisses them.

There – right there – is death and love and beauty, bound up between reality and art.

And like so much else in Wagner, it is intoxicating and awesome and frightening and alluring all at once.

Little wonder then, that his music has, legendarily, driven people to madness.

And little wonder that, even today, he divides opinion more violently than any composer before or since.

* For further reading, I heartily recommend Bryan Magee’s very short, but wonderfully written, concise and utterly fascinating Aspects of Wagner.

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