Friday, May 17, 2013

Wagner's Musical Effects 5: Is Wagner Bad For Us?

In this bicentennial of Wagner’s birth, there are all sorts of Wagner activities, lectures and performances throughout the world. For example, Wagner World Wide is a collaboration between three universities: one in Germany, one in Switzerland, one in South Carolina. You can see all their lectures here. That is the biggest consolidated effort celebrating Wagner’s 200th birthday, but there are efforts throughout the globe, particularly in Europe and America. Thus far, the cream of the crop, lecture-wise, comes via the London Review of Books in a talk by Nicolas Spice entitled, provocatively, ?“Is Wagner Bad For Us?

I am very enthusiastic about this lecture; it may be the single best thing ever written—with necessary musical illustrations—on how Wagner creates his musical effects. The title is really just an acknowledgement of how powerful his music can be; the meat of the talk is the “how” of that power. But since he posed the question, I will give my thoughts—and his conclusion—later in this post.

While I think I was able to explain what Wagner made me feel—deeply empathic, compassionate, ecstatic—and some of the techniques he uses to that end in these posts, I felt that my effort was lacking in bringing the subject truly alive. This lecture really fills in where my blog posts left off, and Spice absolutely hits the nail on the head of what is so different about Wagner; his musical excerpts are crucial for this talk. You can read the article and hit his links to the musical examples, but I recommend you listen to the podcast at the link above for a more seamless experience.

In the past, I have read a lot of dreary articles trying to explain Wagner’s musical language. Here’s an example of the type of discussion that seems really unhelpful in understanding why—and how—Wagner is so different from virtually any other composer:

As Alfred Lorenz and his followers have shown, there is considerable evidence that Wagner built his formal units, or periods, from ternary structures—‘bridge’ or ‘arch’ forms (ABA) and ‘bar’ forms (AAB)— but this was never a mechanical process, and other writers have suggested that motivic variation and the use of a refrain or ritornello principle may be no less important.1

Perhaps this stuff is interesting to musicologists but it’s gobbledygook to me, and far from the heart of what makes his music tick. Wagner also hated this sort of stuff, telling a visitor who had complimented a musicologist favorable to Wagner, “A single bow stroke is worth more than all this useless twaddle.”2  He didn’t want the listener—or anyone—to intellectualized his works; he wanted people to be “knowers through feeling.”3   Wagner said that “the people I like best [as listeners] are those who don’t even know that we write music on five lines.”4  In other words, people like me! (I mean, I kinda know that, but not really. If you had asked me how many lines music was written on, I know if I would have guessed somewhere between 4-6.)

But I think even Wagner would like Spice’s lecture, particularly because it, more than most articles, might draw someone into listening to that bow stroke.

Spice emphasizes—and I totally agree—that Wagner’s use of musical time is the key: “Wagner’s music has an effect on our sense of time that is the reverse of the effect most music in the classical canon has on us. Where most classical music expands our sense of temporal duration, Wagner’s contracts it. Most music, though short, seems long; Wagner, though long, seems short.”

I am tempted to quote more from the lecture, but I don’t know where to start or end. There is so much that I found fascinating. Let me say this, if you are a Wagner fan, do listen to it. If you are planning to go to a Wagner opera, do listen to it. And if you are merely interested in knowledge, do listen to it.

Moving to the title of the Spice lecture—“Is Wagner bad for us?I don’t think this would be much of a question were it not for the Holocaust.

The biggest ding – apart from his anti-Semitism – on Wagner’s reputation is that Hitler was a fan and claimed Wagner’s music to be an inspiration. But, then again, so did Theodor Herzl, the “father” of Zionism, who claimed he was inspired by Wagner’s music to envision and write his seminal tract, The Jewish State.5  Rather a perfect irony, isn’t it? Lots of others were also inspired by Wagner—Baudelaire, Thomas Mann, Nietzsche, Debussy, Bernard Shaw, Mahler, Albert Schweitzer, Proust, Schoenberg, Richard Strauss, Hugo Wolf, Anton Bruckner, just to name a few.6  Me too, obviously! I am devoting a huge portion of this year to writing about the man and his music.  The music is awesome; it can be really, really inspiring.

Dina Porat, in an opinion piece in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, wrote that “Hitler was not influenced by Wagner's anti-Semitism. He had a generous helping of his own apocalyptic and comprehensive anti-Semitism, and needed no help from Wagner. Indeed, those who read accounts of Hitler's views and words – which he dictated rather than wrote – will not find even one instance in which he linked Wagner to anti-Semitism and racism.”  But then she goes on to argue that Wagner should be boycotted, nonetheless, in Israel solely because of the fact of “the inspiration he gave Hitler. The argument that the composer's music elevates every soul is nullified in the face of this.” I doubt if anyone is actually making the argument that his music “elevates every soul,” but his music has elevated many souls, including many great Jewish musicians, such as Mahler, Barenboim, Bernstein, who were all greatly inspired by his music. The Israeli ban is currently just for Wagner—music written by actual Nazi members, like Carl Orff, is not banned—and just for the concert hall. He is not banned on radio, which reaches a much greater audience. He is not banned in the movies, where his music is often used.  Therefore, it's function is primarily symbolic.

Of course Hitler, a struggling artist, was inspired by the story of one of the greatest artists Germany ever knew. Wagner’s personal story, like his music, is also awe-inspiring. As Michael Tanner succinctly puts it, “He succeeded in making real what his contemporaries regarded as ludicrous pipe dreams.”7  This, along with his music, is the stuff that was so inspiring to the young dreamer Adolf.

To me, it just seems stupid to deny people who want to hear or to play it the right to do so. The people who are hurt are all Jews—the musicians who want to play him and the audience who wants to hear him in the concert all—giving Hitler a kind of posthumous victory. To paraphrase that abortion bumper sticker: if you don't want to hear it, don't listen.

In any case, Hitler had many artistic enthusiasms, not just Wagner. For instance, Hitler loved Walt Disney. In 1938 he bought a copy from Roy Disney of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He considered it one of the best films ever made. Soon thereafter, in the period of annexation of Austria and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, as well as Kristallnacht, (1938-1939), Hitler allegedly took time off from his war and Jewish-persecution planning to draw these:


Hitler's work??8  
Whether those drawings are real or not—it's an open question—his fondness for Disney is undisputed. According to Goebbels—who gave Hitler various Disney products over the years—on the presentation of mouse ears as a gift, Hitler “clapped his hands in glee, and immediately ran to his room to change into the mouse ears and Donald Duck footy pajamas.” 9  Hitler was known to often whistle “Who’s afraid of the big, bad wolf” (his nickname being Wolf), from the 1932 Disney cartoon Three Little Pigs.10  As he was invading various nations, whistling the tune, was he thinking “I’m going to huff and puff and blow your house down”?  Sure, why not?  Ironically, the original Disney version contained a stereotypical portrayal of the wolf disguised as a Jewish peddler at the last house. I wonder if Hitler actually thought that was funny? Because of complaints from some in the Jewish community, the (clueless) Disney redid the original version and changed the wolf to a “Fuller Brush Man.”


The Jewish Fuller Brush man/ wolf - see here at 6:05
Unsurprisingly, the complaints continued. Bowing to the pressure, he finally dropped—in blatant form—the Jewish schtick in the last version made in the 1940s.11 

I think this version still has vestiges of the stereotype, but it certainly isn't so blatant. See video here

Sorry to go on in some length on this, but I think it is interesting apart from my central topic. I mean, is Disney bad for us? Obviously, I don’t believe that Hitler was driven by Disney to his acts, even if Disney—unlike Wagner—did have clear anti-Semitic stereotypes in his work. I think the whole blame-game is ridiculous, actually. But if you are going to blame some music, I’m going to blame the damn soundtrack of The Three Little Pigs.

Returning to the central discussion, because of Hitler’s enthusiasm for Wagner’s music, many people feel that Wagner’s music must be sort of fascistic or militaristic and, generally, all similar to “The Ride of the Valkyries.” This famous quip—see it here—from Woody Allen captures that sentiment:  “I can't listen to that much Wagner, ya know? I start to get the urge to conquer Poland.”

Of course, it is not the case at all that Wagner's music is generally militaristic, much less fascistic. I think Bryan Magee hits it on the head: “I sometimes think there are two Wagners in the culture, almost unrecognizably different from one another: the Wagner possessed by those who know his work, and the Wagner imagined by those who know him only by name and reputation.”12  “The Ride of the Valkyries,” the tune he is most known for, is rather singular. It was written—Wagner called it “my vaudeville”—to break-up what had come before and what was to soon to come in Die Walküre. Originally, he tried to ban its separate performance, as it was wrenched out of context, but he later relented.  In any case, it is certainly not a very good representation of Wagner’s music on the whole, even if one feels that this piece is in some way fascistic, which I think is a rather absurd claim.  The fact is that only someone ignorant of Wagner’s music and text could seriously make a claim that Wagner’s operas are fascistic when they actually are, in fact, close to the exact opposite, which is particularly true about The Ring, which is a condemnation of the quest for power.

I do think that Wagner’s music is incredibly powerful. His subject matter—setting it primarily in the world of myth—is the human condition. As with any great work of art, there are and can be limitless interpretations through the prism of our individuality. Great art works pretty much like a sort-of Rorschach test; if you see something dark and ugly and twisted, it's all about you and not about the work. Ultimately, I concur with Spice’s conclusion on the question he posed:
In the question ‘Is Wagner bad for us?’ there’s a hint of tiresome passivity, as though we had no choice in the matter. There are substances and there is substance abuse. It’s surely up to us to manage Wagner’s charisma, up to us to maintain the ‘and’ in our relationship with him. But whether it’s really possible to keep Wagner at a distance without losing something essential in our experience of his work is unclear to me.

End Notes

1 Millington, ed, The Wagner Compendium, 253 
2 Spencer, Wagner Remembered, 240 
3 Wagner,  Opera and Drama, 109   
4 Op. cit, Spencer, 240
5 See here.
6 Magee, Aspects of Wagner, read the chapter 3 Wagnerolatry  31-44
7 Tanner, Wagner 22  
8 Here is a link about this. While it cannot be proven that Hitler was the person who drew these, it hasn't been debunked either.  I would tend towards skepticism, but it certainly could be true.
9 For the quote, go here. I can't find a reference to the actual place in the diaries that this quote comes from, so it's a shaky reference—though oft-quoted. However, here is another one that isn't shaky: In Joseph Goebbels' 1937 diary entry for December 22, he writes excitedly of his giving the Fuhrer ‘18 Mickey Mouse films’ for his Christmas present. He also notes that the Fuhrer ‘is very excited about it. He is completely happy about this treasure.’ ”
10 See here
11 For the story of altering of The Three Little Pigs, see here and here
12 Magee, The Tristan Chord, 74 

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