March 20, 2005

Wagner: genius, anti-semite, cross-dresser. A new biography of Richard Wagner by Joachim Köhler paints a picture of a deeply emotionally broken human being, a user, a paranoid; moulded by parental neglect into a romantic with an inability, perhaps, to truly love anyone but himself and his music. Literature. An article from The New Criterion.
  • Excellent, ASTB. More Wagneria: An exellent essay on the opera Tristan und Isolde (the prelude to which is one of the discrete points where Western music was forever altered) can be found here.
  • I always thought Roger Scruton was quite the wanker, now I find he's a misogynist as well, albeit with the occasional entertaining turn of phrase. No surprise either that he feels we need not overly detain ourselves with the relevance of Wagner's anti-semitism even as he 'devoted himself to the highest of ideals...with a serene and objective vision of what is at stake in human life' who 'worked conscientiously on behalf of a vision that he wished urgently to share'. Surely if we are going to talk about his ideals it's legitimate to also address his ideas? I'm susceptible to the excuse of great art for many a personal failing (and know little enough about Wagner in all honesty) but this all seems of a piece with Scruton's rather mystical brand of conservatism. You don't have to be 'inclined to read anti-Semitism into the works' to wonder about the relationship between the high ideals of a 'great moralist' and his narrow-minded bigotry.
  • Interesting, Abiezer. Those points need long digestion. I'm not familiar with Scruton's writing, but I understand what you mean. As for Wagner, I despise the nationalistic, bigoted aspect, but the Ring cycle almost makes me weep. Very little music has that effect on me. I'm not a big classical music or opera fan. I don't know whether it is his ability to manipulate the emotions, or whether he truly was great, not educated enough in music to know. It's very confusing to confront the issue of a great artist with terrible beliefs. I mean, do you throw the baby out with the bathwater? the_bone, thx, I shall devour that essay this afternoon with a meal & a beverage. I've been looking for something to rub against my brain. :)
  • I don't see anything that's really new in this "biography" except for Scuton's flowery prose that would be more acceptable to romance novels and tabloid news.
  • Oh yes, At Swim - I have certainly been moved by what I've heard of Wagner's work, and as I said I don't advocate an over-simple equation of a person's life with their art. My comments are not so much addressed at him (I'm hardly qualified) but more at Scruton who crops up as a conservative public intellectual in British discourse. Here again, I don't know so much about his philosophical writings (I hear he did a good overview of modern philosophy)but his interventions in public debate always seem to be in the High Tory curmudgeon mould. It's entirely typical of him that he doesn't even want to engage at any length with the relationship between Wagner's anti-semitism and and his music.
  • I hear you, Abiezer.
  • It's very confusing to confront the issue of a great artist with terrible beliefs. I mean, do you throw the baby out with the bathwater? Good point - I struggled with that with regard to a folk artist who later embraced a belief system that vexed me. Yusuf Islam (previously known as Cat Stevens) explained in a lecture that I attended that women must cover themselves so as to not distract men from More Important Affairs. I still love to listen to Peace Train, Morning Has Broken, etc., but I feel just a tad angry now when I hear these songs, instead of the hopefulness I felt in the 70s upon hearing them. Sorry if this comes across as bigotry; it's massive confusion from a feminist folk-loving perspective.
  • fish tick: I understand what you mean. You want to love the things that you love, but sometimes the person who created the things you love gets in the way. (Could I have said that in a more confusing way? Probably :) ) I loved Cat Stevens, too -- it's the soundtrack of my childhood. It's hard to justify that love sometimes. Scruton seemed mostly offended that the new biography was mean to Wagner, "Don't Be So Mean to the Master" seemed to be his main point. The whole section on how the people Wagner betrayed were actually lucky because now they're "immortal" was particularly odious. I doubt that the people felt either "lucky" or "immortal" in the midst of being heartbroken. And the whole part about "What if he'd never written that anti-Semetic pamphlet?" just seemed like rhetorical tap dancing. Am I correct in equating Scruton with someone like Allan Bloom?
  • I mean, in their intellectual tracks (both good at explaining philosophy) and their political leanings (both conservative)?
  • Brilliant composer was kind of freaky. Quel surprise!
  • fishtick - I have had the same problem with actors whose work I admire, who turn out to be talented, but not very interesting. Or authors who aren't very nice. Lately, I've just tried to learn as little about their personal lives, while still learning more about their artistic lives/creation. That said, I had the opposite experience hearing Terry Pratchett talk. He is a great writer, and a very charming and kind man - severely jetlagged, he still signed books for 2 hours, all with a smile on his face, even if he didn't really understand what you were saying.
  • Just remember, he's a fucking weirdo transvestite. Not an executive transvestite or action transvestite. Important distinction, I feel. /Eddie Izzard
  • The question if a work is seperable from the artist that created it, has deep and profound implications on art criticism. If you agree to the possibility, you effectively postulate that a set of criteria to examine the worth of art exists. If you negate it, all art has to be seen in the context of its creator, times, and probably its initial audience too. As a result, everything gets very "postmodern", and criticism looses much of its power, and becomes merely descriptionalist instead of a chain of reasoning leading to an aesthetic judgement. I tend to favor the first, because most good artists I met in person where actually not very nice persons - this seems to be a recurring theme. The late Wagner is a bit to tough for me. "Musical theater" as Wagner imagined it, is too verbose (like this post ? :-) sorry) - perhaps to the point of being stretched thin. Opera is much better imho.
  • That's a fair distinction elrick but I guess I prefer to read criticism of your second type (and that's part of what annoys me about Scruton). because outside of certain technical aspects I don't really think we get much from sharing aesthetic judgements beyond 'I like that', 'Well, I don't', whereas historical, social or political context or whatever make for more interesting reading. The reaction against post-modernism strikes me as largely a reaction against its more turgid practitioners. Really isn't that more an understandable dislike of bad writers and weak thinkers churning out nonsense that just so happens to be post-modern at the moment. I'd bet there's a ton of Victorian aesthetic criticism that would make your toes curl to have to plough through.
  • there's a ton of Victorian aesthetic criticism that would make your toes curl So true, so true.
  • Until the final scene, the Hamburg State Opera’s November 2002 production of Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg had proceeded without comment. Everyone was primed to applaud the hymn to "holy German art" that brings Richard Wagner’s four-hour pageant to a climax. Then came the bombshell. Midway through Hans Sachs’s monologue about honouring German masters over “foreign vanities”, the music came to an abrupt halt. Suddenly one of the mastersingers started speaking: “Have you actually thought about what you are singing?” he asked. No one had experienced anything like it in an opera house. There followed a lively stage discussion - some of it shouted down by outraged members of the audience - about Wagner’s anti-Semitism in the context of 19th and 20th century German nationalism.(read on over here)
  • as the Ring rang on I became numb as a beetle on a leaf swept and swirled beneath a cataract of warm treacle
  • In what will come to be regarded by opera fans as a moment of bizarre heresy - or of creative triumph - Brunnhilde, the leading character in the ENO's new production of Wagner's Twilight of the Gods, was portrayed as a suicide bomber.