Or, If Loving Wagner is Wrong, I Don’t Want To Be Reich.
(More on one of the most complex and controversial composers ever, who was born 200 years ago today, HERE.)
Seriously though, I came across an amazing article on Wagner, written by Nicholas Spice (from the London Review of Books). Check it out HERE (warning, it’s long).
Reading this I could scarcely contain my giddiness and I realized, not for the first time, that I anticipate sustained analysis of music (whilst listening to said music) the way teenyboppers regard a boy band concert, or many of my peers look forward to reality TV. Which is to say, I’m weird.
The writing is so solid, and the insights so keen I feel like this is legit music/nerd porn. See for yourself:
Like anyone who has spent time thinking about Wagner, I have inevitably come back to the subject of boundaries and limits, and in particular to questions about the boundary that lies between Wagner’s works and his listeners, and about the experience, apparently not uncommon, of that boundary becoming blurred or even disappearing, an experience that may hold a clue to the feeling, also not uncommon, that Wagner’s work is in some sense not altogether good for us.
Wagner has kept me awake at night. Sleepless, I turn my thoughts to Tristan und Isolde, Wagner’s most extreme work and the nec plus ultra of love stories, and I notice a kinship between aspects of Tristan and Isolde’s passion and the experience of a certain kind of insomnia. The second act of Tristan und Isolde is Romanticism’s greatest hymn to the night, not for the elfin charm and ethereal chiaroscuro of moonbeams and starlight, the territory of Chopin and Debussy, but night as a close bosom-friend of oblivion, a simulacrum of eternity and a place to play dead. Insomnia is a refusal to cross the boundary between waking and sleeping, a bid to outwit Terminus by hiding away in ‘soundless dark’, a zone beyond time.
The usual thing to say about this (and Wagner himself said something along these lines) is that the music enacts the experience of desire, forever on the verge of satisfaction but never satisfied, a state of suspension symbolised by the first three bars, which ‘resolve’ the startling discord of bar two – the famous Tristan chord – onto a dominant seventh, itself a discord crying out for resolution. But we can also read this reluctance to resolve as the musical equivalent of staying awake: a bid to suspend the passage of time, in which sleep gratefully acquiesces.
Music can, of course be sacred, and this is sacred music.
This music is all-consuming, insatiable, and mesmerizing in a way that invokes “other” places not of this earth. (And if that sounds sappy and unconvincing there are two primary reasons: one, I’m not sufficiently qualified to describe this, or any music, and two, you have not had the opportunity, or possess the requisite skills –or soul– to comprehend what the best music instills in a receptive listener’s mind.)
I came at Wagner the old-fashioned way, through movies. (I mean that literally and facetiously, it being 2013 after all.)
First, of course, through the epic (I mean that literally and literally) employment of Wagner’s oeuvre in the immortal “What’s Opera, Doc?”. All hail Bugs (and Mel Blanc).
Then in Apocalypse Now and The Blues Brothers, both of which used “Ride of the Valkyries” to delightful, absurd effect.
By the time I saw Excalibur, in the theater, with Pops, in April 1981, all bets were off.
I was (and remain) captivated by the film, a flawed masterwork from John Boorman.
More than anything else, the music struck a chord –in the literal sense– with me, and I did (and do) consider it the perfect accompaniment for the material. I’ve seen Wagner utilized before and since, but no storyline is sufficiently important, or epic (in the literal sense) as the King Arthur myth. And, of course, the Tristan and Isolde as well as Parsifal operas have multiple connotations with the Lancelot and Guinevere and Percival sub-plots.
I’m somewhat surprised that after 1,000-plus posts on this blog (or at PopMatters), I’ve not yet attempted to do a proper assessment of this greatly misunderstood and underrated film. It has not been for lack of contemplation; indeed, I intended to do something in 2011 for its 30th anniversary but…it just didn’t happen. A proper “review” did not seem quite right, and an uncritical appreciation seemed too…personal. More on it later, I’m sure.
But to simply focus on the movie’s deft and, at times, uncannily perfect employment of Wagner’s music, I can say that the impact it had on me was profound, and permanent. Of course, at the time I had no idea who it was or how to get hold of it. (As I’ve said before, probably in these exact words: it is all but impossible for anyone born after, say, 1980 to understand or even imagine a world pre-Internet. Back in the bad old days, if you couldn’t find it in a library, you were out of luck.) If there had been a proper soundtrack, that would have made matters considerably more simple, and awesome. Alas, it was not to be. I had to wait another seven years or so, during “Music Appreciation 101”, my freshman year of college, to figure out who Wagner was, and which compositions were featured in Excalibur. I acquired a compact disc of Wagner overtures as quickly as I could, but I had to figure out the hard, and expensive way, that the most important stuff, specifically “Siegfried’s Funeral March, from Götterdämmerung” were part of “The Ring”. The rest, as they say, was history.
Of course, Wagner has more than occasionally been a lightning rod for conflict, some of it serious, some of it frivolous (much of it opportunistic on the part of the offended). The laundry list is detailed here. At best (worst?) the same type of criteria applies to Wagner as it does to any creative person: no matter how insufferable or puny the person may happen to be, we seldom celebrate the creator so much as what they created. Or, we can choose to focus on the very good that sprang, however improbably, from a person who chose not to overcome the issues/prejudices/vices of their life/time.
Here’s Spice, again:
The difficulty we have tying non-musical meanings back to the notes on the page has a direct bearing on the fraught question of the association of Wagner’s works with National Socialism and, in my view, it makes the arguments in this debate convoluted and unsatisfactory. For this reason, I shall merely skirt the topic. Moreover, the subject of Wagner and the Nazis is too big to be fitted meaningfully into a set of general reflections on the composer, especially when the focus of the reflections is the music rather than the ideological content of the work, such as it can be construed. Music is a promiscuous and adhesive medium: as soon as you introduce powerfully expressive music into the vicinity of words, images and ideas, it jumps the gap and attaches itself to them (as Wagner understood better than anyone, before or since). A host of circumstances, not least Wagner’s own writings (some of them utterly abhorrent), drove his music into the proximity of the most evil political system in the history of Western Europe. That Wagner’s work became indelibly associated with German Fascism is a fact. Whether his music can be understood as a sinister prolepsis of this ideology is another matter altogether. I don’t believe we are in a position to make this argument, although the tack I am taking may suggest ways of situating Wagner’s music within the bigger context of music’s amenability to exploitation for political purposes.
Here is an entire century of debate, loathing (self and outward), and confusion deconstructed by the man best suited for this work, Larry David:
There is a reason Wagner continues to resonate, inflame, confuse. He is relevant for the most simple, yet profound reason any artist remains known decade after decade: the work endures.
Discussion of the man, his music and the visions (ill or illuminated) that informed it will remain ongoing. Wagner, and the work he did, is impossible to ignore, and it is too important to fall prey to fads or fashion.
This is art capable of changing you, to be sure. But it does more than that: it elevates you.