With apologies to Professor Bruns
What’s the good, what’s the sense, of having a blog? What excuse is there for being a blogger, of presuming to write something that someone might read, if it is not to declare, before it is too late the status of my Wagnerism. It follows herewith.
First, I must explain that I fell in the thrall of Rickard Wagner early in high school. In those years, Wagner’s music and the local trout kept me singing inside. Those were the years when Lauritz Melchoir and Kirsten Flagstad owned the roles of Siegfried and Brünnhilde in the titanic Ring cycle of four operas. I even heard the insufferable and sublime Melchoir live in concert in Denver, which is akin to boasting of having heard Caruso.
Well before that however, one Saturday afternoon, with my church-musician aunt and uncle visiting from Texas, I lay on the living room floor listening to a live broadcast of Tristan und Isolde from the Met. I must have appeared to my musically conventional uncle quite unzipped by the rapture of the music. I could not have understood at that time its burning eroticism, but I must have been sensing something of it: its musically overt sex had to have caught me.
Uncle Pete remarked, as he passed by and saw me there in my innocent’s ecstasy, that when I grew up I would not like that kind of music. I thought about that for a moment and decided then and there that if that is what it meant to “grow up”, well, I simply would not do it. And so I have not-- which for some readers, this essay may only go to prove.
When it came time to go off to the big war, the one book I took with me was a translation of the Ring operas, with Arthur Rackham’s irresistible and quite erotic illustrations. I wanted somehow to get it into my bloodstream
Home again in ’45, I sought more Wagner any way I could get it. My 78 rpm shellac discs of the overture to Tannhaüser, of Melchoir and Traubel singing the third act love duet from Tristan, the first act of Walküre, the Met Saturday live broadcasts, and a dear older tenor friend and his musical family around whose piano, with open scores of the operas, we actually tried to sing the stuff.
Then in college I discovered maybe the greatest Wagnerite of them all, Bernard Shaw, and his influential book-essay, A Perfect Wagnerite, a way of hearing and thinking about the operas as great political-social, as well as musical, dramatic testaments.
In 1976, came the Marxist, Bayreuth/Chereau Ring on TV. It had to be the greatest of them all, set, as it was, in the industrial/capitalist nineteenth century. Here is where I first heard James Morris sing the god Wotan. There is nothing under the sun to match his farewell to his daughter Brünhilde at the end of Walküre.
Then imagine what it was to be in the Metropolitan Opera house in Lincoln Center for the entire Ring cycle on as many nights. And James Morris as Wotan again on all four of them! When he finished his Farewell, and Loge set the mountain aflame around the guilty and sleeping Brünhilde, the audience like to tore the place apart.
When I was to retire from teaching, the Dean hauled me in to say that in my last semester, I ought to teach something new, a seminar, the idea for which might be something wild in my dreams of life and death, art and…. all the rest of it.
And so I thought about how ideas could be performed on stage. I thought first of the ideas in Wagner’s Ring. What were they and how might they work on stage? Immediately, then, Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman leapt to mind with its great third act dream scene, Don Juan in Hell. And that meant moving forward, and at last, to that masterpiece of the master of all masters, Mozart, and his Don Giovanni.
Fifteen kids and I studied, read, and listened to these immense works for those sixteen weeks. I recall how delicious it was. I wonder now if I was really up to it….
So now, dear friends, we must note that there have of late been complete Ring cycles all over the place. Every city of any count must now produce this revolutionary work. To top it off, we now have had it in a HD live transmission from the Met in our local movie houses. Not to mention a new production of Wagner’s final work, Parsifal, of which I hope I am worthy.
And, in these late days, I’m reading what many think is the greatest of all biographies, Ernest Newman’s gigantic Life of Wagner, in four volumes. In this, my old age, I have come to see Wagner the man in a different light from that of the journalist’s obsession with scandal that I had bought into so easily and for so long. For the gossips, Wagner was always morally reckless, prodigal, luxurious, covetous, faithless, dunning everyone for cash and a constitutional dead-beat in return.
There is much truth in this indictment; but in it all, Wagner was the very model of the new artist, the real artist as the nineteenth century invented him. This new artist-exemplary, was granted to be radically different from the rest of us-- of a higher order and therefore entitled by the sublimity of his calling to moral privilege. (This idea of the artist is not entirely disappeared.)
Wagner was what he thought he had to be in order to do what he had to do, which was always against the most impossible odds ever to oppose anyone who ever set out to re-imagine a civilization. In this respect Wagner remains Number One in the history of art.
But all this pales faced with the anti-Semitism that developed steadily throughout his career. It seriously compromises his ideology of heilige deutsche Kunst-- holy German art-- as he so exalted it in his comic masterwork, Die Meistersinger.
For all these reasons, it was difficult to be of his circle. Few fully understood what he was up to, even those, like Franz Liszt, who championed his operas, never quite got it. Still, and only by dint of the most desperate effort, he got his work done. Even though his vision of the theatre-- a music drama on stage-- failed to restore German life and art to its ancient glory, purity, and preeminence among the nations. But he reinvented us who love the opera. He gave us a glorious new sound of music to live in and new meanings to ancient story. He taught us how to be really serious about life and art-- and how thrilling that could be!
He was worthy of his hire.
I am grateful beyond measure that I found Wagner in my nonage, but regret that I was for so long in error about the man. He may have been terribly failed in his vain heroics; yet for singers and orchestras on stage-- and kids like me-- he was a World Hero.