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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Richard Wagner; Father of Modern Music? Mad man Revolutionary? Grandfather of Nazi thought ? A life of contradictions.

This year the Los Angeles Opera opens the first of the long anticipated Ring OF The Nibelung, Wagner's epic 16 hour masterpiece based on the Norse mythology of gods, swords, dragons, gold, magic rings, giants, dwarfs and man. This four part 'musical drama' opened last month with the first night, Das Rinegold. This month Die Walkure opens. Followed next season by Siefried and Gotterdammerung. In 2010 it will be shown as Wagner had intended it to be, as a festival that goes for four nights.
I have long been a Wagner enthusiast and when I heard that Das Rinegold was premiering I bought tickets and took my good friend Scoobs Von Rothstien who had never attended the opera before. My friend Scoobs is a young baseball fan and, like so many Americans was raised on rock and roll. He had never heard a symphonic orchestra live either but he wanted to see what Wagner's music was all about being of German lineage and having heard his music in movies and the like. He was very excited to go so off we went.
Wagner's musical dramas vary from your usual Italian or French fair, it is what Wagner described as a 'total work of art' (Gasamtkunstwerk). A dramatic experience that pulls together all the theatrical arts into one experience. The Ring is not for the A.T.D. It is approximately 16 hours long, divided by four very long operas. I took Scoobs as my guest to the first opera which is the shortest one of the four. I had no idea as to how he would receive it. Two and a half hours with no intermission, in German, is a big order even for seasoned opera goers let alone someone who has never attended the opera before. If nothing else it requires a strong bladder. But all my opinions were justified when one of the first things he said when we were leaving was '...lets get tickets for the next one'. I guess he liked it and why not? It's a fascinating medium, done in the classical ancient Greek idea of story telling of mythology and social comment. It is a work of art so big on so many levels that it becomes a lifetime study for those so inclined. I cannot count the many books just written on The Ring alone.
But for any Wagnerian however there is a troubling mix of emotions in this composers profile. Some years back a friend and I were at dinner and the conversation, after a couple of bottles of wine, came about who, of all the great artistic figures in history, who would we invite for dinner? Oscar Wilde for sure, Gertrude Stein, oh yes! Mozart sounded like fun, as Ringo Starr too and perhaps Bernard Shaw and Mark Twain. Great company! But Wagner? Not at my Table!
When one is as dedicated to the musical dramas of Wagner one must be very careful to separate the politics of the man and his art. But there are so many contradictions to this idea that it is hard to feel that anyone really can pidgin hole Richard Wagner correctly.
Whether one is a Wagnerian or not, it cannot be denied that he was a vehement antisemitic. In his early years he published a pamphlet call 'Judiasm in music' where he ranted on about the pollution of Jewish culture in the music world of Europe in the 1840's.
Now anyone who knows about classical music cannot deny that Wagner was one of the greatest composers of the nineteenth century, leading the way for later composers into the twentieth century. Heavies like Mahler, Debussy, Stravinsky, and Richard Strauss where all influenced by Wagner. Some will go as far as to claim him 'the father of modern music.' Yes I know that it is a long shot from Tristan and Isolde to AC/DC but somehow we can understand the progression (however hard that may be)
But what about the man who claimed that one day Europe would purge with fire the decadent Jewish infiltration into European culture, and what of one of his biggest fans 50 years after the composers death actually attempting to fulfill Wagner's ideas? And it certainly was taken literally about purging by scorched earth, how frightening, how demonic! How would Wagner have received Hitler anyhow? It is kind of hard to realize all this dreadful legacy as well as powerful and massive music carried out from a man who barely stood five foot two in height.
And what of the fact that when Wagner first produced his Ring of The Nibelung at Bayreuth he choose Hermann Lievy to conduct it? Hermann Lievy was a Jew! Why would, if he thought so strongly about Jews in music would he choose a Jew to premier his Ring? Of course Hermann Lievy was probably one of the greatest conductors of his age. But what about all this Jews in Music stuff?
This also from a composer who was greatly influenced and taken under the wings in his younger years by Felix Mendelssohn who was also a Jew and, of course, a great composer as well - To be continued.
Book Soup has an array of biography's and other books on Wagner and the Ring as well as other classical composers. There are also books on Jazz, Rock and Country in it's very extensive music section. If you cannot find a book, our staff will gladly special order it for you.

1 comment:

Caroline said...

I love it! We have a series! Keep us posted on the Wagner saga. And on the bladder strength as the operas get longer... adventure!