Posts Tagged ‘Wagner’

I’ve devoted a fair amount of post space to Wagner lately, despite the fact that he’s now 200 pages behind us in the text. I’ll dislodge my obsession shortly (Wagner skeptics, cheer up!), but before doing so, I wanted to pose a couple questions relating to Wagner’s impact.

The sheer force of Wagner’s music, along with its philosophical back-story, gave the Germanic tradition another big feather in its cap (as if the cap wasn’t be-feathered enough before Wagner came onto the scene). Indeed, the scales had been tilting heavily in Germany’s favor for quite a while before the magician of Bayreuth, at least among critics, music historians, and composers who happened to be German. But Wagner broke the scale (the weight of the Ring cycle had to break something). Not only were Germans the undisputed champions of “absolute” instrumental music; now they had wrestled control of opera from the Italians, and, as Tony Montana would say, the world was theirs. Even Verdi was “spooked.”

This historicist phenomenon – the privileging of musical Germanness – is captured in RT’s mouthful of a coinage, “pan-germanoromantocentrism.” Like Wagner’s music, the primacy of the Germanic tradition was a contentious, tangled, and deeply complex issue as is spread around the Western world. Many non-Germans embraced this aesthetic model openly (the Boston School and the Société Nationale de Musique, for instance [III, 769-778]); others defined themselves by how un-German they were (Debussy perhaps, but that’s an oversimplification), a negative self-identification which only confirms the hegemonic power of pan-germanoromantocentrism. Indeed, in the 19th Century, Deutschland über alles.

But why exactly? There are many ways to answer this question (which I hope readers will help me out with): German music gave primacy to instruments, which made it more romantically transcendent; it had a high degree of technical complexity, long fetishized as a yardstick for musical value; it tended to deal with more “tragic” themes (RT characterizes Wagner’s idiom as “tragic” and Verdi’s as “tragicomic”). There are gobs more. But the three explanations outlined here, as tentative and incomplete as they are, point to something else: German music gained its power and prestige from its “seriousness.”

At the root of pan-germanoromantocentrism is the idea that German music is fundamentally more serious than other models. It deals largely in instruments, vehicles of “pure Will” (Wagner is no exception), and not the shallow, quotidian stuff of language. It traffics in heavy philosophy. It’s encoded with all sorts of technical complexities that take gnomic study to suss out. It’s intellectual and masculine (thus the characterization of its musical others as sentimental and feminized).

Everybody wants to be taken seriously. Indeed, the charge of “unseriousness” can be damning and tricky to disavow; as RT points out, France’s late-century National Music Society was shaped by an “inferiority complex” in an attempt to challenge the (German) stereotype of French music as merely “culinary” (776). The values of “seriousness” and “lofty artistic aspiration” were explicitly written into the group’s manifesto.

The question of pan-germanoromantocentrism is thus not limited to musical aesthetics, but reaches deep into social history. When Verdi toyed with Tristanisms in his late operas, he was clearly intrigued by the harmonic doors this musical language opened; his engagement with Wagner was thus justified by art. However, it could be as well that this “purely musical” choice was conjoined by social factors, namely the desire to appear “serious.” This is speculation, to be sure. I do wonder, however, about the relationship between the “purely musical” and other powerful social dynamics (“seriousness,” intellectualism, masculinity, power, etc) in the spread of Germanic musical thinking. It is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the two. (Anyone looking for a dissertation idea out there?) Like most questions of historical influence, this one is just as much about social power, distinction, and prestige as it is about the music itself.


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Ross on Rheingold

The first reviews of the new MET Ring cycle are starting to trickle in. New Yorker critic and music blogger Alex Ross recently published his thoughts on “Rheingold” (“The Depths,” in the 10/18 issue) and the verdict is mixed. The big winner of this new production? Alberich. There’s a lot more to this bitter troll than is portrayed in the typical cycle, which tends to characterize the Niebelung as monstrous, buffoonish, or both. (Ross’s mainly positive review is a relief after seeing portions of LA Opera’s bloated, ill-conceived Ring over the summer. The Alberich in that production wore a massive mask that made him virtually impossible to empathize with. The whole affair was deeply alienating. Glad to learn that there’s still subtlety, grace, and deep psychological characterization left out there in Ring-land, though not here in Los Angeles.)

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What I experience when I experience the tonal tendency of a sound is the dynamics of my own desire, its arousal, its satisfaction, its frustration. It is my own desire for the leading tone to move up, the satisfaction of my own desire when it so moves, the frustration thereof when it refuses to budge or when it moves elsewhere, that I feel… Thus, the precondition of my being able to hear an imaginary pattern of lines of directed motion in a tonal work is that I first experience the desires, satisfactions, and frustrations of this sort. In tonal music, the direct experience of the dynamics of my own desire precedes any recognition of the represented object, of lines of directed motion, and is the necessary precondition of such a recognition. I must first experience the desire that the leading tone move up, before I can recognize the representation of an imaginary ascending line when it so moves.

It follows that tonal music, like a visual medium, may represent an imaginary object different from myself, an imaginary world, albeit a highly abstract one, consisting of lines of directed motion. But, unlike a visual medium, tonal music also makes me experience directly the dynamics of my own desiring, my own inner world, and it is this latter experience that is the more primordial one, since any representation depends on it. While visual media allow us to grasp, represent, and explore an outer, visual world, music makes it possible for me to grasp, experience, and explore and inner world of desiring. While visual media show us objects we might want without making us aware of what it would feel like to want anything, music makes us aware of how it feels to want something without showing us the objects we want. In a brief formula, visual media are the instruments of knowing the object of desire but not the desire itself, tonal music is the instrument of knowing the desire but not its object.   — Karol Berger, quoted in III, 529-530

What perfect thoughts to frame the mammoth issue of Wagnerian aesthetics, and also to demonstrate Wagner’s fundamental contradictions and, as we shall see, “dangers.” In fact, like Wagner’s music, this lengthy excerpt (RT rarely interpolates quotes this extensive) is an exercise both in profundity (or seeming depth, at least) and in vexing frustration. Let’s start unpacking.

The philosophical premise of this observation is, of course, straight-up Schopenhauerian. Music in this schema (tonal music, to be precise) represents the inner stirrings of the Will, an unadulterated snapshot of “pure” desire. Berger, then, assents to the fundamental premises of Wagner’s own conception of music: it is deeper than simple harmonious arrangements of sounds, instead striking at the lived essence of being human. Indeed, it seems to me that without accepting this supposition on some level, even with a critical ear, Wagner’s “Schopenhauerian” operas would be at times utterly mystifying and, frankly, incoherent. More so than any other composer, a philosophical context is needed to appreciate what Wagner’s up to.

But when Berger and RT talk about the channeling of desire that lies at the root of Wagner’s tonal procedures, just who is doing the desiring, and what sort of desire are we talking about anyway? In this regard, the use of a false “we” glosses over an important question: just how universal is this representation of desire? (Berger, partially in his defense, promiscuously alternates “us” with “me.”) As Berger and RT point out – and Wagner requires – music has the power to stir us deeply by connecting with the fundamental temporal rhythms of life (expectation, desire, frustration, satisfaction, etc) in a mimetic relationship that can eschew metaphorical representation to strike at the actual feelings themselves. However, we must be careful not to universalize this phenomenon in regard to tonal music. Like any historically bounded cultural phenomenon, tonality is a construct, not a universal technology for the expression of human drives. Berger is correct when he specifies that he feels a certain way when listening to tonal music; when he switches to “us,” he strays from the fundamental claim, that as Westerners steeped in the rules of tonality from birth, we connect to tonal patterns as if they are idealized analogs to interior experience. Background and exposure are critical here: in the absence of enculturation into the tonal system, Wagner would make just about as much sense as the Klingon language.

Is there a claim here that tonality is uniquely qualified to represent the deepest desires of people? “Tonal” is the ubiquitous qualifier in this excerpt (RT adopts it as well): thus, “in tonal music, the direct experience of the dynamics of my own desire..” and “tonal music also makes me experience directly the dynamics of my own desiring,” etc. It is difficult to deny that tonality, in all its ephemeral glory, represents a certain triumph of expressive economy, but I don’t see how you could argue that it is more effective at channeling our desires than a vast array of other musical systems at mankind’s disposal. A Monteverdi madrigal, while not strictly tonal, manipulates desire in extremely effective ways; so does a Charlie Parker improvisation and a Japanese shakuhachi honkyoku piece. Is tonality sui generis in its ability to channel desire, or just one technique among many?

And just what are we desiring when we experience musical desire? It’s difficult not to broach the topic of sex here, though RT and Berger seem to safely eschew the issue (Susan McClary doesn’t, and neither, thankfully, does Wagner in Tristan). Not to venture too far into the trendy field of body scholarship here, but “desire” is a mighty abstract concept when completely decoupled from our experience as embodied beings. Is Berger relating his experiences of listening to tonal music to some disembodied, idealized form of desire? Is it a puzzle-solving sort of desire, an intrinsic compulsion to solve problems and work out conundrums, that a resolved leading tone connects us to? If limited entirely to that, what an impoverished sort of desire we’re dealing with. As reams of scholars have attempted to show, “internal” desires are directly related to the “external” desires of the body, and in this regard, in tonality we have a forcefully articulated symbolic system for talking about sex (and experiencing its impulses vicariously). It’s reductionistic to boil down all desire to sex, of course; the sexual experience is but one form of the bodily pattern of ebb/flow, tension/release that repeats itself in many guises. But it seems to me that the body at least merits some mention whenever the tricky question of desire comes up in relation to music. If we want to get into human universals as a grounds of music making, this seems a fruitful place to begin.

To close out this over-long post, let’s return to the issue of danger mentioned earlier. Wagner, more than anyone else in the history of Western music, is still, as in his own day, viewed by many as a threat. His connection to Europe’s brutal history of anti-semitism is the most obvious reflection of his music’s dangerous powers, of course, but there’s more to the problem of Wagner than this (or rather, this is symptomatic of a more general problem of danger and contagion that his music represents). As Hanslick observes, “while the other arts persuade, music invades.” (III, 531. Italics mine.) This gets us back to the dichotomy of inner/outer, hearing/vision, and to the fundamentally embodied experience of all music. It’s a problem with roots as far back (in the West) as Heraclitus, snaking its way through the work of Plato, Aristotle, and all the way to Rousseau and Kant – sight is the “objective” sense, and hearing is the “subjective” sense. Wagner himself followed this logic when he observed: “To the eye appeals the outer man, the inner to the ear.” (For a couple of great resources on this topic, see philosopher Adriana Cavarero’s For More Than One Voice and Don Ihde’s Listening and Voice: A Phenomenology of Sound.)

Music, in this schema, can be dangerous because unlike visual stimuli, it invades our very bounded sense of personhood without warning. We can shut our eyes to block sights, but we cannot easily shut our ears to block sounds. This makes us vulnerable to music’s potentially pernicious influences, and for a composer whose sumptuous, seductive music touches upon our (careful: tonally-trained individuals’) psychological drives to the extent that Wagner’s has the ability to do, this can be problematic. In a key sense, Tristan is basically one long auto-asphyxiation fantasy: orgasm and death are equated in a way that, when most of us think about it closely, is quite troubling. (See John Deathridge’s classic book Wagner Beyond Good and Evil for more on this.) But because the musical message has the ability (some would argue) to bypass reason to strike at the Schopenhauerian Will, our guard is down and we cannot block this dangerous, subversive message. Anxieties like these, similar to the taboos around dirt and contamination outlined by Mary Douglas, play at our deep fears of boundary crossing, of bodily invasion and contagion. What makes Wagner’s music so potentially dangerous, so argues Hanslick, is not necessarily its anti-semitic content (though this is repulsive in the extreme): it’s the inability for it to be contained. Wagner’s greatest power – the Schopenhauerian depths of his music, its ability to channel desire, its overwhelming expressive force – is thus also its most subversive quality.

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Wagner’s Influence

Only because of Wagner (and the rampant “1870 Germany” he represented) did Italian and French musicians, whatever their level of patriotism, feel the need to become stylistic nationalists. Previously the style of Italian music had been the one European style virtually free of self-consciousness – a luxury enjoyed only by the self-confidently topmost, and a testimony to that happy state of security. But as we have just seen, by the end of his career even Verdi had been spooked. Even he needed to situate himself stylistically vis-a-vis the wizard of Bayreuth, and so have practically all composers ever since. Wagner’s own style, as we have also seen, was probably the most self-conscious, self-willed, and deliberately assumed style in the history of European music. Unself-conscious style has not been an option for composers in the post-Wagnerian age, and that may be the post-Wagnerian age’s best definition.   (III, 567-568)

Wagner’s influence on the national styles of Germany’s neighbors was no doubt profound, but I wonder if this might be overstating the point slightly. Was Wagner (and what he represented) really the “only” reason Italian and French musicians became stylistic nationalists around this point in time? Further, although Wagner’s style was self-conscious to the extreme, could this not also be said of other major innovators (and myth-makers) of the century? It could easily be argued that Beethoven upped the artistic imperative of the self-willed, self-conscious model even more than Wagner, in fact. The superlatives in this passage make me a bit squeamish; they seem to suggest a strict demarcation of “pre-” vs “post-” Wagner, a sort of “BC” and “AD” stylistic chronology with Wagner at the center. His influence was incalculable – this much we can agree on. Perhaps that’s why such pat attempts to calculate his influence fall flat.

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As Taruskin recounts (I, 134-142), Richard Wagner recognized the potential in the stories of the historical minnesinger/meistersinger (German-speaking analogue of the trovères) and appropriated their caché for his operas Die meistersinger von Nürnberg and Tannhäuser. But Wagner is not the only one to cash in on this potential. In a 21st-century example, In Extremo (a German medieval metal band) performs the popular minnesang “Palästinalied”, by Walther von der Vogelweide. The band is true to Walther’s melody and lyrics, in the original Middle High German (they get to three out of the twelve verses, then repeat the first). As you will see in the video below, they are also true to Wagner’s spirit of artistic liberty through a modern lens, complete with a shredding metal electric guitar solo, tatooed bagpipe players, and pyrotechnic explosions. And guess what? The audience loves it.


I put this video up kind of on a whim, because I was surprised by the ability for music that’s almost a millennium old to be relevant in the 21st century, and this video was so zany that I was simply flabbergasted by the find. But I have since become aware that it is potentially offensive to viewers, due to the song’s subject matter (the crusades), and the context of performance (Germans singing in a creepy—goth? occult?—way about the Holy Lands). Let’s just say that I wouldn’t let my son watch this video. It would be sure to give him nightmares. (He’s only 4 months old, but still.)

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