Online class discussion #4 is open for comments October 2-8. Refer to the grading rubric for requirements on commenting:
- Purchase: https://drjonesmusic.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/class-blog1.pdf
- QCC: https://drjonesmusic.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/class-blog.pdf
This week, I want to encourage you to think about composers not just as faceless, amorphous names attached to some set of musical sounds, but actually as living, breathing people. Already, we’ve been discussing the ways in which we can think about music as product of the society or culture around it (this idea comes from Pierre Bourdieu, and he calls this concept habitus in his 1972 book, Outline of a Theory of Practice), we’ve talked about musicking as an activity that many people engage in together (see Discussion #2 and the work of Christopher Small), and we’ve considered music in the context of the effects it has on our bodies (physiology in Discussion #1). What we really haven’t discussed yet in any kind of depth is the fact that, fundamentally, music is made by people, and people are complicated.
A person is made up of all their experiences, their desires, their memories, their bodies, and the vast array of their interactions with other people in their world: talking to people, of course, but also observing people, reading their books and articles, listening to their music, watching their dancing, studying their paintings and sculptures, and living and working in the buildings they created. Each person is a multi-faceted, multi-layered, ever-changing array of all these factors.
We’ve used isolated aspects composer’s biographies (the stories of their lives) and personalities already in class this semester to understand why their music sounds the way it does in the cases of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. We’ve noted how the uniqueness of the individual–in addition to the larger social and political forces that shape their worlds–affects how their music sounds. In the case of Richard Wagner, we’ll delve into his thoughts about things other than music and consider how a composer’s biography may be problematic for how we listen to them as an artist.
Richard Wagner and his music
Richard Wagner (1813-83)’s biography is a sordid, soap opera-worthy tale: He held a couple of unsatisfying Kapellmeister positions at small courts, overspent his earnings and had to flee from creditors in the middle of the night on multiple occasions, tried to make it big in the city of Paris and failed, and when the Revolutions if 1848 swept across Europe (inspired by Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto), Wagner saw an opportunity. He incited revolution and anarchy, hoping when society crumbled that he, the forward-thinking composer, could be the cultural leader to help rebuild Europe from the wreckage–a new society needs music, right? When the revolutions failed, he fled to Switzerland with his wife and dog, beginning a 9-year period of exile (1849-58). He was not the most gracious of guests; he spent the entire stay sleeping with his host’s wife. In the remaining hours of the day, he wrote extensively, penning his ideas about society, music, opera, and composition.
- 1849 Die Kunst und die Revolution (Art and Revolution) — Commercialism hurts artistic production
- 1849 Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft (The Artwork of the Future) — All the arts should be united and theaters should be redesigned
- 1850-51 Oper und Drama (Opera and Drama) — Music-dramas should be about folk-oriented ancient tales
Some of these he published, and when he finally returned to Germany, he did so as a modest rock star with a small but significant cadre of admirers. At this point, he purchased an apartment for his wife in Vienna, parked her there, and never saw her again, preferring instead to surround himself with (younger) admiring women. Wagner secured for himself the support of King Ludwig II of Bavaria and found a composer to champion his works, Hans von Bülow. Together, with King Ludwig’s money, Bülow’s conducting, and Wagner’s ideas, they staged Wagner’s operas and his career finally took off. Along the way, Wagner stole Bülow’s wife, Cosima, married her, and named the children they had after characters in his operas.
Wagner strongly admired the music of Beethoven; a good portion of Wagner’s formative musical training was spent copying Beethoven’s scores by hand so that he could absorb every technique and stylistic trait that he admired. Wagner regarded Beethoven as a validation of being German and thought of himself the true direct successor to Beethoven’s legacy, carrying German music to its apex (highest point):
What inimitable art did Beethoven employ in his “C-minor Symphony,” [No. 5], in order to steer his ship from the ocean of infinite yearning to the haven of fulfillment! He was able to raise the utterance of his music almost to a moral resolve, but not speak aloud that final world; and after every onset of the will, without a moral handhold, we feel tormented by the equal possibility of falling back again to suffering, as of being led to lasting victory. Nay, this falling-back must almost seem to us more “necessary” than the morally ungrounded triumph, which therefore—not being a necessary consummation, but a mere arbitrary gift of grace—has not the power to lift us up and yield to us that “ethical” satisfaction which we demand as outcome of the yearning of the heart… (Richard Wagner, The Art of Tone, 1849)
Much of Wagner’s music is emotionally thrilling: loud, sweeping gestures, beautiful melodies, and a generally high level of intensity. Here is an excerpt from one of his operas Die Walküre (composed 1851-56, premiered 1870); it is an orchestral prelude to the third act of the opera. This piece is likely familiar to you already (one of those, “Oh yeah, THAT piece!” moments) because it has appeared in several movies and commercials.
Wagner’s music is also impressive because of its scope, its power, and its sense of profundity (whether it’s actually profound or not is another issue, but it’s definitely music that presents itself as wanting to be profound). Here is another orchestral prelude from Das Rheingold (composed 1851-54, premiered 1869), and this work shows Wagner’s sense of scale (BIG!), his ability to build up an enormous amount of intensity and triumph over a long period of time, an extreme range of dynamics (much of the beginning is practically inaudible), and his refusal to write a short melody (all very typical Romantic features!).
Both of these pieces come from a set of four operas all about the same characters and a single, long storyline: Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). The works take approximately 20 hours to perform in their entirety!
Wagner’s music has been a prominent feature of Western culture since the 1870s, so much so that there is an entire Bugs Bunny cartoon devoted to his music. In this cartoon, all of the melodies played by the orchestra, sung by Bugs, and sung by Elmer come directly from several of Wagner’s operas.
What’s Opera, Doc? (1957):
Wagner and “greatness”
Despite the beauty of Wagner’s music, the impressiveness of its sounds, and the joy that “Kill the Wabbit” brings me, I have several misgivings about Wagner, and they all stem from his biography.
Oftentimes when we proclaim how great we are (as individuals, as a country, as a culture), it comes at the expense of someone else–greatness is relative, so in order to show how great we are, someone else’s status needs to be diminished or maligned. In the case of Wagner, his elevation of his great Teutonic roots comes at the expense of people he considered to be the lowest rungs of German society: the Jews. Wagner’s attitude isn’t only curious or odd; it’s decidedly hateful and vengeful, and he expounded upon it thoroughly in an essay titled Das Judentum in der Musik (Jewishness in Music) (1860, publ. 1894; the entire text is available here), also written during his exile in Zürich. In it, he begins by describing a feeling that he is sure everyone shares:
…that involuntary feeling of ours which utters itself as an instinctive repugnance against the Jew’s prime essence. (Wagner, Das Judentum in der Musik)
He goes on to describe all the reasons he looks down upon this entire group of people, beginning with their appearance, which he finds unpleasant, and which he believes all non-Jews naturally think of as unattractive and un-heroic. More than this, he argues that the un-attractiveness of this entire group of people proves how unfit they are to make art–Wagner’s logic is that if it’s impossible to look upon a person with respect, it is impossible to value anything that they create.
The Jew — who, as everyone knows, has a God all to himself — in ordinary life strikes us primarily by his outward appearance, which, no matter to what European nationality we belong, has something disagreeably foreign to that nationality: instinctively we wish to have nothing in common with a man who looks like that… Passing over the moral side, in the effect of this in itself unpleasant freak of Nature, and coming to its bearings upon Art, we here will merely observe that to us this exterior can never be thinkable as a subject for the art of re-presentment… We can conceive no representation of an antique or modern stage-character by a Jew, be it as hero or lover, without feeling instinctively the incongruity of such a notion. This is of great weight: a man whose appearance we must hold unfitted for artistic treatment — not merely in this or that personality, but according to his kind in general — neither can we hold him capable of any sort of artistic utterance of his [inner] essence. (Ibid.)
Wagner makes similar arguments about the Hebrew and Yiddish languages, the economic position of Jews in Europe, and music made by Jewish musicians. His description of music played as part of religious services in a synagogue is entirely disparaging:
Who has not been seized with a feeling of the greatest revulsion, of horror mingled with the absurd, at hearing that sense-and-sound-confounding gurgle, yodel and cackle, which no intentional caricature can make more repugnant than as offered here in full, in naive seriousness? (Ibid.)
For Wagner, Jews are an impurity that taints the German Volk (the cultural identity shared by all people who are “real” members of German culture).
The true poet, no matter in what branch of art, still gains his stimulus from nothing but a faithful, loving contemplation of instinctive Life, of that life which only greets his sight amid the Folk… If [a Jewish artist] has any connection at all with this Society [Volk], it is merely with that offshoot of it, entirely loosened from the real, the healthy stem; but this connection is an entirely loveless one… The Jew has never had an Art of his own, hence never a Life of art-enabling import: an import, a universally applicable, a human import, not even to-day does it offer to the searcher, but merely a peculiar method of expression — and that, the method we have characterized above. (Ibid.)
Throughout his writing, the features which he describes Jewish musicians as lacking are exactly those that he believes himself to possess. The implicit argument is that if audiences judged music correctly (by using Wagner’s criteria and looking for exactly the features he himself possesses), then no one would ever think music by Jewish musicians is good.
Inner agitation, genuine passion, each finds its own peculiar language at the instant when, struggling for an understanding, it girds itself for utterance: the Jew, already characterized by us in this regard, has no true passion, and least of all a passion that might thrust him on to art-creation. But where this passion is not forthcoming, there neither is any calm: true, noble Calm is nothing else than Passion mollified through Resignation. Where the calm has not been ushered in by passion, we perceive naught but sluggishness: the opposite of sluggishness, however, is nothing but that prickling unrest which we observe in Jewish music-works from one end to the other, saving where it makes place for that soulless, feelingless inertia. What issues from the Jews’ attempts at making Art, must necessarily therefore bear the attributes of coldness and indifference, even to triviality and absurdity; and in the history of Modern Music we can but class the Judaic period as that of final unproductivity, of stability gone to ruin. (Ibid.)
The rest of his essay focuses on a Jewish musician whom Wagner especially loathes (and whose success he envies): Felix Mendelssohn.
Wagner’s attitude seeps into this music, as well. There are several Jewish caricatures in his operas, and they are all unlikable figures, unattractive, and possessing a single-minded obsession with money or gold: Mime in Siegfried (1852-71), a dwarf obsessed with mining for gold; Klingsor in Parsifal (1882), a magician who schemes to steal the Holy Grail for himself but who is ultimately stopped by Parsifal’s Christian faith; and Sixtus Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1845-68), a Jewish singer who is unable to sing the correct words or sing beautifully in a singing contest and loses to a handsome German singer.
If Wagner were only a hateful author who also composed music that included narrow-minded stereotypes, this conversation might not be worth having. However, the ideas which Wagner touted, as well as his music, became part of the justification for German cultural and ethnic superiority in the 20th century, providing a sense of vindication and pride. The notion of celebrating Volk identity (begun in the early 19th century) helps fuel German nationalism; the logic goes along the lines of, “The best music was created by men who are German, which makes me proud to be German, and it means that my culture is the best.” In addition, the emerging historical music narrative of cultural progress in the hands of admirable German men (Bach to Mozart to Beethoven to Wagner) helps create a sense of arriving at some kind of peak (a kind of misapplication of Darwinism to society); people in the 20th century are primed to regard themselves as the end result of the inexorable march of progress. Even though Wagner himself was not a Nazi and did not have any contact with Adolf Hitler, his music and his ideas are part of the cultural landscape that makes Nazism not only possible but also powerful.
Broader context for Wagner’s ideas
The source of my discomfort with Wagner’s music lies not only in his hateful opinions or use of his music for nationalistic propaganda that directly caused enormous suffering and long-standing repercussions that continue to shape the world in which we live. It’s also the itchy disconnect between, on one side, the joy the musical sounds cause me and, on the other, the nausea caused by the historical reality of his music. If his music were not interesting, well-written, inspiring, or beautiful, I doubt that I would give it a second thought–Wagner would just be that hack composer on the outskirts of musical society, writing his crazy-man manifestos in isolation.
But Wagner isn’t some crazy man in the woods shouting his ideas where no one can hear them. His music was incredibly influential, as were his ideas about the concert going experience. In the 1870s, Wagner built a new opera theater in Bayreuth, Germany, especially to stage his works. Many of the things that we take for granted as being part of the concert-going experience (such as a darkened theater, seats all facing the stage, no talking during the performance, and the orchestra hidden out-of-sight in a pit below the stage) are all new features of Wagner’s own design. His music was also influential because of its intensity and scope: as with Beethoven, composers in his wake had to reckon with how they were supposed to make music and do anything unique with Wagner’s shadow looming over them. He was intensely admired by many of his fellow musicians:
“So there I sat in the topmost gallery of the Berlin Opera House, and from the first sound of the cellos my heart contracted spasmodically… Never before has my soul been deluged with such floods of sound and passion, never had my heart been consumed by such yearning and sublime bliss… A new epoch had begun: Wagner was my god, and I wanted to become his prophet.” (Bruno Walter, conductor, 1889)
“There was only Beethoven and Richard [Wagner] – and after them, nobody.” (Gustav Mahler, composer, 1904)
Moreover, Wagner was most assuredly not alone in his views. Confronting Wagner means to confront the ugly reality that underlies all the music composed in Western Europe during the time periods we’ve covered in class. Antisemitism was wide-spread and largely acceptable. Martin Luther published a lengthy (65,000 words) essay in 1543 titled “On the Jews and their Lies,” which called for the destruction of synagogues, the burning of Jewish prayer books, and forced labor positions for young Jewish men. There exist several essays and pamphlets in the 19th century that disparage all members of the Jewish faith or other groups considered to be not “real” Europeans: Antoine de Gobineau, An Essay on the Inequality of hte Human Races (1853-55; Gobineau and Wagner were friends, and Wagner admired this work); Wilhelm Marr, The Way to Victory of Germanism over Judaism (1879); and Heinrich von Treitschke, A Word About Our Jews (1881). Other musicians also espouse similar lines of reasoning, generally championing the “advanced” culture of Europe over the barbarism, coarseness, and ugliness of non-European music and using these differences in musical taste as proof of the inferiority of an entire group of people, as in Johann Nikolaus Forkel’s A General History of Music (two volumes, 1788 and 1801).
No musician is an isolated figure–their ideas have sources that predate them, and their influence outlasts them. The world in which we currently live would not exist, either musically or socially, without Wagner’s contributions. More than that, our ability to grapple with his legacy sets a precedent for how we handle other historical, artistic, and influential figures. I look forward to reading about how you balance the weight of knowledge against the experience of listening to music.
Some questions to get the conversation started:
- What aspects of a musician’s biography are relevant when we interpret the musical sounds he or she makes? How seriously should we consider a musician’s biography when we interpret the musical sounds he or she makes? Is it only the composer’s biography that matters, or do the biographies, attitudes, and beliefs of performers matter, too?
- How do you reconcile listening to music that is produced by a person who doesn’t share your views or whose views make you uncomfortable? Do we condone an artist’s views by listening to their music, enjoying their music, performing their music, or paying for their music?
- Do you hear or interpret Wagner’s music differently after learning about his views?