Why You Should be Listening to Wagner

The controversy over who will inherit Bayreuth has attracted notice in England. In the course of an article about it for the Sunday Times, Stephen Pettitt delivers a rather nice 2-paragraph summary of Wagner’s achievement:

What makes this man and his work so important is, essentially, his reforming spirit. He wanted to purify opera, to return to something like the concept envisaged by its creators in the late 16th century, one aimed at resurrecting the principles of Greek drama. So, he dispensed with “number opera”, with its distinct arias, ensembles, choruses and recitatives, and came up instead with something labelled the Ges-amtkunstwerk, the “total art work”. In the Gesamtkunstwerk, everything –- orchestra, singers, scenery, acting; even, ideally, the theatre itself -– was a vital, inseparable part of the whole. In this way, Wagner was able to express complex psychologies. His was not the all-action opera of the French and Italians, but an internal drama. It was a big idea, one that, despite the limitations of the literal interpretations that were the order of his day, has given today’s interventionist directors huge opportunities. A Ring production can have a Marxist leaning, since one message of the opera allies itself to Proudhon’s assertion that property is theft. It can be inspired by the nihilism of Schopenhauer, since all comes to naught. Or it can be psychoanalytical, a Jungian examination of the mind. And so on. Fertile ground for continuing controversy.

The music is unique both in its epic scale and in its sound world, structured in vast paragraphs and unified through the device of the leitmotif, a snippet of music – a chord, a phrase – that signifies thought, character, mood or symbol. These snippets may not be consciously recognised and labelled, but their presence and interreaction subliminally convey meaning and nuance. Wagner’s role in the evolution of music is crucial. His mature language is a rich-textured, multi-layered sound, full of detail but never confused. He uses a large orchestra, not just for its brute force, but for the range of colours it offers. And he pushes the bounds of tonality to the limit. Undoubtedly, the most talked-about chord in all music is the so-called “Tristan chord”, from Tristan und Isolde. Isolated, it doesn’t seem to be alluding to any key. And when Wagner resolves it, he lands on another chord that leaves the music lingering, suggesting longing, or maybe ecstasy, or maybe death prolonged. It is just a small step from here to the atonal world of Arnold Schoenberg and others.

Don’t skip the comment from the guy in Malaysia!

7 thoughts on “Why You Should be Listening to Wagner

  1. Wagner is probably a good occasion to introduce another German Word of the Week: Sitzfleisch. As a people devoid of any ability to even recognize, let alone exhibit sophistication, talent, intelligence or anything else useful for the greater good, Germans have long resorted to rituals to designate their elites that they subsequently can suck up to. On top of the baseline absurdity that the temples of ritual worship such as abovementioned Bayreuther Festspielhaus cater to, Wagner performances add a dimension of physical discomfort similar to being trapped in an elevator for four hours (with muzak), that will lift the enduring participants to a much sought-after status or Higher Being. The local mayor will therefore more likely attend a Wagner performance than any other in order to solidify his/her positition and make sure to have her/his ordeal appreciated by the “chance encounters” during the second-order rituals that intersperse the main ritual, such as champagne-drinking-with-sausage-eating (I kid you not).

  2. Junger Gott, Mensch, don’t take it all so seriously.

    Martin is what’s known as a troll. That is, he posts provocatively bitter comments, in the hope of stirring things up. However, unlike most trolls, Martin sometimes has interesting things to say, and doesn’t use gratuitous profanity (although the non-gratuitous kind, and even sometimes tne gratuitous kind, is always welcome). So he’s always welcome in this ueberdemocratic forum.

    We can see Martin’s trolliness in the fact that he accuses Germans of lacking intelligence, which is obviously balderdash, since they are the most intelligent people in the world (why can I no longer incorporate hyperlinks in comments to my own freakin’ blog, Typepad!?):


  3. I came here to read comments about Wagner and instead I learn that I’m actually one of the most intelligent people in Europe! When even the Brits admit that it must be true, right? Who would have thought … And all because of the cold climate … shouldn’t the Russians be even more intelligent then? And the penguins. At least during the winter. When they tend to win their wars … the Russians, I mean, not the penguins … it all makes sense now. But what does that tell us about sunny southern Bavaria … and (I’m sorry) Texas? And will Global Warming make us all stupid? We should do some research here … while we still can …

  4. @Junger Gott

    If all the music you know is Wagner, and all the architecture you know is battery chicken farms, then may God have mercy with your poor tortured soul. Amen.

  5. “since they are the most intelligent people in the world”

    It must be true, I hear it all the time! From Germans, of course.

    But the most compelling quality Germans have is modesty…. 😉

  6. Martin, champagne and currywurst is a delicacy I was first introduced to at my cousin’s wedding that took place in the beautiful town of Witten. Foreigners will probably instantly see this as yet another example of Germans’ absolute lack of taste and aesthetics. On the face of it, the combination of these two (yuk!) does appear to be the culinary equivalent to wearing white socks with Birkenstocks to a tuxedo, but I honestly admit it tastes delicious, especially around noon on a cold rainy day.

  7. “Foreigners will probably instantly see this as yet another example of Germans’ absolute lack of taste and aesthetics.”

    Not this foreigner. I have no understanding of currywurst at all and probably never will do, but I have my own weird tastes (Grape Kool-Aid for one), so I don’t mistake weird tastes for lack of national culture or aesthetics.

    Low, medium, and high tastes exist side by side happily. I have passions for Kool-Aid, Shakespeare, musical theatre (some of it extremely shallow), classical music, and Eric Clapton. So I have no reason to scorn currywurst & champagne.

    I could wish that more Europeans would understand my point – which is that just because something is different it does not necessarily follow that it is inferior. Europeans seem to understand this when dealing with the Chinese, so why can’t they apply the same principal to the US?

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