Oh, Wagner! Wagner!

(…said in tones of exasperation, not reverence…) – how can you do this to me?  How dare you take over whole chunks of my life like this? 

I remember in the early 1970s sitting though a whole cycle of The Ring at Covent Garden, spread over a couple of weeks, and for all that time it was really impossible to listen to any other music or even to think about anything else.  ‘Real’ life faded into insignificance, and was put on hold for the duration.  Well, now that I am involved from the other direction, with rehearsals and performances of The Ring at Covent Garden, I find the same thing is still true – this time spread over a couple of months…

So – what is it about Wagner?  Was he a ‘great’ composer?  I don’t know.  Certainly there is tremendous and moving and impressive (and loud) music in his operas;  and Götterdämmerung (the fourth and last opera in the Ring cycle) has some of the most weirdly forward-looking, avant-garde music imaginable (more so, to my mind, than the ‘ground-breaking’ harmonies of Tristan und Isolde).  It also has some clunkily terrible, BAD music.  

Was he, as many claim, a great psychologist of human nature?  Hmmm.  I’d much rather have Richard Strauss and his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal:  show me anything in Wagner to match their heartbreaking, penetrating insight into the character of the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier (Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger?  Wotan in The Ring??  I don’t think so).  Or in any case I’d rather have Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte – all the psychological insight, delivered with tenderness, humour and the lightest of touches.  Or any of Janáček’s operas…  surely there is more humanity, and sense of man’s place in the universe, in Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen than in the whole of The Ring (and you could fit Janacek’s opera, complete, about three times into just one act of Götterdämmerung). 

(And don’t even think about how many Haydn symphonies you could fit into that time!  Honestly, Wagner – each act of The Ring contains enough music for a whole opera by anyone else, and by the time you’ve made us actually sit through all of one of your operas – four, five, six hours – you’ve literally given us enough music for three operas.  And even your so-called ‘lightweight curtain-raiser’, Das Rheingold, is two and a half hours without a break.  As I say, how dare you steal so much of my time?)

No, my theory – for what it’s worth – is that Wagner wasn’t necessarily ‘great’, he was just very, very thorough.  He felt compelled to go into everything as deeply as it is possible to do, and just to go on and on digging.  For example, in The Ring, he goes deeper and deeper into the mythology, the motivations, the character relationships, the philosophical implications… and eventually (in Götterdämmerung) he gives you the three Norns (or Fates) weaving the history of the world and everything that happens.  Well, you can’t dig much deeper than that, can you? 

Similarly, his famed orchestration (which is wonderful – loud, rich, colourful, though he’s not a great one for individual voices, which must prove something) is based, often enough, on more of everything:  you want harps?  Right, we’ll have six (oh, and an extra one offstage).  You want brass?  Right, we’ll have a bass trombone.  And a contrabass trombone (it doesn’t exist?  Well, someone will invent it for me).  And a bass trumpet (ditto).  And eight horns.  And a whole family of tubas that are still called ‘Wagner tubas’ because he got someone to invent those for him too.

We do try – we do our homework, study the background and the mythology, try to remember all the Leitmotifs (those little tunes, each of which stands for a character, or for a thing – sword, ring, dragon – or something less concrete – Fate, redemption, curse, bottom of the Rhine – from which Wagner stitches together his huge fabric), we desperately try to memorise the synopsis before the lights go out (but it doesn’t matter if we forget, since some character or other is bound to spend twenty minutes telling us The Story So Far whether we like it or not).  And there are people who absolutely adore every note (there they all are, sitting in rows;  total nutters, all of ’em!);  and there are people who devote their lives to researching and writing about Wagner (oh all right, guilty as charged – but not my whole life!  See The Wagner Compendium under ‘Orchestration’…).

So:  was Wagner a great opera composer?  Or a great self-publicist?  Or a poisonous magician?  It is genuinely impossible to begin to imagine what the history of music would have been like if Wagner had never existed.  He did have great and visionary ideas about ‘The Art Work of The Future’, and ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ (uniting of all the arts, i.e. in his operas), and he did have great plans which he carried through to fruition.  There’s certainly no getting away from him and his influence.

Oh, but Wagner, Wagner…! 

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3 Comments on “Oh, Wagner! Wagner!”

  1. jonathanburton Says:

    The Times (London UK) comment column on its article on The Ring on 22 September has the folowing:

    In a real opera, events and emotions of years are compressed into minutes. In the “Ring” cycle, anything that takes two minutes in real life gets 25 minutes of treatment in music. Wagner had staging, theatre, and opera all backwards. That’s why most of us would never sit through the cycle even if paid to do so.

    David, Fort Worth, Texas, USA

    …I rest my case!!

  2. jonathanburton Says:

    And Anna Picard in the Independent on Sunday has some very interesting thoughts:


    “Infestation of earworms” indeed!

    Incidentally rumour has it that Anna Picard has a blog, but I’ve never found it. Can anyone point me in the right direction…?

  3. jonathanburton Says:

    Bryan Magee, in ‘Wagner and Philosophy’ (oh all right — I confess: I’ve been reading about Wagner!) evidently knows where I am coming from, even if he doesn’t sympathise:

    In all Wagner’s music up to this point there has been an unmistakable assertion of will. It is, one could almost say, a notorious phenomenon. It has been widely commented on, and is probably unique in great art in the degree of its intensity. The music has an enormously powerful drive of assertiveness that seems to be sweeping everything before it, an unremitting vehemence that never for one moment lets up. More than any other characteristic of Wagner’s music it is the one that those who dislike it react against most and repudiate. It is no exaggeration to say that some people hate it: they say that they feel as if Wagner is trying to impose himself on them forcibly, to subordinate their wills, to subjugate them. When people claim that there is something fascist about his music, this is what they are usually referring to.

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