Monday, January 18, 2010

Dich grüsste mein Herz mit heiligem Grau'n

If opera tends to be a love-it-or-hate-it art form, surely it has no more polarizing practitioner than that prickly, erratic, quite possibly insane man, Richard Wagner. A musical critic and priest once delivered a lecture series on Wagner tellingly subtitled "The Terrible Man and his Truthful Art." (Available for purchase here.) The man himself was famously inspired by Nietzsche, and the movements of anarchism and nihilism. In turn, Wagner's music inspired Ludwig II of Bavaria to build what is arguably Europe's most recognizable castle (complete with Wagnerian murals and an awesome grotto). It inspired George Eliot, and Marcel Proust, not to mention countless writers of movie and TV music. And yes, it also was embraced by the man whom the inimitable Charlie Chaplin is spoofing here, accompanied by the Lohengrin overture.

Personally, I think it's rather sad that Wagner should be associated in the non-opera-going imagination with half-mad kings and would-be emperors rather than with his music. But while it would be a fearsome thing to hold composers accountable for whom they inspire, exonerating Wagner from responsibility for twentieth-century horrors does not render his oeuvre unproblematic. For his music--sublime, terrifying, exultant--is always accompanied by the words he wrote himself, a Gesamtkunstwerk. Much ink (scholarly and otherwise) has been spilt, and (if I am to extrapolate from my own experience) many sleepless nights have been spent contemplating and debating the implications of Tristan, and the Ring (not to mention the rest of Wagner's work.) My experience of Wagner, on recording and in the opera house, is inevitably complicated, inflected, flavored by all this. And yet, I still love it. This post's title is taken from the libretto for Die Walkuere: Sieglinde says, to the seeming-stranger she loved on sight, "My heart greeted you with holy terror." That may not be the only possible response to one's first encounter with the Tristan chord, swelling suddenly out of the darkness... but I think it's appropriate.

As another voice on this (I promise, unusually) ponderous subject, I'd like to quote what Jon Vickers, a great singer, and a great singer of Wagner, once said in an interview published in Wagner News. May we all be humble with our question marks, in opera and elsewhere.

I think that all great art deals with fundamentals, and this will surprise you: I'm not sure that Wagner falls in that category. Great art wrestles with the timeless, it wrestles with the universal, and at every point deals with the ever-present argument of what constitutes the fundamental moral law. For that reason, I put a question mark over the validity of Richard Wagner as a great artist. A great genius, yes, but a great artist? I'm not sure.

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