Verdi and/or Wagner: Two Men, Two Worlds, Two Centuries

Verdi and/or Wagner: Two Men, Two Worlds, Two Centuries
Peter Conrad
Thames & Hudson, 384pp, £24.95

More books, so it has been said, have been written on Wagner than on anyone else except for Jesus Christ and Napoleon; and the shelves are groaning with volumes on Verdi. Yet, curiously, few have thought of directly comparing the two. Peter Conrad, the Oxford cultural critic, has remedied the gap in this highly allusive, formidably knowledgeable but ultimately frustrating book.

Verdi, declared a deputy in the Italian parliament, personified his century. But so also did Wagner. Both were patriots in that era of nationalism, but they thought of patriotism in a quite different way. Verdi was rooted to the earth, to "my little patch of sky at home". He lived, in Herder's phrase, near to the centre of gravity of his nation, and indeed became a living symbol of the Italian struggle for nationhood and freedom.

Wagner, on the other hand, told Nietzsche that being German was more than an accident of birth; it was "a purely metaphysical conception, unique in the history of the world". For Conrad, "Wagner's homeland was an idea, Verdi's a portion of earth on which he was raised and on which, when he became a landowner, he grew crops."

Perhaps the one thing that Wagner and Verdi agreed about was that music transcended market forces. Verdi, when he heard that the takings from Falstaff were unexpectedly poor, proposed that audiences be admitted free, though they should be charged for the drinks. Beer had a market value but opera was priceless. Wagner, the revolutionary, thought the same. Alberich in The Ring needs gold to compensate for his loveless existence, while Pogner in Die Meistersinger offers his daughter as a prize in the song contest.

Art not money would transform society; or, as Conrad puts it, "The workers of the world would unite - by attending the opera." Both composers would have agreed with Ed Miliband's strictures on predatory capitalism, though it is difficult to see Wagner voting for the Labour Party.

Although they might have reached a consensus about capitalism, Verdi and Wagner disagreed on nearly every musical and aesthetic issue they confronted. They seemed, indeed, to represent a choice not only between opposing conceptions of opera, but between ways of life, philosophies of existence. Conrad brings this out well, though in the end his seemingly endless cornucopia of contrasts becomes somewhat tiresome.

What is so frustrating is that amid this plenitude he fails to emphasise what seems to me the absolutely crucial difference between the two composers. It is that, as Bryan Magee pointed out in Wagner and Philosophy (by far the best book of Wagner criticism in recent years), Wagner was an intellectual, while Verdi was not.

Wagner thought long and hard about the purpose of music and the role of opera. His later operas, and especially Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal, are deeply influenced by the philosophy of Schopenhauer, and it is hardly possible to understand them without some grounding in 19th-century German philosophy.

German philosophy and German art of the 19th century had in common a certain obsessiveness, and it was this that made Nietzsche believe that Wagner's music was diseased, "bad for young men and fatal to women", since "the problems he sets on the stage are all concerned with hysteria". It therefore appealed to feelings which were not, at bottom, musical. "Just look at these youths - all benumbed, pale, breathless!", Nietzsche writes in Der Fall Wagner ("The Case of Wagner"), "They are Wagnerites: they know nothing about music - and yet Wagner gets the mastery of them!" Nietzsche was, I suspect, wrong on this point. The disease afflicts the highly musical not the unmusical.

By contrast with Wagner, Verdi can be seen, so Isaiah Berlin argued in his brilliant essay "The Naivete of Verdi", as "a symptom of sanity in our time". He was a "naive" artist, in Schiller's sense, at ease with his art; not, like Wagner, a composer who believed that music was the new religion. It is a pity that Conrad does not bring out this contrast more forcefully.

But if his book is in the last resort unsatisfactory, so perhaps are all books about music. The reason was given by Wagner himself in a letter to his friend August Roeckel, "It is wrong of you to challenge me to explain it in words: you must feel that something is being enacted that is not to be expressed in mere words." Music is the most powerful of the arts precisely because it is not conceptual, because it expresses something that cannot be put into "mere words". For this reason, it will always elude even the most sophisticated explanations of its power to seduce. The only cure is to stop listening; and that is a cure that is worse than the disease.

Vernon Bogdanor is research professor at the Institute of Contemporary History, King's College London

This article first appeared in the 05 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The death spiral

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide