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The ultimate seduction: revisiting the case of Wagner

Wagner aimed to overthrow 19th-century silliness and replace it with a new "music drama".

Still revered and reviled, misunderstood and misappropriated, Richard Wagner was born 200 years ago, on 22 May 1813. Most people agree that Wagner is not like other composers. His music seems to reach parts that other music doesn’t reach, something “outside the province of reason”, as his biographer Curt von Westernhagen put it. Wagner’s music exerts an irrational hold over people of wildly diverging tastes and philosophies, including many who aren’t otherwise particularly interested in music at all.

Thanks to Wagner, my own musical education (still very incomplete) has been back to front. It started with Wagner, from where I’ve had to travel through musical history in reverse. Having immersed myself in the life and work of a great revolutionary, only later did I explore the classical tradition that Wagner vigorously challenged and permanently altered.

A chance conversation with a friend at university led me to sign up for a course called “Wagner and German History”. My logic was simple and ignoble. Given the choice between a year of saturation-level research on the Black Death or spending my afternoons “studying” by lying down listening to opera, Wagner won hands down. The first Wagner lecture proved I’d been even luckier than I thought. Our professor, Tim Blanning, closed the blinds and played us a recording of the Prelude of Lohengrin. I was hooked. Most proper addictions have to be worked at. Wagner got into my bloodstream instantly.

Wagner is an unusually interesting composer; he has always been a “case” rather than just an artist. First, sadly but inevitably, there is the unavoidable if wildly overstated issue of his influence on Hitler and his misappropriation by the Nazis.

Secondly, Wagner did much to reposition and advance the status of the artist in the 19th century. It is hard to imagine a more complete triumph for a composer than the building of an entirely new type of theatre, the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, to make certain that his masterwork (The Ring) was staged in an appropriate environment. Wagner was an inverse outsourcer: he craved, and ultimately achieved, complete control. (He might have admired the sentence that ended Prince’s album sleeves from the 1980s: “All songs produced, arranged, composed and performed by Prince”.)

The scale of Wagner’s struggle and ingenuity is remarkable by any standards. In his twenties, he had failed to establish himself in Paris, the centre of the operatic world. He then endured decades of poverty, debt and exile, constantly struggling to secure performances of his work. Wagner’s ultimate triumph was all the more complete because it was on his own terms. He didn’t just break the rules, he invented a whole new game – the apotheosis of Romantic self-belief.

Thirdly, Wagner talked and wrote incessantly. He left a vast resource of books, articles, letters and diaries. The collected edition of his writing, excluding letters, runs to 16 volumes. It is often said that more books have been written about Wagner than anyone except Jesus Christ and Napoleon. That is untrue, but Wagner certainly made impressive efforts to get the ball rolling himself.

His second wife, Cosima, wrote a diary of extraordinary detail, earnestness and, sometimes, vile prejudice. At university, my fellow students developed a satirical, mock-Wagnerian short-hand, echoing Cosima’s obsession with her husband’s health, habits and opinions. “R has a slight cold,” we would parody, “western civilisation depends on his instant recovery.”

Yet taken together, the vast collected record of Wagner’s theories and opinions adds a further dimension to his career: the relationship between his own creative output and his artistic theorising. Wagner’s manifesto was epic in ambition as well as volume. He argued that the status of art, having reached a pinnacle in ancient Greece, had collapsed to new depths with the bourgeois vulgarity and silliness of much 19th-century opera. It needed to be overthrown. In its place, the artist of the future (ie Wagner) would bring together the techniques of Beethoven and Shakespeare into a single form called “music drama”.

For theory and practice to run in parallel within a single career is, unsurprisingly, more common among writers than composers. Tom Wolfe, for instance, has written didactically about what modern novels ought to be like, the themes they should address, even the process by which they should be written. “It is necessary to have a theory in life,” he has said, “to write well in fiction or non-fiction.” Such certainty suggests that Wolfe is driven by the desire to prove himself right, for the novelist to vindicate the critic.

But isn’t it beneath an artist constantly to be explaining what he is doing – or what he thinks he is doing – or, more cynically, what he wants to be thought to be doing as he goes along? Can we trust an artist who is also a critic? “An artist is usually a damned liar,” D H Lawrence once declared, “but his art, if it be art, will tell you the truth.”

Wagner’s theoretical musings provided Friedrich Nietzsche with the stick he used to beat Wagner in his sparkling attack, The Case of Wagner. Nietzsche had once been an ardent Wagnerian and a friend of the composer.

The Case of Wagner will reward readers who love Wagner as well as those who dislike his music, even those who are entirely indifferent. One of its pleasures, undoubtedly, is its cruel wit and ad hominem attacks. But Nietzsche’s arguments will bring a halfsmile of recognition even to the most dedicated Wagnerian. Even if they disagree with the verdict, it is hard not to enjoy the brilliance with which Nietzsche sets out the anti-Wagnerian case (especially if you have ploughed through volumes of Wagner’s turgid prose).

Here is Nietzsche’s acid summary of Wagner’s voluminous theorising:

Everything Wagner can not do is reprehensible.

There is much else Wagner could do: but he doesn’t want to . . .

Everything Wagner can do, nobody will be able to do after him, nobody has done before him, nobody shall do after him. –
Wagner is divine.

Not every music so far has required a literature: one ought to look for a sufficient reason here. Is it that that Wagner’s music is too difficult to understand? Or is he afraid of the opposite, that it might be understood too easily – that one will not
find it difficult enough to understand? 

Wagner required literature to persuade the world to take his music seriously, to take it as profound.

In reply to Wagner’s virulent critique of conventional operatic style, with its pretty arias and ensembles, Nietzsche made the devastating rejoinder: “A bold habit accompanied Wagner through his whole life: he posits a principle where he lacks a capacity.”

But Wagner’s theories have their intellectual advocates, too. The view that we ought to take Wagner’s artistic and philosophical ideas seriously – the case against The Case of Wagner, if you like – has been superbly taken up by the philosopher and memoirist Bryan Magee in two books, Aspects of Wagner and Wagner and Philosophy. Both are enjoyable and insightful. I can’t, however, completely go along with Magee’s attempt to resuscitate Wagner as a thinker. Instead, I wonder whether Wagner’s incessant theorising was mostly a device for cajoling his own musical and dramatic creativity.

I found myself thinking of Wagner when I read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s recent book Antifragile. Taleb is best known for his work on finance but he writes just as astutely about the creative temperament. Taleb is brutally bossy: writers should not write too much journalism, they should not hold academic posts, they ought to pursue total independence and gentlemanly autonomy, they must resist any suggestion of professional dutifulness.

With the exception of his solvency, which Wagner would scarcely have recognised, Taleb is thoroughly Wagnerian. But Taleb is not only writing for the reader, I suspect he is setting out a manifesto for his own purposes. His attacks on others are actually a means of reinforcing his commitment to his position, like an adventurer who deliberately blocks off his escape routes. Theory becomes a means of artistic self-bullying. Taleb’s fights with the wider world are partly driven by the desire to make life more difficult for himself, and so, he hopes, more artistically rewarding.

The same reasoning, I think, applies to Wagner’s theories. They are another expression of his heroic personality, an example of Wagner setting an impossibly high bar for himself. He was a pessimist by conviction, in the opera critic Michael Tanner’s brilliant phrase, but an optimist by temperament.

Alongside the question of theory and practice, there is a second dimension to Nietzsche’s case against Wagner. In essence, it is that he was a trickster (his contemporaries often referred to him as a “wizard” or “sorcerer”) a conjurer of false emotions:

Was Wagner a musician at all? . . . There was something else he was more: namely, an incomparable histrio [actor] . . . He became a musician, he became a poet because the tyrant within him, his actor’s genius, compelled him. Wagner was not a musician by instinct

Thomas Mann picked up a similar theme in his essay “Pro and Contra Wagner”. Mann used the term “double focus” (borrowed from Nietzsche) to describe Wagner’s gift for satisfying sophisticated needs while simultaneously gratifying more commonplace ones. The audience is merely subtly charmed, flattered, manipulated. To Mann, it was dishonest artistry.

Even those of us who love Wagner recognise a feeling of resistance, as though we might be, at least partially, being duped or seduced. We don’t entirely trust feelings even as we experience them. Murray Bail, the Australian novelist, captured this disquieting dimension, the way Wagner’s music rolls “across the audience in waves of such open seduction”. Bail added: “I had felt it necessary to put up some sort of resistance – but was pulled in anyway.”

Only occasionally has that voice of doubt been entirely absent from my own experience. Around a dozen years ago, I heard James Levine conduct Die Walküre at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The final act is dominated by an impassioned argument between the god Wotan and his disobedient daughter, Brünnhilde.

For fear of lapsing into euphoric cliches, I will try to explain the opposite of what I felt at the end of the performance. We have all sat through Hollywood films where we know exactly whose side we are on from beginning to end. We yearn simplistically for a neat resolution of the plot, for good to defeat evil – and that is exactly what happens. But after a moment’s satisfaction, the experience recedes into emptiness, so much so that you begin to resent the candy that was dangled in front of you for the two preceding hours even though you ended up eating it.

The experience of Act III of Die Walküre that evening was as far removed from Hollywood shallowness as I am capable of imagining. Through the combination of music and drama, I had understood the complexity and, above all, the truthfulness of two characters locked in a disagreement that could not be resolved. The experience was qualitatively different from anything I’d known from watching a stage play or reading a novel. Even more revealingly, I was sure that I couldn’t fully explain it in words.

And that is why, I suspect, we are still listening to Wagner 200 years after his birth, why we continue to be drawn in, often with reservations, sometimes more completely and authentically.

Ed Smith is a columnist for the New Statesman and the author of “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain