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