When i was in high school, one of my best friends decided he needed to know what all the fuss about Wagner was about, so he bought the complete Ring cycle and began listening to it. After several weeks of this, he told me one day “People talk about how complex this work is, but really, it’s just smarmy.” i continue to think that’s about as good a summation of Wagner’s output as any more detailed account i’ve encountered.
All my students know that i find Wagner the man and his music distasteful. Hate implies more energy than i actually put toward him…i’m more likely to roll my eyes and shake my head when someone starts to wax enthusiastic about Wagner. i nod politely when someone starts to describe their ecstatic experience of some Wagner opera…like listening to someone describe their LSD trip, i’m sure it must have been wonderful for them, but it’s nothing i can possibly share.
When i was first getting into so-called Classical music, i gravitated to the extremes: i loved Medieval music and contemporary music. Gradually, i learned to like Renaissance and Baroque music (as i’ve said elsewhere, Bach took me awhile to warm up to). i also fell in love with Mahler, as a kind of pre-contemporary composer. But for a long time, the 18th and 19th century left me cold. Wagner, who spans much of the 19th century, was right in the middle of the music i didn’t care for at all.
On the other hand, i was interested in the concept of the arts being merged with each other. Scriabin’s use of the “color organ” for example, or works like Schoenberg’s Erwartung or Die Glückliche Hand. The more i read, the more it became clear that Wagner had been an important influence on many composers and artists i admired, and i wondered if i needed to shake off my initial aversion and give him a second chance. So i got a book of his essays, a group of pieces he wrote during his exile in Switzerland and sometimes called the Zurich Essays as a result. These included an essay called “Music of the Future,” which i found rather intriguing, if rather monomaniacal. i read about his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, which was indeed the idea i was most interested in, and it was worthwhile to track this notion to its source.
However, also among these essays was something called “The Jewish Problem in Music,” where Wagner laid out the notion that the Jews, as rootless “metropolitans” with no real culture of their own (just lots of money and power) had systematically “weakened” and “ennervated” the strength of German music. Huh? The work was so blatantly an Anti-semitic screed, badly argued and with examples that were clearly being skewed to an oblique angle to make the points involved, that the entire thing struck me as laughable. Particularly up for abuse were the composer Meyerbeer (who had been, at one time, Wagner’s “mentor” and entry into the world of grand opera - talk about biting the hand that feeds you) and Felix Mendelssohn, a composer i was actually rather fond of, and whose music struck me as being better-crafted and much less heavy-handed than Wagner’s. The more i read, the more i discovered that this ugly little essay had been hugely influential in the 19th century. it had certainly been read by a young Adolf Hitler, who worshipped Wagner. Moreover, it seemed that Wagner’s operas, in light of this essay, could be read as Anti-semitic, in terms of characters and plots (especially parts of the Ring and Parsifal). So Wagner the self-centered egotist turned into Wagner the flaming jerk in my perception of him. i can’t say that perception has changed much over time.
Oh, i’ve given him a number of chances. i’ve sat through several iterations of the Ring, trying to find the “genius” in it, and all i manage to find is the smarm and the out-of-control egotism. i’ll grant him some pretty good tunes in Die Meistersinger, but not 5 hours worth of them. (“Brevity is the soul of wit,” and Wagner’s comic opera is 5 hours long?) Parsifal may contain some very beautiful music, but the plot is hideously misogynistic and Anti-semitic, and again, there’s 5 hours of it. At the moment, about the only Wagner that doesn’t send me racing to turn off the radio is the so-called Forest Murmurs from Siegfried, and the Siegfried idyll. Those are both kind of lovely, and relatively brief. i’m good with those. The rest of it can be shovelled into the dustbin of history as quickly as possible. The music of the future is really the music of the unpleasant past, and ought to be erased from our collective ears as soon as possible.