The reluctant Wagnerian

This Saturday, I shall be in a nearby cinema to see and hear a live broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera New York of Wagner’s Parsifal. I was persuaded to get tickets for this by our lad, who, despite all the love and affection that his doting parents have lavished upon him over the years, has turned out a diehard Wagnerian. I do not doubt that this particular production is very fine; I do not doubt that it features some of the best singers of today: names such as Jonas Kaufmann and René Pape are hard to argue against, after all. Neither do I doubt that the orchestral playing, the choral singing, the conducting (Daniele Gatti will be in the pit), etc., will all be top notch.  Indeed, I have put myself through this opera before, having listened often to recordings of the full work, and also having heard it live on no less than three occasions. I confess also that at times, the effect of the music has been so overwhelming, that I have found myself completely drawn into it – to such an extent that I had become unaware of anything but the music, unaware even of those hours passing by. But nonetheless, I feel strangely apprehensive about this Saturday.

I know that I am by no means the first who has felt himself both drawn to and repelled by Wagner, but let me state right away that the repulsion has nothing to do with Wagner’s anti-Semitism. Not that I doubt that he was grotesquely anti-Semitic, even by the standards of his own times; and I am, further, prepared to accept the possibility that his racism did, as has been alleged, indeed find its way into his works. This does, admittedly, remain a controversial point, and emotions often run high when it is raised; and I am not myself sufficiently knowledgeable in this area to offer my own opinion on the matter. But I am prepared, at least, to accept the possibility that his racist ideology did indeed seep into his work, and even, as some claim, form its ideological basis. But if it did so, then it did so in a coded form, since at no point in any of his works is either race in general or Jewry in particular explicitly mentioned. This means that those of us blissfully unaware of whatever code Wagner may or may not have used can appreciate his work without the slightest thought of whatever psychopathic unpleasantness may or may not underlie it. No: whatever uneasiness I feel about Wagner’s operas, it is not on ideological grounds. It is something else.

But when I try to specify what that something else is, I find myself on uncertain ground. That his work has a powerful effect on me cannot be denied: I remember in particular a performance of Tristan und Isolde at the English National Opera a number of years ago that held me effectively hypnotised: I really had lost all sense of my surroundings, all sense of time passing. And, during the Edinburgh Festival of 2006, I attended an outstanding concert performance of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, featuring a then relatively unknown Jonas Kaufmann in quite resplendent voice as Walther. (I doubt we could afford to go and see Jonas Kaufmann now, given his current superstar status in the opera world!) So good was this performance, that even after five hours and more, I actually found myself thinking it was too short! So yes, I have indeed been under Wagner’s spell – many, many times.

But perhaps that is the point. Do I like being under his spell? Do I like getting to the state where I forget my surroundings, where I forget the passage of time? Do I like being drawn in to quite such an extent? And the answer to that, I think, is no, I don’t. There is something – for want of a better word – unhealthy, I find, about all this, something sickly. I cannot define it: but there is something intangible about Wagner’s work that is not to my taste, and I find myself resisting; although I do know that once that music starts, any resistance on my part will very soon melt away.

Even with Parsifal, the last and, in many ways, the most problematic of Wagner’s operas. It’s an odd hotchpotch of Christianity, Buddhism, mysticism, medieval myth, and – so I’m told – the philosophy of Schopenhauer. It is also, according to some, the most overt expression of Wagner’s racist ideology, although its racist aspect, should it exist, remains as obscure to me as any other aspect of the work. The whole thing may indeed be very profound, as is claimed, but, although I have known it for some thirty or so years, and although I have indeed made some effort to understand it better (Lucy Beckett’s book on this opera is justly renowned), I have never been able to make much sense of it. Now, I have given up trying: whatever its depths, its concerns are not, I think, mine. Debussy seems to me to have hit the nail on the head: after an entire essay ridiculing the opera and attacking it in no uncertain terms, he ended by declaring it to be “one of the loveliest monuments of sound ever raised to the serene glory of music”. That’s good enough for me. The whole strikes me as utterly incomprehensible – or, at least, not comprehensible to a mind such as mine – but I am all for lovely monuments of sound.


This year is, of course, the bicentenary of those two great giants of the opera, those mighty opposites Wagner and Verdi. And inevitably, there have been discussions of which of the two we prefer; or, even, who was the greater. I’ll politely pass on the latter question, but the former is an interesting one, as our personal preference between the two defines so much of our aesthetic values. Music journalist Jessica Duchen thinks it is no contest: for her, it’s Wagner. Peter Conrad, on the other hand, has written an entire book to demonstrate the superiority of Verdi. As for me, while I am looking forward, albeit apprehensively, to Parsifal, I can’t help wishing that our dear boy had sided with Verdi instead, and that, instead of Parsifal, we could go off together to see something like, say, Don Carlos. For there is to Verdi a generosity of spirit and a healthy, forthright humanism that, for me at least, leave the twilight murk of Wagner’s world far behind.

16 responses to this post.

  1. Count me in as a Verdian, or whatever the term is. “Healthy, forthright humanism” makes for a great afternoon at the opera. Wagner puts me to sleep, so I have little awareness of overtones or undertones or anything else. Strangely, the one Wagnerian opera I like is the under-appreciated Hansel and Gretal. Wagner didn’t write it, but it is considered Wagnerian. No racism in, it but is derogatory toward crazy old women (the witch).


    • I think my problem with Wagner is a bit different, I think: he doesn’t bore me (Well, not usually, anyway!) Indeed, I find it all too easy to fall under his spell. the problem is that yes, i do like Wagner, but I don’t like liking Wagner, if you see what I mean!

      I don’t know Humperdick’s opera, I’m afraid. I’ll look it up.


  2. Posted by Maureen on February 27, 2013 at 2:04 pm

    Where Wagner captures, Verdi involves. Synaesthetically speaking, Wagner is smokey blue, tastes like artichokes, and smells like rain. Verdi is garnet red, tastes like pomegranate, and smells of gardenias.


    • As you say, Wagner “captures”: he demands all or nothing – complete immersion, or nothing at all. I know I’ll be completely immersed in Parsifal this afternoon, but I don’t know that I’m entirely looking forward to it!

      There’s a chapter towards the end of Mann’s magic Mountain where he writes of the beautiful final scene of Verdi’s Aida,and comments that Aida and Radames, as they die, sing of awakening into an eternal day; in contrast, Tristan and Isolde dream of oblivion into an eternal night.In certain ways, that seems to epitomise the aesthetic differences between the two.


  3. An interesting point – just yesterday, I was reading F.R. Leavis’ essay, “Thought and Emotional Quality”. He objects to some of the poetry of the romantics (Coleridge, Wordsworth) precisely on the ground that to enjoy them, you need to give up thought and let pure emotion, unconnected to any real object, take you over. He contrasts them with the metaphysical poets and the poetry of Eliot, where the imagery and emotion is, in a sense, connected to real object in a balanced and proportionate way, and where the poetry, to be appreciated, does not require you to surrender to emotion, but to balance it with thought. I’ve probably phrased this very badly, but that’s the broad argument, or so I felt. It seemed, in some ways, similar to what you’re written about in this post.


    • Hello Gautam, I haven’t read Leavis’ essay, but I had known of Eliot’s objection to Shelley on similar grounds. I don’t know that Leavis’ criticism of the Romantics applies well to Wordsworth, who made a point of rooting his art in reality and in the everyday, but certainly may Romantics did, I think, address pure emotion. One may reasonably ask: “Why not? Why should this be judged a bad thing?” As with so many of our aesthetic judgements, what we prefer is a question of temperament.

      Wagner certainly leads us quite frequently into the realms of pure emotion. Tristan and Isolde seem to be embodiments of aspects of our psyches rather than real flesh and blood human beings. Possibly it is this I find difficult – but then again, I don’t have any problem with Shelley’s poetry, say, or indeed, with many other works of Romantic music which are also expressions of pure abstract emotion.

      I think I’ll need to read Leavis’ essay. Indeed, I think I’ll need to read more Leavis: i know i will strongly disagree with many of his views, but equally, I think there is much there I may find enlightening. I do find attractive the moral seriousness he sought in literature.


  4. Posted by Erika W. on February 27, 2013 at 2:34 pm

    I have problems with Wagner for sure. I much prefer to listen to the operas at home, preferably reading or sewing to them. I then can be drawn in to them and over the years I have done this a lot as well as attending performances–having a very musical husband, who started university on a music scholarship. In fact husband will be in New York this Saturday for “Parsifal”‘, which would be pure horror for me–far too long, uncomfortable sitting and action slow as treacle.

    I do have trouble also with Wagner himself. He even once tried to make a conductor convert to Christianity.

    BUT I appreciate every time his enormous gifts and even sometimes hear myself humming extracts from the operas.


    • For all I’ve said, I am jealous of your husband going to see this production in person at the NY Met.

      Wagner as a person was, from what i know, quite horrendous, but i have tried not to let that affect my judgement of his work. I can’t, to be honest, can’t quite put my finger on what it is about his work that troubles me: it’s not merely the ideology (indeed, when it comes to ,em>Parsifal, I don’t understand his ideology at all, so i don’t really see why I should be worried by what i don’t get!) But yes, I must admit he continues to fascinate.


  5. I just can’t stanb Verdi’s musical idom, so there’s no contest, certainly not a fair one.


  6. stand, not stanb; there is no such word as stanb, as far as I know.


  7. A very interesting blog entry, Himadri.

    I cannot contribute from a position of academic knowledge of both composers as I am not well read in critique or essay about either – I can only come from a position of self discovery of their music and the emotional impact both composers have had directly on my hearing their work. I have a great regard for both, but I find that this regard holds two very distinct forms which are mutually exclusive in my own psyche.

    Verdi was the gentle, fatherly, safe hand that led me into Opera. His wonderfully distinctive melodies and the sublime arias of pure emotion – Rigoletto was my first ever live opera – magnificent characterization solo arias, duets which render the heart to breaking both with joy and sorrow and perhaps the most lovely of quartets, in the third act, between the principal singers. Has this ever been matched for intelligence of musicality and adept combination of harmonies vocally?

    Verdi was my first love and introduced me to the delights of Opera, but Wagner was so different. Wagner for me was the unknown stranger in the night who came and whispered to me of deeper magic. I first discovered Wagner’s music well before I even knew his name. The Funeral March from Gotterdamerung. This piece haunted me and enthralled me in equal measure, from first hearing it, completely oblivious to the identity of the composer. It was several years before I married up the music to the man. Wagner had ensnared me. I had discovered the genius behind the music that had instantly instilled itself so immediately in my innermost secret places where my young mind had not previously ventured. I superficially learned of the man, about the awful connotations of his Nationalistic and anti-semitic ideals – but wished to focus on the music and hope that this abhorrent drive and will of inhumanity did not seep into his art.

    I have only seen Wagner performed live once. Tristan and Isolde. A happy-go-lucky student on a cheap student reduction ticket. This music took me away from my seat, away from Liverpool, away from the superficial and had me straying in thoughts, reactions and emotions which were beyond my experience. I felt as though I had never truly, experienced sensations from art or life to compare with this, until this performance. It was as though he prompted the full maturity and complete understanding of how far you can be lifted into a higher plane of reaction and emotion and I can only compare it to perhaps how deep meditation may give the illusion of the consciousness leaving the confines of the body. He had me so entirely attentive, as I have never been before or since. I wept bitterly, like a child at the Prelude because of the ‘sweetness’ and yearning in those strains of music and by Isolde’s Liebstod, I was so drawn into the apparent ‘reality’ that the music and vocalists had crafted that I was completely lost. This music transcends your conscious appreciation and takes you somewhere where emotion is distilled and then concentrated to a pitch that is rarely felt in any other context in life; everyday romantic attachments or similar feelings don’t walk down the corridors that are forged by Wagner. I agree these pathways are darker, but so much more seductive and alluring than most music or art or human experience can ever compare.

    I honestly believe that different parts of the brain are responsible for processing, appreciating and responding to the music of Verdi and Wagner.

    Verdi is the Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time… but Wagner is the Deeper Magic , that is the only way I can describe and compare these two operatic greats.


    • Hello Kathy, it’s good to see you here.

      I enjoyed reading your account of your experience of Tristan und Isolde. I too knew Verdi before I knew Wagner. My first experience of Wagner was a recording of Tristan und Isolde from Blackburn record library, conducted by Karajan and featuring Helga Dernesch and Jon Vickers. My initial reaction was “What the bleedin’ hell is this?” But within days, I was hypnotised by those waves of sound and sensuality. I was spellbound, lost to all else. Later, when i heard it at the ENO, I experienced that all over again. But the problem is that while a part of me is drawn to that experience, another part of me rebels against it!

      Verdi offers us a different kind of experience, but because the Wagnerian experience is so overwhelming, it is easy to think that it must necessarily be deeper. I am not entirely convinced by this. In Rigoletto, say, we see Gilda heroically sacrificing her life for the man she loves. But because we are not so overwhelmingly drawn into the emotional world as we are with Wagner, we can sense the deep irony in the situation – the irony of Gilda sacrificing her life for the sake of a man who is worthless, both morally and spiritually: even while witnessing her heroism, we can see that it is not admirable – merely misguided. And even as her father grieves over her, we may perceive the irony that she is victim to that same evil of which he had been so prominent a part; we can recognise that it is Rigoletto’s very act of protecting her from the evil of the world that has made her all the more vulnerable to it. This network of ironies – ironies which Wagner’s waves of passion would not have left much room for – gives to Verdi’s drama a very profound and sad awareness of the moral and emotional intricacies of our human lives. This seems to me at least as profound as anything we may find in Wagner’s work.

      of course, whom we are drawn to is very much a matter of temperament. for myself, it is Rigoletto, Un Ballo in Maschera,/em>, Don Carlos, Otello, etc. that draw me more. And there really is nothing in music more joyous than Falstaff.

      But having said all that, I am sure I will be in thrall to Parsifal all over again this evening!


  8. Posted by severalfourmany on March 2, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    Well, if “durch Mitleid wissend” (made wise through compassion) isn’t a sufficiently humanistic message, you could always close your eyes and enjoy one of humanities greatest accomplishments in large scale musical form. Large scale form is one of the most difficult musical “problems” (and one that constantly plagued Duke Ellington who could never quite solve it) but it seemed to come naturally and effortlessly to Wagner.
    Anyway, I hope you enjoy it. We’ll be watching from the other side of the pond. We’ve been looking forward to this one all season.


    • Oh the message “durch Mitleid wissend” I have no problem with! But, of course, no major work of art can be reduced to a “message”, and the dramatic context in which it is placed does, I confess, bother me. And yes, the music is … well, it is as Debussy had described it: “one of the loveliest monuments of sound ever raised to the serene glory of music”. but in opera, the music cannot, of course, be separated from its dramatic context.

      Well, it’s time to be off. We’ll exchange notes later!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: