Saturday, January 17, 2015

Thoughts about Richard Wagner . . .

I happened to tune into a recent PBS performance of Die Walkure and got swept up in the ride of the Valkyries, along with the conflicted condition of Wotan, who must sentence his beloved daughter, Brunhilde, to punishment. This theme of gods entrapped by finitude, bad deals, gold, and giants is intriguing. This is not monotheism we're talking about. 

So I’ve been listening to Wagner, right now, as I write, to the Ride of the Valkyries. Yes, of course, it's wildly exhilarating. Reminds me of Beethoven's Ninth, the first movement, where he injects spikes, spires, scythes of sound, that shoot through the music to make it all the more dazzling and overwhelming. That said, I don't pretend to know how to write about music — don't have the training or vocabulary — and am probably overdoing it.

Still, what I do feel about Wagner is that he was just fine as a composer, quite tremendous in his way, but not on a par with Brahms, neither the latter's symphonies, his best chamber works, or his Deutsche Messe. Others have opined that if Germany had gone with and extolled Brahms not Wagner the twentieth century would have been quite a bit more pacific. I take that point.

It's this, I think, the Nibelungen cycle that propelled Wagner to dominance, to musical fuhrerhood. The Ring Cycle called for and exemplified a new sort of music indissolubly linked to a new sort of nationalism.

The Ring Cycle called Germans together in the way, as biblical legend has it, Moses getting the Law on Sinai forged the wayward and fractious Hebrews into a people.

The Hebrews were brought together by texts. More important than the laws and commandments — every nation had laws and commandments — is that they were transmitted by text, specifically alphabetic text, the hot new medium of the day and age (circa 1000 BCE).

The Germans called forth by Wagner were drawn by kampf (struggle), drums, and cymbals, by ecstatic tragedies even gods could not escape — by omens and overtures to absolute destruction and to war.