Sunday, 22 May 2011

Happy Birthday, Richard!

Two years to go before the bicentenary...

A relatively rare nod to Leipzig's greatest son, at the site of his birth
(Good Friday, April 2011)

Almost everyone seems to have been at Glyndebourne yesterday for the new Meistersinger: not, alas I, though early reports tend to suggest a production somewhat lacking in Wahn and its darker implications. ('Riotous apprentices,' however, a friend approvingly remarks.) Though it looks as though I shall miss out on Wagner in Sussex, there will be a good few reports to come over the summer. Next month brings Götterdämmerung in Paris, to conclude the impressive new Ring there, and Pierre Boulez conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin in the Faust Overture and the Siegfried-Idyll (along with Daniel Barenboim at the piano for both Liszt concertos). Early August offers four nights in Bayreuth, from where I shall report on the new Tannhäuser, Lohengrin (Hans Neuenfels), Tristan (Christoph Marthaler), and the final outing for Stefan Herheim's extraordinary production of Parsifal.

With Wagner, there is of course always more than enough to think about. At some point, I should like to revisit and to develop my thoughts concerning the Immolation Scene, which anyone interested will find in the final chapter of my book, Treacherous Bonds and Laughing Fire: Politics and Religion in Wagner's Ring (click here for  details on the publisher's website). In the meantime, however, here is the very end of that chapter, which may, even out of context, be of interest to some readers...

The uncertainty of the watchers’ position precludes talk of a ‘happy ending’, yet they stand a little advanced upon us, as a beacon of hope to a world that has destroyed neither Valhalla nor Nibelheim. Art, in [Herbert] Marcuse’s words, ‘cannot change the world, but it can contribute to changing the consciousness and drives of the men and women who could change the world.’ The watchers’ emotional witness serves to remind us not only of the hopes we might invest in the future, but also of the condemnation we should pronounce upon the present: mutato nomine, de te fabula narratur. If we have rejected Mother Courage, what, then, of the ‘cloth-capped workers out of Brecht-Weill’ in [Patrice] Chéreau’s production? [Michael] Tanner acidly remarks that the centenary Ring was, ‘after all, a Ring to make us think. There is no evidence yet that it has succeeded.’ On the contrary: the debate ignited has still not died down. The watchers might be seen, if not to represent a particular social class, then at least to provide a crucial social element to the Ring’s denouement: a counterpoise to the ‘interior’ ending to Tristan, a return to words from 1849:

How should man create from himself a greater strength than he possesses? – We see that man is utterly incapable in himself to attain his destiny, that in himself he has not the strength to germinate the living seed distinguishing him from the beast. Yet that strength, missing in man, we find in overflowing abundance in the totality of men. … Whereas the spirit of the isolated man remains eternally buried in deepest night, it is awakened in the combination of men …

Hegel had pointed out that ancient movements inimical to worldly actuality – Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Scepticism – had brought only an abstract, inward reconciliation, incapable of satisfying living Spirit, which longed for a ‘higher reconciliation’. This, in conjunction with the depravity of Roman – Gibichung? – politics, had brought Christianity into the world. [Moses] Hess too had warned of the dangers of ‘philosophical egoism’:

Is the consistent Philosopher, as he appears in Bruno Bauer, not the self-satisfied egoist, the solitary who is blissful and all-powerful in his self-consciousness? … Is he not but as the pious Christian who has been elevated and consoled by his Communion feast and so separated from this evil and fallen world? Has he anything other to do in the world except – to learn to despise it? – Read Bruno Bauer! No Church Father and no statesman has ever more cynically expressed his scorn of the world of the ‘mass’ than this recent philosopher …
The watchers express sympathy for Brünnhilde and amazement at the flames of Loge, but what do Brünnhilde and Loge care for the survivors? Is Brünnhilde’s capacity for sympathy really universal, or is her separation from this evil, fallen world more cynical, or at least more selfish? More fundamentally, might Schopenhauerian rejection of the world actually, if unintentionally, provide ideological cover for ‘critical criticism’? Loge threatened to burn Valhalla in his Rheingold soliloquy; perhaps Brünnhilde, having passed through the illusions of love, is now, as his instrument, led astray by the critical illusions of nothingness. Do the watchers provide a counterpoise to such ‘egoism’, or to the nihilism it might engender in Wagner’s audience? It is possible that they retain something of [Max] Stirner’s free union of individuals, come together voluntarily and ever at liberty to disperse. Yet the wondrous events appear to provide a stronger communal bond than Stirner would allow.

Some of these suggestions are tentative, but that follows necessarily from the suggestive nature of the Ring, and in particular of its ending. Wagner, even in his theoretical writings, is vague as to what form any future political system might take – but this holds for many social and political critics, Marx included. In the introduction to the Zurich reform works for the 1872 edition of his collected writings, Wagner claims, ‘I believed in the revolution, in its necessity and its inevitability,’ but adds that it was never his intent to define the new political order. This would ‘emerge from the ruins of a mendacious world’. Eight years later, we read:

Questions as to how this or that shall be altered or eliminated, e.g., what to do with animals, how to distribute property, order sexual unions etc., are not to be answered in advance by speculative guidance; they answer themselves of their own accord through the consequences of the act, when this proceeds out of a great religious awareness.
Indeed, in Art and Revolution, Wagner had attacked the ‘utopia’ of Christianity, whose dogmas had ever been unrealisable. His move towards Schopenhauer lessened his hostility, yet reconciliation is never completed: not in the Ring, nor even in Parsifal. On the other hand, as Wagner lapped up Schopenhauer’s metaphysics, the increasingly preferential role played by music in the Gesamtkunstwerk itself provided a utopian vision. Wagner rejected even the ‘Schopenhauer ending’ as tendentious, resolving to let the music speak for itself – even if, perhaps especially if, it should ultimately resist translation into words. The final grandeur of Valhalla ablaze and the glorious – prophetic? – memory of Siegfried and the ‘act’ lead us into that enigmatic final motif. Its enigma is as intrinsic, as insoluble, as that of the ‘Tristan chord’. It provokes the dangerous, yet creative questioning of Wotan and Loge, and the malcontent and rebellion of the Volsungs; through Brünnhilde and the watchers, it tantalises us with ‘religious awareness’, the possibility of redemption. Falling short of absolute reconciliation – as even Hegel had done – returns us to the dialectical conflict between ‘absolute’ Romantic music and critical utopian ideas.

It seems fitting to turn one last time to the Centenary-Ring, which has proved quite an inspiration throughout this book. In his Performer’s Notebook, Boulez writes:

There have been endless discussions as to whether this conclusion is pessimistic or optimistic; but is that really the question? Or at any rate can the question be put in such simple terms? Chéreau has called it ‘oracular’, and it is a good description. In the ancient world, oracles were always ambiguously phrased so that their deeper meaning could be understood only after the event, which, as it were, provided a semantic analysis of the oracle’s statement. Wagner refuses any conclusion as such, simply leaving us with the premisses for a conclusion that remains shifting and indeterminate in meaning.
Chéreau himself wished:

… that the orchestra pit be, like Delphi’s smoking pit, a crevice uttering oracles – the Funeral March and the concluding redemption motif. The redemption motif is a message delivered to the entire world, but like all pythonesses, the orchestra is unclear, and there are several ways in which one might interpret its message. … Should one not hear it with mistrust and anxiety?
Writing in 1873 about his conception of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus then under construction, Wagner had expanded in similar terms upon his discussion nine years earlier with Gottfried Semper, concerning the abortive Munich Festival Theatre for Ludwig II. Between proscenium and audience would lie a ‘mystical abyss’, out of which the sounds of the concealed orchestra should emerge as an aural equivalent to the steam that once had risen from Gaia’s primæval womb, underneath the seat of the Pythia. Once again, Boulez and Chéreau point us toward the interpretive implications of Wagner’s vision.

Just as the explorations of the Ring had beckoned during Lohengrin’s concluding bars, so now do those of Parsifal: the work intended explicitly, indeed solely, for the Oracle of Bayreuth. If sexual love has become embroiled in games of power-politics and shown to be a force more of destruction than of liberation, such dark intimations of Freud will be more fully explored in that great second-act confrontation between Kundry and Parsifal, next to which the awakening of Siegfried and Brünnhilde might stand in danger of appearing superficial or naïve. Wagner’s final drama will build upon the riddles adumbrated in the Ring, and climax in the most oracular pronouncement of all: ‘Redemption to the Redeemer’. Solution to Wagner’s sphinx-like riddle of redemption will once again be postponed. Is the answer ‘man’? At any rate, Feuerbach remains a tangible presence. We must continue to listen carefully to the final bars of the Ring, which seem ‘to be telling us that the ultimate form of asceticism is to renounce easy illusion and create in ourselves the void from which a new genesis may spring’. Is this Feuerbach or Schopenhauer? If the question is ‘revolution or redemption?’ is the answer ‘revolution in redemption’? It is not that these questions have ceased to matter, nor that they have been transcended; it is certainly not the case that they should not have been asked, nor that they should cease to be asked. Chéreau’s mistrust and anxiety must remain at the hearts of present attempts if not to interpret then at least to suggest an illusory, momentary ‘solution’.

Adorno rightly feared the ‘Happy End’. Siegfried and even Hagen would have profited had they too been able to do so. We should remain vigilant, lest the tempting nihilism of phantasmagorical resolution should lure us from our path. A twentieth-century mind’s ear – but what of the twenty-first century? – might have found less perilous the tragedy and catharsis of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, Ravel’s whirling post-war vortex of disintegration in La Valse, or the inconclusive halt to which Berg so chillingly calls his Wozzeck. On the other hand, the redemptive halo in which, echoing Wagner, Berg bathed the end of his last completed work, the Violin Concerto (‘To the memory of an angel’) has often proved more problematical. Whilst considering the concerto more successful than Berg’s other ‘late’ works, Der Wein and Lulu, the young Boulez could not conceal his distaste at ‘this same desire for reconciliation’. Yet Boulez would subsequently conduct Parsifal and the Ring at Bayreuth – not to mention the first three-act performance of Lulu.

Adorno was quite justified to claim that serious consideration of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis – perhaps the most enduringly enigmatic musical work yet written – could only result in its Brechtian alienation, in rupturing ‘the aura of unfocused veneration protectively surrounding it’. One of the greatest problems with respect to the Ring is that such rupture has become well-nigh impossible. To be aware of this is only a beginning, but better than nothing. We should remain grateful that the enigma of the Ring pales besides that of Beethoven’s work. If we could understand why Beethoven set the Mass, we should, Adorno claimed, understand the Missa Solemnis. Understanding why Wagner wrote the Ring and beginning to understand the work itself suddenly seem less forbidding prospects.

Wagner’s musical mastery should not render us deaf to problems, or indeed opportunities, which endure. We engage with those problems when we consider redemption not as something accomplished – which, for the most part, it patently is not – but as a possibility. We should do Wagner a gross injustice were we to consider the Immolation Scene as an attempt to return to Beethoven. No longer can a journey from C minor to C major, from darkness to light, enable a hero to burst open the portals of Heaven; the Fifth Symphony means something different after Feuerbach. The Ring might open in E flat, but to end in the flattened tonality of D flat, the key of Valhalla and the key in which Das Rheingold so unsettlingly concludes or fails to conclude, can hardly fail to provoke unsettling questions. Progressive – even ‘regressive’ – tonality did not fail to leave its mark upon Mahler, who at times appeared to speak to the later twentieth century more directly than any other composer.

Birtwistle, it may be noted, has continued to reject Beethovenian goal-orientation in his music, whilst benefiting greatly – for example, in Gawain (1990–94) – from his intensive study of the Ring and Wagnerian leitmotif technique. As Birtwistle’s dramatic œuvre, up to and including The Io Passion (2004), indicates, myth, whether Christian or pagan, has, with its dialectic between the linear and the cyclical, come to seem more fruitful for dramatic exploration than its Romantic roots might once have seemed to imply. Myth has proved far less sterile and dated, far more capable of renewal, than verismo or inter-war neo-classicism. Birtwistle himself composed incidental music – though the word ‘incidental’ does the depth of his labyrinthine invention no justice – in 1981 to Tony Harrison’s translation of the Oresteia for the Royal National Theatre. Boulez had plans to set a reduction by Heiner Müller of the Oresteia, frustrated by Müller’s untimely death. Xenakis pursued his own Æschylus-inspired ‘synthesis of the arts’ in Oresteïa (1965–66), a combination of incidental music and concert-piece, followed by the vocal works Kassandra (1987) and La déesse Athéna (1992). And Stockhausen, in his gigantic seven-part Licht myth of creation, would seem to court, even to crave, Wagnerian comparisons; the new purveyor of myths strives to see the world begin, if not end. (Lucifer may have other ideas, though.) Wagner’s oracle is of the nineteenth century, yet is no more confined to that century than that of Æschylus is to his. The Ring attempts to ‘make clear to the men of the Revolution the meaning of that Revolution, in its noblest sense’. Only a further revolution, it seems, will enable us fully to understand the oracle of Götterdämmerung; then, we may hope, shall the owl of Minerva once again spread its wings. In the meantime, the Ring’s final augury will keep us fruitfully occupied.


Théo Bélaud said...

Extremely interesting. I would be very curious if you happend someday to go deeper in the understanding of this issue of "beethovenian" and "wagnerian" relations to keys.
I'm wondering what exactly you mean about D-flat by saying "the key in which Das Rheingold so unsettlingly concludes or fails to conclude," One could say, as Das Rheingold is the Prologue of the Ring, it makes sense it's conclusion leads to the key in which the cycle ends, and besides, in which also begins the "ring in the Ring", Götterdämmerung being also built with a prologue and three proper acts, beginning in D-flat.
According to this, it could feel unconfortable to draw some kind of relation between this progression/regression from E-flat to D-flat and, for what your reference to Mahler here means to me, the one from D natural to D-flat in the 9th symphony.

I'm actually thinking (but just... thinking) there could be another way of approaching the problem without introducing a "reconciliation-friendly" relation to keys wich would define the problem of Beethoven's legacy, although from Schumann to Sibelius (and actually Mahler 3 first symphonies) it seems an obvious idea.

There's also a lot to think about in how composers after Beethoven have dealt with his legacy in the use of "half-way" keys theorically hardly related to the main one : among so many examples (countless in Schubert music), one could focus on the strange keys of Beethoven slow movements of his 1st and 3rd piano concertos, both using a 4 alterations key (A-flat and E major) in relation to a C original tonic : in both case, my opinion is these keys should be heard in relation to nothing but the furthest sound of the C scale, precisely the one which has no classical function in terms of degree : the one between the tonic and the IInd degree, E major being the relative of c-sharp and A-flat beeing the relative of it's dominant.

This only makes sense since Beethoven did not compose the slow movement of the 3rd concerto in A-flat and the one of his 1st concerto in E-major but precisely the opposite.
One could obviously say the A-flat movement of a classical work in C major should the heard in relation to the more expected F major key, what basically makes sense except it fails to connect the procedures of 1st and 3rd concertos, and more importantly fails to relate both works to how their legacy were challenged.

It is extremely fascinating Brahms came to a striking synthesis of this procedure in the very work that remains the most widely considered as a beethovenian challenge in the sense of a way from darkenss to light, and actually goes from c minor to C major : the middle movements of the 1st symphony are in A-flat and E major, and actually it always sounds wonderful (typically schubertian) when the third one follows the second without interruption. And as a perfect mirror, the finale eventually returns first to c minor immediaetly following the E major chord.
One could say the difference here is the two first movements switch more usually from c minor to A-flat (as, say, Mahler 2nd that sounds much more academic in this sense, as it makes exactly the same move than Beethoven 5th symphony, the theorical absolute model for everyone), except Brahms concludes his first movement with a quite unexpected (and actually glorious) movement to C major.
The other way round, Schubert makes his response to the 1st piano concerto in his string quintet, swtching directly from C major to E major, and then moving straight to the A-flat relative f minor, all this taking place in the two first movements.

All this basically doesn't sound so original or especially meaning full now, because we just think about it as some of the many proofs of the harmonic imaginations of those great composers. But for me it shows the common representation of a beethovian tradition in the use of keys is much more ambiguous one would think about at first sight.

Théo Bélaud said...

Now, how about the Wagner D-flat problem ? In the same logic it can be related to the original E-flat with regards for the importance of the basic keys of such importants leitmotivs as Siegfried (c minor) and Brünhilde (E-flat) and many others : ther's a lot of the Ring to be heard as a beethovenian conflict between those 3 alterations relatives. This suggests all the way that somehow the work should find his way to light (or reconciliation) by finally nothing but an outer key, because obviously the reconciliation here has nothing to do with a conflit between these particular major and minor keys (not to mention the fact Siegfried and Brünhilde aren't exactly the perfect incarnation of a dialectical conflict).

It has been stated, I think by D. Cooke, that on the the other hand Alberich's curse leitmotiv shows a striking tension between it's basic key of b minor and the one of C major : since the curse of Alberich and actually of the whole Ring world can be considered the real incarnation of the work dialectical tension, it strongly suggests Wagner's own conception of harmonic tension is at least partly made of these uneasy relations "within" the tonic and the IInd degree of any scale. In the story's logic, everything could be seen as a consequence from Alberich's curse and pursuit for power, no matter the context of it happends to first be the Rhine.
The big story, the greater curse all comes from a B minor, wich leads to greater developements mostly involving the furthest keys (C, c and it's relatives), and then there's just one step to go for the D-flat "solution", It can't be C major. It can't be E-flat. It obviously can't be b minor related D major either, although you could also think about D-flat as related to this hypothesis.
As Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms all have shown how C/c can dialectically work with various c-sharp related keys : then why not D-flat itself ?
Who can actually tell if Verdi's Traviata ends in c-sharp or D-flat - just asking, by the way, if anyone has an interesting answer to give, though I guess Mark doesn't care at all about anything that has to do with a Verdi opera ;) ?

Mark Berry said...

Théo, tempting though it may be to reprise my thoughts or prejudices concerning 'La traviata', I shall leave the field open to those better qualified or at least interested...

What you say about Das Rheingold as prelude is interesting analytically. I take it you mean that one could consider the prelude/Vorabend as akin to an introduction such as Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven sometimes employ to reach, or at least firmly to establish, the tonic. I wonder though... Much depends on how, if at all, one should relate Wagner's practice to sonata form, how much one considers it amenable to Schenkerian or quasi-Schenkerian analysis, and so on. With something of a foot in the Schoenbergian camp, I am instinctively suspicious, but more to the point, I am not sure that Wagner's motivic web is symphonic in that sense. It certainly uses symphonic, post-Beethovenian technique, but to a 'dramatic' end whose relation to the practice of Beethoven, or indeed to that of Mozart in his operas, is quite fraught.

That preliminary aside, let us assume that such a way of understanding Wagner’s tonal areas etc. is valid. The position of Schubert here is, I am sure, crucial, though how much Schubert Wagner knew, especially on the instrumental side, is open to debate. Those tertiary keys, such as one so often finds in Bruckner, in many senses sound the death knell for Classical tonality, arguably tonality as such. It is no coincidence that Schubert so often makes one think of the Second Viennese School, and vice versa. Susan McClary was roundly criticised by unimaginative souls for relating Schubert’s harmonic practice to his sexuality, but I think that such a standpoint can actually be quite revealing; at any rate, it contrasts strongly with Beethoven’s typical practice, which becomes a norm, even a ‘masculine’ norm, if one will.

Mark Berry said...

I note, though, what you say about the piano concertos. Might one, however, understand that tonal practice, similar though it might appear, to be as it is for quite another reason, derived from Haydn’s almost Newtonian traversal of the tonal universe as a system? Brahms certainly owes a great deal to both Beethoven and Schubert, which might help synthetically to explain what you say about the First Symphony. If anything, one might say that his later music, so forward-looking in a Schoenbergian sense, is less so tonally, perhaps owing to the increasing, almost overwhelming, importance of Bach and even earlier composers such as Schütz, in his thinking. (I am very much speaking off the top of my head there, though, so that might simply be nonsense!) Arguably, though, I am in danger of merely reiterating my suspicions re Schenker et al.

I think, though, one certainly ‘hears’ – or, I certainly ‘hear’ – the D-flat conclusion, if conclusion it be, as flatter than the unsullied Nature of the E-flat opening. Key relationships do seem to operate at different levels, be they analytical or hermeneutical, and I see no reason why one should dissociate those levels; one should just be careful about proposing any one single way (cf. Alfred Lorenz, now newly fashionable again, rather surprisingly) to understand Wagner’s structures. Is not the B minor-C major relationship a little problematical though? Are we not talking about a Neapolitan sixth here, which is already a chromatic alteration/enrichment? At any rate, it is different from the relationship between D-flat and E-flat major. It seems to me that the Rhine, the original state of Nature – arguably already quite advanced culturally, but let us leave that on one side for the moment – is not merely the setting. Alberich only acts as he does because of his taunting by the Rhinemaidens; an ugly dwarf is fair game to shallow hedonists. (That might help your cause, though, since it indicates Wagner’s cultural imperative to progress: he is in no way saying that a Rousseauvian golden age is, or arguably ever was, attainable.) Moreover, the bigger story, as becomes increasingly clear, might even be Wotan’s parallel act of violence against Nature, his hewing the spear of state from the World-Ash tree. The alternative ‘opening’ to the Ring is then to be found in the E-flat minor of the Norns’ Scene. Again, Alberich acts as he does partly out of Nietzschean ressentiment concerning his lowly place in the society ruled over by the gods.

Théo Bélaud said...

You've clearly got a point by introducing Nature as a key to the understanding of how E-flat relates to it's further alteration. However, as you suggest, it doesn't have to be contradictory with an analytic understanding of how the E-flat basis relates to the D-flat endings of both Rheingold and Götterdämmrung through C major and it's relatives, since the act of violence you mention (the Spear) precisely happends to rise a conflictual, at least ambiguous C major/a minor element : it almost feels as if the Alberich b natural always had been threatening directly the E-flat scale, i.e the Naepolitan sixth wouldn't be worth noticed by itself, but as a mean to and end.
Alberich violates the nature bringing a b natural but doing this he allows a whole conflictual (harmonically speaking) world to step in, which is Siegfried's one.
Besides, I guess you agree to say that Siegfried/Brûnhilde is better heard in it's direct harmonic relation (relatives in love with each other, if if dared) than in a hypothetic relation between Brünhilde and... Nature.
So what's next ? D-flat. And by the way, there's something much easier to think about, since the original debate is roughly about wheter Wagner challenges or not some "beethovian great issue" in the way from darkness to light : though one could define the Nibelungen motives as secundary, well, this is still the Ring des Nibelungen, and so it's in b-flat minor... is there's anything beethovian in this story...

Nothing of this pretends to show anything consistant, in the sense of clear deduction ; it just suggests, as it could be done by many other ways, that it still proves stimulating to look at the score as if the key relations could be understood as more than just some leitmotivs purely descriptive system with no other formal purpose than the narrative logic.

By the way, if we can learn anything from Schoenbergs many analysis of all repertoires including his own works, it's the fact almost any GOOD piece of music can amost be analysed (this doesn't mean reduced or described) as a sonata piece, eventually turning it to a very much extended meaning.

But you mentionned Beethoven Missa Solemnis, I was listening at it this afternoon actually : one could also say , if there is anything we learn from the latest Beethoven works, it is that from a sonata basis any crazy kind of tonal work can arise... Including the complete Ring.

Mark Berry said...

Yes, that’s a very good point regarding Alberich’s B natural. I wonder whether one might also understand it as related enharmonically to the C flat that hangs so weightily over the Norns’ Scene. And, I am sure you are right that one need not always be consistent: there is, to the whole thing, a tension between Wagner’s (Hegelian) attempt to systematise – not only his, of course, for one might say a similar thing of Bach and of others – and the demands of the moment. In a sense that is dramatised when the Wanderer rejects Erda (Fate): the peripeteia to the cycle as a whole. But is Fate actually vanquished? The following scene needs some element of free will, or Siegfried’s victory over Wotan would be no victory at all, yet at the same time there seems to be an element of preordination, just as Wotan had attempted with Siegmund. And so on, and so forth… All of which, I think, one might find furthered in the music and its tensions between motivic and grand tonal working. As for the Missa Solemnis, daunting is hardly the word: Furtwängler eventually came to think it too great a challenge for him. If only there were a recording… Still, at least we have Klemperer…

Mark Berry said...

P.S. May I also say what a joy it is for once to be discussing the music? It has an unfortunate tendency to be left behind - and I am sure I am as guilty as many others here - when it comes to Wagner.