Thursday, 9 August 2012

Looking forward to Parsifal at Bayreuth (VI)

Wagner wishes to use Christian myth and Christian history to correct their errors. Thus Cosima records: ‘Much about church and state; he says, “For me Christianity has not yet arrived, and I am like the early Christians, awaiting Christ’s return.” – But in the search for ideality, he adds, things look different!’ (15 July 1879) Not only religion, not only Christianity, but even theology might be aufgehoben. Hegel – the philosophy of history – might yet vanquish Feuerbach, or at least render him less one-sided in his apparent atheism. Wagner, whilst lauding in 1851 (Opera and Drama) the ‘ability of Christian myth to enthral our minds’ via its depiction of ‘transfiguration through death,’ had also condemned it for having distorted and denied the anthropomorphism of Germanic myth and having constructed instead a new theology. Rendered incapable of necessary regeneration, myth – like political and artistic unity – had ‘fragmented into its individual, self-contained, component parts … its dramatic nucleus broken down into a plethora of unrelated deeds.' Now Christian myth and Christian theology, even if of questionable orthodoxy, might help renew that initial unity. If the Ring, despite its incidental Teutonism, had pointed the way, then Parsifal would recognise the necessity of religion in general and of Christianity in particular for any post-Incarnation society. Christ is reintroduced to a community that has abandoned Him. Whilst discussing the issue of Hermann Levi as conductor of Parsifal, Cosima told her husband: ‘the community into which the Israelite would be accepted has itself abandoned Christ, whereas previously blood was shed and everything sacrificed on his behalf’. Wagner responded that he had certainly remained true to Christ. ‘“The trouble is,” he exclaims, “that all great personalities reveal themselves to us in time and space, and are thus subject to change.”’ (19 January 1881) Hegel and history once again intervene, even when the Schopenhauerian language of time and space is invoked.

This conflict is re-dramatised in the dialectical opposition in Parsifal between the characteristic, indeed almost normative, chromaticism and diatonicism of Tristan and Die Meistersinger respectively. It is noteworthy that the most ‘advanced’ music is given to Klingsor, Amfortas, and Kundry, not to Parsifal, just as it had been to Alberich and Hagen. This diatonic-chromatic opposition takes concrete form in the opposition of the two worlds of Monsalvat and Klingsor’s realm. It is heightened by the incursions of the latter into the former, notably the agonising chromaticism of Amfortas’s wound and Kundry’s kiss, which renders Parsifal able to sympathise with Amfortas’s agony. As William Kinderman points out (‘Wagner’s Parsifal: musical form and the drama of redemption,’ in The Journal of Musicology, 4 (1985)),‘Kundry’s kiss serves … as the point of connection between the heavenly, diatonic realm of the Grail and the diabolical, chromatic realm of Klingsor; from her kiss comes the “pollution of the sanctuary,” reflected in the chromatic contamination of the third bar of the Communion theme.’Yet this ‘pollution’ is enabling too, in a very real sense a felix culpa, for without it redemption could never occur. Grace needs it, as well as vice versa.

And so, when reconciliation, the ultimate driving force of Hegel’s philosophy, comes, it is, despite some appearances, dialectical. Kinderman observes:

The arrival of this final tonic chord of A-flat major thus provides the simultaneous resolution of the Grail and Communion motives, standing in place of the dissonance that had represented a primary source of musical tension from the very beginning of the work, four hours earlier. In these closing bars, both motives are subsumed into the final subdominant cadence, completing and perfecting the musical form as an audible symbol for the utopia of redemption.

Perhaps, however, it remains but a utopia; it can hardly be the end of the story. We cannot be any more sure of the outcome than at the end of Götterdämmerung. Such a plagal cadence was closely associated, especially during the historicising nineteenth century, with the great tradition of sacred music. The music, in a sense, is intoning ‘Amen!’ to the words’ ‘Redemption to the Redeemer!’ This is not to suggest that Wagner is straightforwardly assenting to the dogmas upon which that sacred tradition is based. He remains for that both too much a Young Hegelian, adamant upon the time-bound nature of supposedly eternal truths, and too much a Schopenhauerian, with a metaphysical though not æsthetic bent of atheism. Rather, Wagner is daring to subsume the truths of that tradition into the world of musical drama; he portrays the ‘truest’ elements of Christian mythical tradition on stage and in the orchestra, and thereby contributes to their development. He subsumes the truths, partial though nevertheless real, into a greater, post-Hegelian search for systematic truth: a vain attempt perhaps, yet an impulse to renewal.

(To read more of the essay on Parsifal from which the above is excerpted, click here.)

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