Wednesday, 11 September 2013

From Bayreuth to Leipzig: Wagner returning home for his 200th anniversary

(a paper originally given at the OBERTO conference: Staging Operatic Anniversaries, at Oxford Brookes University, 10 September 2013)

Many in Wagner’s generation and in more than one generation before him found themselves preoccupied with the question, ‘What is German?’ A celebrated epigram by Schiller had begun by asking: ‘Germany? Where is it? I don’t know how to find it.’  Wagner himself essayed the question more than once, whether as a particular focus or as one amongst several. Much Wagner scholarship has, however, suffered from insufficient appreciation of that question’s nineteenth-century context and specifically of Wagner’s Saxon inheritance. His upbringing in Leipzig and Dresden, in the ‘third Germany’ that was neither Prussia nor Austria, profoundly informed his understanding of things ‘German’.

Transformed by Napoleon from an electorate into a useful allied kingdom in 1806, Saxony had the misfortune to emerge from the 1813 – that is the year of Wagner’s birth – Battle of Leipzig on the losing side. Most Saxon troops defected to the allied forces; King Frederick Augustus I was imprisoned; the state itself seemed imperilled, Saxony proving the great loser from the German states at the 1814-15 Congress of Vienna. Though Prussia failed to absorb her entirely, the rump of the Wettin kingdom held but three-quarters of the territory of the new Prussian province of Saxony. As Germans, looking askance at recent French cultural and political domination, increasingly wished for some form of national unification, questions arose: in what form and under whose aegis? Would there be popular unification founded upon a national movement, as desired by many of the 1848-9 revolutionaries, Kapellmeister Wagner in Dresden included, or a traditional power-political aggrandizement by one or both of the two great German powers? And where would that leave other German states, members of the so-called 'third Germany,' such as Saxony and Bavaria?

When Wagner, then, came to advise Ludwig II, he was informed by earlier experience. Wagner remained hostile to many of the other German princes, whose lamentable rule he held responsible for Germany’s sorry historical state, yet suspicion of Prussia, a ‘barracks state’ for many other Germans, always formed a crucial part of his outlook. The contrast, however exaggerated, between Prussian militarism and other states’ – Bavarian, Saxon, etc. – cultural achievement was a mainstay of discourse within those states. ‘Nationalism’ involved many competing strands.

Moreover, though one does not necessarily associate Wagner later in life with Saxony – indeed, amnesty permitted him to return to the other German states before his own – we find him in Leipzig, publicly and otherwise, more often than we might suspect. He conducted in 1862 at the old Gewandhaus the first performance of the Prelude to Act One of Die Meistersinger. Nietzsche wrote to his friend, Erwin Rohde, of attempts to effect a first encounter: Wagner was staying with relatives in Leipzig, unbeknown to the press. When they met, Nietzsche was enchanted by Wagner’s reading from his biography, Mein Leben, a scene from his Leipzig student days and observed, not for the last time, Wagner’s fondness for the local dialect.

In an essay from the mid-1860s, unpublished until 1878, the very question’ What is German’, ‘Was ist deutsch?’ is asked in its title. Just as, in Die Meistersinger, Hans Sachs proclaims that holy German art will endure, no matter what political calamity might befall the Holy Roman Empire, so Wagner now chooses the forlornly French-periwigged Bach as epitome of the German spirit, his music triumphing despite both his wretched, unrecognized existence as choirmaster and organist, and Germany’s catastrophic political fortunes. (Lutheran-Bachian chorales loom large in the Meistersinger score, likewise neo-Bachian counterpoint. Indeed, unreal anachronism, like that of the German nation itself. is built in to the work, since it provides Wagner’s reinvention of eighteenth-, not sixteenth-century counterpoint.)

Subsequent generations have often striven to dissolve Wagner’s ambiguities. National Socialism provides perhaps the most flagrant example, though it is far from alone. When Thomas Mann challenged hardening nationalist orthodoxy by presenting a more interesting, complex Wagner in a 1933 address, ‘Sufferings and Greatness of Richard Wagner’, he was rebuked in an indignant ‘Protest by the Richard Wagner City Munich,”’which spoke on behalf of a ‘national restoration of Germany … [having] taken on definite form.’ Though signatories, including Richard Strauss, Hans Knappertsbusch, and Hans Pfitzner, were not all National Socialists, they were complicit in at best a simplification of Wagner’s person and ideas. Such elision of Wagner with Nazi goals has continued to haunt Wagner scholarship and reception into the twenty-first century. The Bavarian anti-Reich Wagner of ‘What is German?”, let alone the Saxon universalist, would surely have objected.

And so, when, after the Second World War, the Wagner city of Munich and Wagner adoptive temple of Bayreuth seemed to many hopelessly compromised, one might have expected Leipzig to step forward as an alternative. Matters were of course complicated by the political division of Germany into East and West. Both were suspicious in their different ways, but the East Germans were – perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not – often reluctant to enlist a fellow socialist into their roll call. Maybe Wagner was too hot to handle, too wilful; maybe some even heeded Marx’s unfair dismissal, when answering, at the time of the opening Bayreuth Festival in 1876, the persistent question, ‘What do you think of Wagner?’: highly characteristic of the ‘New German-Prussian empire-musicians’. That is, he was of Bismarck’s party, when little could have been further from the truth.

Herz's Gotterdammerung (1976)
On the one hand, the Leipzig Opera, reborn in a new house in the Augustusplatz, opened in 1960 with a performance of Die Meistersinger. (It would also mark the fiftieth anniversary of its reopening with a new production of the same work.) And in the 1950s, there were more Wagner performances in the East than in the West. On the other hand, Beethoven, for instance, especially the Beethoven of the Ninth Symphony, seemed a safer German ‘humanist’ master – and then there were of course the ‘other’ Leipzig composers: Bach, Mendelssohn, even Schumann, despite the fact that none of them was born in the city.  Moreover, if the opera house opened with Joachim Herz’s Meistersinger, it waited until 1973 for Herz’s Ring – though its role, predating Patrice Chéreau’s 1976 production, in making Wagner’s myth very much of the nineteenth century and its political, social, and economic conditions should never be underestimated. (Sadly, it often is.) Until recently, however. a visitor to the city’s streets would see little of Wagnerian interest, whereas it would be difficult to miss Bach and Mendelssohn. The birth house was pulled down in 1886, and other places in which his family lived – they were rarely in one place for long – met the same fate either then or during Allied bombing in 1943-4.

Interestingly, however, that has been changing, not least in preparation for the bicentenary. A new statue, the competition won by sculptor Stephan Balkenhof, has been erected, funds notably coming from private subscription rather than from the state or municipality. Balkenhof was faced with the specified task of integrating an unrealised conception from a century earlier, by Max Klinger, the end result thus incorporating an aspect of Leipzig’s ambivalent Wagner reception as well as a clear, downsizing attempt, very much of our time, to render Wagner the young man just that, rather than a towering nineteenth-century Romantic genius.  Musically, Leipzig has distinguished itself by staging Wagner’s three ‘early’ operas. Earlier this year, I saw Die Feen, which Bayreuth, in its co-production of those three works, somewhat mystifyingly elected to perform only in concert, thus ceding something of its position as Wagnerstadt. It was one of the two most significant Wagner stagings I have so far seen this year, the other coming from the Mozartstadt of Salzburg, in Stefan Herheim’s new production of Die Meistersinger, a rare Wagner outing for the summer festival: the first time that particular work had been seen there since the 1930s, and itself, along with Herheim’s Parsifal and Lohengrin a truly outstanding attempt to grapple with Wagner’s place in German history.

A scene from Herheim's Meistersinger: © Salzburger Festspiele / Forster
Die Feen, never performed in Wagner’s lifetime, was intended for the Leipzig opera, though much of it was written in Würzburg – the Wagnerian contest between Bavaria and Saxony thus receiving a miniature dramatisation of its own, further complicated by Würzburg’s Franconian status as a very recent acquisition by Munich. It would eventually be staged in Munich in 1888, five years after the composer’s death, a production that received numerous repeat performances; thereafter, stagings and concert performances alike have proved at best sporadic. The first Leipzig performance took place in 1938, as part of the city’s celebrations for Wagner’s 125th birthday.

It is a splendid work, at times perhaps ‘immature’, yet far superior to a number of works, even oeuvres, that bafflingly continue to hold the operatic stage. For the Wagnerite, and indeed for those with any interest in musical history, there is considerable additional pleasure to be derived from the parlour game of identifying both the many influences upon the work and the ways in which it offers a true starting point for Wagner’s subsequent explorations. According to Wagner, writing in Mein Leben:

While I had written [the incomplete, preceding work] Die Hochzeit without operatic embellishments and treated the material in the darkest vein, this time I festooned the subject with the most manifold variety: beside the principal pair of lovers I depicted a more ordinary couple and even introduced a coarse and comical third pair, which belonged to the operatic convention of servants and ladies’ maids. As to the poetic diction and the verses themselves, I was almost intentionally careless about them. I was not nourishing my former hopes of making a name as a poet; I had really become a ‘musician’ and a ‘composer’ and wanted simply to write a decent libretto, for I now realized nobody else could do this for me, inasmuch as an opera book is something unique unto itself and cannot be easily brought off by poets and literati.

And so of course, it would continue, Wagner furnishing all of his own musico-dramatic texts, even if in this instance he reworks – perhaps too modest a verb – Carlo Gozzi. One may trace a multitude of other continuities or presentiments, not least the idea of the forbidden question, albeit the other way round from Lohengrin, at least in terms of gender: Ada, the half-fairy, half-mortal, has agreed to marry Arindal, the King of Tramond, with the condition that he never ask her who she is. Die Feen, however, is no tragedy; for, after inevitably having asked the question, having therefore seen Ada disappear, and having followed her to the underworld, where, Orpheus-like (surely a tribute to Wagner’s beloved Gluck?), he restores her to life with voice and lyre, Arindal gains immortality and joins Ada in the land of the fairies. The trials Arindal must undergo both recall The Magic Flute and presage Die Frau ohne Schatten. That is not, of course, to say that Die Feen itself is a crucial link between Mozart and Strauss – though Wagner certainly is, and Strauss actually served as assistant conductor for that Munich premiere – but rather to remind ourselves that so many of the ideas on which dramatists draw are part of common currency, especially when dealing with ‘what is German’, not least the resolutely unsentimental fairytale..

I could happily continue with respect to the ‘dramatic’ content, yet ought at least briefly to say something in similar vein, if equally selective, about the music. For instance, there is a second-act figure that naggingly anticipates Tristan, and the choral writing certainly at times looks forward to Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. Looking back, Weber, Marschner, and only slightly less, Beethoven and Mendelssohn loom large in the general music language, this being a more unalloyed ‘German’ opera than either of its two immediate successors, Das Liebesverbot and Rienzi, though the Italian and French influences upon those works have often been exaggerated. In any case, the broader point is that, for Wagner at this time, standing firmly in a dominant tradition of eighteenth-century German aesthetics, perhaps the key to understanding ‘German art’ was its power of synthesis, overcoming merely ‘national’ styles to progress, in his later Zurich ‘reform’ language, toward the universal.

Copyright: Kirsten Nijhof. Christiane Libor (Ada), Arnold Bezuyen (Arindal)

In this staging by director Renard Doucet, metatheatricality is worn lightly, humorously, yet tellingly. Following a Saturday evening modern German family meal, the father tunes in to a live broadcast of Die Feen from the Leipzig Opera. (A nice touch is his turning up the volume for the Overture as the conductor does similarly in the pit.) The rest of the family departs, leaving him in peace to listen. Music becomes the key to the work as a whole; it enlists his emotions, transforms his understanding. In something of a modern fairytale, his living room becomes the performance space, not entirely unlike the tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann. What might seem a counterpart to all-too-comfortable Biedermeier home life soon has its tensions exposed – Wagner perhaps issuing the challenge from which his home city had sometimes recoiled, whether in the 1830s, the GDR, or even more recently. Yet ambivalence remains; has Wagner disrupted proceedings, or has he himself been disrupted? Although the paterfamilias – at best a weak example of the type – welcomes back his wife at the end of the broadcast, and leaves Ada to the fairies, a beret-clad Wagner included, will he tire of his quotidian existence and hanker again after the immortality of that other world, that to which, as Arindal, he had exceptionally been admitted?

Ulf Schirmer’s conducting of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra proved well-judged. Early Romantic influences were apparent, but so, as in the staging, were hints – and sometimes rather more than hints – of what was to come. A phrase here or there might be ever so slightly underlined, or so I fancied, to alert one to a similarity with a phrase in Lohengrin, and indeed beyond. More importantly, the straining even at this stage towards through-composition was readily apparent, without entirely undermining the ‘number’ structure of this Romantic opera. The dark, typically old ‘German’ sonorities of the Gewandhaus Orchestra – so different, for instance, from the more homogenised, ‘international’ Berlin Philharmonic, of Karajan’s vintage, let alone Rattle’s – helped ‘place’ it within a recognisable tradition.

In performing this work – and performing it in such a fashion, both on stage and in the pit –  Leipzig took one step further towards reconciliation with its greatest son. This may not have been the intention, but perhaps we should also take this opportunity at least partly to shift our attention from Wagner’s later life, as focused upon places such as Munich and Bayreuth, to his earlier years, not least so that we might construct a richer, more complex picture of what it meant – and means – for Wagner and his music to be German.

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