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.