Sunday 19 May 2013

On entering the week of Wagner's 200th anniversary

Anniversaries are strange creatures; more often than not, they now seem to make us moan. (Did anyone not become sick and tired of the dual Mahler anniversary years 2010-11? Most notably, anyone who actually had a real interest in Mahler?) Until relatively recently, my unconsidered response to this year’s Wagner bicentenary was – well, not much of a response at all. Indifference, not total, but relative, reigned. Yes, it has had me thinking about certain things, often more about 1813 than 2013, and it certainly has had me working on certain things, from a visit to the splendid Wagner World Wide conference in South Carolina onwards.  Yet to a certain extent every year is a Wagner year, and not just for me. London does not do especially well for Wagner performances, though at the same time they are far from non-existent. (The responses or lack thereof, by the two main opera companies here have, however, been baffling: a single production, yet to come, from the Royal Opera, and nothing whatsoever from ENO.) More to the point, however, not only the arts but so many of the ways in which we might and perhaps should consider our lives remain very much in Wagner’s shadow.

Yes, there have been anti-Wagnerians – Stravinsky is perhaps the most obvious example, though one should always take his alleged æsthetics with a large grain of salt – but their often militant anti-Wagnerism pays at least as much testimony to Wagner’s influence as more evident discipleship. The seriousness of Wagner’s vision for music, for the theatre, for art, for humanity remains as inspiring as ever – and as artistically productive. Stockhausen’s Licht, still to be staged as a cycle, is only the most gargantuan of modernist engagements, which of course began long before Wagner’s death, Liszt as so often standing as a pioneer (as well, of course, as a powerful influence upon Wagner). When opera, following the Second World War, seemed to have reached something of an impasse, much of the avant-garde for no particular reason having decided it was no longer ‘viable’, it was Wagner’s example that pointed the way forward. Boulez, initially suspicious of Wagner’s mythologising, came  through his work with Wieland Wagner to be one of the composer’s foremost modern advocates and freely admitted that his own compositions from the 1970s onwards would have been quite different were it not for his immersion in conducting Wagner’s dramas. (A great sadness is that he never conducted Die Meistersinger, one of the three operas he most wished to conduct but never had the opportunity to do so, the others being Don Giovanni and Boris Godunov. And Tristan never really had the attention it deserved from him, being confined to a collaboration with Wieland in Japan.)

Nono, a composer who from a relatively early year did write for the stage – and all of his works are in one sense or another highly dramatic – was asked, in a 1961 interview, ‘Who were the musicians that most influenced you during your earliest years?’ He named but one, Wagner. Operas such as Intolleranza 1960 and Al gran sole carico d’amore may certainly, in their political concerns and in their determination to explore the boundaries of theatre and of musical drama, the composer’s relationship with the audience included, may and should be considered very much, though certainly not exclusively, in a Wagnerian tradition. Just as with Wagner, Nono always believed in the necessity of a ‘provocation’ for an artwork, ‘The genesis of any of my works,’ he wrote, ‘is always to be found in a human “provocation”: an event, an experience, a test in our lives, which provokes my instinct and my consciousness, as man and musician, to bear witness.’ Moreover, that witness was best served in a fashion both verging upon the traditional, its roots in the Schiller-Marx-Wagner idea of art as the paradigm of labour, but also technological, an interest in new technical possibilities very much both of its post-war age and also with warrant in Marx. As Adorno observed, no composer of the nineteenth century had been so preoccupied with new technology as Wagner; there can be little doubt that, had he been born a century later, a state of affairs which would in itself have made the musical world of the twentieth century very different, he would enthusiastically have explored the world of electronics, without ever abandoning more immediate human expression. Just like Nono, in other words.

Henze, another determined musical dramatist from that generation, was determined to escape from Wagner. Whereas Nono dedicated Intolleranza to Schoenberg, Henze’s Prinz von Homburg, more or less contemporary, was dedicated to, Stravinsky, and another anti-Wagner was summoned up in explication by the composer. 'Every bar,’ he claimed, ‘reveals Verdi’s influence as a music dramatist.’ Nonsense, of course, for the desire to escape to the Mediterranean south was German through and through – think of Goethe, or indeed Wagner himself – and the Nietzschean dialectic – actually Wagnerian in origin – between Apollo and Dionysus would inform not just this, but many of Henze’s works, none more so than The Bassarids, for which Auden primed Henze by insisting that he attend a Vienna performance of Götterdämmerung. This is all thoroughly Germanic, not Italian at all, ‘sentimental’ rather than ‘naïve’ in Schiller’s sense, but post-Wagner, that is the lot of all art, it would seem. (By that, I do not mean to imply the transformation may be solely attributed to Wagner, but he is both highly emblematic and extremely influential in that respect; for instance, no one could be less ‘naïve’ an artist than Stravinsky.) Take Henze’s autobiographical recollection of that visit to the Vienna State Opera, when Karajan gave him use of his box: ‘I was perfectly capable of judging the wider significance of Wagner’s music: as any fool can tell you, it is a summation of all Romantic experience … But I simply cannot abide this silly and self-regarding emotionalism, behind which it is impossible not to detect a neo-German mentality and ideology. There is the sense of an imperialist threat, of something militantly nationalistic, something disagreeably heterosexual and Aryan in all these rampant horn calls, this pseudo-Germanic Stabreim, these incessant chords of a seventh and all the insecure heroes and villains that people Wagner’s librettos.’ Those are not the words of someone who has put Wagner behind him, and whether explicitly, as in his own Tristan, or more implicitly, the ghost of Wagner, the ghost of the Romantic and modernist past – and future? – would continue to haunt Henze.

Moreover, in the world of operatic staging, Wagner has perhaps loomed larger than any other composer in terms of the sometimes furious debates that have raged. That is doubtless partly to be attributed to Wagner’s own work as something akin to a modern director. In an interesting and, in the best sense, provocative essay, Keith Warner has recently pointed out that Wagner ‘almost single-handedly invented, certainly in opera,’ the role of director, ‘almost certainly provoked into action by the work of the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen [George II] and his celebrated acting troupe’s artistic director, Ludwig Chronegk,’ whose production of Kleist’s Der Hermannsschlacht he had seen in 1875, the year before the first Bayreuth Ring, ‘which Wagner chose to direct rather than conduct’. It is no coincidence that one of the most interesting – and musical – directors at work today, Stefan Herheim, has made his name above all through his Wagner stagings. Herheim’s Parsifal is now the stuff of legend; his Lohengrin, which, sadly, received far less exposure, stood very much in that line, engaging critically with work and reception, and offering possibilities of redemption for both, as well as for us.

In that, Herheim and others are doing very much what Wagner himself did – smashing the complacency of the present and of naïve, highly ideological constructions of a past that never was. They do this not for the sake of it, but so that a world in which Wagner, Beethoven, Shakespeare et al. may continue, despite every incursion of the modern ‘culture industry’, to flourish, to provoke, to nourish. For, as Carl Dahlhaus once observed, ‘It is precisely in order to radicalise conflicts – so that “resolutions” are ruled out – that dramas are written; if not, they would be treatises.’ It is for precisely the same reason that we perform rather than re-enact, that we study as well as perform, that we think rather than wallow, that history enlivens rather than deadens. History, musical or otherwise, is something we write as well as make, something we think, we imagine, we perform, as well as learn; it lives on the stage as much as in the archives. Let us remember that as we commemorate the one musical dramatist who does not pale when standing alongside Mozart; then we shall have an anniversary not just worth celebrating, but an anniversary that will celebrate itself.