Thursday 26 March 2020

Interpreting Wagner's Dreams: Staging 'Parsifal' in the Twenty-first Century

(This essay was first published in The Wagner Journal, 11/2, (2017), pp.44-53, and is based on a paper I gave at a Freud Museum conference, 'Wagner's Parsifal and the Challenge to Psychoanalysis')

Images from Dmitri Tcherniakov's Staatsoper Berlin staging: Ruth Walz
Parsifal (Andreas Schager) and the Flowermaidens

Parsifal, like all of Wagner’s dramas, is particularly revealing at the intersection of authorial intention and latent content. What is revealed and what is repressed? Dreams were certainly of great importance to Wagner, perhaps most famously in his claim that the Prelude to Das Rheingold, the first of the Ring dramas, had come to him in ‘a kind of somnambulistic state […] the feeling of being immersed in rapidly flowing water’, and indeed in the dramatic material of a number of his works. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is explicitly concerned with the formation of an artwork initially revealed in a dream world. That offers an interesting way to consider stagings of his works too, and their claims to fidelity or otherwise at a textual or allegedly ‘deeper’ level. I shall consider the claim of the work ‘itself’ to stand apart from the operatic repertoire as a Bühnenweihfestspiel (stage festival consecration play) to be confined to his artistic temple at Bayreuth. However, my principal focus will be upon two particular productions: those of Stefan Herheim (Bayreuth, 2008–12) and of Dmitri Tcherniakov (Berlin, 2015–). A broader, implicit question would be: how do directors and performers navigate the historical, social, cultural and psychological distances and conflicts between Wagner’s intentions, his ability and inability to fulfil and perhaps even to transcend those intentions, and the needs of contemporary theatres and audiences? What is gained and what is lost? What, again, is revealed and what is repressed?

Herheim’s production opens with Parsifal at the time of its first, Bayreuth staging, in 1882. It proceeds to tell a history that leads to somewhere approaching the present day, even turning a mirror upon the audience at one point, a moment with considerably greater theatrical power than a mere retelling might suggest. The audience is not simply accused, deservedly or otherwise; it is also reminded that it belongs to a drama that remains unfinished, whatever Wagner’s Hegelian aspirations towards totality, and that it, the audience, interprets, shapes, even writes the history suggested. Far from having reached a Fukuyama-like ‘end of history’ – how hollow such claims have seemed ever since 1989, but certainly since the UK’s decision to leave the EU[1] – we might all have become historians, or indeed analysts: a challenge already to the ‘gathered congregation’ of Bayreuth orthodoxy, whether that be Wagner’s own or not.[2] That position stands superficially close, perhaps, to post-modernism, yet, given the persistence of the ‘work concept’, that is, in this case, of drama existing in the work ‘itself’ and not just or even principally in its realisation and/or interpretation, it perhaps remains more grounded in some form of object, some form of reality, than critics of history, the musical work and the connections between them, might wish. Intelligent productions will strengthen the work, and vice versa, to which we should also add intelligent audiences, ready to think, to be challenged; this is quite the opposite of a zero-sum game. Wagner, though he might sometimes come close to positing a false immediacy of audience response, was no proponent of art as non-reflective, non-reflexive, Rossini-like entertainment; he had no desire to be a mere purveyor of the scenic and vocal diversions that opponents of interpretative stage direction more often than not wish to see (and hear) ritually enacted. ‘Our theatrical public’, he complained in ‘Opera and Drama’, ‘has no need for the artwork; it desires diversion from the stage, […] well-crafted details, rather than the necessity of artistic unity.’[3] The enemy here was miniaturism, the inability to construct a greater whole, which can be extended to all aspects of Wagnerian music drama, whether in theory or in practice – and, in his essay, ‘On Conducting’, lavishly praised by conductors from Furtwängler to Boulez, most certainly was.[4] Likewise in Parsifal. An attempt, even if forlorn, to achieve some form of unity of vision remained the modernistic goal.

Let us, though, keep our sights upon Herheim’s Parsifal for the moment. That matter of conducting is not irrelevant here, for whereas some aspects of individual vocal performance may ultimately prove to be of ephemeral interest, the question of coherence between ‘music’ and ‘drama’, itself a false antithesis, is avowedly not. Under the musical leadership of Daniele Gatti, the ‘work’ strained towards that unity which in some sense it must present. Gatti’s reading proved controversial, some writers finding it lethargic and uninspired. That, however, was not Herheim’s opinion. In a fascinating interview, he averred that, whilst he admitted to retaining reservations concerning some choices of tempi – consider quite how unusual it is for a stage director even to think about such matters – the experience of working together with Gatti had been fruitful for both and had made the collaboration far more than the sum of its parts:

When I heard him conducting his first Parsifal in Rome (concert performance), I was somewhat surprised and startled: he was even slower than Toscanini – the first act alone lasted for well over two hours. Daniele was equally suspicious of my ideas, and for a while I was afraid that our different approaches wouldn’t be productive and that the collaboration wouldn’t work. But during the rehearsals in Bayreuth, we immediately began to communicate. Daniele saw that I felt the musical gestures totally intuitively, and that my direction corresponded with his interpretation of the score. And during the rehearsal process, I learned to understand his tempo choices and musical perspectives much better. Our collaboration turned out to be very productive, creative and we have great respect for each other.[5]

Herheim, it should be added, began his career as a cellist, and is a more unusual example than one might expect, or at least desire, of a director who reads the score. The issue of staging the Prelude to the first act was resolved more amicably, more fruitfully, than it would be with Daniel Barenboim in Lohengrin. Initially Gatti was sceptical, concerned that the audience might be distracted from the music. But Herheim made the excellent point in the interview cited above that that would suggest that once the curtain rose, the audience need no longer concern itself with the music, continuing, ‘I’m not saying that in principle the Prelude should always be staged. But if you have good reasons to portray the music in the prelude, it’s just the way that it’s done that you can argue against. Gatti acknowledged this and was excited about the symbiosis the staging entered into with the music.’[6]

Crucially, that symbiosis enabled, even provoked, the emergence of an idea of the score as redeemer, contra the superficial FAZ criticism cited above. It was subtle rather than thrust in one’s face, unlike the provocative second-act Nazi imagery, which I shall address later. Yet, for that reason, and it might well take more than one encounter fully to appreciate this, Herheim’s candidate for an answer to Wagner’s riddle of ‘Redemption to the Redeemer’ – that is, the music, in all its contradictions as well as all its emotional and psychological immediacy – emerged all the more convincingly. Again, that was a possibility rather than a definitive ‘solution’, but successful dramas, like successful performances, do not trade in the latter. The tale of German history, of Parsifal as a work developing through that history, could thereby be seen and heard as requiring and receiving some form of transcendental, or at least beneficial, intervention, not so much ‘grace’, but something more immanent, arising from within, the attempted negation of the litany of negative dialectics to which history and work have been subjected. There was no false mediated unity in which h to rejoice or rather to wallow. Ritual is in Parsifal and through Parsifal dynamically, dialectically challenged from within as well as from without; that indeed is the very stuff of Wagner’s drama.

For Parsifal was intended to be and remains different. Wagner’s various attempts to avoid the pejorative – to him – ‘opera’ as a description of his later works may nowadays elicit as much scepticism as blind adoration, though in simply calling Tristan und Isolde ‘drama’ (Handlung), he certainly captured a quality of that singular work. However, it would take a Wagnerian of extreme, unhealthy devotion not to raise at least a hint of a smile at the cumbersome Bühnenweihfestspiel. And what that term might mean has brought all manner of consequences for the work’s reception, even indeed, given the determination of Cosima and other Bayreuth loyalists that it should remain confined to the stage it allegedly consecrated, for the possibility of staging it at all. The surrounding aura of sanctity may seem to many repellent (‘an unseemly and sacrilegious conception of art as religion and the theatre as a temple’ – Stravinsky)[7], ridiculous (Debussy, albeit continuing to honour the score alone as ‘one of the loveliest monuments ever raised to the serene glory of music’)[8], or both, as in Nietzsche’s case. Moreover, the claim that Parsifal is in any straightforward sense a ‘Christian work’, as opposed to a work that treats, amongst other things, Christianity, would find few takers today. Even if the end of the first act were an invitation to receive Holy Communion, the Grail Knights’ words – ‘Partake of the bread, valiantly transform it into corporeal strength and power’ – suggest a church or theology whose heterodoxy extended beyond the merely Gnostic. Deeds as well as secret knowledge transgress; indeed, the boundary between the two for Wagner, as an inheritor to Fichte’s and Young Hegelianism’s Philosophie der Tat (philosophy of the act) often comes close to dissolution.[9]

That said, this tale of a ‘pure fool’, so ignorant that he knows neither whence he has come, nor even his name, who, through the offices of divine grace rather than by his own deeds, enlightened through compassion (Schopenhauer’s Mitleid, ‘suffering with’), rejuvenates a dying community, remains quite different from the operatic essays of any of Wagner’s contemporaries and many of his successors. Parsifal resists assimilation to the opera house; it is out of place amongst champagne, canapés and diva-worshippers. Wagner wrote to Ludwig II that he wished to protect it from ‘a common operatic career’.[10] Pierre Boulez, a highly distinguished interpreter and critic as well as compositional successor, understood this very well when he approvingly wrote of Wagner loathing a system in which ‘opera houses are […] like cafés where […] you can hear waiters calling out their orders: ‘One Carmen! And one Walküre! And one Rigoletto!’[11] Wagner’s works declare their incompatibility with existing theatrical conventions and norms – even today, arguably still more so. And of those works, Parsifal remains the ultimate.

The signal strength of Herheim’s production is that it engages with these problems: with the fraught associations, both with Bayreuth – which, for better and for worse, is also quite different from anywhere else – and with broader historical themes, associa­tions the work has gathered from at least the time of its premiere in 1882. So intensely dialectical and multi-layered is Herheim’s direction that we tread successfully a tight­rope between presentation of his guiding Konzept – the history of Parsifal as a work and of the world in which it has developed from the time of its first performance to that of its most recent – and recounting of the immanent story of Parsifal. Two stories run not so much in parallel as with mutual influence, yet without inflicting harm upon each other and with no sense of contrivance.

In the first act, we therefore witness the early days of post-Wagner Wahnfried, the sickly, incestuous goings-on of an impeccably haut bourgeois family and its nursery (Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks comes to mind), in the era of an oft-present Imperial Eagle. As Christianity enters an especially peculiar phase, dreams and childhood come to the fore, likewise the psychopathology of religious experience (which both Nietzsche and Mann saw as fundamental to the work). A priest, incense – Nietzsche’s accusation of Wagner sinking to his knees before the Cross re-examined – and, most shockingly, cir­cumcision of the infant who may or may not ‘be’ a young Parsifal, offer almost as much food for thought as Wagner’s own inversion, echoing the philosophy of Feuerbach, of the elements. The violence of the deed could hardly have been more topical during the 2012 legal controversy over infant genital mutilation in Germany; and yet, it also points to something older, deep-seated, and of course very much part of the work’s reception history: the question of whether antisemitism might be expressed in Wagner’s drama. (It notably does not propose answers to such questions, old yet unquestionably alive; rather, it suggests to what further interpretative work they might fruitfully be put.) Am­fortas in this production seems far more central to the drama. His cry of pain jolts us from complacent ‘knowledge’ of the work, and also points forward – or backward! – to Kundry’s scream of laughter at Christ, who, whatever Wagner may have hoped, must also have undergone the procedure, on the road to Calvary.

The second act opens in a field hospital. For once – and this is typical of Herheim’s attention to Wagner’s detail – we actually see the renegade Knights, Sir Ferris and all. Klingsor resembles the master of ceremonies from the film Cabaret; for now we behold Weimar Germany, our Moorish castle’s owner suggestive in white tie and fishnets.[12] The delicious representation of the Flowermaidens as orderlies and flappers – is that not just what they are? – gains dramatic attention, as well as firmly placing us in the inter-war period. (I say ‘firmly’, but historical time passes as its performative cousin does.) And yet, a reminder that various levels of interpretation are anything but distinct is offered by a greater keenness of manipulation when it comes to Kundry’s acts: above all, what she tells Parsifal. She is in turn being manipulated by Klingsor; yet perhaps so many of us are understandably now influenced by feminist readings that we feel uncomplicatedly sympathetic. It is salutary to be reminded that this Rose of Hell – the rose very much part of Herheim’s imagery, deploying ‘new’ video technology – has, despite her plight, agency of her own. That is more properly feminist than to consider her purely as victim. And the similarity of costume between her and Klingsor, both in Weimar cross-dressing travesty, reinforces the need both have for each other, an Hege­lian master–slave dialectic re-imagined. Wagner’s artwork is permitting of answers, or better, further questions, which he may or may not have been able to conceive himself. Historical understanding enables it to become of the present, even of the future.

The final scene of the second act is electric: the coming of Bayreuth’s and Germany’s darkest years truly shocking. Indeed, the phrase coup de théâtre might have been in­vented for this advent of the Third Reich, signalled by the ‘Weimar’ castle’s destruc­tion, the arrival of stormtroopers and a brown-shirted, tomorrow-belonging-to-him little boy and the unfurling of swastikas. Overdue yet nevertheless courageous, the festival seemed at last ready to begin to come to terms with its history. Judging by the disgruntled noises from some members of the audience – it should hardly surprise that ‘conservative’ critics of searching productions would feel discomfited by a reminder of their ideological kinship – it remains an absolute necessity too.[13]

Then, the final act opens in the garden of a bombed Wahnfried. Parsifal’s arrival and Good Friday offer the possibility – illusory? – of rejuvenation. In a tribute to the Bayreuth Tannhäuser of Götz Friedrich, with whom Herheim studied, a procession of the starved postwar population crosses the stage, victims of what has gone before and, prospectively at least, of the mendacious ideology of the Wirtschaftswunder (postwar ‘economic miracle’) and its culture industry. The point of ultimate hope comes when a star briefly appears in the sky: wonderfully touching, yet what does it signify? A (false) messiah’s advent? A simple, childlike pleasure? It certainly rings truer than the gaudy coloured lights signalling Parsifal’s descent into the realm of the (lifestyle?) guru. Another brave coup de théâtre – Herheim never forgets that Parsifal, amongst other things, is theatre; nor should we – comes with a projection during the Transformation Music. A request is displayed from the young Wagner brothers, Wieland and Wolfgang, at the 1951 re-opening of ‘New Bayreuth’, that political discussion be banished from the Green Hill. An image of Wagner is bricked up behind Parsifal’s childhood wall, the composer remaining too hot to handle. Might we also recall that Wahnfried wall built by Wolfgang, on whose other side Winifred remained until her death, a standing, tenacious reminder that politics could not so easily be banished?

If anything, politics stand still more starkly at the heart of the final scene. Amfortas’s trial – in every sense – takes us from postwar Nuremberg to the present-day Bundestag. The problematical nature of charismatic leadership is here for all to see. Parsifal is not one of the trio present at the close, presumably hastening us to an uncertain future; instead, we find ourselves in the hands of Gurnemanz, Kundry – she does not expire – and a young boy. Or is he Parsifal, and has the whole drama been a dream or, rather, the ultimate nightmare: Friedrich Meinecke’s ‘German catastrophe’, the purported Sonderweg of German history?[14] There is certainly no solace to be had from the bickering politicians of the Bundestag, the flag of the Federal Republic draping Titurel’s coffin, yet Parsifal seems to have offered at best a dead-end, a touch of snake oil: a modern politician? Amfortas, like Siegfried, seems to have gained in dignity through death. Nihilism, as Nietzsche would doubtless have had it? Or Wagner’s lifelong anarchism?

Again, questions are dramatically suggested rather than dogmatically answered. What of Herheim’s aforementioned turning of the mirror upon the audience? It comes across as an invitation, indeed an incitement, to question everything we have thought. ‘Educating Parsifal’, the character, is also ‘educating Parsifal’ (or more accurately ‘Parsifal educating us’) – and not in merely didactic but in dramatic fashion. As Horace put it many years earlier, ‘Change but the name, and the tale is told of you’.[15] It is perhaps only what Wagner had been doing all along, although, in the emotional context both Wagner and Herheim have developed, as opposed to the abstraction of a mere act of reporting, it would be an unimaginative soul indeed who did not relish the mirror’s ambiguous invitation. The communal, religious and political role of Attic tragedy Wagner wished to recreate is just as relevant, to a revolutionary artwork of our future as to one of his.

I should now, however, turn to Tcherniakov’s Berlin production, which I saw both at its 2015 premiere, and again, in 2016, on Good Friday.[16] The outer acts, in their different yet similar ways, suggest a Russian thinker approaching Wagner. Like Herheim and indeed many of the most interesting contemporary opera directors, Tcherniakov seems more concerned to open up possibilities than to present definitive verdicts. Modern, relatively indistinct dress does not distract, but suggests sameness and indeed an ossified dedication to something that no longer pertains: a lesson for ‘traditional’ staging fetishists, among others. Crucially, however, Tcherniakov does not disregard religion as religion; it is not a proxy for political or aesthetic concerns. As in Wagner’s work ‘itself’, the relationship is complex, indeed provocative.

There is here a (once) Christian theology gone wrong, as Wagner’s conception of Monsalvat demands. Just as in the second act of Götterdämmerung, when increasingly desperate pleas are made to gods who have already departed the stage, so in Parsifal, the crowd continues to believe and to act out of desperation in accordance with that belief, or at least to act as if it still believed. Men act to protect a ritual which has long lost its justification, if ever it had one. (What Wagner presents, after all, is heretical in the extreme, as much a Feuerbachian inversion, even a black mass, as anything else. And it is a representation, a dramatisation, not the thing itself.) A world of Russian holy men, perhaps allied to the anti-Wagnerian challenges of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, reacts with that of Wagner’s still-live (and later, Tcherniakov’s still-life) contest between Feuerbach and Schopenhauer. These are old believers and, perhaps, Old Believers; certainly the final outward turn of the community on stage, magnificently presented as if a revivification of an Old Master painting, suggests Mussorgsky’s Khovanschina with a Goya-like twist. Will the new rule, political or monastic, of Parsifal bring more of the same – Gurnemanz, after his shocking stabbing in the back of Kundry, seems effortlessly to have transferred his loyalty to the new regime, although at what cost has he been concealing whatever it is he has done in the past? Or will that new rule bring something different? We do not know; nor do they. Who or what, if anything, has been redeemed? What we do know is that Gurnemanz has swiftly put paid to the ‘purely human’ – as the younger, Feuerbachian Wagner would have put it – rekindling of sexual relations between Kundry, or Woman, and Amfortas, or Christ, or at least Jesus of Nazareth.

There are certainly clues. Amfortas is identified more with Christ than I can previously recall. He is carried by the knights so as to make him, however unhappily and unwillingly, a visual if perhaps not spiritual reincarnation. More disturbingly still, we see during the final scene of the first act, a re-enactment not only of Amfortas’s wounding but also of some form of transubstantiation, or perhaps mere vampirism, of his own blood. The sustenance drawn may well be nothing – a negative reading of Feuerbach – or it may even be primarily vengeful. There is no doubt, however, that this sick community requires it, and, most intriguingly of all, it is commanded by Titurel, whom we see walk onstage and enter his coffin. Titurel’s ritualistic staging of his own death in the first act and re-emergence from the coffin once ‘it’ is all over stand at the very heart of the drama. He is a sinister, charismatic dictator: the cult leader we all know and fear. Moreover, his sadism in insisting, for whatever reasons, that his son, Amfortas, go through what he must time and time again, chills to the bone. Is Titurel a fraud or a thaumaturge? The knights are desperate for him to touch them. He certainly appears to be pulling the theological strings of a cult that has become nasty indeed.

The sameness of the first act – the scene does not shift during the Transformation Music, and indeed the production here burns as slowly and yet as brightly as the work – receives its response in what to begin with seems the unconnected action of the second. Here, Tcherniakov offers a brave, challenging exploration of sexuality, above all of those paedophiliac tendencies our society would desperately wish away as aberration, as the misdeeds of individual ‘monsters’. Klingsor, the very image of a tabloid newspaper’s ‘paedophile monster’, has built a home with his daughters, the Flowermaidens. Some are young; some are older; all are dressed as ‘pretty girls’. Such is clearly what has proved the undoing of Monsalvat’s knights. He clearly repels Kundry, not least when he paws her, but she of course remains in his power. (Perhaps because he has put himself beyond the ‘moral’ pale? Very Nietzschean. Or perhaps we might think of Crime and Punishment.)

When in Klingsor’s power, Kundry is certainly willing to learn from his example, or from what it might suggest. Her kissing him already suggests an inconvenient truth concerning the complexity of abuse. Wagner’s path of realisation, which I am tempted to call psychoanalytical, is given shocking realisation in Kundry’s education of Parsifal, partly visualised in the staging of his memories. Andreas Schager as Parsifal cemented his reputation as the finest Heldentenor alive, indeed the finest I have heard in the flesh. Moreover, his movements on stage offered a well-nigh perfect portrayal of the awkwardness of an adolescent discovering his sexuality. His reluctance to show himself, hiding under his hood, pulled down by Herzeleide and Kundry alike, finds its counterpart in his persistent changing of clothes: seemingly a desire to be clean that can never be fulfilled. This Parsifal and his mother, Herzeleide, were close, perhaps too close. She is furious when she sees his adolescent first exploration with a girl-next-door, or perhaps even his sister. The emotional fall-out kills her, just as Kundry tells him – and us. Kundry, however, attempts to play upon those complex feelings, to reignite them, reintroducing him to the miniature rocking horse with which once, under Herzeleide’s spell, he had played. Quite what happens remains unclear, since the moment of the ‘kiss’ – is it perhaps more than that? – takes place offstage. The transformation it effects, when the undressed Parsifal, followed by Kundry, runs back onstage, is, however, never in doubt. The would-be sign of the Cross in this dark world is Parsifal’s piercing of Klingsor with the spear.

A crucial feature of the production that has tied both acts together is the circular seating and action of the respective crowds: Knights and Flowermaidens. Sickness pervades both; they may well be more closely connected. The third act continues the work of drawing the two together, though again, suggestively rather than didactically. Ritual to drama – to ritual aufgehoben by drama. But was it the wrong drama? When, in the third act, Amfortas opens his father’s tomb and has the body fall to the ground, is that simply revenge for the inhuman treatment – the abuse – our Christ-like, yet ultimately not-so-very-Christ-like, victim has suffered? Or is it also perhaps a hint at the death of God, Titurel being his father? Nietzsche as well as those Russian writers seems to be hinted at, or at least available. Nihilism or theological rescue mission? As when one reads Nietzsche, perspectivism demands and yet obscures the answers.

One signal strength of both productions, I think, is their willingness to deal with that particularity of the work mentioned earlier – its insistence upon its difference, its opposi­tion to general operatic culture – as well as such a myriad of connections, correspond­ences and so forth, some intrinsic, some developed along the way of the work in the world since its premiere in 1882. (I have barely begun to scratch the surface but have devoted a chapter of a recent book to Herheim’s staging.)[17] What David J. Levin analysed as the operatic conservative’s – in this case, James Levine’s – dread of the ‘hectic stage’, of ‘discursive overload’, has turned out actually to harness such overload to fidelity in a sense all manner of operagoers could and eventually did appreciate.[18] That is certainly also highly relevant to the Syberberg film discussed elsewhere in this issue.

We perform, then, rather than re-enact; similarly, we study as well as perform, so that we think rather than wallow. History, musical or otherwise, is something we write as well as make, something we think; we might, perhaps, say the same about dreams, Wagner’s and our own. Herheim’s and Tcherniakov’s dramaturgies have enabled Wag­ner’s music, perhaps still more so than his words, to emerge as redeemer: not in a discredited sense of ‘absolute music’, with the reactionary, neo-Romantic connotations that has acquired, but in a critical sense suited to our own time and its concerns.

[1] The referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU was held on 23 June 2016, nine days before the conference at which this paper was originally given.  
[2] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (Harmondsworth, 1993).
[3] Richard Wagner, Oper und Drama, ed. Klaus Kropfinger (Stuttgart, 1994), 388. ‘Das Publikum unsrer Theater hat kein Bedürfnis nach dem Kunstwerke; es will sich vor der Bühne zerstreuen, […] künstlich Einzelnheiten, nicht aber die künstleriche Einheit Bedürfnis.’
[4] Richard Wagner, ‘Über das Dirigieren’, Gesammelte Schriften und Dichtungen, 4th edn, 10 vols. (Leipzig, 1907), viii.261–337.
[5] Erling E. Gulbrandsen and Per-Erik Skramstad, ‘Stefan Herheim on Working with Daniele Gatti, the Choice of Tempi and the Staging of Preludes’, tr. Jonathan Scott-Kiddie, (accessed 18 Mar. 2017).
[6] Ibid.
[7] An Autobiography (New York, 1956), 59.
[8] ‘Monsieur Croche the Dilettante Hater’, tr. B. N. Langdon Davies, in Three Classics in the Aesthetic of Music (New York, 1962), 46–9.
[9] On Wagner and the Philosophie der Tat, see Mark Berry, Treacherous Bonds and Laughing Fire: Politics and Religion in Wagner’s ‘Ring’ (Aldershot and Burlington, 2006), 28–9, 175–81.
[10] Letter of 28 Sep. 1880; Selected Letters of Richard Wagner, tr. and ed. Stewart Spencer and Barry Millington (London, 1987), 903.
[11] ‘Time re-explored’, Orientations: Collected Writings, ed. Jean-Jacques Nattiez, tr. Martin Cooper (London and Boston, MA, 1986), 262.
[12] It has recently been suggested, although I think this may be over-egging the pudding, that Klingsor here might represent Siegfried Wagner. (Exhibition, ‘Siegfried Wagner: Bayreuths Erbe aus andersfarbiger Kiste’, at Schwules Museum, Berlin, 17 Feb. to 26 Jun. 2017.) The exhibition, curated by Peter P. Pachl, Achim Bahr and Kevin Clarke, has some fascinating material on display, but some of the commentary suffers either from factual inaccuracy or wild conjecture, as well as the repetition of bizarrely outdated psychological tropes, such as the ‘responsibility’ of an ‘overbearing’ mother (Cosima) for a son’s homosexuality.
[13] Tash Siddiqui reports ‘a kind of audible shudder, a repressed Mexican wave, surging through the Bayreuth audience at this point’ (personal communication).  
[14] Horace, ‘Satires,’ I, I, 69-70, in Satires, Epistles, and Ars Poetica, tr. H Rushton Fairclough, revised edn (Harvard and London, 1929).
[15] Friedrich Meinecke, Die deutsche Katastrophe; Betrachtungen und Erinnerungen (Wiesbaden, 1946).
[16] (Additional note: I would see it in 2017. Reviews of all three performances may be found on this blog.)
[17] ‘Stefan Herheim’s Parsifal’, After Wagner: Histories of Modernist Music Drama from ‘Parsifal’ to Nono (Woodbridge, 2014), 210–33.  
[18] David J. Levin, ‘Reading a Staging/Staging a Reading’, Cambridge Opera Journal, ix (1997), 57.

Wednesday 25 March 2020

'The violinist is really playing "fiddle" music': Schoenberg's Violin Concerto

From my biography, Arnold Schoenberg (US/Americas edition here), chapter 7, pp.167-72

First draft. With kind permission of the Arnold Schönberg Center, Vienna

Schoenberg, row chart
(Arnold Schönberg Center)

... In between the Suite and the Kol nidre, however, Schoenberg had shown that emigration in no sense entailed turning his back on the ‘poison of atonality’, nor indeed upon the twelve-note method. If anything, his willingness on occasion to return to his first planet – however much it might have changed in the meantime – betokened greater self-assurance. The new world of New Music would always be there, even in the New World. The Violin Concerto, op.36 and the Fourth String Quartet, op.37, were his two twelve-note masterpieces from this period. Schoenberg had entertained thoughts of a violin concerto during the twenties, and had made a few sketches in 1922 and again in 1927, the latter for a chamber concerto in the wake of Berg’s, for piano with ‘accompaniment’ from piano, three clarinets – that wind-band sound again – trumpet, horn, trombone, violin, viola, cello, and double bass. It was only in 1934, though, that he began work on material for this concerto, and then broke off quickly, composing the rest – as so often, at great speed – during the summer of 1936. Unlike the proposed work from 1927, moreover, it is written for full orchestra, very much placed in and attempting to extend the grand Austro-German tradition of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms in this particular genre. Perhaps with slight defensiveness, he wrote to Webern in January 1936 that he had conceived of the work at the same time as Berg had of his. It is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that it is the first of only two completed concertos of his ‘own’. One might be tempted to consider the Monn and Handel reworkings from 1932-3 as preparation, but Schoenberg did not tend to work like that; he had, after all, composed Gurrelieder with little experience of orchestral writing and none whatsoever on that scale.

Jascha Heifetz in his dressing room, 1936
(University of Michigan Music Society)

Like Liszt for the piano, albeit without personal transcendental mastery of the instrument, Schoenberg out-virtuosoed the virtuosi with a work declared unplayable: all of which added to its mystique – and also to the downright fear it seems to have inspired in potential performers. Schoenberg told the Los Angeles concert organiser, Peter Yates, that since Jascha Heifetz had declared it unplayable, there was no one alive who would be able to perform it. Schoenberg had approached Heifetz, yet another émigré, when Kolisch, over-extended with other work commitments, had regretfully declined. Moreover, a music critic, José Rodriguez, informed Schoenberg that ‘a virtuoso’ had said it would remain unplayed until violinists acquired new fourth fingers. Schoenberg, Rodriguez reported, had laughed ‘like a pleased child’ at that, saying: ‘Yes, yes. That will be fine. The concerto is extremely difficult, just as much for the head as for the hands. I am delighted to add another unplayable work to the repertoire. I want the concerto to be difficult and I want the little finger to become longer. I can wait.’ However, the greatest difficulty seems to have been musical rather than technical. If the concertos of Beethoven and Brahms had proved notably ‘symphonic’ when compared with ‘easier’ works in the repertoire, they nevertheless made some play of conformity to tradition, as of course did Berg’s. Schoenberg seems to have rejoiced – at the very least, the score rejoices – in making mischievous play with apparently contesting demands between an extension of traditional virtuosity and the present polyphonic and motivic demands of his dodecaphonic method. Interestingly, there are a good few notes that would have to be struck out as ‘wrong’, were one to consider the method as a ‘system’. They will always be confirmed, however, as ‘correct’ by a player who experiments with altering them. The fury of inspiration, to employ a Romantic category of which he would unquestionably and unquestioningly have approved, is palpable when one consults the autograph score, corrections and all: more legible than Beethoven, say, yet evincing the white heat demanded of a successful performance. The Latvian-Canadian violinist and composer, Louis Gesensway, playing in the orchestra for the first performance, was so incensed by its reception that he wrote to a newspaper extolling its ‘utmost perfection’, its lack of a single ‘trite or hackneyed phrase’, declaring moreover: ‘The violinist is really playing “fiddle” music.’

(Illustration from Berry, Arnold Schoenberg)

Louis Krasner
Photograph: Max Fenichel (1936),
public domain

In the end, the piece, dedicated to Webern, fell to Louis Krasner. Krasner, who had also commissioned and premiered Berg’s concerto, learned that Schoenberg was at work on the piece when he found himself on the same ocean liner as Kolisch in 1936. He practised the part for a year prior to its 1940 premiere with Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. In a relatively unusual echo of Vienna, elements in the audience resorted to ‘tradition’, hissing, laughing, calling out. So too, it seems did the orchestral management, which had refused to offer the customary publicity and even the necessary funding for so unwelcome an interloper. Stokowski actually had to pay for the performing resources and Krasner’s fee out of his own pocket, for which noble deed Schoenberg, unable to attend, praised the conductor’s ‘brave stand toward my work and against illiterate snobs’. Having reported that ‘most critics seem to agree’ the work ‘sounds like an exaggerated version of the testing room at an abrasive plant,’ the Philadelphia Inquirer continued its account of this new Skandalkonzert. Krasner had received a meed of applause from the listeners when the hissing of the music itself began’. Stokowski stepped to the front of the stage and said: ‘Shall we forever make the same foolish, narrow-minded, unsportsmanlike blunders, upon only hearing a thing once? … Certainly Schoenberg is one of the greatest musicians alive today. His music is extremely difficult to understand. We don’t ask you to like it or dislike it, but to give it a fair chance. That’s American. But to condemn it after one hearing – that simply cannot be done.’
… ‘if Philadelphia is to grow culturally, we must give every kind of art a chance.’
‘If Schoenberg writes any more works, and you are willing, I would like to conduct more of them.’ A shrill feminine voice from the balcony cried: ‘Funny!’ … None of the audience walked out during the Concerto – but it was noted that several of the audience didn’t walk in until it was ended. 
Leopold Stokowski, c.1936

The work’s difficulties, of whatever nature, will speak for themselves. As ever, though, with Schoenberg, the best thing is probably to let them do so and, however clichéd this may sound, simply listen to the music ‘as music’, to let it take one where it will. I may not have helped here by myself talking up the difficulty, but in a biographical study, it would arguably be misleading not to do so. In any case, tales of scandal often prove a spur to listen. The three movements are traditional both in number and in type: sonata form-Andante grazioso-marching finale. There is more than a hint, once again, of that ‘special’ key, D minor. Within a more disciplined, quasi-Classical framework, the riot of colouristic imagination is clearly the same work as the composer of the op.16 Orchestral Pieces. Cadenza writing offers ample opportunity display from the ‘new’ fourth finger, as elsewhere do treacherous harmonics and double stopping, often combining pizzicato and arco (bowed) playing. If there is a better instantiation of the lyrical slow movement in a twentieth-century concerto, a better example of such a movement’s principal theme as an heir to the lyrical, Mozartian past, then I know of neither. Needless to say, in this new understanding of the instrumental aria, there is no ‘mere’ ornamentation; every note counts, as it must for any fervent disciple of Loos. The work in its entirety stands as oriented to the blazing, fortissimo conclusion of its finale as any by Beethoven.

Sketch: Arnold Schönberg Center