Saturday, April 02, 2005

Wagner Art in Context

Chris Bertram over at Crooked Timber points out that there is an interesting article about Wagner in the Financial Times today. It deals with the complicated question of the relation of his life and his artwork, prompted by a controversial performance in Hamburg recently. Here is the gist of that event:
Until the final scene, the Hamburg State Opera’s November 2002 production of Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg had proceeded without comment. Everyone was primed to applaud the hymn to “holy German art” that brings Richard Wagner’s four-hour pageant to a climax. Then came the bombshell. Midway through Hans Sachs’s monologue about honouring German masters over “foreign vanities”, the music came to an abrupt halt. Suddenly one of the mastersingers started speaking: “Have you actually thought about what you are singing?” he asked. No one had experienced anything like it in an opera house. There followed a lively stage discussion - some of it shouted down by outraged members of the audience - about Wagner’s anti-Semitism in the context of 19th and 20th century German nationalism.
To interrupt the music for this sudden assault on the legacy of Wagner in the midst of a German audience must have created quite a stir. For German music lovers who permit themselves the indulgence of Wagner's operas, it is only possible or excusable by drawing such a sharp distinction between the artwork and the composer that the latter and his ideological legacy can be effaced in the performance of his timeless music. That distinction was shattered in Hamburg.

The following paragraph captures the seemingly transgressive allure of Wagner's work:
People who love Wagner - and there are hundreds of Wagner societies around the world - do so in a completely different way to those who love Mozart. It’s almost a sickness: there is something in his make-up that compels idolatry. Like his texts, his music is full of dark desires and impulses, often of a sexual nature, touching parts of our subconscious we may not be fully aware of and may not even like. Played out on stage, his dramas provide a form of release, a way of simultaneously expressing and sublimating those desires.
Of course, all sublimations are expressions of desire, but the point here is that these Wagnerian expressions, if uninterrupted, already trace a fine line between transgression and the social respectability of high art. In any case, it is an interesting article, but it would have been improved by adopting a more self-critical tone because the lessons of the Nazi era still need to be learned--and not just by Wagner lovers.


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