Orpheus Ascending, Part 2

Australian poet and author Peter Nicholson writes 3QD’s Poetry and Culture column (see other columns here). There is an introduction to his work at peternicholson.com.au and at the NLA.

If Solomon Volkov’s Shostakovich memoirs are to be believed, Stalin was listening to Mozart before he died. And Mahler had a secret passion for The Merry Widow. And Hitler liked The Merry Widow too. And Mahler was a great Wagner conductor. How easy it is to get all worked up about the chance encounters historical figures can make. Are we to enlist Mozart as the avenging angel of Stalinism. Was Mahler a proto-Hitlerite: you know he liked The Merry Widow too and was prone to dictatorial mannerisms just like . . .  The absurdity of thinking in this way is clear. In the case of Wagner, such false historicism seems to be the only way that some people manage to cope with complexity. An important artist is always going to be misunderstood at first. With Wagner the misunderstandings show no sign of diminishing. If only Wagner hadn’t written Judaism In Music or any other of those interminable essays he cooked up in between bouts of supreme creativity. That is just the point. Artistic grandeur survives the unedifying spectacle of an advancing anti-Semitism. Even as Wagner died he was trying to give theoretical shape to the enormity of existence so convincingly conveyed in his music. The theory fails, the art succeeds. Art does not seek to explain. It expresses our mystery, our tenderness and joy, our beauty, and our destructive capacity too. When we listen intently to Wagner’s music we undergo an aesthetic experience which transcends our usual gravitational urge to banality. That some find the experience tedious or incomprehensible is no criticism of Wagner. The art waits for us; if we are not worthy of it there is always some cultural product that will be.

To call Wagner a Romantic does not get us very far. The so-called Romantic poets—Byron, Keats, Shelley, Coleridge and Wordsworth—are often lumped together despite the fact that each has an independent sensibility. The mania for classifying performs no useful function for the artist concerned. After all, Schumann, Brahms and Chopin get called Romantic composers too, but does that label really help us to come to terms with each of their unique oeuvres. The appeal of Wagner to modernists as diverse as Baudelaire, Eliot and Joyce should warn us of the dangers inherent in this unsatisfactory label. Wagner belongs to the world of Freud and Ibsen as much as to that of Heine and Caspar David Friedrich.

There are some who regard all this concern with Wagner as so much antediluvianism. They look to Pound, Marinetti, Gertrude Stein, Pollock or whoever as the way forward. The concept of cultural heritage does not figure prominently in their attitude. They favour the approach of the tabula rasa, like Pol Pot emptying Phnom Penh, murdering all the professionals and starting up from primitive scratch. A wholly new approach can sometimes yield worthwhile cultural results—Rimbaud, for example—but most artists know that the inheritance of the past must sit on their shoulders and bear down on them with its splendours. Wagner knew that. The regular readings from the Greek tragedians, Shakespeare and Goethe tell us as much as the concern with Beethoven and Weber. Wagner was honest enough to admit that his great bête noire, Mendelssohn, would have been horrified to see how he composed. In other words, Wagner was an artist who cared about musical technique and the degree to which he could use that technique to convey the cultural heritage of the past to the future. If a critic today looks on the basilisk face of Wagner and sees only overweening arrogance, how little do they find of the real Wagner, the Wagner whose insecurities and bad dreams still reach out to us today. We have our bad dreams too. Only now our bad dreams are realities. If we could listen to Wagner with open ears we would hear the voice of an art that, to use Grillparzer’s phrase, transfigures what it consumes. If darkness is visible in this art, so much more truthful is it in portraying the human element in its entirety. The ideal can only be approached after an exhaustive struggle with reality—Parsifal’s lonely years of wandering finally allow him to understand the significance of the Grail. Name calling of the Jews and the French might have been a popular pastime at Tribschen and Wahnfried, and Alberich, Mime, Beckmesser and Klingsor may have begun life as Jewish caricatures—Wagner knew perfectly well that art had to get beyond chauvinism and prejudice if it was to take its place in the great chain of cultural being.

Whereas the Greek work of art expressed the spirit of a splendid nation, the work of art of the future is intended to express the spirit of free people irrespective of all national boundaries; the national element in it must be no more than an ornament, an added individual charm, and not a confining boundary.                                                                                                                                              Art and Revolution

Wagner was an arch-hypocrite on the subject of the Jews, displayed nowhere more clearly than in his investment of a 40 000 thaler gift from Ludwig in 1865 with the Jewish banking firm of Hohenmeser in Frankfurt. However, if we are going to look for moral perfection in an artist we have absolutely no hope of finding within ourselves, then we are participating in the very hypocrisy we criticise the artist for. Science tells us that dinosaurs roamed the Earth for millions of years before the most enigmatic arrival of all—that of Homo sapiens. Artists of Wagner’s significance do not come along very often. To reduce an art as grand and poetic as Wagner’s to the level of a series of moral failings simply wont do. We all of us have moral failings, but we are not very likely to leave a Ring cycle behind as our calling card to posterity.

What a cast of characters can be called in to witness the Wagnerian biography as it makes it stormy progress from one unsettled residence to yet another, dogs in faithful attendance. It is just as well there are biographical remains for us to look at, otherwise we would be hard put to understand just how the art and the life all got fitted into the space between 1813 and 1883. Aspects of that life still fire the imagination with their drama and passion, perhaps nowhere more profoundly than in that great moment when Ludwig summoned Wagner for the first time. How one would have liked to be a fly on the mental wallpaper of that first encounter. Naturally, this friendship has been trivialised and parodied beyond the point of no return. A sober and detached view would reveal one of the most significant cultural and political relationships in the history of artistic endeavour. To sit in the theatre in Bayreuth and see a performance there is to participate in a poetic ideal, an ideal that still comes to the world across minefields of ideology and propaganda. Wagner once commented that every part of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus was stained with his and Cosima’s blood. That is probably true but it is terribly unfair to Ludwig. It is all very well to say that Ludwig was unsuited to the task of kingship or that Wagner manipulated the rhetorical tone of his letters to the king so as to ensure a codependent relationship. Let us remember Ludwig’s steadfastness; without it there would be no Bayreuth ideal, an ideal that goes beyond Wagner and Wagnerism, the fairy-tale castles or the drowning in Lake Stamberg. And let us remember too that Ludwig, who must surely be the most perfect Wagnerite of all time, completely rejected Wagner’s anti-Semitism. Adomo once claimed that attending the Bayreuth Festival was akin to actively participating in one’s own oppression. Ludwig gives the lie to this idea right from the start, because not only did Ludwig occasionally tire of the whole Wagnerian circus, staging works in Munich when he lost patience with the composer’s grandstanding; he actually refused to attend a premiere in the Festspielhaus itself. How annoying for the composer that the king, his great benefactor, should turn out to be so independently-minded. In fact, Wagner’s attempt to get the world to think as he did has failed. We are Ludwig’s heirs as well as Wagner’s in that regard. We can honour the greatness of Wagner the artist, but we do not leave our conscience or our critical faculties at the door of the Wagner treasure trove.

Part 3 of Orpheus Ascending can be read here.

The end of the Ring with the Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by Sir Georg Solti and Birgit Nilsson singing in the Culshaw Decca recording can be heard here. 8′ 30”