‘being wagner’ by simon callow

Being-wagnerThomas Laqueur at The Guardian:

His radically innovative, embarrassingly voluptuous, riveting – or, some will say, boring – music is at the heart of the controversy, and of Callow’s attraction to his subject. He says he has been a Wagnerian since early adolescence: he knew all about leitmotiven and the “Tristan chord”. But pointing to his music is only to push the question one step back: why? Lots of composers before Wagner used the same notes in a chord but he managed to keep it unresolved from the beginning of a work to orgasmic ending – five hours of Tantric harmonic deferral. That got the naming rights, one supposes.

Beethoven, the only composer who comes close to Wagner in his daring breaks from the past and who was met initially with a similarly uncomprehending and hostile reaction, was well on his way to being the assimilated prototypical genius of the 19th century within 20 years of his death. In fact, Wagner’s Dresden performances of Beethoven’s Ninth in the 1840s played an important role in inserting a wild and unruly symphony into the heart of the musical canon. Wagner’s operas are unquestionably canonical but they still generate the sort of hostility they did when they were first performed. None of the great 20th-century masters – not Stravinsky, not Schoenberg, not Boulez – is as divisive today as this composer born more than 200 years ago.

more here.