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Wagner Beyond Good and Evil

Wagner Beyond Good and Evil

Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: 1
Pages: 324
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  • Book Info
    Wagner Beyond Good and Evil
    Book Description:

    John Deathridge presents a different and critical view of Richard Wagner based on recent research that does not shy away from some unpalatable truths about this most controversial of composers in the canon of Western music. Deathridge writes authoritatively on what Wagner did, said, and wrote, drawing from abundant material already well known but also from less familiar sources, including hitherto seldom discussed letters and diaries and previously unpublished musical sketches. At the same time, Deathridge suggests that a true estimation of Wagner does not lie in an all too easy condemnation of his many provocative actions and ideas. Rather, it is to be found in the questions about the modern world and our place in it posed by the best of his stage works, among themTristan und IsoldeandDer Ring des Nibelungen.Controversy about Wagner is unlikely to go away, but rather than taking the line of least resistance by regarding him blandly as a "classic" in the Western art tradition, Deathridge suggests that we need to confront the debates that have raged about him and reach beyond them, toward a fresh and engaging assessment of what he ultimately achieved.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93461-0
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    John Deathridge

    • 1. Wagner Lives Issues in Autobiography
      (pp. 3-17)

      Wagner’s biography has been researched to within an inch of its life. It has been dissected, drenched with no end of detail, eroticized, vilified, heroicized, and several times filmed.¹ Its foundations are the collected writings, which in the first instance Wagner edited himself in the spirit of an autobiographical enterprise;² a separate and lengthy autobiography, Mein Leben (My life), dictated to his mistress and later second wife, Cosima, daughter of Franz Liszt;³ notebooks and diaries;⁴ photographs and portraits;⁵ an unusually large number of letters;⁶ mounds of anecdotal gossip; and no end of documentation on the way he lived and how...

    • 2. “Pale” Senta Female Sacrifice and the Desire for Heimat
      (pp. 18-30)

      We shall never know when Wagner first heard of the Flying Dutchman legend and exactly when he decided to turn it into an opera. There is no doubt, however, that his source was Heinrich Heine’sMemoirs of Herr von Schnabelewopski.1 In chapter 7—note the number— Schnabelewopski enters a theater in Amsterdam where he sees a play about a Dutch captain who “ had sworn by all the devils in hell that, despite the storm that was raging, he would round a certain cape . . . despite the heavy storm that was raging at the time, even if...

    • 3. Wagner the Progressive Another Look at Lohengrin
      (pp. 31-44)

      The critical star ofLohengrinhas dimmed so much over the years that even Wagner’s admirers sometimes find it hard to let it shine as brightly as it did at the height of the opera’s popularity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The swan, one of the opera’s central symbols, has become a kitsch icon, capable of selling anything from kettles to the Queen’s favorite matches, but it is no longer quite the beautiful, enigmatic and sexually suggestive image it used to be. Harder to accept now, too, is the gullibility of the heroine Elsa. After falling in love...


    • 4. Fairy Tale, Revolution, Prophecy Preliminary Evening: Das Rheingold
      (pp. 47-53)

      Gods roam rivers and forests in the Ring to thwart their enemies. A handsome prince ensnared in the lair of a monstrous dragon kills the dragon and, with the help of a forest bird, braves a dangerous wall of fire to awaken a beautiful princess on the top of a mountain. Ugly dwarves and toadlike creatures infest the tale with evil. Two lumbering giants manage to set the whole amazing story in motion, one brutally battering the other to death. No magic carpets are in sight. There are lots of thrilling rides, though, including a descent through the earth to...

    • 5. Symphonic Mastery or Moral Anarchy? First Day: Die Walküre
      (pp. 54-60)

      The great writer on music Donald Francis Tovey once claimed, with some justification, that the enormous power of Wagner’s music made him, by an odd paradox, a dramatist for listeners who are not habitual theatergoers. Tovey was well known as a vociferous opponent of Wagner extracts in the concert hall (by which he meant short arrangements such as the Ride of the Valkyries), though curiously he had no objection to whole scenes or acts performed with a full complement of singers. Audiences listening to these larger stretches of music away from the theater might even gain from the lack of...

    • 6. Siegfried Hero Second Day: Siegfried
      (pp. 61-67)

      At the end of the Walt Disney animated film version ofBeauty and the Beast,the hero emerges from the skin of an ugly animal redeemed by the love of a faithful woman. The hero has long brownish-blond hair and a muscular body. His radiant blue eyes shine forth, and the swirl of his handsome torso as he emerges from his animal “other” gives the sign to the amazed onlookers—including his adoring savior, now miraculously turned into a beautiful princess—for dance and song. Transformed by the faith of his bride into an erotic ideal of youth and strength,...

    • 7. Finishing the End Third Day: Götterdämmerung
      (pp. 68-76)

      TheRinghas been produced and “explained” in so many contradictory ways that it probably counts as the most ingratiating work ever written for the operatic stage. Whether one thinks of Bernard Shaw’s matter-of-fact socialist view of it or the dreamy Christian-Catholic commentary by the young Paul Claudel (not to mention sharply divergent interpretations in more recent times), the skeptic may wonder whether theRingcan mean anything at all.¹ Shaw would have been delighted to read in Cosima’s diaries that Wagner, on a journey up the Thames, described the City of London as “Alberich’s dream come true—Nibelheim, world...


    • 8. Don Carlos and Götterdämmerung Two Operatic Endings and Walter Benjamin’s Trauerspiel
      (pp. 79-101)

      Walter Benjamin’s bookOrigin of the German Mourning Play (Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels)was researched and written between 1919 and 1925. Benjamin submitted it to the University of Frankfurt am Main as his postdoctoral thesis, only to have it gently suggested to him in a letter dated 27 July 1925 from the dean of the Faculty of Philosophy, Professor Franz Schultz, that he should withdraw it.¹ Legend has it that the Frankfurt professors did not understand a word of it. But some little-known contemporary reviews of its publication in 1928 and its immediate influence on others, most notably Adorno in...

    • 9. Wagner’s Greeks, and Wieland’s Too
      (pp. 102-110)

      At the core of Benjamin’s critique of the theory of tragedy is a reappraisal of the Greek view of tragedy in contrast with a modern Christian concept of it, albeit seen from the point of view of the political left of the 1920s. At the opposite end of the political spectrum, from the late twentieth century onward, the debate about the Greeks in relation to Wagner has been strongly influenced by three lectures, first given at the Bayreuth Festival between 1962 and 1964, by the conservative German classicist Wolfgang Schadewaldt.¹ Because the earlier path-breaking work on the subject by scholars...


    • 10. Dangerous Fascinations
      (pp. 113-116)

      Tristan und Isoldewas composed quickly between 1857 and 1859, when, as Wagner often later intimated to friends, every fiber, every nerve in his body, was tingling and alive. Its tale of illicit sexual attraction, not to mention the orgasmic voluptuousness of its music, have held the Western world in thrall ever since. Bernard Shaw once observed that Wagner retraced “poetic love” to its “alleged origin in sexual passion, the emotional phenomena of which he has expressed in music with a frankness and forcible naturalness that would have possibly scandalized Shelley.”¹ By that Shaw meant that Wagner’s translation of the...

    • 11. Public and Private Life Reflections on the Genesis of Tristan und Isolde and the Wesendonck Lieder
      (pp. 117-132)

      The fact thatTristan und Isoldehad deep personal roots is now an ineradicable part of its history. Wagner first conceived it in 1854, at a time when he was almost wholly dependent on the patronage of a rich Swiss businessman, Otto Wesendonck, who not only advanced large sums of money to pay off his debts, but also provided him with a house close to his imposing estate in Zurich. The house was promptly named “Asyl” by its grateful and impecunious recipient, then still a political refugee from Germany with a price on his head. Wagner responded, practically from the...

    • 12. Postmortem on Isolde
      (pp. 133-156)

      In sport and myth, men and women are segregated in terms of the physical demands made on them. Opera, however, is one area where women will always be vocally equal, if not superior. Brigid Brophy wrote in her wonderful study of Mozart’s operas that, without denying the beauty of men’s voices or their necessary presence in opera, “it is the female voice, and par excellence the soprano, which exerts the most vivid pressure on our imagination.”¹ In a prominent review of Catherine Clément’s bookOpera, or the Undoing of Women,Paul Robinson made a similar point, claiming, “Opera is built...


    • 13. Strange Love, Or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Parsifal
      (pp. 159-177)

      Variously described as sublime, vicious, or merely decadent, Richard Wagner’sParsifalhas always fascinated critics who have seen it either as a “superior magic opera” that “revels in the wondrous”¹ or as a “profoundly inhuman spectacle, glorifying a barren masculine world whose ideals are a combination of militarism and monasticism.”² More soberly it has been described as a work with an “underlying insistence on assent to a truth outside itself.”³ Yet it is precisely the nature of that truth that has been the subject of unending controversy. Is the work’s central theme really the “redemption of an Aryan Jesus from...

    • 14. Mendelssohn and the Strange Case of the (Lost) Symphony in C
      (pp. 178-188)

      Mendelssohn Is on the Roof,the last novel of the Czech writer Jirí Weil, begins with the following story.

      After the German invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Academy of Music in Prague was about to be transformed by the National Socialists into an institute devoted entirely to German art. The building of the academy had a balcony on which there were many statues, each one representing a great composer of the past. Among the statues was one of Felix Mendelssohn. Because of Mendelssohn’s Jewish descent, his statue wasn’t allowed to stand on the roof of a National Socialist institute, and an...

    • 15. Unfinished Symphonies
      (pp. 189-206)

      Cosima Wagner once recorded the following statement by her husband: “I shall have to write something one day about the manner in which the life of the intellect goes its own way and has nothing to do with actual experiences—indeed, it is rather the things one does not find in life that provide the images.”¹ Wagner was objecting to Ludwig Nohl’s recent and pathbreaking biography of Beethoven, and in particular to his dovetailing of Fidelio (1814) with an episode in Beethoven’s love life.² By implication he was also referring disparagingly to those who saw his famous amours as the...


    • 16. Configurations of the New
      (pp. 209-226)

      On 16 September 1989 a national British newspaper,The Independent,carried a full-page advertisement placed by Technics for their latest “Hi-Fi Midi System for Music Lovers,” the CDX3.¹ At the top of the page, Wagner’s furrowed brow and glaring eyes, slightly askance, stared out as if insisting on, though not quite peremptorily demanding, a close reading of the text beneath. The text began as follows (comments in brackets are mine):

      To hear what he [Wagner] intended a hi-fi system has to be perfectly composed.

      The insane glint in Wagner’s eyes may have something to do with the events that...

    • 17. Wagner and Beyond
      (pp. 227-240)

      Wagner was not the only one to change the course of opera’s history in the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. And, indeed, only his most fanatic admirers have ever thought otherwise. It is hard, nevertheless not to think of him as someone who left an indelible stamp on twentieth-century opera. Every figure of importance is said to have reacted to him, and rarely indifferently. The possibility exists that this is just another part of the Wagnerian myth that has, in spite of formidable opposition, circled like a vulture over Western music since the end of high romanticism. The great...

  10. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. 241-242)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 243-282)
  12. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 283-284)
  13. Index
    (pp. 285-302)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 303-304)