Wagner, music and myth

Bill Ratliff is a rare specimen of a species which is almost extinct: an academic who is not a narrow specialist.  Not only does his expertise cover China and Latin America;  he has been a professional music critic, I didn't know he played the French horn, which presumably should be renamed the Texas horn to show our attitude toward French policies. 

Bill writes: When I was a student in the Oberlin Conservatory of Music several decades ago, most of the faculty (and thus most of the students) noisily considered Wagner beneath contempt, as Cameron has noted with musicians. I had liked his music before going to Oberlin, however, and what I considered the prejudices of the faculty had no impact on me. Originally I liked some of his music because I played French horn and Wagner wrote a lot of exciting music for horns. But I soon discovered the more substantial power of much of the music if you listen as we intellectuals should with an "open mind," though that quality is almost as rare a commodity among the educated as among six-pack couch potatoes. Over the decades I have attended performances from London to Buenos Aires, from New York to San Francisco, from Geneva to Wagner’s shrine at Bayreuth. I have written on them for decades as a music critic for the Metropolitan Opera’s Opera News and the Los Angeles Times. Wagner overtly intended his productions to be a lot more than just music, but just as good staging can make the opera work the way Wagner presumably intended, many productions, particularly in Europe but also beyond, including Bayreuth, can destroy a performance unless you close your eyes and just listen, as if you weren't in the theater at all. J.R.R. Tolkien didn’t much like Wagner (while his Oxford literary friend and colleague C.S. Lewis did), but much of Wagner’s music could have been used for the film of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, Howard Shore’s score for that trilogy, though avoiding most clear references to Wagner, often is Wagnerian in its spirit as befits the in many ways often “Wagnerian” subjects of Tolkien’s novels.

Like Tolkien’s, Wagner’s subject matter is based on his own versions of Norse and other mythologies. If analyzed rationally, many or most of these myths seem inane. Wagner’s versions, in his own libretti, are not remarkably sillier or more stupid than many others, but they certainly open themselves up to friendly or hostile criticism. I think the best analysis ever done of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen was a friendly but nonetheless brutal one by comedienne Anna Russell who, as the laughter mounts at one point remarks, “I’m not making this up, you know!” Still, mythology is meant to send powerful cultural messages largely by non-intellectual means to uneducated and educated alike. It has and does play an important role in many cultures, not all of them predominantly racist or warmongering, and Wagner was the master at conveying such messages in the language of music. Whether Wagner’s music and libretti are inherently racist or were simply used subsequently for racist ends is the subject for another day, but I believe that is irrelevant in judging the power of his music at its best to create moods and send those messages of mythology.  
Adriana Pena disagrees with Christopher Jones, who said genius should not be judged by "bourgeois criteria". Adriana says: I believe that "not judging genius by bourgeois criteria" means giving a blank check to someone because he happens to be talented. Wagner was petty, vengeful, inconsiderate, and ungrateful. Now anyone who behaves that way we call "rotten".  It is just as possible that a plumber or a dentist can be just as rotten, and we are not shocked by it, though we do not take it as a judgement of the professional skill. Mr. Jones ought to ponder the one book in the Lawrence Block's burglar series, where the protagonist gets on a caper with his dentist, who double crosses him. Once the situation is resolved, he goes back to that same dentist and foregoes any thoughts of revenge because "where are you going to find another painless dentist?".So, I will agree that Wagner was a great musician, if Mr. Jones will admit that he was not precisely an admirable human being. George Orwell said it best when he pointed out that if Shakespeare came back to life, and we found out that he was a child molester, we would  not tolerate it, not even for the sake of another "King Lear".

RH: This is a very tricky business.  It takes us back to the period of Bernard Shaw's "Man and Superman" and "The Perfect Wagnerite". It was then that the term "bourgeois" was used contemptuously.  Why use the term in English?  Why not say simply middle class, which is a fairer term?

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Ronald Hilton 2004


last updated: January 16, 2005