Monday, May 23, 2016

Great Composers: Richard Wagner (BBC/WNET/PBS, 1997)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I continued my Richard Wagner 203rd birthday party last night with a screening of an episode on Wagner from a BBC-TV series Great Composers, made in 1997 and aired here on PBS. The downloaded print I was watching suffered from the absence of any identification of who the talking heads were — though one I recognized was conductor Daniel Barenboim, who like a lot of the other great Wagner interpreters is Jewish and has had to come to grips with Wagner’s notorious anti-Semitism even while loving his music enough to want to conduct it often. One I didn’t recognize was the physicist Stephen Hawking talking about what Wagner’s music means to him and how sometimes we have to separate the greatness of the art from the loathsomeness of the person who created it. (This issue recently came up in connection with Woody Allen’s son Ronan Farrow publishing yet another screed against him for molesting Ronan’s sister Dylan on the eve of the Cannes Film Festival premiere of Allen’s latest film; it’s the subject of an article in the current Time by an author who makes no bones about thinking Allen is guilty as charged.) The documentary was an hour long, directed by Kriss Rumaniss and narrated by Kenneth Branagh, and it begins and ends with discussions of Wagner’s attitude towards Jews — including the story recounted in his wife Cosima’s diaries that towards the end of his life Wagner greeted the news that 400 Jews had perished in a fire in a synagogue by saying, “It would be nice if they’d all burned” — which of course got seized on by the critics who regard Wagner as the ancestor of Hitler and the Nazis and the man who originally thought up the Holocaust that they attempted to carry out. In between the film is a pretty straightforward presentation of Wagner’s life and career, with a few factual bobbles (the narration names Das Liebesverbot as Wagner’s first opera and Die Feen as his second — it was really the other way around) and some rather dubious interpretations, as well as a few stories I’d never heard before and at least one that seems incredible (in the sense of “unbelievable”) to me. The show begins with a few talking heads (unidentified, though as I noted above Daniel Barenboim was unmistakable and obviously put there because they wanted someone who’s a major Wagner fan, a well-known conductor of Wagner’s music and a Jew — indeed, he was the first person to conduct Wagner in Israel and got quite a lot of criticism for that, some of it from people who were forcibly exposed to Wagner’s music while they were inmates at Auschwitz and understandably didn’t want to be reminded of it; Barenboim had to make sure his Wagner concert was a special event of the Israel Philharmonic and no subscribers would end up with tickets to it unless they bought them separately) debating Wagner’s anti-Semitism and whether or not it invalidates his music.

Then it segued into the basic biography, including Wagner’s birth date (May 22, 1813) and place (Leipzig in Saxony, which after World War II ended up in East Germany), as well as the controversy over which of the two men in his mother Johanna’s life — her first husband, Carl Wagner; or her second, Ludwig Geyer — was Wagner’s biological father. The bare facts are that Wilhelm Richard Wagner (as he was christened) was the ninth and last child born to Johanna while Carl was still alive; Geyer was living as a boarder at their house and married Johanna after Carl Wagner died of typhus six months after Richard was born. The question was whether Johanna Wagner and Ludwig Geyer were having an affair while Carl Wagner was still alive, and whether Geyer was in fact Wagner’s father (which, given Richard’s long history of extramarital affairs, would indicate that he was one apple that didn’t fall far from the tree!). For the first 15 years of his life he was known as “Richard Geyer,” until he insisted on adopting the name Wagner — a story which drew me closer to him because it happened to me, too: when I was growing up and until I was well into grade school I was known as “Mark Folger,” after my stepfather, and it was only when I realized (at about age nine) that the mysterious “Daddy George” who came to take me to his home for occasional weekend visits was actually my father that I insisted on using his name, “Conlan,” as my official name from then on. The show presented the controversy over Wagner’s parentage as part of his anti-Semitism, mainly because a lot of people in early 19th century Germany would have assumed that “Geyer” was a Jewish name (though in fact Ludwig Geyer came from a long line of Protestants, many of them lay staffers in Lutheran churches); what it didn’t mention is that “Geyer” is also the German word for “vulture,” and much of the anti-Semitic propaganda that circulated in Germany and Austria throughout Wagner’s childhood depicted Jews as vultures, feeding off the carcasses of civilizations they had helped to destroy. What also fascinates me about the Wagner/Geyer controversy is how it worked its way into quite a few of his music dramas: many of Wagner’s heroes — Siegmund, Siegfried, Tristan, Parsifal — literally grow up not knowing who they are, much less who their parents are or where they are from, and Die Walkïre, Siegfried and Parsifal all have hugely important scenes in which the male protagonists realize their true heritage and reclaim their real names, just as (at least in his own mind) Wagner had done himself. The show debunks Wagner’s claim that he was completely self-taught as a composer; it identifies at least two people who gave him lessons, Christian Gottlieb Müller (whom he studied with in his late teens and had to stop seeing when he ran out of money to pay him, another lifelong pattern for Wagner) and Theodor Weinlig. Wagner had originally wanted to be a playwright and at 13 started writing a play called Leubald und Adelaide — in which he killed off so many characters he had to bring some of them back as ghosts just to have a last act — and then he saw Beethoven’s Fidelio with the dramatic soprano Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient as Leonore, and he came back determined to turn his play into an opera.

In 1833 Wagner started work on an opera called Die Hochzeit (The Wedding), which he left unfinished (though I believe the parts he did complete survive and have even been recorded), and then began Die Feen (The Fairies), his first completed work, a big German opera in the style of Carl Maria von Weber, who next to Beethoven became the most important influence on Wagner’s style. Wagner got a few minor jobs in opera houses — many of them due to the influence of his uncle Albert Wagner, a bass singer (Richard Wagner composed an “insertion aria” for Oroveso, the bass character in Bellini’s Norma, to give his uncle more to do in the piece; in the 1970’s Boston Opera director Sarah Caldwell mounted the first modern production of Norma to include Wagner’s aria) — and married an actress named Minna Planer. His second opera, Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love), based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and a comic opera in the style of Rossini (and yes, Wagner trying to imitate Rossini is as ghastly as it sounds), premiered in Magdeburg, where Wagner was working, in 1836 and was a total flop. (The Wikipedia page on Wagner says Das Liebesverbot closed after its first performance; other sources I’ve seen said it got three performances.) Wagner then got his first job as Kapellmeister — principal conductor and administrator of an opera house — in Riga, Latvia (which was then part of the German Confederation, later got absorbed by Russia, and finally became independent after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991) — where he wrote Rienzi, a big grand opera based on a novel by Henry Bulwer-Lytton (a British author best known today for The Last Days of Pompeii and for writing the introductory line, “It was a dark and stormy night … ”), a story about 14th Century Rome which features a character named Adriano played by a woman in drag (Wagner’s only “trouser role”) and a tenor hero, Cola Rienzi, who’s ultimately undone by the little people that surround him at the Roman court. Ironically, Wagner’s Rienzi was the biggest hit of his career — during his lifetime it was more popular than anything he wrote afterwards, though Wagner himself denounced it as imitative of the German-Jewish composer Giacomo Meyerbeer (who was born “Louis-Ferdinand Beer” and changed his name as he moved from Germany to Italy and ultimately France). Wagner ran out of money in Riga and had to flee to escape his creditors, and according to this show he’d already had the idea for his next opera, The Flying Dutchman, in mind when he left — though the usual legend is that he conceived of Dutchman when the ship taking him and Minna out of Riga to London (where he stayed only briefly before moving to Paris, which was considered the operatic capital of Europe at the time) ran into a storm. Wagner spent three years in Paris, eking out a living making arrangements of tunes from other composers’ operas and (a fact unmentioned in this documentary) writing reviews of musical events in Paris for a newspaper back home in Dresden. These articles were collected in the 1970’s in a marvelous book called Wagner Writes from Paris, and they show Wagner to have been a genuinely witty critic (most of Wagner’s later writings are singularly devoid of humor) with an ear for talent.

His piece on Berlioz is particularly fascinating because Wagner calls him “a man of genius,” says his great virtue is “he does not write for money,” and also claims that Berlioz probably wishes he’d been born in Germany — I doubted that until I read Berlioz’ own autobiography, in which one of the many bitter passages laments that he was cursed to have been born in a nation as unappreciative of the arts as France. He also reviews the premiere of Berlioz’ “dramatic symphony” based on Romeo and Juliet and wishes Berlioz had sought the aid of Cherubini, an Italian composer who’d settled in France and whom Berlioz hated, to edit and shorten the score; while the idea of Wagner, of all people, criticizing someone else’s piece for being too long is bizarre, Berlioz did make significant cuts in Roméo et Juliette between the premiere Wagner reviewed in 1839 and the published version from 1847. But the most important premonition of Wagner’s career in his essay on Berlioz is his boast that the only times you can hear Berlioz’ music is in the concerts Berlioz himself produces, conducting his own scores for an audience he has carefully built up over the years — an obvious precursor and role model for Wagner’s eventual dream theatre at Bayreuth. The show tells an anecdote about Wagner in Paris I’d never heard before — and which frankly I have a hard time believing; he said that among his assignments in Paris was to arrange arias from operas by the French composer Jacques Fromental Hálevy, and one night he was with Hálevy and the composer’s friends at a party at which Wagner was at a loss because they were conversing in French and he knew no language besides German. Hálevy tried to bring Wagner into the conversation by speaking to him in German, and when Wagner asked how Hálevy had come to be able to speak German, Hálevy said, “All us Jews speak German.” The film makes it seem like Wagner was shocked — shocked! — to find that Hálevy was Jewish, but that wasn’t exactly a big surprise; after all, Hálevy’s biggest hit was La Juive, a propaganda piece against anti-Semitism and a work Wagner admired and hailed as a masterpiece. Indeed, when he wrote his notorious essay Judaism in Music in 1850 he carefully left Hálevy out of his condemnations of Jewish composers (just as he left Bellini, whom he admired, out of his condemnations of Italian composers); indeed, the only two Jewish composers singled out in that work are Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer. Anyway, Wagner got out of Paris in 1842 when Rienzi was accepted for production at the opera house in Dresden, in Wagner’s native German state of Saxony, and Wagner got the prestigious job as Kapellmeister of the Dresden opera. There he wrote his next two operas, Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, which drew their plots from German historical legends and dealt with the themes that would occupy Wagner for the rest of his career: love, sex, renunciation and redemption.

The show details Wagner’s participation in the rebellion against the Saxon king in 1848 — actually part of a whole series of revolutions against royal authorities in most of continental Europe which ended, like the recent (and quite similar) “Arab Spring,” either in chaos or in governments even more repressive than the ones the revolutionaries had sought to displace. Wagner had to flee Saxony in 1848 after the revolution failed — the show briefly mentions his friendship with the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin (who was apparently admired by a lot of artists, though he befriended Wagner largely because music was the only art form he was interested in; there’s a story that Bakunin came up to Wagner after he’d conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Dresden and told him that in the coming conflagration, that music must be spared even if it cost them both their lives); it does not mention that Lohengrin had still not been performed when Wagner fled and it ultimately reached the stage in Weimar, where Franz Liszt, an admirer of Wagner, put it on in 1850 even though he only had an orchestra of 35 and a chorus of 12. (Today an opera company with such limited resources wouldn’t go anywhere near Lohengrin or anything else by Wagner; they’d produce works by Mozart and other composers whose pieces would work with forces that small.) Wagner lived mostly in Switzerland for the next 16 years, and after the debacle of the Dresden revolution he didn’t compose at all for five years; instead he sketched out a text for a stand-alone opera called Siegfried’s Death, based on the ancient German epic poem the Nibelungenlied. Then he decided it needed a prologue to give Siegfried’s backstory, which Wagner at first called The Young Siegfried; then he decided that needed a prologue to tell  how Siegfried came into the world in the first place, and after that he wrote an introductory prologue to the whole story telling how the gods, dwarfs and giants battled each other for the Rhinegold, a lump of gold in the Rhine river which would give absolute power to anyone who forged a ring out of it and agreed to renounce love.

These texts, written by Wagner in reverse order, became the basis for his most massive work, the four-part, 15-hour cycle The Ring of the Nibelung — the Nibelung being Alberich, king of the dwarfs, who, rejected by the Rhinemaidens, stole their gold, made the ring, renounced love and attempted to run the world, only to be tricked by Wotan, chief of the gods, who stole the ring and then gave it to the giants Fasolt and Fafner as partial payment for the castle they had built for him, Valhalla. The three main parts of the Ring deal with Wotan’s attempt to get the ring back by descending to earth, having an affair with a mortal and siring Siegmund and Sieglinde, who after being separated at birth (or nearly so) finally found each other on a dark and stormy night and have an incestuous relationship. Siegmund and Sieglinde’s husband Hunding have a duel which ends up with both of them dead — Wotan originally planned to intervene on Siegmund’s side but was talked into supporting Hunding instead by his own wife Fricka, who saw it as her duty to protect marriage and punish incest — but Brünnhilde, Wotan’s favorite among the Valkyries (nine women fathered by Wotan with Erda, the earth goddess, who grew up to ride flying horses and pick up dead heroes from earth to staff the armed forces of Valhalla), intervenes on Siegmund’s side, catches hell from Wotan and is put on a rock surrounded by fire, through which only a hero without fear can cross and claim her as his bride. The hero, of course, is Siegfried, Siegmund’s and Sieglinde’s son (in the original Nibelungenlied Siegfried is the descendant of an incestuous couple but not the immediate offspring of one), who kills Fafner (who turned himself into a dragon to protect his treasure), reclaims the ring and then in the fourth part of the cycle, Götterdämmerung, ends up in the land of the Gibichungs, where he’s given a potion that makes him fall in love with King Gunther’s sister Gutrune (Kriemhild in the original Nibelungenlied). Gunther and Gutrune have a half-brother, Hagen, who’s the son of Alberich, the dwarf king from episode one, and Hagen, Gunther and a jealous Brünnhilde (who was not Siegfried’s lover in the original story) plot to kill Siegfried. They do, but Brünnhilde mounts her horse and sings a 20-minute scene which was supposed to sum up the whole story and its philosophical meaning — and which Wagner rewrote the text for at least seven times. Wagner began composing the Ring operas in 1853 and spent the next six years completing the first, Das Rheingold, and the second, Die Walküre, but broke off during the second act of Siegfried because he was getting tired of “piling one silent score on top of another” and instead wanted to come up with a one-off work that could be performed by a normal opera house and would make him some money.

Instead he wrote Tristan und Isolde, yet another tale of forbidden love, renunciation, redemption and glorious death, which began with a dissonant chord that put off just about everybody who heard it originally because Wagner stacked one dissonant chord on top of another for 4 ½ hours and didn’t resolve it until the very end of the opera — a trick later copied by film composers, including Bernard Herrmann in Vertigo (though Berlioz had actually done something similar in the opening to the “Romeo Alone” movement from his Roméo et Juliette dramatic symphony, whose premiere, you’ll recall, Wagner had reviewed). Along the way Wagner won the patronage of a German merchant named Otto Wesendonck who had retired to Switzerland; he also won the affections of Otto’s much younger wife Mathilde. Wagner got into trouble over that relationship and even more trouble over his next serious coupling: with Cosima Liszt von Bülow, daughter of Franz Liszt and wife of the conductor Hans von Bülow, who led the premiere of Tristan when, after six years in the wilderness, Wagner’s supposedly “practical” opera finally hit the stage in Munich. Cosima’s first child by Wagner, Isolde, was born while she was still married to Bülow and threatened to derail Wagner’s latest and most significant patronage relationship with King Ludwig II of Bavaria in southern Germany. Ludwig had grown up surrounded by the German myths and legends that had inspired Wagner and provided the plots for his operas; he was also a Gay man, and according to his published journals one of his hopes in subsidizing Wagner was that sufficient exposure to the music of the strongly heterosexual Wagner would turn Ludwig himself straight. (It didn’t work.) Oddly, the Great Composers program doesn’t mention Ludwig’s sexual orientation or the controversies Wagner still got himself into, from his ham-handed attempts to influence Ludwig in the actual government of Bavaria to the scandal over his relationship with Cosima (whom Wagner eventually married after she divorced Bülow and his first wife Minna died) to the republication, rewritten to be even nastier, of Judaism in Music in 1869. Apparently this was the result of a jealous hissy-fit on Wagner’s part because Ludwig had started an affair with Josef Kainz, director of the Munich National Theatre, and Wagner worried that Ludwig would withdraw his financial support for his projects and give the money to Kainz instead. (Kainz would later retire to Vienna and, in the late 19th and early 20th century, would give acting lessons to select pupils, including the young Erich von Stroheim, later legendary in both good and bad senses as a filmmaker very much like Wagner in his imperious attitude, his belief in his own genius, his penchant for long running times and his utter disregard for his backers’ finances.)

The program deals with Wagner’s plan for a theatre for which he wanted to raze half of downtown Munich — that was too expensive even for Ludwig, but he gave Wagner a grant to find a small town in Bavaria that would be suitable for a theatre and also to build a home for himself and Cosima there. Wagner ended up in Bayreuth, where he was interested in using the Margrave theatre, built in the 1700’s, because it had the largest stage of any opera house in the world — but it turned out that stage opened up to an auditorium that seated only 100. Instead Wagner built his own theatre, equipping it with the elaborate machines needed for the special effects of his productions (much of this show depicts the “wow” factor of the effects Wagner wrote into his scripts) and putting a cowl over the orchestra so it would be invisible (and also so the singers would have a fighting chance to be heard over Wagner’s huge orchestras). Wagner also stipulated, for the first time in theatrical history, that the auditorium be kept in total or near-total darkness during the performances — he wanted his spectators to watch the stage, not each other — and there was no curtain or other mechanical device to let people in their seats know that the performance was about to start. Instead, it just started. Wagner premiered the Ring there in 1876 after a worldwide tour in which he played excerpts at various concerts to get people to contribute to help build Bayreuth and pay for the first production — “his Kickstarter campaign,” Charles once joked when I mentioned this to him — and even with the money he raised as well as what Ludwig was giving him, he ran short financially and there wasn’t another Bayreuth festival until 1882, when Wagner premiered his last opera, Parsifal, there. Indeed, one story not mentioned on this TV show was that Wagner wanted Parsifal to be performed nowhere else; at Ludwig’s insistence he agreed to one performance at the Munich State Opera, but only on condition that Ludwig be the sole member of the audience — though by that time Ludwig was such a recluse he didn’t have a problem with that. (After Wagner’s death in 1883 Ludwig was deposed by other members of the royal family and court, and in 1886 he rowed himself out to the middle of a lake and sang music from Lohengrin, then threw himself overboard and committed suicide by drowning.)

The Great Composers episode tells most of this story, including Wagner’s death in Venice (where he’d gone for his health) in 1883 at age 69, and his subsequent influence on the musical world. It names Mahler, Schönberg and Debussy as composers influenced by him — true in the first two (and ironic because Mahler and Schönberg were both Jewish, though they left the religion and Schönberg only returned to Judaism in 1933 as a public statement of solidarity with German Jews being oppressed by the Nazis), though Debussy’s relationship with Wagner was a lot more complicated than this show makes it sound. It was a bizarre love-hate relationship in which Debussy called Wagner “a beautiful sunset that was mistaken for a dawn,” and yet Debussy briefly considered composing his own opera based on the Tristan legend (though he was going to base it on the French version by Joseph Bédier rather than Gottfried von Strassburg’s German version which Wagner had used) and, when he finally wrote an opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, premiered in 1902, it was a very Wagnerian story line (Mélisande is a girl lost in the woods who’s taken in by local landowner Golaud, who marries her; she and Golaud’s brother Pelléas fall in love; Golaud kills Pelléas in a jealous hissy-fit; and Mélisande dies in childbirth as Arkel, father of Golaud and Pelléas, ends the opera with the line, “And now it is the turn of the poor little one,” presumably to be as miserable as the rest of his family) which Debussy set in a very un-Wagnerian way. Instead of the orchestra blaring away and sometimes drowning out the singers at crucial moments — which was how Wagner put into practice his idea that it was the role of music in his Gesamtkunstwerk (“union of all the arts”) to convey the emotional weight of the story while the words told the physical plot and gave the intellectual content — Debussy’s Pelléas is quiet, conversational, with the voices in the lead role and the orchestra only softly, subtly commenting on what the voices are saying. (That’s one reason why Pelléas is that rare opera that works better in translation than in the original, as I discovered when I bought Mark Elder’s Chandos recording in English — the piece came alive in a way it can do in French only if you’re a native French speaker or at least extremely fluent in the language.) The commentary also mentioned Stravinsky as a deliberately anti-Wagnerian composer — which he was and he wasn’t; certainly Stravinsky’s denials that music could express anything other than itself were the antithesis of Wagner’s attempt to combine it with words to give it emotional weight, and while Stravinsky composed a few attempts at opera he was more comfortable in the wordless world of ballet — and yet Stravinsky’s most famous works, the early ballets The Firebird, Petrouchka and The Rite of Spring, are “Wagnerian” in that they are dramatizations of the myths and legends of his native country.

Some of the most interesting parts of this show are the demonstrations of Wagner’s purely musical innovations — like the prelude to Lohengrin, written (for the most part) exclusively for violins; those stackings of dissonant chord on top of dissonant chord that pervade Tristan; the subtle orchestral colors of the Parsifal prelude (where Wagner used the traditional Lutheran hymn “Dresden Amen” — though I think much of his criticism of Mendelssohn unfair, the difference between the way Mendelssohn used the “Dresden Amen” in his “Reformation” Symphony and the way Wagner used it in Parsifal is the difference between talent and genius). The film also trots out the most blatant bit of anti-Jewish stereotyping in Wagner’s operas, the caricature of Sixtus Beckmesser in Wagner’s mature comedy Die Meistersinger (though that wasn’t a spoof of Jews in general but of one Jew in particular, the Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick, who like a lot of other people in the German-speaking world in the late 19th century worked out their hatred of Wagner by proclaiming Brahms the real “composer of the future” — indeed for a long time it seemed obligatory that if you liked Wagner you had to hate Brahms, and vice versa, and this lasted until the early 20th century with the emergence of conductor Felix Weingartner, who had known both Wagner and Brahms and conducted them equally well; when Hans von Bülow’s wife dumped him for Wagner his revenge was to stop conducting Wagner and start conducting Brahms) and Mime in Siegfried (that one even gets to a hard-core Wagnerian like me), and the talking heads seem themselves torn over whether the greatness of Wagner’s music justifies the ugliness of his prejudices. (For me, I regard Wagner’s anti-Semitism much the way I regard Thomas Jefferson’s being a slaveowner: the great flaw of a great man.)

The Wagner documentary takes an intriguing turn towards the end when director Rusmanis suddenly cuts to an image of King Kong — the original poster art for the 1933 film — illustrating the point that most of the film music composers in classic-era (1930’s and 1940’s) Hollywood grew out of Wagner’s tradition and copied him, not only his ample orchestrations but in particular the so-called Leitmotif (“leading motive”) technique. Surprisingly, though this was an important part of Wagner’s practice it was relatively unmentioned in all his extensive theorizing about what he was doing; the term Leitmotif wasn’t coined until 1895 — 12 years after Wagner’s death — the term Wagner himself had used was “motives of presentiment and reminiscence.” What it meant was associating each person, place, event and situation in a story with a short musical theme, brief enough to be used for symphonic-style development but recognizable enough that the audience would be reminded of where they had heard that music before and thereby make the connections the composer wanted them to make. I remember being a bit put-out a few years ago when I read an interview with a modern film composer who boasted that he didn’t use Leitmotifs — it seemed he was arbitrarily denying himself a technique which classic film composers like Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Bernard Herrmann had used for the same reason Wagner did: it’s a superb way of organizing a score that’s supposed to accompany a drama and play out over a long period of time. I have no hesitation in calling Wagner my all-time favorite composer — no one else’s music speaks so intensely to me or gives me a similar impression of being in another world — and while an honest biography of Wagner is going to make him out an egomaniacal creep, eagerly helping himself to his friends’ money, possessions and women and justifying it all on the ground that the world owed him a living (and a comfortable, luxurious living at that) so he could create his art, he did create 10 operatic masterpieces and revolutionize the world of classical music as no one had done since Beethoven and no one has done since.