Alex Ross on Wagner’s Influences on Our World

Jeannie Williams is a crackerjack thinker, a hardworking writer, and an indefatigable proponent of things operatic and, particularly, Wagnerian.  Jeannie kindly allowed me to share her informal report on a recent presentation by New Yorker music critic Alex Ross:

Alex Ross’s next book, “Wagner — Art in the Shadow of Music,” won’t be out for several years, he told a New Yorker Festival audience Sunday (Oct 7, 2012) . His goal will be to “restore the magnificent confusion of what it means to be Wagnerian,” and explore the huge influences the composer had on every genre of the arts, which Ross believes have been largely forgotten today (this being a day when a Twitter hashtag was announced, of course, for this program.)

So Ross fans had to make do with this fascinating hour and 15 minutes, plus Q&A, focused on some Wagner moments he has returned to again and again (such as the bells of Parsifal). He said he would negotiate “between hardcore Wagnerians and the normal people”  in explicating the “vortex,” which he equated with the spell Wagner has cast so widely.  The issue of Wagner’s influence on Hitler, whatever it may have been, came up, and it appears there is a shift occurring in previous views.
 
Ross, casual in jeans, began with a little Lohengrin, and quotes on ecstasy from the poet Baudelaire, after an 1860 performance. He also touched on “black Wagner,” with  jazz bits including a Stan Kenton version of Ride of the Valkyries. But not for long.
 
Ross sees Wagner’s works “as a limitless forest in which one goes wandering at a certain peril.” Those who wandered included a long list of artists, notably from 1880 to 1940. Painters from Van Gogh to Kandinsky fell under the spell of his colors. Symbolists were thrilled by the many allusions to night and dreams.
 
Ross’s book apparently also will focus on the contradictions of Wagner that he did not recognize, as “an artist who worshipped a king” and an anti-Semite who left Parsifal to a Jewish conductor.  Ross views Wagner, Nietzche to the contrary, as having “a good knowledge of the mechanics of music,” as well as the rare ability “to imagine in his head what had never been heard before.”
 
Ross noted that “circularity” is a musical characteristic of Wagner, as opposed to the progressiveness of Beethoven’s works.  Themes repeat in Wagner, as in Tristan und Isolde, in which Ross said one scholar found that “the Tristan chord” (a half-diminished 7th) appears 1,400 times. “We have a sense of being pushed into the mists, not brought back home,” with that lack of resolution. (He played a little of Act 2 with Furtwangler/Flagstad.)
 
We don’t realize today how shocking Wagner was, especially when it came to all the sex in his operas, Ross said. He was viewed as decadent by many, and this may stem from what Ross sees as Wagner’s ability to mirror the human nervous system in his music, exposing the “inner workings” of the human animal. 
 
Ross treated us to a 1955 Bayreuth Die Walkure excerpt, with Hans Hotter as Wotan and Georgine von Milinkovic as Fricka.( “There are some exciting music performances at the New Yorker Festival, but only I have Hans Hotter!” Ross exulted.) He spoke of this section as akin to Ibsen, and of Wotan’s stream of consciousness, noting scholars have shown that the seed of Joyce’s Ulysses is in Wagner’s writings.
 
In this excerpt, we witness a family crisis, with complicated intelligence and psychological aspects. Wagner can be the soundtrack for varied ideologies, left and right, Ross noted. “When modern listeners engage with myths, they enter a dreamlike, clairvoyant state.” The Ring very much speaks to today, he said, with themes of environmental destruction and the struggles with power and money, and class struggle, as Shaw noted.
 
Then, Ross said “we enter the deepest vortex of all —  Parsifal.” He called it “impossibly spooky,” a view of a new religion of Wagner’s own fusion (he had a Buddhist strain later in  life), and a story of compassion. We heard some of the Good Friday Spell, with Domingo and Pape under Christian Thielemann. Ross seems fascinated with the bells heard in Parsifal, suggesting that some bells now used are too heavy, compared with the lighter sounds Wagner experimented with.
 
Some of the bell sounds in Parsifal mirror the sound of Tristan’s final “Isolde.” (Ross said New York’s Riverside Church Carillon was donated by John D. Rockefeller Jr., in honor of his mother, and the magnate specified that they should mark the hours with Parsifal’s bell music.)
 
Ross played a 1927 Bayreuth Parsifal excerpt, noting that Hitler wasn’t present that year. He went in 1925, then stayed away “to avoid political problems for Wagner’s family” (until 1927, when he returned, through 1933). The dictator, Ross said, was pre-occupied with Parsifal, and urged Wieland Wagner to create a new Parsifal for the ages, “against his own party!!!!” Wieland wrote. Ross noted the four exclamation marks; some high officials of the Reich thought Parsifal should not be staged because of its Christian imagery).   
 
Ross said the Wagner/Hitler issue “can’t be ignored. I have long struggled with it.”  But recently “I felt this darkness recede, not in history but in the music.”  Asked later about the taboo of playing Wagner in Israel, he said, “It’s not for me to judge — it’s up to the people of Israel.” It may be a few years too soon, but still attempts should be made. However, he is concerned about false ideas put forth. He noted the scholar Hans Rudolf Vaget has told him that nowhere in Hitler’s writings are there allusions to Wagner’s anti-Semitism (this is discussed in a Ross essay on The New Yorker Website). And he said that Wagner’s music was rarely played in the concentration camps; the inmates’ orchestras played lighter music — waltzes, marches.
 
Ross said Christoph von Dohnany told him that “nothing in Wagner HAD to lead to Hitler.” Ross referenced an article on Christoph’s father, Hans, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, enemies of Hitler, in the current New York Review of Books (though it does not deal with Wagner).
 
Ross suggested it is time to stop letting Hitler — and not Baudelaire, Willa Cather and so many other artists — define and exemplify Wagnerism. It says nothing about Hitler that he was influenced by Wagner; so many were. It’s like saying Bob Dylan influenced somebody in the 1960s; their names were legion. “I INSIST on the multiplicity of Wagner’s influence.”
 
Asked about modern influences, Ross said  he hears in Thomas Ades’ “Tevot”  “much of Wagner in his sumptuousness of orchestration”;  he noted Wagner use in film for Terrence Malick’s The New World and Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness (not to mention Apocalypse Now, mentioned later by an attendee).  
 
Finally, Ross calls Wagner’s works ” a great, magnificent mirror of the soul of the human species,” in which we may glimpse or turn away from many facets, evil and good.
 
Ross is excited about a visit to the Bayreuth Archives in the next couple of weeks. He had no problem being approved, since his research doesn’t deal with the most “charged questions” about the Wagner family, i.e. Nazi connections, but focuses on the composer’s influence on the arts.

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