The Christ Tree
Music of the Week — January 21, 2007

Sunday Night Journal — January 21, 2007

Is Wagner Bad for You?

Returning to the discussion, postponed last week, of the E. Michael Jones essay “Music and Morality: Richard Wagner’s Adultery, the Loss of Tonality and the Beginning of Our Cultural Revolution,” from the December 1992 issue of Fidelity:

There is a great deal to commend in this essay; I’m sorry it’s not online, as I don’t imagine it can be found in many libraries. It’s lengthy and rambling, but entertainingly so. The gist of it can be summarized pretty easily: that Wagner was first a political revolutionary and later, after that failed, a cultural revolutionary driven by adulterous passion to develop a musical technique consciously intended to overthrow the musical order as part of the effort to overthrow the social and moral order. In a passage worth quoting, Jones sheds light on that cultural revolution:

In the modern age, there are revolutions and there are revolutions, and virtually all of them are an incongruous mixture of ressentiment against the human condition as represented by a particular political institution.

The revolutionary agenda espoused by both Wagner and Bakunin was so politically diffuse that no political reform could have accomplished it. As a result, it is only natural that its political death would only release its revolutionary soul into freer flights of fantasy, where its disembodied soul was free to posit conditions that it was safe to say could never find incorporation in any political system anywhere…..a revolution which was essentially metaphysical in its scope.

I used to be puzzled by affluent and privileged people who complained that they were not free, because there never seemed to be anything in particular that they wanted to do or to have that was not already available to them. But their complaints were quite sincere; they would feel themselves oppressed as long as it was possible for anything to be other than they wished it to be. The dream of an earthly life free from the limits of the human condition is still very much with us (Imagine there’s no heaven…).

Knowing very little about Wagner, I’m not in a position to determine the accuracy of Jones’ conclusions about him, although they seem plausible on the basis of what I do know. The question of interest to me is whether and how they ought, if true, to affect the way we receive Wagner’s work. It’s a logical inference from his harsh judgment of Wagner, and from the warnings of Aristotle and many others about the malign effects of disordered music which he applies to Wagner’s work, that he would counsel us to avoid it.

In a subsequent issue (May 1993) of Fidelity, Madeleine Stebbins takes issue with Jones. She denies any connection between Wagner’s personal life and his music, and suggests that the erotic longing in a work like Tristan und Isolde should be considered a metaphor for mystical love, invoking John of the Cross and others—all well and good, but it doesn’t address the question of whether and to what degree Wagner’s bad intentions make his music bad, and bad for you. Everyone surely understands that the personal sins of an artist do not automatically render his work unfit. But it’s one thing to be a sinner, quite another to be a propagandist for sin, which is the essence of Jones’ charge against Wagner.

I suppose I fall somewhere between Jones and Stebbins (bearing in mind that I only know Wagner by the Ring, which is not the example used by either of them). Part of the question is whether it is possible for a musical technique to be intrinsically evil in its influence. I am extremely skeptical of this. (I was going to mention some barely-remembered stuff about the tritone here, the diabolus in musica, but according to Wikipedia its name may never have been meant very seriously.) Jones quotes Greek descriptions of physical and mental illnesses produced by listening to certain modes. I doubt a scientific test would be able to demonstrate these effects. It is certainly true that music can exert a powerful influence for good or ill. But I think the question of any destabilizing emotional impact based on purely musical techniques, such as chromaticism (which Jones sees Wagner cultivating as intentionally subversive), is to a great extent a matter of culture and expectations. Today’s technical innovation becomes tomorrow’s everyday tool of expression, to be used for purposes quite other than those the innovator had in mind. You don’t have to look any further than Bruckner for an example.

None of this is to say that there are not better and worse tools, and a valid argument that the technical innovations of Wagner and others constituted a change for the worse in the history of music, but that’s a somewhat different discussion.

Still, after viewing the Ring in the mostly unfortunate Chéreau production, I’m left with a slight distaste for it, considered as an epic drama, and consequently for Wagner, notwithstanding the fact that I very much liked a good deal of the music itself. I don’t know that this is fair, and I don’t even know that it’s an impression that would survive a more extensive acquaintance with his work, or even the viewing of a different Ring. And I can’t deny that awareness of what transpired in Germany over the next sixty years or so after Wagner’s death plays a role in my view of him, as does the knowledge that Hitler (at least) thought Wagner’s music eminently suitable for his party.

But with all allowances made, there still seems to me something unwholesome in Wagner. Almost all Romanticism is at least somewhat guilty of emotionalism and self-absorption, but Wagner’s work seems to contain something more than usually unhealthy: something almost morbid, involving a desire to surrender to what it imagines to be the purer and stronger passions of a more heroic age. I assume Siegfried is supposed to be at least a somewhat sympathetic character, but I disliked him strongly (and this, too, may be unfair, as it’s all wrapped up with a single performance). He has the spontaneous and instinctive pure self-interest of an animal, and yet he also knows what it is to look in a mirror; there’s a touch, at least, of Narcissus in him. If I envision him escaping his early death I can only see him becoming ever more self-righteous and resentful, incapable of knowing himself and uninterested in knowing others, proud and humorless, capable of jeers and sneers but not wit, utterly without empathy: possessing, in short, a personality suitable for a tyrant.

As I said, I’m intrigued by what I’ve heard of Wagner and don’t mean to sound as if I’m condemning his work wholesale. But on the basis of the Ring alone, I see something in him which I don’t think I’m imagining and which I dislike: a bourgeois aesthete in a waning Christian civilization, at ease in the salon and the drawing room but weary of them and perhaps of civilization itself, looking enviously toward the primitive and the exercise of power. It isn’t fair to tar Wagner retroactively with Nazi associations, but it’s possible to see in his work, as in that of his fellow parlor-primitive Nietzsche, the early stages of a deep sickness, one which has by no means been cured.



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