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Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883)
Lifespan: 1813 - 1883
Related: classical music - Friedrich Nietzsche (sometime friend)
Wilhelm Richard Wagner (May 22, 1813 – February 13, 1883) was an influential German composer, music theorist, and essayist, primarily known for his operas. His music is still widely performed, the best known pieces being the "Ride of the Valkyries" from Die Walküre and the "Bridal Chorus" from Lohengrin. Performances of his operas tend to be very well-attended, despite being a stretch for the resources of most opera companies. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Wagner [Nov 2004]
Anti-Semitism and Nazi appropriationDuring the 20th century, the public perception of Wagner increasingly centered on his anti-semitism, largely due to the appropriation of his music by Nazi Germany.
Wagner promulgated many anti-semitic views over the course of his life, through both conversation and numerous writings. He frequently accused Jews, and in particular Jewish musicians, of being a harmful foreign element in Germany, and called for the abandonment of Jewish culture and their assimilation into German culture. Some scholars have argued that his operas also contain hidden anti-Semitic messages, but this claim is disputed. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Wagner [Nov 2004]
The Aesthetics of Warby Daniel Rothbart
Wagner: Gesamptkunstwerk and Götterdämmerung
True drama can be conceived only as resulting from the collective impulse of all the arts to communicate in the most immediate way with a collective public.
Composer Richard Wagner was interested in dismantling the threshold between art and life to create a gesamptkunstwerk or total art work. He viewed this as a synthesis of the traditional languages of art (i.e. painting, sculpture, poetry, drama, and musical composition). Wagner felt that the medium to realize this aspiration was opera, but the idea was further explored in experimental theater by Oskar Schlemmer and in the work of Kurt Schwitters who created Merzbau, a functioning house that was also a work of art.
Wagners opera Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods) tells the story of the demise of the Gods, brought on by a cursed ring. The ring affords its wearer omnipotence, but renders him devoid of love and affection. Wagners opera is inhabited with heroes, villains, dragons, and Valkyrie warrior maidens who wisk fallen soldiers to their heavenly reward in Walhalla.
Wagners celebration of German myth and heroism on the battlefield was embraced by the Third Reich. Leni Riefenstahls Triumph of the Will, a Nazi propaganda film, reflects a Wagnerian sense of pageantry and spectacle. Riefenstahl artfully depicted soldiers as warriors who surrender their lives with honor for a higher good and accept their heavenly reward. Similarly, the September 11 terrorists anticipated a joyous reception by 72 virgins in the Muslim paradise, which cannot be too far away from the world of Valkyries. --http://nyartsmagazine.com/60/aesthetics.htm
Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser
Understanding art and culture as functions of seemingly unique, easily described national character traits has become a convenient and deceptive habit. There is irony, consequently, in the realization that the most significant event in the modern history of French music was the Paris premiere of Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser (in a revised version) on March 13, 1861. The work caused a near riot, prompting Wagner to withdraw it after the third performance. From the publication that spring of Charles Baudelaire's two-part essay "Richard Wagner and Tannhäuser in Paris" to the death of Claude Debussy in 1918, the debate over whether one ought to succumb to or resist Wagner's ideas defined the character of French music and aesthetics.
The curious interplay between the French and the German might well be regarded as a fascinating underlying theme to this concert. No doubt our accepted notion of the history of modern painting affirms that, from Impressionism on, European modernism in the visual arts took its primary inspiration from the French. Insofar as the painters, poets, and musicians of Paris in the 1860s and after worked side by side, it can be said that not only French music but French poetry (e.g. symbolism) and French painting owed much to Wagner.
On the other side, Friedrich Nietzsche, once Wagner's ardent champion who later crafted a compelling and penetrating critique, embraced Georges Bizet's masterpiece Carmen as the quintessential anti-Wagnerian model of operatic greatness. Indeed, of all French nineteenth-century music, it was Bizet's oeuvre that captivated turn-of-the century German-speaking composers and audiences. This generation was in search of some route out of the maze of imitative neo-Wagnerism. With Bizet, particularly in his one-act opera Djamileh, one could detect the disarming lightness of Offenbach and the lyric elegance and economy of Mozart--all without any loss of the seriousness and emotional power in which Wagner specialized. Bizet commanded the twin musical languages of humor and passion with equal skill and invention.
Djamileh has been unfairly neglected for most of its existence. The libretto was written during the Second Empire, in the later 1860s, and mirrors that decade's spirit. But the collapse of the Empire, the defeat at the hands of the Prussians, and the experience of the Paris Commune intervened before the music was composed. Bizet's decision to set a text that could easily have seemed anachronistic by 1872 reflects his attraction to an opportunity within the story that those recent historical events only enhanced: the chance to interweave the comic and the tragic. It was precisely the subtle shifts from the frivolous to the intensely romantic in Djamileh that attracted the attention and admiration of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss.
If Djamileh is at all familiar to today's music lovers, it is probably because Mahler's biographers have mentioned in passing that in 1898, during his tenure at the Vienna Opera, he revived Djamileh and conducted all of its nineteen performances between 1898 and 1903. Mahler evidently loved this obscure masterpiece. The same can be said for his friend and rival Richard Strauss. In 1945, in a letter to Karl Boehm, Strauss penned what he dubbed his "artistic testament." He wanted to outline what should be done to revive culture after the "catastrophe" of the war. Strauss recommended that Vienna establish a permanent "opera comique" in the Theater an der Wien where the greatest of all comic operas, The Magic Flute, had been premiered. In his brief list of essential works for its repertoire, Strauss included Djamileh, which can be viewed as a source of inspiration for Ariadne auf Naxos, in which Strauss brings about a Bizet-like synthesis of Mozartian lyricism and Wagnerian drama.
Paris was a remarkable crucible of creativity in the 1860s. The aesthetic debates of that decade were central not only to the formal direction modern painting, literature, and music would take; the manner in which art and culture either influenced or mirrored national identity became a near obsession. The world from which Impressionism came also gave birth to a modern politics marked by sharp nationalist pride, conflict, and hatred. Sewn into the fabric of French controversies surrounding Wagner and the direction of modern art from the 1860s and 1870s were strands of chauvinism, racialist thinking, and anti-Semitism. The Jewish librettist of La Vie Parisienne and many other Offenbach works, Ludovic Halévy, was for years among the closest of Edgar Degas's friends. That friendship would end in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair: Degas was a staunch believer in Dreyfus's guilt.
In more ways than one, Offenbach, also a Jew, deserves the last word on the Paris of the 1860s and its significance. Like many "outsiders" before and since, Offenbach was able to define, distill, and parody the main currents of Parisian culture and its values and communicate them back to the majority of Parisians. This outsider created the very definition of the "cultural center" in relation to which, ironically, he remained marginal. Offenbach's achievement went still further. In the midst of the craze for Wagner (who was among the most significant of modern anti-Semites), this German Jew, like Heinrich Heine (who also had immigrated to Paris), used wit and insight to expose and blunt aesthetic pretentiousness, smugness, hypocrisy, conceit, and the terrifying self-importance of modern wealth and political power. High on the explicit and implicit list of Offenbach's targets for ridicule were Wagner and his Parisian followers.
That his music has been held in such high esteem by many original minds of the twentieth century is testimony to Offenbach's understanding that comedy provides an opportunity to communicate a unique ethical critique. Amidst the laughter and irreverence, his stage works demonstrate how music and language can become instruments to combat the inflated rhetoric, fanaticism, and self-importance of everyday life that lead humans into conflict and enmity. As one laughs at oneself, one gains a precious moment of recognition that can inspire modesty, compromise, and compassion. Offenbach was the master of this cleansing kind of theater. To achieve such a result, the music had to be non-trivial (as it indeed is in La Vie Parisienne and Offenbach's many other master-works) and every bit as compelling, memorable, and alluring as one would expect in great serious opera. Every age, especially ours, needs an Offenbach of its own.
Leon Botstein, http://www.americansymphony.org/dialogues_extensions/94_95season/1st_concert/leon.cfm [Aug 2004]
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