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Michael Fry: Wagner remains meister of controversy - News and features - Scotsman.com

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Michael Fry: Wagner remains meister of controversy

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22.05.13

Michael Fry: Wagner remains meister of controversy - News and features - Scotsman.com

Productions of Wagner​ s work are always lavish, as in this performance by Scottish Opera. Picture: David Cheskin/PA By MICHAEL FRY

Published on 22/05/2013 00:00
On the 200th anniversary of Richard Wagner’s birth, opinion remains deeply divided over whether the quality of his music outweighs his unpalatable views on Jews, writes Michael Fry Not many men in any walk of life still excite controversy – and sometimes violent controversy – two centuries after their birth. Among composers the tally of such figures is especially small. Who could dislike Mozart, boor though he might be at times, with his never-ending invention of delightful melody? Or Chopin, coughing consumptively and spitting blood while, with soaring imagination and virtuosity, he defined the music of the piano?
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Michael Fry: Wagner remains meister of controversy - News and features - Scotsman.com

The collective amiability of composers can even so be overshadowed by the figure of Richard Wagner, who was born 200 years ago today. During his own lifetime, which ended just short of 70 years later, he was often in the eye of personal and public storms. But they were as nothing compared to what blew up afterwards, especially after he was adopted by Adolf Hitler as a cultural icon of National Socialism. To this day, Wagner’s music cannot really be played in Israel, though the Jewish conductor Daniel Barenboim has tried. In Wagner’s hometown of Leipzig two years ago, I was myself at a performance of Die Meistersinger when a swastika got flourished on stage, something strictly forbidden by German law. But it is also a convention of modern life in the Federal Republic that producers of opera can claim an artistic licence not available to lesser beings. So, they flout convention (or indeed the law) as outrageously as they please – a far cry from the Theatre Royal in Glasgow or the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh. The producer in Leipzig, Jochen Biganzoli, did it in style. The character Hans Sachs, hero of the opera, suffered a heart attack as soon as he did flourish the swastika and was carted off by an ambulance driven onstage – symbolism a little heavy, but then this was Germany. It never stopped a large section of the audience breaking out into a chorus of boos so furious that we can safely say a Nazi revival, if it did take place, would not start in Leipzig. No doubt Biganzoli felt delighted. German producers almost measure the success of their stagings by the volume of boos they get. I am sure that afterwards everybody boarded the city’s clanking old Communist trams feeling they had enjoyed a really great night out. Wagner would have approved. He was a tearaway himself. He started adult life as a wild lefty student and had to flee his native Saxony to avoid arrest. The following years he spent wandering destitute round Europe looking for people to bail him out, all the time writing his enormous musical works without knowing if any would ever be performed. Luckily, he was always happy to bed another man’s wife or spend another man’s money: in the case of the hapless silk merchant Otto Wesendonck, he both bedded the wife and spent the money. But then he wrote the Wesendonck Songs to his lady love. “Ah, what wonderful dreams,” the final one begins. And at that point I am afraid we all, or at least all of us except poor Herr Wesendonck, have to forgive Wagner. We have now lived through a couple of centuries of a romantic tradition that admires rather than condemns louche Bohemianism, so the sexual promiscuity of a struggling composer would scarcely merit much attention nowadays. It is a different matter in the case of Wagner’s other great sin, which was racism. He wrote diatribes against the Jews that cause our toes to curl. I do not believe myself that Hitler ever made much of the music
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22.05.13

Michael Fry: Wagner remains meister of controversy - News and features - Scotsman.com

(there is no oompah), but the anti-semitism was all he wanted and needed to know about. I could make excuses for Wagner’s racism, but they would be too feeble. All his life he had, as was inevitable and natural in the artistic world, Jewish friends and colleagues. One of the closest was Hermann Levi, who conducted the first public performance of Parsifal; with elephantine humour, Wagner advised him to get himself baptised first. So, there were Jews that Wagner could like and admire, but then there were others he detested. Especially fellow composers, Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn received from him a full blast of stinking bile. Inferior artists as they were to Wagner, they were feted in Paris, where he was at the time scratching a living as a clerk. So I can understand his jealousy, even his venom, but I still wish that he had confined his comments to their music rather than their race. It may be worthwhile to note in passing that Wagner also hated the English. As his career at last got into gear, he spent a couple of seasons in London at the invitation of the Philharmonic Society. London was then nothing like the great global centre for music it is today. In artistic terms, it was rather a provincial place much given to performances of the Hallelujah Chorus and, ahem, Mendelssohn. Wagner could not abide this stodgy, flatulent, plum-pudding sort of Victorian culture. He did not understand the language and the English could not understand his, not at least until much later. So the relationship never got as close and personal as with the Jews, but it might have done. Still, in the end, we have to ask if the offensive traits of a composer, whether merely quirkish or thoroughly despicable, really matter. If we start at the level where Wagner was bonking Frau Wesendonck, I do not think they do: when we listen to what the music actually says to us, then the art justifies whatever went into it. At a higher level the operas are much more ambiguous, which as dramas they should be. But I would apply the same test there. In 2005, I was lucky enough to get tickets to go and see the Ring at Bayreuth. I went with a member of Glasgow’s distinguished school of woman journalists who is very musical, but I think had never experienced anything like the full-frontal exposure to Wagner’s gamma rays that you get in this high temple of his cult. The productions are lavish beyond belief. They used to be all helmets and horns and spears, with chariots drawn by rams. Today they are all high-tech whizzbangery. In any event, my companion (no lover of the Germans by the way) expected her prejudices to be confirmed. As we emerged from the last of the four operas, and the collapse of Valhalla after 18 hours of music, she went over all the things we had seen: the deaths, the violence, the breaking of vows, promises and
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22.05.13

Michael Fry: Wagner remains meister of controversy - News and features - Scotsman.com

contracts, the seduction, the adultery, the incest. And she said: “But it’s not about any of that, it’s about love.” Indeed: at the end of the Ring, with all the gods gone, the human beings are left by themselves and to their own resources of mind and body, facing a world that offers them no comfort or consolation except in one another. We are still finding out if we can cope.
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