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Whistling in the Dark on Wagner’s 200th Birthday

RecordReviewI’m looking at a photograph of my father when he was a graduate student at Indiana University. He’s wearing a sleeveless sweater and in his lap is a princely male Siamese cat named Kiloo. He had purchased Kiloo for a nominal sum from an opera singer everyone called Madame Manski, who, I have just discovered, sang at the Met, as Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Die Walküre, Elsa in Lohengrin, Venus in Tannhäuser, and Gutrune in Twilight of the Gods before moving on to sing Isolde in Tristan und Isolde under the direction of Bruno Walter at the Vienna State Opera. Being only six at the time, I would not have been as impressed by this information as I am now, faced with the daunting prospect of delivering a column on Wagner’s 200th birthday (1813-1883). I own no LPs or CDs of Wagner’s music and have never been to a concert, unless you count the production of Parsifal I was coerced into attending at a time when my interest in “serious music” had peaked with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet.

One of the handful of Wagnerians I know is a London research consultant who recently told me of the time he somewhat nervously introduced his 15-year-old daughter to “her first real experience of Wagner,” a performance of Siegfried at Covent Garden. Booking the tickets, he’d been worried she might not “take to it.” At the end of the first act he turned to her to see how she liked it, and she said, “Daddy, you’ve changed my life!” They’ve been sharing Wagner ever since, including memorable productions of the Ring at the Royal Albert Hall in 1998 and Covent Garden in 2007.

When my father turned to see how I felt after the first half of Parsifal, I didn’t need to say anything. My bleary eyes and stifled yawns told the story. I just didn’t get it. I didn’t want to get it.

Wagner, the Film

In my five-day crash course I’ve tried to catch up with Wagner by listening to a stack of CDs from the library and watching Tony Palmer’s magnificent nine-hour-long 1983 made-for-television Wagner with Richard Burton (1925-1984) in the title role. The film took me and my wife four nights to get through, and though our eyes may have been a little bleary, we weren’t yawning. In fact, Wagner may be the most visually arresting, splendidly staged film biography ever made. The version cut in half and shown on Channel 13 in 1986 was deemed a “colossal disaster” by John J. O’Connor in the New York Times (a gross misjudgment that can be half-excused because he was watching only half a film and you can be pretty sure that the missing parts were unmissable).

As O’Connor rightly points out, the film doesn’t ignore or soft-pedal Wagner’s anti-semitism (though it’s not “rabid,” as O’Connor terms it, but casual, constant, and matter of fact). Nor is his arrogance, or nationalistic fervor glossed over or excused. He’s an insufferable egomaniac who assumes that as the great genius of the age he has the right to take full advantage of his friends’ time, money, devotion, and wives, and when someone points this out, he says, keeping a straight face (we laughed out loud), “But that’s what friends are for.” It’s hard to imagine Burton’s Wagner as the storm-bearing, sword-brandishing godfather of the Third Reich because he’s being played by a Welshman with Shakespeare in his DNA and less than two years to live who may sense that this is his last great part, probably the most challenging since his Hamlet 20 years before. And there’s a Shakespearean force and wit in his Wagner; you suspect he’s thinking of Hamlet’s advice to the players (“Speak the speech, I pray you”) every time he tells his singers and musicians how to perform his music. True to Hamlet’s lesson, Burton never “tears a passion to tatters to split the ears of the groundlings.” In particular, the conversations with Ronald Pickup’s Nietzsche are brilliantly and subtly played by both actors and Nietzsche’s extraordinary dinner table soliloquy must be one of the many brilliant moments dropped from the version of the film seen by O’Connor.

Chaplin and Levine

My Open Sesame to Wagner was the Prelude to Lohengrin. Not only did the unearthly beauty of this nine-and-a half-minute-long piece of music hold me, it followed me around. I knew I’d heard it somewhere before. Then a reference to the music haunting me appeared on the front page of Monday’s New York Times with a picture of James Levine on his return to the Met, conducting from his wheel chair “a serene, poised and glowing” account of “the Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin.” A week ago I would have drawn a blank on that sentence. Having lived in and been stalked by that music long enough by now, all I can say is “What?” Poised? Serene? This is soul-stealing music by the composer James Huneker calls “The greatest poet of passion the world has yet encountered.”

If you want to see poetry and poise and passion, look at Charlie Chaplin’s travesty of Hitler in The Great Dictator. The scene where he does a pas de deux with a helium globe of the world may be the most stylized solo turn in his repertoire. Think of it — in September 1940 an entertainer beloved around the world disappears into a Nazi uniform, with mock swastikas and gleaming jackboots, taking advantage of that little dab of mustache that the Dictator and the Tramp have in common. A lesser performer with the same mission would go heavy, making something demented and demonic of the globe ballet while prescribing more of the same for the soundtrack. Chaplin becomes an almost maidenly Hitler, the world is his poem, until his lust gets the better of him, prompting a subdued fit of mad-genius cackling. Then the lover embracing, nuzzling, and noodling the globe becomes a child with a toy, bumping it with his bum, Chaplinesquely jackbooting it up to the ceiling. It should be uproarious. But it isn’t, not really. Somehow the whole performance has become something you feel, it’s coming up behind you, unsettling you, undermining you, which is when the balloon bursts and the music stops.

Yes, the music! It’s been there throughout the bizarre ballet, music of subtle, insidious splendor, so piercingly, uncannily beautiful, that you could close your eyes and simply submit to it, cry with it, die with it, if you weren’t already so thoroughly transfixed by Chaplin’s art; the music isn’t there to accompany the caperings of a giddy madman, it’s there for Chaplin, it’s the melodic manifestation of his genius. And though I must have seen that sequence many times before this week — a standard item in any anthology of Chaplin’s greatest moments — I never paid much attention to the inappropriate delicacy of the music, never gave the source of it a thought,  assuming Chaplin had composed it himself, as he did the music for his other full-length films. It’s only thanks to this past week’s crash course in Wagner that I can finally appreciate Chaplin’s crowning touch, to score his devastating caricature of Der Führer with Wagner’s Prelude to Lohengrin. Did he also comprehend that the beautiful music he was using contained elements of the same emotional dynamite that made Wagner the Reich’s inspirational maestro? In his autobiography Chaplin says that he would never have dared to make that film had he known what was going on in the concentration camps.

Baudelaire Floating

Eighty years before Chaplin released The Great Dictator, the same music opened a program of Wagner at the Theatre des Italiens in Paris, with Wagner conducting. According to Enid Starkie’s biography of Baudelaire, the author of Les fleurs du mal was in the audience experiencing Wagner for the first time as “one long revelation.” In his landmark essay on Wagner, said to be the only piece he ever wrote about a musical event, Baudelaire describes listening with eyes closed to the Prelude to Lohengrin and feeling as if “lifted from the earth,” “released from the bonds of gravity,” aware of “the extraordinary thrill of pleasure which dwells in high places,” imagining himself “in the grip of a profound reverie, in an absolute solitude … with an immense horizon and a wide diffusion of light; an immensity with no other decor but itself” until he comes to a “full conception of a soul moving about in a luminous medium, of an ecstasy composed of knowledge and joy, hovering high above the natural world” [Baudelaire’s italics].

Proust’s Telephone

Another of Wagner’s French admirers, Marcel Proust didn’t need to go to a concert to fall under his spell. He describes hearing the music in everyday sounds, like the opening and closing of a door that renders “those broken, voluptuous, plaintive phrases that overlap the chant of the pilgrims towards the end of the Overture to Tannhäuser,” or in the sound of the telephone while Marcel waits in lonely anguish for a call from Albertine that resembles, when it finally comes, “the shepherd’s pipe in Tristan.” Wagner is present all through Remembrance of Things Past, as when, among many instances, the fictitious composer Vinteuil’s “little phrase” is compared to a theme in Tristan, or when Swann’s Odette expresses a passion for Wagner and thinks of visiting Bayreuth, and when during the First War the sirens are “Wagnerian,” evoking the “Ride of the Valkyries” and what other music could hail “the arrival of the Germans?”

Wagner’s Reach

After citing “a host of circumstances, not the least Wagner’s own writings” that “drove his music into the proximity of the most evil political system in the history of Western Europe,” Nicholas Spice’s recent London Review of Books essay, “Is Wagner Bad for Us” explicitly “skirts … the fraught question of the association of Wagner’s works with National Socialism” because “the subject of Wagner and the Nazis is too big to be fitted meaningfully into a set of general reflections on the composer.”

Filming Wagner in the early 1980s, Richard Burton’s instincts brought him into contact with “the fraught question.” At the end of his life as an actor, surely knowing it’s his last hurrah, he’s summoning the power he found playing Hamlet, where the ecstasy of acting, the overflow of spirit and language, made theatrical sense of acts of violence like the killing of Polonius that in turn drives Ophelia to drown herself; he must have recognized a comparable force in his Wagner. It’s the art of excess that James Huneker was writing about at the turn of the previous century, with his reference to a fascinating “poet of passion” whose “demoniac art … enchants, thrills, and makes mock of all spiritual theories about the divine in music.”

In the preludes to Lohengrin and Tristan, Wagner becomes something else altogether, something perhaps best described by his great counterpart Verdi, whose bicentennial is also this year. After experiencing Tristan and Isolde, Verdi said “that he could never quite grasp the fact that it had been created by a mere human being.”

The Verdi quote is from Bryan Magee’s The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy (Holt 2000), which I read around in, particularly the chapter on “Wagner’s Misleading Reputation.” For an interesting behind-the-scenes look at the 2010 Robert Lepage production of the Ring, see Wagner’s Dream (2012), which the New York Times called “the rare backstage film that maintains a level head even in moments of crisis.” The DVD is available at the library, which also has the complete version of Tony Palmer’s Wagner that by all rights should be out in Blu-Ray for the bicentennial. WKCR 89.9FM New York, the radio station of Columbia University, will commemorate Wagner’s 200th birthday with a 48-hour broadcast of the operas, from Rienzi to Parsifal. It begins today, May 22, and runs through May 23. The Princeton Festival will present Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre on Saturday, June 22 at 8 p.m. and Sunday June 29 at 3 p.m. It will be the Festival’s first Wagnerian production.

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