Thursday, 27 May 2010

Wagner: The musical genius's legacy...

As an opera afficianado (though not especially a fan of Wagner's operas) I was interested to watch Stephen Fry's musings on his lifelong love of Wagner's music, and whether this could (and, indeed, should) be reconciled with his Jewish origins on TV the other night.
I don't know if anyone saw this, but it seemed to be peculiarly relevant to the ongoing debate about the relationship between the artist and their life and work. Should we embrace Wagner as a musical genius and simply ignore his Anti-Semitism, or see it in cultural terms as a product of his time? Or should we let the indelible stain (as Fry put it) of Hitler's legacy stain the work, and lead us to boycott it at all costs?
As one might expect from Fry, he attempted to offer a consensus here, trying to acknowledge the Fascist connotations while at the same time allowing himself a space to continue to enjoy the work of a musical genius. Put simply, Fry argues that the music transcends the ideological prejeudices of the artist and that it is sublime, and therefore should be exempt from political or ideological analysis. However, the quiet revulsion on the face of a musician, a Holocaust survivor when being interviewed about Wagner told another story, despite her best attempts to be concilatory rather than dogmatic.
Many people still do avoid the work of Wagner, while other prominent musicians, including those of Jewish origin, embrace the music (though presumably not the artist).
Is this a liberal whitewash, trying to justify one's passions when these are perhaps transgressive? Or is it right to take Fry's side and argue that, while Wagner's work is stained by its associations, it remains sublime, and that we shouldn't let the legacy of Fascism subsume the work of a genius?

Ruth Griffin


  1. I think that here we should embrace the death of the artist. Imagine you had never heard of wagner and one day you here a piece of his music which moves you to tears of passion. Should you then discover the facts of the composer's life, would you cancel your emotion, your love for the music? Should we not read Ted Hughes because he was a violent, abusive husband, or find caravaggio's paintings beautiful because he murdered someone (apparently)? Fry, for some reason always reminds me of oscar wilde (for various reasons) who famously said 'all art is useless, so is a flower.' that is, art should have no political or moral function, it should be enjoyed for what it is: beauty. I fear that if we start selecting art based on the characters of the artists we may end up losing a lot. there is of course, the age old heidegger debate but should we also not read aristotle because he advocated slavery and male chauvinism? Not read the psalms because king david was a bloody warrior? where does this moral selectiveness stop?

  2. To coin a phrase, I agree with you Fred! I'm sure that if we delved too deeply into the life of that greatest of writers, Shakespeare, unpalatable truths would emerge. Likewise, TS Eliot's work are replete with anti-semitic references, (views which were considered "normal" for middle class intellectuals at the time) but that didn't stop his poems being an A level text, or the work of a talented poet for that matter.
    One can, and probably must, separate the man from his work indeed. Hearing a recording of Eliot reading The Wasteland in a deadly, droning monotone was quite a shock, as was learning that he was a banker. But so what? The text speaks for itself.
    Heidegger is bound to come up in this context, of course, but one shouldn't let his views detract from the valuable elements of his thought, in my view. In fact, it would be very difficult indeed to find any artists with whom we were in total accord.
    That said, I can understand why a Holocaust survivor who was forced to play Wagner at the age of 16 in a concentration camp might have been appalled at the prospect of Fry going to Neuremberg or Bayreuth to listen to Wagner. That said, paradoxically, Wagner's music saved her life. If she hadn't played cello she would have been yet another victim of the gas chambers.
    One commentator on the programme called Wagner "a nasty little man" whose anti-Jewish stance was largely generated by his jealousy of the success of Jewish composers such as Mendelsohn, while his own music was ignored. So what? Why, and how, would self-proclaimed music geniuses be paragons of virture? Presumably the two states of being are mutually exclusive.
    As for Wagner's works' lyrics and narrative,
    (for example, The Ring's farrago of nonsense featuring gods and nieblungen) well plenty of material for ideological discord there, but really, it is to be hoped that art has the ability to transcend all of that...

  3. as for the cellist, that's a personal horror and completely understandable; as it would be if sher were forced to play mozart or handel. but yes we can't universalise hatred and resentment.

  4. To deny oneself the oppurtunity to experience great art, out of distaste for the artist, is to profoundly cheat oneself. Yes, racism is a despicable mindset, but to let Wagner's disgusting beliefs keep you from experiencing great art is to be a very sad, retentive moron.

    The music dramas of Richard Wagner constitute the greatest art that Western civilization has ever produced. The fact that he was a bonehead in regard to social and political issues shouldn't factor in our appreciation of the art he left us. The world will be a far far better place when they separate the man from the music.

    So many people could gain so much from those operas. Just watch and listen and don't worry about it. LIVE.