David Goldman, also known by the pseudonym Spengler, recently wrote an intriguing essay called “Why We Can’t Hear Wagner’s Music“. I found it to be an insightful and stimulating read — so stimulating, in fact, that I expended the bulk of my morning penning a response to this article, outlining the points on which I disagree with him. Following is the text of that response:
As a composer who has maintained an ambivalent passion for Wagner’s music for much of my adult life, I felt a strange shock of recognition when reading your article, perhaps because parts of it so closely mirror my own thoughts about Wagner. I feel that the essence of what makes his work so troubling is precisely, as you suggested in one of your follow-up notes, the disparity that it implies between the beautiful and the good. However, there are a few points on which I feel you do a disservice both to Wagner and to your own argument.
The first point is in regard to the notion that lovers of Wagner’s music are in it purely for those thrilling moments that make the “interminable recitatives” worthwhile. Consider, for instance, Wotan’s monologue in Act II of Die Walküre, which is one of the recitatives that you mention. James Levine supposedly calls this section of the opera “the part that separates the men from the boys.” What he means, I believe, is that this monologue — perhaps boring to a casual or inattentive listener — is precisely the sort of passage to which lovers of Wagner are most attracted. Instead of being something that they sit through in order to get to the good parts, it is experienced as a thrilling demonstration both of the dramatic powers of the singer, and of Wagner’s ability to achieve the greatest of musical effects with an economy of means. Lovers of Wagner experience his best operas not as a selections of good bits interlarded with “terrible quarters of an hour”, but as coherent dramatic unities, some of which — like Die Walküre — are captivating from beginning to end.
The way in which audiences experience Wagner’s music is related closely to a second issue, which is his treatment of time. I agree entirely with you that Wagner’s control of time is a large part of what makes his work revolutionary, but I think you are mistaken in suggesting that his control of time consists only in an ability to stop it. There are whole passages in Wagner’s work — such as Tristan’s delirium in Act III of Tristan und Isolde, or almost the entire second act of Götterdammerüng — in which time rushes forward at breakneck speed, hurtling toward catastrophe with a terrifying momentum. These segments are as far as imaginable from any attempt to hold onto the moment. Yet they are among the places in Wagner that many love the most; and they are also among the parts of his work that the ambivalent Wagnerite finds most morally troubling.
What is novel in Wagner’s treatment of time may be summed up in Thomas Mann’s famous evocation of his similarities with Tolstoy and Ibsen. What was common to all three figures, Mann said, was the “union of myth and psychology.” Wagner’s operas, for all their mythic trappings, are thus a part of the history of nineteenth-century psychological realism. This underlies Nietzsche’s sniffing comparison of Wagner’s heroines to Emma Bovary; but more to the point, it also explains the nature of Wagner’s treatment of time.
Earlier operas, at least until Gluck, relied on a conception of time that was essentially hieratic, divided into carefully demarcated chunks of recitative—in which musical development stopped and narrative time advanced—and aria, in which action froze and a single emotion or affect was expanded upon. The Wagnerian “endless melody” is something quite different: not an “interminable recitative,” as you suggest, but rather a means by which aria-like sections and recitative-like sections are seamlessly blended into each other, with such fluency that the audience is seldom aware of the transition. It is not surprising, then, that Wagner often spoke of his technique as being the “art of transition.” Our experience of time when listening to Wagner is thus essentially psychological. Yes, we may freeze in a moment of bliss with the awakening Brünnhilde; but we may also rush forward toward death with the fevered Tristan, or toward apocalypse with the villainous Hagen in Götterdammerüng. The point is that, in either case, our experience of time is entirely bounded by that of the characters in the opera itself. An operatic world of hieratic ritual is thus replaced by one of painstaking pyschological realism, much as the “bourgeois” psychology of Ibsen replaced the carefully constructed symmetries of the “well-made play.”
A final point is that the musical structure implied by Wagner’s “endless melody” was not unprecedented—rather, as Wagner himself said, it developed out of the finales to Mozart’s Da Ponte operas, particularly that of Don Giovanni. This suggests that Wagner is not as remote from the classical style as you might believe, and that his music may indeed be a logical, though frightening, continuation of it. Your argument that his music is alien to, or at least parasitic upon, the classical tradition, derives in part from what I feel to be a misunderstanding of the intellectual underpinnings of that tradition. As I have argued elsewhere, the most properly “Christian” music would be that of Josquin and his contemporaries; by contrast, the music of the baroque and classical periods, for the most part, exists in a state of struggle against radical doubt. In Beethoven, this struggle has become formalized as a dialectical conflict between antagonistic musical elements—usually remote keys, as in the Neapolitan relationships of the Appassionata Sonata, or differing enharmonic interpretations of a single pitch, as in the C-natural/B-sharp duality of the Seventh Symphony.
In middle Beethoven, the conflict between these elements is what generates the musical structure, and what leads to the triumphant affirmation with which many of the works of the heroic period close. The vision of the world presented in Beethoven is thus much closer to that of Hegel than it is to that of Christian eschatology: for in Beethoven, as in Hegel, it is the process of dialectical conflict that leads us toward perfection. But as Leszek Kolakowski has remarked, Hegel’s philosophy, originally intended as theodicy, ends up as theogony; similarly, the exaltation of heroic struggle in middle Beethoven differs only in degree — not in kind — from the Wagnerian cult of the Artist as Prophet.
I would like, finally, to reiterate that I am in agreement with you about the central paradox that Wagner presents us: that the beautiful is not necessarily the good. For his music does indeed trouble me deeply, at the same time that I love it very much. In much of what he wrote there is a profound “sympathy for the abyss,” mirroring the nihilism of the Schopenhauerian metaphysics that so attracted Wagner. As Nietsche wrote, “only the philosopher of decadence could give to the artist of decadence — himself.” But if we trivialize Wagner’s achievement, we are merely disguising from ourselves the enormity of the problem he poses. If his work is merely fine moments and dull quarters of an hour, it should not bother us so much that it is also morally troubling. It is a much more frightening situation if Tristan, the Ring, and Parsifal are masterpieces of the first order, which are not alien to, but instead spring directly from, the greatest artistic achievements of Wagner’s classical predecessors. Because if this is true, then the gnawing question he presents us—the question of the disparity between the beautiful and the good—is truly inescapable.