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Wagner, an unreasonable man – some birthday thoughts

Wagner, an unreasonable man – some birthday thoughts

Peter Bassett

“The reasonable man” said Bernard Shaw, “adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Applying Shaw’s dictum, Richard Wagner was indeed an unreasonable man, for his creative life was undoubtedly bent on adapting the world to himself and, as a result, he attracted adulation and opprobrium in equal measures.

Controversy was his constant companion, and the difficulties he faced were often of his own making. In his formative years he deliberately turned his back on the operatic practices of his day and was impatient with what he regarded as the rewarding of influence over talent. To the despair and incredulity of his first wife, Minna, he sacrificed a respected position as Kapellmeister at the Saxon court by involving himself in the Dresden uprising of 1849. But ultimately it was not political revolution but artistic reinvention that preoccupied him for most of his life. 

Wagner’s political activities (he became aligned with the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin at one point) led to decades of exile and a hand-to-mouth existence, borrowing from friends and running from creditors. But his struggle proved to be the fire and his exile the crucible that produced works of profound importance. During the three decades between the commencement of Das Rheingold in 1851 and the completion of Parsifal in 1882, western music underwent some of its most significant transformations, and Wagner’s ideas extended well beyond music and the operatic stage into the realms of literature and the visual arts as well. It is unlikely that he would have achieved anything of such magnitude in a routine career in the court of the King of Saxony. Necessity was indeed the mother of invention. 

The pre- and post- Wagner musical worlds could hardly have been more different. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries for instance, conductors were largely time-beaters or, as someone described them, genial, neutral conveners of the orchestra. Wagner on the other hand believed that the conductor’s role was to interpret the music and then to realize this interpretation through the orchestra. This is something we take for granted today but it was a novel idea in the early eighteen-hundreds. Sir John Barbirolli once remarked that: “As prime inspirer and founder of the modern school of conducting, I think we can safely point to Wagner.” Daniel Barenboim put it this way: “Wagner influenced the way the whole world, without exception, looked at the music that had come before him, the classics. So, in this way, he influenced a whole history of interpretation of music, to the point that the reaction that came in this century… was an attempt to fight this. What we have experienced with the revival of historical practices and playing on period instruments, is also, in fact – whether knowingly or not – a reaction against this Wagnerian concept of the continuity of sound.”

Before Wagner’s time, ‘stage directors’ as we know them did not exist. The librettist was usually both the provider of words and director of the stage action, but after Wagner who, although being a very experienced conductor, directed the first performances of the Ring in 1876, the importance of considered stage direction was at last recognized.

The stars in the old system, who were treated and behaved like royalty, were the singers, and they could make or break a production. It was the heyday of the volatile prima donna, and none were more volatile or more ‘prima donna’ than Caterina Gabrielli, who was the first to be called coloratura. Exploiting her considerable personal charms, Gabrielli attracted the favours of the Emperor of Austria and members of the nobility, thereby ensuring the success (and adequate funding) of any production she was in. Theatre managers were more than happy to encourage these innovative fund-raising activities. One contemporary writer described her as “the greatest singer in the world… certainly the most dangerous siren of modern times, having made more conquests than any woman breathing.” Such was her effect on men that once, in a fit of jealousy, the French Ambassador tried to shoot her, and she was saved only by the whalebone in her stays. She had a power of which modern leading ladies can only dream. If she were in a bad temper, which was often, she would only hum her arias.

In Palermo, the Viceroy of Sicily once gave a dinner in honour of Gabrielli, to which he invited the most important members of the nobility; but she failed to appear. He ordered the meal to be held back while a messenger was dispatched to find the cause of her absence. The messenger found her reading in bed. She might have been forgiven this slight had she not, later that evening, sung sotto voce when the Viceroy took his guests to hear her at the opera. He sent her a message threatening punishment if she did not raise her voice, but she replied that he might make her cry but he would never make her sing! So, he sent her to prison, where she gave free concerts every day, paid the debts of the poor prisoners and distributed large sums to charity. Eventually, public agitation secured her release and she was accompanied to her home by cheering crowds. When she went to Russia, Catherine the Great wanted to engage her services, and Gabrielli demanded 5,000 ducats. “Why, I don’t give as much as that in a year to any of my field marshals!” protested the empress. “Then Your Majesty may get your field marshals to sing for you” replied the artiste. The empress laughed at the impertinence – and paid.

Angelica Catalani had herself billed as ‘The principal singer of the world’, and her contracts contained the following clause: ‘Madame Catalani shall choose and direct the operas in which she is to sing; she shall likewise have the choice of the performers in them; she will have no orders to receive from anyone, and she will find all her own dresses’.

Even well into the 19th century, the great Adelina Patti would wear her own sumptuous jewels on stage, and then insist that private detectives be costumed and disguised amongst the chorus to keep an eye on them. There is no way that Wagner would have tolerated such things.

By the time of the first performances of Lohengrin in 1850 and, certainly, by Tristan in 1865, the centre of theatrical gravity had begun to shift. Gone were the days when even composers were at the mercy of headstrong singers who would count the bars of music allocated to them and either demand extra ones or just insert additional music themselves. Rossini called this the use of the ‘aria-meter’. He once complained that while he didn’t mind some changes, “to leave not a note of what I composed – even in the recitatives – well, that’s unendurable”. It worked both ways of course because composers were not averse to recycling the same music in different operas. Rossini made a habit of this, using the same aria for a Spanish nobleman in one opera, the King of Persia in another and the Emperor of Rome in a third. The famous overture to The Barber of Seville was originally written for an opera set in the Syrian desert – Aurelian in Palmira – and then for one set in Elizabethan England (Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra), before ending up in 18th century Spain.

Artistic integrity was what Wagner was about, which meant that the composer was god. This did not always go down well with singers. Furthermore, audience members could be cross that they were prevented from looking at each other during performances (which had been, it seems, the main point of going to the opera) because the lights were turned down and everyone was obliged to face the stage. In his works there were no opportunities for applause or encores, and no curtain calls until the end. The cast members of the first Ring were almost in revolt because Wagner would not let them step out of character and take curtain calls. Some were so outraged that they refused to attend the post-performance party, and Franz Betz, who had sung Wotan, threatened never to return to Bayreuth.

Composers might have moved to the centre of things but they were notoriously inept at raising money. Wagner, though, had his own methods, and I am convinced that much of his outrageous ‘carry-on’ in his younger days, was designed to attract the sort of attention previously paid to celebrity singers. Wagner’s step-daughter Natalie once described his attire in the 1840s as follows: “Snow-white pantaloons, sky-blue tail coat with huge gold buttons, cuffs, an immensely tall top hat with a narrow brim, a walking stick as high as himself with a huge gold knob, and very bright, sulphur yellow kid gloves.”

In the end though, salvation came not from making a spectacle of himself but through the infatuation of an eighteen-year-old prince who had just acceded to the Bavarian throne and had, a few years earlier, been bowled over by performances of Lohengrin and Tannhäuser. In 1863 Crown Prince Ludwig had been given a copy of the recently published Ring poem, to which Wagner had written a preface bemoaning the hopeless state of opera productions in Germany, and the difficulty in raising funds for the sort of production he had in mind. But, he added, a German prince might accomplish this in his court theatre. “Will such a prince be found?”

Ludwig, like the Grail Knight Lohengrin, heard this call from a distant land and knew he was destined to be that prince. Within a few weeks of his accession, he sent his Cabinet Secretary, who rejoiced in the name of Franz Seraph von Pfistermeister, to find the fifty-one-year-old Wagner and bring him to Munich. The composer was eventually tracked down at a friend’s house in Stuttgart, but when he was handed the card of the Secretary to the King of Bavaria. He suspected a trick on the part of one of his creditors (of whom there were many) and had word sent that he was not there. Cornered at his hotel the following day, he did meet Pfistermeister who turned out to be the man he claimed to be. The king, he told Wagner, was his ‘most ardent admirer’, knew all his writings by heart, and would produce the Ring in Munich. It was, as Wagner said afterwards, “an unbelievable miracle.” 

Although things started well, the closeness of the relationship between Wagner and Ludwig caused deep unease amongst the king’s advisers, mainly because Ludwig was retreating into unworldliness as rapidly as Wagner was intruding on affairs of state. Some ministers had known of Wagner in his Dresden days and considered him a revolutionary and a troublemaker whose influence could only damage the reputation of the king. Ludwig’s grandfather, King Ludwig I, had been forced to abdicate because of his entanglement with Lola Montez, and the same fate now threatened the grandson because of his association with Wagner. The newspapers had a field day and, in the end, Wagner had to leave Munich to let the fuss die down. Nevertheless, the king continued to provide financial support which was of course the subject of further public gossip and court hostility. At one point, when Wagner’s second wife, Cosima, went to collect 40,000 guilders from the treasury, disapproving officials insisted that she take it in sacks of small-denomination coins. Cosima was not a woman to be intimidated and, without blinking an eye, had the heavy sacks loaded one by one into two cabs and drove home as if nothing was amiss.

The notion that Wagner was milking the royal exchequer was put about by his enemies, but the reality was that over the nineteen years of his acquaintance with the king, the total amount he received was less than that spent by Ludwig on the royal bedchamber in the Palace of Herrenchiemsee (in which he only slept twice), and less than a third of the amount spent on a carriage for a projected royal wedding that never took place. It was also considerably less than Meyerbeer had received for the performances of just one of his operas in Berlin. Unlike Giuseppe Verdi, who was a shrewd businessman, significant landowner, member of parliament and even the proprietor of his own smallgoods company, Wagner left practically no money when he died, and neither did he leave a will. Even his Bayreuth house, Wahnfried, had been paid for by the king. But his artistic legacy was priceless.

One of the paradoxes attaching to the Ring is that this, the most complex and costly work in the operatic repertoire, was originally intended as a free community event in the style of the ancient Greek festivals at Epidaurus and Delphi. Taking the elevated, quasi-religious Greek dramas as his model, Wagner rebelled against the shallowness of opera in Germany in his day. ‘Effects without cause’ was his withering description of Meyerbeer’s works; ‘clutter of trivialities’ summed up Spontini, and he dismissed Marschner’s music on one occasion as ‘nothing but Italian music, wrapped in leather, fitted out with thick German soles and rendered academic and impotent.’ What a pity there was no radio or television around in those days to grab a few pithy sound bites for posterity!

Wagner had originally estimated that it would take about three years to write his festival drama based on the old Nibelung sagas and the legends of Siegfried. His plan at the time was to give three performances in a temporary wooden theatre in a meadow on the outskirts of Zurich. When the performances were over, he said, the theatre would be demolished and that would be that. Needless to say, things didn’t work out quite this way. Twenty–six years elapsed between the first sketches and the final notes of the Ring, and at the first complete performance – not in Zurich but in the little Bavarian town of Bayreuth – the audience was hardly representative of the common folk, comprising as it did two emperors, two kings, two grand-dukes, various princes and numerous members of the aristocracy. Friedrich Nietzsche, who had been one of Wagner’s most devoted admirers, was disgusted by what he considered a sell-out of his artistic principles, and even Wagner had to admit that the gulf between his original plans and their ultimate realisation had been enormous.

It was during the year of the first Ring – 1876 – that an invitation to Wagner arrived out of the blue from America. It was from a committee in Philadelphia, asking him to write something suitably patriotic for the centenary of the declaration of independence. Wagner’s mind was on the staging of the Ring at that time and, preoccupied with the arrangements for this, he asked $5,000 for the American commission – a very large sum in those days – half expecting it to be rejected. To his surprise the committee agreed. But when he came to start work, he found he was totally bereft of inspiration. With similarly ‘worthy’ commissions in the past he’d been able to conjure up some image or other to get him going, but on this occasion he could think of nothing at all – except those five thousand dollars! The result – a rather blustery ‘Grand Festival March’ – confirms the adage that the noblest of causes and the largest of fees do not necessarily inspire the greatest of music. He desperately needed the money but his heart was just not in it.

The Ring on the other hand, had been something he had believed in for a quarter of a century, and it shows. During that time, his focus changed from political and social reform (Wagner had been born during the Napoleonic wars and just before the Industrial Revolution) to philosophy, metaphysics and questions of human nature. He was a great synthesiser of ideas, and throughout his life he had an insatiable appetite for new ones. He clothed his mythical narrative in a philosophical superstructure which, although alien to it, turned the old tales into a most persuasive work of art. Within the Ring one can witness the composer’s changing view of the world and of the fate of humanity, as well as the emergence of a whole new approach to music and the dramatic arts. In Götterdämmerung particularly, Western polyphonic music reached a level of complexity never achieved before – or since. Wilhelm Furtwängler described the Ring as “one of the very greatest feats a man has ever accomplished.”

In this, the 250th anniversary year of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven, a composer for whom Richard Wagner (born 207 years ago) had the highest regard and who was a powerful source of inspiration, it seems appropriate to finish with another typically pithy observation by Bernard Shaw. Shaw’s criticisms of Wagner were never less than entertaining and often perceptive. “A Beethoven symphony (except the articulate part of the ninth)” he said, “expresses noble feeling, but not thought; it has moods, but no ideas. Wagner added thought and produced the music drama.”




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