I have a friend, Matthew, who is a Wagnerian. For those of you who don’t
know what that exotic species is, “Wagnerian” denotes someone who
listens to the operas of Richard Wagner and loves them to a degree
bordering on the unreasonable. And he’s continually amazed by the fact
that I don’t get off on Wagner to the degree that he does. He also hit
me once when I referred to Wagner as a proto-Nazi. Granted we were both
a bit drunk at the time, but even so, you may get a bit of an idea how
much respect and love Matthew has for the various works of Richard W.
Nonetheless, I stand by both of those statements. There’s no point
denying the proto-Nazi thing, since handsome Adolf said it himself:
“whoever wants to understand National Socialist Germany must first
understand Wagner.” Michael Tanner tries to minimise Wagner’s effect on
the development of Nazi Germany by saying Hitler was the only one in the
Nazi hierarchy who actually liked Wagner, and all the others had to be
dragged to Wagner productions under protest, but even so I don’t think
he denies Wagner’s influence outright.

And even if anti-Semitic views
were less unfashionable in the earlier part of this century than they
are these days (certain quarters like the KKK notwithstanding) so that
Hitler could really have picked them up from anywhere, he himself speci
fically referred to Wagner as his source. So let’s stop quibbling on
I’m also going to stand by my other statement about Wagner not really
doing it for me. I don’t have problems with 19th century Romanticism.
(of which Wagner became by common consent one of the greatest exemplars
and proponents) per se, and I’d rather have that than the stiffly formal
and correct classicism of the 18th century more often than not. But even
so, I’m not blind to its shortcomings, and there are times when the
Romantic fits and seizures become too much.

Wagner, to me, represents
Romantic excess. There was a great moment once in the TV series
Blackadder where Blackadder describes just how evil the Germans are:
they have no word for “fluffy” and their operas last three or four days.
The first example is slightly exaggerated perhaps (say hi to the word
flaumig, Edmund), but in the case of Wagner’s Ring der Nibelungen, the
gibe is cruelly true. The whole thing really does last for four days (or
This is what I mean by excessive. Granted that the Ring is of course a
series of four operas, not one, it’s still too much. I’ve written before
about how I don’t like Mozart much, and one of the things I said then is
that the sheer volume of young Wolfgang’s output is one of the things
that defeats me when I approach it. Wagner’s excesses are in the
opposite direction; he wrote relatively few operas but they were almost
all mind- and arse-numbingly long. I don’t think any of them (other than
perhaps The Flying Dutchman) clock in below three hours and most go over
four. Way too much to handle for me.


Still, I’ve actually made an effort to get a handle of Wagner. A
semi-proper effort too, not the half-arsed surface scratch job I did on
Mozart. In preparation for this here bit of writing, I’ve done a bit of
reading and also some more listeningnotably, finally listening to the
whole of the Ring for the first time. Way back when I did music at UNSW
in 1993 I heard the first two operas in the cycle, Das Rheingold and Die
Walkre, then never heard them again for nearly six years (except for an
old Bruno Walter recording of Walkre Act I at Bowen Library) until I
picked them up again a few weeks ago, and I’d never heard the other two
Siegfried and Gtterdmmerungat all before now.

This naturally had a
rather grievous effect on my perception of the whole work, and really it
wasn’t until I started preparation for this thing here that I even
realised really what the story was. So I think I’ve come to a better
appreciation of what Wagner was trying to achieve with the Ring, and
these days I’m prepared to give him more credit than I’ve been in the
Wagner’s source for his exhausting epic was the old German poem the
Nibelungenlied, which was probably given its final form around the same
time as the stories of Parzival and Tristan and Isolde were taking
shape, i.e. about the end of the 12th/start of the 13th century. Those
other medieval stories were the source of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde
and his final opera Parsifal.

However, having heard the latter and
having also read Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, which was Wagner’s
specific source text in that case, I know just what liberties Wagner
took with his source to come up with his own text. I haven’t read any of
the Tristan stories other than Malory’s version of it in his Chronicle
of King Arthur and I don’t know what particular version Wagner used for
Tristan und Isolde, but I suppose he did something similar.
And he certainly played about with the Nibelungenlied. Even if you look
no further than the table of contents, you realise how much he left out.
The whole second half of the story, to be precise, in which Siegfried’s
death is avenged with a little help from Attila the Hun. Brunnhilde’s
position in the original is entirely different, and the gods have only
the smallest of bit parts in the poem.

Arguably Wagner’s filleting of
Parzival was a lot worse than that, but that’s heavy enough. Fritz
Lang’s 1920s films of the story, Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Revenge, are
much more faithful to the Nibelungenlied than Wagner’s operas. (And just
as Wagner’s Ring cycle was Hitler’s favourite opera [or operas], Lang’s
Nibelungen films were apparently his favourite films.)
An advantage the Lang films have over the Wagner operas, apart from
their greater textual fidelity, is their brevity compared to the
duration of the Ring. They’re still fairly longthe versions I have on
video occupy about 3 hours of your time between thembut Wagner is four
or five times as long.

The famous Solti recording adds up to near
fifteen hours of playing time. I personally dread to think how many
operas Wagner might have required if he had included all the events of
the Nibelungenlied that happen after Siegfried gets done in.
Given that these days people are supposed to have attention spans
lasting no longer than a few minutes, if even that much, this obviously
seems absurd. Fifteen hours, even over a number of nights, is a lot of
time to devote to something. The sheer length of it all has admittedly
been one of the things which has proved most daunting in any of my other
attempts to get a grip on Wagner.

To sit and listen to Parsifal
continuously for four and a half hours proved extraordinarily difficult
when I tried it, and the first time I listened to Tristan I just
couldn’t do it and had to spread it over three nights, one act each
night. This was also what I finally wound up doing with Siegfried and
Gtterdmmerung, splitting each one up over a few days. The amount of
mental preparation necessary even for that, to force myself to listen to
I say “listen” advisedly because I don’t habitually watch operas. I’ve
seen only one on a stage (an amateur production of Rigoletto) and seen a
few more on TV.

But normally I discover operas through recordings of
them, and this is the case as well with the Ring (the recording in
question being the 1958-65 Solti set mentioned above). Given what I’ve
read about some of the more recent productions, especially some of the
ones perpetrated at Bayreuth, I’m not sure that I even want to actually
see a Ring production. Anyway, I like listening to operas and trying to
visualise them for myself by listening and reading the text.
What bothers me about some of these productions is a tendency many seem
to share to dislocate the text from its proper mythical point in time.
Patrice Chereau’s centenary production with the Rhinemaidens in a
hydro-electric dam and Fafner as a tank, for example. If the original
text has a reasonably specific historical setting, then I don’t see why
producers can’t stick to it.

Obviously, being a work of “myth”, the Ring
doesn’t really have a specific historical date attached, although the
presence of Attila the Hun in the Nibelungenlied presumably places the
action around the mid-5th century AD. I’d be wary of updating that
setting too much in case the thing looked even more ridiculous than it
already is in many ways. (The 1957 Warner Bros cartoon What’s Opera Doc?
showed just how easy it is to take the piss out of Wagner’s
pretensions, with Bugs Bunny in Brunnhilde drag and Elmer Fudd singing
“Kill the WAB-bit!” to the tune of the Ride of the Valkyries. The best
joke, though, is that the Pilgrims’ Chorus from Tannhuser actually
provides most of the musical material for the cartoon.)
This isn’t to say we can’t interpret the RingI’m not so literal-minded
as to seriously think we can’t take the cycle on anything other than
face valuejust that I have reservations about how some people seem to
interpret it. And I don’t think we need to burrow too deeply to find
meaning in this story of gods, giants, dwarfs, magical treasures and the
occasional human being. The story gives us the passing of the gods and
the rise of mankind, who are raised up by the power of those same gods
they cast aside.

One system is vanquished by another system with help
from the first. If we accept the 5th century setting (which is
admittedly extremely tenuous), we could further read it as the victory
of Christianity over the pagan belief systems of whichever lands it
filtered into. Politically speaking this could be seen as revolutionary
(i.e. the replacement of the old with the new is inevitable) or
reactionary (i.e. there are ruling classes and lower classes, and good
reasons why the former shouldn’t let the latter get above their
station), so whether you choose to see this victory as wonderful or
lamentable is open to question.

At any rate, though, I think this theme
of the displacement of the old gods and beliefs is a profound and
But even so, I keep wondering: does the bloody thing really need to go
on for as long as it does? Does it need to go on for fifteen or sixteen
hours? A grand theme is a grand theme and obviously all themes should be
given fitting treatment, but even so the Ring stretches one’s tolerance.
Tchaikovsky apparently said leaving the first production of the cycle at
Bayreuth in 1876 was like being released from prison. And I’ve always
liked Edgard Varse’s comment on Parsifal, which can easily be extended
to any of Wagner’s other works: “Some of it is so grand, so strong, but
it goes on and on.” Don’t know about anyone else, but it cost me a
reasonable amount of effort to steel myself for the Ring, to force
myself to even listen to the last two parts one disc at a time with a
The slowness with which the drama proceeds is a good part of the problem
as well for me.

Other than Alberich and Mime in Siegfried, I don’t think
anyone else in the Ring gets to sing at a speed even approximating to
normal conversation. Obviously opera is not designed to approximate
conversation, of course, even I know that opera is about singing and not
speaking. But Wagner’s verse (not sure if it can be dignified with the
name “poetry”) reads to me like it has a sort of conversational quality,
by which I mean it could be declaimed on stage as dialogue if you
removed the music. It reads like people speaking rather than singing
songs. But when united with the music, however, things are slowed down
immeasurably. At times I feel like it’s taking ages for anything to
happen, possibly because it is. Combine this sluggishness with the
artifice inherent in all opera (and which occasionally becomes monstrous
in Wagner’s case), and all that grandeur and strength can become
somewhat crushing. It takes an effort to resist it.
It could be argued that my views on Wagner have been too strongly
influenced by Nietzsche, but I’m not a hundred percent sure of that.

I discovered both Wagner and Nietzsche in 1993, but didn’t get much into
Nietzsche until a couple of years after thatI started with Zarathustra,
of course, but don’t recall reading anything else by Nietzsche or
exploring him any more deeply for some while afterwardsby which time
I’d made more progress with Wagner, heard half of the Ring as well as
Tannhuser and a few other items, and hadn’t really been swept away by
them. I’m not even sure if I knew at that stage that Nietzsche was an
anti-Wagnerian; if I did then I’d certainly never read any of his
specifically anti-Wagner statements.

I think I’d probably concur with
many things Nietzsche does say against Wagner, but whether he influenced
my opinions or whether he just reflected something I already felt is
And yet, does the fact that I like Nietzsche mean I can’t also like
Wagner as well? Of course not. Anyone who says otherwise is operating on
an untenable idea, that a person’s political, aesthetic, religious etc.
opinions should all unite harmoniously and be of a coherent piece, so
that the person becomes a coherent and easily classifiable unit. In
other words, the idea that if you like something then by rights you
should not like something else which is unlike that first thing. There
are things which you are not allowed to like.

Wagner represented the way
of the future to the nineteenth century’s forward-thinkers, while
Johannes Brahms became the figurehead for the more conservative element.
Since the two were thus opposed, by rights I should not be allowed to
But people aren’t coherent in that way, or if they are then they must be
exceedingly boring. Brahms doesn’t usually pose a problem for me, I must
say. I like most of what I’ve heard by him. But I like Wagner as wellat
least, for all my reservations, I think I like him more than I dislike
him, even if I may prefer some of his progeny (Mahler, Bruckner, etc.)
to Wagner himself. I have reservations about them at times as well, but
their best moments can be very fine, and I’m willing to admit this is
true of Wagner as well.

It’s perfectly possible to find both Wagner and
Brahms acceptable, just as it is to find both Wagner and Nietzsche
acceptable. After all, Michael Tanner has written books on both of them,
and come out on both their sides. (Interestingly, he finds Nietzsche’s
later anti-Wagner comments more instructive than his earlier pro-Wagner
I think Nietzsche was more profoundly ambivalent towards Wagner than he
was actually against him, though. His last book may have been called
Nietzsche Contra Wagner, but let’s not forget the first section of that
is called “Where I Admire”. He recognised what Wagner was good at, even
if he did not find Wagner’s art terribly healthy. My own ambivalence
towards Wagner is rather less profound than Nietzsche’s was, but it’s
still there. I don’t deny those moments when Wagner really does it for
me, but I find him somewhat problematic nonetheless. In short, I am
neither particularly pro nor contra Wagner. I am neither wholly for nor
wholly against.

And this is why Matthew wonders about me, because Wagner
is an artist that you’re supposed to be either wholly for or wholly
against; I don’t feel a need to submit absolutely in raptures nor to
hurl masses of invective against him. He’s not supposed to inspire
people to occupy a relative middle ground in relation to him as I do,
hence Matthew has difficulty understanding my position.
Wagner’s personality was seemingly such that it virtually demanded you
make that one-or-the-other-no-compromise-possible decision. Wagner took
a particular view of art (especially his own) and its possibilities
which I’ve seen described elsewhere as “messianic”, which seems a fairly
good word so I’ll use it as well. He demanded an almost unreasonable
degree of loyalty from his supporters and followers, many of whom gave
him it (even Has von Blow, when he found Wagner shacking up with little
Cosima, stuck by himand all the performers at the first Bayreuth
apparently performed free of charge), and his art is supposed to make
similar demands upon its audience. Either give it all or not at all.
Hence Nietzsche’s characterisation of Wagner’s art as decadent, and
Wagner himself as the supreme decadent. Wagnerian opera he treated as a
ruiner of spiritual health; for those to whom life is not enough it
fills the void and makes up for whatever is lacking. It latches onto a
certain neurosis, feeds on it and keeps it going, and therefore Wagner’s
works and the man himself can be a literal health hazard. As Wagner
himself wrote to a friend once, “if we had life, we should have no need
of art. Art begins where life breaks off: where nothing more is present,
we call out in art, ‘I wish’ is our ‘art’ therefore not simply a
confession of our impotence?”

Tanner says all this theorising about
decadence is speculative but even so, “it would be less than honest for
people on either side to deny that something, maybe a large element, in
their responses to Wagner is touched by it”. Maybe it is in my case.
Maybe I try to resist being sucked in by Wagner and his works so as to
affirm my own strength. But I doubt it.

There’s another possible reason why people perhaps resist the pull of
Wagner which is rather less speculative: the taint of National
Socialism. That Wagner’s name and reputation have become tarnished by
his having been co-opted by Hitler is not worth the effort of denying.
It was Wagner’s early opera Rienzi, with its tale (told by Edward Gibbon
near the end of his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) of the
medieval Roman tribune who went about trying to restore the glories of
ancient Rome and lift it out of the decadence into which it had fallen
by the fourteenth century, that converted the 17 year old Adolf to
Wagnerism and supposedly inspired him to purify the still fairly
recently formed Germany and cleanse it of the taint of Judaism.
(Parenthetically, Rienzi was Wagner’s longest work, the premiere of it
in 1842 lasting as it did some six hours.

Hitler certainly had more
Of course, we shouldn’t blame Wagner for this. In the same way that we
shouldn’t blame Jesus for the many idiots who followed him, we can’t
really hold Wagner responsible for things that happened decades after
his death. William Shirer claims any influence Wagner had on the nascent
Dritte Reich was based upon a misinterpretation of his works. (Wagner is
referred to on just six of the approximately 1300 pages of Shirer’s
history of the Third Reich.) This is also the claim made by advocates of
Nietzsche, who is also viewed as an influence on Nazi Germany, that his
words and ideas were taken and twisted by Nazi theorists and by Hitler;
therefore in the interests of fairness at the very least we have to
allow Wagner’s advocates to state their case.

But if Nietzsche was not an anti-Semite, and his writings provide
abundant evidence that he was not, Wagner certainly was an anti-Semite,
and his writings provide abundant evidence that he was. It’s this part
of his character which probably does the most to set people against him
these days, given how unfashionable anti-Semitism has become since World
War 2. Michael Tanner is clearly fascinated by the way in Wagner’s
character is used as an excuse to question the value of his work,
whereas someone like Beethoven also acted like a monstrous *censored* but no
one questions his work. This is a fair call to a degree. I think the
personality of a creative artist must in some way find expression in the
art they make and that this is unavoidable.

By the same token, however,
I think that the evaluation of the artwork has to be made by removing
the creator from the creation. A person may be a complete arsehole but
that shouldn’t influence how we perceive their art. In Wagner’s case
(and perhaps in Hanif Kureishi’s case as well!), however, people seem to
find this separation too difficult to perform. And although Nietzsche
has probably been rescued from Nazi distortion and so rendered as fit
for consumption as he’ll ever be, there is still that anti-Semitic
streak in Wagner’s work which means the association with Nazi Germany
will never quite go away.

Not until 1993 was Wagner’s music first
performed in Israel, whereupon questions were asked in the Israeli
Perhaps the term I’ve used a couple of times, “unfashionable”, might be
viewed as somewhat inappropriate and/or flippant given the conclusion
that anti-Semitism was pushed to in the middle parts of this tiresome
century, but I’ll stand by it. After all, I think political views and
opinions are in many ways subject to certain fashions, especially with
what we now call “political correctness” and just as a show of one’s
political correctness has been a fashion in itself for better and for
worse, so too has political incorrectness been prized by some. It all

The dominant direction of political correctness in trendy European
intellectual circles, at least for the past couple of centuries, has
been leftwards, towards more liberal ideas. Germany by the early 20th
century was a different matter; William Shirer claims that the
nationalistic thinking of early 19th century German philosophers like
Fichte and Hegel worked eventually to set German political fashion in a
rightwards direction, thereby isolating it somewhat from the rest of
Europe. Ironically, of course, Hegel’s dialectical methods also inspired
that ber-Leftie Karl Marx, who was also German by birthand also
something of an anti-Semite.

At least that sort of thinking wasn’t
necessarily unique to Right-thinkers. (The greatest irony of all was
that the virulently anti-socialist Nazi Party was in fact named the
National Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany though few people, least
of all the Nazis, seem to have noticed this.)
Because right-wing ideologies seem to have been traditionally less hip
in the rest of Europe than left-wing ones (and also perhaps because the
ber-Right policies of Nazi Germany led to such horrific
conclusionswhich is not to deny similarly dreadful events in Communist
Russia and China, although I’d argue those states were hardly leftist
any more), we’ve had more trouble admitting that Nazi Germany could
possibly have created any great art. When we do find something
worthwhile, we hum and haw over whether or not we should admit to liking
it. We seem to have little trouble admiring Sergei Eisenstein’s Soviet
films but Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and Olympia are somehow
more problematic. “Great films, yes, but” seems to be the way of it. We
feel we have to qualify our admiration for some reason. I have a set of
Bruckner symphonies which were recorded in the 1930s and therefore are
technically products of Nazi Germany (even if it is EMI who distributes

Shouldn’t I feel extremely wrong for harbouring these things?
To come up to date, but leaving Germany (and also classical music) for a
moment, let’s consider the black metal music scene in Norway. Alongside
the Satanic imagery metal music has often decked itself out in to
equally often silly effect, quite a few black metal bands have also
adopted Nazi leanings as well. Norway, of course, was a notorious Nazi
puppet state, and after the war right-wing ideologies fell distinctly
from grace, hence the adoption of them by many black metal bands. My
favourite example is probably an album by Darkthrone with the words
“Norsk Arisk Black Metal” emblazoned on the back cover where you
couldn’t miss them, which forced the band’s distributor Peaceville
Records to issue a statement distancing themselves from the band’s

I bet they wouldn’t have bothered doing that had the band
explicitly aligned itself with communism rather than Nazism. In the case
of Varg Vikernes, the one-man band behind Burzum, politics are the least
of the problems he poses. The lovely Varg is a convicted arsonist and
murderer, after alltwo things we can’t pin on Wagner, though some might
like to tryand I have a couple of Burzum albums. By purchasing these,
am I perhaps showing some form of private support for a criminal?
Admittedly, as with the Bruckner symphonies mentioned above, these are
things I’ve thought about, but they don’t really bother me much. I think
that if you stop for too long to question all your motives and whether
or not you should do a thing, then you will soon wind up doing nothing.
(And Peaceville Records evidently didn’t feel strongly enough about
Darkthrone’s dubious politics to refuse to make money from them.) But a
vague feeling of what might be called guilt by association does kind of
linger in the background.

By venturing into the muddy waters of black
metal I may have wandered a bit from Wagnerand in musical terms I
certainly have, though many of the bands may be accused of having
similar pretensions to pomp and grandeur if on a cheaper scalebut even
so, I think all of that ties in with things I’ve said earlier about how
there are things you’re supposedly not allowed to like and also Wagner’s
posthumous association with Nazi Germany. My own political leanings do
not incline towards Nazism, but I don’t think that means I can’t find
Burzum interesting. And yet, perhaps that’s why some people are wary of
Wagner. Whether or not the Third Reich was his fault, the association’s
still there and perhaps people are afraid to commit firmly to Wagner
because of it. Maybe they think that if they side with Wagner, in some
way they’re also siding with the Reich. Guilt by association, as I said.
Can you let yourself like Wagner? Can you allow yourself?
Maybe, maybe not. This is all speculative, of course, just as Michael
Tanner rightly notes Nietzsche’s theory of Wagner as artist of decadence
is also speculative. But I think the possible ethical reason I consider
for why people have problems with Wagner are a bit less tenuous than the
psychoanalytic fields Nietzsche and Tanner ponder.

Anyway, I don’t think my own reservations are rooted in any ethical
issues probably because I haven’t really done a vast amount of study
into Wagner’s works. There are times when I’m faced with a supposed
masterpiece of art, be it pictorial musical cinematic or literary, and
I’ll automatically respond to it, and there are times when someone has
to explain to me why it is a masterpiece before I’ll necessarily agree.
Wagner fits the latter case. I feel instinctively that yes, something
great is indeed going on here, but until I know what it is I don’t think
I fully appreciate it.

Obviously I understand Wagner’s historical
importance, and I do appreciate the skill needed to write a piece of
music lasting 15 hours yet remaining coherent all the way through. But I
think I’d appreciate it more if I knew more about all what’s going on
Still, I don’t know if I’d actually enjoy Wagner then or not. In smaller
doses he doesn’t pose a vast problem. I’ve enjoyed a record of piano
transcriptions made by Glenn Gould which also features his orchestral
Siegfried-Idyll, and have given serious consideration to buying a
collection of historic performances of “bleeding chunks”. Smaller doses
are fine (remember Nietzsche’s characterisation of him as a
miniaturist). It’s just the big slabs of raw meat from which the
bleeding chunks are ripped that pose problems for me.

Thus far of all
the operas I’ve heard Siegfried is probably the only one I could say I
somewhat enjoyed. This is interesting, given that Michael Tanner says
that’s probably the least popular member of the Ring family. Die Walkre
usually comes out on top in popularity terms, yet listening to it this
time round I don’t recall feeling especially moved by it. Then again,
maybe it’s a matter of what version you get. I seem to remember liking
Bruno Walter’s 1935 Walkre Act I when I heard it.
At present, therefore, I don’t dislike Wagner but I’m not exactly a fan
either. There’s still obstacles in the way of my greater enjoyment of
Wagner’s work. Still, despite the difficulty, I’m willing to make an
effort to understand him better. Having finished with the Ring, I’ll now
give Tristan and Parsifal another go, and make an attempt on Die
Meistersinger. And perhaps one day I will indeed learn to love the
Tristan prelude, as Matthew has ordered me to do. Meanwhile, Karlheinz
Stockhausen is pressing ahead with his Licht series of seven operas, due
for completion in 2002, whereupon even the Ring will be dwarfed in time
scalethe four parts currently available already fill more CDs than any
Ring cycle I know, and there are still three more parts to be written
and/or recorded. Wonder if anyone will ever hold Stockhausen responsible
for a war? I’m sure Wagner would never have expected that honour either

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