Why Thomas Adès considers Wagner to be a "fungus"

Written By The Wagnerian on Saturday, 29 September 2012 | 12:26:00 am

As regular readers will know, I am not against those who analyse  Wagner in a "negative" manner. However, the arguments made by composer Thomas Adès, in conversation with the Guardian's Tom Service, have left even me a tad confused. Perhaps they will make more sense to you?

TA: "....in opera, because you have this further absurdity of the supposed psychology of the characters on stage. I really want to do something where their psychology is not the important point. Because you can't just believe that these characters have a psychology of their own unless it is genuinely, unequivocally encoded in the music. Psychological problems in themselves are not really a strong enough force for musical structure. This is the root of my problem with Wagner...."

Can you expand on that? What about the power of Wagner's music to cause seismic events in something like Tristan und Isolde?

TA: Well, I find that much less interesting than Janacek's operas about fate – because I think music in an opera should be a sort of fate that the characters are going to be subjected to.

But isn't that exactly what Tristan is about?

TA: No! Because they're taking drugs, aren't they? It's artificial. They're not really that keen on each other. I can hear that in the music, it's inorganic.

But the music in Tristan – that's surely the fate that drives them, that they can't escape from? … The whole thing is about an unstable situation from bar one, which ends up in an image of stability, which the whole thing is striving for and reaches only at the end of the piece – it's a place that they're all trapped in until the very end.

TA: I don't know, I find it a bit too long.
I'm not defending it, necessarily, in those terms, but surely in Wagner the fate of the characters is in the music. Why doesn't Wagner do that for you?

Thomas Adès: The Tempest

TA: It's too psychological. I'm thinking of The Ring more than Tristan, there's an awful lot of psychology in it which I find tedious. And naive, in a sort of superficial way. I mean, so much of Parsifal is dramatically absurd, which would be fine if the music was aware of the absurdity, but it is as if the whole piece is drugged and we all have to pretend that it's not entirely ridiculous. And it seems to me that a country that can take a character as funny as Kundry seriously, this woman who sleeps for aeons and is only woken up by this horrible chord, a country that can seriously believe in anything like Parsifal without laughing, was bound to get into serious trouble.

You're obviously not convinced by the music?

TA: I don't find Wagner's an organic, necessary art. Wagner's music is fungal. I think Wagner is a fungus. It's a sort of unnatural growth. It's parasitic in a sense – on its models, on its material. His material doesn't grow symphonically – it doesn't grow through a musical logic – it grows parasitically. It has a laboratory atmosphere.
To read the full interview click here