Is It Still Too Soon to Like Wagner Again?

Written By The Wagnerian on Wednesday, 24 April 2013 | 12:19:00 pm

Logan K. Young  Published in Classicalite

One of the most irritating trends in contemporary musicology has to be the wholesale re-appraisal of a revered composer under the guise of institutional revisionism.

Now, scholarly re-assessment, itself a noble sentiment in an epoch typically unkind to second chances, can indeed be a rugged tool for unearthing those musical figures whom time and/or circumstance hath conspired to bury under the organum, secondary dominants and combinatorial sets of the last 1,000 years.

From Felix Mendelssohn 's Bach revival of the 1820s, to Knud Jeppesen's Palestrina fixation of the 1930s, to the more recent (and sound) work of Margaret Notley on behalf of Anton Bruckner, careful scrutiny of the canon is imperative, lest we lose another luckless genius to the annals of obscurity.

Nevertheless, when this same inquisition results in the dethroning of a bona fide artist, looking back turns the discourse into a briny pillar of salt.

Doggedly questioning an already proven master is not the purview of good musicological research. At his best, the music historian becomes an humanitarian; he offers redemption to the composer too long denied. Scathing polemics and quasi-Adorno dialectics regarding the qualitative merit of established convictions on established composers prove retroactive to the endeavor proper.

Once ensconced in the 'publish or perish' methodology of today's ivory towers, however, underpaid intellectuals are compelled to proffer any such theory on the true worth of Bach, Beethoven, Bartok or Babbitt to any periodical or journal that's fit to print.

Perhaps the single composer whose legacy has suffered the barrage of reconstructionist vehemence most viciously, and most often, is one Richard Wilhelm Wagner. Musical visionary, dramatic innovator, acute social philosopher--and, to be fair, late darling of the Third Reich--Wagner's historical significance has become quite the topic of suspicion in both aesthetic and epistemic scholarship.

Music historians like Ms. Notley argue that for a composer's music to be 'successful,' it must not only embody his own aesthetic, political and even moral convictions, but it must further dictate said values to his listeners. Citing Brahms as the master of these seemingly extra-sensory techniques of "rational elaboration,"1 Notley therefore indirectly brands Wagner, and moreover his music drama, (of the "Neo-German School"2 quoth Franz Brendel of the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik) as 'unsuccessful.'

Taking a cue from obscure religious thinker Ferdinand Ebner and Viennese Secessionist/fellow Wagner-phobe Friedrich Nietzsche (post-Die Geburt der Tragodie, of course), the academic Allan Janik, despite dubbing Wagner "the philosophical father of Viennese modernism,"3 acknowledges the derivative nature of his thinking as it "borrows liberally from Arthur Schopenhauer, whom [Wagner] frequently exploits for his own purposes."4

For Notley, Wagner's music sounds problematic because of its inability to convey Wagner's own agenda as expressed above. Wagner's proscribed menology--steadfast aestheticism, a maximalist's delusions of grandeur and a controversial (in a "new key"5 according to Carl Schorske) yet harmless concoction of then-routine anti-Semitism ("But bethink ye, that one only thing can redeem you from the burden of your curse: the redemption of Ahasuerus."6)--is conspicuously silent in everything from the opening bars of Das Liebesverbot to the "Good Friday Scene" from Parsifal.

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