In Discussion With Nicholas Vazsonyi. The Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia

Written By The Wagnerian on Monday, 3 February 2014 | 3:51:00 am

"Since the 1840s, Wagner has been in the headlines, and people have been very passionate about him, both pro and contra. Why? So I began to think about it, and realized that Wagner had fueled most of the controversy himself by making claims about his work and himself, and also about related political and cultural issues." Nicholas Vazsonyi

Nicholas Vazsonyi, has a set of credentials that make him imminently respected in Wagner studies: Professor of Foreign Languages and Professor of German and Comparative Literature at the University of South Carolina author and and editor of a number of books on Wagner, co-organiser, along with with Anno Mungen , of WagnerWorldWide 2013 and now member of  editorial board of the German Wagner journal WagnerSpectrum . Oh and also rather a pleasant chap. His latest project is as editor of The Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia - which we reviewed recently. With this in mind we were more than pleased to get the opportunity to discuss this work with him.

TW: Nicholas, before we start discussing Wagner, tell me a little bit about yourself ? How you got to where you are now so to speak?

NV: I was born in the United States, but spent my childhood in London up though O’ Levels. I went to Westminster School. When I was 15, the family returned to the States. As an undergraduate at Indiana University in Bloomington, I majored in German but took the entire sequence of music history and theory classes. I also worked in the opera theatre there in a variety of capacities, from lighting and props to assistant stage director. I was also what the Germans call a “Hospitant” (volunteer assistant) at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin under Götz Friedrich in 1982 and spent the summer of 1981 in Florence at Tito Gobbi’s masterclass. For graduate school I decided that I wanted to continue my studies in German literature and culture, and so eventually ended up as a professor of German, but always with a deep passion for music and opera.

TW: That's more unusual among academics than one would think I find - to have that sort of "practical experience" in opera. But what brought you to Wagner in particular? 

At first it was just Mozart and Verdi, but then I heard that famous recording of Walküre Act 1 with Bruno Walter conducting. A little later, I think I was about 12 and heard the overture to Meistersinger on the radio, and from then on it was Wagner for me
NV: Since both of my parents were pianists, I grew up in a household filled with music. I was originally exposed mainly to the piano and symphonic repertoire of the 18th and 19th century. I came to opera quite by accident when I was about 10, when I started listening to Mozart's Magic Flute, at first only the overture, which I thought was just a very strangely structured symphony. Then I let the needle continue running and suddenly people were singing. I asked my dad what that was and he explained opera to me. So I caught the opera bug. At first it was just Mozart and Verdi, but then I heard that famous recording of Walküre Act 1 with Bruno Walter conducting. A little later, I think I was about 12 and heard the overture to Meistersinger on the radio, and from then on it was Wagner for me. My first live experience was Tristan with Jon Vickers singing at Covent Garden. I was 13. Not exactly what the doctor ordered, but you have to take it as it comes. Not that I was any less interested or passionate about Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Strauss or the individual masterpieces of the operatic literature, but there was just something about Wagner, that kept me coming back and spending inordinate amounts of time listening, reading, and thinking. When I was 17, I spent an entire year on the Ring and almost nothing else.

TW: I had a similar experience, although it was with Tristan in the first instance - an extraordinary experience. There is so much "going on" in Wagner. I know it sounds pretentious perhaps but, at least to me, he somehow "gets right into" your unconscious. Among many other things, he somehow speaks of - and more importantly reflects - those "Jungian" archetypes (if they exist) we hear so much about. And that is just in the score - never mind the text. No wonder so many Jungians - including Jung himself - find his work so interesting. But there is also much more going on then that and I find different people find different things. What is it that fascinates you most about him/his work?

NV: In the first place it is the music which is so compelling, deeply emotional, and transports one to the very limits. Next there is a degree of complexity to the dramas which places them in a different category from all other operas. I am NOT saying that Wagner is greater than Verdi or Mozart, just that the total package is different. In that sense Wagner was completely correct not to want his works referred to by the term opera. Lastly, I am interested in the development of German culture and particularly drawn to the question of German national identity. There is simply no one in German cultural history who occupies as central and singular a position as Wagner. He represents the meeting point of countless cultural strands coming from the Middle Ages through the early modern period, the 18th century, and romanticism. He managed to synthesise all of these elements and to create artworks that then themselves became the source of inspiration and influence not only for German but also European culture for the next hundred plus years. He is endlessly fascinating.

TW: That he is. What other music do you find yourself returning to?

NV: Actually I almost never listen to Wagner in my free time. Instead I am much more drawn to Brahms, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Schumann (not necessarily in that order), in other words German instrumental music. There is just nothing like it for spiritual health and a sense of fulfilment.

TW: That's interesting. I often find that "Wagnerites" (for want of a better word ) exist between two poles: those that are interested only in interacting aesthetically with the music (simple emotional "entertainment" in the way that they might with Verdi , Rossini or Puccini ) and those that are more interested in Wagner's thoughts, theories, etc. In other words, their interest is intellectual but mainly with Wagner and his thoughts rather than the "music directly" - even if this includes investigation into what Wagner "really" meant in his dramas and how his music should influence that analysis . Although of course, most people exist somewhere between these poles.

Personally, while I share some of your musical interests, I could not imagine myself without listening to Wagner for any short period - as I couldn't without Charlie Parker, Miles Davies, Weber, Schoenberg, Gluck or much else that probably doesn't belong in this discussion. Wagner is thus a very important part of my overall musical "world". Indeed, if I was told that either I could spend the rest of my life either listening to Wagner or reading about his "intellectual" heritage and process I would always chose the former.

Would it be unfair to suggest from your reply that your interest in Wagner is more "theoretical" rather than directly "aesthetic?" That your greatest interest is in his theories, others reaction to them and his legacy rather than his work as "art" in itself? 

It is Wagner’s music in first, second and third place, that draws me.

NV: No, not at all. It is Wagner’s music in first, second and third place, that draws me. I spent long stretches of my life listening only to Wagner. If it weren't for the music, and then the combination of music/words/dramatic situation, the whole Wagner thing would be uninteresting for me. The reason I don’t listen to Wagner in my free time anymore is simply that I am so involved with him on a daily basis in my writing and teaching, that I need something else in my “off” time. I also don’t listen to the Eroica symphony anymore, because I teach it so often, as I do a handful of other non-Wagnerian paradigmatic works. I need them to stay somewhat fresh for me, so I can convey the necessary astonishment to the students.

As to Wagner’s theories, I find them often tiresome, irritating, difficult and contradictory. But of course one must pay attention to them because they are fascinating and because of their deep connection to the stage works. When I said I was drawn to him as a synthesising figure of German culture, what I meant was that his music dramas somehow manage to fuse all these elements into works that are both unique and satisfying, and that in turn have become landmarks of Western culture exerting their own measure of influence.

TW: What made you agree to committing yourself to the Wagner Encyclopedia. An admittedly, I think, "brave" decision?

NV: Yes, taking on the Wagner Encyclopedia project was an act of near suicidal insanity. However when you are a professor of German devoted to questions of music and opera and specifically Wagner, and then the editor from Cambridge University Press contacts you with an invitation to head a project of this magnitude and significance, there is simply no possible way to say no.

TW: Could you explain how you went about the process of compiling it? Give us an insight into the creative process?

NV: The first thing I did was to form an editorial advisory board with 5 experts from different fields and nationalities who could help me bring this project to fruition. I on purpose selected people whom I knew did not necessarily agree with each other but whose judgement and advice I valued and trusted. The next step was coming up with the 500 or so topics for the entries. Cambridge specified a word length but left it to me to decide whether to have fewer entries that were longer and thus more detailed or to have as many as possible but with less detail. Most of the topics were obvious, but then I had to decide on what and what not to include. When it came to selecting my wish-list for contributors, that was easy. For the most part I wanted to ask the leading experts of our time, and in many cases those who had just written the book, so to speak, on the topic in question. I was very fortunate because 9 times out of 10, I got my first choice of author. I also contacted authors with whom I knew there was a chance I would disagree with their writing. But with as controversial a subject matter as Wagner, I thought it would be crucial to have a variety of perspectives to reflect the state-of-the-art today. I have a feeling, in most cases, those authors with whom I disagreed were not aware of this. In some cases there was back and forth during the editing process, but for the most part the work was mainly cosmetic and stylistic, though I did my best to make sure that the facts were correct.

TW: I too find we reprint work whose ideas I do not completely agree with - sometimes far from it. Indeed, with Wagner it is often difficult to find two people who agree on the same thing. Perhaps this speaks more of Wagner's "ambiguity" and certainly, as you noted earlier, his inconsistency. And if he does on occasion - and I think he does - reflect individual psyches, especially the unconscious, well .... Wagner as a Rorschach test perhaps? After all, if one person can find the Ring to be an anarchist/communist tract while another sees it as a forerunner of fascism what hope do we have of ever gaining any agreement? But perhaps we should never try to. This is one of the things I find fascinating about Wagner and his work - although far from the only one.

Who was The Wagner Encyclopedia written for?

NV: The Encyclopedia is aimed in the first place at the interested general reader. I worked very hard to make sure that all the entries are readable and are not cluttered with specialised vocabulary and concepts. Of course, I also hope that experts will be able to turn to the encyclopedia for some lesser known facts and some interesting opinions. But the bottom line for me was that the encyclopedia should function as a first stop for anyone needing information on Richard Wagner.

TW: As we said in our review I think you have been very successful in this aim. Is there anything you would now have done differently or included or excluded?

NV: For starters, I wish I would have had a bit more time for the whole project. It was really tough to get it out before the end of 2013. My own nagging bad conscience is that while I had entries for many conductors, only one stage director has an entry (Patrice Chéreau). This was a decision I made early on for space reasons, but I still regret that it worked out this way. And as you pointed out in your review there was nothing on Wagner and the Jesuits. I am less sorry that Wagner’s earlier operas have entries that are significantly shorter than the major works for the repertoire.

TW: Could you tell us a little bit about your previous Wagner book "Richard Wagner: Self-promotion and the making of a brand" A book that says something new where it often seems difficult to find anything new to say about Wagner?

NV: I started by asking myself why there was so much controversy about Wagner, and always had been. Way before the current issue of Anti-Semitism, there was the outrageous aesthetics of his works and the scandalous content. Since the 1840s, Wagner has been in the headlines, and people have been very passionate about him, both pro and contra. Why? So I began to think about it, and realised that Wagner had fueled most of the controversy himself by making claims about his work and himself, and also about related political and cultural issues. And that all this was in part really a form of self-marketing, and ultimately branding, to make him visible and unique in a crowded marketplace. The miracle is that he succeeded, and on such a grand scale, in part because he had a family and followers who carried it all on after his death. I had originally wanted to look at the “Wagner Industry” through to today. Chapter One was going to be what Wagner had done himself. But then as I researched the material for that first chapter, I realised Wagner had done so much himself that it warranted a book all on its own.

TW: It’s a brilliant book. I don't agree with all of it - but then I don't agree with much of anything - but it addresses thoughts I have had for a long time and speaks much truth.

Anyway, finally, whats next?

NV: Well there is another edited volume in the works for Cambridge, but since the contract has not been issued, I’d prefer to hold off making the announcement for now. I have also begun very tentatively on a new book project of my own. When I have built up the courage to say something about it, I’ll let you know. As you say, it’s very hard to write something worthwhile about Wagner anymore.

TW: Oh I don't know. Perhaps I was hasty in saying that.  Some people mange to and you are one. Nicholas, thank you for your time and we look forward to future developments.