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Richard Wagner’s revolution: “Music drama” against bourgeois “opera"

Written By The Wagnerian on Sunday 17 May 2015 | 10:34:00 am

Richard Wagner’s revolution: “Music drama” against bourgeois “opera"Dr Mark Berry

Contrary to widespread opinion, Richard Wagner started off his career as the most revolutionary composer of the nineteenth century, not just in a musical sense but also in a more straightforwardly political manner. Contemporary obsession with alleged anti-Semitism in his dramatic works, aided and abetted by the de facto prohibition upon their performance in Israel, has tended to drown out all other controversy, of which there should be more, not less, both in quantity and in quality.

Wagner was not simply a supporter of the 1849 Dresden uprising, one of the more bloody episodes of the 1848–1849 revolutions; he was an active participant. Wagner probably ordered hand grenades; he certainly served on the barricades and acted as lookout, observing street fighting from the tower of the Kreuzkirche, while engaging in animated politico-philosophical discussion. Many revolutionary leaders, participants, and sympathizers were killed or punished, including Wagner’s comrade-in-arms, the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. By chance, and with his friend Franz Liszt’s help, Wagner escaped into Swiss exile (Newman 1933: 104–105). There he would pen both a good deal of theoretical writing—often dealing with the implications of artistry in the modern, capitalist world that so repelled him—and his vast musico-dramatic tetralogy, The ring of the Nibelung, which he wrote to “make clear to the men of the Revolution the meaning of that Revolution, in its noblest sense” (Wagner [1866] 1967: 176, author’s translation).

For Wagner, that revolution remained in the air, even after Louis-Napoléon’s 1851 coup d’état, which had marked its final act to many German erstwhile ’48ers. Revolution still promised to bring not only political and social but also artistic transformation. Indeed, reinstatement of the public, anti-individualistic essence of art was very much of a piece with socialism in “political” life. Wagner’s ideas may not have been so clearly acknowledged by twentieth-century successors as they should, whether through ignorance or through embarrassment at hijacking by the Nazis. However, Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Soviet Commissar of Enlightenment, was enthusiastic, as were many of his fellow Leninist revolutionaries. Indeed, Lunacharsky’s festive-revolutionary plans for the Bolshoi and Mariinsky (soon to be Kirov) Theatres were explicitly inspired by Wagner’s own Art and revolution(Bartlett 1995: 256). Such ideas have certainly not disappeared today, although in an artistic world cowed by late capitalism, they are heard less often than they should be.
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Wagner as Dramatist and Allegorist - Fredric Jameson

Wagner as Dramatist and Allegorist
Fredric Jameson

Modernist Cultures. Volume 8, Issue 1, Page 9-41, ISSN 2041-1022, May 2013

Wagner’s architectonic and metaphysical excess, particularly in the Ring, does not encourage modesty in the critic, who also ends up wanting to say everything, rather than one specific thing. If I had to do the latter, like a good scholar or philologist, an erudite commentator, I would probably try to say something about the magic potions in Wagner; and may still briefly touch on that. But as a specialised topic that would also require us to deal more centrally with Tristan; and here clearly it is the Ring that demands our full and complete attention, not least on account of the interpretive controversies it continues to cause. So perhaps one guideline should be, not so much what Wagner really ‘meant’, but rather what interpretation and meaning might actually be in the ‘case of Wagner’. This is a dialectical problem that greatly transcends the traditional questions about the Ring: namely, whether it is about Wotan or Siegfried, and also what ‘the gods’ can be said to mean (in order for them to undergo a twilight, indeed a wholesale conflagration and extinction). On a philosophical level, this problem traditionally confronts Feuerbach with Schopenhauer; and meanwhile, in another part of the forest, lurks the question about the meaning of the ring itself and how much it may be said to represent capitalism, as Shaw famously argued.
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New Wagner Related Books: May 2015

Written By The Wagnerian on Saturday 16 May 2015 | 11:56:00 pm

Below is a list, and summary, of fours books either about or related to Wagner and his work that have been published this month or are about to be published.

My Life with Wagner
Christian Thielemann

(English translation)
13 Aug. 2015
320 pages
ISBN-10: 1780228376

Over a distinguished career conducting some of the world's finest orchestras, Christian Thielemann has earned a reputation as the leading modern interpreter of Richard Wagner. My Life with Wagner chronicles his ardent personal and professional engagement with the composer whose work has shaped his thinking and feeling from early childhood. Thielemann retraces his journey with Wagner - from Berlin to Bayreuth via Venice, Hamburg and Chicago. The book combines reminiscence and analysis with revealing insights drawn from Thielemann's near-forty years of experience as a Wagner conductor. Taking each opera in turn, his appraisal is illuminated by a deep affinity for the music, an intimate knowledge of the scores and the inside perspective of an outstanding practitioner. And yet for all the adulation Wagner's art inspires in him, Thielemann does not shy away from unpalatable truths about the man himself, explaining why today he is venerated and reviled in equal measure. My Life with Wagner is a richly rewarding read for admirers of a composer who continues to fascinate long after his death.
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One Apple a Day: Age and Ageing in Wagner’s Ring Dr Barbara Eichner

A fascinating paper by Dr Barbara Eichner, Senior Lecturer in Music at Oxford Brooks and among many other things contributor to The Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia. Recommended

One Apple a Day: Age and Ageing in Wagner’s Ring 

Dr Barbara Eichner

When the Nordic god Thor visited the giant Utgard-Loki, he was invited to enter a series of contests. Having failed at emptying a drinking-horn and lifting a cat, his host suggested a wrestling match with his old nurse-maid. To everybody’s amusement the frail old lady wrestled the god to his knees, but of course there was a trick: As Utgard-Loki revealed the other morning, the old woman had really been the personification of age, who forced everybody to the ground eventually. Although Wagner did not use this funny episode for the Ring project, the idea of ageing and dying was thus built into the mythological sources when he turned to the Nordic gods for the prehistory of Siegfried’s death. He was, however, not content with introducing the abstract concept of old age but created an opera where the process of ageing is actually presented on stage – a challenge that other composers and librettists never faced by sticking to the classical unities of time and action.The gods age at a momentous point in Das Rheingold at the end of the second scene, between the abduction of the goddess Freia by the giants Fafner and Fasolt, and Wotan’s descent to the underworld to retrieve the all-powerful ring from the Nibelungs. Immediately the gods start to age, as described by the stage directions: “A pale fog fills the stage with growing density; through it the gods take on an increasingly elderly appearance; all stared anxiously and expectantly at Wotan, who meditatively looks to the ground.”
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