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Watch Now: World and Revolution of Richard Wagner

Written By The Wagnerian on Friday 30 October 2020 | 2:32:00 am

From Michigan Opera: an overview of Wagner, his work and times. MOT at Home is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities
2:32:00 am | 0 comments | Read More

Richard Wagner and the Twilight of Western Civilization

Written By The Wagnerian on Tuesday 13 October 2020 | 5:29:00 pm

Written By: Peter Isackson

According to Alex Ross in his book, “Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music,” Richard Wagner was more than the composer who dominated German music in the second half of the 19th century. He became a towering cultural icon who transformed the way culturally influential people and even politicians thought about art and the values associated with it.

His influence wasn’t limited to the arts. His reputation had the misfortune of becoming tarnished by an association with Naziism. Wagner himself cannot be held responsible for the association with Adolf Hitler since the composer died six years before Hitler was born. But though Wagner’s anti-Semitism must have pleased Hitler, the Fuhrer admired the music for other reasons, more closely linked with its patriotic mythology. It is no coincidence that Wagner’s art belongs to an era that privileged aggressive racist nationalism in Europe.

Wagner was unquestionably an innovator. Any musician who listens to even random excerpts of his orchestral music and opera scores cannot but be impressed by the subtle complexity of his art. Thanks to his Promethean ambition, Wagner achieved the singular feat of both subverting the inspired individualism at the core of his century’s romantic tradition and fulfilling the romantics’ paradoxical ambition of formulating new principles for achieving collective domination.

He rejected the social drama of the Italian masters of opera — Verdi, Rossini, Donizetti — who worked in a tradition perfected by Mozart. The Italian tradition used melody and recognizable harmonic structures as the structuring factors that permitted the expression of human pathos. Wagner’s sense of drama replaced social conflict with idealized quests aimed at reordering the world. These were the very forces driving European nationalism at the time.


 Wagner clearly broke from recognized traditions and produced an art that was not just different but in purely musical terms always rich with surprises. But was this what people expected from music? One famous ironic remark by a pragmatic 19th-century American sums up Wagner’s effect on the average person, even today. The humorist Bill Nye is credited with the remark, “Wagner’s music, I have been informed, is really much better than it sounds.”

Examining Wagner’s legacy across Western culture right up to modern times, Ross tends to give Wagner too much credit. Convinced that the composer was the agent who shaped the culture around him, he tends to neglect the evidence showing how the ambient culture shaped Wagner. At one point, he claims that in his opera, “Tristan und Isolde,” Wagner “set the course for an avant-garde art of dream logic, mental intoxication, formless form, limitless desire.” In other words, Ross attributes to Wagner the creation of some of the most salient features of the modern world.
5:29:00 pm | 0 comments | Read More

Grace Bumbry: Black Venus, White Bayreuth, Race, Sexuality And Wagner

Grace Bumbry as Venus in Wagner's "Tannhäuser"

Originally published in German Studies Review, 2012. Written by Kira Thurman, assistant professor of German and history at the University of Michigan.

Black Venus, White Bayreuth: Race, Sexuality, and the Depoliticization of Wagner in Postwar West Germany

African American soprano Grace Bumbry sparked controversy in West Germany when she became the frst black musician to sing at the Bayreuth Festival Opera House in July 1961. This article demonstrates how race served two separate functions for the Bayreuth Opera Festival and its postwar audience. For opera director Wieland Wagner, hiring a black singer was part of a larger agenda to sever Bayreuth’s ties from its most recent and turbulent past. German audiences discussing this historical moment, however, expressed concern that protestors of this performance were preventing Germans from moving forward into a new, democratic, and racially accepting Germany.

When the Bayreuth Festival Opera House began receiving letters warning them that the composer Richard Wagner would soon “turn in his grave,” they knew they had a problem. When hundreds of letters to the editor, opinion pieces, and news briefs fooded the German media, the Bayreuth administration realized they were witnessing the makings of a national scandal: on July 23, 1961, American soprano Grace Bumbry became the first black singer to appear at the Bayreuth Festival, singing the role of Venus from Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser

The event created an uproar, and everyone from revered music critics to housewives in the Rhineland squabbled about the significance of Bumbry’s debut in the hallowed halls of Bayreuth. While music
critics debated the virtues of “New Bayreuth” director Wieland Wagner’s modernist vision, many editorials also chided those who protested the performance by a black singer. One theme that remained consistent throughout the month of July was that Germans were discussing this musical event within a national context.

Race served two separate yet equally fascinating functions for the Bayreuth OperaFestival and its audience in the summer of 1961. For Wieland Wagner, opera director of the Bayreuth Festival and the grandson of Richard Wagner, hiring a black singer was part of a larger agenda to sever Bayreuth’s ties from its most recent and turbulent past and ensure its preservation in the future. Although Wieland vigorously denied that he had hired Grace Bumbry to perform as Venus solely because of her race, this article suggests otherwise. African American soprano Grace Bumbry’s blackness was essential to his production of Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser, and to his aesthetic and political strategy to separate Bayreuth from its recent Nazi legacy.West German audiences discussing this historical moment, on the other hand, also practised a different kind of Vergangenheitsbewältigung or coming to terms with the past, expressing concern that protestors of this performance were preventing Germany from moving forward into a new, democratic, and consequently racially accepting Germany. Both the production and the reception of the Bayreuth FestivalOpera House’s staging of Tannhäuser reveal new and sophisticated ways in which race coloured different processes of Vergangenheitsbewältigung in postwar West Germany.

4:54:00 pm | 0 comments | Read More

Watch Now: A New, Brief, Wagner Video Biography


A brief, potted, biography of Wagner and his work from Biographics. 

Richard Wagner: A Controversial Titan of Classical Music
4:19:00 pm | 0 comments | Read More

Stephen Fry talks to Alex Ross About His New Book "Wagnerism"

Stephen Fry joins the Royal Philharmonic Society for a very special conversation – with the author and music critic for The New Yorker, Alex Ross, about his latest book: 'Wagnerism'. 

Just over a decade ago, Alex’s book The Rest Is Noise caused a sensation in its breathtakingly epic account of music’s power and impact through the 20th Century. It won an RPS Award and the subsequent concert series of the same name, based on the book, at Southbank Centre also won an RPS Award in 2014. In September 2020, Alex returns with his biggest book yet: Wagnerism. No mere biography, it sets out to chart the extraordinary influence that one musician – the composer Richard Wagner – can have on the world, on art, on politics, and on so many facets of life. It’s a unique narrative, as much for those wary of Wagner as those who cherish him, not remotely shying from his startling beliefs and veneration in Nazi Germany, as much as his spell over countless artists since from Virginia Woolf to James Joyce, to anarchists, occultists, feminists, religious and politic leaders, and of course Hollywood. Renowned for his own musical passions, Stephen talks to Alex about this cultural colossus, his complex legacy, and his extraordinary, enduring music.

It’s fitting that the RPS should host such a conversation, as Wagner himself played a part in its history, coming to London to conduct all the concerts the Society presented in 1855. 

If you enjoy this conversation, you may like to become an RPS Member, enabling you to access and enjoy other regular conversations involving great musical minds and personalities, amid other opportunities to further your curiosity and love for classical music. Go to the link below to find out more: 

3:35:00 pm | 0 comments | Read More

Two None Wagnerians Discuss Alex Ross "Wagnerism"

Written By The Wagnerian on Wednesday 7 October 2020 | 11:01:00 pm

In his first book, Alex Ross introduced more people to "modern" classical music then NPR and the BBC had managed to do in both organizations existence. He made Schoenberg, Weber and the band not only interesting but approachable for a listener perhaps more comfortable with Mozart's Greatest Hits, the Four Seasons or the first and last movements of Beethoven's 9th (not that there is anything wrong with any of those). In "The Rest Is Noise" he somehow, stripped away decades of obtuse, perhaps even intimidating, music discussion. This, then,  seemed to allow people to find the sheer joy that exists in "modern" music. I might argue that the growing popularity of "modern" classical both in the concert hall (remember those?) and on record, was begun by Ross' book.  My hope is that he manages to do similar for Wagner in his new book Wagneriams. Not only that he can deconstruct and strip away, many of the common misconceptions about Wagner but he, too, increases his popularity among those that would rarely, if ever, consider listening to Wagner's work. As to whether he does either?  Well, it is perhaps too early to say, but an indicator may be that more general podcasters, with no real interest in Wagner, are discussing this book. An example of which is below, with presenters so unfamiliar with Wagner that it begins with a debate on how to pronounce Wagner's name! 

I think this is interesting to both those with a strong knowledge of Wagner and those without. From "BookMusic.Com".

11:01:00 pm | 0 comments | Read More