The Magazine

After Wagner


If one wanted further proof of the mainstream media's relentless tabloidization, the coverage of Wolfgang Wagner's recent death would supply it. Born in 1919, Wolfgang was the composer's grandson and, from 1966 until 2008, the Bayreuth Festival's supremo. New Yorker columnist Alex Ross, long established as an author and researcher of quality, did the best of any commentator for a major print outlet, writing, inter alia:

Take a moment to register that astonishing fact: the grandchild of a man born in 1813 survived well into the 21st century. The enormous elongation of the Wagner family line -- the composer's son, Siegfried, was born in 1869, and Siegfried fathered Wolfgang in 1919 -- is symbolic of Wagner's enduring cultural power. ... The Wagner festival will undoubtedly undergo substantial changes as the next generation of Wagners takes charge, but I would not wish it to change too much. There is no harm in feeling the presence of the past, in all its smoldering complexity.

As for most other mass-circulation obits, well, to quote the title of Ross's own book: "The Rest Is Noise." British ink-slinger Norman Lebrecht, who has already had one book (Maestros, Masterpieces and Madness) pulped because of its sheer inaccuracy -- 20 errors in five pages must be a remarkable total even in the age of Andrew Roberts -- gloated at the changing of Bayreuth's guard:

The death of Wolfgang Wagner, announced Sunday night, ends a post-war era at Bayreuth that was almost as unpleasant as the Nazism that preceded it. Wolfgang, with his brother Wieland, conspired in covering up the family's collaboration with Hitler, which included the operation of a small concentration camp in the grounds of the Bayreuth Festival. Any independent attempt to investigate Bayreuth's history was stamped on by the sitting heir, who ruled the estate single-handed for half a century. ... Wolfgang was a petty dictator, modeled on a brutal one. As a stage director he was risible, a regressive shadow of his adventurous brother.

Perhaps "risibility," for Lebrecht, means simply avoiding stage productions "progressive" enough to depict Tristan sitting on a lavatory or Brünnhilde committing unnatural acts with her horse. Naturally, Lebrecht looks forward to an improved Bayreuth situation under Wolfgang's daughter Katharina. The rest of us will not be as sanguine as he, to judge by the gag-me-with-a-spoon features of Katharina's 2009 Meistersinger staging.

In Meistersinger's Act III, operagoers will recall, the leading male character Hans Sachs has the audacity to describe German artistic endeavor as "sacred" ("die heilige deutsche Kunst"). Well, how "Nazi" can you get? We can't have him indulging in that sort of "hate speech," now, can we? Take it away, Opera News magazine, whose correspondent Matthew Gurewitsch recounted Katharina's directorial follies with understandable edginess:

Village-idiot wigs, tennis shoes, catatonic stares ... these are a few of the crude visual leitmotifs Katharina grafts on to Richard Wagner's humane midsummer comedy. Her mission is to strafe the very notion of everything the composer, in the person of the cobbler-poet Hans Sachs, celebrated as "holy German art." While she is at it, she also nukes the contemporary German art market and its poseurs -- buyers and sellers alike -- who have reduced art to a mindless, soulless orgy of consumerism. In the final scene, a grim Sachs presides as a clean-up crew throws lesser masters bodily into a dumpster. An onstage smoker, he then snaps his lighter to ignite the garbage, his mien impassive as the blaze glitters in his spectacles. From the ashes, what arises but the statuette of a golden stag -- the mascot of a chic family-run hostelry within steps of the Festspielhaus. ...

Dürer, Bach, Mozart, Goethe, Schiller, Liszt, Wagner himself and other German titans drift through the action, sometimes as ghostly waltzing statues, sometimes as rowdy carnival grotesques. Sachs pounds out his poetry on an old typewriter, never hammering a single nail. Walther is seldom seen without a can of whitewash, doodling and scrawling on every surface in sight, inanimate or human. By the final showdown, though, it is the rule-bound, pedantic Beckmesser who proves the true provocateur. Spouting his grotesque travesty of Walther's song draft, he exhumes, from a tray of dirt, a naked man who bombards the chorus, in evening dress, with tennis balls.

Katharina's Meistersinger (Image: New York Times)

Maybe worse even than Lebrecht, and more insufferably arrogant even than Fräulein Wagner's antics at her great-grandfather's expense, was a diatribe by once-celebrated non-intellectual Richard Ingrams. A former editor of London's Private Eye, Ingrams ceased to be editor in 1986, and has not exactly set the Thames on fire in the intervening 24 years. He could well constitute an especially sad casualty of the Internet era, since his semi-educated propensity for reckless assertions without a scrap of factual evidence (let alone of orthographic competence) can now be mocked by anyone with the ability to type words into Google. In The Independent on March 27, after referring to Schoenberg's biographer Calum MacDonald as "Callum," Ingrams pontificated:

The death this week of his [Wagner's] long-lived grandson Wolfgang reminds us that his descendants were little different, permanently squabbling among themselves and insulting one another in hurtful memoirs. Despite this, Wagner continues to have his admirers, the latest to come forward being the ubiquitous Stephen Fry whom, as reported in yesterday's Independent, has now made a film for the BBC extolling his hero. Like the late Bernard Levin who wrote endless articles in praise of Wagner in The Times, Fry has to try to persuade us that someone can be an altogether loathsome individual and simultaneously be able to create great works of art. But it isn't possible. The sad truth is that Wagner's music is just as obnoxious as the man who wrote it.

Anybody confronted with this farrago of drivel is hard-pressed to know how a response should start. It could well be that Ingrams has spent too much time with the Wagner tribe's own literary industry, where the rule of the game is clearly to outdo every relative in quasi-spastic exhibitions of self-hatred. In particular, Twilight of the Wagners (2000) by Wolfgang's son Gottfried, reads like an Onion parody of post-Christian Teutons' masochism.

Female Wagners' contributions to the "Daddy Dearest" genre tend to be slightly more intelligent and less self-pitying: for example, The Wagners (2001), by Gottfried's cousin Nike, and the much older The Royal Family of Bayreuth (1948), by Wolfgang's long-dead sister Friedelind. (At least both Nike and Friedelind, unlike the wretched Gottfried, always wrote as if they could get real jobs with a little effort. But one notices that no family member, however enraged at the clan's Nazi-associated past, seeks anonymity by adopting a different surname.)

If Ingrams were, indeed, merely judging Wagner by the actions of Wagner's descendants, then that would be quite foolish enough. But go back to that last sentence: "The sad truth is that Wagner's music is just as obnoxious as the man who wrote it."  This is the musical equivalent of Richard Dawkins's caterwauling, notable above all (like its Dawkins counterpart) for what it does not say.

Supposing that Wagner's music really were as self-evidently obnoxious as Ingrams imagines, then the question has to be wrestled with: why did almost nobody, and in particular almost no major musician, get the memo? Why do Wagner-revering famous composers include ... hmmmm, let us keep the list manageably short: Liszt, Bruckner, Dvorák, Gounod, Debussy, Respighi, Elgar, Delius, Mahler, Schoenberg, Puccini, Messiaen, Richard Strauss, Alban Berg, Alexander Zemlinsky, Hans Pfitzner, Ernest Chausson, Emmanuel Chabrier, Vincent d'Indy, Henri Duparc ...

Clearly Ingrams feels himself superior to a fair few outstanding musical minds. (Several of whom were, it so happens, Jewish musical minds. As were four great Wagner-revering conductors of the recent past: Erich Leinsdorf, Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter, and Sir Georg Solti. Daniel Barenboim, still conducting Wagner with brilliance and depth, is also of Jewish stock.) Two books above all, in the gigantic Wagner bibliography deal with these issues far better than a mere essay can do. One is Aspects of Wagner, by the British philosopher and mildly left-wing ex-parliamentarian Bryan Magee; and the other is Richard Wagner and the Jews, by the American opera historian Milton Brener. Without knowledge of either publication, Wagnerphobes are doomed before they are started, and had better fall back on recycling Nietzsche's eloquent ad hominem snits.

Fundamentally discussion of such mouthing-off as Ingrams's and Lebrecht's is idle without the realization that PC hacks like them do not really care a toss about Wagner's music as such. They simply want to lead a pincer movement in the more general war against European high culture; and to them, the personal vices of Wagner and his family are no more than excuses. When they can combine this warmaking with temperamental parochialism, they are still happier.

Bernard Shaw -- whose musical commentary contains much of his finest prose -- got their measure a hundred years back. Censuring critic Ernest Newman, who had attacked Richard Strauss's Elektra in singularly imprudent terms (Newman later recanted his reproaches), Shaw made various observations that apply as much to Ingrams and Lebrecht in 2010 as they did to Newman in 1910:

He [Newman] should by this time have been cured by experience and reflection of the trick that makes English criticism so dull and insolent -- the trick, namely, of asserting that everything that does not please him is wrong, not only technically but ethically. Mr. Newman, confessing that he did not enjoy and could not see the sense of a good deal of Elektra, is a respectable, if pathetic, figure; but Mr. Newman treating Strauss as a moral and musical delinquent is -- well, will Mr. Newman himself supply the missing word, for really I cannot find one that is both adequate and considerate? ...

[T]his lazy petulance which has disgraced English journalism in the forms of anti-Wagnerism ... and, long before that, anti-Handelism (now remembered only by Fielding's contemptuous reference to it in Tom Jones); this infatuated attempt of writers of modest local standing to talk de haut en bas to men of European reputation, and to dismiss them as intrusive lunatics, is an intolerable thing ... I can stand almost anything from Mr. Newman except his posing as Strauss's governess.

Yet that last sin, of course, is what every PC pundit for our hemorrhaging "quality" media in our Age of the Idiot (this last phrase is Ilana Mercer's felicitous invention) seeks to do. For him, the opportunity to think means nothing; the opportunity to pose as a governess means everything. He may scribble as vulgarly as he likes, but a spinsterish schoolmarm he is, and a spinsterish schoolmarm he shall remain.