Monday, 3 June 2013

It was the bicentenary of Wagner's birth on May 22nd.  A lot of people hate him, and a lot hesitate to admit that they love his music.  I find it outstandingly moving, and have a couple of other rather bizarre reasons for feeling a particular interest: first because two of Wagner's operas are about medieval poetic contests (Tannhäuser and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg), a subject which I'm doing some research on at the moment (and about which more anon); and second because one of my most fun and bizarre orchestral experiences was being one of six harpists for a performance of Das Rheingold in a rickety old barn on a large farm in Buckinghamshire.

Die Meistersinger, image credit
He is a tricky composer because his music is so moving, and his personality so repugnant.  Music as an art form works by drawing us in, and involving us emotionally: this is very particularly the case with the Gesamtkunstwerk of Wagner (see here), whose music was deemed so emotionally powerful that people feared it could reduce them to madness.  The idea of being drawn into a particular mental landscape is an alarming prospect with someone so extravagantly anti-semitic as Wagner.

One of my greatest heroes is Daniel Barenboim, and I'm enjoying reading his conversations with Edward Said at the moment.  Barenboim has flouted Israeli taboos against playing Wagner on multiple occasions, beginning with a highly controversial encore in Tel Aviv where he conducted the prelude from Tristan and Isolde.  He has been outspoken and eloquent about what he is thus trying to achieve, in terms of reinterpretation, moving forward and refusing boundaries.

The debate is one which makes us think in broader terms about the role of the author/ composer/ artist.  Are we, as audience/ spectator/ reader, bound by the intentions of the originator of a piece of art?  Should we be passive recipients of pre-formed ideas?  I really don't think so.  I reckon that a piece of music doesn't really become music until it is performed and listened to; that a painting doesn't become art until someone sees it; that a book is not literature until it is read and internalised.  In other words, I think that we, as consumers of art, are part of the artistic endeavour and involved in the production of meaning.  Roland Barthes' famous notion of the 'death of the author' is claiming something similar: that the author is not one who determines meaning, but rather the viewers, readers or listeners.   

If this is right, then we can listen to, and enjoy, Wagner (and many others of dubious moral background) with a clean conscience.  Great art is constantly to be reinterpreted, given new meanings.  The poetic competitions which feature in the Meistersinger and Tannhäuser give us a bit of a clue here: they remind us that medieval literature was, in a sense, drama and spectacle.  It was performed.  It's easy to forget, since we are reliant on surviving written texts, but even into the late Middle Ages, this was a very oral culture.  Even texts which were written down were most often intended for oral performance.  And as they were performed, and re-performed, they were adapted and mutated according to the needs and interests of particular audiences.  These were texts which were constantly in flux, where the notion of authorship (though obviously central in the contests) was often lost amongst the multiple layers of performance and reception.

But not only does this allow us to listen to Wagner.  It reminds us of our responsibility as part of the creative process.  As readers, viewers, listeners - we are part of the creation of meaning.  One of my other great heroes is Michel de Montaigne, who in the late sixteenth century, tried to suggest new ways of reading through the construction of his Essais.  Through a complex writing style, frequent interpolations, and deliberate contradictions within the text, he successfully reminds the reader of his or her own responsibility - that the onus is on us to read pro-actively.

Montaigne's response to those who worry that Wagner's anti-semitism automatically accompanies his art would be the following:

'It's an indication that it hasn't been cooked properly, and a sign of indigestion, when someone regurgitates the meat that he's just swallowed.  The stomach hasn't done its job if it hasn't changed the appearance and form of what it's been given to cook' (Essais, 1. 26)

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