New Yorker critic Alex Ross talks interpreting Wagner | Music

New Yorker critic Alex Ross talks interpreting Wagner

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  • Courtesy of Alex Ross
One thing is certain about anyone who attends New Yorker music critic Alex Ross' talk this afternoon at 4:15 p.m. in UNC's Gerrard Hall: that
person will learn something fascinating about Richard Wagner and his effect on American culture in the late 1800s.

Alex Ross is one of the most consistently engaging, erudite and readable critics in the country right now; His first book, The Rest Is
Noise, was a detailed look at 20th century music that made accessible complex political interactions between classical music, the New Deal, Stalin and Hitler, as well as providing an excellent roadmap to the heated, often doctrinaire debate about atonality that suffused the post-World War II classical academy (among many other pleasures). The book is a must-read for any music fan.

Ross' next book, Listen To This, was a less unified but excellent collection of his New Yorker columns, ranging across subjects like Cecil Taylor, Schubert and Sonic Youth. A high point was the essay tracing the history of the descending "lamento bass" figure from Spanish musicians in the 1500s through Monteverdi and down into Led Zeppelin's "Dazed and Confused." It's the kind of thing Ross does so well: thoughtful, provocative well-researched essays that take the reader to surprising places.

His talk this afternoon is titled "Big Ballads of the Modern Heart: Sidney Lanier and Early American Wagnerism," and is a preview of the third chapter from his latest planned book, Wagnerism: Art in The 
Shadow of Music, due out in a couple of years. Ross has been 
exploring Wagner's deep, broad cultural influence—he pays close attention, for instance, to what he calls "Black Wagnerism," the affinity felt by people like W.E.B. Du Bois for Wagner's work. The INDY spoke with Ross about Wagner, race and modern opera; an edited transcript is below.

TODD MORMAN: Let’s start with this: What exactly is Wagnerian about W.E.B. Du Bois?
ALEX ROSS: Well, Du Bois was fascinated by Wagner, going back to his period when he was studying in Berlin in the 1890s ... He also went to Bayreuth in the year 1936, the summer of the Nazi Olympics. He spent several months in Germany undertaking a complicated project which ostensibly has something to do with industrial education methods, but the rationale for the grant he received from a German-American foundation was for studying racism in Germany and racial attitudes in Germany.

He was horrified by anti-Semitism but said that he himself was treated respectfully when he traveled and did not experience racism firsthand. You can take that at face value or not. But Du Bois said, going back to those days in the 1890s, when he came to Germany this was the first time in his life that he felt that he was being treated respectfully as a black man, and that he felt more or less on equal terms with those around him. The point is that Du Bois had this great veneration for German culture, German philosophy and literature and music. He detected in it this powerful idealistic energy that he felt could be translated into any context. He felt that it could in fact have great meaning for African-Americans, and that African-Americans specifically have something to learn from Wagner.

Again, we think of Wagner as this completely nauseatingly racist man and thinker, but it’s a little more complicated than that. He was unquestionably an anti-Semite. In terms of his attitudes toward people of color, there’s much less evidence. It just wasn’t something he spent a lot of time thinking about and being concerned with. You actually find a mix of opinions in his second wife’s diaries, which record everything that came out of his mouth in the last year of his life. But Du Bois himself found Wagner inspiring; In this remarkable story, “The Coming of John,” the music of Lohengrin is this gleaming, distant image of beauty and freedom and possibility, sort of a mirage of a perfect world.

Given a few more fascinating stories like that, I can see how the idea of a book about Wagner popped into your head.
Really, the core of the book is to describe this phenomena that many people may have forgotten about or not been aware of: how widespread Wagner’s influence was on the arts and on literature. It was absolutely enormous. He influenced this really endless list of major writers and thinkers—Nietzsche and Baudelaire and Mallarme and Proust and a very long list of French writers. You have Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Willa Cather, Thomas Mann … in a lot of these writers very often you find there was ambivalence, or early infatuation followed by later rejection; Joyce I think falls into that category. Even that is an important influence, the overcoming of an early infatuation with Wagner. 
For the Modernist generation, Wagner was associated with this very heavy, foggy, sort of perfumed fin de siècle aesthetic, he was associated with Impressionism to some extent, symbolism and decadence. So the next step was to banish the murk and then present something much sharper and more objective, or more harshly realistic—the whole gamut of ideas associated with modernism.
The question of Wagner’s personality, his personal traits, his beliefs: In that period there wasn’t so much focus on that, I don’t think it was until later in the 20th Century that we came so consumed with the issues of Wagner’s biography and his influence on Nazism was something that really came to the fore after World War II. That has come to almost dominate the picture of Wagner. 

You yourself say he made “a number of absurd and repulsive pronouncements on all matter of topics,” right? It’s an obvious question, how do you separate that out from the positive influences? What would you consider the negative influences?
I don’t consider “are these positive or negative?” but as a historian I want to describe this phenomenon year by year and let the reader decide. 
[Laughs] Good luck with that. Everyone’s gonna want to know your opinion.
I know. But what I really want to do is simply show the breadth of the influence. I do think it’s very important to establish Wagner’s quite powerful influence on the anti-Semitic movement. For a long time in the Wagner world there were attempts to sort of brush that under the rug. In the ’50s and ‘60s, when the Bayreuth festival got going again, there was this attitude of ‘let’s not concern ourselves with politics, we’re talking about music here.’ 
There’s kind of a deep politicization that has happened there. A lot of very good scholarship has been done on Wagner’s influence and the quite crucial role that his ideas played. His family was increasingly snarled in these movements and eventually formed a relationship with Hitler himself. So yeah, this has been established and it’s very important. There will be what I anticipate will be a quite frightening chapter at the heart of the book where I confront all of that. But what concerns me is when the focus on the Nazi Wagner excludes the rest of the picture. If the average person was asked, ‘who was Wagner?’ you get, ‘Hitler’s favorite composer.’ For me, that’s a very dissatisfying answer, and I’m afraid that it actually gives a little too much credit to Hitler. It’s a minor victory for Hitler, I’m afraid, if we let his taste for Wagner become and remain the defining one. And there’s simply a very big loss that happens if you look at Wagner that way, because you are ignoring the side of Wagner that was some sort of anarchist who was a determined opponent, most of the time if not all of the time, of state power, a man who hated authority. He had this capacity, despite all of his horrible beliefs, to explore compassion, pity, a sense of identification with the downtrodden. With this book I just wanted to show everything—the whole political spectrum, the whole intellectual spectrum, this mastery of artists—and just set it out there. We’ll see what people make of it. 

In terms of breadth and depth of his influence, pre-internet age, on both sides of the Atlantic, can you think of anyone in modern times he’s comparable to?
I think Wagner is a singular phenomenon in music. I don’t think there has been any other figure in the entire history of music who has had an influence of this nature; musical aesthetic across many cultural fields, intellectual, philosophical and political. 

So it’s more than enormous fame.
It’s a pretty singular phenomenon, and I don’t know if in other fields, in literature or in painting, it’s also difficult to identify a figure who has had quite this effect. And I don’t mean that purely in a positive sense. Part of what staggers us about the phenomenon of Wagner is the evil that was attached to his name and the negative side of the influence. But, you know, that really adds to the breadth of the phenomenon and makes it something we need to come to terms with. 

Two quick questions about modern, director-driven productions: There have been unusual, often-controversial productions
set in concentration camps or the gold mines of Californiathat put Wagner in odd settings. Have they been successful in helping modern audiences connect with Wagner, or do you prefer more traditional productions? Can you name a production that took some chances that you thought was particularly successful?
I’ve sort of gone through an evolution with these more adventurous styles of opera production. I think earlier I had a more conservative attitude about these productions. But yeah, as I’ve seen more I’ve really come to appreciate the limitation of that more conservative style. I’ve seen some really extraordinary and successful attempts along these lines. I think fundamentally it’s healthy, it’s inevitable; The world that we live in is going to employ directors to direct the operas, we need to give them liberty as artists to express their ideas. 

Are they helping modern audiences connect?
That’s really an open question. I think you find a lot of people, a lot of newcomers to opera who can receive Wagner operas for the first time. They might dwell more avidly, or comprehend more easily what’s going on in a much more traditional production. You could argue that you should start with the much more conservative productions so they can sort of get the picture of what these operas were originally about, then you can take the step to something more avant garde. That was certainly my story. The first Ring that I saw was the picturesque, conservative Ring at the Met. Then I started finding other approaches. But, on the other hand, there’s something like the Patrice Chéreau Ring from 1976, which many millions have seen by video. I think this is an extraordinary production that accomplishes both things in one. It gives you the essential story but at the same time it’s this incredibly sophisticated meditation from a contemporary director’s viewpoint on Wagner’s politics. It’s very much a left-wing reading of The Ring, an allegory for 19th Century capitalism and its supposed downfall, which is actually a reading that very much conforms to the ideas that Wagner himself was elaborating circa 1848. That was a singular feat, Chéreau was an insanely great director who had the ability to give you this spectacle that almost anyone off the street would find involving and gripping, but at the same time there were these great intellectual layers and complexities to what he was doing. 
A lot of productions don’t manage to accomplish both of those things at once; they fall into one category or another. Either it fits the sort of picturesque production, it doesn’t give you very much in the way of ideas, or it’s a very complicated, challenging, provocative production that gives you a great deal to chew over intellectually, but perhaps quite a bit of the story is getting lost in the process, and it may baffle someone coming upon the opera for the first time. We haven’t figured all this out. I think certainly there are ridiculous extremes that directors go to, but there are also tremendously dull productions that are just sitting there in opera houses, especially American opera houses, and giving the impression of opera itself as rather intellectually pale.

Because they’re not taking any chances with the production? Why especially in America? You think European productions are more willing to take chances with the work?
It’s certainly a phenomenon that exists. There’s a very drastic difference between how opera is done in America and how it’s done in Europe. Why that exists is sort of the harder question. Just the fact that European productions are state funded means they don’t need to justify themselves so much to a board of directors. And there’s a tradition of it. This experimental style of production goes back to the early years of the 20th Century, and especially the 1920s, early 1930s in Germany … Because classical music itself is the native heritage of Germany and France and other countries, it’s not this deluxe import and maybe there is more of a willingness to not be so protective of it. 
Here, opera comes from abroad. We have these fixed images of what it should look like and how the audience should behave and this whole rather fake, antiquated, bourgeois atmosphere that we create around it. And that ends up imposing limits … So yeah, there’s definitely a resistance there which is a little difficult to over come. It’s worth trying.

Are there singers today who are trained well enough and have the natural talent to do justice to Wagner’s difficult music?
We do, actually. I might have answered that question a little more pessimistically ten years ago, or even just five years ago. Going back decades now, you’ll find people saying 'all the great singers are in the past,' and not just Wagner, but other fields, and ‘these singers today just can’t make the grade, either technically or interpretively.’ And then somehow a new wave of singers comes along and we keep going. In the past five or ten years I’ve seen the emergence of some really powerful Wagner sopranos. Nina Stemme and Christine Goerke are two really powerful voices who are giving this great new life to these extraordinarily difficult roles. There are contenders out there, sort of younger singers, who also prove to have what it takes to sing Brunhilde and these other kind of roles. In terms of tenors, this is a real problem. This kind of tenor voice who can be heard over the raging Wagner orchestra and who can sustain the stamina to survive Siegfried or Act III of Tristan. We don’t right now have a singer who is absolutely, unambiguously mastering these roles. There are quite a few who can get through them, and can do quite well, but at least right now—of course there are some promising prospects out there—it is a little bit of a gap, a big gap, in Wagner casting. 
I think actually, despite the tenor issue, we’re living in a pretty good period for Wagner singing, and especially with this latest surge of sopranos. I really don’t see any reason for pessimism. There are singers who have mastered these roles, and are singing them very, very well. 

Many Israelis completely object to any staging of Wagner’s works in Israel. How much do we still need to apologize today for presenting Wagner’s music? Is that fair?
Quickly, with Israel, if that’s possible, it’s become wrapped up in contemporary Israeli politics. There are liberal Israelis in Tel Aviv who think that Wagner should be played. It’s wrapped up in bigger and even more taxing questions in politics. My personal opinion is that Wagner absolutely should be played in Israel; it would be intellectually healthy for his music to be heard. It’s a healthier debate if the music is actually being heard, and people can evaluate the works and how they play on stage. This ban against Wagner in live performance—of course it’s not an explicit ban, but he can’t be heard at concerts and on stage. He can technically be heard on the radio, on television and that doesn’t really make sense to me. If the idea is to accommodate to the sensitivities of Holocaust survivors, wouldn’t it make more sense to reverse the equation? It’s when something is heard on the radio that you might come upon it accidentally, whereas when Wagner is being announced, being performed at a particular time, those who don’t want to hear the music can avoid it. There’s something topsy turvy about the way this is being presented.
I think there are some problems, there are some myths that have arisen around this question of Wagner and Nazi Germany. There’s actually quite a widespread idea now that Wagner was often heard in the concentration camps, that he was being played over loudspeakers as people went to their deaths. There is almost no evidence that any such thing happened. So much of the evidence suggests that the music heard in the death camps was light music, it was waltzes, it was marches. This horrible irony, of course, that it was light music being heard. Of course, Wagner was heard much more widely in Nazi Germany, in propaganda, movies and public circumstances, so there’s that association.
This is an issue for musicians. There are generations now of Israeli classical musicians who have learned their instruments without ever playing Wagner, and that’s a professional problem for them … Musicians need to know Wagner. If you’re a horn player, if you’re a trombone player, especially the brass sections, this is a really important part of your orchestral repertoire.
It’s simply time, in the early 21st Century, to step back a little bit from this very powerful identification—Wagner, Hitler—absolutely not to conceal it, and to absolutely keep it under a spotlight but let’s have a wider picture of what Wagner meant, historically, and what he can mean today. There’s some very interesting work people are doing with Wagner and environmentalism. There’s so many resources you can draw upon in terms of talking about Wagner, presenting Wagner, staging Wagner, interpreting Wagner. There’s still so much to be done, I think, with Wagner and I think this should be happening in Israel and everywhere else. But ultimately, it’s not for me to say, and it’s something I’m reluctant to speak about.

But surely you’re going to talk about it in your book?
There’s a very substantial heritage of Jewish people engaging with Wagner, grappling with Wagner, loving Wagner or hating Wagner. There’s a history there, and it exists and is part of Jewish history. Banning Wagner, I just don’t think that’s a healthy way to sustain a debate … I would like to actually go to Israel and talk to people and gather information about this question. I’m hoping I might be able to go the next time there’s an enormous Wagner blowup in Israel.

How do talks like the one in Chapel Hill relate to the eventual book?
What I’m going to do in Chapel Hill, this talk will be very much based on the third chapter of the book, which is going to be Wagner and Victorian England, Wagner and Gilded Age America. It seems to be an opportunity for me to road-test some of my ideas in front of a knowledgeable group of scholars and students that are interested coming in from the area, and just see how it goes and see what people find interesting, what they find less convincing, what they just find boring and sort of gauge how all of this will play. It’s very important for me to take advantage of these invitations such as UNC extended to me to create that kind of community for myself. It’s going to be a two-part talk, and the first part will be giving this overview of Wagner in America, Wagner’s own peculiar idea of immigrating to America … a lot of the 1848 generation, revolutionaries and left-wingers, fled Germany after the failure of revolution in 1848 and started playing an important role in American culture, in American politics. A lot of them had also been introducing Wagner to Americans and we’re going to talk about that.
Then, later in the Gilded Age, Wagner became this very grand, elevated phenomenon. There was this extricated image of Wagner, as this pure, sacred, almost religious phenomenon, especially with Parsifal … We talk about Whitman too. Whitman saw Wagner as a kindred spirit, in terms of sense. A lot of what he knew about Wagner was conveyed to him by younger followers and enthusiasts who were also Wagnerians. So he sort of adopted their language. Wagner for him was free, unbounded emotional expression and directness; the endless melody, feeling and this visceral energy spinning forth. So that was what Wagner was about for him, and with his own poetry. Lanier responded and rejected that aesthetic, and wanted something more formally limited and contained. It’s interesting, the notion of two poets quite diametrically opposed, aesthetically and politically as well, but both identified with Wagner and felt in a sense that Wagner was on their side. This happens a lot, the confusion of Wagnerism as a phenomenon. You can find people all across the spectrum, and people who are in fact diametrically opposed to each other calling themselves Wagnerians. The question is, ‘what is Wagnerism?’ It depends very much. It varies wildly from place to place and from time to time. That’s what makes it interesting, even if ultimately you are unable to define it.

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