Monday, 29 March 2010

Richard Wagner and the Centrality of Love

Barry Emslie's new study of Wagner's intellectual and creative wellsprings goes to the heart of the matter. Focusing on the centrality of love to the Wagnerian project, he shows how its obverse, hate - and specifically racial hate - is also ineluctably integral to the composer's Weltanschauung. Here, Barry Emslie outlines the central theme of this provocative new title:

Oh no, not another one! For while the world needs many things and no doubt many books, it surely doesn't need another book on Wagner. Well I have no option but to maintain that it does, or, at the very least, that it needs mine. This is an outrageously arrogant position but it is rather forced on the writer. All that work, all that time, if it ends up as a printed and published object pushed – oh so modestly pushed – under the noses of the public, just doesn't wash if the modesty is real. Surely this a discrepancy that Wagner forces on the author. For it is his dubious spirit that keeps the publications glut at just slightly below the tsunami but well above the justifiably sensible level. The ironic result is that the scribbler, no matter how self-effacing, is compelled into a form of special pleading which, in its own way, is no less egotistical than the megalomaniac posturings of the Master himself.

Richard Wagner and the Centrality of Love had its origins – as far as one can be specific on the matter – in an article I wrote for the Wagner Journal (Wagner: Race, Nation, Culture Vol. 2 No. 1). This paid as much attention to Wagner's polemical writings as it did to his music dramas, though it had little to say on more general German historical and cultural themes. It led to the book in two ways. Firstly there seemed in retrospect to be a bad fit between content and form. I felt that I had tried to pour a quart bottle into a pint jug. Much that was there needed to be filled-out, developed and placed in a more ambitious and far-reaching context. But the second consideration was yet more important. In reading Wagner's anti-semitic and Germanophile writings I became convinced that the natural and customary horror they evoked was misplaced, or, better said, that it was the product of a mis-recognition of what was really motivating him. For his anti-semitism is not significant simply because – or even chiefly because – it is obnoxious. Of much greater importance is that the idea of the Jews and Jewishness underpins his wider Weltanschauung. Consequently his positive notions of race, nation and culture take meaning from a Jewish antipode, chiefly because that antipode is dependent on a notion of “lovelessness”. I was convinced that this alternative, negative paradigm was essential to the productive development of Wagner's theoretical essays and his operatic practice, and that in its own way it was a key factor in the development of his ideas on redemption, on sexual liberation, and on what it means to belong to the German Volk. Far from muddying the waters it seduced me further into believing that I could interrelate the whole panoply of Wagner's intellectual and artistic strivings. In short it made the proposed book yet more ambitious: it was now going to cover a great deal of messy terrain without getting bogged down or entangled in contradictions. And it was all going to be done unproblematically under the rubric of love. Chance would be a fine thing!

Nonetheless, the element of hubris has remained. For while I would not claim that the book is the riddle of Wagner solved and that it – as used to be said of Marxism – knows itself to be the solution, it is not coy in laying out its far-reaching and comprehensive interpretation. Even so, everyone is aware that all pretension as to final answers in matters of this sort is folly. Worse than folly; it is unproductive. So there must be a contradiction at work here as well, in that one takes a big approach while accepting that no comprehensive interpretation can ever deliver in the manner that one wants. In the end even a grand theory purporting to get a handle on Wagner's music dramas, his polemical essays and to deal with them both in the impossibly broader contexts of German culture and history, can only vindicate itself in as much as it suggests new resolutions and opens up new areas of doubt and debate.

Which rather means that Richard Wagner and the Centrality of Love won't be, can't be, and certainly shouldn't be, the last word. Therefore one contributes to the potential tsunami in two ways. Firstly as drop in the ocean, and secondly, as an incitement to others. As Thomas Mann said “Wagner and no end...” At least not yet, anyway.

Richard Wagner and the Centrality of Love is published by the Boydell Press and available from your favourite music bookseller.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Artist Unknown

A friend tells me that she’s just bought the Beethoven piano trios on CD, so naturally I ask, ‘Who’s playing them?’ ‘Oh!’ she says. ‘No idea. I’m afraid I didn’t look at the names of the players.’ Why do people seem to think the performer is irrelevant?

A relative of mine recently confessed that although he was becoming quite familiar with the classics of the piano trio repertoire, he doubted whether he would be ever able to discern any difference between performances of those works by different groups. When I express dismay, he says, ‘But surely there can’t be much difference between top-level musicians playing the same works. Aren’t you all aiming at the same result?’ By that I suppose he meant that all musicians are trying to arrive at a perfect realisation of that holy text, the musical score. But there’s another way of looking at it, one expressed beautifully by musicologist Christopher Small when he pointed out that one might as well turn this perception on its head and consider that it’s the job of composers to give musicians something to play. At the end of the day, you can’t hear music unless it is played, and it is the character of the playing which most impacts on listeners at the moment of performance. Personally, I wouldn’t put the performance above the score in order of importance, but I do think the performance is crucial. Well, I would think so, wouldn’t I? But as well as knowing that a good piece can be ruined by a bad performance, and that a bad piece can be greatly enhanced by a good performance, I also truly believe that a great performance can bring a good piece to a new level.

I remember hearing Italian soprano Cecilia Bartoli in a programme of rather trivial Italian arias of the baroque and classical periods. Any thought of the music’s triviality was however completely driven away by the energy and commitment she gave to it, performing it as though she thought it was utterly fascinating. I remember thinking that it was an object lesson in how to perform second-rate music, and in fact I’ve learned from her example.

But even music of the finest quality can reveal new aspects of itself and even become transcendent in a fabulous performance. My husband Bob still remembers his awe on hearing Carlos Kleiber conduct Verdi’s Otello at Covent Garden in the 1970s. It’s an opera he’d previously heard in fine performances with other singers and other conductors. However, in Kleiber’s hands the opera suddenly struck him as a miracle of expressive coherence in a wholly unexpected way. Even though he knew the music very well, he was so gripped by the performance that he remained glued to his seat long after the performance had ended, unwilling to break the atmosphere. Later on, he heard that Bernard Haitink had attended the same performance with a fellow conductor and had said to his companion, ‘Well, that was the finest evening in the opera house that you or I will ever experience.’ Yet what remained for Bob was not the sensation of Kleiber’s personality but the conviction that Verdi’s Otello was even better than he had realised. When he could bear to listen to it again, performed by other people in later years, the effect was not the same. He realised that the alchemy at Covent Garden had been created by music brought to boiling point by particular musicians.

Of course, this kind of experience is not confined to music. How many schoolchildren, bored and irritated by having to study Shakespeare, conclude that there’s nothing in it for them until one day they get the opportunity to see a really good performance of one of his plays, when all of a sudden a door is kicked open in their minds.

This is an extract from Out of Silence by Susan Tomes, scheduled for publication later this month. It is a diary of a year in her life as a performer. Taking as its inspiration Schumann's remark that ‘I am affected by everything that goes on in the world, and I think it all over in my own way’, it aims to show how a working musician mulls over and draws energy from the events of everyday life.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Janáček, the Old Avant-Gardist

Leos Janáček is increasingly recognised as one of the major operatic masters of the early twentieth century. In an intriguing new book, Derek Katz challenges prevailing views of the composer’s relationship to Slavic culture and demonstrates that the operas are deeply indebted to various existing traditions. The first chapter , ‘Finding a Context’, looks at Janáček’s work from a number of viewpoints, including the one in this short extract:

One of the final chapters of Miloš Štědroň’s 1998 study Leoš Janáček and Music of the 20th Century is entitled “Young Conservative—to Old Avant-Gardist?!?” Despite the intriguing punctuation, at the end of this chapter Štědroň did indeed conclude that Janáček grew into an avant-gardist and declared that Janáček’s music of the 1920s is one of the most radical manifestations of European music from the first three decades of the century. This view of Janáček’s career as culminating in an avant-garde, or modernist, period is a widespread formulation with a long history. In a 1983 essay, Milan Kundera wrote of Janáček, “A solitary conservative figure in his youth, he has become an innovator in his old age.” Kundera described Janáček’s late works as “audacious” and suggested that he must be heard in the company of composers thirty and forty years younger, like Bartók, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Krenek, and Schoenberg. Similarly, the opening narration of Jaromil Jireš’s 1986 documentary film about Janáček declared that “Leoš Janáček was born deep in the mid-nineteenth century. His music belongs wholly to the avant-garde of the twentieth century. Although he was thirty years older than Bartók or Stravinsky . . . Janáček’s works rank amongst the most progressive of modern European music.”

In particular, the idea that Janáček was somehow generationally displaced can be traced back to the composer’s lifetime. In an enthusiastic 1925 essay, Erwin Schulhoff, almost exactly forty years younger than Janáček, wrote that as “astounding as it may seem, the septuagenarian Janáček belongs to the latest generation of composers, whose struggle he has also fought.” Hanns Eisler also noted Janáček’s late fecundity, remarking after a 1927 performance of the Sinfonietta that Janáček was “entirely unique amongst current bourgeois composers” and “still astoundingly full of creative strength as an old man.” In September 1926, Janáček travelled to Venice to hear a performance of his first string quartet at the annual International Society for Contemporary Music festival. Other living composers whose works were performed at the festival included Roussel, Vaughan Williams, Schoenberg, Ravel, Malipiero, Szymanowski, Stravinsky, Ladislav Vycpálek, Louis Gruenberg, Ibert, Honegger, and Hindemith. These twelve composers, although a heterogeneous group in most ways, shared at least one trait: all were younger than Janáček. In fact, most were significantly younger, with only Roussel and Vaughan Williams within twenty years of his age. Put another way, their average age was forty-four in 1926, while Janáček had turned seventy-two in July of that year.

Another, rather more idiosyncratic, tribute came from Henry Cowell, who visited Brno and lectured at the Club of Moravian Composers in 1926. Apparently the meeting with Janáček was a success, for in August 1927 Cowell invited Janáček to be an honorary member of The New Music Society of California. The letter of invitation, although addressed to “Mr. Janarchek,” does describe him as “without doubt one of the very greatest of living composers, without reservations.” Cowell had already collected Bartók, Bliss, Malipiero, Hába, Krenek, Schnabel, Berg, Casella, and Milhaud as honorary members; all were at least a quarter-century Janáček’s juniors.

The image of Janáček as an aged modernist has become firmly entrenched in standard music history texts. John Tyrrell’s entry for Janácek in The New Grove Turn of the Century Masters, for instance, asserts that Janácek’s late works belong “in sound and spirit with the music of the younger generation around him.” Similar judgments can be found in many standard surveys. Jim Samson, in The Late Romantic Era, describes Janáček’s musical style as “a radical new language” and “strikingly original,” while Donald Jay Grout calls Janáček “individual” and “exceptional” in his A Short History of Opera. More recently, Richard Taruskin titled his section on Janáček in The Oxford History of Western Music “The Oldest Twentieth-Century Composer” and points out that “his music is more often (and more tellingly) compared with that of Debussy, Stravinsky, or Bartók” than with that of Mahler or Richard Strauss.

Janáček Beyond the Borders by Derek Katz is published by the University of Rochester Press and available from your local music specialist bookseller.