Wagner, restless provocateur

Wagner’s sexual ambiguity spoke to Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley and Thomas Mann, says Norman Lebrecht

On Music

This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Wagner divides his audience between those who want to go on afterwards to dinner, and the rest who want to invade Poland. Thee most inflammatory composer that ever lived, he was an atrocious man of irresistible magnetism, a disrupter who left blood in his wake.

One of my schoolteachers, a Hitler refugee, introduced him as follows: “Richard Wagner, may his name and memory be erased for ever and ever, was (deep sigh) a verrry great composer.” at says it all.

As a child, taken by my stepmother to see her favourite opera, I could not work out why a young woman had to sacrifice her life for the flying Dutchman to find a bit of peace. At the Metropolitan Opera, I saw my watch tick past one a.m. as James Levine dragged us through that para-Christian rite known as Parsifal. Life, mine at least, can feel too short for Wagner.

My impression is that minorities, be they sexual or religious, are drawn to Wagner by a perception of permissiveness and transgression

I have survived four rounds of The Ring, been mesmerised by Meistersinger, stupefied by the longueurs of Lohengrin. The one that gets me every time is Tristan und Isolde, which suspends the resolution of a chord for almost four hours, the longest delayed ejaculation in the canon.

In awe of such tantric feats, I made a pilgrimage to the shrine — only to declare Bayreu-xit on seeing the old wangler’s descendant still running the show for the benefit of Angela Merkel and the German elite. At Bayreuth I felt, for the first time, physically soiled by art. This year, the onset of Covid-19 left no Ring-shaped hole in my soul.

That puts me in the opposite camp to the New Yorker critic Alex Ross, whose monumental new book, titled Wagnerism (4th Estate, £30) maintains that Wagner was “the most widely influential figure in the history of music” — possibly an even greater influencer than the actor Stephen Fry, who shouts “miraculous” on the book’s cover, thereby placing it beyond reasoned discussion. Still, I’d better give it a go.

Ross is a brilliant musical analyst — his pathology of the Tristan chord on pages 66-7 is a masterclass in tonal mechanics — who argues that Wagner left his mark on every major movement in art and society from his day to ours.

Starting with English post-impressionists, he pervaded Baudelaire and French morbidity, Walt Whitman and the American dreamers, the novel from Marcel Proust to Virginia Woolf and philosophy from Friedrich Nietzsche to Jacques Derrida. Ross finds traces of Wagner in the architecture around us, in the movies that we watch, in our expectation that a work of art should come in boxed sets like Star Wars I-IX.

One might take issue with Ross’s assertion that the improvisations of John Cage and the Factory larks of Andy Warhol are relics of a “Wagner effect”, but there is no downplaying the sheer volume (in both senses) of creators who took their cues from Bayreuth, artistically for the better, politically much for the worse.

There is not much left to reveal about Adolf Hitler’s Wagner obsession, but I never knew Lenin was so overcome by a Wagner opera he had to leave the theatre after the first act. Stalin replaced Valhalla with a hell of his own until, after the Nazi-Soviet pact, he let Wagner creep back into Eisenstein soundtracks.

What is it that Wagner does to politicians? When I saw two British cabinet ministers, Michael Gove and George Osborne, at Bayreuth I felt a shudder of fear for our national future — and look what’s happened since.

Wagner brings out the worst in power-seekers. The German word for megalomania is Grossenwahn, or grand delusion. That’s what Wagner does, a reckless reordering of normality. He named his own house Wahnfried, which means peace after madness. He’s a menace.

Ross has an intriguing chapter on Wagner’s gay side. His patron, the homosexual and half-mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, was besotted in every way and Wagner only encouraged his arousal if their letters are anything to go by, forever trying to be all things to all men and women.

“Throughout his life,” writes Ross, “Wagner pursued an ideal of androgyny, a spiritual merger of the sexes.” Although a dominant male to his wives, he sought sexlessness in Parsifal, “androgyny elevated to the level of religion”, in which “the Saviour redeems the world by overcoming the duality of gender.”

His sexual ambiguity spoke powerfully to Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley and Thomas Mann, whose novella Death in Venice is both an evocation and a validation of Wagnerian themes, “pederasty made acceptable for the cultural middle classes”, as the Berlin critic Alfred Kerr acridly put it.

My impression is that minorities, be they sexual or religious, are drawn to Wagner by a perception of permissiveness and transgression. His operas breach Biblical taboos of adultery and incest. He wants to destroy the world that prejudices those who differ from the norm. He speaks for those who have no voice, hurling their missiles in the face of a worshipful establishment, making the elites at grand opera houses humbly submissive to his art.

While Alex Ross enumerates his conquests among the creative classes, I am not sure he has fully grasped his appeal to our subversive unconscious. He is not alone in this reluctance. Freud, who knew the Wagner operas, was strangely muted in his analysis.

At the risk of undermining his own thesis, Ross quotes Nietzsche in advocating that no statement should ever be made about Wagner without the word “perhaps”. I am well past 600 pages before I see the flaw in his case. Ross states that Wagner is — perhaps — the most influential figure in the history of music. He isn’t. Remove Bach and there is no history. Take out Beethoven and everything grinds to a halt. Eliminate Verdi and there is no Italian opera. Without Stravinsky, no twentieth century.

Remove Wagner, however, and the rest of music continues regardless. Wagner is a one-off, an ego, a restless provocateur. To Wagnerites, he’s the fusion of all arts. To Wagner-sceptics like me, he’s a genetic anomaly, a genius without anxiety.

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