Review Essay of Books on Wagner

August 31, 2005

titansheartromanticRichard Wagner: The Last of the Titans, by Joachim Köhler. Translated by Stewart Spencer. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004. 704 p. ISBN 0-300-10422-7.

Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde," by Roger Scruton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. 238 p. ISBN 0-195-16691-4.

Wagner and the Romantic Hero, by Simon WilliamsCambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 204 p. ISBN 0-521-82008-1.

It used to be said that more books had been written about Wagner than any other person, saving only Napoleon and Jesus Christ. Such statements are wildly hyperbolic, but it is nevertheless remarkable that Wagner continues to generate such enormous interest, particularly since the high-water mark of his presence in the operatic repertoire was probably passed about a century ago. The three books under consideration here give testimony not only to this continuing interest in the composer but also to the increasing diversity of approaches that scholars are using to interpret his works and his ideas.

Expertly translated from the German by Stewart Spencer, Joachim Köhler's Richard Wagner: The Last of the Titans is a full-length comprehensive work that bears comparison with the classic biographies of Ernest Newman and Carl Friedrich Glasenapp. Köhler—at least as he appears in Spencer's translation—is a fluent writer, and his biography reads like an engaging intellectual novel. Köhler has an extraordinarily rich understanding of nineteenth-century culture, and the sections of his work that concern Wagner's intellectual world view are revelatory. The jewel of the book is a magnificent 100-page synopsis/commentary on the Ring, in which Köhler places Wagner's magnum opus in the context of nineteenth-century philology, natural science, and philosophy. Köhler's discussion of Wagner's relationship to Schopenhauer is equally strong. While Köhler acknowledges the deep influence that Schopenhauer had on Wagner, he avoids reading works such as Tristan und Isolde or Parsifal (as some other scholars have done) as virtual dramatizations of Schopenhauer's philosophy. Indeed, Köhler draws our attention to ways in which Wagner may have misread or misunderstood Schopenhauer. Köhler's approach to the Wagner/Nietzsche relationship is similarly nuanced. In addition to challenging conventional understandings of the roles that these figures played in Wagner's life, Köhler also directs us to figures such as Friedrich Schelling, who have been far more neglected in the scholarship concerning the Wagnerian Weltanschauung. Köhler's account of Wagner's last years also differs from many "canonical" biographies in the extent to which it relies on Cosima's diaries (published in English only in 1978 and 1980). Köhler draws particular attention to ways in which "Richard Wagner, the Composer" was Cosima's creation. In Köhler's reading, the relationship between this public figure and the inner life of the composer himself was fundamentally discordant, and at times nearly unbearable. Indeed, Köhler's account of the final decade and a half of Wagner's life is profoundly tragic. The biography, in sum, is both provocative and inspiring, and compels us to think of Wagner's legacy in new and exciting ways.

Despite its many virtues, however, Köhler's biography suffers from some serious problems. Although it is cast in eight large chapters, the most significant structural divisions in the work are at the subchapter level. Consequently, Köhler's work occasionally feels like a collection of individual essays rather than a coherent whole. Insofar as there is a central thesis, it is the idea that Wagner's neuroses and creativity are the result of fundamental childhood traumas—in this sense Köhler's work follows the neo-Freudian path of works such as Maynard Solomon's biography of Beethoven. Oftentimes, this idea leads to great insights, but Köhler also occasionally becomes lost in the dark wood of psychological conjecture. In his analysis of Lohengrin, for example, Köhler would like to posit a symbolic equivalence between the swan and the "Geyer" (the surname of Wagner's stepfather, which means "vulture" in German). "Just as Lohengrin was brought to Brabant by a swan," Köhler writes, "so Wagner was brought up by Geyer and at the same time deprived of both his inheritance and his mother's love, a love for which he felt an insatiable desire." (209) Köhler's reading of Lohengrin surely enriches our understanding of the work, but it also smacks of reductionism.

The biggest drawback to Köhler's work, however, is the absence of any sustained discussion of the music itself. Indeed, Köhler seems to lack confidence in his ability to write persuasively about musical sound, and occasionally resorts to quotations from other scholars in order to buttress his arguments in this regard. This absence leaves a strange hollowness at the core of the work. The author of Wagner's Hitler, Köhler is keenly aware of the connections between Wagner's creative works and the rise of anti-Semitism. Indeed, Richard Wagner: The Last of the Titans might be classed (along with Robert Gutman's Richard Wagner) as an "anti-Wagnerian" biography that highlights the proto-fascist elements in Wagner's work. By neglecting musical sound, however, Köhler's biography ultimately fails to address the most troubling aspect of the Wagnerian legacy, namely, the coexistence or even mutual dependence of detestable ideology with music of ravishing beauty.

Some aspects of Köhler's biography will frustrate American scholars. Quotations and references are not always cited, and the index (like those to many other German monographs) contains only personal names. Köhler's work has some quirks, including a strange animus against the "hagiographical" work of Martin Gregor-Dellin. I have no doubt, however, that Richard Wagner: The Last of the Titans will become an indispensable part of the Wagner bibliography.

In contrast to Richard Wagner: The Last of the Titans, Roger Scruton's Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde is a detailed analysis of a single musical work. Although there is a great deal of what we might call "technical" discussion of the music, Scruton's stance is essentially that of a philosopher and cultural critic. In this sense, his book resembles those of Bryan Magee, particularly the latter's recently-published The Tristan Chord. Like Magee, Scruton argues passionately that Wagner's works have continued (indeed increasing) relevance for our times. If Köhler's attitude toward Wagner is profoundly ambivalent, the Wagner that emerges from the pages of Death-Devoted Heart is a culture hero, a prophet and a musical genius whose work speaks directly to the modern condition.

Scruton begins his book with an expert account of the origins of the Tristan story and Wagner's treatment of it. Scruton has absolute command of this material, and he eloquently organizes it around a few central points. As a concise account of the evolution of the Tristan myth, the first two chapters of Scruton's book are unsurpassed. At the very end of the third chapter, however, Scruton sounds an abrupt anti-modernist note which (perhaps like the trumpet C at the end of the first act of Tristan) portends an ominous future for the rest of the book. Criticizing post-Wieland Wagner stagings of the final scene, Scruton writes:

This is one of the ways in which producers have tried to distort, satirize, or obliterate Wagner's message and to reduce the most sublime of modern dramas to a vulgar riot. There is a reason for this: The two experiences on which Wagner draws for his emotional material—erotic love and religious sacrifice—are no longer easily available to modern audiences without quotation marks. By offering the quotation marks, producers imagine that the have made the rest of the experience safe for us. In later chapters, therefore, I shall explore the philosophy of love, in order to vindicate Wagner's vision and to show that those quotation marks ought to be put where they belong: around the ears of modern producers. (73)

What is troubling about this quotation is not Scruton's characterization of Tristan as the most sublime of modern dramas (I for one share his opinion) or his dislike of certain stage gestures, but rather the implication that "Wagner's message" is an absolutely coherent unity that can be decoded by proper analysis. This notion informs Scruton's analysis of the music of Tristan, to which the fourth chapter of his book is devoted.

Scruton's approach to the music of Tristan is conventional in the sense that it revolves around the idea of the leitmotive. Scruton is far too sophisticated of a scholar to claim that there is a one-to-one correspondence between dramatic ideas and musical motives: indeed, he draws attention to the mutability of the musical material and its dramatic referents. What is lacking in his analysis, however, is the possibility that Wagner's music may be multivalent, or that it might create problems for directors and singers that are nearly insurmountable. Scruton's deep love of Tristan seems to render him blind toward the inconsistencies of the Wagnerian enterprise and the ruptures in the fabric of the Gesamtkunstwerk. Unfortunately, this blindness undermines Scruton's arguments in the final chapters of the book. In these pages, Scruton uses Tristan to pronounce jeremiads against contemporary culture, attacking (among other things) popular music and pornography. Scruton has important things to say here, and we would take him more seriously if he did not grip so tightly onto the meaning of Wagner's work. Scruton's eloquent and persuasive prose alerts us to ways in which Wagner's music cuts across the grain of contemporary notions about love and sexuality. But the ability of Wagner's work to "speak against" or to "speak across" depends at least in part to ways in which it resists decoding and presents irreconcilable paradoxes. Scruton seems unable or unwilling to acknowledge these qualities, and his work suffers as a result.

The final book under consideration here, Simon Williams's Wagner and the Romantic Hero, is based upon talks that the author delivered at the Bayreuth Festival between 1998 and 2000, and the written prose retains the clear structure and easy eloquence that must have made the original lectures such a delight. Williams approaches Wagner's works from the standpoint of a dramatist, a standpoint that he uses to organize his book around a clear central idea. Williams divides Wagner's works into three periods; periods in which the action is centered on three different kinds of heroes: the romantic hero, the epic hero, and the messianic hero. Where Scruton (and to a lesser extent Köhler) place Wagner's work primarily against the background of philosophy, Williams is interested in different contexts: the plays of Novalis, Schiller and Goethe, the hero-centered history of Thomas Carlyle, the idea of the "well-made play" as manifest in Scribe's grand opéra libretti. In each of the chapters—which proceed in chronological order through each of Wagner's works—Williams offers an original approach to the dramaturgy. Given the basic premise of the book, it is hardly surprising that Williams eschews the kind of detailed musical analysis to which the fourth chapter of Scruton's Death-Devoted Heart is dedicated. Nevertheless, Williams treats music as the most important vehicle of the Wagnerian drama.

Williams's insights into the musical and dramatic structure of Wagner's works are always refreshing, but the most welcome part of Wagner and the Romantic Hero is the author's informative discussion of staging, a topic to which he devotes the entire final chapter. This vital and fascinating topic is usually broached only in "specialized" books such as Frederick Spotts's history of the Bayreuth Festival, or in the various Cambridge Opera Handbooks devoted to individual Wagnerian works. Unlike Scruton, Williams treats contemporary staging not as an aberration, but rather as a vital part of an interpretative tradition in which he (and by extension, all of us who treasure Wagner's works) are engaged.

I have only two quibbles with Williams's work. The first is with the title. In the body of the text, Williams uses the term "romantic hero" to refer to a particular type of Wagnerian hero, namely, the type that predominates in the early, and to a lesser extent, the middle period of Wagner's career. In this usage, the Dutchman is a romantic hero, but Walther von Stolzing is not. Since Williams deals with all three types of heroes in his book, the title gives a slightly misleading idea of its content. Secondly, the book has a few annoying (probably typographical) errors ("Der Frist ist um" rather than "Die Frist ist um") that make me wish that it had been subjected to more careful copyediting. These minor issues, however, in no way detract from the fundamental excellence of Williams's work.


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