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Taking the Wagner Cure

Near Bayreuth the Wagner Theater and the lunatic asylum on the right are conspicuous.

—Baedeker’s Southern Germany (1902)

The 1974 Bayreuth Festival presented further evidence that the shortage of star-role Wagnerian singers is acute. But even if this were not the case, the most remarkable performance would have been that of the audience. Dressed in full evening clothes in mid-afternoon, the devotees arrive at the Festspielhaus from castles all over the world, but especially from spiritual Berchtesgadens. Then long before starting time the faithful file into cramped wooden pews and, because of the lack of aisles both side and central, remain standing to accommodate stragglers. In the mausoleum-like hall (black curtain, Corinthian columns, Bogenlampen) and in the absence of any sign of an imminent theatrical event—the orchestra, like the Nibelungs, is subterranean—this standing suggests an act of reverence, that a memorial service rather than a stage spectacle is about to take place. Carlyle’s “lay pulpit” is still an apt description of the German theater.

Shortly before curtain time the doors are locked and latecomers turned away, a rule so strictly enforced that this year some New Zealanders are rumored to have returned over the oceans and continents bitterly disappointed at having missed Das Rheingold by thirty seconds. But all regulations at Bayreuth are rigidly observed, including one which warns that “Tickets Deformed In Any Way Will Not Be Accepted.” (Adding nibbling and crumpling to “do not fold, mutilate or spindle”?) A minute or two before the performance starts, a total, World War II black-out occurs and induces mass rigor mortis unbroken by muffled coughs or shifts in position. What, one wonders in this inhuman silence and impenetrable dark, would be the punishment for failing to suppress a blasphemous thought? The black-out, moreover, does not end with the final curtain, and since it is impossible to make an exit, one can only join the captive applauders.

The acoustics of the Festspielhaus are its most acclaimed feature, but the differences between the sides and the center, the loges and front parterre, are pronounced. In addition, stage location seems to affect the singers’ pitch and rhythmic coordination, which suggests that they, too, are not always within perfect earshot of the orchestra. The voices are never covered, it is true, but that is hardly an unmixed blessing, and, unfortunately, the price of the singer’s supremacy is the orchestra’s demotion to the role of accompanist. None of the recordings made in the theater reproduces the unique separation between voices and instruments, probably because stereophony and the architecture of the Festspielhaus are incompatible. But the balance within the orchestra is consistently satisfying, the strings predominating and the brass kept at bay. Violin lines scarcely heard in other opera houses come forward, partly as a result of the large numbers of players (specified by Wagner but employed only here), partly because of their placement.

The concept of the invisible orchestra is ideological, nevertheless, and only secondarily acoustical. Its purpose is to strengthen, or at least not to detract from, the stage illusion, and to transfer the sound from conscious to unconscious. The sense of participation and the excitement of the “live” that orchestras contribute to the performance of other operas have no place in Wagner’s aesthetics. But can the effect that Wagner intended be realized in the electronic age? The first impression of many visitors to Bayreuth is that the orchestra sounds like a recording, the singing superimposed. And in the Ring, where the frame of the stage picture is shaped like a television screen, the frequent projections of mists and clouds remind the viewer of TV “snow.”

Finally, the hidden orchestra pit has provided an excuse for limiting the repertory to Wagner. And, ample though his world is, and desirable as specialization may be, the question remains whether any theater should be restricted to the works of a single composer, especially when the theater is controlled by his family. Not that Wolfgang Wagner has been unreceptive to outside influences, the 1972 Tannhäuser ballet, for instance, apparently having been inspired by Hair. And he is demonstrably grateful for foreign aid. In some respects the fortress is still impregnable, though not to imported vocal talent. Japanese, Maori, and Welsh names, to mention only the more exotic, are now sprinkled among the Ilses and Heinrichs—ominously, perhaps, for was not the admission of barbarians to high posts in the Empire a major cause of the downfall of Rome? But Wolfgang Wagner has arrogated too much of the staging to himself. His Ring is not up to international standards, let alone able to set them, as Bayreuth at one time did. And quite apart from his artistic contributions, the inevitable result of control by the Wagner family has been the establishment of a shrine attracting an uncritical audience.

Other operas could be given at Bayreuth. The peculiarities of the theater would inflict no damage on either the acoustics or the principles of Moses and Aron, to name one. Furthermore, comparative mythology—the Vedas and Eddas—has taken over at the new Bayreuth. What, therefore, could be more appropriate than the juxtaposition of Schoenberg’s Semitic myths and Wagner’s Aryan ones? And this is not to mention the help in counteracting the picture of the old Bayreuth draped with swastika flags, and the occasional substitution of the end-of-intermission signals intoned by trumpets and trombones with the wail of a shofar.

As it is now, the omnipresence not only of Wagner’s music but also of Wagner the man can make the Ring itself seem like a vast monologue of autobiographical indulgence. Thus Das Rheingold becomes an opera about Wagner’s debts and the intransigence of bill collectors. Die Walküre turns into an allegory about conventional morality and Wagner’s great suffering therefrom, and about elopement, which he proposed to several ladies before succeeding with Frau von Bülow. By similar tokens, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung become elaborate dramatizations of the worldly fate of a genius (disguised as a folk hero), i.e., a man betrayed by the jealous and small, and ultimately stabbed in the back.

Wagner is also inescapable in the town of Bayreuth. Public thoroughfares are called Lohengrinstrasse and Frickagasse, and children are named Brünnhilde and Isolde—though Tannhäuser has not yet been commemorated by a “Venusberg” establishment, at any rate one that this writer could discover. On the contrary, dowagers who look like Cosima are everywhere, while the public park is guarded by a bust of Wagner, a copy of the one in the theater’s middle-loge foyer—where, incidentally, Wolfgang Wagner can often be seen, a “dead ringer” for his grandfather except that the marble features are sharper than the living ones. All but the most die-hard Festspiel fans would be well advised to take rooms elsewhere and to commute to the theater through the Franconian hills, with their red-roofed villages, half-timber farm houses, US Seventh Army missile installations.

A kiosk facing the entrance to the auditorium features the most recent additions to the gigantic Wagner bibliography—along with such perennial sleepers as Adorno’s Versuch über Wagner, which sells like The Joy of Sex at Doubleday’s. (Also facing the entrance is a Red Cross station, perhaps to warn of the deadly seriousness of Wagner’s operas.) As the 1976 centenary of the Ring approaches, and Wagner’s prestige among musicians reaches the highest level it has enjoyed since the beginning of the century, guidebooks to the plots and musical motives proliferate. But the latest trends in Wagnerology are found in the official program notes, and at present the main topics are the mythic models, the archetypal characters, and the symbolic significances of the gods. Many of these commentaries are based on the Jungian concept of myths as universal dreams, and it follows that Jungian analysis is employed; but the conclusions are often expressed in very peculiar language.

A comparison of Wagner’s Valhalla with the one in the Skaldic poems, for example, may very well contribute to the understanding of the Ring dramas, except that the terminology of the scholars undermines one’s faith in their learning. Thus the Ring Valhalla is described as a “supermundane transfiguration…in which the divinely inspired aggressiveness of its warriors is revealed as paranoia.” At the mundane level, “the overcoming of maternal rule” is said to “take place in the fight with the dragon.” At that level, too, Siegfried’s murderer, Hagen, is no longer regarded as an embodiment of evil but as a victim of heredity—as the son of Alberich, not because of an extra Y chromosome—hence the villain “feels rejected” and “needs malice for his self-assurance.” Similarly, in the sphere of the submundane, the mining of the gold is now viewed as an ecological problem, while the ring itself is to be understood as “a symbolic compulsion to concentration…which can produce…destructive ability, and, through egocentricity…lead to autistic inertia.” This last statement proves not only that the realm of mythical speculation is infinite but also that practically anything about anything can be published.

By the centenary, the linguists should be having their turn, and the program books offering such fare as the etymological origins of “Frigg,” Goddess of Marriage. But in fact linguistic analyses of any kind have been lacking. Nor is it generally known that Saussure amassed a considerable body of notes on the Nibelungen texts,1 hoping to prove that the people and events of the legends were based on actual historical personages and occurrences during the dynasties of the Franks and the Burgundians. This aim is contradicted by the later conclusions of Cassirer (among others) that “myth is not a transformation of history into legend,”2 but of course Saussure’s goal is of lesser consequence than his methods. Starobinski, at any rate, speculates that Saussure’s search for actual names and antecedent facts in the poetic texts may have involved him in the intensification of his study of the synchronic aspects of language.

All of this may seem to be remote from Wagner, but in fact it touches on the crux of his artistic philosophy. His 1848 essay, “The Wibelungen: World History as Revealed in Saga,” a muddle of philosophizing about the political and other history of medieval Germany, is nevertheless indispensable to an understanding of how the Ring was made. Even earlier the composer had written a drama on Friedrich Barbarossa that introduces a mythological element into the life of the historical figure. As a result of these and other literary excursions Wagner concluded that only poetic myth, not actual historical incident, must become the basis of his musico-dramatic creations.

Wagner’s own scholarship was enormous, and he is known to have read widely in and on mythology, including, of course, the Eddas, Grimm’s Mythologie, Das Deutsche Heldenbuch, the Volsunga-Saga, Der Nibelungen Noth und Klage.3 For a complete understanding of the creation of the Ring it is probably necessary to compare his borrowings from these sources with the transformations of them in his libretti. But what concerns us is Wagner’s discovery of the renewable power of myths and his realization of the essential truth that, in Kerenyi’s phrase, “The gods act according to their given characters and not to those invented by the poet.”

Among the many mysteries about Wagner—and these include the development of his musical technique—one of the most curious is the period of six years (1848-1854) during which he read prodigiously, wrote essays, dramas, poems, discovered the nature of his own future art work, but composed no music. In fact he seems to have reversed the “usual” sequence of conception, apparently beginning from the outside, with a philosophic, dramatic, or literary idea, and only later developing a musical one. Evidently, too, he could command his musical imagination at will. Thus in the summer of 1857 he worked on drafts of the Tristan scenario, versified it; wrote the libretto. Then, within a few days and apparently with no superhuman effort, he composed the piece that changed the history and language of music, the Tristan Prelude.

Still another mystery is Wagner’s ability to draft an outline in practically no time, and, after an incubation of twenty-five years, bring the projected work forth perfectly fulfilled. This was the case with Götterdämmerung (1874), the Siegfried’s Tod poem having been conceived in 1848. It was also true of Parsifal. Wagner wrote to Mathilde Wesendonk in 1858 explaining that she could understand his meaning of “the redemption from suffering in the philosophical imagination” only when she would hear Parsifal, which he was not to compose for another twenty years. Both Parsifal and the Ring were planned in that six-year hiatus, during which Wagner underwent a phenomenal musical development while composing no more than a few measures of music.

To return to Bayreuth and to Wolfgang Wagner’s Ring, all four operas were presented on a tilted disc, divided at times like wedges of processed cheese, and varyingly textured, so that the final scene of Das Rheingold, for instance, looked like a large pizza with molten mozzarella. But as the cycle of operas unfolded, this uni-set was more and more exposed for what it was, an inadequately disguised disc. During changes of scene, effected behind a screen that resembled a camera shutter, curiosity mounted, but only about the ways in which the designer might avoid repeating previous camouflages. The lighting was dim, on the whole, perhaps out of charity to the sets and costumes—particularly Brünnhilde’s pants suit. Therefore when the moon was turned on in Die Walküre, the sudden brightness seemed to alarm the audience, to say nothing of Siegmund and Sieglinde. All of this would have mattered a lot less if the singing had been of high quality, but few of those in major roles were ready for them, and the part of Brünnhilde actually had to be sung by a different soprano in each opera.

The acting, when there was any, fell to an inexcusable low: Richard Wagner’s intentions are clear, detailed, and, today anyway, eminently practical. They suppose a degree of visual and histrionic realism, however, that is at the opposite extreme from his grandson’s naked and nearly propless production. When will directors understand that the most avant-garde as well as the most effective stagings can be achieved through the rediscovery of a realism based on Wagner’s?

Das Rheingold admittedly does not offer the largest scope for dramatic action, but in Bayreuth, Loge, not Wotan, was its outstanding performer; when the two of them were in Nibelheim, like Virgil and Dante in Hell, Wotan simply looked on lamely. Die Walküre requires some simulation of involvement, yet Brünnhilde’s annunciation of his death to Siegmund, the opera’s most moving scene, was a study in nonchalance. The first act also lacked dramatic tension, largely because the triumvirate of principals spent so much time seated. Weary though they are supposed to be—and may very well have been in private life—one wonders whether Hunding would have relaxed so completely in the presence of an enemy stranger. And surely Siegmund and Sieglinde would at least have been able to sing better if on their feet.

After all of Siegmund’s strenuous invocations for assistance in extracting the sword, he later showed so little interest in it that, rushing into Sieglinde’s arms, he let it fall with a clatter that would have wakened Hunding despite the extra drugs in his sleeping draught. The latter part of the act, incidentally, is more conventionally operatic than any other in the Ring: voices are employed traditionally, in arias, and with high-note climaxes and even embellishments. On the other hand, the earlier scenes are remarkable for their use of pantomime, the oboe singing Sieglinde’s thoughts, the cello Siegmund’s. Hunding reveals his own, no doubt because the quintet of tubas associated with him would be excessively loud, but he does this sotto voce, another concession to convention.

Wagner was correct in insisting that the Ring should only be performed cyclically and as an entity. In the perspective of the whole, that which seems to be disproportionate in the individual operas disappears. Thus Fafnir’s part in Siegfried may appear too protracted when that opera is given by itself, but this impression is dispelled when Das Rheingold is still vivid in the memory, and, with it, the importance of the Giants as the autochthonous earthlings with precedence over the Gods. The connections and recapitulations between each opera are also strikingly effective when the four are heard in sequence, and this in even so simple a case as the storm music at the beginning of Die Walküre, following hard upon Donner’s motive at the end of Das Rheingold.

Above all, to hear the music chronologically is to follow the composer’s amazingly consistent and rapid growth. Each scene and almost every page display greater mastery than the one before. In Das Rheingold, for instance, the music still comes to dead ends, Wagner not yet having acquired his great skill in avoiding perfect cadences. His ever-expanding technical resources are not always matched by his dramatic material, however, and since love is generally a more promising subject than dragons and not-very-jolly giants, the first act of Die Walküre remains the most affecting in the Ring, until the final scene in Siegfried. This Siegfried, incidentally, gave a remarkable performance on the hammer, striking every blow of his anvil chorus exactly as notated; so much more highly developed was his sense of rhythm than that of pitch, in fact, that he would have made a better impression in the percussion section.

The difficulty with Götterdämmerung is precisely in its infinitely superior musical level. At times the music seems almost too grand for some of the play, particularly in the second act, where the suspension of disbelief in the story requires a considerable effort. It is absurd that Brünnhilde attributes Siegfried’s failure to recognize her not to an enemy’s wiles but to Siegfried’s own treachery. As Wotan’s daughter, only recently deposed from demigodhood, she surely must recall something of the trickery and magic in the world of her past. Moreover, she is, or until very recently was, more aware than anyone else of Siegfried’s natural innocence.

As for Siegfried’s lack of suspicion about the strangeness in Brünnhilde’s behavior on seeing him, that is easier to explain, stupidity being a trait of his to which the audience has become accustomed. At Bayreuth, the Götterdämmerung staging was unusual in that the Gibichungs, a primitive people, moved in perfectly drilled SS platoon formation; and in that the final scene—in which, when this writer first saw the opera, Madame Flagstad departed with a live horse—is now realized entirely by cinematography, and so successfully as to suggest that film should be employed in a great deal more of the Ring.

Unlike the Ring, the Tristan und Isolde was a new production, although not a deeply memorable one. But if the weaknesses in August Everding’s staging outweighed the strengths, without adequate voices in the title parts what can the visual dimension offer except some diversions? “There is virtually nothing in the Second Act but music,” Wagner wrote—in a letter that brilliantly defines the distance between himself and all other opera composers: “I have been criticized for failing to include a glittering ball during which the lovers would hide themselves in some shrubbery, where their discovery would create a scandal.” The voice of the Bayreuth Isolde suited her youthful song, “Das wär ein Schatz,” but was unequal to the wrath which the part requires. No doubt realizing this limitation, Everding created a girlish princess and a sisterly Brangäne—though hardly a subordinate one, which tends to make the switching of the potions predictable.

The sail on Tristan’s ship was obtrusive, but of no help even in separating Tristan’s and Isolde’s quarters, let alone the dramatic levels. The current version at the Metropolitan Opera is far superior in this—as in other respects, including the use of psychedelic lighting after the lovers swallow the potion, and the surrounding of their heads in a medallion of light. At the Metropolitan, too, King Mark heads the procession boarding the ship to greet his bride (as the libretto requires), thus identifying himself to the audience before the scene in which he surprises the lovers.

But does King Mark discover Tristan and Isolde in flagrante delicto? Not according to Elliott Zuckerman,4 for whom the music represents a coitus interruptus. So it might be in the opera, but the Prelude is music’s most unmistakably explicit representation of the fully consummated act. And however that may be, the Prelude remains newer than any music that followed it, at least until Le Sacre du printemps, whose novelty is in a different dimension (that of rhythm). In a letter to Mathilde Wesendonk, Wagner described the baffling effect of the Prelude on a Paris orchestra in 1860: “It was so incomprehensibly new to the musicians that I had to lead them from note to note as though prospecting for precious stones in a mine.” But what did those players make of the composition as a whole—if any of them heard it as a whole? And what did they think of this form, which disregarded the right angles, exact duplications, full closes, and rhetorical contrasts of diatonic and chromatic that had comprised the substance of music until that time? Finally, did any of them feel the new ecstasy in it? “Really good [performances] would send people mad,” Wagner wrote.

What a relief, after Wagner’s teutonic theology, is his mysticism. How welcome, after the monsters of the Ring, are his humans. And how much more haunting is this music. No wonder he wrote, composing the second act: “I have never done anything like it. I am utterly absorbed in this music…I live in it eternally.”

(A second article, on Parsifal, will appear in the next issue.)

  1. 1

    See Starobinski’s Les Mots sous les Mots, 1971. Saussure’s notes, dated 1910, are in the Bibliothèque Publique et Universitaire de Genève, Ms. 3958 (eight books) and Ms. 3959 (ten books). See also D’ Arco Silvio Avalle’s Le sémiologie de la narrativité chez Saussure (Editions Galilée, 1973).

  2. 2

    Ernst Cassirer, Language and Myth (Harper, 1946). For Cassirer the origin of myth is in “the inherent weakness in language…. An ambiguity, a paronymia of words.” Thus the Daphne myth began in the “etymological relationship between the Greek word for ‘laurel’ and the Sanskrit for ‘dawn.”’

  3. 3

    Concerning Wagner’s readings in peripheral literature see Klaus Günzel’s essay (Bayreuthe Festspiele, 1974) on the probable influence of G.H. Schubert’s writings. Günzel argues that Wagner’s uncle, the philologist and intimate of E.T.A. Hoffmann, must have drawn the composer’s attention to G.H. Schubert’s quirky but ground-breaking Symbolism of Dreams (1814).

  4. 4

    The First Hundred Years of Tristan (Columbia University Press, 1962).

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