Sunday, 15 September 2013

Review: Aspects of Wagner (1968, rev. 1988) by Bryan Magee

Bryan Magee

Aspects of Wagner

Oxford University Press, Paperback, 1988.
8vo. 102 pp. Revised and Enlarged Edition. Index [pp. 93-102].

First published, 1968.
Second Edition (Revised and Enlarged), 1988.

Wagner's Theory of Opera
Jews - Not Least in Music
The Influence of Wagner
Wagner in Performance
Wagner as Music

Review originally finished on September 17, 2009.

As a Wagner neophyte, this book proved to be a wonderful discovery for me. I can't remember the last time when so short a book has given me so much to reflect upon. Moreover, it's an excellent starting point to plunge into the life and personality of, perhaps, the most controversial person ever lived. All that in mere ninety pages or so.

The six essays by Bryan Magee this book contains are not only short but very well written, easy to read and understand, and full of perceptive points. Wagner's theories on what music drama should be, his highly controversial anti-Jewish attitude, his almost unimaginable influence over composers, writers and many others, the peculiarities of his music and the way it is performed, the adulation and the hatred his work and personality usually create are discussed in detail. They all will bear a good deal of re-reading which, I believe, is a quality only of the really great books. Despite its small volume, even in this "revised and enlarged edition", Bryan Magee's Aspects of Wagner is a truly great book: astonishingly well-written account about an extremely complicated subject.

The only mistake, in my humble opinion, Bryan Magee makes is sharing his personal opinions of recordings and performances. Now, of course, every writer is bound to be subjective no matter what or how he writes. The best he can do is to try to be convincing about his point of view. Mr Magee does a wonderful job with almost every aspect of Wagner he writes about; one might well disagree with him, but it is still hard to dismiss his reflections. But when one comes to recordings and performances, the matter becomes so overwhelmingly subjective that it is simply idle to write about these things. What is beautiful and great for me might well be ugly and mediocre for you and vice versa. It is quite normal and that is the way it should be, and this has nothing to do with some illusory standards of good playing or singing. If a performance moves you to tears, would you care that the greatest critics in the world, or anybody at all, think it is the most awful recording ever made?

So I think it a mistake on Bryan Magee's side to inflict his musical tastes on the reader. Another drawback is that the book lacks any bibliography, although it does have a very nice index. But these are minor faults that cannot detract much if anything at all from the priceless value and five star rating. I venture to recommend this book to everyone who is seriously interested in Richard Wagner's life, personality and works, and is still a beginner in this rather dangerous field.

Afterthoughts [November 2011]

More than two years have passed since I wrote the very superficial review above. Meanwhile I have re-read Mr Magee's wise little book several times. I have yet to cease marvelling how much one may gain from mere 90 pages, so well-written that one easily finishes them in a single, and not too long, sitting. Since I do believe Mr Magee's remarkable insight into Wagner's mind deserves a good deal more than the perfunctory remarks above, here are some desultory reflections more.

To begin with some caveats in addition to the ones mentioned above (one of which will be discussed in detail later), there are two major ones I would like to address – even though both are really very minor defects.

It may be useful to keep in mind that some background knowledge of Wagner's life and works – nothing extensive really, a cursory glance at Wikipedia will do – is likely to improve one's appreciation. After all, one reads Mr Magee for his striking parallels and perceptive observations, not for biographical details and information about the music. The reader who is fairly familiar with the broad outlines of the subject needn't worry that they will spoil the book. To the contrary: if anything, my slowly growing familiarity with Wagner's life and music between the different readings actually increases my benefits from Mr Magee's text. That said, the book is quite intelligible and enjoyable even for perfect beginners, even if some of the more subtle points may be lost on them.

The only other thing to blame Mr Magee for I can think of - if that sentence makes any sense – is that he is a little sloppy scholarly. The lack of bibliography is a serious drawback which I have already mentioned; in addition, though the author does as a general rule indicate the authors and the books he quotes from, sometimes his attitude in this respect is a little careless. This is particularly true with Wagner's own writings which are often quoted unsourced. Then again, Mr Magee makes no pretences about his little book being a scholarly study or anything of the kind. It is a collection of essays in which, by virtue of necessity, personal opinions and reflections prevail over the somewhat forbidding striving for objectivity of the scholar.

Having said all that, Mr Magee's credentials are very good and there is no reason to doubt his integrity. Quite obviously he knows very well what he is writing about. For instance, all quotations from Wagner's nearly unreadable literary works were newly translated from the German originals by the author himself. He is equally well familiar with all of Wagner's mature works for the stage, including their libretti, music and performance history. On top of all that, though he modestly admits his limitations in this respect, Mr Magee's knowledge of musical (and not only) history and literature seems to be quite a bit above the average. Furthermore, Mr Magee's writing style is one of the closest to perfection I have encountered so far, a compelling mixture of brevity, lucidity, humour and wisdom. I know of no phenomenon more fascinating than the combination of brilliant mind and brilliant pen. This is the case with Bryan Magee and Aspects of Wagner.

One of the ultimate tests for any essayist is how engaging, stimulating and convincing he can be about a subject that happens to interest you a lot, but about which you already know a good deal. As already mentioned, Mr Magee gets better and better with every new re-reading: one of the surest signs of the truly great book. I really don't understand the fellow for whom the book is of "minor importance" – unless of course he cares nothing about Wagner and his music; nothing wrong with that, but such people have no business reading such books. (The only other possible reason for not caring about this book is that the reader knows more about Wagner than Mr Magee does. Frankly, this is extremely unlikely.) For my part, even the worst of these six essays is packed with fascinating insights quite beyond the reach of many a Wagnerian scholar (including some eminent ones such as Barry Millington or Charles Osborne). So let's have a closer look at each of these gems, without neglecting their minor and very occasional defects, yet without diminishing their enormous strengths.

"Wagner's Theory of Opera" shows Mr Magee at his stupendous best. The essay is dedicated to Wagner's quite revolutionary ideas which led him to create single-handedly the so called "music drama". We are rather unfortunate that Wagner put all these important concepts on paper during the six years between finishing Lohengrin and starting Der Ring; the fact that he composed nothing at all for so long a time, an astonishing thing for a creative artist, is just one among Mr Magee's numerous subtle insights. But Wagner was as bad a writer as he was a great composer. I have tried reading some of his shorter pieces in three different languages and I have failed completely each and every time. Mr Magee declares that everybody who wants to avoid reading Wagner's hefty volumes has his sympathy, and he describes Wagner's prose in a completely unforgettable manner:

One forms the conviction that the prose was improvised, poured out without forethought and discipline – that when Wagner embarked on each individual sentence he had no idea how it was going to end. Many passages are intolerably boring. Some do not mean anything at all. It always calls for sustained effort from the reader to pick out meaning in the clouds of words. Often one has to go on reading for several pages before beginning to descry what, like a solid figure emerging from a mist, it is he is saying.

That said, Wagner's writings are of utmost importance for anybody who wants to obtain a deeper understanding of this endlessly fascinating man. And here we are really fortunate to have Bryan Magee; his humorous remark that "Wagner's theories are constantly being described as nonsense by people who do not know what they are" is certainly, and regrettably, true. The author makes a very strong case that Wagner's books, "abominably written though they are", contain numerous profound, original and important things.

The main part of "Wagner's Theory of Opera" is occupied by a two-page summary of Wagner's notions of what the opera of the future should be like. Mr Magee has put it all in his own words and I shudder to think how many hundreds of pages of Wagner's convoluted prose he had to peruse carefully in order to extract this summary. For these are surely two of the most masterfully written pages, not just in the whole book, but probably in the whole of Wagnerian literature. As it seems, Wagner's major ambition – one can accuse him of many things but certainly not of lacking great ambitions – was to reinstate the position of the Greek tragedy, as the perfect art form combining in one all arts, in the nineteenth-century consciousness. Being a composer and a poet himself, Wagner speculated about an entirely new form of musical work for the stage which would substitute the fatuous libretti, the ridiculous plots and the vulgar vocal display of the current opera, the lowest point of degradation that art had ever reached. Mr Magee clearly indicates the shortcomings of this theory, such as its intensely introverted character for instance (since Wagner was infinitely more interested in the inner worlds of his characters), but he is by no means blind about the many excellent points it does contain.

Two things about Wagner's bold theories impress me deeply. First, he was not in the least satisfied with a mere reviving of the Greek tragedy as it was in Ancient Greece. Far from it. The music drama, Wagner argued, would greatly benefit from an extremely powerful resource which had been completely unknown in ancient times: symphonic music. Having taken Beethoven as his starting point, the Ninth symphony especially, Wagner was determined to create a symphonic music for the theatre which would be unparalleled in expressing every nuance of the fierce mental struggles experienced by his characters. The truly astonishing thing is that Wagner really did create that.

The second thing that strikes me in Wagner's reflections is his completely uncompromising attitude towards Christianity. To say that he is anti-Christian is an understatement. He makes no bones that it was precisely this religion which brought the abominable degeneration of all arts during the nineteen centuries of its existence. As opposed to the humanism of the ancient Greeks, Christianity turned the human being into a worm of no consequence that should be ashamed of his body and his passions; it also turned the present life into a miserable preamble to some putative eternal bliss. Since the aim of art is to express life, Wagner continues, this anti-life concept was essentially anti-art. He is all for the works of art to be like a religious experience for the whole community, again in the spirit of the ancient Greek drama, but this is supposed to be a religion which celebrates life and pleasure, not suffering and death. Not for nothing, indeed, did Wagner call his last, and most "Christian", work a "Bühnenweihfestspiel" ("A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage"); sadly, Parsifal was as much misunderstood then as it is now. As for Wagner's notions about Christianity as an art-killer, it is highly controversial, to say the least, but not to be dismissed lightly.

"Jews – Not Least in Music" deals, of course, with Wagner's single most notorious feature: his anti-Semitism. Here again Mr Magee's common sense is simply shattering. He makes no bones that many people are so blinded with rage on the subject that they fail to appreciate some remarkably prescient moments in Wagner's writings. As in Mr Magee's recent, and very worth reading, book Wagner and Philosophy, which contains an amazing 37-pages-long appendix on the subject, there is no question of condoning Wagner's repellent anti-Semitism. But its odious nature, Mr Magee wisely reminds us, is no license to misrepresent it.

Interestingly, large part of this essay is not concerned, at first glance at least, with Wagner at all. Mr Magee discusses and tries to offer some explanation about one extraordinary historical phenomenon. This is the fabulous number of Jews with outstanding achievements during the last two centuries. In the previous twenty centuries or so the Jews produced exactly one genius: Spinoza. But then – in mere two centuries! – came Marx, Freud and Einstein, with whom Mr Magee starts, regarding very highly their contributions to human thinking, and a long, very long, list of eminent musicians: from Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn to Berman and Horowitz. Almost every notable performer of the twentieth century has been of Jewish descent: the long list of pianists is joined by legendary violinists like Isaac Stern and Itzhak Perlman as well as great conductors like Ashkenazy and Barenboim (both famous as pianists as well), not to mention Maazel and Solti. Among the composers, the cornucopia is not that great, but Mahler and Schoenberg are still conspicuous. What is the reason for this amazing Jewish renaissance in the arts and not only? Mr Magee rightly says that any hypothesis that it was accidental is just not credible. But he offers a tantalising explanation, too.

In short, the author argues that the opening of the Jewish ghettos, somewhere around the time of the Napoleonic wars, was the main reason, first, for the emancipation of many Jews, and then, after a lapse of few generations, also for their intellectual and artistic "uprising". Needless to say, the hypothesis is pretty debatable and indeed impossible to prove. Yet it does sound plausible. The most remarkable thing is that Wagner witnessed the beginning of this Jewish renaissance and he even tried to explain it, in terms similar to the author's, in his now notorious pamphlet "Jewishness in Music" (1850). Mr Magee rightly observes that one needn't agree with Wagner's kicking Mendelssohn out of the lines of the great composers to see that his argument is basically valid. The problem is that this argument was hidden behind a racial intolerance – such as in the case of Felix – which masked it so well that even today, a century and a half later, many people completely miss it, being absorbed in some of Wagner's most unpleasant passages instead.

One thing in this otherwise magnificent essay which I find unsatisfactory is that Mr Magee avoids one rather obvious question. It can be formulated in many different ways. What is a Jew? How does one define something like Jewish descent? Is there any objective way to find some kind of common denominator between all these men which does show their Jewish kinship, so to say? If there is, I am not aware of it. Never mind. Mr Magee at least makes the important point that this has nothing to do with religion. In fact, the opposite is the case. All these Jews who made immortal names for themselves were not observant and came from largely emancipated families. (This is true of Mendelssohn, too. Where do you think this "Bartholdy" usually attached to his family name comes from? It comes from his Protestant baptism.) This is interesting but it is to be expected, of course. Such close and dogmatic communities as the orthodox Jewish ones, nowadays largely non-existent, are very unlikely to produce any artist, let alone one of the first order. Here again Wagner did have a fine point – if clouded in invective, again.

"Wagnerolatry" – what a charming word! – tries to explain the well-known phenomenon of highly irrational idolizing of Wagner, obviously stimulated mostly by an extremely intense response to his music. In a nutshell, Mr Magee argues, rather convincingly, that Wagner's music acts directly on the repressed subconscious of his listeners, thus producing a powerful effect of liberation in those who are receptive to it. This Freudian interpretation may also go a long way in explaining exactly the opposite effect: perhaps some people find Wagner's music so repulsive because it invades their personalities deeper than they wish. The amazing thing about Wagner is that he was largely conscious of doing that, namely expressing in music what is essentially enslaved deep into our minds. Mr Magee is of course well aware that this cannot be proven on paper, for the simple reason that these concepts cannot be put into words at all, but he brings forward several telling examples from Wagner's writings, including his libretti, which often deal with social taboos. To take but one of these, it is hardly a coincidence that both love relationships in Der Ring are incestuous (Siegmund and Sieglinde are brother and sister; Brünhilde is actually Siegfried's aunt) and that in at least two music dramas (Siegfried and Parsifal) there are scenes which deal extensively with the Oedipus complex.

One point on which I would like to disagree with Mr Magee is his claim that Wagner's music is the only one to address our subconscious in such powerful manner. I believe all great composers do that, and the greatest surely do it in a way every bit as unique and shattering as Wagner's. I cannot be the only one who is, to say the least, deeply affected by Wagner's music dramas, yet has been – and continues to be – led to discovering similar spiritual secrets with Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninoff or Schubert. Then again, it may be that my reaction to Wagner is a cold fish compared to that of the "Wagnerolaters" (if that's the word) which, apparently, all but excludes the influence of other composers. Certainly, it is remarkable that Wagner has exercised a tremendous emotional effect on writers famous for their irony and detachment, such as Thomas Mann and Bernard Shaw, or on composers as different as Mahler and Chabrier.

Mr Magee also provides some fascinating examples of persons who literally went insane, or just died, apparently after being exposed to the frightful intensity of Wagner's music. The most famous example is the tenor Ludwig Schnorr, the first man to sing the monstrous leading part in Tristan und Isolde. Few weeks later he was dead, perhaps from the fever he contracted, perhaps, as Wagner himself believed, because there was something wicked in the work itself. Mr Magee omits another astounding story about Tristan, namely that two conductors have died while conducting it. The legendary Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan was convinced that the fact that both of his colleagues died at more or less the same place was no coincidence; and he may have been right. Mr Magee, however, quotes Wagner's famous letter about the last act of the music drama from which is clear that, first, Wagner himself went nearly mad while composing the piece and, second, he was well aware that a fine performance of it may drive the audience insane. I think everybody who listens to that stupendous third act – with Tristan's anguished monologue, his death in Isolde's hands and her sublime final scene* – would agree. Or in Wagner's unforgettable words:

Child! This Tristan is turning into something terrible. This final act!!! – I fear the opera will be banned […] only mediocre performances can save me! Perfectly good ones will be bound to drive people mad.
[Letter to Mathilde Wesendonck from April 1859.]

"The Influence of Wagner" merely outlines the extent of the phenomenon, as Mr Magee honestly confesses himself incapable of dealing in detail with the works of all those writers and composers who fell under Wagner's spell. Indeed, it is difficult to think of another artist who has influenced so many other artists, many of them possessors of creative faculties of the highest calibre. Examples are numerous. In literature, amazingly, Wagner seems to have been the single most powerful influence on the French symbolists; Verlaine wrote a poem dedicated to Parsifal, Laforge peppered his poetry with references to Lohengrin, to take but two examples. In England Shaw was by no means a lone Wagnerian prophet. References to Wagner that surely go deeper than mere quotations abound in the works of James Joyce and T.S. Eliot, including Ulysses and The Waste Land, respectively. And in terms of music the situation gets out of control. Just about the only composer after Wagner who succeeded completely in evading his omniscient influence was Stravinsky. All others, to one degree or another, in one period of their lives or another, were ardent Wagnerians: Mahler, Schoenberg, Debussy, Bruckner; Richard Strauss was at one time well-known as Richard the Second, Chabrier cheerfully described himself as a Wagner fanatic, and so on and so forth. 

The last two essays are the weakest in the book but, here is another hallmark of the great essayist, they are well worth-reading all the same.

"Wagner in Performance" is the essay in which Mr Magee, to my mind unfortunately, inflicts his musical opinions. As a great admirer of Karajan, I cannot possibly agree that he sometimes made his singers produce vocal beauty at the expense of dramatic intensity. I should have loved some examples here – for I can't think of any myself. It's a popular cliché that Karajan was obsessed with beauty of sound but I don't think he has ever sacrificed drama for it, and this is certainly true for his extensive Wagnerian attempts (which include studio recordings of nine out of ten mature music dramas). A little later Mr Magee has another bombshell to offer: only in the end of his life, when he had learned to live in the shadow of death, did Karajan finally produce a first rate complete recording of Wagner (Parsifal). This is perfect nonsense. For one thing, Karajan's Der fliegende Holländer was recorded later and it was not first rate due to some unwise choices of singers. That said, to dismiss all of Karajan's earlier recordings of Wagner – his glorious complete recording of Der Ring des Nibelungen, his passionate Tristan und Isolde, his absolutely stunning Der Meistersinger von Nürnberg and even his controversial Lohengrin – borders on the ludicrous.

And Mr Magee finishes this essay with a series of flowery quotes praising Solti's legendary Ring (DECCA, 1959-65) to the skies. Well, nobody disputes the great historical significance of this recording. It was the first complete studio stereo Ring and it must have been sensational at the time; Mr Magee finely reminds us that the first of the four records, Das Rheingold (incidentally the most difficult one to appreciate), reached Top 10 in the United States at the time, enjoying the company of Elvis Presley and Pat Boone. Even today the sound of this Ring amazes with its stupendous dynamic range, power and clarity. Yet the recording has aged badly. Culshaw's famous sound effects sound rather ridiculous today, introducing quite unnecessary naturalism in opera. Since those ancient times quite a few complete recordings of Der Ring have appeared, studio or live, and they have shown beyond any doubt that neither Solti's bombastic heroism nor, on the whole, his rather mediocre cast is the last word about this masterpiece. By 1988, when the Revised and Enlarged edition of Aspects of Wagner was first published, Mr Magee had no excuse to go so overboard about this recording except his personal preference for it – which is important for him only.

Despite several such mishaps, Mr Magee has some interesting things to say about the qualities of the great Wagnerian conductor and about such debatable issues like opera in translation and modernist stagings. About the latter I must say that I am mightily pleased with the author's round dismissal of such nonsense which, to put the matter very gently, misrepresents the composer's intentions. Well, actually, this delicate question is discussed in the next essay. For some obscure reason I seem to regard the last two pieces as one essay in two parts. Never mind.

"Wagner as Music", on the whole, is the better essay of the "bad" ones – or the better part of the "weak" one. Mr Magee starts with one of his trademark searing observations which is actually a compelling case that music is essentially beyond words. Why did Wagner, who was always at pains to explain himself in print, and to whom, as wisely remarked by the author, nothing was more alien than reticence, actually write so little about the process of composition of his own music? The simplest possible reason according to Mr Magee is also the most probable one: Wagner simply had little to say about that. If that was indeed the case, it must have been so only because most of his music rose from the depths of the subconscious which are essentially beyond words. They cannot be verbalized. This seems to me one of the strongest proofs that artistic creation of the highest order is, above all, a subconscious process (or even an unconscious one?), a process largely beyond any conscious control. But that is another story for another review – the one of Alan Walker's A Study in Musical Analysis (1962).

But if music is so much beyond words, is there anything of any use that can be said about it, Mr Magee wonders? As it seems, yes, there is. A most fascinating point here is that the usual way to single out separate traits in any music is erroneous. In Wagner's case it is often his daring harmonic innovations and his masterful orchestration that are praised, somewhat excessively indeed. But the truth is that these things don't make a great composer. Mr Magee's giving Respighi as an example for somebody who is a dazzling orchestrator but a very minor composer is telling; even more so is his casual remark that Beethoven and Mozart, who may be generally regarded as the two greatest composers who ever lived, were neither especially great orchestrators nor particularly daring in the mystical world of harmony. What makes a composer great, according to the author, is the ability, first, to create beautiful themes and, second, to weave them into bigger compositions of perfect proportions. Wagner scores magnificently on both fronts. Despite his very limited space, Mr Magee spends some time discussing, with his usual distinction, how Wagner made a truly unique use of thematic material which in itself may be rather ordinary. On the other hand, nobody in his right mind (that is mind susceptible to music in this case) would deny that some of Wagner's music (just think of Isolde's final utterance, to name but one example) is among the most beautiful and moving ever penned by anybody.

Notions like Wagner being a bombastic joke or his scores being an amateurish patchworks of leitmotivs, or Wagner being a kind of proto-Nazi and his music being "evil" for that matter, are no longer taken seriously – except by anti-Wagnerian bigots. If you are not one of these, this Revised and Enlarged edition of Bryan Magee's Aspects of Wagner is an obligatory reading.


* This final scene is usually, but wrongly, referred to as "Liebestod", which literally means "Love death". Though this description fits well, Wagner preferred to call it "Verklärung" ("Transfiguration") which, as Isolde ecstatically hallucinates about Tristan being alive again, doubtless fits the scene better.

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