After the jubilee: Wagner’s music

The year 2013, celebrating Wagner’s birth in 1813, provoked a flurry of (extra) performances, articles and books in an attempt to understand, enjoy, and make accessible the life work of one of the most controversial European cultural icons of the 19th century. Reading the reviews of the newly-published books and some of the extensive essays in the (cultural) magazines, makes clear that it is Wagner’s personality and turbulent life, together with his dubious posthumous influence – especially his antisemitism – that receives most of the attention, as do the plots of his operas and their possible interpretations. The music as music however, is hardly treated, and if at all, rather superficially and piecemeal. But what the music, in itself, is, and how it works, and especially how it is possible that the music turns so many music lovers into helpless addicts, living from shot to shot to keep their dependence intact – a sort of happy surrender to emotional experience in the form of tones that often looks like a passionate love obsession that cannot be quenched – that seems to be a ‘mystery’, difficult to rationally understand and impossible to analyse.

Musicologists have vainly tried to find an underlying idea or process, or method, that would explain the mesmerizing ‘power’ this music holds over a certain type of listeners. And indeed, it can be understood that withholding resolutions of dissonant chords, very long melodic legato lines, endless repetitions of motives and rhythmic cells, striking dissonances and lots of brass, exaggerate the expressive effects of the musical idiom as created by Beethoven, Berlioz and Chopin which (among others) served Wagner as examples. But somehow that is not enough, it merely explains the tools, but fails to account for the total working, the result as functioning in the theatre.

Contrary to what some of Wagner’s writings, and some aspects of his plots, suggest, he was an intelligent man. He knew what he was doing, so much so that he set-out, before embarking upon the Ring, the points of departure he was going to employ, in a couple of rather confused but nonetheless interesting texts, like ‘The Art-work of the Future’ (1849) and ‘Opera and Drama’ (1852). Although he did not always follow his own ‘recipes’, he seems to have had a quite clear vision of a new form of musical theatre where music would be used differently from before. Another sign that he was fully conscious of what he was doing with his music, appears from his letter to Mathilde Wesendonck shortly after completing ‘Tristan und Isolde’ (24/8/1859):

Just consider my music, with its delicate, oh so delicate, mysteriously flowing humors penetrating the most subtle pores of feeling to reach the very marrow of life, where it overwhelms everything that looks like sagacity and the self-interested powers of self-preservation, sweeping away all that belongs to the delusive madness of personality and leaving behind it only that wondrously sublime sigh with which we confess to our sense of powerlessness – : how shall I be a wise man when it is only in such a state of raving madness that I am altogether at home?

This is the utterance of a man trying to transgress boundaries and limitations, who wants to escape the natural sense of order upon which civilization rests and with which it tries to defend itself against its own abberations. But yet, if this is to result in a work of art, it can only and exclusively function in the form of a cultural artefact, a ‘work of art’ which implies a cultural context, tools of expression and the relational network of signifiers and references which together form an artistic tradition. These are the normal type of boundaries without which nothing can be transgressed; if an art form wants to be an art of transgression, there still must be boundaries and local fields where transgression can take place. In another letter to Frau Wesendock, Wagner described his music as an art of transition, of things gradually and sometimes imperceptably changing from one thing into another, instead of the ‘classical’ clear delineations from one phrase or episode to another, he wanted his music to be fluent and supple, as if it were a mellow substance to be moulded, or a smoke which changes its shape all the time. Also with transition, there must be a rather definite field from which the music makes a transition into another field. A litterally continuous transition, like ditto transgression, ends-up nowhere, has no substance and thus, no expressive possibilities. In theory, we understand that in an art where things are supposed to change all the time, there also must be things that in themselves do not change much, so that transgression and transition becomes visible, or in the case of music: audible.

How does all this relate to Wagner’s music? We see indeed that in all of his later works, which offer so much opportunity for both transition and transgression and are therefore characterized by a strong expressive force, there are stable fields like fixed patterns or chords, and transitional / transgressive episodes. There is a continuous play between these two different types, the stable structures creating a basis over which other layers of fluency form a surface of continuous change. In other words, under the expressive surface of the music, a sturdy traditional mind is operating in secret. And indeed, analysis reveals a way of writing a ‘Satz’, a four-part harmonization, comparable with church organists. In his youth, Wagner studied composition with a Leipzig organist, the Thomas Cantor Christian Theodor Weinlig, schooled in the tradition of the Thomas church of which J.S. Bach was its most important contributor: it is not difficult to discover a strand of organ-like textures through all of Wagner’s works, and an adherence to stable tonalities underneath the chromatic excursions which made such striking effects in his time. It is this being rooted in the tonal traditions from the past, which makes even the wildest tonal caprioles highly effective and expressive: it is the tension between being drawn to the ground and the energetic escape from gravity which intensifies expression. In other words, Wagner’s chromaticism is firmly rooted in the diatonic system, and the idea that the chromaticism of Tristan is the first step into the direction of atonality is wrong: its chromaticism is intensifying tonality, not dissolving it.

Wagner introduced a new formal idea in music: the continuum, a musical work as something ‘without limitations’, something which suggests ‘the infinite’, this typically romantic notion – also cultivated in literature – where longing, a vague form of spirituality and Weltschmerz formed a heady brew. To this end, he had to discard the ‘classical’ way of formulating music, i.e. the grammar and structuralism as developed in the 2nd half of the 18th century, refined and extended by Beethoven, and still operating in the first half of the 19th century, albeit greatly varied and treated freely as we can hear in Chopin’s stunningly effective music. In Wagner’s work, we seldom or never hear a literal ‘endless melody’, as he called his new way of creating lines; probably he meant an endless flow, which is something different. In this flow, which creates the continuum, large chunks of classical formation float, often without clear edges, but still recognizable. Even, separate ‘numbers’ could be extracted and performed in the concert hall, like the Walk├╝renritt, the Karfreitagszauber, the Waldesrauschen from Siegfried, Wotan’s Abschied from the Walk├╝re, which would not have been possible if these episodes were really seamlessly connected to the surrounding tissue. To assure still some experience of unity, apart from the rhythmic and metric scaffolding and articulation, Wagner applied a complex and very flexible practice of Leitmotive, creating a network of references, binding the long timespans together. This material (themes, motives) is constantly varied and developed in all kinds of different directions, which is a technique stemming from Beethoven who employed it with great virtuosity, not only in the development sections of his sonata forms (symphonies, chamber music) but spread over the whole movement. This technique of ‘developing variation’, as Schoenberg called it, can also be found in Brahms’ music, who used it in a different way but with a comparable aim: to create variety within unity, or to forge unity over a long span of diverse material. The classical idea of clear-cut formation was thought, by Wagner, as being ‘outdated’, and he replaced it with his continuum, polishing his great ability of transition while keeping the suggestion of classical formation intact – so that transitions can be experienced as such.

To demonstrate this point of keeping classical formation intact underneath the surface of transitional flows, we only have to compare Wagner’s formal thinking with music which pushed the process of transition and variation so far that the end result is amorphous and rather inarticulate, as in Alban Berg’s early piano sonata.

In ‘Parsifal’ the combination of classical formation and the floating vagueness of the continuum finds a happy confluence, which makes this opera – in spite of its length – a somewhat less tiring experience for the listener than the Ring operas or Tristan, or Meistersinger with its overloaded detailwork. In Parsifal, the diatonic episodes seem to float in a wider context of infinity, which – because of the often slow tempi – count for the spiritual atmosphere the whole work emanates. In fact, the music of this opera covers a musical palette ranging from almost archaic diatonicism to almost expressionist chromaticism and everything in between, and still achieving an admirable unity in all its variety.

After Parsifal, Wagner contemplated writing symphonies, thereby retracting from his earlier claims that ‘the symphony’ as a form was ‘exhausted’ and had to be ‘replaced’ by the ‘total work of art’, in casu: his total work of art. This surprising change of heart must have been stimulated by the disappointments of the staging of the Ring, and also of Parsifal, seeing that the natural limitations of a realistic stage presentation somehow limited the effects of the music (he had advised Nietzsche to not look at the stage but close his eyes and let his imagination roam freely). Somewhere in the late 1870′s or early 1880′s Wagner and Liszt had a discussion about ‘the symphony’, where Wagner explained what he had in mind: not a symphonic form consisting of contrasting themes and episodes as in Beethoven, but an organic unfolding of material constantly varied, in fact: what he used in his operas, and especially in Parsifal. He kept some musical ideas in the form of sketches in a folder to be used in symphonies after the production of Parsifal; unfortunately, he did not live to put his plans into practice. *)

What would Brahms have thought of this idea, had he got to know it? After all, the idea of ‘developing variation’ was exactly the way he wrote his symphonic first movements (also in his grand chamber music), while in the same time keeping the classical overall lines intact. We know that Brahms greatly admired Meistersinger and Rheingold, but disliked Tristan (of course, it being so different from his temperament and taste). It seems likely that he would have endorsed the idea of an organic symphonic form, and the vision of seeing the two discussing such possibilities, were they not forced into a ‘rivalry’ (mainly by Wagner), would be a musical fairytale. Alas, that is not how life is.

The addictive effect of Wagner’s music on so many listeners cannot be explained by the plots or subjects of his operas, which are quite unrealistic, psychologically unusual (far removed from real life), and often contradictory, but probably by the effects of the above-described continuum: time experience is stretched to lengths which are seldom or never encountered in real life, and the infinite variations of related material carry a strongly intensified experience of a flow of energies in which things are new and old at the same time, thereby presenting a metaphor of how life evolves. Deep-down, we are all carried by a comparable flow of life energy, but it is mostly hidden in the darkness of the subconsciousness, and necessarily so, because upon this flow of energies the fragile building of civilization has to arise. But where this building has become too fixed and dry, or sterile because of routine or convention, this music touches upon the invisible flow on which we float through time to the ocean which awaits us all. It is quite an achievement by this short Saxon composer with his nervous constitution and mania, to somehow get the idea, which seems rather different from his own character.

*) In ‘Psyche’ (see list of works), Wagner’s short sketch ‘Romeo und Julie’ of 1868, one of the musical ideas he kept for these projected symphonies, is symphonically elaborated in the way as described by Wagner.


Addendum July 2016:

How to listen to Wagner? The element which makes his works contemporary for ever, is the music, not the plots, not the philosophy (which is to incoherent to make sense as a philosophical vision). But we cannot separate the music from the narratives, and the subjects. Best is to experience the works as dreams, which are symbolic in terms of meaning. If we can understand the general, unspecific meaning of the narrative images, without the cluttered foreground, then the music can take form as universal human experience. Also dreams are not specific in detail and often incoherent if looked at the surface level analytically. But if we can understand them as general imaginings of a symbolic nature, meaning can be discovered. Wagner sensed a couple of profound experiences of the human condiction and wanted to give them form in terms of music, and he needed narratives which could be the vessel of those meanings. But these vessels are much more man-made than the meaning of the music, which makes the experiences universal because unspecific.

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