Prophetic motives John Warrack 18 June 2004 Times Literary Supplement INTERPRETING WAGNER. James Treadwell. 281pp. Yale University Press. ?25 ($35). - 0 300 09815 4. WAGNER'S MEISTERSINGER. Performance, history, representation. Nicholas Vazsonyi, editor. 247pp. Rochester University Press. ?60 ($85). - 1 58046 131 X. Wagner's prose writings range notoriously widely, from sustained discussions of his theories about opera (sometimes overturned in practice) by way of intelligent assessments of contemporaries and the operatic scene, to the pernicious and, especially in his latter years, the plain dotty. An admirable quality of James Treadwell's Interpreting Wagner is the manner in which he keeps the writings steadily, if warily, in view throughout his discussions of the music, and it is when he maintains a sympathetic position connecting the two that he is at his most illuminating. Not many people seem to have taken Wagner very seriously as a revolutionary in Dresden in 1849, but what he thought he was doing does have relevance to the then far distant vision of Bayreuth and the first Ring cycle in 1876; and for a good deal of his life what Wagner wrote usually has something of interest to say to the student of his music, even if it is not always what the composer thought he was saying. His denial of Christian content in Tann-hauser, for example, can be seen as directing attention to a more important aspect of the work. His earlier operas are much concerned with the contrast between enchantment and the mundane, and Treadwell deals perceptively with the musical dichotomies these produce in Tannhauser, as well as in The Flying Dutchman and Lohengrin, and with how, rather than being breaks in style, they are intrinsic to Romantic opera as it was being transformed in Wagner's hands. Others, notably Carl Dahlhaus, have discussed this clash of inner and outer worlds, but it is well handled here. In dealing with such issues Treadwell is bound to cover much familiar ground, and by doing so without recourse to music examples he has to rely on his descriptive powers, which are vivid. There is an eloquent account of that somewhat unconsidered figure in Tristan, Brangane, and of how her voice crying out in alarm to the lovers, "Habet Acht!", "is entirely subsumed by the (instrumental) voices that inhabit and express an escapist erotic refuge". The early works he treats in chapters on "Enchantment" and "Disenchantment": it is with The Ring, under the heading of "Revolution", that he tackles a broader thesis of past and future confronting one another. Wagner's writings on motive, at once evasive and inconsistent, are of little help here; but the implications of the symphonic technique he developed were immense, especially in the Ring. Though Treadwell might have differentiated more between the various motives and their action - it is scarcely too much to say that every single one has a different nature and function - he writes discerningly and in depth about how Wagner's use of narrations and their motivic content serves less to enact than to interrupt events so as to evoke the past and project the future in "scenes of prophecy . . . which have the effect of lifting the mere sequence of events to the mythic plane". No wonder Wagner was as capable as Wotan of redrafting his previous opinions, in his own case especially in "A Communication to My Friends", to make his earlier Romantic operas seem inspired prophecies of what he was currently achieving. Treadwell is on less secure ground when he suggests a comparison between the musical continuity achieved in Tristan and the sense of artistic continuity dramatized in Die Meistersinger. This is not strengthened by some of Treadwell's now commonplace but nonetheless dubious assertions about Die Meistersinger. To declare that Hans Sachs's contentious warning about "falscher walscher Majestat" (false foreign rule) refers to the Jews has been suggested before but is untenable, especially as Treadwell later quotes Wagner as referring to the tyrannical materialism he claimed to abhor as embodied in the French, or "walsch". There is not the slightest evidence that Wagner had the Jews in mind, and Daniel Barenboim, no less, has sensibly remarked that he "would have called a spade a spade". It is equally strained to identify Sachs's Schopen-hauerian concept of "Wahn" with nationalism, let alone to suggest that the opera "corresponds exactly to the ruthless militarism of Bismarck's forcible creation of the second Reich". Despite trying to curry favour with him, Wagner increasingly disliked Bismarck and his aims, putting him in the same category as Robespierre and claiming Bach instead as the embodiment of the true German spirit - "deutsch und echt", in fact. As for Wagner's last opera: in spite of saying in his preface that "Wagner the anti-Semite had a great deal to do with how Parsifal turned out", Treadwell concentrates in his final section, "Religion", on a discussion in which salvation and sin play a leading part, and in which "holiness", "sanctity" and "saintliness" are much mentioned, though no moral or religious validation of these qualities is discussed. However, as Hans Rudolf Vaget wearily observes in his essay on Beckmesser in Nicholas Vazsonyi's symposium, today "the topic of anti-Semitism virtually monopolizes the debate about the historical legacy of Richard Wagner in general and of Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg in particular". Though Wagner's Meistersinger includes an interesting essay on conducting the work by Peter Schneider, and a disappointingly brief one on Sachs by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, anti-Semitism crops up a certain amount. Having made a detailed trawl through the German Press of the 1930s and 40s, David B. Dennis produces ample evidence of the Nazis'
misappropriation of elements in the work to their own ends, but not even they, it seems, thought Beckmesser was a Jewish caricature. Thomas S. Grey's admirable exploration of the position of Hanslick in Wagner's life and in the formation of Beckmesser concludes with the sane observation that there is too much ambiguity involved for clear-cut decisions. Vaget, in "The Beckmesser Controversy Revisited", agrees - "it is erroneous to argue . . . that we can and ought to distill from the polyvalent and equivocal language of the music dramas a message as narrow and simplistic as the hatred of the Jews" and suggests that it is time "to step back from the controversy that hovers over Beckmesser". And Harry Kupfer, one of the most thoughtful of contemporary Wagner producers, goes further with his call that we should now be thinking about issues of identity in the context of a unified Europe: "What has now become of 'German and true' and of German culture in general, given the shadow of Americanization, makes the work explosive in an entirely new way, without us having to read it nationalistically". His contribution is entitled "We must finally stop apologizing for Die Meistersinger". DD