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Wagner's music

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Kevin
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One more point of clarification on the "anti-capitalism." I would argue that Wagnerian hostility to capitalism is rooted in a hostility to modernity (whose symbol was the Jew), not a philosophical sense of the role of the government in the economy.

Thus, it is not completely bonkers to look for anti-capitalist messages in the way Wagner reinterpreted Nordic myth.

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It's pretty easy to find objectionable philosphical material in Wagner's later operas. He explains it pretty neatly himself in a letter to August Rockel, saying that "if there is any expression of an underlying poetic motive in these works [Flying Dutchman, Tannheuser, Lohengrin], it is to be sought in the sublime tragedy of renunciation, the negation of the will, which here appears necessary, and alone capable of working redemption". He goes on to explain that this idea was working subconsciously inside him, even as he penned numerous writings expressing the contrary. But, after he discovered SHoppenhaur, the subconscious became conscious, and he had an external validation of what had already been supposedly dwelling within him. Certainly that theme is extremely prevalent in Tristan and Parsifal- Parsifal's central issue is redemption through compassion, not reason, with the "pure fool" as its agent. I don't know the operas before Sigfried well enough to propse any similar underlying ideas, but his prose writings from that period are definitely quite different.

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Getting back to the music, though, I think it would be appropriate to consider the following insightful passage from the Romantic Manifesto (pp. 55-6):

"At present, our understanding of music is confined to the gathering of material, i.e., to the level of descriptive observations. Until it is brought to the stage of conceptualization, we have to treat musical tastes or preferences as a subjective matter--not in the metaphysical, but in the epistemological sense; i.e., not in the sense that these preferences are, in fact, causeless and arbitrary, but in the sense that we do not know their cause. No one, therefore, can claim the objective superiority of his choices over the choices of others. Where no objective proof is available, it's every man for himself--and only for himself."

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Getting back to the music, though, I think it would be appropriate to consider the following insightful passage from the Romantic Manifesto (pp. 55-6):

"At present, our understanding of music is confined to the gathering of material, i.e., to the level of descriptive observations. Until it is brought to the stage of conceptualization, we have to treat musical tastes or preferences as a subjective matter--not in the metaphysical, but in the epistemological sense; i.e., not in the sense that these preferences are, in fact, causeless and arbitrary, but in the sense that we do not know their cause. No one, therefore, can claim the objective superiority of his choices over the choices of others. Where no objective proof is available, it's every man for himself--and only for himself."

Is it really true, though, to say that we don't know the cause for affinity or distaste regarding certain music? People certainly have lots to say about why they enjoy certain works more than others- it's obviously not a random thing. And while I guess it's true that ultimately there's no objective reason to prefer one work to another, it's kind of like saying there's no reason to prefer one steak to another. Technically, no, there's no objective justification for preferring an excellent filet mignon over a practically charred piece of london broil, but the general consensus is so widespread and clear that I don't feel unjustified in saying that the filet is "better", if not in a universal sense. In the same way, there's no way to prove someone wrong when they say "I like songs with no melody, organization, refinement, contrast, etc.", but that hasn't kept a whole culture of musical analysis and critique from developing, and with good cause.

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Korthor wrote

We are dealing in “simplistic” generalities, so you can no doubt find counter-examples, and ultimately people familiar with 19th century European culture will either be convinced of my analysis or they won’t, but I’ll give it another try...

I would make two distinctions between English Romantic nationalism (e.g., Kipling) and German Romantic nationalism (e.g., Wagner):

1. German nationalism is much more rooted in the past, in the historic sense of the Germans as a “Volk.” While you can find some Arthurian legend and whatnot in the English writers (e.g., Tennyson), the English rely much less on a sense of myth in defining their national ethos. After all, one of Tolkien’s main motivations was precisely a lack of English myth. In fact, I would go so far as to say that “progress” was an essential component of English national identity. In short, the English looked to the future, the Germans to the past.

I do not see that the Nibelung and folk tales played a greater role in Germany’s literature and culture than the Arthurian legends and folk ballads played in England’s. And we haven’t even touched on the influence of the mythos of the New Testament. Furthermore I rather doubt that the professor who wrote “Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics” would have argued for a lack of English myth.

2. The English nationalist (i.e., imperial) project was framed in universalistic terms. After all, it was “the white man\\\'s burden” (Kipling) to bring civilizatoin to the world. By contrast, German nationalism was much more exclusivist. They thought of themselves as a particular people, and had no desire to spread “German-ness” across the globe. To put it another way, when the English conquered people they set up schools. When the Germans conquered people, they killed the Jews.

Not true. The British did not concede that in the French, the Germans or anyone else was there a power superior to Britannia in spreading civilization. Consider, for example:

“No easy hopes or lies

Shall bring us to our goal,

But iron sacrifice

Of body, will, and soul.

There is but one task for all --

For each one life to give.

Who stands if freedom fall?

Who dies if England live?”

--Rudyard Kipling

As for German conquests, their administration of East Africa was a model of restraint, especially by comparison with European rule in the rest of the continent. The mandated killing of Jews was a feature of the Third Reich, not of earlier administrations.

Anti-semitism is a broadly European phenomenon, and one can find examples of it everywhere--including in Wagner. The Nazis might lead one to suspect the Germans were a bit more serious about it than others, but it would be unfair to blame Wagner for the Nazis. On the other hand, I would make the claim that an essential aspect of the way the German Romantics conceived their identity was contra-Jewishness. The Jew was a symbol of capitalist modernity,the erosion of community, and the debasement of “Kultur” and “Kunst.” For an exemplification of these views by our friend Wagner, here’s a quote from \\\"Jewishness in Music\\\":

Okay, Wagner was an anti-Semite. So were Thomas Aquinas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford. Do we have to filter our appreciation of their achievements through a strainer of political correctness?

There is also a vigorous debate about Jewish steotypes in Wagner’s operas. If you’re interested in the subject, I’ll let you do your own research. But I’m certainly not the first person that suspected Wagner of anti-Semitism (that was one of Nietzsche’s main reasons for the sudden shift in attitude demonstrated in “Nietzsche Contra Wagner”).

I’ve done the research, and as I’ve said elsewhere, you can read anti-Semitism into Wagner’s operas if you wish, and with the same elan do it with any other work of the imagination. After all, “Golem” is a greedy, treacherous character in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and is also a magical creature in Jewish tradition. Ergo, Tolkien was an anti-Semite.

I commend to your attention Roger Scruton’s essay at http://www.newcriterion.com/archive/23/feb05/scruton.htm:

My response to this reading (which has been a commonplace of Wagner criticism since Adorno) is to ask: what if Wagner had never written his notorious pamphlet on Jewishness in music? What if he had never uttered an anti-Semitic remark but merely greeted all reference to the Jewish race with an enigmatic smile? Would we then be inclined to read anti-Semitism into the works that allegedly contain it? My response is: surely not. To someone who says “just look at Mime, the falsely humble, snivelling, wheedling, power-hungry schemer—isn’t this the very caricature of the Jew?” I would reply simply: “who is the anti-Semite?” Moreover, if the Dutchman is really the Wandering Jew, what a vindication of the Jewish race, that Wagner should project onto it his own longing for redemption! If Veit Beckmesser is a Jew, what a great advertisement is Die Meistersinger for racial integration, that this vain little man should be so fully absorbed into the life of the city as to occupy the public office of Marker, that he should be accepted by everyone as a legitimate contender for the hand of Eva, and that he should be judged at last only by his musical and poetical performance and not by his race!

In addition, no discussion of late 19th century German Romanticism would be complete without a mention of Schopenhauer. His influence on that period can not be over-estimated, and his influence on Wagner in particular is well documented, especially in “Parsifal.” Schopenhauer refashions Kant into a pessimistic crypto-Buddhist philosophy of abdicatoin... certainly not something to be admired.

So what? A great many talented artists have fallen for claptrap without it affecting their talent. Arthur Conan Doyle, a brilliant storyteller and one of the great innovators in the genre of crime fiction, was an unabashed believer in spiritualism, even going so far as to claim that Houdini had supernatural powers.

I’m not writing this to dismiss Wagner--I have no particular opinion on him as an artist.

But the heart of this discussion is whether or not one can find value in Wagner’s music. His philosophical/political opinions are rather beside the point.

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Kevin wrote:

It’s pretty easy to find objectionable philosphical material in Wagner\\\'s later operas. He explains it pretty neatly himself in a letter to August Rockel, saying that “if there is any expression of an underlying poetic motive in these works [Flying Dutchman, Tannheuser, Lohengrin], it is to be sought in the sublime tragedy of renunciation, the negation of the will, which here appears necessary, and alone capable of working redemption’.

The predominant belief system of Western culture is Christianity, which places great emphasis on renunciation. See, for example, the highly influential Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. Redemption, compassion and sacrifice were powerful ideas in Europe centuries before Schopenhauer arrived on the scene. So if following the example of Christ is objectionable, then we’re going to have to dismiss a very large chunk of Western art and literature.

No, I do not share Wagner’s philosophy. Yet his music is rich in motifs of discovery, struggle, overcoming, reconciliation and joy. In that sense his work transcends the particulars of his intentions, just as Socialist Jack London’s novels do in a different artistic realm.

Edited by Gary Brenner
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To Garry Brenner…

You obviously have a great deal invested in Wagner, so I doubt anything I say could convince you otherwise. When I point to anti-Semitism in his aesthetic theories, you say that anti-Semitism was common. When I point to anti-Semitism in his operas, you say that you choose not to read them that way. When I and others point to Schopenhauerian nihilism* at the root of Wagner’s narratives and themes (and he himself admits this), you say lots of people had bad philosophies.

No doubt if I said Wagner tortured babies, you would dismiss this as a quaint eccentricity…

But the debate about Wagner is somewhat besides my general point, which is that there are disturbing elements in German Romanticism. Despite your careful point by point response, you don’t really respond to my particular arguments about German Romanticism:

1. I think you misunderstood my argument about universalism v. exclusivity in English v. German nationalism. English and French nationalism were framed in largely universalism terms (“white man’s burden” to spread civilization everywhere and the declaration of “the rights of man”), while German nationalism was much more inwardly focused on establishing a homogenous racial and cultural community. Yes the English thought of themselves as special people, but they thought that precisely because they believed the English embodied universal norms of “civilization.”**

2. Moreover, my argument about anti-Semitism was NOT a matter of anachronistic PC-policing. Anti-Semitism plays a particular role in this German Romanticism, given that the Jew is a symbol of the disintegrating forces of modernity that threaten this community (you can find this phenomenon in lots of places, but I thought my Wagner quote demonstrated the point). Thus, anti-Semitism is not just a cute peculiarity, but instead intrinsic to its Weltanschauung. Moreover, the Jew is a symbol of capitalist modernity, which ties to my third point…

3. Yeah we all read Beowulf in high school, but I’ll still argue that Wagner’s neopaganism is a particularly Teutonic phenomenon, and that it is an expression of anti-modernism that is much more tied to German Romanticism than that of other nationalities.

So I stand by my argument: search for racial purity, anti-modernism, anti-Semitism, and Schopenhaurian pessimism run strongly in German Romanticism, and you can find all of these in Wagner.

But if you still like his music, it’s OK. Like Nietzsche, there is perhaps more to admire than condemn. When it comes to aesthetic appreciation, what you get out of the art is the most important thing. My comments about Wagner and German Romanticism are written from the perspective of a cultural historian, not a music critic.

*Schopenhaurian pessimism isn’t just Christianity redux. If anything, it’s closer to a very passive interpretation of Buddhism. Moreover, it’s not a matter of him just taking over motifs (like Michaelangelo in the Sistine Chapel), but rather Schopenharian pessimism guides his writing on the thematic level.

**Just look at the language difference. The word “civilization,” with its universalistic overtones, is a Latin-French import. The closest Germanic equivalent is “Kultur,” which has much more particularistic overtones (there are universal standards of “civilized” conduct while “cultural” norms are always specific). It’s true that “Zivilisation” eventually made its way into German, but it has much more of the connotations of modernity (e.g., die Zivilisation v. das Hinterland). Thus, even the German idea of “Zivilisation” evokes a particular time and place (e.g., the “civilized” parts of the country). To my knowledge, the Germans have no word that really evokes the same universalism as the word “civilization.”

P.S. Pssst…. Jack London was a naturalist. It’s OK… I won’t tell anyone you like him.

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Korthor wrote:

To Garry Brenner…

You obviously have a great deal invested in Wagner, so I doubt anything I say could convince you otherwise. When I point to anti-Semitism in his aesthetic theories, you say that anti-Semitism was common. When I point to anti-Semitism in his operas, you say that you choose not to read them that way. When I and others point to Schopenhauerian nihilism* at the root of Wagner’s narratives and themes (and he himself admits this), you say lots of people had bad philosophies.

No doubt if I said Wagner tortured babies, you would dismiss this as a quaint eccentricity…

Tortured babies? Good grief, this discussion is going downhill fast.

A great many composers have said their works were inspired by God. Does that mean that an atheist cannot enjoy them? As for alleged anti-Semitism in Wagner’s operas, kindly explain why it is more rational to “see” it than not to see it? After all, no character in his works is explicitly labeled a Jew, and many of the alleged “Jewish” characters have admirable qualities. As for bad philosophies, shall we avoid the artistic works of any person who is not an Objectivist in good standing? What does that leave us with? Three or four novelists and a few unknown composers and graphic artists?

But the debate about Wagner is somewhat besides my general point, which is that there are disturbing elements in German Romanticism. Despite your careful point by point response, you don’t really respond to my particular arguments about German Romanticism

There are a number of disturbing elements in the Romantic movement as a whole, which any Objectivist who examines the movement closely would be appalled at. Particularly odious is the search for a unity with “nature” at the expense of reason and civilization. Also prevalent is a sense of alienation from this world, this life. See the English Romantic John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” for a work that is explicitly anti-life. See Meyer H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition for many more examples.

I think you misunderstood my argument about universalism v. exclusivity in English v. German nationalism. English and French nationalism were framed in largely universalism terms (“white man’s burden” to spread civilization everywhere and the declaration of “the rights of man”), while German nationalism was much more inwardly focused on establishing a homogenous racial and cultural community. Yes the English thought of themselves as special people, but they thought that precisely because they believed the English embodied universal norms of “civilization.”**

If the British were such universalists, why was anti-German propanganda rampant in England in the late 19th and early 20th century, especially in view of the fact that England had been involved in three times as many wars as Germany since the fall of Napoleon? And I’m not speaking of the German body politic here but of Germans as a race. See Sidney Fay’s The Origins of the World War for a number of examples. If the French were such universalists why did they put the small children of the aristocracy to death during the Reign of Terror? And why did Napoleon, admired by many Romantics, install Frenchmen to administer the countries he “liberated” and not the liberated themselves?

Moreover, my argument about anti-Semitism was NOT a matter of anachronistic PC-policing. Anti-Semitism plays a particular role in this German Romanticism, given that the Jew is a symbol of the disintegrating forces of modernity that threaten this community (you can find this phenomenon in lots of places, but I thought my Wagner quote demonstrated the point). Thus, anti-Semitism is not just a cute peculiarity, but instead intrinsic to its Weltanschauung. Moreover, the Jew is a symbol of capitalist modernity, which ties to my third point…

Let’s see some evidence of your claim. It’s not good enough to say, anti-Semitism was intrinsic to German Weltanschauung, and if you don’t believe me, go look it up yourself. Anti-Semitism was a widespread European phenomenon that stretched from Russia to Spain. In fact, the 19th century’s leading anti-Semitic theorist was not a German at all but a Frenchman, Count Gobineau.

3. Yeah we all read Beowulf in high school, but I’ll still argue that Wagner’s neopaganism is a particularly Teutonic phenomenon, and that it is an expression of anti-modernism that is much more tied to German Romanticism than that of other nationalities.

Anti-modernism was one of the key features of the Romantic movement in general. Read, for example, how the English Romantic John Keats’s laments the discoveries of modern science:

“Philosophy will clip an Angel\'s wings,

Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,

Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine -

Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made

The tender-person\'d Lamia melt into a shade.”

P.S. Pssst…. Jack London was a naturalist. It’s OK… I won’t tell anyone you like him.

In fact, NBI, the first organization to promote Rand’s works with her blessing, sold London’s The Call of the Wild along with books by Rand, Hugo, Rostand and others. Quite a daring move considering that London was not only a socialist but a racialist to boot.

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I think Rand's comments reflect the fact that she knew relatively little about musicology (to my knowledge).
Is it a fact that she knew relatively little about musicology, or is it merely to your knowledge? Upon what are you basing this knowledge? Have you read the Romantic Manifesto? Relatively little, relative to what?

Maybe some of ya'll who seem to know a great deal about the subject would care to elaborate some theories? (Although that would probably should be a new thread)
I think the theories she elaborates on in RM are the most plausible.. and she does advance some hypotheses, and has more to say than the important passage which was quoted above. Her knowledge was based to a certain extent on the work of Hermann von Helmholtz. There have been more studies done on the physiology of how the ear interprets musical intervals since she wrote RM, but not many. Very little is still known about how music works and why it evokes the things it does. Listening to modern compositions, it would almost seem as though less were known now, but that's only true for composers, maybe not for scientists. : P
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