wagner's death -- 12/18/20

Today's selection -- from Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music by Alex Ross. Richard Wagner dominated European music as perhaps no others had. Upon his death in 1883, the world mourned:

"Fellow composers, whatever their opinion of the man, were shocked by his [death]. 'Vagner è morto!!!' wrote Giuseppe Verdi, Wagner's Italian antipode. 'Reading the news yesterday, I was horror-struck, I can tell you! There is no question. It is a great personality that has disappeared! A name that leaves a most powerful imprint on the History of Art!!!' Johannes Brahms, seen as Wagner's chief German adversary, sent a large laurel wreath to the funeral. Young zealots were in despair. Gustav Mahler ran through the streets in tears, crying, 'The Master has died!' Pietro Mas­cagni secluded himself for several days, writing at high speed the Elegia per orchestra in morte di R. Wagner. Liszt memorialized his son-in-law in a strange piano sketch that wavered between emphatic assertions of major-­key tonality and meanderings in harmonic limbo. It was tided R. W.­ Venezia. A few months later, Liszt produced a still gloomier, eerier piece called At the Grave of Richard Wagner.

"There was a flurry of memorial poems. 'He hath ascended in the Magic Car,' wrote the American educator William Henry Venable, in 'Wagner Dead.' Algernon Charles Swinburne rose above the rest with an elegy tided 'The Death of Richard Wagner,' its alliterations echoing the composer's bardic manner:

Mourning on earth, as when dark hours descend,

Wide-winged with plagues, from heaven; when hope and mirth

Wane, and no lips rebuke or reprehend

Mourning on earth.

The soul wherein her songs of death and birth,

Darkness and light, were wont to sound and blend,

Now silent, leaves the whole world less in worth.

"The thirty-eight-year-old Friedrich Nietzsche was in Rapallo, complet­ing the first part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which proclaims the death of all gods and the coming of the Übermensch. Nietzsche later noted that he had finished his task 'in that sacred hour in which Richard Wagner died in Venice.' After seeing the newspapers the following day, he spent sev­eral days ill in bed, stupefied. Nietzsche's brother-in-law, Bernhard Forster, heard the news in Asuncion, Paraguay, where he was making plans to es­tablish an Aryan colony. 'What a thunderbolt it is to hear that Wagner has gone to Nirvana,' Forster wrote to a friend, unaware that the composer had cast doubt on the Paraguay scheme a few days before his death.

"Commemorative concerts took place on both sides of the Atlantic. 'All the world there,' said Mary Gladstone, William Gladstone's daughter, of an all-Wagner event at the Crystal Palace, in London. Four days after the composer's death, the Boston Symphony discarded its scheduled program in favor of a 'Wagner Night.' Various institutions in New York City -- the New York Academy of Music, the Philharmonic Society, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, and the New York Chorus Society -- paid homage. In Paris, the Colonne and Lamoureux orchestras mounted impromptu festivals. The most extravagant tribute was held, fittingly, in Venice, on April 19. Outside the Palazzo Vendramin, the conductor Anton Seidl led an orchestra ar­rayed in bissone, Venice's ornate ceremonial boats, with hundreds of people observing from gondolas. Siegfried's Funeral Music, the orchestral epitaph from Götterdämmerung, resounded on the Grand Canal.

"The American essayist Sarah Butler Wister attended one of the Paris memorials, her interest perhaps piqued by her musically inclined son Owen, who later wrote the classic Western novel The Virginian. The fol­lowing year, in The Atlantic Monthly, Wister gave a vivid account of the occasion, recording not only the adoration of progressive factions but also the hatred of conservative patriots, who had not forgotten Wagner's chau­vinistic agitation during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71:

"The music had swallowed us alive, like a gulf. The excitable audience was wrought into a frenzy, in which other passions than melomania had a share. There was in some hearers real antipathy to the composer, in others animosity to him as a German, and these prejudices struggled fiercely against the dominating power of the music and the rapturous  enthusiasm of the majority. The grandeur of the Tannhaüser, the charm of the spinning chorus from the Flying Dutchman, the gravity and in­terest of the prelude to Parsifal, kept the dissidents in check until the wild gallop of the Valkyrie began. The stern daughters of Odin rode on the whirlwind above the din of the battle-field, sweeping mortals with them on their breathless course; and then the storm burst in hisses, hooting, stamping, shrill whistles, calls, cries, and counter-cries: 'That's not music!' 'Bravo! bravo! bravissimo!' 'If the Germans want to hear it, let them go hear it at home!' 'Bis! bis!' (Again, again.) 'You sha'n't have it!' 'Superb! Magnificent!' 'Stop it!' 'Turn out the blackbirds!' (the men with the whistles.)'"Down with the circus-riders!'

"Memorials in German-speaking lands were impassioned and frequently politicized. In Austria, an attachment to Wagner was common among youth­ful pan-Germanists -- those who advocated the unification of Germanic peoples under one national banner. According to the author Hermann Bahr, young Viennese would declare themselves Wagnerites before they had heard a bar of the music. A friend of Bahr's once camped out for three days at a train station in the mistaken belief that the Meister was due to arrive.

"On March 5, Vienna's German student association organized a tribute in the Sophiensaal, where the Strausses once held waltz evenings. Several thousand attended. Pan-German rhetoric mounted as the event went on, with antisemitic slurs becoming audible. Bahr, then a member of the Albia fraternity, delivered a fiery oration. At the climax, he employed a metaphor derived from Parsifal, comparing Germany to Wagner's chaste hero and Austria to the outcast Kundry. The Reich was implored to 'have mercy and no longer forget the sorely penitent Kundry, still waiting yearningly on the other side of the border for her Redeemer!' The phrase touched off a commotion, with the students singing 'Die Wacht am Rhein' and the Deutschlandlied. The police intervened. Decades later, Bahr remembered Georg van Schönerer, the pro-German, anti-Jewish rabble-rouser, swinging a club and sputtering with anger.

"The incident drove one Jewish alumnus of Albia to resign from the society in protest. Expressing his sorrow that a Wagner memorial had 'developed into an antisemitic demonstration,' he wrote: 'I would not think of po­lemicizing here against this retrograde fashion of the day; I will mention only in passing that even as a non-Jew I would have condemned, from the standpoint of the love of freedom, this movement to which my fraternity has to all appearances been connected. To all appearances; for if one does not audibly protest against actions of this kind, one is bound in solidar­ity to them. Qui tacet, consentire videtur! [Silence gives consent!)' This was Theodor Herzl, the future architect of the Zionist state. Herzl, too, felt drawn to Wagner, and the composer's antisemitism did not discourage him. While he was writing The Jewish State, in Paris in 1895, he often attended performances of Tannhäuser, Wagner's tale of a wanderer seeking redemp­tion. 'Only on the evenings when no opera was performed,' Herzl later recalled, 'did I doubt the rightness of my ideas.'"

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Alex Ross


Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music


Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Copyright 2020 by Alex Ross


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