Richard Wagner: A Life in Music

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I just finished Martin Geck’s Richard Wagner: A Life in Music in Stewart Spencer’s 2013 translation. Published only in 2012 as Richard Wagner: Biografie you can judge for yourself how good this book must be, that its translation was pushed along so quickly. I was fortunate to pick it up from among the new releases on display at the Edward Johnson Library.

If someone were to tell me about this book I’d be a little hesitant, wondering how one can organize this enormous mass of material into something intelligible. But that’s perhaps the greatest achievement of this book, or the reason it’s so deliciously readable, so easy to digest. Each chapter takes a period of Wagner’s life, beginning with his youth, but placing the focus on the composer’s creations from that period. For his first period, that includes his play Leubald, written in his teens and placed in context with what’s to come. While we may get glimpses of the works on the drawing board, it’s all nicely balanced around the work in question: as music, as philosophy, as politics, as Wagner’s life reflected in music.
Geck positions himself in the conversation, sometimes offering his own possible interpretations of an opera. You read about Wagner in the most elegant reconciliation of the many elements of the composer that you can imagine, touching upon his revolutionary activities, his loves & his sexuality, his religion & philosophy. But it is his operas that are the real focus, especially in the musicological treatment, placing them in context with what came before (particularly Bach & Beethoven; I am especially thankful for Geck’s illumination of Meistersinger and the ways it is both new & old), and after (thinking of Mahler, Debussy & Schoenberg). We examine Wagner not just in his time nor in ours, but across the decades of responses, including correspondence & conversations with Cosima, Liszt and Nietzsche, as well as responses in subsequent decades from admirers and critics, composers and interpreters.

And the National Socialist fixation on Wagner is discussed without degenerating into a question of blame, but rather looking at the ways in which Wagner became part of the consciousness and identity of Germans. I wrote not long ago about the failure of a major history (Abbate & Parker) apparently unwilling or afraid to reconcile itself to production & interpretation: a crucial part of the story. Geck is very different. Included in his account of each work are recent –and sometimes the most notorious— productions. For example, Geck’s caption to a photo from Neuenfels 2010 Lohengrin includes this:

The Brabantine chorus is cast as laboratory rats: creatures that can be manipulated. As such they are willing to torment Elsa whenever their superiors require them to do so.

The photograph comes after a lengthy discussion including the following:

   For me, Lohengrin is incapable of concealing its affinities with nationalism and National Socialism, for its ideological aspects not only affect its “political” dimension in the person of King Henry but are inextricably bound up with the action that is centred around Lohengrin. It is Lohengrin, after all, who installs the young Duke Gottfried as “Führer.” It was Lohengrin, too, who provided Kaiser Wilhelm II with his motto “I know no more parties” and who was able to serve as a model for the National Socialists’ attitude of “You are nothing, your people is everything.” However much we may care to stress that it is in Lohengrin’s “nature” to fail in his relationship with Elsa, and that this has nothing to do with “politics,” it remains the case that politically speaking he appears as a God-sent savior who—in the name of the “Providence” that Hitler never tired of invoking—unmasks and destroys the “false” leader of the people in order to install the “right” one.

   This interpretation is not intended as an indictment of Wagner. After all, his political ideas had a different significance in the years before 1848 than they did after 1871 or at the time of National Socialism. Nor was it possible to have predicted the disastrous turn that they would take. If it had been possible to do so, then we should also have to condemn the hundreds of thousands and even millions of Germans who, attending performances of Lohengrin in the spirit of Diederich Hessling, made Wagner’s ideological construct their own and treated it as a mainstream idea.

Between each chapter Geck offers something remarkably like Wagner’s own structuring, and very apt if we think of the book as a work of opera and its construction as a matter of dramaturgy. Geck gives us a kind of digression that reminds me of nothing so much as an orchestral interlude, an escape into a different medium, something reflective. After the youthful chapter we get “A Word about Felix Mendelssohn”, which is indeed a reflection from another angle, a charming little excursion away from Wagner that serves to illuminate the subject of the book all the same. Later “words” include Meyerbeer, Heine, Adorno, Eisenstein and Mahler. They’re like short courses that cleanse the palate and I must say very delicious. Each new chapter begins freshly with a picture (photo or portrait) that is pertinent to that period, and again offering a slightly different entry to the next section.

And now? I shall re-read the book as it’s not due back for awhile, its bibliography a roadmap for further study.

And I must find other books by Martin Geck.

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