Sunday, August 23, 2009

BMF: Music and German National Identity

Since I don't appear until the last act of the final program of the Bard Music Festival, "Wagner and His World," I thought I'd write about it. My first entry connected to this summer's festival was on Meyerbeer's grand opera "Les Huguenots." It was a huge success from its premiere in 1837 through the first decades of the 20th century. Wagner was one of its early admirers.

Meyerbeer was also the primary victim, along with Mendelssohn, of Wagner's anti-semitic diatribe that first surfaced anonymously in 1850. It was updated and appeared with his name a decade & 1/2 later. It should give us pause that the 2 composers whose reputations most suffered from Wagner's attacks were 2 of the composers to whom he owed the biggest debt of influence.

Telling then, that "Ein feste burg" ("A mighty fortress") the Lutheran chorale that is a unifying (ie: leitmotivic) motive in Les Huguenots appears in Wagner's paean to German nationalism and her victory in the Franco-Prussian war.

The Kaisermarch is the opening work on this program of "Music and German National Identity" and excerpts from Wagner's operatic pageant to German art, "Die Meistersinger von N├╝rnberg" is the closing act. In between are topical works by Bruckner and (perhaps the last composer we'd identify with nationalism), Brahms ("Triumphlied" is a work that should have found its way into Brahms file 13. It is a derivative work that sounds like Handel on a revved-up cocktail of steroids and red-bull).

Meistersinger is problematic in our post-WWII world for two main reasons. The arguably/allegedly/credibly anti-semitic portrayal of the clumsy, awkward & inept Beckmesser, and the philo-Germanic exhortations of the work's protagonist, Hans Sachs.

The program notes (again by co-artistic director, Christopher Gibbs) quote one infamous admonishment from Sachs:

"Beware! Evil blows threaten us if one day the German people and kingdom decay under a false foreign ruler...therefore I say to you: honor your German masters!"

I believe it is time to wrest Wagner from the stranglehold of our reverse-perspective view of history following the Holocaust. At the same time, it is impossible to overstate the horrors and atrocities committed against European Jewry in the death camps of the Third Reich.

We are right to employ a hyper-vigilant, scrutinizing sensitivity to not only the Shoah itself, but the near and far reaching effects of anti-semitism leading up to it.

Wagner died before Hitler and his henchmen were born. Without getting into territory I have neither the time nor qualifications to navigate, I am inclined towards the argument of the mastermind & maestro of this festival, Leon Botstein. Botstein, a non-practicing orthodox Jew of Russian descent, argues forceably against the Wagner ban in Israel and Wagner censorship in general. He has made the central contribution to the festival's book, "Wagner and His World" in his provocative and illuminating essay "German Jews and Wagner." First, he states that censoring Wagner, especially in Israel, poses the dangerous risk of misplacing blame and stealing focus from the real causes and effects that led to the Holocaust.

He then maps out the complex web of Wagner reception--especially among Wagner's Jewish contemporaries--and how reexaming contemporary (ie: 19th century) criticism & reception is essential in avoiding the slippery slope of a retroactive misreading of history.

Gibbs makes a similar observation in his program notes, suggesting that Wagner's contemporaries--which would include many of his Jewish followers & supporters (yes, he had a number of Jewish patrons--another point to be noted)--would not have been uncomfortable with the nationalist elements of Meistersinger. Indeed, nationalism was widespread throughout 19th century Europe, and when paired with, say, American "exceptionalism" it is not necessarily the xenophobic, racist sickness it all too easily becomes in our post-modern world. Tellingly, Botstein claims there are 3 unassailable facts about Wagner at the height of his notoriety in the 1870's: he was an outspoken anti-semite, an adherent to a growing, philo-Germanic nationalist movement, and Jews numbered many of his most ardent supporters.

There is nothing remotely anti-semitic in the repeated choral exclamations of "Heil, Heil, Sachs!" (Sachs is the eponymous Master singer, and mentor to the romantic hero, Walther). Yet the anachronistic leap modern audiences cannot help but make should be put into its proper context and the retroactive "evil" of the libretto deflated and terrestrialized.

As much as anything, I am grateful to have been a participant in this engaging, provocative, and ultimately rewarding festival. By putting Wagner in context & presenting front-and-center the masterworks of the two Jewish composers who felt the harshest blunt of his racism, we are confronting Wagner the artist AND man. We also confront the paradox by taking his masterworks out of the holy grail of self-serving sacrosanctity (perpetuated by his family & heirs, to the detriment of his reputation) and meeting them where they are. No artist has been more contentious nor more influential in history. Wagner challenges us to consider questions of enormous value where politics & society, art & culture, and history intersect. There is no question of the enduring cultural debt to his art. But we owe ourselves better than the censorship that avoids the discomfort of confronting such contentiousness. For a man whose worldview and behavior appear beyond the pale of the acceptable, it is remarkable so much of his work concerns the redemptive power of love.

Censoring Wagner runs the risk of rewriting history by assigning too large a retrospective role to a megalomaniacal artist who's works were easily manipulated into propaganda. Auden was mistaken in his claim that "poetry makes nothing happen." The extent Wagner's anti-semitism affected (or infected) his works is cause for attention, investigation, and deliberation. If this process renders Die Meistersinger the problematic work it has been in the Wagner canon, then it is a judgment better served by considerate debate than ignorant censorship. If Wagner the man doesn't deserve redeeming, the victims of those who propogated his nationalist opera for their murderous ends deserve that and more--the truth.

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