Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Perfect Wagnerite by George Bernard Shaw

Source of book: I own this.

Occasionally, I have the opportunity to read a book that corresponds to the music that the Symphony is performing. For example, The School for Scandal and Why Mahler?

This year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of the two most important opera composers of the Nineteenth Century: Giuseppe Verdi, and Richard Wagner. In honor of this event, we performed a concert jointly featuring the two composers. At the same time, I purchased a copy of George Bernard Shaw’ commentary on The Ring, which conveniently happened to be on sale at a nice discount.

Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is a cycle of four operas, or as he would prefer, music-dramas, based loosely on the Norse Sagas, and filled with philosophy and symbolism. The works were intended to be presented as a set, over four consecutive nights. With a total length of over fifteen hours, they are not for those of limited attention span.

The ring referred to is a magic ring forged of stolen gold. (This is one of a number of parallels with Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings - both works share source material.) The universe of the dramas contains gods, demi-gods, giants, dwarves, mortals, and heros. The plot is too involved to re-create here, but a summary is easy enough to find. I am particularly fond of my copy of Stories of the Wagner Operas by H. A. Guerber, published in 1895. (I have the 1897 version - I am guessing it is a second edition, but it doesn’t say. My wife found this for me for next to nothing at a used book sale.)

While it cannot hurt to be familiar with the story before reading Shaw’s analysis, he includes all of the necessary elements for his point.

Shaw’ interpretation of The Ring is that it is a socialist allegory, and there is ample evidence that Wagner intended that, at least in part. Shaw was a Fabian, so he would naturally analyze the work through that lens. Engel’s book on the working class of England was popular and influential, as were the works of Marx. Wagner was given to philosophizing, but, as Shaw notes, his views changed over the twenty-one years he worked on the cycle, and many of his writings are self-contradictory. Toward the end of the process, he became enamoured of Schopenhauer, and then attempted to fit his earlier ideas into that ill-fitting mould.

Unlike most composers of opera, Wagner chose to create everything about The Ring. He wrote the text first, in reverse order, then compose the music in chronological order. He collaborated with Adolphe Sax to design the Wagner Tuba, a new instrument for the occasion. He designed and built an opera house intended to show The Ring in all its glory.

I had not previously read any of Shaw’s non-fiction, and, although I knew he had a legendarily sharp tongue, I was surprised at his level of arrogance and condescension. He refers often to the “superior” listener, and dismisses those who prefer the music of Gotterdammerung to that of Das Rheingold. As Shaw notes, the allegory makes the most sense in that first drama, and breaks down in the last. Thus, those who come merely for the beautiful music rather than for the philosophy are mere Philistines. I’m afraind that I probably fall into that category, being somewhat unimpressed with Wagner’s philosophical preaching and moved by the transcendent sweep of composition in Gotterdammerung. This is not to say that I dislike Das Rheingold, but that I find it less irresistible.

In Shaw’s conception, there are four representations of humanity in the work. First, the dwarves - particularly Alberic - represent the capitalists, who have turned their back on love, and seek to rule the world through the power of gold. (It must be said that Wagner’s portrayal reveals his anti-Semitism. The terms “capitalist” and “Jew” were all too interchangeable in Nineteenth Century writing. Even W. E. B. Du Bois fell prey to this.) The giants represent the “stupid” but respectable and toiling class, who worship money. The gods represent the intellectual, talented, and moral people, who are forced to assume the reigns of power, secular and religious. The heros represent those pure artists who are able to break free from the worldly systems and, Wagner and Shaw hope, save the world someday.

Shaw wrote this book in 1897, updating it three times, the last in 1923. This was during the time of optimism about the future of socialism and communism, when Fabians like Shaw could still believe that the workers’ paradise would eliminate greed and oppression. Later events proved that human nature remains the problem and that there is no panacea, but Shaw lacked knowledge of the future. Thus, I find that “greed” rather than “capitalism” fits the allegory better. There has never been a “golden age” when men enjoyed gold for its beauty rather than its power. Greed and oppression have plagued humanity since the dawn of recorded history.

Despite being too much enamoured of the vision, Shaw’s analysis is convincing as to what Wagner intended. The allegory, while not perfect (Shaw noted that perfect allegories are unreadable), works as far as it goes. His musical knowledge shows too, and he enlightens those portions of the work as well.

There were a few delightful lines worth quoting. Shaw notes that its much in the “ordinary way of the world, for senile avarice and craft to set youth and bravery to work to win empire for it.” I also liked the analysis of fear. The magic fire surrounding Brunhilde can only be passed by the man who knows no fear. (In this case, Siegfried.) In contrast, Mimmy the dwarf is the incarnation of irrational fear.

Mimmy is all fear: the world for him is a phantasmagoria of terrors. It is not that he is afraid of being eaten by bears in the forest, or of burning his fingers in the forge fire. A lively objection to being destroyed or mained does not make a man a coward: on the contrary, it is the beginning of a brave man’s wisdom. But in Mimmy, fear is not the effect of danger: it is a natural quality of him which no security can allay.

Shaw’s criticisms are accurate as well. Wagner’s works are long, in large part because he repeats himself.

Almost the first thing that a dramatist has to learn in constructing a play is that the persons must not come on the stage in the second act and tell one another at great length what the audience has already seen pass before its eyes in the first act. The extent to which Wagner has been seduced into violating this rule by his affection for his themes is startling to a practiced playwright.

In some cases, the singers did the material no favors. Shaw describes some of the worst as “mere animated beer casks.”

One final musical note by Shaw also looks different from the Twenty-first Century. The author lists the foremost post-Wagner composers as Brahms (no argument there), Richard Strauss (arguable, but not certain), and Edward Elgar (really?). Shaw shows a certain pro-British myopia here, as Elgar is considered a lesser light than Mahler, Sibelius, and others of the late Nineteenth. Shaw’s assertion that there was no true musical heir to Wagner was true enough at its time (both Strauss and Mahler would show his influence, but the music-drama never caught on.) However, Wagner’s true influence was to be in a medium unknown and unforeseen by Shaw: the motion picture. Wagner’s use of the leitmotif, a term he invented, turned out to be perfect for the new art form. Uncluttered by endless storytelling and turgid poetry, the use of themes for emotions, characters, and and items would become a key element of movie scores, particularly those with epic storylines.

Here is the final scene from Das Rheingold, one of the selections from our last concert. Alas, we did not use either bass trumpets or Wagner tubas. I love the portrayal of Loki, the lawyer god, if you will.

And, perhaps the best known selection from Gotterdammerung.

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